Friday, January 22, 2010

Chuck vs. Half the Human Race

For about a year now I've been toying with the notion of a blog post about the show Chuck and the way it treats its female characters and viewers.  I kept putting it off because I could never quite convince myself that Chuck--whose title character, a nerd with a dead-end job, somehow ends up with a CIA supercomputer in his head and is recruited to fight bad guys--is worth my, or your, mental energy.  Chuck is a silly show, but not in a good way--not in the deliberate, meticulously crafted way of shows like Pushing Daisies or The Middleman, which commit wholeheartedly to their silliness and create an alternate world in which it is the norm, nor in the breezy way of frothy confections like Leverage or Castle, which skate by on charm and sharp plotting[1].  Chuck is silly because so little about it actually makes any sense--not its premise, which relies on a definition of spying that out-Bonds Bond for unreality but continually denies its own campness, insisting that the spy characters Chuck meets represent the world's real workings; not in its characters, whose behavior and choices seem motivated mainly by the writers' need to maintain the show in its status quo of Chuck as a hero with a pathetic life and his handler Sarah as his perpetually unresolved love interest; most of all, not in the reactions it seems to court from its audience.  This is a show whose writers, in their second season premiere, sent Adam Baldwin's Casey, the heavy in the lead trio, to kill Chuck, only for him to turn back at the last minute not because of loyalty but because his orders were rescinded, and apparently do not expect us to draw any negative conclusions from this about Casey, nor to care that his actions were never addressed or brought up again[2].  The impression I get from Chuck is that its writers don't expect me to apply much thought to it, and it's therefore hard not to feel a little like a chump for doing so.

What finally did persuade me to write this post--aside from the fact that the show recently began its third season and has thus been on my mind--is how surprisingly popular Chuck seems to be in my corner of fandom.  On one level this is perfectly understandable--Chuck is a Triumph of the Geek story and we're all geeks here[3], but I tend to think of the fannish writers I read as being rather savvy about depictions of race and gender, and yet the same fandom which has (with, it should be noted, some justification) a seemingly limitless supply of vitriol for shows like Supernatural, Stargate: Atlantis, and Dollhouse, is giving Chuck a free pass.  And, if on the race front the worst that can be said of Chuck is it is depressingly in line with most of the other shows on TV--the only non-white characters in the main cast are one-note comic reliefs, the spy world is almost uniformly white, and people of color show up mostly in guest roles, which usually means that they are villains--when it comes to gender Chuck may very well be the most regressive genre series of the last few years.

Chuck is a Triumph of the Geek story, but that geek is always a man.  The show doesn't quite plumb the lowest depths of No Grils Allowed geekish misogyny (except in scenes involving Chuck's colleagues Jeff and Lester) but it certainly buys into the notion of geekdom as a male space, where women are neither wanted nor welcome.  The closest Chuck has ever come to depicting a female geek was Chuck's ex-girlfriend Jill, but she was both evil and significantly less geeky than any of the show's male characters.  Chuck's writers would presumably try to spin the absence of female geeks--and the bewilderment and exasperation that most of its female characters display when confronted with geekish interests--as a compliment.  This is a show that laughs at geeks as much as it laughs with them, and it portrays women as being 'above' that pathetic state.  The problem is that that elevation is only skin-deep.  Ultimately, Chuck is the geek's story, and though it may mock them, at the of the day it is on the geeks' side--to the extent that it often seems to equate geekishness with humanity, as opposed to the spy characters' inhuman detachment from normal life and normal relationships.  This leaves women who aren't spies with no roles to play except the supporting, caretaking ones.

