Saturday, January 02, 2010

Avatar, James Cameron as the liberal's upscale Michael Bay

Thanks to a generous friend I saw Avatar last night. I have now concluded that James Cameron has, and perhaps always will be, the liberal's Michael Bay.

Over the years critics have remarked upon Michael Bay's propensity to discard story logic in favor of explosive spectacle. IO9 wrote a gut-busting satirical review of Transformers Revenge of the Fallen in which it was flatly declared that Michael Bay was an arthouse film director whose goal was to create a film that so bludgeoned the senses it overwhelmed higher reason with the ennui of the cosmos we live in. James Cameron has demonstrated in his work ranging from Piranha 2 up through Avatar that he has a similar, yet tighter and more disciplined command of the cinematic art.

All of that is to say that I don't go to a James Cameron film to expect narrative logic, morally nuanced characters, logically anticipated and resolved plotholes, or compelling philosophy ... I go to a James Cameron film to have my eyes and ears bludgeoned by grandiose gestures. James Cameron is what you might get if you translated Tolkien into film without room for nuance (and notice I'm not saying Tolkien was necessarily subtle, since he bothered to write the profoundly aggravating Tom Bombadil into his books).

Having seen Avatar and Transformers Revenge of the Fallen inside of a year James Cameron has opened my eyes and I find myself seeing James Cameron and Michael Bay as two sides of the same coin. Cameron is the more accomplished film-maker and ... dare I say it ... artist. Yet at the end of the day both display the same lack of capacity for nuance or subtlety in their rampant moralizing and penchant for epic spectacle as though it constituted moral philosophy (funny, Tolkien can come off that way to me sometimes, but I digress).

Now that I have seen Avatar I am even more persuaded that Cameron's presentation of pantheism is what you get when a Westerner embraces the idea of pantheism rather than the lived-out consequences of applied pantheism. Miyazaki's films give us a more blunt and yet also more playful depiction of how a pantheist approaches global problems (i.e. ranging a whole swath of thoughts and emotions from Nausicaa, Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo to say nothing of the manga form of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind). The nature that you want to be in touch with may just as soon kill you as commune with you. Miyazaki gets that. Cameron gives us the dumbed down hippie version

That said, Cameron's spectacle is generally spectacular enough that so long as he's subordinating his inveterate preachiness to sheer spectacle he can turn out some decent popcorn movies. I'd give Avatar a 3.5 of 5. I don't feel like spoiling things this time and with Avatar being a James Cameron film, really, what on earth could there possibly be to spoil? I suppose the idea of changing one's views about another race is more plausibly explored here than it was in, say, Terminator 2.

I'm reminded of an interesting comment from a New Yorker author about how E. T. was the kind of deeply conservative film only a liberal could make. Cameron might well be the same sort of story-teller in some ways. His faithfulness to his tale is so archly conservative it might help explain for me why he seems like a doppleganger of Michael Bay. Where Michael Bay reflexively sees military personnel and officers as good Cameron sees them as evil. Where Michael Bay sees humanity as capable and obligated to save itself from alien destruction Cameron prefers to write off humanity as a race except for the three or five who pass muster with the ways of the Na'vi. Where Michael Bay sees peaceniks as fools who don't get the magnitude of what is going on around them and people have to fight and destroy the enemy ... James Cameron sees peaceniks as people avoiding the truth of having to fight and destroy the enemy who will destroy them.

The common ground both Bay and Cameron have is on the necessity of destroying the true other, as opposed to the accepted other. Avatar and Transformers Revenge of the Fallen are, if you will, the same story being told by both a conservative and a liberal. This may be why the ethics in the stories seem a bit hollow because it's still a magic white boy who saves the day in the end either way. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy Avatar. Far from it, it's a feast for the eyes and ears I'm just saying that while it is a feast for the eyes and ears it is probably best to describe it as a feast of eating at Red Robin while Michael Bay's fare is more like eating from the drive-thru at Dick's over on Queen Anne Avenue. Both are places that serve burgers and fries and certainly Red Robin has the more reputable, classy atmosphere and the higher end qualities on food but you're still eating a burger.

