Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tokens of the 2000s: Copies of Michael Moore's books on an otherwise sensible bookshelf

There is nothing quite as bittersweetly humanising as seeing copies of Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country sitting embarrassed and alone on bookshelves across America and around the world. Nobody in their right mind will ever read them again but what else are you going to do with them? Are they reminders of the Michael Moore Moment, that time when this cavorting oaf came back into our lives and was totally necessary and had some embarrassing moments but these were still outweighed by his good points? Or more of a liberal hairshirt, a memento mori, a reminder that when the going gets tough, white people kind of fall to bits if there's not an Obama to vote for? Yes.

What will we do with all our Michael Moore books? It would feel like too much to rid ourselves of them. After all, we can say, we still agree with Michael Moore, do we not? Do we not still feel that big business is not our friend? Are we not now still of the opinion that George W Bush was an unremarkable President? If we rewatch Bowling for Columbine, is it not a well-made documentary, marred only sporadically by foreshadowings of the buffoon-with-a-blowhorn schtick Moore would soon make his stock-in-trade? Do we not think that men ought not put soap in their ass, even if we are not sure why Moore feels the need to lecture them on this last point in Stupid White Men's pagecount-propping later pages?

And so we keep our Michael Moore books, cherishing the incompleteness of our collection, reasoning that the absence of The Farenheit 9/11 Reader or Will They Ever Trust Us Again? represents our ability during the 2000s to sip but discerningly on Moore's embarrassingly earnest brew, because he did have some points, after all, did he not, and he was in The Corporation alongside Klein and Chomsky, so obviously he's not an idiot, is he?

Maybe in a parallel universe, we reason, Moore might have written a funnier book instead of Stupid White Men, and then maybe Dude, Where's My Country might have been replaced by a tome that was less funny than its predecessor but also a lot less shrill and blunt and choir-preaching than any of Moore's books; and we entertain a ridiculous fantasy that Moore, the TV clown, might have put his money where his notoriously capacious mouth was and become himself a politician! Maybe he might then go so far as to get so aggressively democratic as to have John McCain throw a hissy fit at him for disturbing the "comity of the Senate!"

Don't be silly. Michael Moore's just a putz off tv, we can't expect miracles from him.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day 7: A Discussion of Ouroboros Leading Into an Anecdote About Babies


One of the reasons why I have spent a week trying to say anything interesting about Avatar is because it is quite a challenge to do so. Almost everything anyone says about Avatar is a value judgment on the technical merits of Avatar, which is quite a boring thing if you are not one of the world's only interesting film critics and your friends are not the other ones. Because the subject of Avatar is how good Avatar is (very), any discussion of Avatar becomes a discussion of how good Avatar is (very).

It does not surprise me that it took twelve years to make this movie, because the plot is a remarkable ouroboros of a thing: discussion of any diegetic element of Avatar leads on to discussion of the movie's whole, and because the movie's whole is about being transported into a fantastic alternate reality, you have to start talking about how remarkable that reality is, because the remarkableness of that reality to the characters is a necessary plot point; and because the characters are not exactly the Brothers Karamazov, you can't really talk for that long about why it's so important that they find floating mountains and palette-swapped Peter Chung characters remarkable. So you have to move on to talking about whether the central experience of Avatar's characters rang true for you, which is to say, you have to talk about whether you found Avatar remarkable, and before you know it you're talking about the amazing advances in computer graphics since the days of Titanic and virtual actors and a whole new era of storytelling and yadda yadda yadda.

So it is very hard to say anything about Avatar without being drawn into a discussion of the movie's technical accomplishments, and because the movie is made by James Cameron, it is full of impressive technical accomplishments. But that is not to say that they are very interesting.

Let us instead talk now about babies.

I once saw a news report on a new technology that allowed couples to visualise their baby in the womb in a clearer state than hitherto possible. In the report, the news crew traveled with a young couple to the lab where this technology was on display, and in a thoroughly uninvasive manner, the equipment was hooked up to the woman's belly, and the visualisation software was booted up. The couple looked at the screen and for the first time saw their baby as it moved under her skin, and she smiled and looked at the being that was growing inside her, illuminated on the screen in all its fragile, nascent humanity.

