Thoughts on Avatar and The Hurt Locker

Nik S. writes:

Do you have any comments on the Oscars?—not that the ceremony even matters any more. But seriously, the winner of Best Director (a woman, no less) saying, “Support our troops!” Under the regime of George Bush, this would have been unimaginable. The times, they are-a-changing.

Nik S. continues:

Funny…. with all the recent talk about James Cameron’s Avatar, it seems ironic that his ex-wife (does he have just one?—I can’t keep track) is the person whom has just won awards for Best Director and Best Picture…. for making a movie about war. Is Hollywood trying to upgrade the status of women in movie-making?…. or is Hollywood totally nuts at this point? Or is Hollywood actually, kinda, waking up to reality?

And like, dude, should we even care?

LA replies:

In my view, we shouldn’t care. I have paid no attention to the Academy Awards and haven’t watched the annual Awards program for 15 or 20 years. Conservatives (such as the “conservatives” at National Review) who treat that cesspool as worthy of note, who still act as though there is some legitimate meaning in the fact that a particular movie has won this or that Academy Award, show that they are still inside the left culture, taking its standards and assumptions as their own, instead of fundamentally rejecting them and having nothing to do with them

And this is central to the deeply inadequate “conservatism” we have today. That conservatism rejects a few liberal political positions, while automatically signing on to the hyper liberal culture in which we are immersed. That culture, in its power to deform humanity, is a more important and influential aspect of liberalism than liberal politics.

As for the movies you mention, I saw Avatar in the theaters a few weeks ago and the first 40 minutes of The Hurt Locker on DVD a week ago.

Avatar, while not a good movie, was not horrendously bad and painful as was Cameron’s previous movie Titanic, a movie that turned one of the most dramatic and interesting events of history into a cheesy neo-Marxist backdrop for a ridiculous love story written for teen age girls. Contrary to what many liberals and conservatives have said, I don’t see Avatar as a significant or powerful liberal ideological statement, since its liberal content largely consists of cliches—cliches so hoary they are laughable. I laughed out loud when we first see the Na’vi princess’s fiance, since we’ve seen the identical character in a hundred Western movies, the fierce and overly touchy young brave. Cameron even has the Na’vi do war whoops like American Indians. Far from being a sign of a vital liberalism, the movie shows how hackneyed and exhausted is the liberal imagination. Cameron’s original intent with the movie, as he has said in interviews, was to denounce American civilization for its destruction of the Native Indian cultures, while he also added that we shouldn’t feel guilty about that. He seems to see displacements of this nature as a tragic inevitability. And in fact the movie reflects that ambivalence (or balance if you will). I can’t see any sane individual walking out of this movie resenting white America as an oppressive system, since the main villain, the colonel, is a comic book villain, not a real character that anyone would take seriously. Also, the bad guys under his command include some nonwhites.

The creation of the Na’vi was interesting and to me was the only worthwhile part of the movie. Afterward I read up on the performance capture technique that Cameron developed in order to make Avatar and it is fascinating. A human actor’s most subtle expressions are automatically transposed onto the features of a computerized character. The actor’s faces were divided into a grid consisting of perhaps hundreds of squares, and his computerized doppelgänger would have a similar grid. The actors had small cameras suspended in front of their faces during shooting of scenes, capturing their every muscle contraction, which then got transposed to the face of the computer character. What this means is that the computerized character does not have to resemble the actor. There is not much resemblance between the actress, Zoe Saldana, and the Na’vi princess whom she played (well, there’s some), but all of Saldana’s expressions are translated onto the princess’s face. I find that amazing. There are webpages about the making of Avatar where you can see the actor on one screen and his computerized version on the other. This technique opens up wonderful possibilities for animated movies.

The 3-D aspect was distracting at first, but after a while I felt it worked very well.

Unfortunately, this marvelous creation didn’t come to much, because, instead of opening up and exploring this Cameron-created fantasy world with a compelling dramatic story, Avatar was dominated by the standard extreme fight-action / chase scenes which must have taken up a third to a half of the movie. This over-the-top type of “action,” in which the heroes undergo things that in reality would have pulverized them ten times over yet still emerge victorious and unscathed, totally destroys any suspension of disbelief and thus this viewer’s ability to get involved in the movie.

The noble adventure movie genre is long dead, destroyed by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s when he made action sequences that consisted of injecting the maximum possible number of sensations and thrills into a given duration of film. To get an idea of what we have lost as a result of Spielberg’s innovation, think, for example, of Kirk Douglas’s gladiatorial combat with Woody Strode in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1961), an intensely involving, tragic scene, compared with the typical fight scene in Ridley Scott’s dreadful Gladiator (2000), a jumbled mess in which the camera is so close to the action that you can’t see who is hitting whom. The supplanting of dramatically meaningful human action by meaningless, intense sensation is a prime expression of the Vitalist Stage of Nihilism which dominates so much of our culture. But it’s worse than Vitalism; it’s an extremely decadent form of Nihilism which doesn’t even deliver genuine excitement.

As for The Hurt Locker, I stopped watching it after 40 minutes, when I realized that the movie had no plot but consisted of one vignette after another consisting of the standard jumbled camera work plus emotional tension and fear without let-up. I thought it was worthless, and had no interest in continuing with it.

To repeat what I said at the start, I’m completely indifferent as to which movie won the Academy Award for best picture or best director, though I admit I’m surprised that The Hurt Locker—a movie that to me had no appeal at all—beat Avatar, which has some entertainment value.

March 10

Nik S. writes:

I enjoyed your comments about the Oscars. I also appreciate how you take many disparate topics—politics, art, religion, etc—and weave them together into great coherence and meaning.

LA replies:

Thank you very much.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 08, 2010 03:59 PM | Send

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