Tag Archives: Avatar

“Game Changers”

Watching Pacific Rim last Friday made me wonder: What constitutes a 21st century sci-fi “game changer”? What determines the kind of movie that gets labeled “instantly iconic” or “revolutionary,” that accumulates a fandom by the end of its first weekend in release? Pacific Rim, for example—whose goofy kid-in-a-bathtub mayhem I really enjoyed—struck me as kin to a couple of other recent movies, Avatar and Inception. Here’s what the three have in common:

  • They’re written and directed by men with considerable nerd cachet. (Co-written, in the case of Pacific Rim.) They all started life as “original” projects, but are banking on audience members’ knowledge of their auteurs—and willingness to see anything from the mind behind AliensThe Dark Knight, or Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • That “original” status. Although all three draw heavily from their sci-fi forebears, they’re brand new properties, with minimalist titles calculated to tease. At least prior to their respective releases, they all looked new, mysterious, and intriguing.
  • The near-future worlds crafted for these movies are all dependent on CGI for their size and detail. Each of these worlds also centers on a series of conceits—e.g. avatars, dream theft, drifting—meant to hook the viewer, with “rules” which must be explained via endless exposition.
  • Brooding, recently bereaved white men headline these movies, each of them leading a team on a redemptive mission. Outside of a few minor flourishes in Inception, they’re all very conventionally plotted, with conflicts that are easy to grab hold of: “natives vs. imperialists,” “thieves vs. the mind,” and of course “robots vs. monsters.”
  • As decidedly PG-13 action movies, they lack any sexuality (beyond a single chaste scene in Avatar) or graphic violence. They disengage from the reality of human bodies, opting to make them one more glossy component of these digital fantasy worlds instead.
  • Given their shared interest in charting the mind’s interior and playing with characters’ identities, they’re all indebted to the work of Philip K. Dick, as well as to The Matrix—their most obvious predecessor as far as conceit-driven sci-fi sagas go.

None of these traits are inherently negative, but together they do lay out some very narrow parameters for Event Movie sci-fi. I don’t expect to be blowing any minds here, but given how familiar these three films’ stories, ideas, and visual grammar are from countless earlier movies, maybe (just maybe) “game-changing” has less to do with content and more to do with packaging.

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Link Dump: #7

Damn, life in 1930s Connecticut was swanky. Look at that dress! It’s really perfect leopard-petting apparel. Here’s some links I gathered over the past week that could come in handy if you need to go “gay all of a sudden“:

  • From the “Last Year’s News” department, I just read this 7-month-old article by Paul Tatara bitching about Avatar and eulogizing Eric Rohmer. I wouldn’t link to it, but it’s so insightful, well-written, and bittersweet that I couldn’t help it. Besides, it contains a still from Claire’s Knee.
  • Say it ain’t so, PTA! The Master, the latest project from the genius/director of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, has been indefinitely suspended. And it would’ve starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, too!
  • Shanna Katz writes in “No, I’m NOT Her Roomate” about heteronormativity and fuckers who refuse to acknowledge queer relationships as legitimate.
  • Static Nonsense at Some Assembly Required talks about sexuality and OCD, touching on some problems with the word “bisexual.”
  • Jezebel has the scoop on what’s next for DADT. Maybe soon the answer can firmly be “repeal”? Eh, Obama administration?
  • Dan Savage has started the beautiful It Gets Better project on YouTube to help gay teenagers. It’s really inspiring; go watch some of the videos. (Happy Bodies talks about It Gets Better as well.)
  • Big Think has a 20-minute interview with John Waters about filth, art, his new book Role Models, Salò, and more! The man is an indisputable genius and you need to watch this whole thing. Right now.
  • From the 13th issue of Rouge, a film magazine, published in March ’09, here’s an essay entitled “The Secret Life of Objects” by Mark Rappaport. It’s lengthy, but very rewarding, as it addresses Hollywood studios’ reuses of certain sets, paintings, and statues across the films of the 1940s and ’50s. Give it a read.
  • You know what’s freaking aweso.me? Freaking Aweso.me’s “ridiculous detailed” zombie poster. It’s a rotting hand and it’s got the names of almost 1,000 zombie movies/books/video games and you can zoom in to read it closer online. All I can say is, “BRAAAINS!”