"Wow," said the husband, "those graphics are amazing."

In and of itself, that is interesting.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day 6: Avatar, or On The Amazing Genre

There is basically no point discussing whether or not you like Avatar with someone who likes Avatar. If someone likes Avatar, there is no point telling them you do not love Avatar. People who love Avatar are like people who love Rush Limbaugh. If you say you do not love it (not that you do not like it, or that you hate it: just that you do not love it), it is assumed that you want to destroy the Western world and put the world under the yoke of a Socialist Islam dystopia. This isn't a metaphor.

This is because all things made by people until now have been subjective works that cater to individuals' tastes, but Avatar is the first thing ever made which it is impossible to not love as a sane rational human being. Here are the reasons why.

Avatar has better computer graphics than any other film, if you think that the point of computer graphics is to impress people with what good computer graphics they are. If you think the point of computer graphics is not to call attention to themselves as impressive works of artifice, you are wrong.

Avatar is also in 3D, which is good because it means you have to see it in the theaters. People who love Avatar often think they are or could be working successfully in the motion picture industry, so they see it as professionally savvy to applaud Avatar for being a movie that you have to see in the theaters.

Avatar is Amazing. This is the genre Avatar belongs to: the Amazing genre. It is a movie whose main theme is its own amazingness. Earlier examples of the Amazing genre are Pan's Labyrinth, King Kong, and the new Star Wars films. The good thing about making an Amazing movie is that everyone loves them. The bad thing is that it is impossible to say anything interesting about them, because they are not interesting, they are Amazing.

It is things like this that make me hope that James Cameron makes an interesting movie again sometime.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day 5: On Violence in Avatar

A common thing to say about Avatar is that it is hypocritical, because it spends two hours talking about how beautiful it is to be peaceful and in tune with nature and what-all and then has a final hour in which the killing of people is fetishistically rendered up for our delectation even as elegaic choral music plays to provide the token suggestion that said killing might be a bad thing.

This criticism is as valid as it is of any other movie that seeks to provide a moral perspective on gruesome acts of warfare; which is to say, it is a radically oversimplified and fundamentally boring thing to say, and I don't think espousing such a position is a worthwhile trade of my interest in exchange for your smug feeling of moral cleverness.

This is hard to have an interesting discussion about because people who like Avatar tend to be like religious fundamentalists, convinced that deep down everyone holds their point of view; they view discussions of the movie's patronizing racial attitudes or medieval sexual politics or hamfisted colonial apologia as contrivances on the part of Avatar non-lovers intended to intellectually distance themselves from the deep-set, visceral love for Avatar shared by all people.

Which is a shame, because if they wanted to, they could point out how unreasonable it is to expect Avatar to be the first action movie ever to forgo making the obligatory ideological excuses for its scenes of cathartic violence. Why bother attacking Avatar for failing to justify its clunky structure of innocence > violence > retribution in kind, when you still have Death Wish 2 to pick on for the exact same thing? Also Avatar isn't as good.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day 4: Avatar, or On Making A Statement

Pictured: my friend Rowan, some other coves.

Avatar is a movie about Westerners going to a place where there are lots of native people and fucking their shit up for oil/land/gold/etc. You think I am being lazy by just saying the white people are after whatever, but Cameron actually never really clarifies this himself, using a common sci-fi shorthand for "I will give this thing a name at a later date", so what do you want me to do?

Anyway at one point Stephen Lang's character (who is basically the exact opposite of Stephen Lang's character in The Men Who Stare at Goats, and yet looks exactly the same, as he is also played by Stephen Lang, which I actually found consistently interesting within the context of the movie, such is the dearth of intentionally interesting content within the context of Avatar) is giving a speech to his goons about what stupid tree-dwelling backward-ass idiots they are about to wipe the floor with. Everyone laughs when Stephen Lang characterises these people as having ridiculous boogedy-boo cosmic spiritual notions they cling to! Everyone cheers when Stephen Lang proposes a military attack that will teach these primitive forest-people the meaning of Western military might!

