“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”—Muriel Rukeyser
Okay so I never would have bothered watching The Golden Globes if it weren’t for the gleeful irreverence I have come to expect from Ricky Gervais. I like to see the pointy bit of snark puncture the inflated, self-generating praise at these award ceremonies. I doubt that we’ll ever see the likes of a Native American woman accept an award as she did for Marlon Brando’s role in The Godfather and excoriate the Hollywood community, at his behest, for their racist portrayal of her people. No simpering squaw she.
There surely wasn’t a sign of that at the Golden Globes among the ribbon-wearing glitterati—even with Ricky’s barbs—in that room full of entitled celebrities who can single handedly turn back time. I mean did anyone catch Cher up on stage? Still, Gervais was chewed up and spit out by critics the next day. Nothing of his ‘schtick’ made them laugh—not the gleeful reference in a crowd of tight smiles to cosmetic surgery (duh), exorbitantly expensive, confidentiality-demanding celebrity divorce (duh), celebrity adoptions (duh), and the hysterically funny introduction to a now not-so-closeted anti-Semite—“I like a drink as much as the next man…unless the next man is Mel Gibson”—tickled those critics (double-duh!). It’s what the Brits delightfully call ‘taking the mickey.’ Married as I am to one of their kind I have been at the mercy of that sport, but when I have tried, in vain, to invoke it myself, well, woe betide to the American who tries that in a roomful of Brits. It’s a distinctly British phenomenon and better left to the well-practiced experts.
This year I actually got to see a few fine films and a few that were crap. Being able to afford a movie is relatively new again, so, “Yay” for the senior discount. The Mister, more than a decade from that dubious milestone, stands aside at the ticket window and, full-bearded, is automatically allowed the discounted price of admission. Who knows where we will be in ten years so get it while we can say I. Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, Precious, The White Ribbon, Moon, District 9; all were deeply satisfying film experiences for this moviegoer. Some were hysterically funny, others imaginative on a small budget, politically challenging for our time and deeply moving if not strongly disturbing. What they all had in common was uncommonly good story telling. Other films like Sunshine Cleaning, Crazy Heart and the mostly hauntingly beautiful film, Before Tomorrow, were not entirely brilliant works of art or strong directorial achievements or even significantly great performances but they had more than their share of good moments. Kate and Anna McGarrigle scored the music for the Innuit film, Before Tomorrow, and it is especially poignant in light of the sad passing of Kate McGarrigle. But small as these films are, they gave us a couple of hours of pleasurable escape with—I’ll say it again—good story telling; gentle reminders that not every film has to be great and if I don’t find myself repeating my social security number in my head or thinking about what needs to be done at home or did I leave the oven on, or what hellish kitten chaos will greet me when I return, that’s a plus. Other films I saw, like Up In the Air which pretended to be comedy about people losing their jobs and suicide was only meant to get the preppy head of the firm to rethink his strategy for firing employees; Pirate Radio manipulated (re: watered down) history and which I can’t begin to dislike enough despite brilliant turns by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson; and the even more forgettable, which I can’t remember, were crap.
It was a pleasure to see Mo’Nique glowingly accept her award for an outstanding performance in Precious that must have been brutally hard for her to elicit such soul-searing pain and still create a real human being. The rest of the awards? Not so much. I had not seen most of the films and the television entries escaped my notice for the most part. Medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy are just soaps with blood and gore. I can’t watch House because I have seen too many hysterically funny episodes of Black Adder and Jeeves and Wooster to be able to bear Hugh Laurie’s dour, pill-popping, American persona. I do like Nurse Jackie's dour pill-popping American personality though.
But even before the awards night talk of Avatar had already shifted argument into high gear that sometimes very nearly approached verbal knock down drag out proportions. Basically I would have been happy to ignore yet another over-the-top animated spectacle. 3D glasses that oik up the price of admission are no draw either. As well, James Cameron is a director I avoid, actually run from. The Mister and I were fairly rigid with boredom during the epic-long screening of Titanic and finally bolted over the knees of the audience irritated from their rapture as we made our way to the exit, not really caring how many more times Jack would call shuddering from the freezing ocean: “Rose! Rose!”
