Tonight, there’s a good chance that Avatar will win a host of Oscars. When trying to figure out why, it seems there are two main explanations. Firstly, in a strange, circular logic, the Academy will confer honours on the film so that the Academy itself is seen as both relevant and populist. Dismiss ‘the most successful film of all-time’ (itself a dubious claim) and the Hollywood elite will seem out of touch and snobby.
Secondly, it’s because the film is seen as ushering in a new age in the medium, introducing the world to the wonders of 3D and its capacity to immerse audiences within a story with a never-before sense of immediacy.
But, when it comes to marking out the possibilities of storytelling available to us in the future, Avatar wasn’t the most important film of last year. Oh no, dear readers. When considering which film marked out a direction for North American film and culture, the moist important movie of last year was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
First, if you haven’t seen the film – and I’m willing to be that a good slice of you refused purely on principle – you first really need to read this summary on Topless Robot, partly because it’s both the best description of the film I’ve found, but also because one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
Then, consider the following points, in which I make the case that while Avatar simply repeats the values and ideas of the past, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a paragon of both postmodern film and culture:
- Avatar signaled the distinction between its ‘good’ and ‘evil’ sides with extremely clear-cut visual clues: the hard, grey steel of humanity versus the soft, blue flesh of the Na’vi. There could be no confusion over who you were supposed to root for because the aesthetics of the film were part of the frame of establishing good and evil (as happens in many films).
- Transformers 2, by contrast, was shot in such a manner that fights between the robots made them indistinguishable. The only way you could tell the difference was when the action slowed so that you could see a robot delivering a final blow to another robot. Put another way, you were witness to the method through which your sympathies were aesthetically constructed through camerawork, perspective, editing etc. In Transformers 2, there is no essential distinction between good and evil; it is constructed for you as you watch the film.
- Avatar’s characters may generally be thin and one-dimensional, but they serve a particular function in the film that coheres within the film’s world. The ‘hot college student’ Decepticon, on the other hand, does not; her presence is largely inexplicable. More generally, the protagonists of Transformers: ROTF are there to fulfill a structural role so that the loose narrative of the film may move toward its final goal: the production of spectacle. But just as importantly, the protagonists exist as secondary to the structure that produces the spectacle, namely, the film itself. To translate that into theory-speak: it isn’t the human individual who is the basis of truth or reality; it is the systems of truth and discourse that produce the individual. Transformers 2 is a mainstream filmic manifestation of the post-structuralist inversion of the primacy of the subject. (You’re fucking right I just typed that with a straight face!)
- As the Topless Robot piece suggests so well, Transformers 2 does away with a need for narrative coherence. It is, however, far too easy to lament this fact as somehow indicative of Michael Bay’s idiocy (which is a fact) or the stupidity of modern audiences (which is totally not the case). Instead, by: 1) abandoning the need for narrative logic in the name of spectacle, and; 2) having this incoherence be embraced by millions around the world; we see the widespread acceptance of postmodernism. Rather than just being ensconced in ivory towers and the art world, Transformers: ROTF shows a global audience mature enough to deal with the absurdity and constructedness of all narratives. We know that the story is a construct meant to elicit a response and then become a cathartic release when the good guys win. We know that it is only gesturally referential to ‘the real world’ or ‘a logical world’ and that, instead, it is simply put together in order for us to experience spectacle, regardless of whether or not it hold together ‘as narrative’. T:ROTF shows that it doesn’t matter a whit whether narrative coheres, because we are now comfortable with the idea that no narrative actually coheres. We just try and make them do so.
- Even if that last point is a stretch, here’s my final one: Transformers 2 was the ballsiest movie I’ve ever seen. I’ve been moved after walking out of movies before. I’ve been sad, I’ve been happy, I’ve been reflective. I have, however, never left a movie giddy. Like, fully, completely giddy with the sheer, brazen, unabashed, mad absurdity that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Avatar used fancy new technology to trot a visually spectacular tired colonial trope. T:ROTF used a whack of new technology to revel in the complete non-meaning of spectacle. Ask yourself: which film was more honest? Which film was more endemic of its time? Flashy modern blue spectacle that repeats the evils of the past or grey, shiny, cool spectacle that simply says nothing and is proud of it?
I’m deliberately being a bit over the top with this. It’s partly because, as much as I enjoyed Avatar, I don’t quite understand how it could be nominated for best picture tonight. And I really believe that Transformers 2 was something important, even if it was inadvertent. And besides, arguing this has been a hobby of mine ever since I’ve seen it. Still – feel free to hit the comments and call me an idiot.