Box Office, Politics, Avatar

Although I still haven’t had time to see Avatar yet, thanks to holiday travel and teaching obligations, I’m fascinated by the reception of the film, both as a political artifact and as a box office juggernaut.  There can be little doubt that Avatar is a huge box office success and may, in fact, surpass James Cameron’s other epic success, Titanic, in terms of all-time (non-adjusted) worldwide box office dollars.  Yes, if we adjust dollars or take into account total number of admissions, Gone with the Wind has better numbers, but given the sheer number of competing forms of entertainment, Avatar’s numbers seem to inspire a kind of awe in a number of entertainment reporters and observers.  But it’s also a film that has turned into a kind of political football, which is not surprising, given the film’s popularity.

Some of these thoughts began to crystallize for me when I read RC’s post at Strange Culture, which asks where Avatar will “land” in terms of all-time “domestic” rankings.  As I mentioned in the comments, it’s important to focus on worldwide gross, especially given that blockbusters often see two-thirds of their overall box office from overseas audiences.  If I were to guess, I would imagine that the technological spectacle of the film translates well regardless of subtitles or dubbing, making it “easier” to translate to non-English audiences.  Part of me wonders, as I did back in the Dark Knight days, why we’re all so invested in Avatar’s box-office numbers, as if we ourselves are somehow involved in breaking these records or feel the need to witness these records being broken.

But RC also mentions the phenomenon of repeat viewings, which seems to be aiding the film’s overall numbers.  RC points out that many repeat viewers are reporting that they are “upgrading” their viewing experience, going from 2D to 3D or IMAX, in order to see the film anew, a significantly different characterization of repeat viewers than we saw with Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, where most repeaters were characterized as teen girls with a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.  Although Titanic was seen as a technological achievement, the love story narrative–complete with cheesy Celine Dion music–seemed to obscure the film’s use of technology.  With Avatar, for the most part, the technology itself seems to be obscuring the eco-friendly narrative.

That being said, the film has become a political football, especially for prominent conservatives who want to attack the film for being out of touch with mainstream values.  The most recent–and absurd–version of this attack comes (via Glenn Kenny) from Jonah Goldberg, who argues that the film’s biggest failing is…its framing of “the culture war” because the film gave the impression that “there are no secular people on the right.”  I’ll buy the idea tha the film is critical of the Iraq War or that it supports environmentalism, but this kind of reading treats the film solely as a partisan political message, not something with a complicated, even contradictory, ideology (and, quite honestly, gives good, well-supported ideological readings a bad name).  Worse, it reads everything not just in terms of left-right politics but the very narrow frame of contemporary U.S. elections, as if Cameron simply made a $350 million campaign ad, not an entertainment product.  The good news is that Avatar’s box office success seems to put a lid on the idea that “average Americans” are put off by Hollywood’s liberal excesses.  If Avatar is both liberal and excessive, most people don’t seem to mind.

The other popular “meme” about the film is that it has a derivative script.  I jokingly said it looked like “Dances with The Blue Man Group,” but I think that Anne Thompson offers a useful critique of the charge that Cameron’s films are derivative.  Yes, he certainly borrows (hmm..) liberally from past films and narratives, but the film itself is an original property (i.e., it’s not based on an existing media franchise) and its originality is, in part, the visual world Cameron has created (historically, I think Speilberg’s Oz comparisons, cited in Thompson, sound pretty apt).  I’m not saying that the film is “original,” because that’s a loaded term in academic film criticism, but that to fault the film for borrowing heavily from other narratives misses the point (it would be like faulting Wizard of Oz for borrowing from past coming-of-age narratives).

I’m not trying to make claims on Avatar’s politics here.  I’ll say more about those soon enough, I’m sure, but I continue to be fascinated by how the film functions as a political and cultural intertext, how audiences read the film’s politics and aesthetics and what that might mean in terms of seeing the film as a cinematic “game changer.”

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