Chuck is a series in which the second most important female character, Chuck's sister Ellie, though ostensibly a doctor, spends most of her screen time concerned with domestic matters.  She cooks and makes house for her brother and husband (also a doctor, at the same level of training as his wife, who is never seen cooking or making house), nags Chuck about getting a better job/girl/apartment, and spends most of the second season obsessing about her upcoming wedding.  It's a series in which the third-tier female lead (Julia Ling's Anna, now removed from the series) started out as a fun bit character and was then relegated to the role of the much too hot girlfriend of an immature loser, and thus spent most of her screen time trying, for the most part in vain, to wring some semblance of a commitment out of a guy who never quite seemed to get how lucky he was to have her.  On the one occasion that she wised up and traded up to a handsome, successful, and most importantly emotionally available man, he turned out to be a villain from whom Anna needed to be rescued.  It's a show that has its own underwear-cam before which the female lead and any statuesque, former model guest stars (Tricia Helfer, Mini Anden) seem obliged to parade.  A show where a major plotline in the latter half of the second season involved Chuck tracking down his abandoning father because, despite that abandonment, Ellie wanted him to walk her down the aisle, and yet neither sibling seemed to desire the presence, or indeed bothered to mention, their similarly abandoning mother.

Fans of the show might now point to Sarah, its female lead--a kickass superspy capable of felling men twice her size--as a counterpoint to all these complaints, but to my main Sarah is actually the crowning achievement of Chuck's misogyny.  It's very nice that she's such an imposing fighter (and the show does on occasion give her some impressive fight scenes in which both the character and the actress appear to be breaking a sweat) but it's no longer the early 90s and it takes a bit more for a female character to be noteworthy or laudable.  In more than two seasons, Chuck's writers have done precious little to develop Sarah beyond this type.  Her sole defining characteristic is that she's in love with Chuck and he with her, though it's not entirely clear why beyond the fact that he's the male lead and she's hot and saves his life a lot.  They've had hardly any conversations that don't revolve around their work or the thinly disguised fact that they love each other.  Beyond wanting to be together, they don't seem to have any interests, wants, or desires in common, though that's mainly because Sarah doesn't seem to have any interests, wants, or desires at all. 

Unlike the hyper-patriotic Casey, Sarah isn't a spy because of love of country, or the desire to help people, or even a fondness for kicking ass and taking names--she seems to take none of the pleasure that Chuck and Casey do in her physical prowess--but because she was blackmailed into it while still in her teens.  Sarah's entire life, in fact, has been defined and proscribed by men--her father, who taught her to lie and grift and took her on the run when she was only a child (like Chuck, Sarah's mother has never been mentioned, was apparently absent from her life from an early age, and appears to have had no lasting effect on her daughter's personality and direction in life), the CIA agent who coerces her into joining the service, and Chuck, whose happiness and well-being are the only motivation powerful enough to spur Sarah into disobeying orders and making an independent choice.

The opening episodes of the third season take some small strides towards giving Sarah a personality (albeit one that still revolves around her love for Chuck) when they have her express a desire--she asks Chuck to run away with her--and then freeze Chuck out when he refuses her, but it's a rather nasty, selfish personality.  After two years of mixed signals and stalling, Sarah says 'jump' and is furious that Chuck doesn't ask 'how high?', and seems genuinely affronted that Chuck, who turns her down because he wants to train as a spy, wants to make something of himself instead of spending a life on the lam with her, cut off from his friends and family.  There is, of course, a story to be told here, about a person who has spent her life tamping down her true self and sublimating her desires to the needs of others, who suddenly finds herself wanting something and possessing power over someone, and has to learn in a hurry how to use that power and express that desire honorably, but Chuck doesn't seem interested in telling that story.  It won't even pay Sarah the respect of recognizing how flawed she is and giving her room to address those flaws. 

