You’re ‘AVin’ a laugh, aintcha???

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I disagree with my favourite film critic. Roger Ebert is, in fact, not only my favourite film critic but the only film critic I have ever read who is not a stupid fucking moron. I’ve yet to find a single reviewer other than him (maybe Pauline Kael, although I think she was a great writer above a great reviewer) who doesn’t use their position to merely espouse their boring egotistical opinion rather than a fair assessment of the film on all the appropriate levels.

For me, the hallmark of a bad reviewer is someone who is unable to recognise themselves as a demographic. If you’re a 60 year old man reviewing a film aimed at 7 year old kids, it doesn’t matter whether you *like* it or not, it isn’t aimed at you. You have to be able to assess whether a film meets the criteria of its audience.

Anyway, I disagree with Ebert this time. I watched Avatar last night. It was our staff night out, we took all the staff from both shops to the IMAX in London and watched the film in enormous 3D. It was a brilliant, fun night and the experience of a James Cameron film in IMAX 3D is, of course, a spectacular thing to behold. He is probably the best director in the world for this format. But not the best writer. Not even in the top 50% of writers. In fact, kind of in the bottom 15% if I’m really honest.

I just don’t understand why you would embark on a 10 year project of making a single innovation-pushing technology-changing $350million epic if you don’t have a script in place. I’m always skeptical about writer-directors. I feel there is only a very limited handful who fulfill both roles comfortably and their deficiency in one of those roles is always to the detriment of the work. James Cameron won the best director Oscar for Titanic. It also won Best Film. Yet it wasn’t even nominated for Best Screenplay. Isn’t that telling? It is very very rare that a film nominated for Best Picture is not also nominated for Best Screenplay. That should have sent a strong message to James Cameron. You’re not ‘King of the world’ – you could be! – you are an amazingly skilled director who can handle projects of a magnitude WAY beyond the capabilities of most directors, but a writer you are not. The screenplay is embarrassing. Like a hamfisted fantasy screenplay by an awkward teenager who has just discovered the idea of theme.

And that’s a sad thing for me. Here is a man with great talent, great vision and technical ability but too insecure or arrogant to hand over a key creative role to someone more accomplished. Every hack screenwriting tutor will offer up the classic Hitchcock quote:

“To make a great movie, you just need just three things: a great script, a great script, a great script.”

And it is completely true. The script is the foundation of the film. A film is not a mere technical exercise, it’s storytelling. A beautiful house built on rubbish foundations is a pointless exercise. As is a great meal with crappy ingredients. It doesn’t matter if it’s cooked by Raymond Blanc – give him rotten eggs and old vegetables and it’ll taste like crap and make you sick.

I just can’t believe – after Titanic – that Cameron would let himself  do this again. Painful expositional dialogue, an overstated obvious and hamfisted theme, ransacking of his past films for plot devices, situations, settings and objects. The fact that the entire narrative is clearly, painfully clearly, plagerised from Dances With Wolves. How does someone not stop – in a decade long project – and admit to themselves that they’re making a monumental mistake. To me, it smacks of arrogance.

But none of that is as arrogant as the running time. There are very very very few films which can justify a THREE HOUR running time. Off the top of my head; Dances With Wolves (interesting, that), Once Upon A Time in America, the first Lord of the Rings. I can’t really think of any others. Feel free to remind me of some. Anyway, I thin it goes beyond arrogant making a film three hours long – it’s downright rude. You’re wasting people’s time with your folly. It’s also physically cruel. Another great Hitchcock quote:

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

Damn right! Looking around the cinema in the final hour, people were fidgeting, trying to stretch their legs, adjusting their sore arses and cracking their aching backs. The second the closing titles began, the dash for the toilets was like the first 20 seconds of the Harrods sale. Actual, palpable desperation.

What a wasted opportunity. He tried to make an epic but his arrogance denied him that. This film isn’t a classic, it won’t be being talked about in even two years time. The glowing reviews baffle me still but I take comfort from the huge revisionism at the time Titanic was released on video. Six months earlier, it had been proclaimed one of the best films of all time, but after the excitement had died down and people had had a chance to rewatch it and give thought to the film rather than the spectacle it became hugely derided. And that film didn’t have rubbish smurfs running around in a Yes album cover – which is essentially what Avatar was to me. My one word review: Tedious.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment


  2. I saw it last night as well and had a load of fun.

    I agree the script was an absolute hamfest – the video diary bullshit being my biggest peeve. The “going native” story is a classic plot that has been kicking about long before ‘Dances with Wolves’, but where Avatar fails is it doesn’t really add anything new or interesting to the “genre”. I wouldn’t have minded if it was derivative if only he had done it without so much god awful exposition.

    I still really enjoyed myself, I completely forgave the shortcomings of the script and the length didn’t bother me as I was having so much fun. It is however a bit of a tragedy – if Cameron swallowed his pride and picked a half decent writer it could have been so much more.

    Something tells me you may think this is blasphemy but I think Jonathon Ross is a decent film critic – he analyses objectively and is frequently on the ball. A good example would be his review of watchmen – he said he loved the film because he was a big fan of the comic but then went on to tear the film apart objectively for the average movie-goer who may not have read the source material.

  3. I am glad you enjoyed it, I seem to be in the minority in actually not finding it all that enjoyable at all but I can see why people would have a fun experience with it.

    The ‘going native’ template has, indeed, existed for ages but I do think Dances With Wolves was an original and nuanced story and I feel that Avatar, far from simply borrowing from the genre, directly rips off Dances With Wolves on a plot basis. The exposition is unforgivable and I don’t think it fails for not ‘adding’ anything to the genre – I don’t think films have to do that – I think it fails by being terribly badly written.

    I go backwards and forwards with Ross. I think his tastes are better than most and his insight is pretty good BUT last week on his show he said that Love Actually is one of his favourite films and is absolutely brilliant. So that renders his opinions bunk forevermore.

  4. So true.

    In my own experience it seems that when it comes to action films most producers want scripts to be one-dimensional so that even young children (a lucrative market) can follow the plot. Having shelled out millions for effects scenes they will cobble together a script by committee that does little more than string them together in a way that alienates the fewest number of people. As long as it all adds up to a visually entertaining event they couldn’t care less.

  5. That is definitely the standard scenario but as a writer-director, Cameron can’t hide behind that excuse. That’s a Brett Ratner excuse.

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