Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—21 August 2009

A Day In The Death Of James Cameron's Avatar: "I have a feeling this week's cannonball of publicity isn't going to let up until December," enthused Quint about the coming storm of "Avatar goodness" at Aint It Cool News. And yes, he does think that's a fabulous thing. And then, a teaser trailer went up at the Apple trailer thingie, featuring the either ominous or just plain hilarious intro gaffe, "From the director of the 'Titanic'." But still, how exciting is that? And then...well, Jeffrey Wells gauged the feedback from his own occasionally dyspeptic commenters—lookstoomuchlikeferngullyhalobattleforterraeveryothercrapCGIfestexceptmaybefinalfantasy, groused they—and determined that—now put on your Very Serious Face and maybe even suck your cheeks in when you read this bit—"Cameron and 20th Century Fox have reason to be concerned." "Concerned," I love that. "Nice little plan you've got to revolutionize moviegoing here, Mr. Cameron...it'd be a shame if..." and so on. And then Chris (or is it Chistopher, as in Eddie versus Edwin Kramer...?) Campbell strokes his chin once or twice and declares: "Avatar Trailer Fails." Harsh realm, Mr. Campbell!

As Bill Paxton said in Cameron's Aliens, "Game over, man! Game over!"

Now I'll tell you what's wrong with the trailer, and I'll be bang on: it doesn't go on enough about how Avatar is in 3-D, kids! It needs either Count Floyd or Dr. Tongue to sell that, and sell it hard. Cameron's still got time.

And remember, kids, every film critic who hated Titanic was also convinced that it would bomb big.

I've been asked: well, what do I think? As a guy who was a professional film journalist at a well-respected (generally, not universally) film magazine in the era of Titanic, what do I make of the Avatar teaser trailer?

I'd imagine that question has its own answer, which would be, DO NOT be an idiot.  DO NOT count James Cameron out despite what you find dubious in his teaser trailer. DO NOT point out that the teaser-trailer's near-final image of non-humanoids kissing in in an Edenic landscape fairly begs for an intrusion by The Mighty Boosh's Old Gregg. DO NOT do anything like that. Keep it cool, boy. Real cool.

It's Not Okay If You're Quentin Tarantino: Boy, all this moral indignation over Inglourious Basterds. Where were you guys when The Boys From Brazil came out?

But seriously—Daniel Mendelsohn's unenthusiastic perspective on the film is probably the best—the most cogent, most coherent—bit of tsk-tsking you'll find on Tarantino's Nazi-scalping fantasia. Mendelsohn's piece is dispassionate, well-argued, and contains only one cheap shot, the subtly condescending observation that Tarantino "began his career as a video-store clerk." How persuasive you find the lament that the film turns Jews into Nazis rather depends, I think on the extent you really believe the film is meant to be prescriptive. Mendelsohn evokes Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, a picture I found appalling, whereas I'm not appalled by Basterds. One reason, I think is that Life Is Beautiful lived or died by how much it could get the audience to believe its earnest, pretty lies. The enjoyment of Basterds requires no such belief—in fact, it requires the inverse. Come on, people. It features Mike Myers playing a character named "Ed Fenech."

The best counter, so far, to Mendelsohn's take is J. Hoberman's Village Voice review, which recognizes the picture as "rich in fantasy and blithely amoral," a film that takes place in the "alternate universe" of "The Movies." The question remains, and I think this was part of Mendelsohn's point: is blithe amorality to be allowed in such proximity to such sensitive real-life subject matter? Discuss.

Armond White-ism Of The Week: There's something both dazzlingly and disappointingly rote about A.W.'s review of Inglourious Basterds, which of course White loathes. Like a dumb summer blockbuster, it's so relentlessly focused on hitting its beats you could imagine that someone fed a print of the film into a software program containing all of White's critical tics and predelictions, and this...thing came out. Use of the word "hipster" as pejorative? Check, right in the first graph. Evocation of Spielberg? Check, again and again, including praise for the "I hate those guys" line in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Check. Denigration of Basterd's admirers? Check.

Sigh. Where's the human touch that makes a White review a White review?