The show nearly gets away with this because Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have great chemistry, and on those rare occasions when the interactions between them are allowed to extend beyond he pines puppyishly/she's aloof but secretly wants him, there's an exciting crackle and pop between the two characters, but the fact remains that this is a relationship between two people who don't know each other, want different things, and aren't ready to be in a serious relationship.  Again, there's a potentially interesting story to be told here, but instead the show keeps piling artificial obstacles in the characters' path--she lies about her feelings, he breaks up with her because he wants a real relationship, an ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend shows up.  The implication being that as soon as Chuck and Sarah cast off their inhibitions and the fraternization rules that are keeping them apart, their happily ever after is assured.  This is insulting to Chuck as well as Sarah, but he at least has a storyline and a purpose on the show that don't involve her.  Sarah's sole function is to be Chuck's love interest--a task to which she is apparently perfectly suited despite the fact that he doesn't know her, or that there may not be anyone there to know.

I've been pondering for a while the grim possibility that when it comes to depictions of women in genre film and TV, and particularly the kickass action chick types, we've spent the last couple of decades moving backwards.  In films, we've gone from heroines like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley to love interests like Megan Fox and Neytiri.  On TV, we moved from characters like Buffy and Aeryn Sun (who in themselves might be called a step backwards, following as they did in the footsteps of professional, adult women like Kira Nerys, Susan Ivanova, and Dana Scully) to Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck, who had to justify her fighting skills and devil may care attitude with a history of child abuse, and eventually collapsed into a black hole of need and selfishness.  And now we have Sarah Walker, who doesn't even have enough of a personality, or enough of a presence on her own show, to work up even this kind of ugly, reactionary portrait of a woman with physical skills and the will to use them, and whose life revolves around and is driven by the desires of men.  Meanwhile, female-centric efforts like The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and well-intentioned, interesting failures like Dollhouse, are cancelled.  I'm used to thinking of genre as the place to turn to for interesting depictions of women, for stories that let them be skilled professionals or warriors without losing their femininity or their ability to define it as they see fit.  Looking around the (admittedly rather depleted) genre scene today, I'm not seeing those characters--just personality-free blanks like the entire casts, male and female, of shows like V and FlashForward, or professional love interests like Sarah.  The best show for depictions of women as people in their own right these days is The Good Wife, with a wide cast of varied, smart, interesting women, all with their own agenda and their own personality.  Perhaps the writers of Chuck should be taking notes.

[1] Though it should be noted that shows like these have a very short half-life, and tend to collapse like a soufflé the moment their plotting slackens.  I don't watch Castle regularly so I don't know how it's doing, but Leverage reached this point after a mere season.

[2] Ironically, Casey's own life was spared in the second season finale because the colleague-turned-traitor who had him in his gunsight wouldn't take the life of someone who had saved his.

[3] Though for my money, if you're looking for shows for and about geeks, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck from (the unjustly canceled) The Middleman, or (the soon to be unjustly canceled) Better Off Ted, or even Leverage.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Living Dead: Two Novels

The zombie craze has been burning steadily for the better part of a decade, and for the most part I've let it pass me by.  I enjoy them in small doses--the occasional Resident Evil film, Jonathan Coulton's "Re: Your Brains," John Langan's short story "How the Day Runs Down"--but I'm not committed to the notion, as fandom in general often seems to be, that zombies make everything better and are inherently fun and interesting.  I seem to have reached a point in my reading life where killing off all but a minuscule portion of humanity in order to give one's heroes a planet-sized playground to run around in seems not only callous but unimaginative (in much the same way the new Star Trek writers opting to suck an entire planet and most of its inhabitants into a black hole in order to give one of their characters angst was quite literally overkill), and as a joke zombies strike me as a one-note gag (see, for example, the general consensus on Pride and Prejudice with Zombies--that the book plays itself out in its title).  Nevertheless, the hoopla around them has gotten so loud that I felt compelled to dip my toes in, and ended up selecting two books which addressed these very concerns, one successfully, the other not so much.

