On Challenges, and the Magic of Movies* (*Even the Bad Ones)

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).

Dances with Smurfs (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.

Unobtainium? I bet that's REALLY hard to obtain!

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.

Just show the guy eating a baby and save me 3 hours of "plot development".

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.


Filed under Movies

38 responses to “On Challenges, and the Magic of Movies* (*Even the Bad Ones)

  1. These are the only two Cameron movies I’ve never seen and have no desire to see. Yes, I probably shouldn’t dismiss these out of hand. I might find a few things I like; but I know that watching them will be a chore.

  2. Dan

    I saw both Titanic and Avatar in the theaters and enjoyed the spectacle of them, but I haven’t seen either one since or felt much desire to watch them, so that’s saying a lot about their merits (or lack of them).

    I did really like your point about challenging yourself to watch movies you’d initially dismiss. That’s one of the reasons I started my blog last year. It pushed me to watch movies like Gone with the Wind that I’d been avoiding for years. While I wasn’t blown away by everything (some were painful), it’s been a great experience so far.

    • That’s a really cool reason to start a site. Have you seen some of the buzz floating around from people like Eric Snider, Edgar Wright, and Ryan over at The Matinee? There are a lot of people out there right now who are trying to spackle in their blind spots, and it’s really cool. It’s inspiring.

      • Dan

        John, I’m actually doing a monthly blind-spot series called “List of Shame” to go along with Ryan’s blind-spot series at the Matinee. I watched the Red Shoes (blah) in February and In the Mood for Love (awesome) in March. This month, I’m checking out Once Upon a Time in the West, which I can’t wait to see.

  3. fuzzywuzzy

    Yes the CGI is outstanding, but all of Pixar’s movies are CGI and they still have a soul…Cameron’s movies do not. He’s like the acceptable Michael Bay.

  4. James Cameron is a big ego in a suit with no redeeming qualities. I agree, he’s like a mainstream Michael Bay.

  5. Phil

    You wait 15 years until Titanic is rereleased and you watch it at home? Aliens is the only Cameron movie I love, but obviously he knows what he’s doing. He purposely simplifies dialogue and plot to make it easier to watch. He is maximizing the entertainment value, not the artistry. I love that Game of Thrones is so complex that you need a map and a family tree to follow along, but it seems that most people disagree.
    You must pre-judge movies, there isn’t enough time to do otherwise. I’ll never watch Jack and Jill, although perhaps there is something in it that I would love. I’d rather take a chance on a film from a great movie list.

    • I’ll be blunt, I was pretty drunk when I wrote all that. Not that I’m backing off anything that I said. I just might’ve been less bombastic about it.

      You raise a really good point there, too. There’s limited time to watch things, so it obviously makes more sense to try out films from directors, studios, film movements that you know you like rather than gambling on, say, Beverly Hills Ninja. (shitty movie, by the way, if you haven’t seen it)

      Mostly, I just want to break my own habit of crapping on a movie without actually seeing it. Jack and Jill is one thing, but Titanic and Avatar were both award-winning films, and are loved the world over.

      • Phil

        Today’s Slate Culture Gabfest podcast (which I highly recommend) spent the first 10 minutes talking about what is great and what is horrible about the movie Titanic. Does a bad script necessarily ruin a movie?

        • I don’t think it’s an automatic. But it sure doesn’t help. I imagine it’s a lot like a baseball team. You can carry a punch and judy hitter at one spot in the order if the eight other slots do their job.

  6. As a girl whose formative years were molded around Titanic I can’t defend it…but I love it. Avatar on the other hand is utter shit. What’s funny is that now it’s “cool” to say Avatar sucks. I said it as soon as I left the theater and almost got lynched by a group of teens in the movie theater. It’s always funny to have spectacle overtake people and then wear off after a few months. Excellent write-up!

    • After seeing it in the theater. I went straight home and said “It’s like Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully.” Still stand by that assessment.

      • Exactly! I also threw in Pocahontas

        • And if the Indians were blue and rode dinosaurs. Actually….I bet that was the pitch! Writers: “We should make a Sci Fi Dances with Wolves meets Pochahontas and Ferngully with huge blue Indians that ride tie dyed Pteranosaurs in 3D” Studio: “Get Cameron to do it and we can’t lose!” 10 bucks says it went down something like that.

