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Pandora’s Box: Avatar Sparks Debate in China

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James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is well on its way to becoming a global cultural phenomenon. The director’s latest mash-up of romance, action, and big-budget special effects has, like his previous film Titanic, drawn in record setting audiences across the globe. From New York to Shanghai, people have waited for hours to immerse themselves in Avatar’s 3-D fantasy world, an alien planet called Pandora.

In the West, Avatar has been praised more for its feats of technical ingenuity than its unsophisticated stance on such social ills as corporate greed, environmental degradation, and colonialism. But in China, Cameron’s depiction of the struggle between ruthless developers and the alien Na’vi has opened an unexpected Pandora’s Box. The film has provoked both praise and criticism from Chinese viewers, who see parallels between the movie’s plot and one of the nation’s most prominent social issues: the forced removal of Chinese citizens from their homes for government development projects.

With few exceptions, land in China is owned by the state. Although private citizens can lease land for varying periods, the government retains strong privileges of eminent domain, and it often exercises its power to claim prime pieces of real estate for development. The reasons for these seizures range from the benign to the corrupt. While some lands are claimed for essential public works projects, others become shopping malls and vacation resorts, cash cows to line the pockets of China’s elite.

Public opposition to these seizures has always existed. But as Chinese real estate values skyrocket and land confiscations cost residents more than ever, the number and visibility of protests have shot up. Passive resistance has become a popular strategy for those threatened by eminent domain, and the Chinese media is increasingly filled with stories of brave homeowners facing down bulldozers. In a recent case that galvanized public opinion, a woman set herself on fire rather than allow developers to force her from her home.

In this environment, Avatar has set off a firestorm of controversy. Across the Chinese blogosphere, debate has focused on the parallels between the movie’s story and recent incidents in China, prompting some to wonder if Cameron’s film might be intended as an attack on the Chinese government. Others have rallied behind the film, arguing that it has raised public awareness of the unfairness of China’s eminent domain laws. Writing in the government-run newspaper China Daily, Raymond Zhou noted, “[Avatar has] inadvertently hit… a nerve in a country where the bulldozer is a sign of both progress and threat.”

While in the U.S. controversy often translates into increased ticket sales, in China, it is equally likely to get a movie banned. Chinese officials have become increasingly worried about domestic instability arising from public dissatisfaction with government policies, and they have moved to quash potential sources of disquiet, censoring social networking sites, gagging novelists, and applying pressure to foreign events that feature Chinese dissidents. Now, as the debate surrounding Avatar heats up, prominent media critics are speculating that the film might disappear from Chinese theaters. If that were to happen, the decision would no doubt come as a shock to Cameron, who is more often criticized for his films’ enormous budgets than their political content.

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.

This Is Michael Jackson

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I’m not sure what made me so certain I wanted to see Michael Jackson’s This Is It.  It wasn’t the reviews, I hadn’t read any.  In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it, except for the trailer that came on in the middle of the baseball game and made my eyes grow wide and something tingle in my rear-brain. (I’m not even much of a cinema-goer these days, Netflix is more my speed.) And it wasn’t that I considered myself a “fan” exactly. Over the last decade, like most on-lookers, I’ve cringed at news of Jackson’s bizarre personal life and shuddered at the barrage of tabloid visuals chronicling his macabre cosmetological quests and seeming death-by-emaciation.

But there I was, at Magic Johnson Theaters in Harlem, on a Friday night.  I dragged a semi-willing friend, paid for his ticket. “The early show,” he’d said, dreading the crowds that I (not-quite-consciously) was seeking.  “Fine,” I said, a concession. The audience for the 5:30 show was sparse.  Older people and younger people mostly; a scattering of children.

I don’t think I have ever in my life left a movie theater and immediately called someone to say, “You have to see this,” which is exactly what I did once the credits finished rolling.  (Okay, in fact, I sent a text – mesmerizing…nourishing…body and soul – but only because I was embarrassed in front of my friend.)  My friend did not share my enthusiasm.  Shoddy filmmaking, sub-quality sound, packaged product, blah blah blah.  (He’s a media guy, of course).  I was incredulous, aghast, I wanted to throttle him.  The last time I got this emotional over a movie was… never.