Max Brooks's World War Z is one of the most visible and most highly praised entries in the new zombie canon, and with a great deal of justification.  Subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War," Brooks's novel, which consists of interviews with participants and survivors of a global, decade-long struggle against zombies, seems determined to defuse most of the clichés of the zombie story.  Its canonical form, of the world overrun by the zombie hordes with only a few brave survivors making a stand and restarting civilization from zero, is treated with some derision.  As described by a soldier who liberated some of these isolated strongholds at the end of the zombie war, such people were not simply deluded or even dangerous, but tangents--rather insignificant ones--to the actual story.
the body armor was for protection against some of the regular people we found.  I'm not talking organized rebels, just the odd LAMoE, Last Man on Earth.  There was always one or two in every town, some dude, or chick, who managed to survive.  I read somewhere that the United States had the highest number of them in the world, something about our individualistic nature or something.  ... The ones we called LAMoEs, those were the ones who were a little too used to being king.  King of what, I don't know, Gs and quislings and crazy F-critters, but I guess in their mind they were living the good life, and here we were to take it all away.
Underlying World War Z is the recognition that the world is huge, complicated, and almost infinitely varied, and that no catastrophe can simply end the human experience, in all its many forms, in one fell swoop (in that sense, it reminded me of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl).  More importantly, this is a novel that recognizes that an event of the scope and nature it describes can never be the story of an individual or even a group, but that individuals and groups can only cast a light on the huge processes that shaped and were shaped by this event.  In a way, World War Z seeks to demystify the zombie story, to take it away from the realm of horror and make it SFnal and thus rational.  As Brooks describes it, the zombie apocalypse is a hellish combination of global plague--it emerges in China, which, SARS-like, tries to suppress evidence of it, and soon the infected are surging across national borders and carrying the disease all over the globe--environmental catastrophe--initial evidence of the dangers zombies pose is ignored and politicized, and much of the damage they cause is indirect, as they trample the planet's ecosystem by devouring and destroying much of the plant and animal life in their path--and world war--the progress of the struggle against zombies is rather obviously modeled on World War II, sometimes too closely, in fact, as in the emergence of a second Cold War after the zombies are defeated. 

World War Z, which is divided into chapters charting the buildup to the zombie apocalypse, the panicked initial reaction to it, and eventual regrouping and retaking of the planet, is actually at its weakest when it describes the war proper.  The chapter near the end of the novel, which describes the way in which an initially chastened and demoralized army, which had previously thrown, with very little effect, every high-tech piece of weaponry against an enemy that could only be killed by a direct shot or blow to the head, starts out stirring but quickly becomes mired in technical detail as it shifts between different veterans of different global campaigns to describe the challenges each faced and the techniques each came up with to overcome them.  Earlier in the novel, in a chapter titled "The Great Panic," Brooks veers too far into real-world political allegory.  The world of World War Z is quite obviously modeled on our own, with the US having recently emerged from a deeply unpopular overseas war and a right-wing, Bush-like president in office (who is later replaced by an obvious Obama analogue).  The bungled response of this administration, first to the warnings issued by various intelligence agencies as to the danger posed by zombies, and then to the actual infestation, is portrayed with such vitriol that it almost seems like a vicious parody ("Can you imagine the panic that would have happened," the former White House chief of staff exclaims, in response to being asked why the government stood behind a placebo zombie vaccine, "the protest, the riots, the billions in damage to private property?"), which sits very poorly with the more earnest tone of the rest of the novel.

Where World War Z shines is in its descriptions of the non-military response to the zombie crisis--the intelligence officers who first recognize the problem and write urgent reports calling for swift response; the evacuation plans that collect as many people as possible behind mountainous natural defenses (while leaving vast portions of the population to fend for themselves); the government agencies set up in order to feed, clothe, house, and mostly organize the evacuees, and whose major challenge is finding work for office workers and service providers whose job skills are now useless; the official and unofficial civilian organizations that rise up in response to the crisis.  This is a novel that seems to have been written for people like me, who watch shows like Battlestar Galactica and are genuinely annoyed and disappointed that the writers seem to feel that questions like 'where are the food and water coming from' or 'how have the civilians organized themselves' are boring issues to be ignored or gotten out of the way as quickly as possible.  It's a novel that recognizes that human life is fractally fascinating--no matter how insignificant or seemingly mundane a problem is, the ways that people deal with it will always be interesting. 

