Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.
When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage
A decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.
The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.
Regardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.
Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?
Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.
Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?
It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.
That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.
And that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.
This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.
Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways. Either way, it was all I had.
So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?
Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.
This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.
As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.
It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.
Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.
 Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”
In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.
Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.
Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.
This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.
In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.
Ken Burns’s series The Civil War turns twenty years old this month. A plain old documentary it isn’t; in fact, by the standards of most “historical” documentaries, it lacks a certain testicular fortitude. It boasts neither flashy 3-D maps nor live-action re-enactments; what few live shots there are of battlefields were mostly taken after dusk, giving them a surreal, almost dreamlike quality. Its scoring is simple, its narration restrained. It is, well, rather bookish.
For starters, it is expansive in subject and magisterial (some might say boring, but then, people say that about books in general) in pacing. It has a distinctive style, both in terms of the visuals and the narration. It is split into chapters and sub-sections, with little digressions from the main narrative in between.
Like the back of a dust jacket, the film also parades out the literati. We hear quotations from Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and John Stuart Mill; we see interviews with writers like Shelby Foote and William Safire; we even hear literary giants doing voice overs – Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman, Studs Terkel as Benjamin Butler, Garrison Keillor as almost everyone from New England, and Kurt Vonnegut, though his specific role isn’t listed.
Superficialities aside: The Civil War has an argument to make. It does not glorify its subject. As historian Barbara Fields puts it, the Civil War was an “ugly, filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all.” And the documentary hammers that point home by placing all those stories of brilliant generalship and courage and gallantry alongside accounts and pictures of the human cost of “honorable manhood.” So, at the same time that we hear Stonewall Jackson proclaim that “God has been good to us this day” after the battle of Antietam – the bloodiest single-day battle in American history – the camera pans over rows of Confederate dead in Bloody Lane. And we hear Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s account of nightfall after the battle of Fredericksburg, during which time he and his decimated regiment huddled against the frozen ground, using dead bodies as protection against continuing Confederate fire, for as long as we hear about the battle itself.
But neither does it entirely vilify the war, Michael Moore-style. Instead, Burns casts the Civil War as an armed extension of a national conversation, one that touched on race, rights, justice, the organization of society, and much else besides. And Burns reminds the viewer that the center of the conversation – for all the talk of states’ rights, tradition, economics, electoral wrangling, and voter disillusionment – was always slavery.
It’s surprising, then, to be reminded that slavery was in the 1860s not a clear-cut moral issue, but a debated political topic. Burns throws cold water on abolitionists like Horace Greeley and even The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, himself, as their political support for abolition wavers in the face of military defeats and an unpopular war. Conversely, he shows the conviction with which some Southerners clung to the wrong side of history, even those without a particular animus against slaves, such as Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” Only former slave Frederick Douglass holds his course throughout the entire war; everyone else takes years to admit, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “emancipation is the demand of civilization; all else is intrigue.”
And it doesn’t rely on words alone to make the point that slavery was the issue of the war. For much of the first few episodes, we’re treated mostly to traditional European and American folk instruments – piano, fiddle, guitar, and the occasional brass band. But after the Emancipation Proclamation is announced in episode 3, we start to hear something new: the human voice. The episode ends with the Abyssinian Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and from then on the music of gospel choirs begins to leaven all of the instrumentals. One colonel called the singing of freed slaves right after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued “the choked voice of a race at last unloosed”; Burns seems to have taken that to heart.
So The Civil War describes its subject as a story of national redemption that came close to failure many times. And he shows that all of the gentlemanly military stuff was a thin veneer of civilization over a five-year-long nightmare of butchery. It’s a brave argument to make, when so much of our collective memory of the Civil War has more to do with half-remembered textbook summaries and re-enactments – both live and on television – than with reality. And in an age where most historical documentaries are content to celebrate warfare, or wax nostalgic for a world in which moral issues were clear-cut, Ken Burns’s refusal to do so really does seem old-fashioned. But old-fashioned, in this case, is no bad thing.
Which makes The Civil War pretty book-like, in the best sense of the word. As novelist and professor of law Stephen L. Carter wrote, “Books are essential to democracy… Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share. And if we are willing to work our way through difficult texts, we are far more likely to be willing to work our way through our opponents’ difficult ideas.”
In other words, The Civil War simply relies on a constant immersion in a world of challenging and complex ideas. And that makes it just like the best books out there.
Avatar tells the tale of injured soldier Jake Sully who travels to the forest moon Pandora and finds himself taken in by a race of primitive space furies called the Na’Vi. Unfortunately, the evil corporation he works for wants to bulldoze the sacred rainforest around the tribe’s Hometree and Sully—who has fallen in love with the chief’s daughter Netyiri—must become the sacred tribe’s greatest warrior, most brilliant strategist and most powerful spiritual leader in order to save the space natives from the powerful white/male/military/industrial/capitalist conglomeration of evil…and he only has three months to do it!
