The Movie Club

The Bigelow/Cameron Oscar Face-Off Is a Battle of Good vs. Evil
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2010 11:12 AM

The Movie Club

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Still from Antichrist. Click image to expand.
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

Dear all,

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

The big question that came up in the last round—whether Avatar's visual and technological innovations mean we should take the movie with the level of seriousness James Cameron intends us to—made me think about how much of our experience of any movie, before, during, and after, is inflected by everything we know about its production, promotion, and reception. I suppose it would be ideal if we watched each film in some kind of presupposition-free vacuum (would it?), but short of having Tom Wilkinson individually wipe clean our memories Eternal Sunshine-style between screenings, that's not going to happen.

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I seem to have painted myself into a corner as a big Avatar champion around here, an odd development given that my love for the movie is far from unalloyed. I guess I could make the case for just accepting Avatar as a pure, pleasurable movie experience, but the fact is, no movie experience is ever pure, and this one is particularly sullied (Jake Sully!) by commerce and hype. The second you glimpse Cameron wearing one of those HMFIC ball caps or imagine him reascending the throne at the next Oscars, Avatar stops feeling like an experience of any kind and starts feeling like an expensive, sophisticatedly marketed, massively successful product, complete with worldwide McDonald's tie-ins. ("Displayed before a webcam, the perforated 'Thrill Card' becomes a portal into three unique, immersive Pandora environments." OK, I'm officially embarrassed at having ever used the PR-approved word immersive.) One of Avatar's many unintentional ironies (they have to be unintentional, right?) is how, even though it's about the use of technology to transcend technology and return to a noble precapitalist Eden, the movie itself is a triumph of both technology and capitalism.

There are plenty of inventions, of course, that are triumphs of technology and capitalism while also being awful, reprehensible things (like nuclear weapons or Diet Coke). But though I spend innumerable hours at the movies mourning the exact special-effects takeover that Stephanie describes—this year there was Terminator: Salvation, Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, and Watchmen, just for starters—I honestly didn't experience Avatar as a big dumb clankfest in that way. It wasn't scripted by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, I'll grant you, but (and I promise to stop trying to find new ways to express this soon) to me the thinking came through the movie's use of technology, both in form and in content.

Formally speaking, Cameron's use of 3-D wasn't just neat-looking; it made me start to see how 3-D might be used as more than a gimmick and how one might perceive the frame as something composed in depth as well as width. In terms of content—well, maybe I'm just easy to please when it comes to speculative sci-fi, but I thought the remote-controlled-avatar premise actually had something to say about technology and virtual reality. In other words, at least for the first half, I thought the movie was pretty good science fiction (and interestingly utopic, in a genre that's relentlessly obsessed with dystopia). The images and story worked together to bring about at least a few of those mind-opening moments that happen when you read someone like Stanislaw Lem—not that Cameron's work approaches that level of artistry. One lumbering exception to this sense of being thrown into a radically alien yet plausible future: Stephen Lang's mobile weapons suit. If we have the technology to colonize distant planets and bioengineer human/alien clone hybrids, there's no way we're going to be fighting our wars dressed in giant robot armor with a windshield on the helmet.

I'll stop waving my perforated Avatar Thrill Card in the air now and confess that the fact Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron's ex-wife and the director of The Hurt Locker, has a good shot at beating him for both the best director and best picture Oscars this year gives me a sense of anticipatory schadenfreude like you would not believe. For all I know, James and Kathryn speak on the phone every day and wish each other's movies nothing but good fortune, but anyone who's ever watched as a smug ex goes on to enormous success has to place him- or herself squarely in Bigelow's camp. It's almost a good-vs.-evil thing. (Not to mention that Hurt Locker is by far the better movie, but these are the Oscars we're talking about. Score-settling is at least as valid a criterion as quality.)

And finally (because I feel like we're all familiar enough now to get a little medieval on one another's asses), Wesley and Stephanie: Antichrist? Really, Antichrist? I'm never one to hound people for having liked things I didn't—I'm more apt to be (as Wesley expressed to Roger about Monster) jealous of those who were able to see something I wasn't and to wonder what worthy qualities I missed. But I really have trouble conceiving how anyone could find that movie anything but laughable. (Fine, so the laughter occasionally became anxious, grossed-out laughter rather than outright ridicule. Evoking that range of affects is supposed to be an achievement?) I think Lars von Trier is (or has been) an enormously talented, influential, and important director. But because of that very ambition, he is also capable of making terrible movies, so deeply terrible that they make you rethink even the old ones you loved (there's the outside-the-theater world again, impinging on the viewing experience). I'm not asking you to defend the movie point by point, or to defend it at all. We can just let our wildly different reactions to it exist together in this space. (Yeesh, I sound like I'm in group therapy. Maybe I am.)

My animus toward Antichrist has nothing to do with reflexively dismissing von Trier (I loved everything he did up to and including Dancer in the Dark, and some things since), nor is it simply an objection to the extreme sexual violence of the last 10 minutes. Some of my favorite movies end in self-mutilation and castration. Dan, you ask about biggest surprises of the year: One of mine was that I didn't like Antichrist at least a little more. Except for the sex scene on the woodpile, which was an image worthy of a great horror movie (or a great painting—von Trier has said Bosch was an influence), I hated almost every moment of it. (Of course Charlotte Gainsbourg is a celestial being, but rather than appreciate her performance in the film, I spent the whole time wanting to save her from it.)

I didn't even get to Tarantino or Jason Reitman, and there's plenty to say about both, but I should probably do what Charlotte Gainsbourg didn't do in Antichrist and quit while I'm ahead.

Chaos reigns,
Dana

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