Pushing Avatar off a Red Cliff

December 20, 2009
Avatar the Film

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Hype for film technological breakthroughs is apparently still what leads us into the cinema these days… next to word-of-mouth, of course.  Fortunately for Avatar (2009), it has both – its opening weekend has easily smashed all existing box office records for a 3D film, and has its eyes on taking the top spot overall.  A strong opening weekend is perhaps to be expected, however, for a film that reputedly cost half a billion dollars to make and distribute.  Lumbering James Cameron behemoths like Terminator 2 (1991) or Titanic (1997) were also very profitable gambles in this respect – the former was effectively one long chase scene that demonstrated how the latest CGI could be mobilized to tap into white American male emotion, the latter a five-act tragedy that tapped into white American female emotion.  Cameron’s films are the kinds of films people see more than once:  they tug on enough emotional strings to produce occasional vertiginous feelings while keeping the visual effects rolling to catch your heart at the next turn in the plot.  His films are effective because they are affective, his plots predictable but oh-so “classic,” his high concepts putting even Steven Spielberg’s successes with Jaws (1975) and E.T. (1982) to shame.  Avatar is no exception.

So why didn’t this latest film, which was up my alley in terms of its sci-fi premise, colonial struggles and gratuitous deployment of mecha, bowl me over as it did countless cinema-goers?

Because I saw John Woo’s Red Cliff (2009) first.

******THE SPOILER BOUNDARY — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ******

Chiling Lin in Red Cliff

“What?!” you exclaim. “But Avatar was so awesome!  All the special effects majors (save Pixar) put their heart and soul into it:  Digital Domain, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital.  It’s in 3D and looks gorgeous.  Sure, the plot is clichéd, but what plot isn’t?  It totally has a subversive message against colonialism and the exploitation of our Earth.  This is the future of filmaking.  You’re living in the past, man.”

Gentle reader, Avatar itself is definitively a construct of the past:  James Cameron actually wrote the treatment back in 1994, but shelved it until 2006 out of film-technological concerns.  This means that those who are making Dances of Wolves (1993), Pocahontas (1995) and *ahem* FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, see also 20th Century Fox, Avatar’s distributor) comparisons with the film hit the nail on the head:  Avatar has much more to do with those “going native” narratives than, say, the postcolonial violence depicted in District 9 (2009).  It lives and breathes the multiculturalism of the early 90s, rather than the stale air of globalization and colonial legacies of asymmetrical exploitation in places like South Africa, Israel/Palestine or Pakistan.  As an “adult fairytale,” it offers an almost suffocating sense of nostalgia for the days when we audiences were just starting to think about things like the environment and social inequalities of race/class/gender in terms of mainstream action.

Despite the principal emphasis of all reviewers on the film as an “effects achievement,” I find its major successes to be located in its subtext rather than its revolutionary 3D stereoscopic cameras, etc.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a believably stubborn handicapped marine.  Three strong women characters – Saldana’s Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver’s Grace and Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy – give the viewers a variety of models of positive femininity.  Neytiri even manages to save our hero protagonist’s life twice at the end, though the other two women have to die in “exchange.”  The map the Colonel (Stephen Lang) puts on the wall of the gathering tribes reminded me of the animated map at the beginning of Fritz Hippler’s Nazi propaganda film Feldzug in Polen (1940), in which the gathering Nav’i armies seem like a bacteria or disease encroaching on the borders of “civilization.”  The implication that the neural network established throughout Pandora was in many ways more advanced than the artificial networks generated by man is a pleasant and original fantasy in our Internet era.

All of this subtlety (which I assume emerged because there were many intelligent people working on this project) proved fragile, however, against the blubber-filled weight of the film’s Hollywood exportable aesthetics and the Campbellian three-act screenplay.  Complex institutions such as colonizing empires are reduced to simplistic, one-dimensional characters: the greedy project organizer (Giovanni Ribisi — capitalism/corporations), the bloodthirsty colonel (military) and the aloof xenologist (science).  The viewers are delivered the biotopia with the exotic landscapes and species without being in the dubious position of conqueror/explorer (since Jake Sully feels bad and changes sides).  And most importantly, the resistance strategies offered by the film are reduced to A) global solidarity among the Nav’i tribes, B) heroic sacrifice by noble savages with their bows and arrows, C) the hero happens to be *sigh* the Chosen One and D) Pandora puts nature itself as a weapon at the heroes’ disposal.  Aptly put, we are given the feeling of resistance to imperialism without being given any of the methods, beyond the magic of Hollywood.