It started with me curious as to why certain friends whom I consider to be enlightened ended up raving about it. I read an article condemning it for being a “White Savior” movie and passed that along. Indignation ensued and I was told in no uncertain terms how wrong, how pathetically far reaching the author, an African American woman, was in her misguided criticism of the film. Following the earlier threads on facebook among people I do know, some I hardly know, and some of whom I have never met and now can call “friends” I sensed dissention in the ranks. Some loved it, some didn’t. Those with children had another take, which usually meant, “What can I do? There are so few good kids’ films about?” A few, from abroad, threw in the ‘American schmaltz’ complaint. Some reported it was the best thing they’ve seen since Star Wars. Others claimed it bored them to death or it gave them a migraine.
I decided to see for myself and headed to Times Square for a ridiculously early showing of the film at a humongous theater on 42nd Street. Ten o’clock in the morning is the time I am usually on the running track at the reservoir in Central Park or if I have had a late night of it, fast asleep under warm kittens that have finally given up trying to tell me when to rise. But the film had already left other theaters around town presumably—in the spirit of the current vampire-y trend—having drawn the last bit of viewers’ blood, and swollen with a take of over a billion dollars would now focus corporate’s insatiable appetite for revenue by re-inventing itself as a DVD with all the requisite extras to further pad the coffers. An unexpected perk was the relatively low admission price of six dollars for any showing before noon. I had my choice of seats, being only one of half a dozen viewers in the cavernous theater. A couple of older men made their way up into the rarified air and I overhead one of them say as he forged past me slightly out of breath: “Look at the size of this. We gotta go higher. The screen is still big.”
I lifted the armrests beside me and settled in for the duration. First I had to sit through half a dozen previews of what looked like the same film. It certainly sounded like the same soundtrack: A Carl Orff chorale extravaganza assaulted my hearing again, and again, and then again. Blood and gore splashed across the screen from one preview to the next until the characters and the over wrought special effects became indistinguishable from each other. I get it: Gary Oldman is evil. Denzel Washington is good. Russell Crowe is, well, Russell Crowe. Titans will clash and Robin Hood will forever be remembered as Gladiator II. None of these films will be on my “must see” list anyway. But I was more than a trifle irked by the preview for some hate-spewing rhetoric by those old reliable liars Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Both men are off-putting enough but leering back at me from a huge screen with nostrils the size of moon craters they were positively frightening—and before noon no less. Then there was that patriotic team of propagandists, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with yet another stirring drama about what war really, really is like. Tucked right in there among all these previews was an ad for some arm of the military and this really, really infuriated me. It was shot like a Wagnerian opera on steroids with—you guessed it—that Orff chorale hammering away at the viewer. The tag line? “A Hero Will Rise.” Because we know what war is like—really, really like—don’t we?
But I was talking about Avatar, the film that won the two highest awards at the Golden Globes of best director and best film and might as well have stuck a gun in Quentin Tarrantino’s back and growled, “You wuz robbed!” From the beginning, like a dog sensing dangerous territory ahead, my (imaginary, yes) hackles were raised. After the opening shot of the Marines being dropped onto the planet Pandora (subtle, not) and the one black actor to fill the screen, the entire cast—apart from one young Asian woman and a male scientist who might have been Indian or Pakistani—was white, white, white—the human cast that is—until one chubby black man suddenly appears with no discernible purpose among the white scientists near the end of the film.