And it's a novel that doesn't treat a global catastrophe as if it stops with, or mainly affects, the United States.  Though the middle portions of World War Z, which describe how humanity reshapes itself after the evacuation, concentrate mainly on the continental US, the story moves all over the world, and emphasizes that way that different geography and history affect the response to the zombie crisis.  I say this, however, more to commend Brooks's intentions than his execution.  The portion of the novel that takes place in Israel is riddled with so many of the silliest and most common clichés about my country--the yiddish-inflected voice of the narrator and his job as a Mossad agent, the namechecking of Operation Entebbe, and in general the extremely shallow understanding of Israeli culture (particularly as something distinct from Jewish culture) and national character--that I can only assume that most of the other non-US-set segments are similarly afflicted, and though Israel is described positively (a bit too positively, in fact--in Brooks's imaginary future, the threat of a zombie incursion is enough to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis) I imagine that Japanese, Russian, or Chinese readers might come away from the novel--which introduces Japan through a character who blames an education that taught him to memorize information but not process it for his complete disassociation from reality, from which he only broke out after his parents had been killed by zombies; in which China, refusing to acknowledge that it is outmatched by the zombies, sends wave upon wave of its citizens to be killed by them; and in which Russia sinks back into totalitarianism, this time of a religious flavor, after the war--feeling quite offended. 

In general, World War Z pays for the breadth of its vision with a lack of depth.  Brooks isn't quite the writer who can craft three-dimensional, affecting people out of the brief portraits he sketches, so most of the novel's affect comes from the situations he describes.  Sometimes these are quite successful--the crew of the International Space Station, who spend the war in orbit maintaining the satellites the army uses to track the zombies' movements, the Hollywood director who finds new purpose making propaganda films, the suburban mother who had dismissed the zombie threat as something unreal or at least far away, who suddenly finds it on her doorstep--though at other times the narratives are jokey or perfunctory.  In its best moments, however, World War Z delivers a kind of horror that is so much more effective, because so much more real, than the kind represented by zombies--the horror that the life we've gotten used will be taken away, that the entire world order will change, not end but change, under our noses, forcing us to scramble in order to survive.  It's terrifying because our grandparents and in some cases our parents did live through that sort of upheaval, and it's one that we might live through again.

S.G. Browne's Breathers takes an opposite, but no less idiosyncratic, approach to the zombie story.  Subtitled "A Zombie's Lament," it is narrated by Andy Warner, a recently deceased and reanimated zombie.  No one knows why, but some of those who die in Andy's world come back to life, slowly decomposing but still in full possession of the memories and personality they had before they died.  The undead are feared and reviled.  Those whose families will take them in have to obey curfew and are subject to abuse both verbal and physical with no recourse to the law.  Those who are unclaimed (from the SPCA, where wandering zombies are delivered by the police) are handed over for organ harvesting, to be used as crash test dummies, or as teaching cadavers for medical students.  Andy is relatively lucky in that his parents have allowed them to live in their home, but they are fearful and even openly hostile, and the relatives now caring for his daughter won't let him contact her.  The only friends he has are the equally sad and lonely members of his Undead Anonymous group.  Andy has pretty much resigned himself to an afterlife of misery when he meets Ray, a zombie who hooks him on human flesh--as it turns out, the means of reversing the undead's decay--and more importantly, re-instills in him a sense of purpose and self-worth.  With his fellow group members, Andy starts a campaign for undead rights, even as he experiments with ever more adventurous recipes for his parents' flesh.