Why Red Cliff is Better

Red Cliff is a better film than Avatar because it is a bountiful wealth of said resistance methods (though – fear not! – John Woo loved Avatar).  Woo’s first directorial effort in China since Hard Boiled (1992) tells the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical epic through the eyes of two of its master strategist heroes – Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – as they lead a desperate battle against the invading armies of the fearless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang).  At a fifth of Avatar‘s reported price-tag ($80 million), the film was nevertheless the most expensive Asian film to date and not the least bit short (runtime 238 min., cut down to 148 min. for international release) to boot.  Budget spent in Avatar on obscenely high-tech effects was deployed toward armies of hundreds of extras and several expensive-looking fight sequences.  Nevertheless, Red Cliff‘s visuals in 2D look equally stunning as Avatar‘s in 3D.  This is to say – using Peter Wuss’ PKS model – the films stand toe-to-toe with each other in terms of perception-leading structures, which leave us with narrative-leading and stereotype-leading structures to differentiate the films (Don’t get me started on stereotypes in Avatar).  Whereas Avatar insists on narrative-leading structures that produce affect against the backdrop of unreflected war imagery (i.e., destruction of home-tree, the final air battle sequence, etc.), Red Cliff seeks narrative-leading structures that both engage the intellect and produce affect against war itself.

Yes, Red Cliff is an anti-war movie in a way that Avatar cannot possibly be.  Significant screen-time is spent discussing strategy for many decisive battles, and such discussions lead directly into intellectual engagement with the battle sequences:  how does one beat an overwhelming enemy?  What formations are to be used?  Why will atmospheric conditions shift the conflict one way and not another?  Like Howard Hawks before him, Woo concentrates his films on professionals who are forced into the greatest professional challenge of their lives.  Whereas Avatar persists with visually articulated moralizing discourses about native populations and environmental exploitation, Red Cliff takes discourse of oppressor/oppressed as a given and instead preoccupies itself with the material waging of war.  The anti-war message is imparted by Tony Leung’s beautifully tragic facial expressions as he watches his strategies work.  Rather than reducing all characters to multi-dimensional heroes and one-dimensional villains who are justified in killing each other over their respective moral principles, all of the violence crossing the screen in Red Cliff comes with a moral price tag.  Clashes of civilizations transform into precisely the relationship of symbiotic violence portrayed in the hunting rituals of the Nav’i (that is then abandoned in favor of the action movie/revenge motif).  Resistance is not mythical and leap-of-faith efforts, but intellectual work.

All of this ranting and raving is, of course, intended to get you to see Red Cliff, or at least think about it as you fork over $14 for your 3D ticket.  If you’re seeing Avatar for its fantastic visuals, then by all means go and enjoy the colors.  But if you’re looking for a solid story that offers a moral perspective on current events, China has beaten the USA/UK/New Zealand conglomerate at a fifth the price.

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Early American Feminists, Real and Fictional

October 15, 2008

This has been one of those weird and inadvertantly synchronous weeks, where the same topic keeps cropping up in completely different and unrelated ways. Since I find early American feminism and the suffrage movement interesting, I decided to share.

First, on Monday, I heard a teaser for an NPR story that I made a mental note to go back and listen to later online. I just did, and it was the fascinating story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, “The First Woman to Run for President – in 1872.” Woodhull turns out to have been quite a controversial figure, stating in speeches her opinion that marriage was akin to slavery and advocating her right to practice “free love,” meaning that she should have the freedom to both love and change her mind. (She had been sold into marriage very early in life to an alcoholic, so she had some strong views on the matter.) She didn’t sit well with many of the suffragists of middle class, “more serious” backgrounds, but she was quite sincere in her beliefs and did become the presidential nominee for the Equal Rights Party. (Frederick Douglass was nominated as her vice-president, but without being asked. He declined to even acknowledge the nomination.) In the end, her name didn’t even appear on the ballot.

This tied in eerily well with the mystery series I recently rediscovered at the library and had just checked out two more books in, the Seneca Falls series by Miriam Grace Monfredo.* The series begins during the events surrounding the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and then continues on through the Civil War. The main character, Glynis Tryon, is the librarian for the town of Seneca Falls, NY, and a very independent, staunchly unmarried woman. While the mysteries she keeps getting somewhat reluctantly embroiled in are obviously fictional, as are many of her friends and relatives, the reader still encounters quite a bit of historical fact as well.

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Untimely Ripped

July 3, 2008

If you’ve had a child in the last ten years or so – or rather, if you’ve seriously contemplated having a child for more than about fifteen minutes of your life – there’s one fact you’ve probably heard: Caesarean rates in the first world, especially in the US, are too high. Every few months brings along another article like this one, deploring the Caesarean rate and explaining (1) why it’s so high and (2) what doctors and patients should be doing to solve it, and aren’t. In many circles, unmedicated natural childbirth is held to be the best possible birthing experience — “our birthright” according to one midwife — and women who end up having a Caesarean for causes which aren’t immediately and obviously life-threatening for the baby (for instance, prolapsed cord) quite often feel that they’ve somehow been denied a good birth, or that they have let themselves or the baby down. On Plans, we were discussing how “birth is not a competition”, but human nature is such that some people will inevitably regard it as one; to have had an unmedicated birth somehow gives you a head start in the Good Parenting Stakes, and to have had a Caesarean shows lamentable weakness.

