Thoughts on Avatar from a Future Media Studies Scholar

February 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

As those of you who read my twitter already know, last week I got a phone call accepting me to the media and cultural studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is, well, pretty damn exciting, and I’ve been a little bouncy about it ever since. I haven’t heard from my other potential schools yet, so I haven’t made any final decisions, but the program at Madison looks nothing short of amazing and perfectly in line with my interests – that is, academically analyzing comics, children’s media, and the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in film and TV.

So this weekend, with those future plans in mind, I decided to finally bite the bullet and go to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Epic sci-fi doesn’t tend to be my thing at the best of times, and I’d heard enough about the racial implications of the story, and the general poor quality of the script, that I didn’t think Avatar was something I particularly needed to see. But, I figured, if I’m going to be a media studies scholar, it would be silly not to see the newly-minted highest-grossing film of all time. And so I went.

I’ll say this up front: the movie exceeded my expectations. Granted, my expectations were exceptionally low. But I was impressed with a lot of features of the movie: the realism of the CGI, the effectiveness of the 3D, the beauty of the set pieces. The artistic design was simply gorgeous, and though my knowledge of the technical processes of filmmaking is close to nonexistent, I can see why some are heralding this film as a giant step forward in technological innovation. I hope the technology developed and perfected for Avatar will be used effectively in many future (and, hopefully, better) films.

The length didn’t bother me, either; I didn’t find myself looking at my watch. The movie was well-paced and visually engaging even when the script left me cold. And I was generally impressed, with some caveats, with the representation of women in the film, one of Cameron’s acknowledged strengths. But the racial problems were, ultimately, too massive to ignore.

I’ll cut here, for the sake of the 2.5 people in the world who plan to see this movie but have yet to do so.

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The Subtlety of Up in the Air

January 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm (Analysis) ()

In an attempt to blog more frequently about things that are not comic books, I’m going to try to make a good faith effort to update this blog more often. Not every day — I don’t have the resolve that my friend Caroline does — but certainly more often than the sporadic updates I’ve made thus far. Consequently, if there’s anything you, gentle readers, would like me to blog about, feel free to suggest something!

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick things off with a brief mention of Up in the Air, which has deservedly been the buzz of the internet of late. It’s a fantastic film, as countless people have said before me, and I don’t have much to contribute that’s unique. The acting is wonderful, the screenplay excellent, and the direction superb. But what really struck me about Jason Reitman’s filmmaking was the way he wields symbolism with a subtlety I envy.

Up in the Air is the story of a man obsessed with severing ties, to human beings and physical objects alike. He spends almost all of his life traveling alone from place to place on business and brings hardly anything with him, and in his spare time he gives “inspirational” talks about emptying one’s metaphorical “backpack” of material possessions and personal connections. With such a setup, it’s a given that 1.) he’ll eventually realize that this is unhealthy, and 2.) some use of symbolism will probably lead to this revelation.

But the fact is, despite this predictability, the film shies away from anything cheesy and explicit, even when the temptation is obvious. In one scene, a character sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” during karaoke. The song plays, with the lyrics on a TV screen behind her, but there are no meaningful cuts to the protagonist or pointed camera zooms when the line “suitcase of memories” flashes onscreen. It’s there, it’s fitting, but it isn’t the focus of the scene. The viewers have to come to the connection by themselves.

Likewise, in a pivotal scene, a character is seen reading The Velveteen Rabbit. When the protagonist walks in, the other character asks if he’s ever read the book. The protagonist nods. “Powerful stuff.” But the topic changes, then, and the story moves on. Anyone who’s read The Velveteen Rabbit — which is a large enough cultural touchstone that most of the audience is probably included in that group — knows how fitting the book is, how its themes of the importance of, and connection to, physical objects are exactly the things the protagonist needs to learn. And in the hands of a lesser director or screenwriter, the scene would have turned into a lengthy verbal exchange about that very connection. But Reitman just lets the book exist, trusting his viewers to understand the symbolic resonance, and continues to tell the story.

Not all films need to be so subtle. I saw Sherlock Holmes today, and the close-up shot of Irene Adler literally “busting nuts” isn’t subtle at all — nor is pretty much anything else in the film. It’s still a ton of fun to watch, and I wouldn’t tell Guy Ritchie to do things differently. But there’s an art to pulling back, to letting symbolism exist effectively without dressing it up in ribbons and neon lights, and I know from my own writing experience that it’s an incredibly hard art to master. But Reitman has mastered that art — or is, at the least, very nearly there — and it’s that artful subtlety that’s the real triumph of Up in the Air.

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Whip It Good

October 21, 2009 at 9:30 am (Review) (, )

Whip It

I saw Whip It yesterday. I didn’t know if I was going to get to see it in theaters; my personal life has been a bit of a mess lately, with family emergencies piling on top of each other, and a lot of my friends had already seen it by the time I was available to be social again. But a few of us managed to go last night, and I am so, so glad I did.

Was it a perfect movie? No. The plot was on the side of predictable, and subplots involving the protagonist’s opponents in a beauty pageant and enemies at school were never developed quite enough. But the cast was universally excellent, and the way the film handled family, love, and especially female friendship was absolutely fantastic. And in at least one way, the movie was, despite its predictability, wonderfully subversive.

Spoilers for Whip It follow.

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“It starts with the eyes”: The Homoeroticism of Fast and Furious

April 22, 2009 at 8:30 am (Analysis) (, )

Here’s a confession: I love the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Actually, no, that’s not entirely true. I’ve never seen 2 Fast 2 Furious (text message spelling in titles is a pretty big turnoff for my inner grammarian), and, as it lacks even my most shallow reason for loving the movies (Paul Walker’s pretty, pretty face), I don’t think I’ll ever bother to see Tokyo Drift. But I love the first movie, and, after two viewings, I’ve decided I love the most recent movie, too. Don’t get me wrong — they’re not art. The acting is bad and the scripts are worse. But I love the stupid car chases, I love the insanely attractive cast, I love the big dumb fun of it all, and I love the themes of betrayal and loyalty, two of my favorite fictional tropes, that run throughout.

And most of all, I love that the movies are really, really gay.

At the core of every good joke is a grain of truth, and there’s a reason Saturday Night Live‘s The Fast and the Bi-Curious sketch has received so much internet popularity. There’s just something inherently homoerotic about guys getting sweaty together in garages and racing each other through the streets in giant fuel-injected phallic metaphors.

But that’s the easy interpretation — the SNL interpretation, the joke interpretation. And while I enjoy that aspect of the film as much as the next person, what I really love about the films is the undeniable emotional core. The Fast and the Furious — and, to an even greater extent, the new Fast and Furious — is a love story between Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel).

(Extensive spoilers for the recent film below.)

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