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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Avatar the movie

Just watched Avatar. Not on 3D, thank you: I’ve seen enough 3D-movies before, and I am rather tired of special-effects, having been watching them since the days of King Kong and later Star Wars (Roger Ebert is not. Try Rotten Tomatoes too), and anyway, this movie is not one of those which should have needed the special effects to be called good. Most certainly it’s a whole lot better than Titanic, whose global success made me gawk when it was released, and which I still cannot swallow.

I find some details of the story line a bit silly (a precious metal called ‘Unobtanium’, and giant blue humanoids with tails – how creative can you get?) compared to the many truly great works of fantasy I have read and seen, and I consider Messrs. Cameron and co. lucky for having made such a big splash, as I have always considered them lucky who can make fantasizing pay as a career. Lots of details have been hijacked from other movies, too… I wonder what the director of the Matrix series is saying about it, to name just one obvious source of ideas.

The plot is very in-your-face green, and pro-native peoples, and anti-war and anti-corporate capitalism: the reason I love America is that probably nowhere else on earth can artists make anti-establishment works so freely and even expect to be applauded and richly rewarded for it! It is a little kinder towards science (as distinct from technology, which is portrayed as crudely and overwhelmingly destructive – cocking a snook at the founders of Google? – and contributing to humans becoming drunk with power like little children), but it also underscores the idea that so-called primitive people could be repositories of much more wisdom and skill than scientists are trained to credit them with, so it is both wrong and stupid to hurt and destroy them or even mock them instead of trying to understand them and learn from them (as the old shaman says, ‘you can’t fill a cup that is already full’).

For me the chief reason for liking the movie was that it gave me occasion to recall a great deal of history, and to discuss some of it with my daughter. It has all happened before, right here on earth, with the white commerce-obsessed, technology-reinforced imperialists discovering, exploring, and bulldozing indigenous peoples to the point of extermination in all the far-flung corners of the planet in their quest for new territories and natural resources to feed the engines of industry. It started on a large scale in medieval times with the invention of ocean-going ships and cannon, and it is continuing to this very day in south America, Africa and various parts of Asia and Australasia. Just read oil, copper or timber in place of Unobtanium. You don't have to venture into outer space for it: but maybe the storyteller is saying that we humans will never learn to mend our ways! The fact that the invaders cannot understand why the natives are neither interested in nor grateful for the opportunity to be ‘improved’ is entirely historical, and has been an issue since Shakespeare raised it in The Tempest, though it will be simplistic and unfair to believe that the imperialists did only harm, as it is now fashionable to believe in certain intellectual circles (the British banned sati and introduced scientific education in India). It was also good to see the idea of reverence for all sentient living things has been given such good press (Gaia is called Eywa here). Can we hope that the fact that such middlebrow works are entering and winning huge applause in the sphere of popular culture is an indication that we are likely to enter an era of greater gentleness and wisdom among all humans and among humans towards nature as a whole?

Or – as I fear is much more likely – is it just a nine-day wonder, to be completely forgotten as soon as the next blockbuster comes along, which is sure to be in a few months’ time? Does 'interest' go even a step beyond childish special effects these days? And does anybody really think and remember anything any more?

P.S., March 09: I am glad that Kathryn Bigelow's low-budget, far more serious movie Hurt Locker has beaten Avatar to the Oscars (delicious irony that Bigelow is Cameron's ex-wife!). As someone wrote on twitter, 'it's a reaffirmation of basic human decency'. Or at least that even in today's world big money and high-tech, low-IQ extravaganza can't always buy up everything!

P.P.S., March 22: Now that I have seen Hurt Locker, I must say it hasn't impressed me much either, compared to many other Oscar-winning movies I can remember, including those about war and its horrors.


Mayuri said...

I saw Avatar in 3D a few weeks back, and quite liked it though I must say that 3D technology still has a long way to go before it makes an awe-inspiring impact.
The movie was a very good experience, and I would recommend people to watch it atleast once. Its beautiful, to say the least.
As for the plotline: I agree with you -- there wasnt much too it. Rather simplistic. But I wouldnt penalise the makers for that.
Ditto for the themes -- Old themes, not-so-new treatment either. But I am glad they did it anyway.
Also, I have to make a special mention of the concept of a "natural" biosphere and the idea that all beings are connected as part of a bigger system -- I think I had first read about this idea while doing a poem at school and I was fascinated then, and of course, the thought had remained with me since. And Avatar has done a great job of representing it to the people.
Another quick thought: I thought the difference between Na'vi world and the human world was striking! And you simply cannot miss it when the humans launch a direct attack and drive their huge guns and tanks and what-have-you into the Na'vi forest -- it was so ugly, it made me cringe.
Thats about all from my side.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for commenting so promptly, Mayuri!

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,
I’m glad that you watched the movie and liked it. As I’d told you before the concept of all living beings being connected by a bond (as mentioned in Lines Written in Early Spring) is what I’d liked a lot in this movie. And being my first 3D movie, I rather enjoyed it.
I was talking to the First Mate (a white Australian) on board and we got into a conversation about the indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand. When I asked him about Tasmania he said: ‘The white people killed them all mate. The last pure native in Tasmania died some time back.’ And there seemed to be a lot of contempt for the settlers in his voice, as also sadness and regret (though he didn’t have anything to do with it).
Thanks for the post.

