True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.
For many, many years now, I’ve said that I wouldn’t bother watching two beloved films. They’re so beloved that they have two of the largest US box office totals in history. But as you may have learned in the last few months, 2012 has become a year of challenges for me. Belligerently holding on to ideals from the past out of pride doesn’t fly anymore for me when it comes to film selection. I’d like to grow as a movie-watcher. I’d like to learn. And automatically dismissing movies doesn’t fit in that plan, especially when they’re as universally beloved as these two particular films. This is how it came to pass that I watched Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).
I had a few major hang-ups about Avatar. Chief among them was the absurd claim by the marketing folks in the trailers that it would change movies forever, or some such noise. To be blunt, that really pissed me off. Movies existed, innovated, evolved, and constantly improved for 100 years before Avatar came out. They will continue to do so with or without James Cameron’s smurfs. Movie evolution is organic. And it’s absurdly arrogant to tell everyone that your bombastic spectacle is going to change everything. Moreover, every person whose movie opinions I trusted most seemed to have the same assessment. The consensus was that the movie was shit but that the visuals were mind-blowing, particularly in 3D.
Similarly, I’d never bothered with Titanic. The mere mention of the film evoked that God-forsaken Celine Dion song and a really heavy-handed love story. Even though the lore of the actual Titanic is fascinating, I have no desire to have it ruined by Celine Dion and a crappy romantic plot.
The truth of the matter is that both of those attitudes were dead wrong, and that’s the most important lesson from this article. I can’t stress that enough. I was wrong to let these notions keep me from watching those movies. In retrospect, I think it’s completely fair to have those opinions and pre-conceived notions. But most importantly, every film, from Jack and Jill to The Seventh Seal deserves the right to be treated on its own merits. Dismissal of a film that turns you off, without seeing it, accomplishes nothing. It’s wasted energy. If you watch it and still think it’s shit, then that’s perfectly acceptable. But at least give the damned thing a chance.
And so I gave the damned things a chance a few weekends ago. I set aside a whole day, almost seven hours, with only one goal- to watch James Cameron’s twin box office beasts. I started with Avatar. I thought it was a tremendous hunk of shit. The anti-war, noble savage message was absurd and over-the-top. It wasn’t subtle for even half a second of the movie. The dialogue and the screenplay were total garbage, riddled with pure shit like a substance named “Unobtainium” and a planet named, of course, “Pandora”. There couldn’t be one ounce more hyperbole than a slew of soldiers slaughtering noble savages and screaming “GET SOME!” And yet, it happened on more than one occasion. I almost sprained my eyeballs rolling them. Mind you, the visuals were admittedly eye-popping. That fact can’t be dismissed, and I didn’t even see it on the big screen, much less in 3D. Still, visuals aren’t everything. They’re honestly very low on the totem pole for me. If you give me a brilliantly wrapped box that’s filled with a turd, you’re still giving me a turd. All of the bright, shiny wrapping paper in the world won’t change that fact. And that’s Avatar.
Titanic was a bit of a different story. The romance between Jack (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) was every bit as nauseating as I expected. The characters were horribly flimsy, most notably Rose/Winslet’s fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane). Cameron and the folks making the film could not have been more transparent in their attempt to stage the character as evil, and it comes off as stupidly unrealistic. Like Avatar, the dialogue was harmful to the film, and the plot takes needless twists in an effort to pull at the audience’s heartstrings (I’m looking at you, Random Kid Who’s About to Drown in the Belly of the Ship). But there were a few things that Titanic genuinely did well. I thought the set-up was fantastic. Having the drawing of Rose discovered by a treasure hunter in the present humanizes a tragedy nearly a century old, even if it’s fictionalized. It taps into what makes the story fascinating to begin with- the lore and the heartbreak of the ship. And there was just barely enough humanity in the film that the sinking of the ship, over the final 30 minutes or so, was tremendous. I joked after I saw it that it was my favorite part because I envied the people who got to die and not experience any more of the film. Now… that’s true, to a degree. But it’s also some snide bullshit that brings me to my next point.
A large part of the point of challenging myself was to try to find the good in all movies. Nobody who’s ever made a movie or written a screenplay has ever set out to make a shitty movie. There’s always something in the mix that makes them think that they can make something that’s genuinely good. I’m learning that there’s a lot of truth to that fact, no matter how bad some movies can be. There is usually at least one thing you can grab on to, like a life jacket next to an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean in 1912, that can make a film worthwhile. Just because a film sucks doesn’t mean that it’s ALL bad. And that’s true in the case of both of these movies. The use of CGI in Avatar was great at times in that it showed just how far CGI could go. It created a whole planet. I loathe the fact that it was, in my opinion, the only good part of the film… but the film did have something in its favor. And Titanic really does have a certain magic about it, revolving around the history of the ship and the tragedy. The story was great, even if the execution mostly sucked.
Even though I genuinely disliked both of these movies, I’m glad I watched them. Dismissing movies out-of-hand is a fool’s errand, and I’m embarrassed to have taken part in such an exercise in the past. I can’t promise I won’t do it again. I CAN promise to make an effort to avoid it in the future. There’s a lot of magic in the movies. Even the bad ones.