JELYM or Avatar Review Part 2

I was originally going to post this review weeks ago, back when Avatar was new and newsworthy and my opinion of it perhaps slightly more germane to any readers of this blog (if any of you are still hanging around).  Since then, I’ve changed more diapers than I have gotten hours of sleep, started adjusting to using a CPAP machine at night and have generally just not been in a position to write much here.  One thing I have learned, though, in my growing up lately is that commitment counts, and I made a commitment to myself to start this blog and to keep up with it.  Sometimes following through is more important than creating something timely and brilliant.  Inertia is both close friend and dear enemy to efforts like a blog.  The more I write, the easier it gets to keep writing.  Where I get bogged down is trying to produce a masterpiece every time my fingers touch the keys.  As I learned while cooking dinner tonight…What I was in the middle of saying before I was rudely cut off by my blog host was that some times you just have to put some food on a plate that is tasty and nourishing and leave the fancy garnish for another night.  Now that I have to recollect my thoughts on this entry yet again this is even more true.

Watching Avatar felt very much like being the main character in The Princess and the Pea.  No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t get comfortable.  At first I thought it was the 3D glasses or sitting too close to an IMAX screen.  Then I thought it was because the plot kept jumping from convention to convention without any of the in-between stuff that makes for good storytelling.  (Unless, of course, you too have fallen deeply and meaningfully in love with someone by engaging in a series of training montages.)  As I walked out of the theatre I realized what it was: I felt like I had just sat through a big budget “youth group movie”.

What’s a youth group movie, you ask?  A youth group movie is the kind of a movie that you throw against a wall and if it don’t bounce back you go hungry (bow bow bow)…Sorry, having an obscure reference moment…okay we’re back.  A youth group movie refers to the straight-to-video pablum that I was fed as a churchgoing teenager.  Imagine a religiously-themed ABC after school special without the good writing or big budget (though I think they both often have Kirk Cameron in them – ooo burn!) and you’ll get the idea.  According to the YGM’s that I watched, kissing gets you pregnant, having a beer will make you kill people with your car, smoking will make you a junkie and staying out of church will make you a wife beating SOB with no job.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not mocking these films because I am anti-Christian or anything.  What drove me mad about them, even as a teen, was that sex, substance use and abuse and domestic violence are issues that are far too important to be given such awful treatment.  The choices we make about these issues in our lives will deeply affect who we become and will also determine what kind of effect we will ultimately have on the world around us.  It’s disgraceful to offer platitudes, glossy generalizations and stereotypes when purporting to educate people on these issues.

This is exactly the same kind of treatment that James Cameron gives to the issues of environmental responsibility and the modern corporate version of Manifest Destiny.  Here are the lessons I learned from watching Avatar:

1) It’s totally fine to lie to and betray someone that you declare love for as long as you feel really bad when the consequences of your betrayal destroy their home, their family and their way of life.

2) When unjustly persecuted by people who embrace violence against the innocent the best solution is to become more effectively violent.  This will show them the error of their ways and certainly will not lead to any sort of escalation like, say, being bombed to subatomic particles from outer space.

3) Everything is nature is connected.  Except for the people who are not connected to nature.  Those people will try to blow nature to smithereens until nature gets pissed off and sends cavalry units in against heavy artillery.

4) Fear is a powerful motivator.

5) Everything is better when you’re a ‘Toon.

In most cases I would find this kind of funny and would shrug it off.  I don’t generally look to films of this sort to educate me or calibrate my moral compass.  The thing is, I have a daughter now and suddenly the future of this world means something different.  It’s not enough that it’s here long enough for me, I want her to be able to live a long and fruitful life as well.  There now exists for me an “and so on” that wasn’t there a few months ago.  So these issues carry weight with me and I want them to be discussed intelligently in the public forum because I ultimately want wise decisions to be made.

