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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reverse Predictions and More Subtexts

I see that AVATAR is now the most successful movie in history, passing TITANIC earlier this month (I won't use the obvious sinking metaphor.) Since this movie cost a half a billion dollars, movie economics dictates that it didn't start to earn a profit until it earned a billion dollars at the box office. It's just done this, but half that sum came from outside the USA. Why? Is it just due to the effects, or something more?
AVATAR has done spectacularly well in China and other Asian nations, so well that the Chinese yanked the 2D version from the theatres to prevent piracy.
Which leads me to suspect that AVATAR'S popularity is due to another subtext that appears in this movie. It's about the end of colonial empire, specifically an American colonial empire. There are some different races in this movie (Cameron makes sure to show some mixed-race troops cheering Colonel Quaritch's peptalk before the last great invasion.) It's an American corporation ordering the invasion in a cynicical partnership with the military and the scientists who were almost certainly sponsored by the military. A good portion of scientific research is now underwritten by military funding in the USA so this is no future fantasy.
I've seen a cartoon posted by Darryl Cagle showing Indian and Asian people holding hands with a ten foot high blue avatar figure. That is not coincidental.
But when I visited Zagreb many years ago a Serbian animator told me "We make fun of America in our (animated) films because we cannot make fun of our own governments."
Perhaps some of the approval for AVATAR comes from people in similar situations.
Which would make AVATAR one of the most subversive movies ever made, in that it questions the corporate culture that enabled the film to be produced in the first place.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Women are Just No Good. with Spoilers

This post will probably be full of a lot of stuff people don't want to hear, but here goes. Point One: Beautiful animation won't save a weak story and neither will state of the art special effects. Point Two: Story is usually the weak spot in film, whether it be animated or live. Most of us would agree on these two points.
Point Three is the kicker. I'm noticing disturbing subtexts in some films. Subtexts that marginalize or actually despise the female characters--sometimes, women in general.
I'll discuss three of them here: AVATAR, UP, and UP IN THE AIR.
AVATAR, in addition to being the most overproduced and overrated film I saw this year, was the worst subtextual offender.
We are asked to believe that an uneducated, ignorant Marine can outwit both the 'science pukes' and professional Marines and lead an alien population better than its chosen tribal leaders. It's possible that a grunt might be brighter than his commanding officer, but...
Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is a tough woman scientist who will not survive this movie. We know this because she is not deferential to men and she smokes cigarettes. She has taught the Na'vi English, which is very convenient for the film --but let that pass. She knows the culture and the people. Yet none of the Na'vi listen to her, though they presumably know and trust her. They listen to Jake, even though he is a total screwup and knows nothing of their ways. (All right, he presumably is taught by Pocahontas--um, Neytiri, during his dubiously-earned three month training period, during which time he somehow forgets to explain to her that he must negotiate their move from the Tree so that no violence will occur. He waits until the very last minute when the bulldozers arrive to mention this minor problem. Since she is fluent in English, why does he not tell her earlier? Jake is not, to put it mildly, an efficient or organized person.) But Neytiri falls in love with him anyway. She rejects him when her Tree and half her family are killed as a result of his stupidity, but...falls in love with him AGAIN anyway almost immediately. Women are so fickle!
Dr. Augustine and Trudy Chacon the helicopter gunship pilot Die Heroically, or Heroinically, in this film. You know Trudy will die when she claims she didn't sign up for 'martyrdom'. Ask and ye shall receive. Every story point in this movie is written in crayon.
Heroic Deaths in some older films were often assigned to African-American characters; how nice that women have now achieved this dubious distinction. (Trudy is a Latina, which makes her Even More Heroic.)
So the girls can play, but they can't win. Dr. Augustine dies but unlike Jake, can't be reincarnated in her Avatar since she is 'too weak'. Telling words. I guess it would be too inconvenient having a strong woman around, enjoying life on a new planet with a cute Na'vi male.
You know that Jake is going to get the top post in the clan because he is boinking the Chief's daughter. This sort of thing appears to be common on Pandora as well as on Earth. Chief Daddy is conveniently killed, and Neytiri's Mom (who is supposed to share power with Daddy) is reduced to leading New Age chants and Waves beneath a glowing neon tree which presumably was invisible to all those warships and choppers casing the planet from the air. Tsu'Tey, Neytiri's chosen mate and Chief-in-waiting, is conveniently killed, almost as an afterthought, while attacking gunships. But he's already delegated authority to Jake so his death is unimportant.
The other men in the experiment, Norm Spellman and Dr. Max Patel, are just there to Be Jake's Friends (and conveniently get him information, etc. when he needs it.) Spellman is nerdy looking and Patel is fat and nerdy looking. Both are deferential to Jake even though Spellman can handle a gun as well as a scientist's viewscreen. But he is also a nerdy looking Na'vi. (How did they clone his baseball cap?)
So our untrained, ignorant Marine gets the Chief's daughter and gets to lead the clan, all without cracking a book or being the least bit prepared for the job (though he remembers his Marine training well.) This gives an even more disturbing subtext to this movie: Military might is right and good, when you break the rules. And pretty girls can stick around--but it's the man who is the boss and has the brains. (I mean, couldn't NATIRI discover how to ride the Big Red Flying Dragon? She's lived on that planet all her life.)

