Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Another commentary on the movie "Avatar"

I went to see James Cameron's new movie, Avatar, yesterday, something I've been planning, and trying, to do since the movie was released. Normally I don't bother with seeing movies in 3D, but I've heard so much hype about how much better the technology is that I decided it'd be worth the extra money to see it in that format. (But not all that much extra: while local high-end theaters are charging up to $14 for the 3D version, I saw it in very clean and comfortable surroundings for $6.25, on the po' side of town. Figure an extra dollar for the gas to get there, and I saved enough to see another movie.)

The 3D technology is certainly better than it was decades ago, but it's still no big deal. It only makes a difference for those moments when something on the screen comes directly at the camera, and that isn't very often in Avatar. There was no scene I can think of in this movie that begins to compare with the moment in Jurassic Park when a velociraptor launches himself up toward the air vent where the humans -- and the camera -- are. All in all, I wouldn't pay extra again to see a film in 3D. (I was at Disneyland a few months ago; the 3D they use in some of their shows appears to be exactly the same: good, but not worth much of a premium price.)

I won't trouble you with describing the plot. Avatar is, basically, Dances With Wolves with computer-generated aliens instead of Sioux Indians, and a happy ending,  as predictable as the prize in a box of cereal, instead of a poignant one. I've heard this movie described as having a "heavy-handed environmentalist message," but I'm relieved to say it's not as heavy-handed as people have made out. Still, the message is simplistic, completely lacking in nuance, as are all of the human characters. Colonel Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, could not be more of a cardboard cut-out if the part had been written by Dick Cheney (who probably considers the character an heroic one). Corporate lackey Parker Selfridge, played by Giovanni Ribisi, is an insult to cardboard characters, and of course to corporate lackeys everywhere. (I wonder if the corporate lackeys at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation felt anything personal?) Even Sigourney Weaver's character, Dr. Augustine, has all the depth of a Melba toast square. Only the computer-generated characters had depth and detail.

But this movie isn't about characters. Sitting in the theater watching it, you are perfectly content to dispense with agonizing over the subtleties of characterization, or looking for any nuance in motivation, and concentrate instead on the lush visual experience on offer. It is amazing. No wonder many viewers are suicidally depressed at not being able to go to Pandora themselves. Sometimes, when my life is as dreary and empty as theirs must be, I feel the same way about not being able to go to London.

The detail in the computer-generation of scenery, flora, fauna and characters is as mind-blowing in the 21st Century as the first Star Wars movie's special effects were in the 1970s. Every detail seems to have been given full attention; I can't recall any moment when I thought something looked incomplete, half-baked, or out of perspective. This is especially surprising in those moments when the elegantly tall Pandorans, the Na'vi, are shown interacting with real human actors. Even Peter Jackson's magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy didn't quite get that sort of juxtaposition right every time.

Still, for all the fabulous images and beauty in this movie, I predict it will not join the ranks of Timeless Great Films. Its message, its meaning, is essentially a currently-popular political viewpoint; it won't be that long before it seems naive, trite and hackneyed. This gorgeous movie is no Titanic, no Gone With The Wind, not even a Star Wars. At bottom, it's a phenomenally well-crafted piece of money-making entertainment, a technological tour-de-force instead of a classic for the ages. Go. See. Enjoy. Get over it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'll call you in the morning from Mzuzu

I had kind of a Wow moment yesterday. I was listening to "The Splendid Table," a public-radio show about food and cooking, something I listen to fairly often. One of the regular features on the program is a segment where somebody calls in and tries to stump the show's host, Lynne Rosetto Kasper. The caller lists five -- presumably abstruse -- ingredients he or she has in his or her refrigerator (don't you just hate all that "his or her/he or she" crap? But we live in an age where elegance is underappreciated), and Ms Rosetto Kasper has to come up with a tasty dish using only those five ingredients, plus salt, pepper, water, and one kind of fat (oil or butter or such). 

I don't want to belittle the thesis of the game, but it's not really as difficult as it sounds; usually, I can do it myself. What's difficult is making of this olio a dish that somebody would actually want to eat a second time, and at this level Ms Rosetto Kasper leaves me in the dust.

Anyway, yesterday the caller was a Peace Corps volunteer serving in a small town in Malawi. That's right, Malawi, a smallish country in southeastern Africa, smooshed in between Zambia and Mozambique. Well, naturally, under the circumstances, it wasn't a question of what the woman had in her refrigerator. She had no refrigerator. Instead it was five ingredients she could find in the local village market, and it had to be something that could be cooked over an open fire.

I won't say I found the resulting recipe appealing. It involved throwing in the cheeks of a small anchovy-like fish, for seasoning, and I'm sorry, but I detest small anchovy-like fish sufficiently that I would never make this dish. But that's beside the point.

Still, Ms Rosetto Kasper came up with a stew that, laying aside the fish cheeks, as I would be wont to do, didn't sound all that bad. But that, too, is beside the point.

The point is, I was amazed to learn that we have progressed sufficiently in the technological blitz our lives have become, that Peace Corps Volunteers -- people with almost no money, mind you -- can now pick up their telephone in Malawi and call in to some radio game show in the United States.

This floors me. Last time I checked, my cellphone won't work in Mexico or Europe, and if it did it would cost an arm and half a leg to call home.