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What is professional hair, anyway?

February 13, 2008

I’ve been thinking about my hair a lot lately. Partly this is because it’s got split ends, and I need to have it trimmed. But then I started thinking about how much I should have it cut. Should it be just a trim, or should I really get it cut?

I’ve pretty much always had long hair. Very long. By the end of my third year of college, it was getting to the point that I could sit on the ends when it was down. I got it cut short for the first time after I returned from my semester abroad, in a sort of “I have the confidence to do something really different now!” act of independence. They cut off 25″ all in one go. Then I grew it out again for 2.5 years, only to get it cut short again in the middle of my second miserable year of grad school, this time with the hope that it would symbolize some sort of grand turning point for many things in my life then. It didn’t work, but they did take off 12″ that time, and it did mean that while I remained depressed for the rest of year, I didn’t have to worry too much about brushing my hair.

Anyway, I’ve recovered since then, and I’ve been letting my hair grow again ever since, so it’s back down to almost my waist. And I like it. So why would I want to cut it? Why do I sort of feel like I’m expected to cut it?

Some time last year, at whatever time of year it was that the local paper decided most new college grads would be seriously looking for job interviews or going to their first real jobs, there was an article about “how to look professional.” Most of it was dedicated to discussion of different levels of casual vs. formal professional clothing, but two things stood out to me from their suggestions for women:

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What makes a role model?

January 29, 2008

Kickboxing Geishas I’m reading Veronica Chambers’ Kickboxing Geishas: How Modern Japanese Women Are Changing Their Nation, and I just came to a part where Chambers describes the unexpected reaction she got when asking young Japanese college women about their role models. Coming from the US, she had clearly been thinking of it as a very standard question, along the lines of “Where do you want to be in five years?,” and so on. But instead, she ended up writing this:

The most obvious question to ask, when you are reporting on women and their changing roles in society, is: Who are your role models? Even if the answer is pat – “my mother,” “Hillary Clinton,” “Maya Angelou” – it tells you something about the woman and how she thinks of herself. Perhaps because Japan is not, by nature, a country of individualists, the role model question gets a lot of blank stares. “I don’t have any role models,” a girl named Gaga tells me at Sacred Heart [University]. “My parents taught me when I was small, you can choose your own way.” Akiko, another student, says, “I think I don’t have a certain person, but an image: someone who’s independent, strong, and caring.” I wonder, too, if it is because the national culture is so private, that it is hard to develop the kind of admiration and deep-seated affiliation that one feels for a role model: be it a senior employee at your company or someone you see on TV.

I wonder how many women at [Canon executive] Masako Nara’s company know how important it was for her to be called by her maiden name and the deal she struck with a coworker to make it happen. How many of Satako’s female coworkers know how uncomfortable she was at the late night drinking parties that were once part of her job, and how relieved she was to get more international clients who prefer lunch to dinner for work-related socializing? My sense, again and again, was that women told me stories they did not share with their colleagues, or even sometimes with their friends. It occurs to me that in order for someone to be a role model, they must reveal not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities. It’s in the interplay between the two, and how they overcome the latter, that we find something worthy of admiring.

-Chambers, 84

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Flappers, Sluts and Beauty Queens

November 20, 2007

I attended a recent presentation in Berlin entitled “Femmes Fatales: Japanese Bathing Beauties, Berlin Flappers and America’s Teenaged Sluts.” Three scholar/authors presented their research on the aforementioned female groups. First came Uta Poiger, who spoke on European attitudes towards color cosmetics and their advertisement in the inter-war period. Then Emily White, an editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, read from her book on the myth of the high-school slut. Finally, Jan Bardsley spoke on the first Japanese Miss Universe in 1959. While wildly diverse, each presentation touched upon the tension between natural and artificial beauty, upon the simultaneous admiration and distrust of beautiful women, upon the cultural and behavioral bounds in which women find themselves trapped.

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O Mistress Mine

October 5, 2007

It’s a sign of how much sleep I’ve had lately that I can’t remember whether the discussion on the use of “Mrs” “Ms” and “Miss” was held on Plans or somewhere else (I’m *pretty* sure it was Plans) but as it’s one of those perennial issues I wanted to discuss it here, as well as offering my personal, farfetched solution.

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