05 January 2010

South Pacific and Avatar: When is it okay to look away?

I don't think many people seen an inherent link between SOUTH PACIFIC and AVATAR.  But, at least for me, there are a few similiarties: I saw both at Lincoln Center in the first week of 2010, both are over 2.5 hours, both deal with warfare in tropical locales and troubled relations with "natives", but are absolutely stunning, stunning enough to negate some substantial flaws.

 When I say South Pacific is flawed, I do not mean to dismiss its substantial merit.  The score is gorgeous, tuneful, and memorable.  The characters are unlike any others in the music theater cannon, and the situations it deals likewise break any sort of mold that has existed before or since.  But things get confusing when the 2nd act becomes a bunch of guys in khaki barking and listening to the radio, someone gets MALARIA, but that turns out not to be so big a deal and he goes on a top secret mission (which, for some reason, requires the aid of a random French plantation owner).  The mission itself--as well as its consequences--is vague and confusing.  Oh, and that malaria victim falls in love (even though he has a girlfriend) with a local girl just because she's hot.  But she is so hot that he realizes he's racist for not wanting to marry her, even though there are many legitimate reasons not to marry her, like his girlfriend lack of knowledge about anything north of her lady parts.  And I'm not even going to start on the first scene ending with our heroine saying (forgive me for paraphrasing) "You tell me you've killed a man, but yet I can tell that it's okay."

With the amateur productions I've seen, these dramaturgical quibbles were enough to seriously taint the experience, but the production at Lincoln center was so stunningly designed, acted and sung that most of the more bizarre elements of the book didn't reveal themselves until I allowed myself the think about them afterwards.  Even those tedious "listen to the exciting stuff happen off stage" scenes were styling enough to hold my interest.

 Despite it's flaws, SOUTH PACIFIC is still unquestionably a masterpiece, deserving of it's Pulitzer prize.  The Lincoln Center production merely shook the cobwebs off and gave it what I can imagine to be an emotional punch similar to what audiences felt in the 1940s.  AVATAR is a remarkable technical achievement, manipulative and predictable.  It is, in fact, exactly the sort of movie I have spent 26 years avoiding.  But it was visually stunning, even moving at times, with many unforgettable moments.  In short, it was "worth it".

So at what point is it okay to ignore flaws and relish in the abundant resources of a production?  Is it somehow "cheating" or "quitting" to allow a movie like AVATAR wow us with razzle dazzle, even if it was somewhat (though not entirely) lacking in substance?  Another example: I loved FINNIAN'S RAINBOW.  A friend of mine hated it.  He loved the score, but couldn't get over the lack of conflict in the book, or the underdeveloped characters, or the hastily created romance.  I, for one, didn't care how hasty the romance was, since it created an excuse for me to hear the delightful "If This Isn't Love".  Sure, the character development was fairly crude compared to that of, say, A CATERED AFFAIR, but the richness and joy in FINNIAN'S score made it the more satisfying evening.  And really, most everything can be picked apart if held up to close enough scrutiny; the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts.  It's a fine fine line indeed.

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