Like many other Americans, I recently spent $14 to witness a truly amazing 3-D spectacle. Some people are calling this visual masterpiece “Avatar.” I call it “Dances with Shrek.” Sure the visuals are stunning and revolutionary, but the story? Come on. It reads like a fun romp through cliches of hollywood blockbusters past. We have the jaded soldier finding meaning in life by becoming immersed in a native tribal culture. We have a man and a woman who are physically different learning important lessons about accepting outer beauty by recognizing inner beauty. We have a small band of disillusioned rebels overcoming a technologically superior force based on their grit, ingenuity, and a small shot of supernatural guidance. The creator of this spectacle needs to learn one of the most basic of literary lessons: the line between deep and spiritual is just a hair’s breadth away from cloying and emotionally manipulative. Few can walk the line.
I saw a news magazine interview with James Cameron, the producer, writer and director of “Dances with Shrek” a couple of months ago. His attempts at false modesty were not convincing. This is, after all, the guy who declared himself “king of the world” during one of the most-watched live television broadcasts of all time. At first I didn’t want to see the movie at all, because I was disgusted by Cameron’s surety that it would be a masterpiece. I eventually caved, frankly prodded on by my respected co-bloggers who were stunned by the same visual effects that eventually had me gaping in wonder. As the credits rolled and I took off the 3-D glasses, I was kind of sad. What a wasted opportunity. The hundreds of people who developed that lush, enveloping world deserved a better story to backstop their efforts. James Cameron deserved a better writer than James Cameron. He should have looked at his colleague George Lucas, also a revolutionary master of visual effects, and realized that producer George Lucas teamed with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner equals the masterpiece “Empire Strikes Back.” Producer George Lucas teamed with screenwriter George Lucas and director George Lucas equals the, um…well….piece of cinematic history that is “The Phantom Menace.”
Hollywood is a unique work environment. A lot of people’s jobs in the real world require ingenuity, creativity, talent, and lots of hard work. Not many people’s creative processes are evaluated in such exacting detail as a hollywood director. And very few people get the feed-back that a hollywood producer does: immediate numerical evaluation by a huge population. When I write a work memo, I rarely get the chance to say “I’d like to thank Amy for editing my work, and John for sharing his granola with me, and especially Sarah for changing the toner cartridge in the printer. I’d like to thank Mrs. Johnson from 8th grade English for insisting that I learn the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your,’ and my mom for making me do my homework night after night. Most of all, I’d like to thank Jesus for gifting me with the innate insightfulness and writing ability that allowed me to create this masterpiece. I’M QUEEN OF THE POLICY MEMORANDUM!”
So, should I be thanking Amy for editing my work? Heck yes. I have a tendency to create complicated sentences and repeat words over and over in the same paragraph. I type fast, and forget to spell check. I need someone to tell me that my fundamental premise is flawed and I should start over. Good work is often collaborative, and I thrive in a team environment. Sometimes I do great work, and sometimes I fly by the seat of my pants and ought to work harder. I occasionally get praised by my supervisors, but mostly I’m grateful they keep paying me.
Anytime we get caught up in the brilliance of our work, in the blinding fantasticness of ourselves, it’s probably good to remember that in all but the most rare of circumstances, our efforts are compounded by those around us. We’re polished and shined by support systems that ought to be recognized. Most of all, we really are often blinded by our own efforts, and in those moments of self-glory may not realize that we’re crowning ourselves king of the world of dances with shrek.