This was a disappointing week in search terms, but we did get some wacky pussy-related entries. Like that immortal question, “woman puts dog food in pussy why”? Why indeed. Or another timeless riddle: what is the “sound made by pussy when fucking”? Forsooth, learned men have been pondering the sound of one pussy fucking for eons now. Someone wonders, “do you see princess mononoke’s pussy”? I reply: 1) her name’s not actually “Princess Mononoke,” but San and 2) NO, YOU DON’T! Duh. Next: “pregnant open pussy and baby can be seen.” Ummm. Yeah. And finally, “the old testament the book of smut.” I do not believe the Old Testament contains such a book. But I could be wrong.

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Body-fascism in Avatar and homophobia everywhere

So: my first week of spring term has come to an end, and I’m finally ready to blog again.  I’ve watched a lot of movies lately, started some classes, read some comics & nonfiction, listened to the new Evelyn Evelyn album, and of course read a bazillion things on the Internet. Lately both Ashley and I have been browsing the very awesome website Sociological Images, which has stirred all kinds of new ideas about how bodies are presented in the media.

Speaking of which! This morning I was reading the latest issue of Sight & Sound and received a pleasant surprise. In the Letters section on the last page was a missive from Dariush Alavi complaining about Avatar; he pointed out how S&S‘s review of Cameron’s mega-opus was, like everyone else, “cheering the money” despite the film’s “execrable politics.” (Politics which Ashley and I have attacked ourselves at great length; see here.) Alavi’s letter really struck home with one particular portion, which highlights some very problematic parts of the film I noticed, but hadn’t been fully able to vocalize.

Avatar must be one of the most racist, body-fascist and unimaginative high-profile American movies I’ve seen in a long time… With their cornrows and ‘generic African’ accents, [the Na’vi] represent all the worst aspects of the notion of the ‘noble savage’, and are evidence of the movie’s patronising attitude to its characters and audience. The uniformity of the Na’vi appearance – from the perfect teeth to the ridiculous waists – is almost as horrific as their facial features, which seem to be an extrapolation of the ‘nipped and tucked’ look favoured in California.

I think this letter makes some fantastic points. Superficially, Avatar is a simplistic man vs. nature epic, contrasting the technology and violence of the humans with the Na’vis’ spiritual connection to their environment. But the Na’vi (aka symbolic Native Americans/Africans) aren’t given subjectivities of their own, and Cameron colonizes them – and all indigenous peoples by extension – just as much as his evil humans do. They’re not characters so much as aesthetic objects, and they remain entirely passive (albeit still so visually pleasing) until brought into action under Jake Sully’s leadership.

And this passivity and objectification is intensified by Cameron’s total disinterest in individualizing the Na’vi. They live communally, I guess, so they don’t need to bother with any but the most cursory personalities – the chief, the priestess, the princess, and rival, and… the rest. Most of the Na’vis’ roles in the film pretty much amount to being eye candy – their director’s motion-captured harem. As Alavi points out, this isn’t just creative laziness: it’s also a desire to put good and evil in the most audaciously obvious of physical terms. Colonel Quaritch is scarred, therefore he’s evil; the Na’vi are enviably tall and thin, a race of Mary Sues, therefore they must be good. The most apt descriptor for them as a race isn’t even “peaceful” or “meditative” so much as “beautiful.”

As was discussed at length, Avatar‘s story basically mirrored that of District 9, but made everything so much easier. In District 9, Blomkamp asks his protagonist and audience to empathize with a race of spat-upon, crustacean refugees referred to only with the pejorative “prawns.” But who’d think twice about becoming a Na’vi? Every subversive piece of Cameron’s story was itself undercut through extreme use of cliché, and the glamorous, better-than-human appearance of the Na’vi fits in this pattern. I think “body-fascist” is the perfect word for a movie that makes its oppressed minority into a species of supermodels, out of the fear that if any Na’vi were possible fat, or ugly, or not quite so sparkly as Edward Cullen, then the audience might fail to identify with them. By which I mean, fuck James Cameron.