By all means enjoy that great burger! Just remember that while not all burgers are equal and Avatar is surely a better burger than Transformers Revenge of the Fallen we're still talking about two burgers. A man does not live by burgers alone even when the burger sells itself as having all the food groups and being of the highest quality and better than all the other burgers out there. Conversely, a cheap burger made of low quality meat with greasy fries is sometimes what you want. There is also a time for grape nuts and frozen fruit with low-fat milk, too. I hope that we can lay to rest the illusion that Cameron and Bay are qualitatively different sorts of film-makers or that Cameron somehow has a greater level of philosophical acument. At the end of the day both directors bank all their money on blowing crap up and letting the special kids make it through the end.

I can appreciate the reason why some folks are growing tired of the genre dubbed with some resentment as the "magic whitey" genre. I wonder if White Comanche might be an example of that genre or not ... and I honestly don't know if I'm going to see the film to find out. I'd be more likely to jump at a viewing of Dead Snow (an unsubtle reminder to some friends that I'd love to see a film about Nazi zombies tramping through the snow). In terms of sheer fun Avatar doesn't hold a candle to either last year's Star Trek film or Up, and yet it's still slightly better than average for the kind of flick it is. In fact in terms of thought-provoking material Avatar isn't going to best Coraline. I have an even greater desire now to see the film made by one of Cameron's ex-wives, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. This last year was a year in which I meant to see any number of films but didn't get around to seeing them. I enjoyed Avatar for what it was but I am not sure I'll go see it again and I certainly wouldn't buy it for my personal movie collection.

Friday, January 01, 2010

via Matthew Johnson at BHT, a link about 3 rules for making it through a lifetime of ministry

Of course, the old preacher rattled off three points:

1.“Read the Bible every day.” I asked him how many times he had read the Bible, and he said he was finishing up his 358th reading of the entire Bible

2.“Mumble prayers throughout the day.” He explained that it is vital to pray in the morning to connect with God and confess sin, but that we also need to mumble prayers throughout the day, talking to God about everything.

3.“Refuse to have any enemies.” He said that if you choose to forgive everyone of all their sins, then no matter who or what is against you, your heart will not become hard and bitter because you treat everyone like a friend.

Which one is most convicting for you? Me? Easily number 3.


This is no surprise but it's good someone told him this and it's better that he knows how amazingly bad he's been on implementing 3 up to this point. Given how many people he has called "good friends" that he probably doesn't even speak to any more he might want to work on the friendship part a little more but that's just a hunch on my part.

The flip side of 3 is remembering the biblical definition of friend, being willing to lay down your life for someone. Laying down your life for your enemies so that they can be made friends is something only Jesus could truly accomplish. If your understanding of friendship as the scriptures describe it is inadequate then just not considering other people enemies does you no good if you don't have more than one true friend in the world and that friend is your spouse, for instance. That sort of friendship can be good and healthy but was established on other grounds than actual friendship. But I digress ... .

I have enough of a link to Mars Hill the last ten years I know at least partly how bad he has sucked at following 3 and it's probably worse than even I can imagine (and I can imagine a lot having used to participate on the unmoderated Midrash and having seen his antics as William Wallace II. There was a time circa 2006-2008 where he seemed particularly awful about 3. Screwing up 3 means it doesn't matter how well you do 1 and 2.

But this advice from the old preacher is so useful I want to share it because it's counsel I find helpful to be reading myself. Obviously far more than just preachers should consider 1-3! There are indirect reasons why 3 is vital for a healthy Christian life. The direct reason is that we are commanded by Christ to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us whether that persecution be real or, as is so often the case in our lives in the West, merely imagined or real but entirely self-inflicted through our words and conduct. Many a man who pleads that he is persecuted for his stand for truth is too often a self-serving jerk with delusions of grandeur.

