The Ethics of Avatar

I recently remembered that I meant to write something about Avatar.  The reason I forgot?  Well, its Avatar, how much time can you really spend thinking about it?

When I saw the film I pretty much had the reaction I thought I would.  I was entertained, impressed by the special effects, annoyed by the stale dialog, bored by the plot, and rather embarrassed by the moments it started channeling Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Unlike many other Christians I have very little venom towards the film’s goofy pantheism, maybe I would if I felt it was nefarious or compelling.  But it was about as seductive as a spell cast in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, minus the cool 90’s appeal. I think our kids will be OK. Is it a sign of the times that such values are considered “stock” and fit for mass consumption.  Sure, but that’s not really news.

What I thought was most interesting and avant garde about the film, was the means by which it sought to compel you to root for the Na’vi and the divine energy upholding Pandora: Beauty. All you have to do is go on Cameron’s magical mystery tour of the forests of Pandora and the right thing becomes self-apparent.  There’s no argument, just jaw dropping grandeur. Sure the human scientist types may flap their gums about the precious opportunity they have to study the Na’vi culture, but the science and PC agenda sounds (as I believe it’s meant to) hollow and naive.  Platitudes and platforms are dismissed– just come and see.

It’s about beauty, not diversity.

Once the viewer has sat awash in sci-fi splendor of Cameron’s wood, the right way is not wholly lost and gone, but clear as a Pandorian river.  How should we then live?  In a way that loves the Beautiful and participates with it.  David Hume torqued philosophers for centuries by claiming that the state of things has no bearing on how things ought to be: that you cannot move from is to ought.  Sure if I don’t feed my pets they will die, so?  That is the case, but how does it follow that I ought to feed my pets, or myself for that reason? At a time when people are allergic to oughts Cameron proves Hume wrong by showing us something beautiful.

If only he hadn’t cluttered it up with the rest of the film.

Definitely, Maybe

It’s not too often that the wife and I see eye to eye about the same movies, but we found ourselves drawn in by the trailers for “Definitely, Maybe”, a sort of romantic comedy whodunnit that opens on Valentine’s Day.  The big sell for me was the names they dropped during the trailer, “Love Actually” (one of my faves) and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  Both are thoughtful and sweet movies worthy of plenteous discussion; and a surprisingly masculine take on the perils of navigating a love life though today’s dangerous waters.  And from the previews “Definitely, Maybe” looked like the next installment from clever British writer Richard Curtis. 

The film did not disappoint, and in fact, I believed that Curtis was the writer till I got home and checked IMDB.  In reality the credit goes to Adam Brooks, who worked with Curtis on “Bridget Jones II: The One I Never Saw” or something like that.  But before I start fawning over the film, I have to make a point or two from “Four Weddings…” which I saw a couple months back and was immediately stirred by.  The film takes place over 5 distinct and separate scenes: yes, four of which are weddings and one of which is a funeral.  But as we get to know the usual cast of characters, and we sense the complication of the situation and character’s frustrations as they desperately try to find a lasting love.  The solution for lasting love seems to be ostensibly placed in the institution of marriage, and for some of the characters it seems to provide what it promises.  For the rest of the cast however, marriage is a misleading trick that slips a yoke about one, condemning them to quarrels, unhappiness, and most importantly insincerity.  What does marriage have to do with love?  What does it offer love?  The movie ends with a sort of rejection of the institution – not outright rejection, rather a childlike entering into an anti-marriage.  To no ones complete surprise, the only real difference between marriage as most people know it, and the portrayed anti-marriage is the name and the ceremony, which somehow the two lovebirds are allergic to.

Now, while this picture of marriage is not particularly commendable, neither are the characters.  They, like Dr. Cox and Jordan from Scrubs, are emotionally misfiring, which is reason for their allergic reaction to marriage and its blessings.  It is not freeing to not be able to celebrate the coming together of two people into one flesh in the celebratory sacrament of marriage, nor is it freeing to not be able to describe your state of almost being married.  The movie doesn’t portray the situation as commendable as much as it does relieving.  It offers a sense of hope, and sense of trust in the continued, reliable, and mundane love between two people, and that palpable hope is worthy of a qualified endorsement.

“Maybe” is a graduation up from this unpleasantly reserved commendation.  The movie begins with the surprisingly able Ryan Reynolds being handed his divorce papers, which he sorrows over and doesn’t sign. After picking up his delightful daughter Mia from school, he finds himself telling her the story of how he met her mom.  Mia shows a glimmer of hope that if he tells her the story he would realize that everything wasn’t always “complicated”, the way he keeps saying it is.  So he begins, with the concession that by changing the names of the parties involved that he will keep the identity of her mom a mystery. 