Anyway! That’s enough for now about Avatar, the movie so bland it earned a zillion dollars. Why don’t we move on to something more interesting, like flatworm reproduction? Or alternately, also worth discussing: another letter from Sight & Sound, in which Andrew Brettell writes, “Why do film directors feel the need to add these qualifications to works about gay characters?” He refers to a statement from A Single Man‘s director Tom Ford, wherein he said, “It’s not a gay story, he just happens to be gay.” This ties in beautifully to a book I’ve been reading for months, Vito Russo’s classic study of LGBT images in film, The Celluloid Closet. [Caveat for what follows: I have not yet seen A Single Man.]

Russo introduces the chapter “Frightening the Horses” with a series of quotes from filmmakers involved with LGBT-themed movies of the ’60s and ’70s – William Wyler (The Children’s Hour), Rod Steiger (The Sergeant), Gordon Willis (Windows), Rex Harrison (Staircase), and John Schlesinger (Sunday, Bloody Sunday). The gist of all these quotes? The films aren’t about homosexuality; they’re about some other, non-gay theme, usually loneliness. It’s strange that despite the passage of 40 or so years and the flowering of a whole queer independent cinema in America, directors of mainstream movies about homosexuality are still compelled to qualify their work, and even when the directors themselves are gay, like Tom Ford.

I don’t necessarily blame the people making these statements, but I think it does provide insights into our straight society’s attitude toward stories about, gasp, gay people. It’s as if straight moviegoers need to be cajoled into the theaters. “Don’t worry; you won’t be asked to share in Colin Firth’s homoerotic desires. It’s just about loneliness! You can identify with loneliness, can’t you?” So maybe this method of framing movies is double-edged: it certainly looks like cowardice, backing down from the content of your own film, but it can possibly serve as a Trojan horse, a way to lure vaguely homophobic or at least homo-anxious people into a movie they might not otherwise see. They sit down in the theater, they start identifying with Colin Firth, and by the end they might say, “Wow! Oppression based on your sexual orientation does suck!”

So that’s a possible defense of these wishy-washy statements, which admit that the characters are gay, but insist that the movie’s about more universal themes: they’re giving a special point of entrance to ignorant, self-absorbed straight viewers. I think this also reveals a lot about how straight is seen as the incontrovertible default or norm. (Kind of like, oh, how women are women and men are people, or how black is an alternate option.) Even now, homosexuality is identified as, yes, different, strange, abnormal, wrong, sinful, and of course as synonymous with sex-obsessed. So gay men can’t be trusted with Boy Scouts, for example, or if you try to incorporate a gay character into children’s fiction, you’re perverting them and soiling their innocence.

Do you remember the outcry over King & King? Or any number of books for children with totally nonsexual presentations of gay characters? This is the big issue here: even though stories for kids are absolutely full of hetero relationships, whether it’s between princes and princesses, or mothers and fathers, or animals that fall in love, once you switch the genders, then it becomes dirty and sexual. Because male/female relationships are always pure and chaste and kid-friendly, and they reproduce in clean and unobjectionable ways, right? But if you say the word “gay” to a child, you may as well be shouting “ANAL SEX!” in their ear over and over. Except… that’s not true; the image of homosexuals as always craving and having sex is just a malicious stereotype. However, since the people (men) in charge – whether socially, politically, or economically – decide the stereotypes, they decide the children’s books, and they decide what’s normal.

There’s also been an outcry over mentioning homosexuality in middle/high school sex ed courses. Which basically shows how parents want their kids to grow up either not knowing that gays exist – invisibility – or else regarding them as weird, vaguely predatory, but ultimately pitiful creatures who crawl around the fringes of cities (i.e., the dominant image presented pre-1960s, and sometimes post-). There are so many entangled fears here that it’s hard to straighten them out, but I think a huge one is fearing that their sons/daughters just might be gay (“I knew I shouldn’t have listened to so much Elton John when I was pregnant!), and if they learn about homosexuality in an accepting social climate, then dear God, they might just feel comfortable coming out. And then not only will the queers have invaded the TVs and radios with their icky, anal-sex-having selves, but they’ll have invaded poor God-fearing folks’ families, as well. As if homosexuality is a tumor you can eliminate with enough bigoted chemotherapy.