Reading a few reviews afterward, I gathered that critics who were lukewarm cited the same “rough” feel of the film.  Indeed, it is a patchwork; highlights from Jackson’s more than 100 hours of taped rehearsals for the 50-concert comeback tour that he and director Kenny Ortega were preparing for when Jackson died in June.  The footage, intended for Jackson’s personal archives, never aimed for movie-quality.  But herein lay my incredulity; what could be more compelling than film footage of the King of Pop so clearly not meant for our eyes?

I was nine years old when Thriller came out; it stayed on the charts for two years.  So Michael hit me at the heart of my tweens, back when there was no such consumer category, technically speaking, and yet I can’t imagine why not.  I was the youngest of three girls, and so in a sense I was nine, eleven, and thirteen all at once.  (Imagine if Titanic had come out in 1982; instead of moon walking, I suppose we would have learned to hock loogies, stand on our tippie-tippie toes, and sketch nudes.)   But then, watching This Is It, it all came back to me — the trauma, the apparently repressed memory: my sisters trotting off to the Thriller tour concert at RFK Stadium with their friends (Jill and Lisa, also sisters, their age), waving their glitter-gloved hands at me.  I’d been deemed too young.

Regardless.  For two years, we played and replayed our Thriller LP and 45-singles.  When Michael performed or when his videos premiered, we were glued to the TV,  we had never seen anything like him before.  No one had.  He didn’t just dance, it seemed as if he was inventing the human body. I am no Joan Acocella, I don’t mean to make grand statements that make dance aficionados and scholars of Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov, and Nijinski scoff.  But, Christ Almighty.

We were budding adolescents, we hated and feared our bodies, we were figuring out so many dark and exhilarating and terrifying things about these fleshy vehicles that were taking on a life of their own; and here came Michael.  He made the jiggling and slithering of our bodies cool, and creative, and communal, and fun.  As we left childhood behind (or it left us behind), our bodies’ shapes and sizes—the ways in which we were able to adjust and make ourselves appealing (to ourselves, to others) or not—would begin to separate us, create cruel physiocracies.  But back then, for a time, a short time with eternal qualities, Michael brought us together, he synchronized us.

We shimmied our shoulders and clapped our hands over our heads; we wore black loafers and white socks and kick-twisted our right legs like karate chops; we threw our arms out in front of us, limp and aggressive at once, revving invisible motorcycle handles.  Right arm left leg, left arm right leg.  Pull and pelvis, pull and pelvis.  We practiced practiced practiced. Like infants, we discovered our limbs anew.  We fully inhabited our bodies, un-self-consciously; perhaps for the last time.

We sang, hooted, and hiccupped.  Later (because we discovered Off the Wall and The Jackson Five later), we wept because she was out of our lives, and we recruited the neighbor kids so that we could, in rapid-fire succession, spin around on the balls of our feets and bow down while we rolled our fists.

Even the boys loved Michael; even the boys.  It wasn’t “gay” to love Michael. To us, he was beyond sexuality, he was, in a way, the answer to sexuality before we could even articulate the questions.  His whisper-high voice and crotch thrusting was unquestionably, miraculously, of a piece.

We were not there when Jack Kennedy was elected, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  We were not there when Rosa Parks refused to stand up or when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream.  We were not there for Elvis Presley, or James Brown, or The Beatles.  We were not there for Stonewall or Roe v. Wade.  We were not there for much, because we came of age in the ‘80s.  But we were there, we were all there, for Michael Jackson.

“I’ll be there,” he sang, and as kids we waved our arms like we never did in church.  But would he?  Would Jackson be all there in This Is It?  I braced myself, as many viewers did, for God knows what.

At first, the shaky-grainy cam frustratingly keeps us from making determinations about just how decrepit and grotesque he’s become.  We are aware of our own morbid urge to ogle him; we want to know, we want to see, if the circus-show is on. We enter his and Ortega’s world fully expecting to remain the subject to Jackson’s object; we are the upstanding humans, he is the ravaged creature.  Then, in one rehearsal segment, he is gloveless and without the bandages we’ve often seen mysteriously flagging his fingertips; he gestures dramatically, the camera shot is straight on, we see his hands.  His hands, his real flesh and substance, the flesh, yes, of a 50-year-old man. He is thick-fingered—a contrast to his pencil-stick legs—nails slightly long.  From that moment on, for me, Jackson begins to inhabit the screen.