Sarah Palin’s recent talks at Tea Party events and the like (side note: that no one attending these events was in any way risking their life for the sake of obtaining independence is a testament both to the efficacy of the work of our founders and the laughable use of that moniker for this current political fad) and the popularity of commentators like Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity and such demonstrate that we are increasingly seeking people out who will aggressively agree with us and who will help us circle the wagons against the threat of The Other Guys.  When public discourse is a) moderated primarily by entertainers who have more incentive to spew invective than to offer reasonable propositions and promote healthy compromise; b) reduced by the Sound Byte Brigade to slogans, talking points and catch phrases; and c) approached from the viewpoint that all answers are obvious and only great fools (like anyone who doesn’t see things our way) can’t see the righteousness of our beliefs, then we will never be able to solve the problems we face together.

Banal fantasies like “military types like killing things for money” and “Mother Nature’s gonna get ya” only serve to encourage people to tune out on what you might have to say.  I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a friend of mine on why various Christian evangelizing techniques were so completely ineffective.  Mostly it’s because the vast majority of people I know don’t want to read a pamphlet with strangers.  It’s also because in those pamphlets and tactics and techniques the heart of the message is lost.  I suggested replacing the class with one phrase, “Jesus effing loves you, man.”  (JELYM for short).  Be honest, if all someone did to try to convince you of their belief was say something simple like that, you’d listen more than you would to, say, Kirk Cameron reading the 10 Commandments on a street corner (ooo burn again! – I actually saw him encouraging that exact thing on late night TV once).

Right now we’re facing crushing public debt, a growing divide between rich and poor – especially as it relates to health care, terrorist groups who truly do hate us, ongoing war efforts and serious environmental concerns.  We must deal with these problems sooner rather than later and we must do so maturely with the best interests of all in mind.  It frustrates me to see our legislators (I will not sully the word “leader” by associating it with Congress) focusing on outmaneuvering their opponents rather than reaching useful consensus.  Particularly when the heart of the issues is lost amidst the bellicose tumult and podium pounding.  You see, I think that most people would agree that giving public money away in large sums to people who just squandered the last large sum of money they were given is a bad idea.  I think most people would agree that taking steps to ensure the longevity of our ecosystem is a good idea.  I think that most people would prefer not fighting to fighting if we can help it and that if we can find a way to make sure that everyone has access to medical treatment then we should try to do that.  And I think that most people would accept the notion that spending more money than you have without consideration of the consequences is a very, very bad idea.  Granted, we will certainly differ on methodologies and priorities but if we agree on the heart of the matter then we can focus our debate on finding the best way to achieve a common goal rather than on how to best malign our opponents.  We have got to acknowledge that despite our differences we are ultimately all in this together.  My daughter is counting on it.

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Avatar Critique & Review

This is my first post of what I expect to be many under this category.  Having performed as a musician, actor, voice actor and stand-up comedian for many years in addition to my time spent behind the scenes I find that I cannot help but watch, read or listen without analyzing the craft behind the art.  I am the kind of person whose enjoyment of a novel decreases with every typo and grammatical error.  Continuity errors drive me insane.  Yet I often will still be moved regardless of these flaws, in fact sometimes they are the best part.  I find this more true in music and static visual art like painting and photography, where an “un-manicured” appearance or sound often conveys more clearly the passion of the artist.  Media like books and film require a more refined or graceful approach to their storytelling to avoid becoming incomprehensible.  Because these media reach my heart through my mind, if my intellect is frustrated it interferes with the reception in my gut, if you will.

Because I am so critically oriented I have had to learn to separate what are often two very different reactions within myself when I encounter art.  The first reaction is the Critique, my reasoned analysis of the execution of the artist.  In a Critique I often focus on what appears to have been done poorly or well, what could have been done better and how effectively the artist has achieved their apparent intent.  Once I have explored these questions I am then able to set my intellect aside and examine how the piece made me feel.  This is what I think of as a Review because it is on the basis of these feelings that I will recommend the film to others or not.  I realize that my intellect informs my feelings more than vice versa but I would still prefer to be moved by art than to be simply impressed with it.  In the Review section I will focus on my responses to the characters and my sense of connection to them and to the story they tell.