Of course, I might just have easily said the injured soldier John Dunbar, the forest moon of Endor, the sacred forest of FernGully, and the princess Pocahontas. Avatar’s story has allegedly been kicking around James Cameron’s head since he made his last feature (1997’s Titanic) yet the plot is a stale composite of clichés and borrowed elements that feels as if it was cobbled together in a weekend’s time. The minute you are introduced to The Native Princess, The Evil Military Man, The Greedy Businessman and the rest of the cardboard cut-outs that populate Avatar, you know the entire plot. In fact, you even know the exact words they will say. A great battle is about to start? “Let’s dance.” A villain returns for a final fight? “Come get some!” A new world is introduced? “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Here I was hoping for some character to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, sir, what is a ‘Kansas’ exactly?” “Geez, I’m not sure. I think it was a province a century ago when earth was divided into nation states before the great unification war? Not sure why I just thought of it.”)
I don’t mean to imply that Avatar is wholly unoriginal. Cameron does imbue his world with a New Agey environmental-mysticism that is capped by his aliens having USB cords in their ponytails. These fashionable cables can be plugged into various wild critters to brain-rape them into obedience. Surely a shrewd marketing move to capture the pre-teen female audience by letting them live out their fantasies of becoming one with a pony.
But perhaps storytelling, dialogue, and acting are not what you go to a sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza for. You go for the visuals, the epic scope and, especially with Avatar, the awesome special effects. And they are awesome. As mediocre as Avatar is on most levels, the visuals alone make the film worth viewing once—at least in theaters with 3D capabilities (it is almost criminal that some theaters are showing this in 2D.). Avatar is not the first film to effectively use 3D technology, but it is the first blockbuster to do so. No more sticks pointing out of the screen or freaky inhuman CGI characters—yes, Robert Zemeckis, I’m looking at you—Avatar keeps the 3D unobtrusive yet totally immersive. The CGI for the Na’vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora are wonderful, using the same performance capture technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings.
A related area of success in the film is the world’s design. From the floating mountains to fireworks lizards and shrinking mushrooms, the world of Pandora is gorgeously designed and rendered. Indeed the Na’Vi themselves, with their glow-in-the-dark Smurf skin and necklaces that magically always cover their nipples to preserve a PG-13 rating, are the weakest element in a film that is otherwise flawlessly designed.
If this was a screen saver, you’d have to say James Cameron did one heck of a job. Unfortunately, it is a film and all the other aspects feel glossed over.
I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy. Not just the plot and dialogue—which approach prequel George Lucas levels—but the staging, directing and world building as well. Yes, I know I just said the creatures are fantastically designed—a process Cameron apparently left largely up to his artists—but conceptually they are merely space versions of your local zoo population. The film does not succeed in transporting you to a truly alien world ala the Star Wars films. Couldn’t Cameron have made aliens that conjured aboriginal earth tribes without copying them wholesale? Why are these otherworldly beings wearing tribal beads and shooting arrows with feathered tails and rock tips? Is there nothing about their world that would provide unique weapons or clothing or at least alien-looking versions of earth items?
Visually the 3D graphics are overwhelming, but the scenes themselves contain little of interest. The final battle in particular is epic fluff. The tactics are nonsense (the Na’vi aren’t smart enough to drop logs into the helicopter blades so instead attack them with bow and arrows?) and the scenes are lazily staged. The closest thing to a visually arresting moment in the film is when a bunch of flying seeds collectively give Sully a planet-spirit hug while he stands on a neon log.
In short, we have the imagery but where is the imagination?
Unlike many sci-fi films, I would not say that there are any gaping plot holes that ruin the story. That doesn’t mean it makes much sense. What is the point of the entire avatar program? According to the film, the genetically-engineered bodies—which are controlled remotely by humans—are there to work diplomacy with the Na’Vi and convince them to leave their magic tree so that the “unobtanium” mineral beneath it can be mined. But why does an evil corporation need to spend untold billions creating human-Na’Vi hybrid bio-robots just to do a little diplomacy? The Na’Vi are aware that the avatars are not authentic and indeed the humans have avatar-sized human clothing (Sigourney Weaver dances around in short-shorts and a Stanford tank top) so why not just send some people out in mech suits to negotiate?
On that note, what kind of futuristic mercenary military outfits half its soldiers with powerful robot armor yet sticks Jake Sully in a 40 dollar wheelchair from Wal-Mart? They don’t even have some kind of Segway wheelchair in the year 2154?
And then of course there is the film’s politics, which are muddier than some critics seem to think. In addition to the inherent silliness of spending several hundred million dollars and creating your own digital cameras to critique technologically-driven capitalism, the film’s cultural imperialism has rightly been widely derided. Building a film around the idea that a native population is too stupid to take care of itself and requires a white man to save them is a problematic premise to start from.
