Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Movies I've Walked Out Of, No. 4: Avatar

I didn't walk out of Avatar after two of its three hours because I was offended politically, spiritually, or grammatically on behalf of indigenous cultures around the world, as some people were.
I even thought it was kind of fun to pick out the cultural references: Hey! It's the Maori! ...Massai! ...Marines!

I walked out because it was too long, too predictable, too much the self-indulgent project of someone with enough money and power to ignore any checks and balances on his story.

But I think I might have liked it when I was fourteen, the year, godforgiveme, I loved The Trial of Billy Jack.

You know that movie?
It was pretty vivid, I guess, because I remember it fairly well.

It follows the same formula Avatar and Dances with Wolves do:
faux Native guy outperforms Native folk in noble hearted one-with-the-Earthness. Except it also manages to preach nonviolence while serving up lots of Billy Jack's righteous ass-kicking. You get to enjoy this yet accept that Billy truly believes in a Higher Way. It's just that the bad guys are so bad, it makes him crazy.
Come to think of it, that was kind of fun too: you got to have your Gandhi cake and eat Malcolm X cake too.

I don't think these stories are necessarily evil, even when they're lies. They're what Star Trek circles call Mary Sue stories.

"Mary Sue", in a fan-written story, is a young female civilian plunked onboard the Enterprise for some reason. The captain (or whomever the author prefers) falls in love with her, for her incredible pluck, beauty, and uncanny knowledge of warp speed, which saves the day.

Mary Sues represent their authors (and her readers), of course.

Billy Jack and the Avatar guy are Mary Sue-esque fantasy figures.
Where these "let me imagine myself the hero of the tale" fantasies bug me is
1. when they sell themselves as history, or,
2. when they're crap storytelling.

Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves is a Mary Sue too, and the movie's set in a real place and time, with some real characters.
But it's not exactly accurate, at that.
As Paul Chaat Smith writes in "Land of a Thousand Dances" [1]:
"[The film] is based on a novel and a screenplay about Comanches, and then shifted to South Dakota only after the production designer––and this is kind of poignant––finds a shortage of buffalo in Oklahoma. And not a single Comanche or Kiowa character, some based on actual historical figures, is changed.
I mean, yo, Kevin, Mike [Blake, writer]: saying Ten Bears is Sioux is like saying Winston Churchill is Albanian.

In the movies you can do anything... but don't toss out bouquets for service to the struggle and for historical truth."
Now, I live next door to South Dakota, and an installment in the Indian Wars between the U.S. government and Native peoples took place there when I was twelve, at the Wounded Knee siege in 1973.

I know Hollywood is all about entertainment, of course, but I cringe when Kevin Costner gives this history the Mary Sue treatment.

If it's not your history, these faux-historical movies feel like fantasy. I wonder if I'd love The Lives of Others so much, or at all, if I were East German.
We're supposed to fall in love with this Stasi guy who has destroyed countless lives because he is moved to tears by a piece of music?
Give me a break!

But to me, who has about as much personal connection to East Germany as I do to the LA Lakers (I don't even know what sport they play), Lives is a moral fairy tale spinning the happy message that Art Changes Hearts.
I love that, even though I doubt whether it's exactly true. And I'm not about to believe I know anything about East Germany because I own the DVD.

Anyway, Avatar.
It's sci-fi, not history, so I was willing to go lightly. If the movie had been 90 minutes, I'd have enjoyed it. But as it was, it reminded me of when I was a kid and my father would predict, stopped at a traffic light, exactly when the light was going to turn green.
I thought he had some kind of magic.
Once I figured out the trick, the magic disappeared.

Before Avatar even starts, you know when the stoplights are going to change, of course. It uses an old formula, which can work well, but you gotta dress it up with other stuff--character, say--or else you're just sitting at a red light.

What movies do best, I believe, is tell a story. True, false, whatever, everything in the movie ideally should serve the story. As I recall, Dances with Wolves and Billy Jack both did that pretty well, whether I liked the movies or not.

But Avatar didn't tell its story well. It dragged on and on because, I suspected, the director was in love with his own young self. And all the pretty plants on Pandora couldn't keep me interested in James Cameron at fifteen.
I didn't leave because I was outraged.
I left because I was bored.
[1] Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Smith writes: "...it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything. Just Most Things. And the You really means We, as in all of Us."

[Other movies I've walked out of.]


ArtSparker said...

I didn't see it because of the overkill, but your last paragraph reminds me of an Ursula LeGuin story in which people are investigating a primitive tribe which ends up having been invented inside the mind of a hormone-rich fourteen year old boy's imagination.

You just couldn't resist going back to Dances with Wolves, heh...

