Storytelling Smackdown: Avatar vs. A Serious Man
Predating our recorded history, storytelling has been part of what makes our species unique. Our stories help us make sense of the world around us and build our confidence by assuring us that even the humblest person can find the strength to overcome daunting troubles. Reading, listening to, or watching stories relieves stress, reaffirms core social beliefs (often telling us that love, family, and friends truly matter), and underscores heroic values, such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, courage, and hard work.
As a writer of commercial genre fiction, I argue that that's a noble tradition and something our audience has a right to expect from us. We may be able to "get away with" straying or (sometimes) be rewarded with critical acclaim for dramatically altering the story landscape, but it's tough to endear oneself to a large audience that way.
Case in point: two recent Academy Award Best Picture nominated films, James Cameron's Avatar, which for all its nifty special effects is as heart an old-fashioned, ultimately triumphant hero's journey, and the Coen's Brothers' film, A Serious Man, which defies audience expectations by showing us a poor, downtrodden schmuck who never does rise up against the massive injustices heaped onto him by God and his weird family alike.
I left the theater completely inspired after viewing the first. Shouted "What the Heck?"(okay, I said worse, but I'm not copping to it in print) upon reaching the ending (meaning the movie's "ending," not the story's, because it didn't have one) of the second. Though I've loved the majority of the Coen brothers' past efforts (O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men are two of my all-time favorite movies) to and found the characterization of A Serious Man very well done, this film, for my taste, felt maddeningly self-indulgent.
Now, I think it's fine for a writer to challenge readers (or viewers.) I love being forced to reconsider a long-held opinion, knee-jerk prejudice, or to see the world from a wholly-unexpected viewpoint. Within the parameters of the storytelling framework, we have the power to illuminate all sorts of dark places in a way that still offers the powerful cathartic experience thousands of years of evolutionary culture has trained us to expect.
But at the end of the day, if you're going to indulge anyone, shouldn't it be the people who are plunking down their hard-earned dollars rather than yourself? Don't we owe our audience not necessarily a happy, but a satisfying, emotional experience?
Anyone else care to weigh in on either the question or the films?