Thursday, March 04, 2010


On the way back from finally seeing Avatar, I hear a couple across the car from me discussing the Academy Awards and the meta-narrative of Cameron vs. Bigelow: Who Gets Custody of Oscar.

The conversation is very run-of-the-mill and I zone out, paying attention instead to the Daley article in the New Yorker. Then I hear the boy say something is "political." My antenna goes up.

GIRL: Really?
BOY: Of course it is. You remember that movie, Brokeback Mountain?
GIRL: Yeah.
BOY: That was nominated for Best Picture!
GIRL: Really?
BOY: Yes! And you know what it's about?
GIRL: Yeah.
BOY: And *that* was nominated for Best Picture! Even though it was about ... *that*! It's just 'cause it was politically correct. Now, if it was a good movie, I wouldn't mind ...
GIRL: I never saw it.
BOY: Me neither, but still ...

This reminds me of the time when I was about thirteen and my mother took me to the Algonquin hotel. I was a passionate devotee of Dorothy Parker's, and I sat where she had once held court soaking up the Vitamin D. At least, I did, until my reverie was broken by the sound of a man a couple tables away lecturing his female companion on my favorite author. And he was wrong! More wrong than a cat being thrown out into the snow.

My mother could tell how incensed I was. I glared and shook my head and snorted like a horse but the man kept talking in his pompous, Master of the Literary Universe kind of way. "Please can I go over there and correct him," I asked my mother. "He's pretending he knows all this stuff and he doesn't!"

In this case, I will content myself with saying to you, the Internets: that boy is a fool.

Of course, it is tempting to dismiss anything you find distasteful without feeling like you first have to sit through it. Especially in our digital age when we can easily access the proxy opinions of friends, or "Fox and Friends," why bother exposing yourself to something whose agenda you suspect you don't want to support?

A friend and I were recently discussing this in relation to, as it happens, Avatar: Is it fair to hate it without having seen it? Especially with an international blockbuster that seems to have been covered quite in depth by the media, it feels pretty easy to get a sense of whether you'll like it in advance. (Good questions to ask yourself: How did you feel about Titanic? Fern Gully? Cats? [The animal, not the Broadway show.] How do you feel about white male protagonists with one-syllable "J" names? Great. Lastly, mother-goddess worship. Is that a deal breaker for you?)

Well, I decided to take myself to see it, by myself, to decide in as much of a vacuum as possible how I felt about it. There are my primary reactions. *CAUTION: SPOILERS*

1) James Cameron can sure make movies. I found myself thinking like a film student a lot of the time: "Those two characters are going to kiss at this point. Wait, but will they? They're not human; why would they kiss? American audiences expect it even though it doesn't make sense in this context. I wonder what Cameron will -- oh, there they go! Well done."

Assuming that Titanic and Avatar are about equally long, I would give you excellent odds that the first kiss between the couples in both films happen at roughly the same time. Like, within five minutes of each other. Because there is a kind of science to this and Cameron knows how it works.

I also made mental notes of the characters who seemed marked as Dead Meat and, indeed, most of them bit it. In a couple of cases I was surprised, which is another Well Done for JC.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I was carried by the narrative. I was impressed with the visuals. At times I was moved and at times I laughed, though a couple of those chuckles came at the expense of particularly ham-handed lines of dialogue. The movie was long but I didn't get bored.


2) the story -- specifically the politics of it. Oy. I don't need to get into this; others, more prestigious and better suited to the task than I have done it already (here, there, and everywhere).

It should be noted that right-wingers think "Avatar" is a tree-hugging, socialist fantasy:
Writing in the Weekly Standard, conservative commentator John Podhoretz called the movie's clash between heavily armed humans and an indigenous tribe of aliens as "anti-American, anti-human." In an upcoming piece in Commentary magazine, Stephen Hunter writes that "the movie essentially decodes into a 1960s pseudo-intellectual's power-trip dream." A headline on a piece by John Nolte, editor of Andrew Breitbart's conservative Big Hollywood site, declared the movie wasn't for Heartland America: "'Avatar' Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge ..."
Hee! I love conservative outrage. For more from the left, here's Dan Savage on the film's sexual politics. He's not happy either.

To all of that, I will only add that the film's gender politics do get points from me. Most mainstream movies pass the Ms. Test only on a technicality. JC gives us several interesting, active female characters. Even the warrior princess kicks ass, and not just once, like, when a maternal instinct helps her save a baby rabbit. She hunts and flies and fights; her dad gives her his huge bow and arrow. She doesn't need saving. Well, once, a bit, but then she does some excellent saving of her own.

In short, the women are just as developed as the men (which is to say, not much, but this is not a deep, character-driven flick). For an action movie, that's not nothing.

Here, however, is where JC falls short:

3) the tails. WTF, JC? You give these 10-feet-tall blue-skinned cat-people *tails* and then do nothing with them? Think of the possibilities! Think of the children! (We barely see the children. What are the little Na'vi doing all day? Plugging their braids into everything they can find?) Many people, including one of my favorite high school teachers, would kill to have a tail. That showed a lack of imagination, Mr. Cameron. I am disappointed in you.

Overall? I liked it better than I thought I would. It helped to have expectations set to virtually zero. And now I can feel even more morally superior to that little blond idiot on the subway than I would have felt already.

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