The collage-edited rehearsal footage is the meat of the film, the marvel and privilege of seeing Jackson in action—hands-on with musicians, dancers, and back-up vocalists, all marveling at the privilege as well.  Ortega succeeds in showing us that MJ is and always was a man who, as one of the musicians puts it, “knows his music,” and for whom, as Ortega himself puts it, “everything is larger than life.”  He comes across as a perfectionist of both artistry and kindness.  “It’s not right, but that’s OK,” he says. “It’s all for love.” Then, “Just get it there.”  Fascinating especially is seeing his creative intuition, both exacting and ethereal, at work:  “Let it sizzle,” he says, or “It has to bathe in the moonlight.”  His music director asks him to let him know if the arrangement needs more “booty.”  “That’s funny,” Jackson says, to which the music director replies, “Yeah, but you know exactly what I mean.”  In a rehearsal for a particularly fun black-and-white Hollywood homage set to “Smooth Criminal”– featuring Jackson in a white pinstripe suit and spliced into interactions with Rita Hayworth (from Gilda) and Humphrey Bogart—Ortega and Jackson discuss cues, i.e. Jackson wanting to revise the timing for his entry.  But how will he know to begin, Ortega asks, without the music to cue him; to which Jackson replies, thoughtful but confident, “I’ll just have to feel that.”

The rehearsals draw heavily from MJ’s older hits, notably from Thriller, which satisfies most of the fans; but we also get a Jackson Five segment, and later hits like “They Don’t Care About Us ” “Man in The Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”  He sings each song as if it’s new, as if he’s listening for its (re)birth right then in the moment; and yet still aware, distinctly, of the fans.  “I want it to sound like how they hear it,” he says.  “If it works on the album, that’s how I want it.”

The choreography belongs of course to MJ, and in no other realm is it clearer who’s in charge. Before the final round of dance auditions, Ortega tells prospects that “dancers in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson.”  Writes David Edelstein in his review: “And they do seem projections of his will: He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and crew.”   We recognize the dance moves, and we can’t believe how good they (still) are. His dancers, half his age at least, seem to bring the muscular pump of hip-hop with them into their movement (how could they not), but it’s still MJ’s crackle and pop that electrifies the stage.

For decades, we’ve seen dancers imitate the moves that have become as familiar as any ballroom standard; but when Michael does them—yes, 50 years old, and  fallen from grace, so they’ve told us—we are reminded of the crucial, dare I say spiritual difference between imitation and original.  When Michael Jackson is center stage, his “extensions” following his lead, it’s not merely entertainment, or even art; it’s phenomenon.  Watching him move again, all these years later – with such precision, and emanating the thrusting, gyrating “goo” and “ooze” exhorted upon the auditioning dancers – is like the very confirmation of one’s true sight; we were there, we were not deluded, we were not imagining things.  The emperor’s clothes are real and they are fabulous. It’s all deeply, healingly of a piece, witch-hunting sexuality police be damned. This is Michael Jackson.

And this, I suppose, is the takeaway.  Michael Jackson was real until the day of his death, despite the media’s honing in on drug dosages and Neverland.  For all the emotional and psychological damage he may have suffered and projected, something in him remained whole, thriving, larger than life.  Something elemental and tangible, evidenced in his creative process, his movement, even his temperament—all of which is on display in This is It in a way (we ambivalently recognize) most of us may never have been able to witness had Jackson lived to make his comeback.

It’s not that the data disappears in a poof.  The day after I saw This Is It, I read through a detailed MJ bio at MTV.com that enumerated the blow-by-blow of his maudlin man-child exploits, perplexing creative detours (those final minutes of the “Black or White” video indeed disturbing), and somewhat creepy Messiah complex. I took it all in, weighing it together with what I had just seen and experienced (and remembered), and was certainly tempted to go the route of cynicism and disappointment: corporate packaging for mass consumption, MJ just another artist qua commodity, even/especially in death.  Silly schoolgirl me, eating it all up, like so many mindless consumers the debt-ridden Jackson Estate must be counting on.

Indeed, if This Is It were a film that Jackson himself had creatively controlled, that cynic’s myth—of irredeemable darkness and degeneracy—may well have supplanted the original myth of genius.  In this sense, Jackson was possibly his own worst enemy, feeding media distortions with prismatic fun-house refractions he couldn’t somehow escape or manage. But This Is It, ultimately more honest in its accidental conception than any hyper-crafted concert movie could have been, makes a welcome argument of which Jackson himself may have approved: trust your instinct, trust your sight… let it all bathe in the moonlight.

Surprise Me!