Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Analyzing Avatar

This quarter, I'm taking a Feminist Studies class-- Feminism in/of the Global South, to be exact. I'm enjoying this class a lot because it deals not just with issues of gender, but also racism, colonialism, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways these things affect and are affected by government society, and culture worldwide. The day of the first class, my professor asked who had seen the movie Avatar. About half the students raised their hands, and I wasn't one of them. Although I had heard that the visuals were spectacular, especially if seen in 3D, I had no desire to sit through a three-hour action movie. No offense to people who like them, but they just don't interest me.

I didn't understand at that point why my professor would spend class time chatting about Avatar, but now I think I do. I ended up seeing it yesterday, because a few friends told me they enjoyed it and were seeing it again, and I figured that I may as well. The visual effects really were as great as the hype surrounding them, and I know they would have been even better if the theater had been showing the film in 3D. But beyond that, I found it to be simply an OK movie. It certainly wasn't horrible, particularly when compared to a lot of other immensely popular movies. The plot, though predictable, had some suspense, and the characters were somewhat relative, despite definitely being one-dimensional. And writer/director James Cameron found a creative way to symbolize peoples' connection to the earth and the importance of environmentalism.

The idea in the movie that bothered me was that it seemed the Navi (aka the "Blue people") were powerless against the Americans, who wanted a precious metal cleverly called "Unobtainium". Powerless, that is, until white male former Marine Jake Sully came to their side, inspired them to fight, and then led the way, seeming to know more about how to fight on the planet of Pandora than the very people who had been living there for generations. What's more, before Sully helped the Navi, he had been the one to betray them and help plot against them, and still the native people welcomed him back, as if they knew they were powerless and ignorant without him. The "colored" people (blue may as well be brown in this movie) couldn't possibly save themselves; they needed saving.

Another flaw in the portrayal of the Navi was that everything they did seemed to be one cliche on top of another. They hunted with bow and arrows, had no formal schools, and had pre-arranged marriages. Not all of these stereotypes are necessarily negative, but they certainly are stereotypes of how Americans and Europeans see "primitive native people". By putting people in a box like that, it makes it much harder for them to grow or exceed expectations. I wouldn't want American to be viewed only as a technological society, because I believe it has more than that to offer. In the same vein, native cultures should not be seen only through the lens of nature. I don't think that James Cameron intentionally made a movie with racist undertones; his work is simply a reflection of the views of modern culture.

I know that intelligent and reasonable people will disagree with how I saw Avatar. One could argue that because Jake Sully chose to turn into a Navi, then the Navi actually did save themselves. But I think that going into every movie with a critical eye for these kinds of things can make for a more self-aware society and hopefully more progressive films.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Those who don't do make lists.

I've always loved being a critic. Hating can be a lot of fun when you're among fellow haters, but getting the chance to talk about the things I love is great because it reminds me that no matter what, the world still has a lot of interesting and creative people. With that in mind, here is my list of my favority movies, albums, and TV episodes of 2009. Note that I say "favorite" not "best", because this is all about my opinions. If you hate or one of the picks, let me know! I'd love to explain to you why you're wrong or share our mutual adoration. Now, without further ado, is Blair's Best of '09:

10. Watchmen
Those who know me (meaning everyone reading this blog) might be surprised that I'm putting this movie in my top ten, or that I even enjoyed it at all. I'm generally not a huge fan of action movies because I prefer character development to watching things blow up. I'm giving Watchmen a spot on the list not because it was one of my ten favorite things last year, but because it so much exceeded my expectations for most superhero flicks that I want to give it some recognition. I found that the flawed and layered characteristics of the "heroes" made the film much more relatable, and I loved seeing how real yet different a world with superheroes would supposedly look. Only drawback? The soundtrack. Whoever picked the music seemed more intent on having a best-selling CD than sensibly matching songs with scenes.

9. The Office, "Stress Relief"
The Office is a show that peaked at seasons 2 and 3, but watching Angela throw a cat into the ceiling minutes after the Superbowl made up for having to sit through 4 hours of football.

8. La Roux, La Roux
The first time I played "In For the Kill", the album's opening track, I believe my first coherent thought was "Holy shit, this is catchy!" Upon listening to the album about a hundred more times, it turned out to be more than just catchy-- it's a hate letter to the world, but in a good way. To quote my friend Jesse "La Roux's so disappointed, I love it!" I can't wait for them to release another album, and another and another.