    • I have to completely admit to being the “spectacle” guy a lot of the time. Fortunately, it didn’t happen with Avatar.

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  8. I wish I’d read this a few days ago. I could have borrowed such brilliant lines as “I sprained my eyeballs rolling them” for my review of Jack and Jill, which I just posted. Hahaha just kidding, I would never do that.

    As for Avatar and Titanic: Avatar is shit, I agree. In fact, I saw it in the theatre in 2D and fought a strong urge to just yell out “OH FUCK OFF!” (an urge which I have fought on numerous occasions.)

    Titanic is not as bad (perhaps if it had been made in the 20s starring Buster Keaton and directed by D.W. Griffith, I would’ve liked it) but I have no desire to see it again.

    In short: Cameron can go fuck himself.

    • Titanic is the better of the two, in my mind, by far. I can understand why it’s so universally loved, even if I disagree. Avatar… not so much.

  9. I think this post was exceptionally put together as for challenging myself to watch movies I normally dismiss we’ll see no promises though! I think titanic for one though has really been over stretched by the film makers and it luster or (lack of it) can only go so far and no more…as the avatar I had written it off and had passed up countless opportunities to engage in watching it…but its one of those(I’ll do it sooner or later ideals).
    Again a well put together and insighting post *cheers*

  10. rtm

    Ahah, your rant on Cameron movies are darn entertaining, John.

    • I try not to do it TOO much because I’d rather turn people on to things I like rather than disapprove of things that people might already like. But Cameron sure does seem to hit a nerve with me.

  11. I think I’m the only person on earth who didn’t mind the line about Unobtainium – I can fully imagine a bunch of corporate drones thinking that the *actual* scientific name was too complicated and simplifying it for their shareholders. That said, I guess that makes it a clumsy way to draw a distinction between the nice scientists and the evil military-industrial complex, so…

    As for Titanic, I liked the bits that involved real people. The orchestra playing as the ship sank and the designer apologising for not making a better boat were fairly nicely played, even though I’m not sure how much actual history is involved there. In other words, it’s a decent 90 minute movie that sadly lasts for about five months.

    • I read something else about the unobtainium thing- apparently, it has an actual scientific root. And because of that, I mind it a little bit less.

      I think you hit the nail on the head about it being clumsy, though. Even if it could contain an ounce of realism, it’s awfully cartoonish.

      I also really like your description of Titanic. I wish I’d said it myself. Edited down carefully to 90 minutes, I could see myself really enjoying that movie.

  12. Darah

    Heres the thing with your movie reviews and the general mood of your blog (which I love btw). Your focus is on the cerebral. And thats cool.
    There are however, other aspects to the movie going ‘event’.
    Some movies are made for popcorn entertainment. Avatar and Titanic are such movies, Transformers, Star Wars and basically most movies that are more bombastic instead of storified. These films are perfectly acceptable.
    If you want to have your intellect tickled then spend your dollar on Memento, on The Godfather, on anything that is more story over spectacle.
    I loved Avatar. It had big spacships, mechs, good guys and bad guys duking it out, big trees falling over. I loved Transformers, with all the goodness that giant robots trashing the place entails. Now your own taste is a lot more historically cinemtic and cerebral, its pretty clear, and thats fine. Why I read your blog is to open my mind to some of these less popcorny type films, and expand my movie experience. Moslty I’m enjoying it too, but I still like nothing more than occasionally sitting down, putting my brain in neutral (a must) and filling my face with popcorn and enjoying some good old fashioned ‘splosionz’ as some giant machine gets ‘blowed uup real good’, to use the appropriate lexicon.
    Some day soon I’m going to sit down and watch some of these Bergman films I’ve got waiting at home. When I have some quiet time and a fully functioning brain, which seems to be pretty infrequently I’ll admit!
    Giant smurfs, transmorph!

    • Phil

      Yes, we’ve all heard the ‘I just want to turn my brain off and relax’ excuse for watching dumb action movies, and that’s fine. As someone, like John, who has watched 1000’s of movies, including more dumb action movies than most people, the shoot outs and explosions stop being entertaining after awhile. It really doesn’t take any more more ‘work’ to watch The Seventh Seal than it does to watch ‘Avatar’. Especially when you don’t have to post to a movie blog every day.