Shilpi said...

Here I go again – commenting on a review of a movie that I have not seen…

I like this engaging review with its blobs of humour (Titanic - ack. How or why did that movie make it big! Special effects alone can make for nothing. Fantasizing and making that pay – Ah.) and the tracing of history and literature in a wide sweep and how maybe things have been continuing along the same way (I keep wondering whether history is the same thing over and over…), and ending on a question which makes one grow silent.

You're absolutely right about the ‘anti-establishment' bit - it has always made me curious how that is possible (probably making an Independence Day every now and again helps…), and they’re not all just fantasy and sci-fi – the ones that do launch an attack on the establishment. I can’t help but be reminded of some of the Bollywood movies which portrayed institutional and individual corruption, pettiness, and evil in all its grottiness. I don’t remember whether they became hits (some of them must have – I remember some of the Amitabh Bachchan movies apart from Ankush and Prahaar…). Do things change? I don’t know why they say that video games, violent movies, and exploitative cultural representations make people more violent in real life….what then happens with the movies that do provide some food for thought and urge us to be a little kinder, a little more considerate, and a little more conscious?
And of course you’re absolutely right about those experts who want to see anything and everything connected to imperialism as being noxious. They annoy me. I don’t know whom they think they are helping – why can’t people adopt a balanced and sane view without being incapacitated? I miss you not being in formal academia. A voice like yours may have helped to bring some sanity.

I've heard of anthropologists making a noise about the importance of conserving local knowledge, and I know that social scientists have been tom-tomming the importance of 'native knowledge' for at least thirty years now, and they've been talking about how nature must not be viewed as a resource to be exploited and that technology by itself can offer no long terms fixes and that economic development alone cannot be made the centre of all attention – leave alone social thinkers and writers who were talking about the same through the early 20th century - but who’s listening and who’s acting? And you pointed out in your essay on your Master’s word, that The Buddha was talking about the importance of conservation and the need to tread gently - and that was a long while ago....who’s listening?...Yet you also told me that some people were – some people in important places…

I can't help but feel rather sad and sceptical as I ponder over your questions at the end but I still hear (imagine I hear?) the tinkling of hope. I've been wondering for a long time now about why and how it's possible that mankind has made such enormous leaps in the field of technology and that not much else has changed. It's something that perplexes me to no end. (I guess the reason that this movie made it was also, in part, because it was seen as a technological marvel.) Maybe it really does, always has, and will come down to just a few specific individuals – who can both think and remember, and who also have the courage to speak the truth – carrying the rest of the world along until they can't.
Many thanks for writing the review. I'll watch the movie and then write another mile-long comment!
Take care.

Sreejith said...

Dear Sir,
Unable to resist the temptation of watching what reviews and some of my friends called "the movie of the year" etc., I shelled out the last few precious coins in my purse to get the tickets for Avatar in January itself. Then I convinced myself not to be stingy and pushed myself to part with my reserve surplus from the previous month too in order to watch the 3-D version. Frankly, I felt cheated.
While everyone would agree that the story line was as dismal as Mallika Sherawat's "dressing" sense, I did not find any path-breaking graphics or special effects. As you have said even in those respects the film is a mix of cut-copy-paste from different films.
Still, I had spent my last rupee and though I am a fool, I have issues in accepting my foolishness, so I will say the film had some positives.
For example I found the idea that one could "plug-in" with anything around quite amusing. I understand the idea that everything in this world is interconnected etc. but couldn't help thinking that maybe James Cameron got over-influenced by USB drives.;)
But on a serious note, my father tells me, that the film has received excellent feeds from China. Unlike Tasmania, in China their own government is plundering the rights of the people in the name of development. I have heard of many instances where people's homes have been demolished without their consent and due compensation, and they have been forced to live in rehabilitation camps for the remainder of their lives.
In that context, the film has emotionally anchored with many all round the globe. And that probably, is the reason for the ringing cash registers.

Titli said...

Dear Sir,

A few days back I was surprised to hear a batch mate of mine, whose only target is to cram and cram and get marks of course, speak highly of the faulty education system in India before she dug into the book once again to learn everything by rote, often without understanding. It is a small example, but I see it multiplied by thousands and the idea leaves me in despair. Barring a few no one bothers to remember…
Your fears are never baseless. Give some more time and people will indeed forget whatever special effects there is in Avatar as their interest runs no deeper. The blockbuster for the Indian masses has already arrived – My name is Khan. People are expounding the theme of the movie left and right but I am skeptical about the effect it’s really having on people’s minds. So many years after the end of British rule, could this really be the time when people will be able to bridge the gulf created between the two communities by just watching a movie?
Few people think these days…


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

The question you have posed here provide a lot of food for thought, I haven't watched Avatar yet so will reserve my comments on the movie till I have watched it but I do agree with what Ms.Sarkar has said - if people can be swayed into violence (which is quite true as there are a number of shocking cases where kids have done some crazy fatalistic things based on video games) through gaming or "action" movies that are just as excuse for mind numbing bloodshed, why can't people be influenced by the opposite too? That immediate realization and glimmer of understanding not withstanding, how long does the effect really last? If a person can feel the urge to shoot at people just because he has seen it in a movie or played a game why can't he ponder over the genuine messages some movies provide? Is it because of individual disposition that makes one gravitate towards the disturbing? Are there people have been very genuinely and lastingly influenced by the good stuff also? Or do we just not hear about them that often (or at all)?


avishek said...