So that’s my brief take on, oh, the fears that put the “phobia” in “homophobia.” It reminds me of a basic tenet from my melodrama class last year, propounded by Linda Williams: “home as a space of innocence.” One of her exemplars of this theme, it’s worth mentioning, is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which could make a pretty good template for the kinds of new homophobic myths that have been developed over the past few decades. According to these hateful, deluded people, they’re just protecting their homes – be that literally, or  referring to all of America as Reagan’s “shining city” – and spreading homophobic lies is just like preemptively nailing all the doors shut or putting up a fence. Thankfully, through the beauty of tolerance and increasing education, that’s all starting to change.

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Oscar Grouching #5: the aftermath

I’m going to keep this short, since I feel like if I hear or say the word “Oscars” again, I’m going to lose it. It’s fun while it lasts, but if you keep it in mind too long, it’s like having Christmas lights up in March. (Which, yes, plenty of silly Minnesotans are doing.) Or like being angry about Avatar months after its release. I streamed them online, with Ashley and I exchanging snarky comments, especially when Kristen Stewart came onstage. I also kept tabs on the AV Club’s live blog, which was very entertaining.

I haven’t watched the Oscars since like, oh, when Jon Stewart hosted in 2006, and I found this one an overall pleasant experience. Of course, it was poorly paced, often perplexing, and usually unfunny, but that’s the whole point of the ceremony, right? Thus enabling us to make our snarky comments? I laughed during the weird interpretive dance segment that interpreted Up as having a robot in it. I also laughed during Sean Penn’s incoherent mumbles as he approached the stage. These are the kind of absurd moments that make it worthwhile to watch 4+ hours of Hollywood patting itself on the back.

These Oscars also came with the interesting implication that John Hughes is apparently far, far more worth remembering than everyone else who died last year, especially great character actors like Ricardo Montalbán and Henry Gibson, who didn’t get any kind of recognition. Well, whatever. This is what low expectations are for. Besides that, I’ll go on remembering Gibson’s contributions to cinema far more than I will with Hughes, so that’s what counts. Which would I rather watch again: Pretty in Pink, or the Haven Hamilton scenes in Nashville? Listening to him sing “200 Years” during the film’s opening will win out every time. (Even if Pretty in Pink does make Harry Dean Stanton seem paternal.)

Aside from those details, the ceremonies were pretty much entirely without note. As for the awards themselves… well, no real surprises there either. The acting quartet of Waltz, Mo’Nique, Bridges, and Bullock won, just as everyone thought. (And I reassert that Sidibe or Mulligan were infinitely more deserving than Sandra Bollocks.) Mercifully for our collective sanity, Avatar didn’t exactly blaze a path of victory, gathering only a few obligatory technical Oscars, while the big ones (Original Screenplay, Director, Picture) went straight to The Hurt Locker.

Quick disclaimer: The Hurt Locker was not the best movie of the year. I still have to catch up with a lot of real contenders (A Single Man, Moon, Un Prophete), but I’m pretty confident that Up, A Serious Man, and The White Ribbon at least were superior. That said, The Hurt Locker‘s victory sends some nice messages about the failure of shininess alone to secure awards, as well as the viability of female directors – and in making war movies, no less! Ultimately, I suspect that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar is as much a symbolic blow for equality and progress as it is representative of her true talent, formidable though it is.

But still, good for Bigelow; she made a damn good movie, and she had her naked gold man coming. If last night had a story of its own, I think, Bigelow could’ve been the action heroine, taking a stand against the megalithic corporation, run by the silent-but-omnipresent James Cameron. For that matter, wasn’t it satisfying when Best Foreign Language Film winner Juan José Campanella took a little jab at Avatar in his acceptance speech? It’s always fun when the Goliath seems so likely to win, even though it sucks, and then gets taken down a notch. Who’s king of the world now, motherfucker?

So that’s my pretty superficial post-Oscars analysis. For the record, I think Up in the Air‘s screenplay was better than that of Precious, and ditto for A Serious Man (or even Basterds) against The Hurt Locker. But, well, that’s how the night had to turn, wasn’t it? At least we were able to see a historic first black screenwriter win. And then Tom Hanks climbed onto the stage, quickly announced that The Hurt Locker had won before any suspense was able to build, and the night was over.

