December 20th, 2009
It’s very rare around these parts that I actively engage in any sort of cinematic analysis, but apparently it’s a yearly tradition as twelve months ago I was waxing poetic on the virtues of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and its connection to reality television narrative. And after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar last night, I feel I need to spend at least some amount of time discussing what was a truly fantastic cinematic experience (even if I also end up discussing its connection with television).
I could spend a long time talking about the film’s visual prowess, but as noted on both Twitter and Facebook (which means that, if you’re a Myles McNutt aficionado, you think me mighty repetitive) this was the first movie I saw wearing my new corrective lenses, which meant that it was so stunningly sharp that I think I would have found any movie mind-blowing from a visual perspective.
However, I want to focus on what those visuals are meant to achieve, in particular the film’s efforts to create a “world.” Cameron’s Pandora is full of life in a way that sustains this film, filling in the gaps of the somewhat reductive and straightforward plot by making us anxious less for what will happen next and more for what unseen part of this planet we’re going to see for the first time in the near future.
And it has me thinking about those television series which rely on the same sense of world-building, specifically ABC’s Scrubs, and in particular how Cameron’s film draws attention to the advantages and disadvantages of the audience (or, in the case of the film, its characters) dropping in and out of that world on a regular basis.
[Spoilers for Avatar will be minimal, more particular moments than any sort of plot or character things, but if you want to go in blind turn back now.]
One of my favourite scenes in Avatar is when Jake Sully, in the wilds of Pandora for the first time in his Na’vi Avatar body, comes across a garden of plants and discovers that touching them causes them to twist into the ground (in other words, that the plants are alive). And while it’s a very simple “Sully experiences the world around him” scene on one level, it is an incomplete discovery: he knows how those plants work, but he has no idea if the rest of the planet’s vegetation works in the same way. And so, a few scenes later, he’s running through the jungle and can’t help but reach out and touch every plant he sees, trying to duplicate the previous behaviour. It’s a brilliant scene because it reinforces how this is a world more complex than one interaction, and how Jake is very blatantly the audience’s Avatar into this film experience.
However, he’s also the Avatar for how we experience these types of worlds in a medium like television. Jake is embedded in an entirely new world, learning its customs while discovering its ecological wonders, but he is always forced to leave that world; he will always wake up sweaty in a pod, a man who cannot be part of that culture (because he is not Na’vi) or part of that world (because he doesn’t have the use of his legs). The film is particularly interested in the idea of the real, and the film takes a great deal of time emphasizing that the Avatar process is not some sort of virtual reality: rather, it is a technological process through which Jake is able to experience the real, and the limitations of that technology will always pull him back out.
When it comes to this sort of world-building, film and television are inherently different mediums. With a film, you’re selling a vision that viewers will enter for a two and a half hour running time, but with television you’re selling a vision that viewers will visit once a week. So with television, like Jake, viewers arrive into a world like the whimsical universe of Pushing Daisies each week only to leave it after that hour is over. With film, in the long term, the world may need to be strong enough to bring the audience back for potential sequels, but in television the world needs to convince people to make a weekly commitment. It needs to be compelling enough to convince viewers to spend more time with the characters, the setting, and the type of stories that populate that world, which isn’t a particularly easy task (just ask, well, Pushing Daisies, which failed to achieve this with a mass audience who perhaps found it too whimsical).
In a great edition of the TV on the Internet Podcast featuring Jaime Weinman, Todd VanDerWerff discusses Scrubs and argues that it is a sitcom where its appeal depends on the world it has created, and the audience’s desire to spend time in that world. And while comparing Scrubs and Avatar may seem bizarre, they both consistently draw attention to the idea of escaping into another world with Jake’s time in his Avatar and J.D.’s fantastical daydreams. But while Avatar emphasizes the wide world of Pandora, both because it is more visually impressive and because it’s the point of the film, Scrubs has to have something more grounded at its centre: it needed to sell the entire world, Sacred Heart Hospital as a whole, in order to convince viewers to come back week after week.
And when the show became dominated by those fantasy sequences (to the point where the real world feels just as wacky) in its fifth and sixth seasons, falling into the trap of believing that the world J.D. escapes into is the one that viewers want to visit, the show ran into a creative brick wall: while Cameron call sell Avatar on Pandora (although I’d argue the overall universe is sold effectively as well) because of the visual rollercoaster he’s creating, Scrubs needed more than juvenile cutaways to sell itself to the audience on a weekly basis. I’d perhaps watch an episode, or perhaps a film, that was as wacky as Scrubs at its most off-kilter, but an entire series was unsustainable. And when the show returned to the “real” world in its eighth season, it was as if the balance had been restored: I looked forward to the next episode of Scrubs because it was taking place in a world I enjoyed rather than a world that made me want to punch J.D. in the face.
Then perhaps the problem with the show’s ninth season is that said world doesn’t exist anymore, that the new Med School setting is no longer as welcoming to the audience. And rather than build the world from scratch, Lawrence chose to populate it with character we represent from the old world and plots stolen almost directly from that series, which only serves to remind us of what is missing (the Janitor, Carla, etc.). While Lawrence seems to argue that this would have been fixed had he been allowed to rename the show Scrubs Med School, the name has nothing to do with it: rather, the new setting is being built using scattered remains of the old one, which draws comparisons that are going to hamper any attempts for this world to draw in viewers who were used to the one before.
Avatar has a similar problem, in that many have remarked the story’s similarity to every “outsider integrates into different culture” narrative as well as a wide range of historical circumstances (including those surrounding race and culture as well as military occupations), which means that the world it creates has to overcome all of these comparatives to distinctly connect with audiences. And for me personally, Avatar achieves this: major story beats late in the film feel as if they belong to Pandora rather than our own reality (or the magic of special effects), and Jake’s cultural integration feels transformative for both his character and for how we view this universe. It’s a world I’d gladly return to for a sequel, which is exactly what Cameron needed to achieve for the film’s world-building to be considered a success.
But standards are higher in television, and right now a show like Scrubs isn’t living up to that expectation. Avatar goes above and beyond film’s basic standard (a world that can hold your attention for two hours) to create a world you want to visit again for a sequel, or for a viewing in a different format next week, or for a viewing with a different set of friends who you believe need to see the film. But with television these processes are necessary for a show’s survival, and need to move extremely quickly for a series to build and maintain momentum. And for Scrubs, it seems as if that momentum is fading, and that the world it is trying to convince us to visit week after week just isn’t solid enough to sustain the stories it wants to tell.
Not everything needs to be as stunning and exciting as Pandora, but successful worlds need to create the same type of connection with audiences in order for them to remain the kind of place that people want to visit, either in a bi-yearly trip to the cinemas or a weekly changing of the channel.
- I thought Avatar’s use of 3D was as groundbreaking as it was purported to be: it was used entirely for the purpose of depth of field, with no shots which felt like distinct gimmicks. 3D is best used a tool to enhance existing filmmaking techniques rather than a filmmaking technique in its own right, and I thought it was perfect for capturing the world of Pandora (although part of me wants to see the film in 2D just to be able to compare).
- I was almost more impressed with the performance capture, though: it doesn’t draw attention to itself, and more importantly it manages to sell both the Avatars (where we recognize the human within their face) and the Na’vi (who have to stand independently). I was particularly impressed with Zoe Saldana’s work in the medium, as she was the actress asked to do the most work with ONLY performance capture and managed to develop Neytiri into a fully realized character.
- Seriously though, my glasses make it seem like the world is suddenly in high definition. I feel I need to rewatch every movie I’ve seen over the past three or four years to see what I’ve been missing, exactly.