It arrives with little flourish near the end of the notice. After referring to Marcel, a character played by African-born actor Jacky Ido, as a "Negro-ex-machina," White states that Marcel "narrates the penultimate chapters." In only four words, White is wrong three ways, a dizzying hat trick of error. One: Whoever that is narrating—the voice is gritty and American accented—it sure as hell isn't Jacky Ido. In fact, it's Samuel L. Jackson. But I can get how Armond couldn't make the distinction. Two: The narration occurs twice in the picture: once in the middle of Chapter Two, and once towards the end of Chapter Three. There are five chapters in the film. Do the penultimate math. Three: There cannot be penultimate "chapters." The definition of penultimate is "next to the last." Not "next to the last, and then next to that." Or what have you. (I know, I know: Cherrypicking. It's just...there are so many cherries!)

Cut to Dennis Hopper near the end of Blue Velvet: "I can hear your fuckin' radio, you stupid shit!"

Bonus White-ism: "The Headless Woman does not resurrect Gwyneth Paltrow's character from David Fincher's Se7en..." Ka-choke! He's funny, too! And no, he didn't like this one either, and yes, if you like it, you suck. "I could only laugh at the media's praise for Martel's 'exacting formalism and beauty'," he sneers. (Natch, he doesn't provide a source for his citation, but as it happens it's from Manohla Dargis' Times review from Cannes last year, a negative notice overall by the way.) Yes, yes—as Daffy Duck likes to sing, "Even though your heart is breaking—laugh clown laugh! Woo hoo hoo! Ha ha ha! Woo hoo, woo hoo, woo hoo! [etc.]"

Effing Mad Aincha *: Whilst the rest of the cinematic blogosphere is agitating over Basterds and Avatar, Big Hollywood is getting its zeitgeist into a twist over an innocuous Sarah Palin joke in a trailer for what appears to be a Hugh Grant/Sarah Jessica Parker retread of My Blue Heaven. Well, whatever works for your relevance, kids.

* TItle of a track from a collection of Hatfield and the North selections, highly recommended by your correspondent. See here for further details.

Responses

7 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Tony Dayoub

    I’ll reserve judgement on the actual film (I believe Cameron can still surprise us) until I see it, but you have to admit, that “Avatar” teaser sucked.

    “…White states that Marcel “narrates the penultimate chapters.” In only four words, White is wrong three ways, a dizzying hat trick of error."

    You perfectly nail him with that zinger. You once said White is affable in person even after he zings someone in his writing. I’m curious to know if you’ve had any run-ins with him since you started your weekly “White-isms” and whether he is still cordial.

  • Joseph "Jon" Lanthier

    Ah, Dr. Tongue. His role in “Midnight Cowboy 3D” was Oscar-worthy, if I might be so bold.

  • House 0f Leaves

    I can’t believe there was an Old Gregg reference here in The Notebook. You stock has risen, my friend. Stay thirsty.

    Also: “…a dizzying hat trick of error…” Wonderful.

  • Chuck Stephens

    nice tip’o’the’hat to the Hatfields!

  • Dan Seitz

    It’s fair to say that any teaser for “Avatar” was going to be greeted with disappointment, even if it went down on every single person who watched it.

    That said…man, is that a bland, boring, unexciting trailer. Who cares if it’s in 3D or not: it still looks undistinguished.

    Part of me wants to think that’s because Cameron used his weight to cut out all the good parts. And there’s no way this won’t make a decent chunk of change.

    But another part of me is fairly sure you don’t pull off a “Titanic” twice, and that if there’s one thing this movie isn’t, brother, it isn’t “Titanic.”

    Then again, hey, maybe after the Governator leaves office, we can get “True Lies 2”.

  • Paul Duane

    About the only thing that could have got me to watch the Avatar trailer was a Boosh reference. Well done, sir.

  • James Keepnews

    SCTV as an implicit critique of Camer-ania AND Canterbury prog? Oh, Glenn, why do I bother to read any other writer? I mean, Joyce is OK, but he unfortunately died before Matching Mole released its first album…

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