Like “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings” the movie’s rich characters search for that thing that is missing in their life; sometimes intensely, other times despondently, but always in a way that is relatable and compelling.  Will (Ryan Reynolds) is sure that he’s in love with his college sweetheart – he “has plans” – but soon he’s finding that the commitment to her is closing down other paths… and which one to take? who can tell.  So he wanders through life, chasing something that is only partly in his control, trying to live well, loving the one he’s with, and all the while confessing to his daughter his candid past.  (….delivered as only a 12 year old can: “Daddy, I’m mad that you smoked, I’m mad you drank, and I’m mad that you were a slut!  But I love you.”)

The story ends, and the real mom revealed, but the divorce is still looming and Will finds himself once more torn in several directions.  In a particularly touching scene the perspective shifts from Will to Mia, as she stares at her mom and her dad talking about something, anything.  Closely she inspects their expression and movements, looking for the tell-tale sign that will either signal the hope of reunion or the end of a story.

Love leads us into love, and the love of one person can sometimes be what we need to find our way back into the arms of another.  The kicker about love is, that sometimes those arms are open, and sometimes they aren’t; and as Shakespeare has taught us more than once, timing is everything.

I would love to talk more about the movie, but I really would rather not spoil the movie by either revealing the ending or by baiting your anticipation.  But if you do see it, please tell me… what do you think it the family unit and the institution of marriage?

The Artist and the Artistic Experience

We’ve been watching a great deal of movies lately. Good movies, and even a couple great ones. My favorite one of late has been ‘Sunset Boulevard’, the classic and controversial look at Hollywood and the relationship of dreams with reality written and directed by one of the most overlooked American filmmakers – Billy Wilder. William Holden plays the noir-hero Joe Gillis a talented but unsuccessful film writer. Gillis is haunted by creditors and finds no luck while trying to find a little financial relief from his friends. In a minor scene early on Gillis tries to sell a script to a truly sympathetic movie producer, till the script gets shot down by Betty (played by Nancy Olson). A couple minutes later, while trying to avoid the men sent to repo his car, his tire blows out forcing him to pull into a driveway. The driveway happens to be special, and the accident with the tire is the twist of fate that determines the entire movie – but it is not mysterious driveway or its residents that I want to talk about. I am more interested in the writer, and writers in general. Much later in the film Joe runs into Betty again, who tells him that though she doesn’t like most of his work, she finds one flashback sequence very good and suggests making it into a feature film. Joe tells her that the inspiration comes from a teacher he had, and Betty suggests that it is because of the real life experience he had that made the scene good. Eventually they rendezvous late at night to finish the script, and though we don’t know what its about we see that the working title for the script was “An Untitled Love Story”.

Keep in mind also that the entire story is being told to you as a privileged flashback through Joe’s eyes, contrasted with the story that most will read in their newspaper. What is it that the artist experiences? What is his experience of his own artwork? And what is the experience that is shared by those who enjoy the art itself? It’s safe to say that Wilder, a screenwriter before becoming a director, could not have written ‘Sunset Boulevard’ without experiencing the actual Boulevard and the Hollywood culture. And though Hollywood culture unfortunately affects us all, it is also safe to say that none of us have any first hand knowledge of the anything like the events in ‘Sunset Boulevard’.

A very different film that tackles many of the same questions is the Russian masterpiece ‘Andrei Rublev’ by the esteemed Andrei Tarkovsky. ‘Rublev’ is a three and a half hour look at the greatest of the Russian iconographers. It is a rather unorthodox styled film however, rarely giving screen time to its title character, and for much of the movie Andrei is under a vow of silence. Instead the movie is formed as a group of frescoes that roughly occur in the life of the artist. The shots are long and meticulously guided. Sometimes the scenes seem buttressed together randomly: sometimes they follow a character’s gaze, sometimes they delve into the thoughts and memories of bystander. As Tarkovsky would explain, the movie is not meant to be plot driven, in the sense of making you want to know what happens next, but rather to make you experience what happens in the moment. The chain of experience is extensive – Rublev sees the world through other’s eyes to make his art (and somehow become enabled to paint the Trinity), Tarkovsky sees the world through his, and we see it through Tarkovsky’s. Yet Tarkovsky would say that one of the things that we should take from the movie was that we must have our own experience and that cannot inherit the experience from others, or from the artist. Yet Tarkovsky also says that the the artist does not operate in a vacuum, that the world at odds with art is also the world that the artist has to operate from. Somewhere between the ugliness of necessity and the artists idealism is the proper setting for art. ‘Apocalypse Now’ nearly killed Coppola, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is nonsensical without WWII, and Tarkovsky himself was constantly censored by the Soviet Union. All this raises a good yet basic question: what is the purpose of human art?