    • Hey, Darah. Thanks for a really respectful and well thought-out response, and for your kind words. I will readily admit, when I wrote it, I didn’t really show any restraint or respect for the films, not as much as I should have. What I wrote comes out a lot more condescending and angry than I’d really want.

      I love that there’s a place in the movie canon for Titanic, Avatar, Star Wars (a movie I love to bits), and even Transformers. One of the best things about movies is that there’s something for everyone, even if it’s not necessarily for me. I can rattle off a billion comedies or horrors that most people would consider juvenile, and yet I can watch them time and again. I guess they aren’t “popcorn” movies, per se. I suppose I only bring it up to prove that I have room for a less cerebral side as well. When I turn on, say, some random 70s horror, I know I can check my brain at the door as much or as little as I want.

      I think what bugs me a great deal with these two films in particular is that they’re held up so high. Titanic was an AFI Top 100 film (IIRC, it was removed in the 2nd incarnation of the list), and Avatar was a best picture nominee. Then there’s the “change movies forever” factor, which rankles me to no end. Even in the realm of popcorn, there’s good and bad. I think of something like Die Hard, or the aforementioned Star Wars. Even Hitchcock… you can glom on to all of those for pure entertainment. And if you want to dig deeper, you can do that too. I’m not sure you can do that with Titanic or Avatar because they’re so shallow beyond the visuals (and in Titanic’s case, the love story). I don’t know, I’m sort of rambling again.

  13. I didn’t saw them either and your post might change my mind but I loathe the fact that those 7 hours are gonna be wasted and my that they would have been stolen from me…

    • When I finally decided to watch them, I thought “These are award winning movies. They’re worth at least one watch”. And I’m glad I did it, no matter how grouchy I sound when I talk about them.

  14. Vladdy

    I understand your comment about a turd in a fancy box, but when the whole point of a movie is to be a fancy box, you really haven’t seen it if you watch it at home. The ship splitting apart in Titanic is overwhelming on the giant screen it was made for, and the flying thingys in Avatar were stupendous in 3D on a giant screen. On TV, both films have no choice but to be reduced to their storytelling, something Cameron has never been good at.

    I hasten to say that I’m not arguing with your opinion of either film. The reason I read your blog in the first place was the Bergman, Kurosawa, etc., so I also prefer a movie with some artistry to it. But as for the responses these films received when they were made, the award nominations, acclaim and box office success were based on awe-inspiring excitement that hugeness and new advances in technology brought to the film world.

    Looking at it this way, you still haven’t really seen either film.

    • I can appreciate those advances, but what does it say for a movie if that’s the only thing going for it?

      • Vladdy

        Maybe not much, but if the only thing you care about is story, you should read books. Movies are, after all, a primarily visual medium. Often the story is told specifically BY its visuals. The story of Titanic is about a ship sinking–the romance is just the personal story hook so that you care what happens to the people on the ship (at least in theory). I’m not really arguing your opinions, just that the way you watched the movies denies you what pleasures those movies really do have, meanwhile forcing you to focus on their weaknesses. And it’s not like you needed the help. You watched them to cross them off a list, not with any intention of trying to like either one. I’m not judging you, I do it too.

  15. Darah

    No problemo John!
    Saw Battleship last night, and yes had me a few beers beforehand!
    Awful movie. Truly, awful.
    But I liked it. Big ships, big guns, exploding things, transformery alien vessels.
    Even had the ubiquitous USA USA USA part that most big time blockbuster movies tend to have, which is understandable.
    But the effects were indeed special, all the noise and commotion and seeing some wonderfully rendered ships and better sea. I came out with my head spinning and thumping. Can I remember any of the characters names? Can I fk.
    Can I remember one of the coolest sci-fi battles between an alien ship and a human battleship? Awesome!

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  17. Great post John. I too upset a few folk with my review of Titanic. I have a soft spot for Sci-fi though and actually enjoyed the spectacle of Avatar. Here’s a couple of reviews if your interested? Avatar: http://mrmarakai.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/avatar/
    Titanic: http://mrmarakai.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/titanic-12/

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