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Meaninglessness on a movie screen

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 12, 2013 at 2:03 a.m.

I started teaching my LifeQuest class again this week.

So far, 87 people have signed up to hear me talk about movies on Wednesday mornings this summer. I find this kind of amazing, and a little intimidating. I don’t know what I can say that’s different from the last time I stood up in front of a group of people and talked about movies. I have three or four stories, maybe, and no jokes I can be counted on to remember.

Plus, I am no teacher. I don’t pretend to have anything important or wise to impart to these folks. My only advantage on them is that I see a lot of movies and I’m called upon to think and write about them. If I didn’t write about movies I’m not sure I would have many opinions about them. I can imagine letting them wash over me as a kind of audio-visual balm. Sometimes it’s enough to be insulated from reality for a while, to invest a little in the made-up lives of made-up people. Not everything has to be considered.

Though I guess what I mostly talk about to them are the joys of considering.

The reason people are constantly consuming - and manufacturing - stories is because we crave meaning. Why we crave meaning is a good question, one perhaps best addressed by poets and philosophers. I only know that I’m distressed and discomfited by its apparent absence. Our need for meaning is why we choose to believe in things, it’s why we investigate and strive. It is why we bother to make things like books and movies.

And I think we are naturally disappointed when presented with something that appears meaningless. Or at least I know I am - it’s what I found frustrating about James Cameron’s Avatar.Not that it was meaningless, exactly, but that it was so obvious, and so obviously driven by its technology. I didn’t hate Avatar - in the piece I wrote about the movie I said you might as well criticize a beach ball - but its remarkable success confused me. It seemed to me to be an empty film, cool and clinical and ginned up in a laboratory.

On the other hand, I’m perfectly willing to admit that my perception of Avatar - or any movie - is just that: my perception. I have read some interesting essays about Avatar. I’ve seen it attacked as an anti-capitalist film, and I’ve read a defense of it as a pro-capitalist film. I’ve read a lot of things about Avatar that I’ve found more interesting and useful than the movie itself. Avatar is important to our culture in part because it has occasioned conversation. In a way, though I might dismiss it as a cliched and soulless movie (and be right), it is important to our culture.

Avatar matters, along with terrorist attacks and the Super Bowl, because mainstream blockbuster movies are one of the few events capable of unifying our balkanized culture. You needn’t have seen Avatar to have an opinion on it; it’s difficult to understand how anyone who participates in America could remain ignorant of the movie. We have seen the TV commercials, the print ads, been subjected to the ancillary products of the marketing campaign. Big Hollywood movies can overpower us. We can’t escape them simply by refusing to buy a ticket.

And because we are human, we will inevitably make them stand for something - if only for the inane excess of Hollywood.

I don’t root for or against the movie industry, I just try to say something interesting about every movie I see. Box office success has never been a reliable indicator of quality, and people who lament that the most popular movies are inevitably the dumbest should look at what tops the best-seller lists. Hollywood bets so much on a few tent pole movies each year that it would be irresponsible not to cast the widest net possible. Your average Hollywood blockbuster now not only has to appeal to kids from 1 to 92 but to billions of Chinese.

And since I’ve got no skin in the game, I’m kind of rooting for the coming implosion - the one Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the very godfathers of blockbuster, have foreseen. If you were to ask me, which few people ever really do, I would say I’m generally supportive of anything that undermines the current Hollywood business model. I would prefer a less centralized system, one that allowed for the possibilities of regional and even localized cinemas, to the current parade of putative blockbusters and 3-D extravaganzas. I’d rather have 50 $4 million movies than one $200 million movie. I think $7 is a better price for a movie ticket than $25.

And my first impulse is to say that the lack of box office success experienced by Disney’s The Lone Ranger is a good sign - that it indicates that the American movie going public is more discerning than the marketers habitually give them credit for being. The main problem with The Lone Ranger is that it simply doesn’t mean anything. It’s an excuse for Johnny Depp to play an offbeat weirdo and for lots of explosions. It’s 2 ½ hours of light and noise, signifying nothing much.

I think that’s what I’m going to tell my class: Congratulations on disappointing the Disney accountants. We deserve - and need - better.


MovieStyle, Pages 29 on 07/12/2013

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