 Here’s a clip of Tarkovsky’s interview – with a scene at the beginning from Andrei Rublev where inexplicably one of the characters becomes a reenactment of Christ during the Passion.  The film is also sometimes referred to as “The Passion according to Andrei Rublev”.

Kierkegaard said that the Kight would never be able write about himself, for this he needs the Poet. But there is nothing for the Poet to write about without the experience of the Knight.  Which is true, the experience of the Knight or the experience of the Poet?

Word and Image: Course Pack Intro

This is the Intro to a course pack that Buddy and I are putting together. It’s for class I am teaching for Torrey Academy Emmaus Forum. We will be watching select movies, reading select texts, and then discussing them for hours. The class should be fun: I know I am looking forward to it. Here’s the first draft…

 

In Defense of Everything Else.

What is the most fundamental element of our human experience: the word or the image? Can we live without either language or the sense of “seeing” something with our mind’s eye? Can we think without language? Can we know something without “seeing” it? Multiple disciplines have found themselves staring at this dilemma, and the answer seems to consistently reiterate the validity of both the Word and the Image. The Bible says that the entirety of creation was made through Jesus Christ and without Him “nothing was made that was made.” This same Jesus, in whom all creation subsists, in whom everything rests for its being, is referred to as “The Word” (John 1) and the “The Image” (Colossians 1). By studying the word and image we will study the means of learning, the modes of communication, content and the presentation of content, and the differences and similarities of various forms of media. We will be studying films and texts that deal with what humanity is, and what it isn’t – and as we want Christ to be pre-immanent in all things we will have in front of us the Archetype of humanity. And having done all, we pray that we may we be granted the mercy to know The Word and The Image Himself, Christ the True God.

Still you may be asking yourself why we are reading Steven Pinker in a “film” class. Isn’t this class concerned with questions about the current state of the media, and how content is relayed? Yes, but these questions take us deeper into these fundamental questions about who we are and what we humans are here for. Today there is a battle being fought for who gets to define “human nature” and it will effect both what we say and how we say it. (Or what we see and how we are to see it.) We are being told contradictory things about what moves us, what’s important in life, and how we differ from our fellow man.

As thinkers like Pinker influence culture, we begin to see the fruits of his influence in important cultural mediums like film and music. More importantly we see the precursive thinkers on whose shoulders the Pinkers, Hawkings, and Dawkins’ of today stand. Men like Nietzsche, Freud, and Shaw whose efforts in the battle for the concept of humanity have shaped the battleground in which we now find ourselves. To engage with the discussion today is to engage with a grander discussion of nearly unparalleled depth and subtlety.

 

And subtlety leads us back to the question: What does this all have to do with film? When you watch a film, when you apprehend an image, when you judge a performance you are not so much critiquing from a cultivated artistic sensibility as you are reacting humanly. How can a scene be poignant if it isn’t imbued with some truth or beauty about humanity? How can we judge a character as being jarring and unconvincing unless we hold it up to our own human senses? In short, how can we rightly and critically engage in the human artistic culture unless we are ourselves, whole and developed humans?

What makes and breaks a good movie is often a small thing: a line or two, the inflection upon delivery, or the lighting in particular shot. What might be well said is that which is not said at all…but hinted at, or juxtaposed visually. What might make a scene frightening is stillness or movement, and what might show the truth behind the lie can be even harder to discern that that. As we engage these images in an effort to see the Good, True, and Beautiful we often take a great step forward by seeing through that which isn’t.

We have quite a task set before us: to examine these words and images, thoughts and feelings, pages and slides, as we hold ourselves up to the light of truth. As humans, and very concretely as Christians, we are in relation the objective Truth that is Good and Beautiful – and as we contemplate, search, and judge, we will ourselves be judged. Our consolation in all of this is not that, at the end of a week, we will defeat Nietzsche, Dawkins, and the rest of those pesky atheists; but rather that we will encounter our need to be fully human, to be in Christ – and we may find our salvation.

Frank Miller and the City of Dis

I went to see 300 with my 11 o’clock shadow and musky pheromones primed and ready for action. I had heard magnificent things: “this movie makes men out of boys” I had been told.

My stubble and smells in tow; I left unsatiated and curious as to why. I felt as if I had consumed a bag of marshmallows instead of a full meal – I didn’t know why, and that left me frustrated.

Several conversations later I think I’ve pinpointed a couple reasons as to why. These reasons are not specifically directed to 300: they have more to do with Frank Miller. Get your grain of salt ready however because my knowledge of Miller consists of 2 viewings of “Sin City” and, of course, my recent viewing of 300.

In general I reject the divide between moral critiques and artful critiques, because to tell a good story you have to have a good story as well as telling it well. Spielberg, a masterful but conservative director, tells some great stories (Schindler’s list) and some sub par ones (War of the Worlds). Tarentino flitters between magnificent vapidity and ends up with entertaining and sick movies – with the brief hope of a glimpse of humanity. Scorsese can tell intriguing stories magnificently, but it’s ceiling is capped. Oliver Stone sucks. (OK I did like Platoon).