Have you read Ernest Becker's Denial of Death? You really should, he addresses some of the issues you bring up. In particular, he argues that the need for us to invest identification in heroes is an immortality project, an attempt to evade death (unfortunately this also means we don't live our lives fully),

Fresca said...

SPARKY: That Le Guin story explains a lot of Hollywood!

Right. I hadn't gotten the Kevin burr out from under my saddle. Sometimes that's a good goad, to move further along.

I haven't read Denial of Death--will look it up.
Identifying with heroes is good if it's a step toward becoming the heroes of our own lives (as David Copperfield says).
You know, I'm always trying to channel my own inner Captain Kirk! : )

ArtSparker said...

Well, I think your identification with Captain Kirk has a touch of humor in it -that is, if you have heroes, it's good to keep them in proportion and not assume they will fly you up to Heaven. IMHO.

Margaret said...

I only watched parts of Avatar, but the (from what I saw) cardboard, made-for-you-to-hate villains disappointed me. Too much distance. Close the distance.

Clowncar said...

go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend....

another animal in that particular zoo is the white adult teacher going to the underprivliged neighborhood to teach the black kids Valuable Lessons About Life.

Avatar wasn't so much bad as large and slow and clunky. much like those machines the soldiers ride around in. I'd call it ironic, but Mr. Cameron is deaf to irony.

Fresca said...

SPARKY: Well, I was kinda hoping to hitch a ride to heaven on the Enterprise...

MRET: "Close the distance". Nice.

CLOWN: You know Billy Jack!
"Dooooo it in the name of heaven,
You can justify it in the end..."

The white teacher schtick--yeah, and in the end the black kids teach him Valuable Life Lessons too, and he goes off and writes a book about it, and harmony abounds. sniff sniff

I might have like Avatar better if it HAD been bad!

Emma J said...

With the growing suspicion that I am somewhere still about 15, I have to admit I liked Avatar.

That Avatar was predictable was no more irritating to me than in Jack & the Beanstalk or Beowulf. There is such a pleasure in the retelling of familiar stories. A pleasure I think we are a little out of touch with in our "all-new - better- and-improved" culture.

(Though I think it is this pleasure that fuels the Austen revival - this pleasure in the small shifts in the retelling that Indonesian puppetry audiences, for example, would recognize.)

I liked the long leisurely exploration - how the plot was secondary to the visual delights (which did delight me) and the unfolding of relationships.

For me, too, some of the pleasure was seeing the usual cliches turned on their heads.

I.e. that the "white teacher" actually had nothing at all of value to teach the natives - they had no use or need for what she was trying to bring to them.

That the "noble natives" are as jealous, quick to judge, short-sighted, and as set on war as any humans - not a non-violent one among them. Our sympathies are with them not because they are kinder or more enlightened but because they live in their beautiful world in a way we feel we can't (but should) and they are fighting for their home.

The "villain" whose fatal flaw is that he is almost the ideal of a good commander - drily humorous, looks after his troops, keeps his promises, decisive, personally brave. He (like some countries we know of) far too sure he knows what is, what matters, what has value that he can't see what he's missing. And it kills him in the end. A character the movie treats with a grudging respect - not by any means a character just to hate.

The underdog, parapalegic Marine "hero" who succeeds not because he's strongest or smartest but because he is a child - curious, open, brave-hearted, able to learn, capable of falling in love with a place as much as a person, able to be delighted and follow where it takes him.

And it made me think - the movie values physical courage over knowingness. Body over mind.

There is throughout the movie a deep material delight in bodily movement, color, and physical connection and discovery. It drew me in, reminding me how beautiful, how worth standing up for, my own world is, how there's no good reason not to live more fully in my body in the (fearfully fragile) world outside my door.

It's a fairytale. Shallow/ deep like those old simple tales.

And my comment is WAY too long . . . sorry

Fresca said...

EMMA: No, no, don't apologize: I *love* long comments! I love talking about movies, as you can see.
And, as I've said before, nothing wrong with being a kid--some of the best things about us come from that kid-self.

Plus, hey! I love Star Trek! I'm not about to argue against liking shallow/deep mythic stuff.

I appreciate what you say about "Avatar." You help me understand why people loved it.
I think it's mostly a matter of personality whether or not people like it because, as I said, it's not really a bad movie, I just didn't like it.
But I like what YOU saw in it.

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I did not walk out of Avatar, I just feel asleep in the middle of it ... I wouldn't have walked in in the first place if not for my friend who was so excited about it (and invited me). The movie was pretty much what I expected it to be, and the next day I had a bad headache from the 3D glasses. :/