Black actors delivered voices of the main characters of the Na’vi. The gentle natives were all blue, of course. The features of these exquisitely built and incredibly strong inhabitants of Pandora were not those of a thin-lipped, weak-chinned white scientist who had no compunction at all about prodding her Asian assistant to “Chop, chop” to her demands. When that same anthropologist is somehow allowed into their midst, the Na’vi women gather around her cooing stupidly about how pretty she is. Right. One would have thought the director might have gone to a little more trouble in finding an actor who really was prettier than this gorgeous race of females. And a people so evolved as the Na’vi, with their long, deeply rooted history of communing with and respecting Nature can easily be understood, even conquered by a seemingly under educated, white Marine, self-described as a ‘jar head’ in just a few months. Right, again. It’s an old rehashed story that should be put to sleep once and for all. But Cameron seems not to have any compunction about stealing bits from other old, rehashed stories like Kevin Costner’s epic failure, Dancing With Wolves. Resorting to stealing an old engineering joke and calling the precious substance the Marines are sent to kill for ‘unobtainium’ is just lazy. Billion dollar lazy
Any rant about the racist implications is much better served by reading an article by Ezil Danto online. She is an award winning playwright, a performance poet, political and social commentator, author, and human rights attorney. She was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in the USA. No shrinking violet, she states categorically that Avatar is indeed a ‘White Savior’ movie and wastes no time with literary special affects in backing that up. Her references to Haiti are eye opening. She aptly quotes Richard Pryor: “Do you have any dreams? They’ll want them too.”
And as for one friend’s stated opinion that Avatar was so brave a film and such a powerful condemnation of the Bush years that she wondered how it ever got made I say there is more bravery and blatant excoriation of our government in any one episode of the former television series Boston Legal or a film like “Three Kings” which, under the guise of comedy, fingered the real criminals of war.
Will kids come away from this extravaganza wanting to change the world, reverse the course of murderous civilizations that exist on our planet today intent on bending nature to its will? Will they go no further than thanking that bit of chopped beef on a bun before devouring it or will they actually see a connection between torturing animals for food and creating even more aggression in the world? Will they grow up to actively resist being drafted to fight unjust wars and bear the punishment that will rain down on them from a government hell bent on ‘civilizing’ the natives of the world who do worship nature? Will they ultimately be depressed to find out that there is no mythical Pandora and shiny, tiny things that alight on the Chosen One will never alight on them? Will they be disappointed to learn that a white man is not the highest order of all beings and must, in most cases, destroy the lives and rituals of others who do not believe as he does, have a darker skin than he does and who aren’t particularly impressed with ‘pretty’ when ‘pretty becomes their jailors. Or will blue skin and snakey dreads become the Halloween costume of choice this year? Maybe the film needed Ricky Gervais in the lead, you know, just to lighten the moment.
To friends who are parents and ask what I think is a good children’s film I am woefully unprepared. I adored Babe and the follow up, much darker story of Babe, Pig in the City. I grew up to Lady and the Tramp and Bambi. Later it was the likes of Old Yeller until as a young woman I discovered foreign films, especially the black and white kitchen sink dramas of British filmmakers. Ken Loach’s 1968 film Poor Cow was my introduction to the genre and I never looked back. Until a saccharine-laced French film called Cousin, Cousine I thought all foreign films were the best. I have just seen the most current kitchen sink from Britain directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank, with a jaw dropping performance by a non-actor named Katie Jarvis.
I left Avatar as soon as the big yellow eyes appeared on the screen and in the elevator I struck up a conversation with a young man who worked there. “Have you seen Avatar?” I asked him. He had. Did he like it? He gave me a non-committal smile and said he did. Sensing some doubt, I asked why he liked it. He smiled again shyly, mumbled something about special effects, and asked if I liked it. “No”, I said quite more determinedly than I had intended. He asked me how come and I replied that I was kinda over the story of the almighty white guy going in and rescuing the natives. His eyes widened. He said, yeah, he knew what I meant. “Did you see Pocahontas?” he asked. When I replied that I had not he said, “Same thing.”Shrek will be 3D in its next incarnation. Hopefully filmmakers like Werner Herzog and The Coen Brothers will resist the temptation. But as far as Avatar goes, I think children deserve better. I think we all do.