Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar vs. David Attenborough

Friday afternoon I finished all my work, just in time to go and catch the last matinee of James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake. Not just because the film is overflowing with white privilege, though it is -- and I regret sending the message that I support that old plot trope about the nice white man who saves the natives -- because paying for the ticket inevitably does send that message. And the plot really does hinge on the idea that the white guy "going native" means discovering that he can do all the things the natives do even better than the natives can do them on their own.

My objections to the above didn't help my reception of the film, but it was also the sloppiest script and characterizations that I can remember seeing in ages. Sure, I expected it to use some stock character types: the aggressive military leader who wants to exterminate the savages, the rational, more caring, but slightly bitchy female scientist, the marine grunt with the vital skill of "having heart," the strong and beautiful native princess. I also expected it to expand upon those 5-7 word descriptions.

It doesn't. Not once, not at all, no, no, not a single word more. This recap, Avatar, the meta-contextual edition, captures the problem of the lazy writing perfectly, and with considerably more wit than the film itself.

Thank goodness for Twitter and smart phones, because I was able to take out some of my frustration as I finished watching, though I wish I'd just walked out. On Facebook, a friend commented that she had enjoyed it, but kept reminding herself to turn her brain off. She wouldn't be the first person to suggest that I should just chill out and watch the pretty pictures (nor did she actually reprimand me in that way, though plenty of people have before). I kept thinking about it, though, especially as I watched Carmen the next day. After all, opera makes use of stock characters itself -- but there's always room for the actor's interpretation -- in fact, the success depends upon it -- the reviews that I've seen comparing Elina Garanca's Carmen to that of Maria Ewing or Stephanie Blythe show just how different the performance can be.

I kept thinking, though, throughout the day: how do I escape in the way that other people refer to as "turning your brain off?" It didn't actually take that long for me to come up with an answer. I watch marine biology videos. And other nature videos, too, but those focused on marine life, and especially Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet series, have always been my favorites. I used to have them recorded on battered old VHS tapes, but now they can be streamed through Netflix's instant queue. Watching the fish, their strange bodies, the alien landscapes of the deep ocean, is all I need to draw me out of whatever academic pursuit I need a break from.

And, of course, Attenborough and his videographers can make me feel pity for a fly caught in a Venus flytrap.

So, last night, I turned my brain off -- or at least, turned it away from academics. And watched fish spawning and feeding upon each others eggs and larvae in the open ocean. For some species, and in some areas, sex and reproduction are a vital part of the food chain. I can't help wondering how our human lives and mores would be changed if the same were true for us; how it might complicate the oppositions between liberal and fundamentalist moral creeds, pro- and anti- abortionists -- how it might even effect our psychology of consumption (by which I mean not only purchases, but even just the act of consuming by moving about.

There's a good story lurking there, I think. Strange, but good. But when will I have time to write it?

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