Wednesday, August 25

Considering "Avatar" and "Inglourious Basterds"

You know what this blog prides itself on more than anything else? Topicality. That's why rather than immediately writing this post after I saw Avatar in June rather than December and January like every other person on the planet, I held on to it until Cameron decided to release Avatar:Special Edition with an incredible nine minutes of additional footage in theaters this coming weekend.  That's the sort of topicality that keeps me relevant.

To get to the point, I absolutely hated Avatar.  This is a new experience for me.  Movies have annoyed me (XXX), confused me (Auf der Anderen Seite), bored me (Das Boot), depressed me (Big Fan) and bitterly disappointed me (Stars Wars: The Phantom Menace), but I have never outright hated a movie before and wished that it were stricken from the earth and our collective memories.  The points raised by Ross Douthat and Red Letter Media regarding Avatar I agree with.  It relies on spectacle rather than developed characters or an interesting narrative.  It is more manufactured than crafted.  It appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Not that Avatar has some sort of unique grip on these properties.  They are more or less common to every Hollywood blockbuster.  Yet they escape my wrath.  Even if they exist primarily to make money, they make some motions toward believing whatever message they set down.  An ordinary person can become a hero.  True love exists and can overcome all obstacles.  Friends and family are more important than wealth.  So on and so forth.

Avatar believes in nothing.  Yeah, some words about an earth mother and connection with all beings and the sacredness of life are made, but Avatar doesn't really believe that.  Neytiri arrives in the movie when she puts arrows into the demon cats chasing Sully down.  Ignoring his attempts at thanks, she immediately drops to pray for the fallen demon cats.  Prayer done, she flips out on Sully.  "This is sad.  Very sad only."  "All this is your fault.  They did not need to die."

Okay, the sanctity of life.  I can deal with that.  Avatar can't, at least when there's the possibility for a full thirty minutes of war, blood and catharsis.  Then it's cool to run people down with rhinoceroses and cheer when a dragon tosses a gunner from his helicopter.  I think the Ewok celebration after the destruction of the second Death Star was less enthusiastic than that following the retreat of all humans from Pandora.

Avatar only believes in the sacredness of life so long as it makes the Na'vi seem like a decent race.  Unless, of course, you believe that humans are outside the earth mother and don't deserve life in the same way as her demon cats, but that's just sick and doesn't deserve response.

Consider, in contrast, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, his best by my money and much more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar than The Hurt Locker.  The attention of the critics was drawn by the themes of the political, physical, metaphorical power of film, but Basterds is no less a profound statement on cinematic violence.  Kind of odd considering this is Tarantino, the man who made us laugh when Vincent Vega blew off Marvin's head in the car and had the Bride begin her roaring rampage of revenge by tearing out a trucker's throat with her teeth and proceeded to slam a nurse's head in a door after cutting his Achilles tendon, but it's true.

I believe it was an interview with Giada de Laurentiis where she said that she used to eat every sweet within reach when she was younger.  Then she threw from eating too many at once and was cured of that.  In the same vein, Tarantino just keeps pushing the violence until the audience can't help but ask itself whether its really enjoying this, whether this is in any possible sense of the word right.  It's one thing to make Neytiri say "This is sad," over a demon cat's dead body.  It's another to make us uneasy with the beating of a Nazi officer by baseball bat or the shooting of Adolf Hitler, the go-to villains for Hollywood and video game designers when an entirely unsympathetic enemy is required.

It would be remiss of me not to direct you toward the extended analysis of Basterds done by Todd Alcott.  No small part of the inspiration for this post comes from him, and he does it better.

For fun, this is how Avatar should have ended.

No comments: