Nothing Comes from Nothing

December 31, 2009

So for starters… it's been a while.  Sorry.  I'd say I've been busy writing other things… but that would be a lie.  I've been busy reading student essays and trying to gnaw through my wrists.  But now I'm done – for a time anyway – and my brain is starting to smoke again.

So why not bitch about entertainment?

Everyone's simply effervescent over Cameron's "Avatar."  They're all busting to talk about it.  Busting!  Trust me… just mention the movie to them and they'll regale you for hours about how "intense" it was.  Well I've seen "Avatar."  I've seen "Avatar" and I've got something to say to all of you:

You're wrong.

This movie isn't "intense."  It's the opposite of intense.  It's untense.  It's vapor.

I think it's fitting that Cameron spent millions upon millions of dollars to strip every last fleck of human presence from this film, in order to replace it with imaginary computer sprites… because this movie is absolutely devoid of any humanity.  It's the Gobi fucking desert.

I'll give Cameron this – it's the perfect blend of subject and medium – nothing for nothing.

Let's get started, shall we?

**I think it's important to mention this before I begin:  I didn't see it in the theater.  I didn't see it in 3D.  I saw it on a laptop.  Now I know what you're going to say – watching a movie like "Avatar" on a laptop is akin to saying that I've seen Michelangelo's "David" because I've got a novelty refrigerator magnet modeled after it.  Fair point.  I acknowledge that Cameron did, indeed, intend for this movie to be seen a certain way – and that until I've seen it in this way, I can't have a fully-formed, solid position on the movie.  But this, if you'll forgive me for being a little semantic, is a question of form rather than function.  Yes, it's a different experience in the theater – one which I will eventually pay for.  But my problems with Cameron's movie – and indeed every other movie that he emulates (I'd say "rips off" but the guy made no secret of it) – transcend the graphics.  The movie purports to make a statement… it tries to "teach" us something… and in doing so it holds itself to a higher level of scrutiny.  So I think I'm perfectly entitled to pass over the foofala and get to the meat – as stringy and fatty as it may be.**

Firstly – I can't stand James Cameron's ego. "This movie
will redefine how we see movies." What a dick. That aside though –
here's my major problem. Are the CGI in the film impressive?
Absolutely. They're revolutionary… I'll give him that. But my
question is – so what? Of what real use is technology like that if it's
not being implemented to better communicate a story that actually means
something? The guy spent tens of millions of dollars to practically
invent a new way of making movies… and once he did… he makes the
same old movie that Hollywood has been making for twenty years. What
abject laziness on his part. And how little he must think of the
viewing public, to think that we'd be so easily satisfied by flashing
lights – no matter how pretty they may be.

I look at the CG in
Avatar, and I see soullessness. I see form over function and style over
substance. And that's a really big problem for me. It's that issue that
makes me hate "artists" like Quentin Tarantino and Chuck Palahniuk –
both of them the tepid afterbirth of postmodern nihilism. Each of them
obsesses over the particular minutiae of a scene… the style of it
all… but with no real consideration to what those particulars are
working towards. The two of them don't speak or communicate – they just
belch. They emit noise that communicates nothing but itself. It's all
part of postmodernism, which I personally feel is the cancer of the
imagination. It operates on the bogus notion that everything's been
said – that there's no originality (but one of its many positions, I admit). So we just copy. And then we copy
the copy. And on and on. Have you ever photocopied a photocopy? The
more you do it, the more the image disappears… until finally, it's
gone forever.