Breathes is thus the story of a character who starts out recognizably human and then, after experiencing personal loss and systematic abuse, talks himself into the starting position of the traditional zombie story--a hulking, shuffling horde bent on devouring the living.  It sounds like an interesting concept, but the execution leaves much to be desired.  Pitched as a comedy, Breathers is rather strong evidence in favor of the belief I expressed at the beginning of this post, that the zombie as a joke wears thin much too fast.  The concept of a zombie who is still rational, and can calmly and rationally explain his desire for human flesh, is funny at "Re: Your Brains" length, but even in a slim novel like Breathers it grows old rather quickly.  Or maybe the problem is specific to Browne, who never extends his reach beyond the rather obvious gag that the rapidly decomposing, reanimated corpse with a taste for human flesh narrating this novel has such mundane concerns as how to make a pass at a cute member of his support group, or which wine goes best with his latest meal of human, or even laundry. 
Ted's arms and legs thrash to no avail.  I want to bite into him, to feel his flesh in my mouth--a confection, sweet and decadent, the food of the gods.  The temptation is so strong I can almost feel the invincibility seeping into my blood vessels and flowing down my throat, but I don't want to make a mess.  A pool of blood and stray bits of human flesh on the floor tends to shout "zombie attack."  Besides, I just got my shirt back from the dry cleaners.
That's a pretty obvious kind of joke the first time you encounter it, but Breathers features them on every page.  It's not a very funny novel to begin with and by its end it is decidedly tedious.  Some humor might have been drawn from Browne's portrait of humanity's reactions to zombies, or from the hypocrisy of Andy's campaign for human rights even as he goes on a clandestine killing spree, and the novel does gesture in both of these directions, but rather thinly.  Our glimpses of humanity are concentrated mostly on Andy's immediate environs, which is to say his parents, who are deliberately made horrible so that we won't feel too bad when Andy eats them, and it's only towards the end of the novel that Browne introduces the conflict between Andy's public face and private activities, and he races through these final chapters as though not quite capable of performing the feat Brooks does in World War Z, and imagining a believable real-world reaction to zombies.  Whether the problem is in the basic concept or in the fact that it was Browne who executed it, Breathers is a disappointing and predictable read.

That, then, was the mixed result of my foray into zombie fiction.  I'm still not sure I understand just why this particular monster has so captured fandom's imagination.  Brooks only makes an interesting story out of zombies by stripping away most of what's familiar about them and veering far off the canonical form of the zombie story, and Browne, by sticking to his one-joke guns, creates something utterly boring.  Nevertheless, the phenomenon is here to stay, in books and on screen (both novels have been optioned for adaptation into film, though I can't quite imagine how one could make a successful movie out of a novel as center-less as World War Z, and suspect that a strong script might easily elevate Breathers above its lackluster source material).  Maybe in another ten years' time, I'll dip my toes in again.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ah, L'amour

I don't know why there's been such a tizzy about the messages that the Twilight films pass along to their young, female viewers.  Or rather, I understand the tizzy; I just don't know why the people at the center of it are treating Twilight as if it's in any way anomalous instead of a mere intensification of an industry-wide process.  At the same time that more and more energy and talent are being poured into romantic comedies for and about men (which seem to invariably treat women as killjoy moms whose job it is to force the man-child lead to grow up), the ones Hollywood produces for women just keep getting more toxic.  In the last year alone, we had films whose messages can best be summed up as 'women!  Isn't it hilarious how they desperately want a man and yet no one will ever love them!,' 'if only you file away every last bit of your personality, wants and desires, you too can land an obnoxious misogynist!,' and 'a WOMAN?  Proposing to a MAN?  Who ever heard of such a thing?'.

And now we have The Bounty Hunter, in which, according to the trailer, Gerard Butler kidnaps his ex-wife, played by Jennifer Aniston, stuffs her in the trunk of his car, laughs when she tearfully begs him to let her go, block-tackles her when she tries to run away from him, handcuffs her to a hotel room bed, threatens her with his gun, and talks about wanting to kill her.  The only thing you'd have to do to turn this trailer into one for a woman-in-peril film would be to change the background music.