I've gone on long enough about this movie but I just have one more small question to ask. Some of the humans are invited to stay on Pandora when the others go home. It's a bit of a blur for me, but was anyone wearing those facemasks with Earth atmosphere that prevent humans from dying in a few minutes' time? How were they to survive without them, or when the juice ran out?
And I wondered if the Na'vi would die afterward in their millions through exposure to Earth bacilli and viruses introduced by the invaders, the way actual Native Americans did.
UP can be handled in far less time, since it's mainly concerned with the bonding of old Karl and young Russell. Russell was easily the best character in the film but he had a backstory that really bothered me. His parents are apparently divorced and his father doesn't have time for him any more since he has a new wife or something. Okay, point taken. But did they really have to marginalize his mother at the end of the film? She is sitting in the audience and not onstage with her son when he gets his final Merit Badge. Old Karl is standing on that stage with her son because...because, dammit, he's a MAN and she's not.
Mom does not count.
She is useless.
She allows her son to accept his award with a total stranger because he IS a Man. She couldn't even be on the stage with the two of them. It would have been so simple to put her there.
You know, I thought we went through a lot of protesting and lawsuits in the Seventies to eliminate this sort of attitude. Guess I was just wrong.
Some of my female students were sure that the dull looking vapid woman was a stepmother or something. Nope. She's Russell's Mom. Check the film's wiki if you don't believe me.
UP's subtext is that the most important relationship in life is between a boy and his father, or the nearest male equivalent. Women stay at home and are either useless or dead.
This attitude appears in other Pixar and Disney films as well and I think it's time to retire it once and for all.
UP IN THE AIR, my other nominee for most-overrated film of 2009, asks us to believe that Ryan Bingham is a basically lonely man who is deserving of our pity because he cannot settle down with his woman of choice, even though he looks and acts like George Clooney. He makes his living as a parasite, flying in and out of cities, as a subcontractor to various companies who are firing their people. Ryan pulls the trigger, but does it with a nice smile.
You are supposed to sympathize with this guy. Now, George Clooney is a likable actor. He is also so handsome that he could snap his fingers and have ten women salivating like Pavlov's dogs in that instant. I'd say he is seriously miscast as Ryan Bingham, though he is charming and affable and easy on the eyes.
But his character is a parasite doing a miserable job that should not be done.
What horrified me most about this movie was that it wasn't all 'actors'. There are scenes of (what I thought was) brilliant acting by the fired people, describing how they felt about their jobs and lives. The scenes are in fact actual fired people. They are not acting.
This is schadenfreude on a horrific scale. (an untranslatable German word that means 'joy in another's suffering.') The film is described as a COMEDY, but it includes this incredibly sad footage. I'd say it was a gesture-- in the worst possible taste. How can you feel 'sorry' for a fictional character when there are real life tragedies in the film?
The female characters are ambivalent. Clooney's character Ryan Bingham meets Alex Goran, a woman friend-with-benefits who proves to even more amoral than he is. But it is the young, go-get-em girl geek Natalie Keener (note the name) that I wish to discuss here.
At one point in the film this annoying little person thanks the older woman 'for all that you've (feminists) done for me'. She then proceeds to justify her selfish, geeky little life. But she redeems herself by quitting her hellacious job --which she only took because she followed a man, who dumped her--and doing what she really wants to do.
I haven't met anyone as vapid and unreal as Russell's mother (and have obviously never met a Na'vi) but I've met girls like Natalie. They sometimes say they are post-feminist. (Hint: You don't get an Avatar body, so you had better get used to being 'feminist' for the duration). Some of these girls are appallingly ignorant about how bad it used to be for women in the workforce. As late as 1961, a woman could be fired from her job if a man wanted it.
Simply because he WAS a man and she was a mere woman. It was assumed that she had a husband who was working the REAL job and she wasn't serious about hers.
Significantly, Natalie leaves and Ryan keeps his job in this movie. In the real modern world, Natalie would be retained because she is cheaper, and Ryan would take early retirement.
But UP IN THE AIR is a romantic comedy, isn't it? I call it a fantasy.
The strongest female characters in 2009 films were African American. PRECIOUS is a jolting, horrific story that features stunning performances from Gabourey Sidibe as Precious Jones, and Mo'nique as her monstrous mother Mary. Both performances deserve the highest praise, and neither character was one-dimensional. Sadly, I can say that I have met women like Mary and Precious.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG's Tiana was virtuous, hard working, and far more intelligent than the useless playboy Prince Naveen. For this, some reviewers called her 'dull' but I think she could have easily carried more of the film, with less reliance on sidekicks. PRINCESS is also commendable in that it introduces its (young-skewing) audience to early Jazz.
And so (as the rabbit said) Dat's De End. Happy New Year, all.