The indirect reason is that defining your life and making your mission to tear down the people or institutions you consider your enemies makes them the basis of defining your whole life. Just as Luke Skywalker eventually discovers that the person he most wanted to destroy is his father so a person may discover that by deciding someone or something is his enemy that he needs that enemy to define who he is. He draws his lifeblood from his resentment rather than from Life itself. No amount of rebukes or corrections will suffice for this kind of person, and it may be that even being broken completely will not cause the man (or woman) to change their ways.

Proverbs says that a man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed, without remedy. Proverbs also warns that we should not rejoice when our enemy falls and do not be glad when he stumbles or the Lord will see it and be displeased and turn His anger from them.

For my part I'm very bad at 1, not so good at 2, and actually try hard with 3 (not that I'll vouchsafe success, sometimes people just decide you're their enemy no matter what you decide ... which is something I've seen people do that inspired my little discourse above).

Something that this whole subject gets me thinking about is how within Christendom 3 is a spectacular failure for many of us, something unbelievers look upon with great amusement. Consider that Calvinists consider Arminianism to be a terrible doctrine, even a heresy. Catholics and Wesleyans and Orthodox consider Calvinism to be a terrible heresy and a false gospel. Many Christians are so busy villifying each other about so many things that are not core confessions about who Christ is, about the Trinity, and so on that there are all sorts of "enemies" that we have listed as Christians. Our enemies are frequently based not only on perceived and real doctrinal differences but on practical differences in culture and politics. The most common thing in the history of all Christianity is to consider people with doctrinal differences enemies and to speak and preach and write and publish and blog about them as though they were enemies allied with Satan himself. If you wonder how Christian culture warrior types react to the "heathen" read how they respond to professing Christians who differe on doctrinal, liturgical, and other points that would still technically put them within the realm of Christian confession.

If there is anything folks at a certain church should be most ashamed of it is a history of looking down on other churches as not being as good when, in fact, many of them are and in many respects better. There are churches with pastors who are actually competent and responsible in handling and preaching from Old Testament texts. There are churches who have already officially arrived at being Reformed Baptists which is basically what a particular megachurch that doesn't want to quite admit it's a denomination already has become. If they did I'd be very, very happy! I could wish them all the success God provides if they admitted to being a denomination already and became one of the several hundred Baptist denominations that have arisen! Of course I say this realizing, over the last year, that my disposition is more Presbyterian than Baptist but I don't expect a random blog-reader to care what that means.

When you consider people enemies they return the favor even if you don't think you live out your conviction that so-and-so is an enemy in any obvious way, or even in a way that could (you think) be noticed by anyone else. But that's you fooling yourself. I had someone call me up almost out of the blue (it wasn't but it felt that way at the time) to ask me why someone hated him. I had no idea. I could see the reasons for the conviction and could even grant a plausible, powerful case that some animosity was afoot but I couldn't really explain it. I was stymied. All that is to say that if you consider someone your enemy you will treat them like an enemy even when you think you don't. Your life and actions will reveal, at length, your attitude.

You may think you have no enemies but the reactions of other people may reveal otherwise. Jesus said that if your brother has something against you go and be reconciled to him, not the other way around. He didn't say in that setting that if you have something against your brother to not even go to the altar but first go seek reconciliation. Too many Christians seem to think that the time to press endlessly for reconciliation is when they have been offended and not when they have offended.

If you push for reconciliation when you are offended but are content to do your usual worship stuff in church without meeting to be reconciled with someone you have offended then you define your worthiness to participate in worship of the Lord on your own terms and may be potentially eating and drinking judgment on yourself. I can't know that, of course, I'm just suggesting it as something to consider. There were times, personally, where I avoided participating in communion until I could make sure I cleared the air and worked things out with people I felt strongly I had upset and offended.