For more Oscar-related reading, you should check out this hilariously moronic misinterpretation of The Hurt Locker by Tom Shillue; this snappy breakdown by the AV Club; and the assuredly ongoing discussion over at The Film Experience, led by the entertaining and Julianne Moore-obsessed Nathaniel Rogers. With that said, we now return to your regularly scheduled blog. Hopefully film and Simpsons analysis will be forthcoming from me, as well as some special new posts by Ashley. If we ever get around to writing them. Hooray for Hollywood!

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Oscar Grouching #1: Avatar

The Oscars are upon us. Another gaudy, self-congratulatory ceremony; another barrage of fashion coverage; and another bunch of nominees to spur discussion. What do the Oscars even mean, anyway? They’ve never been intended, after all, to really select the finest achievements in film from the preceding year. They’re far too mired in the politics of the industry, the current state of society, and all sorts of discourses totally unrelated to the quality of the films at hand. And yet, the Oscars are still a fun and worthwhile gateway into a year’s worth of (American) filmmaking. They show us how the public perceives different artists’ achievements, and try to throw together some kind of crude consensus that negotiates between popular mediocrities, inaccessible art films, and the occasional crossover success that maintains its aesthetic integrity while also having mass appeal (e.g., The Dark Knight – which was snubbed in 2008).

So instead of moaning about how the Oscars are bullshit, no one cares about the Oscars, they have no legitimacy, etc. (each of which have elements of truth and falsehood to them), I find it far more useful to look at the Oscars for what they are. Yes, they’re an awards show, they’re superficial, and they want ratings. They’re often a way for the film industry to more or less fellate itself. But they’re also a peek into the dark soul of Hollywood, and they often recognize some genuinely great movies (like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment). Overall, they’re a very mixed blessing, far too rich and complex a part of film history to be dismissed with a simple declaration of “They don’t matter.”

That said, I still have no interest in the dresses – unless they involve Amanda Palmer’s near nudity, as this year’s Golden Globes did. Nor am I particularly interested in making odds on nominees and winners, which seems pointless to me. I’m more captivated by what the choices say, and what leads up to them. Thus, this year I actually decided to pay attention and watch all five ten Best Picture nominees. The nominees are always a snapshot of a historical moment, complete with all the mistaken inclusions and exclusions that will become obvious as the years pass. They’re not really meant to be the ten best movies of the year. But they do mean something. I saw four of this year’s nominees in various theaters (Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, and District 9), while I pursued the other six through various not-as-kosher means. They’re a pretty diverse collection of movies, and together, I think, they narrate the scope of popular taste in 2009.

As part of this Oscar-observing project, I also wrote an article for the Carl entitled “Confessions of a Celluloid Junkie: Oscar Grouch Edition.” Here’s what I had to say this time around about Avatar:

“I might as well as start with the film that’s first both alphabetically and financially, James Cameron‘s Avatar. After stealing the hearts and minds of American moviegoers for the past zillion weeks (the number “zillion” can be applied to most aspects of this movie – budget, profits, amounts of Pandoran blades of grass and sci-fi action clichés), the big blue blockbuster appears poised to also seize the collective consciousness of the Academy. Will shininess alone be enough to net Cameron another naked gold man? Considering the accolades heaped on his Titanic, not to mention Return of the King, it looks very, very possible.”

I’m not going to go into any depth about Avatar‘s merits (or lack thereof), since I’ve already talked extensively about just that. Instead, I’m going to address its broader significance in terms of the Oscar race and beyond. As I see it, Avatar is a giant monolith of a movie hovering over the rest of the competitors, like the mothership in District 9. It’s fully saturated the pop culture du jour, and Cameron has massive plans to heighten that saturation, from an already-released video game to a novel prequel to (at least) two film sequels. And if the average American can’t block it out, how could the Academy?

