Year three of the Cinema 52 experiment is dedicated to discovering what it is like to watch a movie you hate once every week for a year. Even under ideal circumstances, this is hardly a cakewalk. So what happens when life throws you a curveball? Just four weeks into my already unpleasant year with James Cameron’s Avatar, I was faced with a family medical crisis that threw my entire life into disarray. A family member, with whom I am very close, had been struggling with mental illness for a couple of years. Near the end of January, he had to be hospitalized. He had gone through a similar episode the previous spring, but this one was more severe. Beset by all the troubles, worries, and complications that a family crisis can generate, February was a very difficult month for me. So how much of a role did Avatar play in my life during this time, and how did this unexpected turn of events affect my viewing of the film?


Aptly put, cat version of Sigourney Weaver.

During February, Avatar was not a large part of my life. It did not play any major role in my thought processes. It merely demanded three hours of my weekly time. Those three hours, however, were wholly and entirely miserable. During the final week of January, I was able to come up with an interesting topic to write an article about. In February, I wasn’t so lucky. Dealing with the family situation was taking its toll and grinding me down. This transformed watching Avatar from boring to torturous. The film is so long and contains so little of interest that viewing it only gave my mind time to wander unhappily to personal issues.

My inability to make myself focus on the film while watching it was highly frustrating, and for a time I came perilously close to quitting the experiment altogether. Concluding that things would eventually get better (spoiler alert: they did) I bucked up and kept on viewing, attempting to keep myself busy as best I could. One week, I tried to do some chores around the house, then I took up knitting. My thought process was that having something to do with my hands during my viewings would help keep my mind from wandering. This was fairly successful, and made the viewing in which I tried it much more palatable.


 (I also got a sweet scarf out of the deal.) 

As the month came to a close, I was still feeling miserable, and my viewings reflected that fact. While my viewings didn’t have a dramatic effect on my life, looking back, they seem to have served as a lens, focusing in on whatever state I was in at the time of the viewing. Perhaps this is because the viewing write-up process forced me to take, however briefly, an introspective look at myself and my emotional state. During this chunk of time, I was actively trying to think about things other than my personal feelings, so it would make sense that even this minimal amount of self-examination would be painful. Of course, there were other painful parts of watching Avatar to deal with as well…

While most of Avatar was just a dull grating irritation, there was one line that stung every week. After the Na’vi decide to train Jake in their ways, Moat, their spiritual leader, says, “We will see if your insanity can be cured.” Under normal circumstances this is an entirely innocuous line, but while dealing with a family member suffering from mental illness, it was quite painful.


Come on, Moat. Didn’t the sky-people invading your world
teach you about political correctness and sensitivity?

This brings up a significant question: is the line inherently offensive? Mental illness being a very real thing, should Jake’s cultural cluelessness have been described by some word other than “insanity”? Eh. Honestly, as much as I approve of shitting on Avatar, I personally don’t take issue with this line. They needed a phrase to signify “your way of thinking which is so foreign to us that it literally seems mentally incongruous.” “Your insanity” fits that bill quite nicely. The phrase isn’t one that is frequently used in a derogatory sense and it isn’t formatted like a colloquial insult. Sure, it made me feel pretty lousy when I was intimately dealing with these issues, but the usage here has an acceptable purpose within the script. Words mean different things in different contexts, what are you gonna do?

One further point worth noting is that this is not the first time in the course of the Cinema 52 experiment that I’ve had to deal with a personal issue of this kind. Last February, during my year of watching Jurassic Park, the same relative was going through a very similar crisis. Both times dealing with the issue completely kicked me onto my ass, emotionally speaking. During my year with Jurassic Park, however, it didn’t completely shut down my ability to deal with the film. I spent a couple of weeks dealing with lighter subjects, but nothing ground to a halt like it did with Avatar.

Owl Nedry

Hell, I even used the time to draw some nifty owls!

So why did I lose all ability to talk about Avatar, while I was able to keep rolling though Jurassic Park? There are a couple of possibilities. In several ways, this year’s crisis was worse than last year’s; it was more intense and longer in duration. I am, however, more inclined to credit this year’s complete shutdown of productivity to Avatar itself. Last year, thinking about Jurassic Park was enjoyable; it was escapism. I could take a couple of hours out of my day to think about whether John Hammond had any similarities to Willy Wonka. It took my mind off of the serious issues I was facing. This time there was no fun to be had. Looking into Avatar has, from day one, been an unpleasant chore. And while it can be fun to take a break from your troubles to analyze something you enjoy, doing unpleasant work when you feel lousy just makes you feel lousier.

While it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, watching a movie I hate had the effect of making a painful time a little bit more painful (if only for three hours a week). What is interesting is its contrast to the pleasant escapism that can be found in watching a film you love. Even for someone like me who thrives on film analysis, there are times when you just don’t want to watch a shitty movie. If, for some reason, you are forced to (but outside of weird film experiments, why would you be forced to?), a light distraction like knitting can ease the unpleasantness a little.

And on a personal note, things have gotten better since February. Life is like that; it’ll be shitty for a while, then things will come around. I’d use an example from Avatar to nicely wrap things up, but since the film is so devoid of real emotional content, I am unable to do so.


Thanks for nothing, blue cat-people!