At the time I thought I had not personally erred on a matter of essential teaching and had not intended to hurt the feelings of the other person but I still did not trust that my own conscience was enough to exonerate me so that I could eat the bread and drink the wine. This doesn't make me a particularly good Christian, of course, but it is something that I have had personal convictions about ("convictions" meaning that is what I believed I needed to do, not the other Christianese variation of "I really felt convicted by the sermon because the pastor talked about how selfish singles are and I'm not married." That I feel I need to clear that up at all would be another blog topic if I felt like writing one).

So as you go into yet another year that may or may not be your last consider who you have decided is, at any level at all, your enemy. Consider who may have considered you their enemy through no choice of their own or even by their choice.

Monday, December 28, 2009

1980s toys and cartoons and the 00s--passion to do what has been done before

The first decade of the 21st century met with a host of films and TV programs connected to 1980s cartoons and toys. Include comic books and this last decade included an unprecedented number of comic book movies that got mainstream attention whether we're talking about Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, Daredevil, Spiderman, Blade, Persepolis, Ghost Rider, Whiteout, 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or any other comic book film you care to mention. As for toy franchises this year we got a G. I. Joe film (bad), and another Transformers film (also very bad). There have been rumors for years that John Woo might get behind a Master's of the Universe film. The next Smurfs movie will not make it until next year or the year after but it began to get greenlit in this decade, I think. The Chipmunks and Scooby Doo also got revamps for the current age ... though to be fair that raggedy dog never really went out of style no matter how many times I may wish he DID go out of style. We also got those insufferable Star Wars prequels. As bad as people say Episode 1 was the other two episodes were equally appalling but that is something I will leave aside for now.

It would seem people in their thirties and forties are insisting on foisting upon mass culture our childhood obsessions and naturally this means stuff from the 1980s. This, I submit, is perfectly normal. If something gets popular enough it turns into film. I don't personally see much need for Harry Potter films to get turned into films at all. Star Trek is a case in point for a franchise where each successive generation has enough adherents that it dragged on for four decades with intermitten success. I lost interest at the end of The Next Generation and didn't really come back until Abrams was brought on board for the reboot. No matter how bad Star Trek got in the movies with the 11th one we have a revived franchise and that is more than can be said for George Lucas' work. People actually born in the 1980s don't realize how big Star Wars was for us. Well, they do in as much as whatever zeal they have for Harry Potter or whatever they get into is the same sort of zeal but for a different cultural artifact.

But people who were teenagers through the better part of this last decade and who were kids will probably be mostly happy that the books became popular enough to become films even if they don't actually like the films. With all these mammoth book sets getting turned into films who knows but that Angelina Jolie may end up playing Dangey Taggert in an Atlas Shrugged film. Ten years ago I would have imagined it would be impossible for the Lord of the Rings books to get adapted into film.

For people whose nostalgia goes no further back than whatever they deem worth remembering all of this will seem like proof that Hollywood has run out of ideas. They never had their own ideas and a film is too large a project to be built upon "new" ideas. I'm not dismissing the art form at all but canards are canards. Would we be better off having new ideas and new stories for film when all the stories have been told? Novels, short stories, epic poems, and ballads have covered all the kinds of stories there have been to tell since before the advent of photography. It is only our collective and individual failures of memory that gets us thinking that, somehow, there are actually new ideas. We should get a more careful, nuanced working definition of what constitutes "new".

In the last decade I have seen that animated films in the West are, if anything, one of the more fruitful fields of film. I admit to being highly biased in favor of cartoons. I wanted to be an animator when I was a kid. Eventually I discovered how much drawing was involved in such an enterprise and in my early twenties I shifted my attention to journalism, theology, and music after I had an eye injury that completely changed my priorities about what sorts of arts I would work in. I keep my eyes open for stuff that intrigues me and stuff that is not so much new as compelling.