After all, people love spectacle: this has been a truism about film since the Bros. Lumière projected a train approaching a station and the audience dived to avoid it. Or ever since William Wellman’s WWI epic Wings won the first-ever Best Picture award. Or ever since 1953 when, against all good judgment, Cecil B. DeMille’s overlong circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth was given a Best Picture statuette as well. These are the fruits of The Dark Knight‘s rejection, you see. The Academy ignored Nolan’s incredibly profitable yet cerebral superhero movie, prompting popular backlash, prompting the addition of five new slots for Best Picture nominees, and voilà – the Academy has no excuse not to nominate Cameron’s big-ass movie.

I don’t actually have much else to say about Avatar; it all feels pretty self-evident. It’s got some good precedent going for it: the oft-compared Dances with Wolves, Cameron’s earlier (and similar) Titanic, and Peter Jackson’s equally gigantic The Return of the King all had oodles of Oscar success. Maybe, for all we know, Avatar will sweep its nominations, with the Academy content to let everyone else scramble for acting and writing awards. The voters are about as fickle as paralyzed veterans put in blue alien bodies. Or maybe a little something called “the overall quality of the movie” will trump $300 million worth of exotic, artificial flora and fauna. I have no real way of knowing this – like I said, I’m not an odds maker. I’m just laying out possible scenarios for how March 7 could go down.

Avatar, I think, is especially interesting for the spice it adds to the mix. As I hinted earlier, in a way it’s the glue that holds the nominees together, a potential point of comparison for the other nine. For example, I believe that a large part of its popular appeal is because it’s a feel-good story, like The Blind Side and unlike District 9. (My thesis for this year: the contest is all about race and war.) Even after all its climactic-upon-climactic confrontations, everything in Avatar turns out OK, and the Na’vi go back to their emphatically environmental way of life. (Ah, the ol’ invocation of the zeitgeist.) And sure, part of the moral is ostensibly “Humans Are Bastards,” but thanks to some narrative shiftiness, the real moral you take away is that humans are bastards, but redemption is possible for one flat, empty protagonist (i.e., YOU) who has “a strong heart.”

In other words, the moral of the film each viewer takes away isn’t that he or she is a bastard, but that he or she, put in the same situation, would be just as valiant and brave as Jack Sully. Obviously, the real bastards are those military-industrial fuckers who are bombing the Na’vi in the first place; the viewer would naturally have nothing to do with that system of oppression. Because every viewer identifies with the Na’vi, not the soldiers, and therefore all the blame gets displaced onto some nebulous but definitely evil “Powers That Be.” Avatar is an inherently self-congratulatory movie, and this admittedly makes it a pretty good fit with the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars love movies that claim to show ugly truths, then double back and sugar-coat everything with a dose of sappy liberal sentiment. (Consider the whole point of the 2005’s dark horse, Crash, or 1994’s beloved Forrest Gump.) And that’s a large part of why Avatar‘s been so successful: its audience is encouraged to eat its cake and have it too, by condemning corporations and embracing a natural lifestyle while shelling out to 20th Century Fox to see a totally unreal world designed on computers. So if, a week from Sunday, Avatar takes away some serious hardware, I believe these will be a lot of the reasons why.

I’m cynical about it because it’s a damn cynical film. It’s covered all of its bases, and is full of so many beat-by-beat storytelling mechanisms that it looks more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a movie. I’ll grant one thing: conceding the visual beauty feels obligatory at this point, but it is pretty beautiful. Maybe if the same financial resources had been in the hands of someone more capable of telling a less run-of-the-mill story with less offensive racial politics (I’ll get to Up later), then I’d be less reluctant to give Avatar any praise at all. This is why I prefer Star Wars and its wide-eyed awe to any piece of Avatar, whose usage of its own fictional landscape feels more like a series of money shots than the vicarious thrill of Luke gazing up at the double sunset.

So there’s yet another diatribe against Avatar. (I really need to stop doing that.) It may well win Best Picture; it’s got all the right attributes going for it. But, frankly, if it does I’ll be disappointed. The Best Picture Oscar is not sacred; it’s been given to a lot of worthless shit over the years. But I’d love to see something of quality awarded and encouraged, as I’ll probably discuss further over the next few days: maybe a movie with the intensity of The Hurt Locker or the sheer spunk of Inglourious Basterds, both of which live in dangerous territory that Avatar doesn’t even approach. But I’ll leave that for another day.

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