Frank Miller has emerged as one of today’s premier story tellers but he will never satisfy me until he understands the City that isn’t Hell. I could forgive him in SinCity because the parallel to Dante’s hell is easy (especially the City of Dis) and because it was my first exposure to him. Alternately, I’m sympathetic to the contemporary version of the tragic hero: the noir hero. SinCity revolves around these figures: stubborn and competent men who soberly welcome whatever fate has planned for them in order to protect the divine thing (aka “girl”) that they have seen. Of course in SinCity the divine spark is always a hooker or a stripper, but that’s forgivable because it’s still a woman; full of beauty and crying out for help. This is a noble virtue for someone in hell, stubbornly and self sacrificially protecting the divine spark.

But the City is evil, and the hero cannot escape it, at best he can only gain someone else’s release. I’m not going to rag on charitable self- sacrifice; but where Bruce Willis’ and Mickey Rourke’s characters satisfy the noir role, King Leonidas doesn’t. He fights, and bellows about Sparta. Miller also “bellows” about Sparta a bit, but mostly only to belabor one point: the entire civilization is geared towards making men into hard, ruthless soldiers. This ideal, while appealing on the surface, is the hollow sort of ideal city rejected in Plato’s Republic as the “City of Pigs”. It’s artless, heartless, and void of beauty. While the “City of Pigs” may or may not be an outright picture of hell, it certainly isn’t an enviable culture. The praise in honor of the Spartan ideal amounts to nothing more than a cheap pep rally for self-discipline and stubbornness.

Miller does see one sin clearly however. As even the demons pity and shame at the sight of Satan chewing on the traitors, so Miller looks on the hapless traitor Ephialtes. Betrayal, that which is beyond faintheartedness, lust, and greed, is the only real sin in Miller’s worlds. SinCity didn’t mind a bit if you’re a killer, hooker, or drug addict. Just don’t be a Satanic cannibal, beat up too much on nice women, or betray your army. I’m not even sure if it matters what you sickness you prefer in SinCity as long as you’re on the side of the noir hero, the exception being treachery; it makes you an outcast to everyone. It is the stain that cannot be removed, and the coldly served justice in the final scene reminds us of that

Did the 300 die well? Though I am tempted to look up to people who value something above their own life, it isn’t always a virtue. I want to say that these men fought and died for something grand that they loved – thus putting them alongside Braveheart’s William Wallace and Gladiator’s Maximos, but I’m just not sold. This isn’t because the movie offended my personal ideal or some esoteric philosophy, it’s because it didn’t sell me on what the people were fighting for. The story here is simply shallow and unconvincing. New, inventive, tremendously well shot; and unconvincing.

But I will go one step further out on my creaking limb and say that the reason that Miller can’t be convincing about Sparta is the same reason that he can’t write a story where The City isn’t the City of Dis. King Leonidas is as formidable a character as Jack Bauer, but with less depth because Miller doesn’t understand people relating to people, he only understands the lone man standing against the City. And all the man can seem to do is die for a dead hooker. Community is a boring and insignificant theme for Miller, whose best insight is into the most individual of individuals. These heroes follow a long pedigree and their profundity is not to be overlooked; but it seems that Miller can’t write a story that isn’t a version of the noir hero and have it be very effective. I might pay to see a movie because its talked about, different, or just because it’s cool – but it will not make it a classic. 300 hasn’t been very well received by the critics, but neither was Gladiator, and it went on to win Best Picture and has ingratiated itself into culture. 300 will not do that, and in 5 years time it will be remembered much like the Blair Witch Project is today: it made history as a trend.

Maybe it’s unfair to complain because of how magnificent a movie isn’t, and maybe I shouldn’t be outraged that I can’t list it next to Citizen Kane, Philadelphia Story, and Rear Window. I didn’t complain when I saw Serenity or Gattaca because they’ll be forgotten in years. But I wanted this movie to move me, to thrill me, to tell me about battle and home. I wanted the Ballad of the White Horse sort of apocalypse – full of death and pain and glory and God. I wanted the grass on the screen to be the grass of my hometown that I carved mazes in, but instead it was the desolate plains of hell on the outskirts of the City. I was ready to “drink a dreadful death for wine” and realized instead that the wine was actually the black river of Styx. I was ready to vicariously love and die and instead I was mildly entertained while my soul witnessed the hacking off of limbs as if they had been attached with scotch tape. I received neither the joy of real battle nor the lightheartedness of fantasy, and was given instead haunting pictures of a world without meaning where even those who die in glory have never lived.