No wonder that romantic comedies like (500) Days of Summer, which 'only' reduces its female lead to a personality-free, over-romanticized blank, are treated like a brave, intelligent alternative.

Friday, January 01, 2010


As with Star Trek, the conversation about Avatar is loud but not particularly broad. It seems to center around the divide between those who like the film unreservedly and those (like myself) who appreciate its visuals but roll their eyes at its script and underlying message (and, on the one site where I've followed such a discussion, devolved so quickly into the former accusing the latter of cynicism and snobbery that I'm not sure it's an avenue of conversation worth pursuing).  These, however, are some of the more interesting comments I've seen on the film, which try to extend the conversation beyond this debate.
  • More on the film's racism: Scott Eric Kaufman considers the film's presentation of humans and Na'vi, and concludes that its message is a variant on the "black quarterback problem":
    This is not a vision of a racially harmonious social politic: it is an inversion of the logic of passing that seems acceptable only because it imagines the experience of becoming a person of color as necessarily ennobling. The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist.
    He has some more comments here on the film's casting.  I'm not entirely in agreement with Kaufman, who I think is too quick to dismiss both the effects of the humans' presence on Pandora and the complexity of the Na'vi's society, but his conclusions are, I think, undeniable.

  • At The Valve, Aaron Bady talks about Avatar as a fantasy of a return to childhood, but notes that that childhood is not the innocent idyll that crops up in rose-tinted fantasies of childhood (usually written by adults who have forgotten their own) but "a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id."
    Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.
  • David Hines has a memo to the corporation that serves as the film's villain.
    That's right; you are on this planet to collect an extremely valuable element that levitates when exposed to a presumably magnetic field, and your planet has great big levitating rocks in an area characterized by strong presumably magnetic fields.

    Might I suggest that if you're having so many problems with the natives, you might want to ignore their goddamn village and check out THE GIANT FUCKING FLOATING MOUNTAINS, because you can bet your ass they are chock full of unobtanium.
  • At CHUD, the website that brought us a blow-by-blow description of how Christian Bale's ego made Terminator: Salvation a much, much worse film than it needed to be, Devin Faraci has a side by side comparison of Avatar and Project 880, the script treatment James Cameron wrote not long after completing Titanic.  It not only addresses Hines's point above, but does all the things I was so dismayed to discover a James Cameron film neglecting.  Project 880 takes place in a fully conceived future world, it features development of both the main and secondary characters, and it has several kickass set-pieces.  As Faraci notes, there is no way this treatment in its entirety could have made it onto the screen, and its underlying assumptions are no less problematic than the finished product's (not to mention that Neytiri--here called Zuleika--is less prominent and less interesting in Faraci's description of the treatment than she was in Avatar), but Project 880 sounds like a film I would have enjoyed for more than its visuals.

  • Sady Doyle has the definitive response to those who argue that Avatar is a politically brave film for having an environmental, anti-corporate message.
    So, you mean to say that this particular movie – called “Dances with Wolves in Space,” subject to more Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest comparisons than any cultural artifact in recent memory save Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest itself, already noted for belonging to the benevolent racist “white guy saves and/or bangs the natives” (going Nativ’ei! GET IT) tradition of cinematic craftsmanship – actually attempts, much like many a terrible Star Wars prequel of years past, to wedge in an unnecessary, blatant, and manipulative set of parallels to the Iraq War, the American genocide of Native peoples, and some rainforest shit possibly also? Goodness! Such a feat has never been attempted until now! Or, to be more precise, such a feat has never been attempted by James Cameron, within the last month! Until now!
  • At the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a very interesting article about the Na'vi's pantheism, and more generally about the way that pantheism has become the go-to religion or religion-like-object in Hollywood films.
    At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.