Friday, January 01, 2010

Ringing in the New Year, Avatar, and a Few Resolutions

Happy New Year! Happy New Decade!

I did little last night to celebrate. Meredith and I spent a quiet evening at home, playing cars with L, and maintaining the blessed routine that matters so much to L. This new year will bring about a lot of changes to this household and to our lives. More about that much later. For now, I wish all of you have a healthy and prosperous New Year and New Decade.


Asian American Lit Professor mode on.

Concerning Avatar. I posted on my Twitter update that I both loved and hated the film. This holds very true today, after a night's sleep.

Here's the deal--it should win every single technological film-making Oscar that the Academy provides. It is that breathtaking to behold. I watched the film in 3D and what's marvelous about the 3D for this film is that it felt seamless. There were no gimmicky close-ups or artifacts thrust into the screen. What the 3D allowed for was the world of Pandora to be a real place.

Equally remarkable is the rendering technology to create the Na'vi. The creatures look real.

Now, here are my nits, and there will be a few ***spoilers***.

The key problem I had with the film is the decision to revisit the trope of the Noble Savage. Here we are, again revisiting the ground tread by recent films such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and even the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. Terms like "going native" and "blue monkeys" were thrown about so casually in the film. Now granted, they were uttered by the "villains" represented by the iconic corporate goon and the military strong-man, but these characters didn't provide me an outlet to excuse these moments in the script.

Further, my issues lie within the character of Jake Sully a disabled marine who is the main protagonist of the film, and Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine who plays both ethnographer and missionary. Firstly, these characters are white characters who have mobility, and it's this concept of mobility that problematizes so much of the film for me. Jake and Dr. Grace can navigate fairly seamlessly (and I contend the navigation is seamless because the Na'vi can't travel in the other direction) between worlds. Jake and Dr. Grace also inhabit these bodies. They literally slide into these bodies as simply as sliding into a tube. The fluidity is unsettling for me. We as the audience first see them floating in the technological womb like fetuses. As stated early in the film, the bodies of the Na'vi, which are unmistakably other, are said to be "empty cups." This statement is a furthering of so much of that Romantic concept of the Noble Savage. I about jumped out of my seat when I heard it. Yes, they are children and we can teach them. We can mold them.

There's more, though. The film has a Pocahantas narrative. Neytiri, the Pocahantas figure played by Zoe Saldana is Jake Sully's cultural teacher and eventual lover. John Smith anyone?

Finally, I'm sort of weirded out by the casting. The main "Alien" characters, i.e. the actors who played the Na'vi, are all actors of color. I already mentioned Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, but there's also Neytiri's mother, Moat, played by CCH Pounder. Wes Studi plays Eytukan, the head warrior and eventual chief (Wes was also in Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans). The main chief of the Na'vi people at the beginning of the film, Tsu'tey, is played by Laz Alonso. So, on the one hand, I'm thinking "Awesome! Some actors of color in a major blockbuster film!" But on the other hand, I'm totally weirded out about the lumping of ethnic caricatures in the rendering of the CGI Na'vi these actors inhabit. The actors of color are made to look alien . . . cat-like. They have tails and fangs.

The film opens with Jake Sully's eyes as he wakes from cryogenic sleep, and the film ends, once again with Jake Sully's eyes, only this time he is inhabiting his "Alien" body. Throughout the movie, the phrase "I see you" is spoken between characters. But in the end, do we really see? Does the veil of technological wizardry occlude our vision?

Asian American Lit Professor mode off.

**EDIT: I'm linking Ruth's thoughts about the film here.**



1) Lose weight. I have gained a lot of weight serving as the official garbage disposal of my child's meals.

2) Finish a fourth book. I'm almost there. I just need to get off my ass.

3) Spend less time on the internet. Total addict. I confess.


Current Spin:

Phantogram. "Mouthful of Diamonds"


John K said...

Great reading, and such a thoughtful complement to Ruth Ellen Kocher's commentary on the film. You're also one of the first to note the use of actors of color to play all the Na'vi roles; many people online have been celebrating this rather than questioning another method of exoticization. Thanks and Happy New Year!

Oliver de la Paz said...

Thanks, John. What concerns me about the use of actors of color in the Na'vi portrayal is that the film enforces an archetype. There is no revision. Thinking back, when there was any aggression on the part of the Na'vi, the CGI character crouched low to the grown, cat-like. Thus, the "savage" is closer to "animal" than to human.

I think the brilliance of the film's technological achievements in many ways has offered a "new" way to close our eyes.

Oliver de la Paz said...

"grown" should read "ground"

Collin Kelley said...

Sorry we never got to meet up while you were here. I didn't get to see Anne Haines, either. It just didn't seem to be in the cards with all the hectic schedules. HOpe you had a good time in the ATL.