Tag Archive: Hollywood


films (& best-of lists)

The decade isn’t really over yet: there was no “year zero,” which means that the year 2000 was the two-thousandth year of its calendar, and that this year is the 2010th, the last of the third millennium’s first decade, not the first of its second. But I’ve seen so many “ten best films of the decade” lists already (thanks partly to the last issue of Film Comment, which has over a hundred of them), that I feel helplessly encouraged to throw together my own.

But first, as we wind our way to the Oscars, for what it’s worth, here are my five favorite films of 2009. (There are only so many great movies made in a year, o Academy Award givers.)

1. The White Ribbon (dir. by Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria)

2. A Single Man (Tom Ford, USA)

3. A Serious Man (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)

4. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)

5. Coraline (Henry Selick, USA)

The White Ribbon is a brilliantly cast, acted, photographed, and paced dissection of the social fabric of a pre-WW1 Protestant German village. But it’s also about the ecology of authority and social control that, in different permutations, underlies any social order — and about the impossibility of coming to know that ecology without a gap or question mark at the heart of the inquiry, that gap here represented by the teacher who is the not-fully-reliable narrator recounting the events years later. And while it largely conforms to Haneke’s grim, cerebral and joylessly clinical vision of humanity, there are moments of compassion and tenderness that transcend that – which is something I don’t remember from his previous films, though it’s possible I’ll forget what they were here as well. (As an antidote to that vision, I recommend seeing The Last Station, if only because that film’s Slavic anarchist earthiness does provide a feel for a possible alternative to repressed, authoritarian pre-war Germany.)

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Palestinian activists go Na’vi

(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)

It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.

The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.

What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.

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Bambi fights back

Kvond has a beautifully written post on James Cameron’s latest, Avatar: The Density of Being (you can tell he’s been reading Brian Massumi), to which I can only add my own quick thoughts after seeing the film this weekend.

1) New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has it partly right: with its tree/Goddess-worshipping, tribal-shamanic-indigenous-hunter-gatherer-Daoist-pagan New-Age all-is-One-ism, Avatar is an expression of the longstanding American tradition of pantheist nature spirituality. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.

2) It is James Cameron: with its rollercoaster-ride, shoot-em-up, special-FX thrills and chills (cf. Terminator, Aliens), it’s probably the most exorbitant and expensive such film in history. There’s cheesy dialogue (JC needs a scriptwriter) and gratuitous violence, with the never-say-die eternally recurrent monster, Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” in the form of the Dr. Strangelove-ish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). All put to the service of a fairy tale storyline (cf. Titanic, Terminator) of good guys and bad guys and class tension, with the white-boy hero as an intermediary caught between the two and becoming-heroic by siding with — and leading — the underdog. The broken-bodied (war-victimized) and misunderstood marine with a “good heart” is given a (genetically engineered) new body and falls in love with the dark girl — Pocahontas replayed for the millionth time. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests. It is, after all, that Messiah story too (cf. Terminator 2, just no virgin in this version). (Cameron’s initials aren’t JC for nothing: the king of Hollywood born in a manger in Kapuskasing, Ontario.)

3) The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it): They are beautiful — as all the reviews say, there are scenes that are among the most beautiful ever put to screen. Cutting-edge CGI in the service of animating and re-enchanting nature, the movie is a cine-kinetic fusion of Bambi, Terminator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and much else; see kvond).

There are strong resonances with Ursula LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” (a Vietnam war-like attack on a beautiful planet and its indigenous inhabitants) and her utopian ethnographic-poetic-musical epic novel Always Coming Home, its future-primitive Pacific Coastal ‘Kesh’ people being a kind of west coast precursor to the Na’vi. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.

4) Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot. Are we really supposed to believe that this guy will save the universe and that Na’vi wouldn’t all choke to death laughing at the whole idea? There are resonant images here, but also an underlying subtext: what’s the balance between the two? (This repeats a friendly spat I’ve been having with Pat Brereton over his book Hollywood Utopia.)

Yes, it’s entertainment, and ideology, and religion, and politics… Happy Solstice to all.