Amidst recent debate over whether the “blockbuster” art show is dead, alive, dying, waning or mutating, it takes a blockbuster to appreciate the value of a blockbuster. This is especially so in Australia, whose several fine museums all started collecting way too late to acumulate many of the great masters. As Edmund Capon said in a recent interview, the quirky array of names along the sandstone frieze of the Art Gallery of New South Wales — Raphael, Michael Angelo (sic), Bellini, Titian — are aspirational, a list of all the artists whose works “we don’t have.” He didn’t add that we never will have them, but there is a poignance to that list of names in bronze, a reminder of one “tyranny of distance” which was untraversable at the time of the gallery’s construction and remains so. Whether or not one of Australia’s mining billionaires ever finds the taste and generosity to buy one of our public galleries some minor Titian, Capon, retiring after thirty very successful years as director of the Gallery, can now justifiably brag that he leaves it “full of Picassos.”
Until reading Manohla Dargis’ review in the New York Times, I had no intention of seeing Avatar. But her article affected me: I felt disturbed and violated. Her opening sentence: ‘With “Avatar” James Cameron has turned one man’s dream of the movies into a trippy joy ride about the end of life – our moviegoing life included – as we know it,’ is why. Those words in parentheses, an obliging repetition of the advertisements, obliterated my initial dismissiveness. So too, did its place as #24 in IMDb’s Top 200 List (well ahead of Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard). To say ‘Just another bullshit blockbuster to disregard’ is irresponsible in this case. 20th Century Fox and James Cameron are serious – $280 million is no joke, not even to them (it boasts of being one of the most expensive movies ever made). The aim for the filmmakers of Avatar is to revolutionize cinema through science fiction, to finish what George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began. They are desperate to do so in part because audiences are thinning.