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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Anyone who buys a ticket to see Avatar is going to see technology on display. That’s what all the press has been about, that’s why the film has won awards, that’s why it sold out my local IMAX ™ theater on Friday night (some two months after its original release). Despite its pseudo new-age lust for the natural, the film is a gluttonous celebration of technology.

Couched as a struggle between a money-hungry and heartless corporation and a peaceful tribe wholly in tune with nature, the film sells viewers the latter but delivers the former with more technological firepower than the mercenary (ex-)marines it features as bad guys. The thin script and the cast’s paltry performances are literally no match for the fantastical animations and imaginary worlds brought to life by director James Cameron and his animation army. Any shred of humanity or trace of emotion, connection or affect is churned under the unrelenting barrage of computer-generated images (in 3D!) that seem to pile up, one after another, each trying to out-do the last without any sense of fun or excitement (indeed, rather than exploratory or curious, the film takes a rather triumphant, and, dare I say militaristic approach to showing just what technology can do).

That might be the film’s act of hubris, but here’s what I find even more troubling about my two-and-a-half hour journey on Pandora: Once you can do anything with computers and computer animation, I find it harder to be impressed. Once the door to imagination is thrown completely wide open, and computers are capable of rendering anything imaginable on screen, then what’s the big deal of having 8-foot-tall blue characters or fiddle ferns the side of SUV’s? Once you can make computers do anything, what’s the big deal when they do anything, at all? Once anything is possible, who cares what happens? It’s the cinematic equivalent of eternal life (lord knows, the film felt about that long) — it may last a long time, but why does it matter?

Avatar at once captures the gluttonous revelry of technology and its absolute failures. Cameron’s attempt to critique technology in the film ultimately collapses beneath the film’s bloated, burdensome reliance on technology to tell this story. Yet, at the same time, the film’s meta-emphasis on its own story-telling technology so radically opened up the possibilities of animation that it diminished its own ability to highlight those very possibilities. In this way, the film fails twice and twice as hard.

But ultimately, for all its technophilia and bloated self-promotion, and notwithstanding the awards it has won and will win, the film’s greatest failure seems to be not technological, but human. For all its armament and animation, the film’s greatest failure was its absence of any real, human imagination at all. There is still no technology powerful enough to hide hackneyed plot points, recycled dialogue, and flat acting. By letting technology tell the story, Avatar obliterates its desire to tell a human story, leaving only a trail of computer-generated fantasy worlds in its wake.

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All Idiot, no America

Last week I went to see Berkeley Rep‘s much-hyped staging of a rock opera set to Green Day‘s 2003 concept album American Idiot. This seemed like a sure-fire winner of an evening. I am a huge fan of the album, I grew up in Berkeley, Green Day famously got their “start” at 924 Gilman, a local punk club, and I know that Berkeley Rep also helped launch Stew‘s brilliant musical Passing Strange — so I figured this couldn’t go wrong.

But I was wrong and so was the show.American_Idiot-Green_Day_480

The play took the record and managed to reduce all of the punky post-9/11 angst, all of the clever insights and all of the whip-smart political commentary to a thinly woven narrative about three friends and the choices they make (one gets his girlfriend pregnant; one leaves town for fortune, fame and drugs; one joins the army). Green Day’s smarts were reduced to smugness while the actors retained the band’s famous brattiness but none of their brains.

The show seems to have forgotten the ways in which the album conjures up a very difficult 21st century American landscape in which individual choices are always in conversation with larger political and cultural structures. Despite nods to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to George Bush, the play fails to make them speak to its characters, and vice versa.

All of the things that made this album so good were crushed beneath an overblown cast and an under-inflated story. The story of this record lies not in the play’s moralizing tale about drugs, family, salvation, and relationships, but in what it means to not have the choice to live elsewhere when your country is waging wars you don’t support. It articulates frustration and confusion and the knowledge that one might hold on to the American Dream despite the fact that it is so patently a lie. None of the tension that is woven throughout the album managed to make the jump to the stage. The notes sounded right and the postures looked familiar, but the sense of the sound simply wasn’t there.

There were a few nice moments, such as the staging of “When September Ends” as an allegory for an endless autumn, that began on September 11. But following such a moving evocation of that day’s losses, the story somehow fell back into its tritely packaged narrative about individual choices and their consequences. But the record isn’t fueled by petty choices, but by the sense that one can’t choose everything, and that we are somehow, regularly, caught by political and cultural forces beyond our own control. Thus: life in post-9/11 America, where we are all in danger of being American idiots.

On an airplane the following day, I dialed in the album on my iPod, to figure out if what I thought I heard in earlier listenings was still there. It was. The tensions it captures still ring true, the guitars still resonate and the lyrics still stand as one of the strongest expressions of the politics of the last decade. It is still a great album — sometimes the fury ought to remain sound.

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