The Year of Animation

Happy New Year, everyone. I have been busy, as have we all, but do plan to post a bit more regularly on this blog, if anyone is still reading.
Facebook is more useful for short updates and connections with friends. (Yes, 'real' ones post there too.)
It's been a banner year for animation. In addition to the now-to-be expected annual CGI releases there were stop motion puppet films (CORALINE, FANTASTIC MR. FOX), hand drawn films (THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, THE SECRET OF KELLS) and clay animation (MARY AND MAX). Most encouragingly there were several small studios and independents producing films that go head to head with the big studios for awards and audiences. Bill Plympton had IDIOTS AND ANGELS playing theatrically (I think it's his best film). Nina Paley's SITA SINGS THE BLUES had an amazing breakout --Paley distributed the film herself --for free--with notable success and in December the film received a favorable New York Times review. Now, you have to understand that this is a Big Deal if you are in New have officially Made It if it's in the Times.
The Internet is becoming more and more important as a distribution aid; you can download the entire feature SITA SINGS THE BLUES here, and Paley's blog describes how she managed to turn a drawback (copyrighted music on the soundtrack prevented her from officially 'selling the film') into an advantage. Animation plays better on the Web than live action, at least for now; and the animators, I predict, will be self-distributing more features in future. It really is possible now to make a feature film in a small room by yourself (I predicted this sometime in the last century, but Nina Paley and Bill Plympton and a few others have actually done it. There will be more, never fear.)
Simon Tofield's SIMON'S CAT was HUGE on the Web; he now has books, I-phone animation, and hilarious and simple animated stories that are eagerly awaited by millions of viewers.
So whatever else 2009 was, I would call it the YEAR OF ANIMATION.