Avatar was filmed largely in Wellington, and the extras casting was mainly done in Wellington. The extras casting was mainly tasked with filling the brief of "really tough looking dudes". In New Zealand this basically amounts to filling a room with Maori folks.

Now, I'm not saying it is bad to ask people to re-enact in a science-fiction setting the exact attitude of the dudes who fucked shit up for their ancestors. That is the last thing I am saying. I am often frustrated when people act like you should have some sort of problem with pretending to espouse an attitude you disagree with, for the purposes of dramatising a narrative that explicitly decries that attitude and the people that hold it.

Nobody ever says to the actresses on The L Word, "you should not say those terrible things about lesbians and/or women", because most of the actresses on The L Word are themselves lesbians and/or women, and it's understood that they are intentionally playing out a dramatic narrative that will ultimately be sympathetic to views they hold in real life. But there is a corollary to this. Wwhen Brendan Fraser plays an idiot, people don't say "there is that nice man from Gods and Monsters saying something interesting about the perception of intelligence in our society"; they say, "what an idiot".

Avatar marks the first time James Cameron has explicitly tried to talk about race (which is impressive, as he made a movie about an Austrian ubermensch beating the shit out of every Arab in the world except Art Malik). His statements about race are basically very juvenile and well-meaning if painfully ill-thought-out, and as such they make you feel a bit ill, but then so do the unreal blue gumby-cat-men lolloping about the place. And it's about time James Cameron made a juvenile and well-meaning if painfully ill-thought-out movie about race, because Titanic was a desperately juvenile and well-meaning if painfully ill-thought-out movie about class, and he has this common theme running through his movies of "chicks kick ass, as long as they are basically dudes with titties for Michael Beihn to fondle" (which, obviously, is a fairly juvenile and well-meaning if painfully ill-thought-out position to take re: gender). Basically in the Brendan Fraser analogy, James Cameron is Encino Man.

It is things like this that remind me that James Cameron has always been an adorable dolt.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day 3: Avatar, or On Talking About Dreaming

My grandmother likes to say that she has no time for people talking about their dreams. And she is older than democracy, so she has probably heard many such discourses! I have taken this maxim to heart, but extended it. There are three things I have no time for talking about:

- Your dreams,
- Your cat, and
- Your atheism.

Avatar is almost three hours of a man talking about his dreams, which is quite a solipsistic thing to make a movie about. Also, the dreams are basically all about his cat, with whom he has onscreen sex. So there's that. The movie's most dynamic figures are actually the atheists, because they are the ones who catalyse the scenes of Shit Getting Blowed Up Real Good, which is what you paid to see; whereas the folks with strong beliefs spend far, far too long talking about them under the mistaken assumption that these beliefs are at all unique or interesting, which (I will hesitantly call this ironic) is exactly why talking to atheists about their beliefs is usually so boring.

ANYWAY, why is people talking about their dreams so boring? After all, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud loved that shit. But outside of the codified structure of a therapeutic discussion, talking about your dreams is more like sending someone a video of you having a wank. You are both subject and object of the conversation, and there is nothing the other person can do to enrich the experience for either of you beyond acknowledge that they are paying attention. It is a supremely anal-fixative act, to tell someone about your dream.

Avatar is very explicitly a big dumb white guy spending two and a half hours telling us about his dream (and when I say "very explicitly", what I mean is, "he specifically refers to it as a dream, to make sure you know what he is talking about"). If you met a big dumb white guy in a bar and he said, "so I had a dream about the richness of tribal animism", you could say, "whoah there Paul Gaugin, I'm trying to get drunk here", and you would have gotten as much of a meaningful thought experience as Avatar offers.