Dear sir,
First, I would like to state that you have written a very good critical appreciation of this movie. I agree with you on the point that after watching this movie, one can instantly draw a parallel with the recent happenings in our present day world - war in Iraq and Afghanistan, power for dominance in Middle East, Africa still in poverty etc . The superpowers of this world seek to invade other less privileged countries in guise of a certain pretext – America goes to middle east for oil, Africa is still exploited mainly because the western powers have found good reason to keep it so, no matter what they talk about at world conferences and UN. Only lecturing the African nations on how to improve their productivity and GDP will not do. On the ground, we see differentiation being made in the form of unfair trade practices which badly affect these third world countries. Neocolonialism is the modern form of exploitation. The IMF and World Bank repeatedly makes distinctions and there is no transparency on how they distribute aid to these poor nations of the world. Economic and monetary policies in the hands of IMF and World Bank have indeed become the tools of economic isolation in the world.
Regarding your point on native people not being interested or grateful for the opportunity to be improved – I think they better not take this opportunity. You rightly pointed out that they are much more wise and knowledgeable than we think of. We may mock them and laugh at them but the point is they are much more self-confident and believe in themselves. They stick to what they believe in while we. The so-called modern generation blindly apes the western cultures in almost everything we do and we tend to think they are superior to us in whatever they do. We hardly realize or give it a thought that there are so many things they have also got to learn from us. There are innumerable things where we are superior to them but we feel inferior unless we get the certificate from the western world. Self confidence and ability to judge for oneself is slowly going away from our Indian mindset. I feel these natives are so happy – they hardly care about what others think of them, but the sad fact of life is the modern world is also changing them for the worse.
In regard to technology, i feel Mr. Cameron is right in rebuking it. Although technology has made our life easy in so many ways , people often confuse science and technology as the same thing. It has made life so difficult now that a few seconds away from technology becomes so unbearable and we feel lost as if we are on some alien planet. In a way, Cameron is right – science is a constant quest for knowledge for the benefit of mankind but technology is basically for those people who can never think and understand how it works but are good enough only to use it.
( contd later )

avishek said...

...( contd )
I feel there is indeed a faint glimmer of hope in today’s young generation that we can indeed move into an era of greater gentleness and wisdom towards nature as a whole. But this sensitivity to sentient living things is still low in our society. We shall certainly take some time to perceive nature in the sense that she can also feel and get hurt if we do not care for her or understand her. In this mindless pace of life in today’s world, such subtle sensibilities are slowly dying in our young children and they do not bother to think or reflect on such things.
In today’s world, the mantra unfortunately has become - ‘change is the only thing which is constant’. People are so fickle minded that a film usually runs for one to two weeks on average in the theatres , no matter how good a film is and how much promotional expenditure it may have involved. People’s attention spans are limited and in a market driven economy like ours, they say ‘ the show must go on’. But i do admit that there are several serious film lovers who do watch and appreciate good films, discuss and write about them. Even special awards are given for creative success by the film fraternity although a film may not have achieved commercial success. I do see a change coming in Indian cinema today where off-beat films do get appreciated and noticed.
Avishek Mondal

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good to see that you have pondered over all the points raised in the review, Avishek. That sort of attention from readers is always gratifying.

You are right: a lot of new directors and actors are trying to make good off-beat movies currently in India. I consider it a pity that they don't get large audiences. Speaks volumes about the cultural level of the 'aam aadmi', for all the money in his pocket and pretensions to sophistication!

By the way, even the greatest philosophers of ancient times (Heraclitus and the Buddha, for instance) agreed that 'all is flux', nothing endures in this world. Can we say, then, that we have all become high-level philosophers today?

Shilpi said...

...sometimes some amount of sensibility does prevail during the Oscars. Whether it's prompted by some real sense or some other sense of 'correctness' - I don't know - but the results are still ones that I can go along with. I remember Saving Private Ryan Schindler's List, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, and Forrest Gump running away with many of the prizes at the Oscars even within the last couple of decades. When I used to follow the Oscars, I always felt somewhat vindicated to see that some good things were still awarded the recognition they deserved ...although why Slumdog Millionaire won all it did completely beats me. And I'm not so sure how they decide on the Foreign language Films either. Hurt Locker does sound like a movie worth watching (from what I've read and heard about it). Last week a friend was worrying whether the hi-tech move made by the ex-husband was going to beat it at the Oscars. I bet she's as pleased as you happen to be.

As for your question in the above comment - I'm getting the fits (of both laughter and tears) just reading that bit. Reminds me of Epicurus' philosophy that's been hideously mutilated by many real human beings.