Just because something has not been committed to film before doesn't make it worth the effort. The tedious animated film Nine demonstrated "new" is not really new. We don't want "new" ideas for film if those new ideas include Norbit or basically anything Eddie Murphy has done in the last ten years. You don't want a "new" film based on "new" material if it is insufferable.

I think it's okay for earlier generations to want younger generations to get into the stuff they were into. People who are in their twenties now can only have been introduced to Rush, the Cure, Bob Dylan, Hendrix or anything else by older people. The passion you discover in discovering the old does not mean it is old for you. I have at times believed that the avant garde is nothing more than going back further in time or to more obscure places than what people usually go to when they emulate something more "mainstream". "Revolution #9" isn't a particularly daring piece if you compare it to anything by Stockhausen, Messiaen, Berg, Webern, or Stravinsky in terms of sheer innovation. It is, however, to the immense credit of the Beatles and their production team that they created "Revolution #9" in the context of pop music. It becomes even more an accomplishment when you consider that for all intents and purposes the Beatles started out like just about any other boy band from the time.

You would have thought the 80s revival would have hit us already since in the 1980s people were revisiting the 1960s. Everyone hitting their 30s and 40s seems to look back fondly on whatever they were into in their teens and twenties.

It might be fun to complain about things being revived or redone and say that Hollywood is out of ideas but that's too easy. Anyone without a grounding in how much we humans repeat ourselves could say that. I had a friend in college who said that he didn't like American film because of all the cliches. I pointed out that European cinema is just as cliche as American cinema and he responded, "Well, I like European cliches better." Oh, and that makes it all better, huh? Shooting for cliche and shooting for trite from the outset may be the easy way out but shooting for anything not cliche lands you in the realm of some other set of cliches. The human experience is not quite so wide and varied as we persuade ourselves it is, particularly in the modern West (or the old West).

Take Avatar, someone could say that it is just Fern Gully or Dances with Wolves in space and that wouldn't necessarily be wrong (I won't know until I see it). Conversely, why point this out without pointing out that this sort of romanticism is about as old as H9llywood itself. We have all sorts of people fooling themselves into thinking that if they shut off their Blackberry, their iPod, their email, their computer, their cel phone, their whatever-you-name-among-modern contrivances-we-thin-we-depend-on-too-much that life will get simpler and we'll be more attuned to nature and better to ourselves and each other. Yeah, and people were saying that twenty years ago and forty years ago and sixty years ago, too. Before the hippies were the beatniks and before them the Transcendentalists and each generation has had its batch of anti-Transcendentalists. Want to guess where I land on that spectrum? That earlier post about Kafka and Dostoevsky is a big clue. :)

I don't think it's bad that we see people in each generation attempting to get the same ideas to work. Augustine dealt with the human conviction that we have evolved and will evolve centuries before Darwin developed his variation of the theory. Darwin stumbled upon a variation of an old idea. Ideas that intrigue people and help them get through life tend to self-replicate. Cartoons that were popular with people in the 1980s become movies, whether the cartoons were literally cartoons or, as we'll see, the cartoon is a bit more figurative like the upcoming A-Team movie. I love it when a plan comes together, even if that plan is, strictly speaking, not very new. On that note, happy New Year. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.

An amusing quote for me because I have not attempted to compose any Christmas songs and have focused more on Advent material when I have turned my attention to this period in the liturgical year. I was inspired to compose a Latin Magnificat and a vernacular Magnificat and a setting of the Nunc Dimittis. I really want to get to the Benedictus and my brother long ago proposed a fascinating idea of a split choir (of men and women, of course) in which the Magnificat and Benedictus are interwoven into a single work. Now THAT sounds like an amazing project to tackle.

A few years ago I put together a rudimentary libretto using passages from Revelation as an Advent text. I meant to compose the song cycle myself but haven't gotten around to it and am not sure I remember the details of it anymore. Hmm ... perhaps I should get back to composing Advent music again.


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.