Because the dream in Avatar is so astoundingly literal. I don't mean that I would have liked to see more dwarves/midgets (though I have nothing against either race, and I happen to wish the people in Avatar weren't so tall, because it honestly made me feel physically ill), but the dream-world of Pandora is really a very shallow metaphor for whatever it wants to be a metaphor for. You know when Sam Worthington is dreaming about a horse, because he dreams of something that is basically a horse but has gills and a slightly longer snout. You know when he is dreaming about a tiger, because he dreams of something that is a tiger, only with a hard carapace. You know he is dreaming about human tribal society, because he dreams about a supposedly utterly alien race that just happens to be exactly the same as an amalgam of all the people white folks have ever done wrong, only their skin is blue.

When you are listening to someone talking about their dream, the best thing you can do is say, "well, this element in the dream you just told me about probably corresponds to that element in your life, because you are a person who et cetera". This lets the person talking about their dream know that you are not just buying into their self-fixation, you are applying your mental powers to deepening it. But if you were listening to Sam Worthington's character talking about his dream, you'd want to say, "well, that probably represents horses/tigers/colonial guilt", but you'd be embarrassed to say that, because you'd feel he'd probably just look at you like, "well, I know that".

But he probably wouldn't. Toward the end of the movie he gives up on calling things by the made-up names James Cameron paid someone to invent a language for, and he just calls the things that are basically horses "horses". This makes him seem like a charmingly unimaginative lunkhead, which is what he started out as.

It is things like this that make me wonder if James Cameron really is as imaginative a constructor of metaphor as I have always assumed he is.

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day Two: Avatar, or On Typography

I could honestly not make sense of the decision to use the font Papyrus in the posters for Avatar. I thought we had got to a point where nobody who expected to be taken seriously in the real world used Papyrus for anything. I was sure that as a culture we had made the unspoken agreement that the rubes had hopped onto the Ban Comic Sans bandwagon, and that that battle was as won as it was going to get, and that the new enemy was Papyrus; and that we would not get a massage from someone who used Papyrus on their business card, and we would not eat Eastern-fusion food from anywhere that used Papyrus on its menu, and if we were at the video store we would not get the movie whose title was in Papyrus, we would get the one which had had a cinema release instead. And then along comes The Biggest Fucking Movie Ever and uses Papyrus on its poster! What the shit?

And do you know what? That font is used for every single subtitle in Avatar as well! The movie honestly expects you to get into the swing of things, while rendering every non-English word in fucking sands-of-ancient-Egypt-yellow Papyrus! Not only are the subtitles not in a sensible, unobtrusive font so you can read them and get back to the movie, they are in The Teenage Witch's Choice of fonts, Papyrus! It is such a relief when the movie's end credits come up, and they are in Helvetica, it is honestly a physical weight that is lifted from your (my) shoulders.

I suspect that one of two things happened on the road to putting Papyrus into Avatar. Either:

- Cameron liked this font, because it communicated everything he wanted to say about the beauty of primitive nature-loving reverence for the spirit world in all its yadda yadda yadda, and someone said to him, "Sire, that font, it's the second most reviled font in all the world, if you use that font you will never be --"
But the whelp was cut short with a primal bellow from Cameron's bearded maw, the great man's weathered paws locking in a raptor's grasp at his underling's shirt collars, a grip like surgical tools hewn of iron, mighty and exacting and merciless yet warm like a father's touch; and Cameron looked into his assistant's soul with his eyes that had seen apocalypses and alien realms and men born of lightning and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's blue-aureolaed fury, and explained to him that if this was the perfect choice for this movie - and it was, for The Cameron had made it - then pre-existing cultural signifiers meant nought: for from this day, "Papyrus" would mean only "Avatar". Just as "a timeless sigil of mens' foolhardy reliance on technology" had come to mean "the most technologically successful movie of the 90s", and "Robert Patrick's glowing elf ears" had come to signify "evil's own halo", and "James Horner's least favourite temp-tracked rush-job ever" had become known as "James Horner's signature opus", and "cat-faced gumby-men" were about to become "the new actors". And It Was So. Or:

- It is things like this that make me suspect that James Cameron doesn't know what he is doing to the degree that I have always assumed he does.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Week Of Trying To Say Anything In The Least Bit Interesting About Avatar, Day One: Avatar, or On Dreaming


Avatar is the story of a man who lives in a movie made by the fellow who made Aliens and The Terminator. But this man dreams about being a strange and ungainly creature who befriends other strange and ungainly creatures. Basically it is a movie about dreaming. Avatar is not the first movie to feature dreams as a major plot point though. There have been a good half dozen prior to this one, and they all fall into one of several holes:

- The dreams contain lots of FASTFLASHES! that inform you QUASISUBLIMINALLY! of things that HAVEBEENORWILLBECOME! important. I have never had a dream like this. My dreams are all edited pretty much like Russian Ark, with the occasional extremely slow fade.