Beyond that – there's the plot formula, which I
consider to be one of the most intellectually offensive formulas ever.
It's been used countless times – "Dances With Wolves"; "The Last
Samurai" (which I consider, still, to be the most offensive of the
bunch). Stories like this risk nothing – and yet preach with complete
and unearned authority. Consider it for a moment. A story like this
mythologizes a native culture (the Plains indians, or Samurai, or the
blue cat-people in Avatar) into the purest, cleanest, most
one-dimensional protagonist – it makes them entirely into a victim.
Then it makes caricatures out of the characters (the princess, the
shaman, the steely warrior, etc.). And then finally it puts the
antagonist (who is usually some military/imperial/colonial government
or people) in a giant black hat, and gives it a moustache to twirl. It
bifurcates the film's moral spectrum into complete black and white.
Natives = saintly / Imperials = wicked. Now I'm not an apologist for
imperialism and colonialism. I get that it's wrong. But history isn't
about black and white. It's about grey. The Samurai weren't the
elegant, sliken poet warriors Edward Zwick made them out to be in "The
Last Samurai." I read an actual autobiography of a Tokugawa-era samurai
while in college. The guy was an absolute prick. He was a pimp and a
drunk and a drug addict. He was a rapist and a murderer. He sold his
swords (which, according to the mythology of the samurai would NEVER
happen) in order to finance a drug purchase… and then, once he got
his fix, he found the guy he sold them to and murdered him… and took
them back. Paving over the greys of native cultures like this – making
complete victims out of them erases the very elements that make them
human. It martyrs them entirely… strips their humanity and makes them
into an idea. Which, to me anyway, is worse than genocide… because it
retrospectively erases their identity, and makes them into a lofty
cautionary tale for the very people responsible for their eradication.

– I object to the notion that the only way I could possibly see the
beauty of native culture is if a handsome white man serves as my lens
to it. The last samurai… was a white guy. And not just any white
guy… but Tom (fucking) Cruise… the whitest of all white guys.

finally, I'll
return to the idea of risk. Or, rather, the complete lack of risk. What
does polarizing the morality in a story like this do? Well… to me…
it lets the people with power off the hook. Think of it – an effete,
white, entitled American pays 10 bucks for a ticket… then watches a
society of beautiful hippies get slaughtered. We don't have to really
think about the complexities of a story like this – because there
aren't any complexities. The natives are objectively good. So we can
sit back and feel good about ourselves for pitying these people,
without ever having to question what we've gained at the cost of their
lives/culture. Stories like this reinforce our entitlement – they make
us feel good about ourselves. They somehow make us think that we're a
part of those mythologized cultures… or at least, along for the ride
with the turncoat – the guy who leaves the antagonists' side and throws
in with the hippies. But we're not. We're static. We just sit there.

That's all we do. We sit still and wait to be entertained.

"Avatar" is nothing but noise.  And it frightens me to think that we're all so tickled by it.  It's empty, soulless nonsense.

Now… interestingly… in thinking about this movie, my thoughts stumbled into two other CG-athons that attempt to make a saggy political/social statement.  These movies are, in my opinion, entirely more successful than "Avatar" ever could be. 

One is "WALL-E" – and I think its superiority to "Avatar" is entirely apparant.  So much so that it does not require that I spell it out for you all.  Still – I'll say this one thing – mainly because I don't want to be seen as the Luddite I really am.  "WALL-E" is a story told entirely through CG.  It's a movie about a little plucky trash can who falls in love with a sexy, Steve Jobsian space suppository.  These are the two main characters – chirruping, warbling hunks of metal (or plastic in the lady-bot's case).  These two characters are entirely removed from the audience in terms of their form – and yet, their story is unassaiably human.  "WALL-E" makes me cry every time I watch it.  Do you want to know why?  Because I always cry at a good love story.  And "WALL-E" is one of the loveliest, most honest love stories I've seen in a long long time.  Even if you leave out the bonk-bonk-over-the-head commentary about human excess and apathy, the story is beguilingly charming. 

The creators of this movie used CG as a tool to tell a story.  Cameron used his "story" as a tool to show off his CG.  Which is why, when the war comes… you can all side with the Navi (or whatever the hot, blue cat-people were called).  I'll be sticking with my rusty little friend.  He shows me volumes about my humanity.  The only thing I want to see from the Navi are their nipples.

The other film that I thought of – which I just watched today, in fact – is "Battle for Terra," which strangely, is EXACTLY the same story as "Avatar."  And yet – for a reason I've yet to understand – I adored "Battle for Terra."

This might seem like a cop-out on my part – because I'm going to leave it here.  I'm sorry about that.  I acknowledge that mentioning this puts some holes in my cheese.  But I assure you that I have every intention of examining this cognative dissonance thorougly.  I've already got a few ideas (chiefly being the juxtapositon of the darkness of the flim's tone and the softness of its animation – it's really pretty jarring to see wormy space yams obliterated by Fischer Price men)… but nothing solid just yet.

I'll get back to you. 


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