Sunday, December 27, 2009


Haven't seen it and don't know precisely when I will (or even if I will). I studiously avoided Titanic years ago on the grounds that if James Cameron was using the rehated star-crossed lovers across conflicting classes trope I had better things to do with my time and money. I went and caught Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen the day I was invited to go see Titanic. My sister asked me if the girl who invited me to see Titanic was cute and I said that it wasn't a matter of cute there were principles involved and I had already bought my ticket for Lawrence of Arabia anyway.

Avatar promises to be another liberal screed on behalf of James Cameron, probably using technology to decry itself. At least Peter Gabriel's music that opines on technology as a means to dehumanization is AMBIVALENT. When Gabriel records a pop song there are the concerns about losing touch with nature and yet there is an equally strong impulse to revel in sound for the sake of sound. Peter Gabriel can attempt to have it both ways because he has made a career of attempting to have it both ways. Art rock/prog rock/fusion pop has always been that way.

Meanwhile Hayao Miyazaki can create cinematic jeremiads about the dangers of encroaching technology and destruction and not come off as facile because as anyone who knows about animation knows he's old-school. He still likes to handle his films through traditional hand-drawn techniques and even his manga magnum opus Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind consisted entirely of his own writing, pencils and artwork. When you care enough to do cartoons the old way it helps reinforce a methodological purity that matches the ideological vision driving your art.

Of course I'll never agree with Miyazaki's pantheism but he's more intellectually consistent and respectable, even going so far as (in the manga version of Nausicaa) compelling his protagonist to confront the reality that her attempts to save the ecosphere of her own world may damn it to destruction because it was engineered to expend itself as a way to revive the ecosphere that had been destroyed by wars that happened generations ago.

Cameron's work has been more about the epic and emotional gesture than about idea. I suppose I should concede here that even his most successful film franchise, Terminator 1 and 2 (at least) is hamstrung by a complete failure to unpack the inevitability of the time loop his initial narrative creates. The paradox at the heart of the Terminator franchise is that Skynet's very attempt to prevent the birth of John Connor is the direct cause of John Connor's birth. Only in a world where Skynet did not attempt to stop Connor's birth would Connor's birth actually have been prevented. No one sent up this paradox more beautifully or brutally than South Park did in their "Trapper Keepr 2000" episode.

If Cameron were consistent with the idea that preventing Skynet was possible then if John Connor actually PREVENTS the existence of Skynet he precludes the possibility of his own existence. This is why Terminator 3 was ultimately not the failure several critics said it was because it took the narrative conceit more seriously than Cameron's philosophical conceit that "there is no fate but what we make". The problem with that conceit is simply that we are not the only ones making our fates and that Skynet was determined to make its own fate, too.

Cameron has a history of failing to address the implications of his philosophical and social assertions. Even a film like Pixar's WALL-E is internally consistent by refusing to settle on an artificial distinction such as "machines are bad and people are good, technology is bad and simple living is good". WALL-E represents, as machine, the better qualities and limitations of humanity. The auto-pilot represents the lesser qualities but without having to be considered the "villain" of the story in some arch form. What some have said reflects a weakness Pixar has for failing to come up with memorable or intimidating villains is one of the things I admire about their work. It is an ability to see some shades of gray in ostensibly black and white narratives and their consistent exploration of how their protagonists need to repent of something to better love their neighbors that keeps me coming back to Pixar films.

I suppose I could wax pop psychological and guess that Cameron is still rebelling against a father who said he wouldn't amount to anything and still attempting to prove to everyone, not least himself, that he's better than anyone at what he does. I can appreciate that impulse to tackle things that are tough just because they are tough. I also realize that doing that doesn't make you an artist in itself. I appreciate Cameron's films when they emphasize spectacle over thought and explosions over exposition. My indifference about seeing Avatar is because if I want a film to preach at me or subvert ideas I can go watch films by Miyazaki or the Coen brothers. I still have more interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker than seeing Avatar. Perhaps it's fitting since Avatar's release that I find myself more interested in seeing the film of one of his ex-wives. Since Cameron isn't claiming to make a film about a historical event I suppose I can muster up the will to go see Avatar.

Of all the descriptions I have seen for the film so far the most amusing is one that describes Avatar as what you would get if the Thundercats bred with the Smurfs and the resulting offspring fought Robotech. Since I'm obviously a fan of cartoons this description is not only not insulting to me presented at face value but sounds like a far more accurate description of what Cameron has done than other reviews. Now if someone were to describe Avatar as what you would get if Rubik the Amazing Cube mated with Turboteen and those offspring fought the characters from the Pole Position cartoon and Donkey Kong I would never go near a theater. I trust you understand what I mean. Cameron might find it insulting to have his magnum opus compared to 1980s cartoons but I wouldn't. To get into why will require another post for another time.


Jean said...

Quite agree that its worth the money though it was quite a dumb film in terms of its narrative.

JS Bangs said...

Everyone's been hating on Avatar for its politics, both from the left and the right (for the lefty version of what it does wrong, see I saw the movie and vaguely noted the complaints that you could make from either direction, all the while completely not caring because my mind was too busy being blown. As I argued elsewhere on the internet, visual beauty is an aesthetic value all its own, and the visuals in this movie are so extravagantly amazing that they make the movie remarkable even without the plot. The plot is mediocre at best, as you can hear whining all over the internet, and the lack of a compelling story to accompany the astounding images means that the movie can't be considered great, but it's certainly good.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

J.S. you touched on the reason I'm ultimately willing to go see Avatar (maybe not right away while I'm job hunting but eventually)--I want Cameron to focus on a big unparalleled sensory spectacle. That's what he's great at. Far be it from me to complain that a movie has the most threadbare of plots if it is beautifully made. After all, I own My Neighbor Totoro and it's one of my favorite movies. Cameron doesn't need a plot, he needs to pull of spectacle and as long as he doesn't have the pretense of having it somehow connect to the real world or history in terms of narrative setting I'm more okay with it.

I suppose having an American Indian dad I could be more annoyed by the magic whitey motiff than I may be when I see the film. One of the things about Lawrence of Arabia I love is that the white guy who thinks he's going to save the Arabs inadvertantly sells them out to the British empire, a wonderful subversion of the magic white man motiff that I never get tired of.

io9's description of Transformers Revenge of the Fallen as an arthouse film was hilarious.