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Avatar: Dances with Clichés

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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.

The Screwed Up World of Amy and Jordan


Comic books and outsider art share an unspoken kinship. Both were once reviled as the products of deranged minds, unfit for artistic recognition, but both are finally achieving legitimacy. Outsider art now generally refers to untrained artists working outside the mainstream art market, but it began as a condescending term for the art of children, the insane, and socially marginalized groups–until recently, the supposed readership of comic books. Films like The Soloist and In the Realms of the Unreal make the unhinged, destitute savant a recognizable trope, and Hollywood is discovering that the “graphic novel” end of the comics spectrum can be just as popular as the standard Marvel fare. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was crowned one of Time’s 100 Best Novels, and fine writers like Harvey Pekar, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and Alison Bechdel are getting their due as well.

I hope Mark Beyer’s work will find a place in the canon. His masterpiece Amy and Jordan brings the aesthetic and neurosis of outsider art to comic books. Amy and Jordan is a series of four panel strips that ran in the free paper New York Press from 1988 to 1996. Beyer published a few books, but Amy and Jordan disappeared without a trace (except perhaps for boxes of newspaper clippings saved by devotees), until Pantheon released a collection of 292 strips in 2004. The resulting book is a treasure of the comics medium.

[image source: Pantheon]

Amy and Jordan has only three recurring characters: the eponymous couple and Amy’s sickly son Ba Tilsdale, who dies of neglect but occasionally returns as an ominous statue. Amy and Jordan’s relationship is antagonistic, yet they’re resigned to being stuck with each other–somewhere between Akbar and Jeff and Vladimir and Estragon. They share a decrepit apartment (critics speculate that they live on the Lower East Side) and slog through various mediocre jobs. Each strip chronicles a mysterious or unfortunate occurrence. The minor, disheartening tribulations of urban life–navigating the subway, run-ins with weirdos, vermin–take on monstrous proportions, and the city becomes a horrific carnival of disaster. Amy and Jordan are menaced by “demons carrying carving knives” and gigantic insects, and plagued by poisoned food. Many of the strips combine ordinary annoyance with surreal violence: when Jordan goes outside to ask a crazy man to stop screaming, the man responds unexpectedly: “He’s wrapped his snakelike tongue around my body. I’m paralyzed. I can’t move! Well it’s good. Now Amy can sleep unmolested.” Beyer’s stilted, clunky dialogue makes even the most disturbing events funny, and his characters’ reactions to tragedy are gruesomely pragmatic. Upon discovering that their neighbor’s apartment is full of murdered children, Jordan equivocates: “He’s a mean, spiteful, bitter, ugly old man. When he dies nobody will care. On the other hand maybe I’m wrong. I suppose he has some endearing traits.” Amy and Jordan’s pre-Giuliani New York is full of abandoned babies, suicidal neighbors, and malevolent children. Watching the parade of downtrodden souls trudging past their window, Amy concludes, “The world is a horrible place filled with terrible people.” This is grim stuff, but Beyer’s fantastically inventive artwork keeps his world from sinking into despondence.

Beyer’s artwork pushes the comic strip format in a tradition extending back to Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland, who distorted and destroyed the panels in his strips. While many comic strip writers simplify their characters into a few recognizable pen strokes, Amy and Jordan’s malleable forms reflect the instability of their world. His work displays many characteristics of outsider art, such as horror vacui, the need to fill every millimeter of space with detail, and obsessive repetition of shapes and patterns. His work is very similar in theme and content to that of Martín Ramírez and Madge Gill, two heavyweights in outsider art. It is also beautiful, exciting work. His bold black and white compositions and bizarre images create an indelible impression on the reader. Beyer is untrained, and can be considered a legitimate outsider artist, but he is unusual in communicating equally well in image and text. Henry Darger wrote the world’s longest book, but his images are more powerful than his text. Beyer balances the tone of his dialogue and depiction perfectly–the ultimate feat for a graphic novel. His cityscapes are oppressively whimsical, their disintegration into pattern creating a mood of menace.

Urban horror is a favorite theme of comic books. The Dark Knight captured the hatred and fear of the city that characterizes “edgy” comics like Transmetropolitan. Although I love Batman, the squalid city always struck me as a dishonest, conservative simplification. Amy and Jordan’s urban hell is free of Manichean dichotomies, and its everyday absurdity is more realistic than Gotham. Rather than battling evil or gleefully embodying it, Amy and Jordan are just as ambiguous as the city. Their moral code is constantly in flux, responding to their situations or capricious urges. Jordan bandages a bleeding stranger with his shirt, and boasts “Don’t ever let it be said that I’m not a great humanitarian!” Later, he tries to sell Amy’s crying son in a pawnshop. The protagonists’ relationship is similarly erratic. Both seethe with resentment, plot against each other, and blame each other for their degradation; yet sometimes they are almost sweet. Jordan brings Amy a teddy bear (unaware that it’s infested by termites), and Amy reassures Jordan, “I don’t think of you as dung, even if everyone else does!”

Beyer’s ghoulish visions turn what is probably crushing personal trauma into art. Most outsider art is a compulsive attempt to maintain the artist’s sanity, and this desperation is palpable in Beyer’s gallows humor and frantic crosshatching. Too many comics coast on manufactured nihilism, but Amy and Jordan feels like an act of exorcism, transmuting real anguish into entertainment. It is a testament to the the survival instinct. Amy and Jordan fly through life on irrational optimism, and it seems that creating them lets Beyer do the same.

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