- The dreams contain too much gratuitous craziness. Remember in Living in Oblivion, when that dwarf/midget loses his shit onset and asks the Steve Buscemi character why everybody always thinks that putting a dwarf/midget in your scene is shorthand for "wack-ass dream", pointing out that he is a dwarf/midget, and even he doesn't dream about dwarves/midgets? He is right.

- The movies spend far too long making sure you know the rules of what happens if you die in a dream/die while dreaming/kill someone in a dream who was themselves also dreaming/etc. I am fairly certain that there is a Nightmare on Elm Street movie somewhere around the middle of the saga that is nothing but people explaining the series' rules regarding in-dream death, interspersed with Robert Englund playing air guitar.

Avatar does not fall prey to the first fallacy at all, because James Cameron is a classy guy. It goes to great pains not to fall prey to the second fallacy, having a detailed and entirely self-sufficient reason for every design decision (apart from when the rules need to be broken to make the girl character's boobs look nice) (or someone at Mattel designs a character and James Cameron says, "sure, it's in the movie", instead of saying, "hang on buddy, your company designed Stinkor, the Stinky Master of the Universe, stay out of my movie").

Avatar also spends no time explaining its particular rules as to what happens if you die while dreaming, which means that for the movie's first third or so, there is no dramatic tension whatsoever, because the only thing that is in any jeopardy is Sam Worthington's Second Life character. In the film's final reel it is explained what would have happened if this character had come to harm: Sam Worthington would have felt a bit bad for a few minutes.

It is things like this that make me wonder if James Cameron is still paying as much attention to scriptwriting as he did for Aliens, which had the most beautifully pretentious opening line of any script about vaginas that hide under the bed and was all uphill from there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Corganwatch: The Woman's Side

HANG THE FUCK ON.
"They are getting to know each other," says the source. "He's a nice guy... She's a great girl. She's really sweet. She's had a tough year. She deserves the best."
WHAT.
"They are getting to know each other," says the source. "He's a nice guy."
COME ON, people. There is only one thing about Billy Corgan that is so obvious that it is a cliche this prestigious organ has felt no need to confront head-on. Only one truism about William Patrick Corgan is so trite in its staggering bald-faced truth that there is no reason to revisit it unless either (a) you are Simon Sweetman (and thus a profoundly unoriginal buffoon), or (2) you have just read a report that says someone told People magazine that Billy Corgan is "a nice guy".

Saying your friend "has had a tough year [and] deserves the best" when breaking the news of your friend getting into a relationship with Billy Corgan is like saying you have just sunk the majority of your label's capital into an album that Axl Rose has assured youwill be completed by mid next year. It is like if all of the publishing industry got together and agreed that print media could be saved by allowing Courtney Love to write a memoir without the burden of editors or ghostwriters. Saying Billy Corgan is "a nice guy" who should be in a relationship with your friend (a great girl) is like saying Art Alexakis will lend you the credibility you so desperately need to move up in the world. It is like throwing Paul Simon a live bat and expecting him to bite its head off before the concert will be allowed to continue.

Billy Corgan is many things, but to examine history (or, if you are lazy, to listen to the Zero EP) and say that Billy Corgan is "a nice guy" w/r/t his relations to women is like examining history (or, if you are lazy, watching Rambo III) and suggesting that American lives will be saved by sending more troops into Afghanistan.

I think that comparison is a new high/low for Corganwatch.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Corganwatch: I Am Embarrassed Not To Have More Of A Frame Of Reference For Jessica Simpson.