I am beginning this category with the film Avatar because I just went to see it this afternoon with my wife on our first date since having the baby.  Much thanks to my mother-in-law for making that possible!  Now, all ado aside, here we go!

Critique:

This is the third film that I have seen in a theater since discovering that I need glasses earlier this year.  The first two, Star Trek and District 9, were much better experiences thanks to the assisted vision – a fact that I checked several times throughout each movie by lowering my glasses to see if I noticed a difference.  The difficulty with Avatar is that the 3D glasses were incredibly uncomfortable on their own (my wife left with a bad headache) and only made more so by my regular lenses.  In addition, I assume due to the anti-glare coating on my lenses, if I tilted my head even slightly the edges of the images became blurred in the annoying way that 3D films always have (and apparently always will).  Going in I was really looking forward to seeing the 3D breakthrough that had received so much hype.  To be sure the image as more fully 3D than any I had previously seen but every time the image jagged I was jarred out of the world of the film and back into the world of watching a film.   In addition to these distractions there were very, very few scenes where I felt that the story was better told in 3D.  Perhaps that is unfair because I don’t have a 2D version for comparison but the fact remains that the 3D images did not help me feel like I had stepped through the fourth wall except during the shots filmed in a first person perspective.  I believe I would have preferred to see a seamless 2D film rather than an occasionally jarring 3D film no matter how richly rendered.

And Avatar was rendered richly indeed.  It is by far the most impressive piece of animation I have ever seen.  The detail level in the animation was simply stunning and clearly everyone who worked on the CGI for this film earned their paycheck and then some.  However, the clearly CGI work was so prevalent that I would go so far as to say that this is an animated feature rather than a live action film almost like a reverse Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The live action characters, when entering the Na’vi world become more animated in their appearance, much like the characters in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I don’t mind the juxtaposition and it was very beautifully done, but it detracted from the impact of the story in a way that I will detail more in the Review portion.

I have always preferred the Star Wars style of special effects when it comes to creatures, droids and the like.  There is a look, a feel to an actor in a costume that no computer can truly mimic.  When the set and props and persons in a scene exist in physical reality they create an immediacy that animation has not yet been able to reproduce.  There is a sense that these events could somehow happen to me, were the circumstances in time a space just right.  When a scene looks animated, it negates that illusion because some part of me knows that I cannot inhabit that world.  As a result the characters and actions become other, more remote and less effective.  In stark contrast to the rest of the film, my single favorite shot is when Jake is holding Neytiri’s face near the end.  It is obvious that they used a real, physical model for the face and the results are astounding.  I really, really, really wish that the Na’vi had been live actors even at the cost of some of the visual gymnastics because I believe that the film would have had much more impact.  For example, had District 9 gone the full CGI route it would have fallen flat on its face.  It is the immediacy of the action, the physical truth of what Wikus endures that both pulls the audience into the story and creates the connection that allows for instruction.  More on that part in the Review.  Sadly, I believe this film will make so much money that the art of latex masks and model making may be lost in the swirling depths of indie horror as the games of one-upmanship begin.

The last portion of the film I would like to critique is the writing, specifically the dialog.  I think the shot selection and scene changes were very well written and as part of the visual presentation of the film this is no surprise to me.  When I left the movie, though, there is only one line that actually stands out: “You’re not the only one with a gun, bitch.”  Is this really what James Cameron wants his audience to leave with?  Is this the “famous line” that will get quoted ad nauseum?  This line is as cliché and predictable as the rest of the dialog.  I felt like I knew what each character was going to say at any given moment, at least in general terms.  It is as though all of the characters are avatars – archetypes being channeled, in and of themselves, unoriginal.  There is no nuance to the dialog and therefore no nuance to the characters.  Because the stereotypes are so strictly adhered to there is no surprise as the plot develops irrevocably to its very predictable conclusion.

That’s all for now, I’ll write the Review soon.