And then again there is also the acting. Credit should go to Stephen Lang for pumping some life into the evil colonel, but Weaver is uncharacteristically stilted as the good scientist Dr. Augustine and Worthington is as animated as a mulch pile. Wooden acting is one thing when the characters are Terminator robots, but Sam Worthington’s Sully is supposed to be the character we relate to and his performance drags down the film whenever he is in human form or doing voiceovers (the latter of which are almost universally unbearable. Worthington lulls you to sleep with his dull monotone only to wake you with groan-inducing lines like “I hope this tree-hugging crap isn’t on the final exam.”)
I don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with?
But one must give credit where credit is due. In making a film whose virtues are entirely wrapped up in the 3-D theater visuals, Cameron has succeeded in making the first film in some time which simply must be seen in theaters. You would get no enjoyment watching this film on your iPhone or bootlegging it on your laptop. (Remember how the visuals were mocked when the trailer was shown on TV and online?) So perhaps the hype about Avatar saving the industry is not entirely imaginary. Cameron has shown us that flashy special effects and marketing hype can still draw huge crowds to the theater. Here is to hoping those who follow in his technological footsteps bother to spend a little time on their scripts.
My mom kept an old VHS copy of Bye Bye Birdie, recorded from a television broadcast, complete with commercial interruptions. I watched it at least once a month in junior high, so the opening moments of the second episode of the third season of Mad Men was a sense-memory jolt back to my childhood. The advertising executives and writers of Sterling Cooper sit around a long table in the projection room, watching the opening number of the Bye Bye Birdie film: Ann-Margret (born Ann-Margret Olsson) sings the title song, running towards and away from a camera that pushes in and pulls back on her, like the girl and camera are engaged in a coquettish, flirtatious dance.
The clip from Bye Bye Birdie, and the subsequent discussion of Ann-Margret’s allure, provide a framework for the episode of Mad Men. Pepsi wants Sterling Cooper to design a Birdie rip-off to advertise their new diet cola product. However, that advertising-related story is simply the element that pulls Bye Bye Birdie into the character’s lives. What the characters do as a result of watching provides their emotional story arcs for the episode.
Most television shows incorporate some popular books, movies, music, and even other television shows into their story lines. But most of the time, those references are shallow. In The O.C., loveable geek Seth Cohen would rattle off the names of whatever indie band was the new cool thing; in an episode of Six Feet Under, an ill-fated day-player read the then-hot book Fast Food Nation as a golf ball struck her in the head. She died and the book, a glorified prop, fell out of her hands.
A popular trend of this type is for geeky characters to use the word “Frak,” a minced oath developed in a burst of genius by Glen Larson, the creator of the original version of the geek-popular sci-fi series Battlestar Gallatica. Kudos to the other writers, who realized they could use it as an FCC-approved profanity too, so long as it was coming out of the mouths of geeky characters. (And doesn’t Seth Cohen just wish he were around to get a piece of that action!)
One reason these references are used is to tie a television show’s characters or world to our world, the “real world,” and to trick us into believing they live in it. Another reason is to trick us into thinking a character is cool, because they consume “cool” media. Pop culture references are an easy way to write quick characterization. A guy walks into the room and mentions the new issue of Green Lantern, you know what kind of guy he’s going to be.
These references are sometimes cloddish or clumsy, and work against the writers by calling attention to themselves. However, I love it when television shows reference other television shows. I enjoy the mixing of media, watching a world where the geeks say “frak” for fun, right after watching a world where “fuck” would be the strange-sounding replacement profanity.
Mad Men does something different, though, something better. The show’s writers use media references not just in passing, not just to create basic plot lines, but to develop emotional arcs for the characters. The characters in Mad Men react emotionally to the media they consume, just like we do in real life.
After seeing Bye Bye Birdie with a gang of salivating boys (and one closeted homosexual pretending to salivate), the only female copywriter at Sterling Cooper, Peggy Olson (same surname as Ann-Margret) goes on a related emotional journey, trying to find herself in the world of alluring women. Peggy Olson tries, and both fails and succeeds, to be sexy.
Peggy, dancing in front of her mirror Ann-Margret style and failing to entice, breaks your heart. Later, Peggy picks up a college kid at a bar using a joke stolen from the always sexy office manager, Joan. The kid is lame, a messy eater, and assumes she’s a secretary – but we know why Peggy goes home with him. Though part of us is silently begging her not to bag the loser, we are also elated that she’s able to.
And as viewers, we know how Peggy feels. All the books and movies and music and TV around us help to define our relationships with others and our views of ourselves.
The characters of Mad Men seem more like real people because their relationships with their pop culture are deep and emotional ones, because what they watch and read and buy affects the course of their lives and the way they see themselves. Even if I didn’t care about Bye Bye Birdie, Peggy’s emotional reaction to the film means more to me as a viewer than another character name-checking the year’s coolest new band.