This week, Billy Corgan released a new song from his forthcoming album, whose name I cannot be bothered going to the mental effort of remembering[1]. This is not important. What is important is that this week, it was announced that Billy Corgan and Jessica Simpson are dating.

Basically people stopped having time for Billy Corgan around the time he broke up with that nameless faceless Asian woman who stood by him while he made Gish, Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (henceforth to be referred to as the The Quality Trilogy). This certainly didn't seem to be due to any sort of encouragement on the part of Kit(?), because that always seemed like some sort of mail order thing-of-convenience anyway[2]. But once Billy Corgan was free to have loads of sex out in the open, his music really suffered.

The early possibility that he might shack up with Marilyn Manson[3] brought promise: Eye and The End is the Beginning is the End were exciting extensions on previous Pumpkins themes. But the blue skies of his time with Yelena Yemchuk brought tears to the eyes of fans: an album produced in long, happy hours in the studio away from Kim(?) might yield (for instance) Here is No Why, Muzzle, Porcelina of the Vast Oceans, Galapogos, Love, Thru the Eyes of Ruby and 1979. But a record cranked out as a way of filling the time until Billy could go home and bask in Yemchuk's far greater knowledge of b/w photography and how to get half-hearted bassists to flash their nipples for a liner booklet would yield a Tear, if you were lucky.

The problem was inspiration: too much inspiration by half. Billy's time with a jetsetting, model-schmoozing, beret-epitomising muse like Yemchuk convinced him that the artful undercurrents of The Quality Trilogy could be placed front and center of future projects: because proggy anti-grunge with strains of artistic flourish is good, so it follows that a record that was nothing but artistic flourish ought to be better! And so, Adore. To round off this chapter, then: if Kay(?) was the stable, stultifyingly pedestrian rock on which Billy Corgan built his church, Yelena Yemchuk was the silver-retained, high-contrast tempest that swept it up and spread it to the four winds.

The Zeitgeist era was marked by philandering, gadaboutery, Corgan as misogynist playboy, thinking he was being enlightened by only calling American women whores. Corgan consorted with Paris Hilton, proclaiming her the world's most famous person or some such nonsense; people uncomfortable with the notion that Billy Corgan and Paris Hilton might have anything to talk about became further uncomfortable with the notion that Billy Corgan might like to see himself as a photographer and Paris Hilton might agree to be photographed. Meanwhile the first track of the record Hilton's image had launched debuted in the end credits of a Michael Bay film about giant toys who piss on each other, and nobody really minded.

To make sure we knew that Zeitgeist was a commentary on fame-culture in the 21st Century[4], Corgan turned his life into performance art: being seen about the place with Tila Tequila, going so far as allowing her to go on the Internet and say he might have impregnated her. It would have been a bit ingenious, had it been auxiliary to the promotion of a piece of media more substantial than Zeitgeist; as it was, his attempts at sex-life-as-metacommentary were misinterpreted as postmodern folderol as a means to getting laid. Billy Corgan didn't care at the time: Billy Corgan was fucking Tila Tequila.

And so now Billy Corgan is dating Jessica Simpson, and they are "taking it slow", so anything that comes out about them is somewhat sparse and unsatisfying, and it feels like we've been here before, and we say we're nominally interested in what happens next, but really, it's just going through the motions until we can stop pretending to be emotionally invested. And also he released Song for a Son, about which I couldn't possibly say a thing.

[1] If this sounds harsh, bear in mind that I didn't have the energy to consistently intentionally misspell the title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film until sometime during the scene where the girl's face is projected in the smoke, so apparently it just takes a while for me to get on board when people I loved when I was fourteen insist they're going to stop being self-referential fuckbadgers any day now.
[2] She ordered the catalog, sent away the page with the guy she wanted, and Married An Alternative Rock Impresario. What, that's where you knew I was going with this? Don't lie. Racialist.
[3] This Happened.
[4] Well, because Billy Corgan had not had an interesting thought since 1997, it was actually a commentary on fame in the 1990s, but this is how it was packaged, so.