7. Up in the Air
I saw this movie last week with my dad, and thank God for his man crush on George Clooney, because I honestly wasn't too excited about it and wouldn't have seen it otherwise. The trailer made it look way too much like a predictable romantic comedy, so I was actually happily surprised when it turned out to have thought-provoking and depressing themes. It's main point, as far as I can tell? Don't waste time fooling yourself into thinking you don't need connections to other people, because when you finally do come in to land, it might be too late.

6. Regina Spektor, Far (Bonus Track Version)
On her latest album, Regina Spektor continues to ooze creativity. Every song has its own merits, but one of my favorites is "Folding Chair" (which I got to see live a year and a half ago before she released it), and not just because she imitates a dolphin. Another bright spot is "Wallet", in which Spektor manages to romanticize finding a stranger's lost wallet and returning it to "my local Blockbuster" The best part is the ending: "You'll never know me/ I'll never know me/But you'll be so happy/ When they call you up."

5. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
On the way home from seeing this movie with my friend Jesse, neither of us said much. There just wasn't much to say that hadn't already been captured so well on the screen. I was afraid to see it because I thought it would be too hard to watch, and a few scenes were, but ultimately the film's realistic attitude made it easier to stomach, because they made the few bright spots so much more important.

4. Mad Men, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat"
The season 3 finale to the best drama on television did exactly what a finale is supposed to do: left me counting down the months until season 4. With Betty and Don's pending divorce and the formation of a new company, the show managed to be riveting without going too far. Here's hoping that keeps up in 2010.

3. Lady Gaga, Fame Monster and Monster Ball Tour
Mid-November through mid-December was the Month of Gaga for me. I downloaded Fame Monster the day it came out and listened to it at least once a day. The Gaga Fest culminated in seeing her live in San Francisco, and her performance was like that Fantasia movie on steroids-- visually stunning and incredibly well thought-out. This is the first time I've loved such a universal pop star so much, probably because she refuses to fit into boundaries, and her songs have as much meaning as they do catchiness. 2009 began what could be a life-long love affair for me, so long as Lady Gaga proves her critics wrong and isn't just a flash in the pan.

2. Tegan and Sara, Sainthood
Tegan and Sara made great music throughout the whole decade, and their 2009 effort is no exception. Some of the best songs off Sainthood are "Alligator", with its early-Madonna feel, and "The Ocean" for its honesty about the end of a relationship. And, to quote the review in Rolling Stone, "On 'Northshore,' they cap a laundry list of "don'ts" with the declaration "My misery's so addictive!" True, that."

1. 30 Rock, "Jackie Jormp Jomp"
Big surprise, I put 30 Rock at the top. Every episode is great because the show has great wit and the ability to be completely ludicrous and yet somehow say so much about reality. But the best in '09 was "Jackie Jormp Jomp" in season 3. Jenna's death is faked in order to promote her biopic of a Janet Joplin-type singer (they couldn't get the film rights to actually use Janet), and Liz meets a group of single stay-at-home women who show just how desparate housewives can be by forming a fight club. Best quote, in or out of context: "Or you could write a cookbook made specifically for interracial children".

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Contribution

I'm not the type of person who just does things for no good reason. I think not having a real explanation for any given action is the easiest way to get into trouble, be it trouble with authority or trouble with yourself. So, I'll start this blog by trying to explain why I'm bothering to do it. If you were to ask me why I thought most people made blogs, I'd give the response you'd expect from a jaded cynic such as myself: "Because they have huge egos, and want to show off how effectively they can reference pop culture and use self-deprecating humor". I won't pretend that isn't part of my goal-- sometimes I worry I have more ego than Tiger Woods has hoes! (Yes, just did both in one sentence!)
But there is also a deeper purpose to this blog. Now that I'm in college, it seems I'm fielding questions left and right about what I'm studying and what I want to "be when I grow up". I answer that I will most likely study politics and get some sort of job in that field-- but what I often don't say is that I know a part of me will never be satisfied unless I can be "a writer". But I recently realized that being a writer isn't like being an accountant or a campaign staffer-- writing is something one can and should do at any and all stages of life. I shouldn't wait around to "become" a writer, but rather take advantage of the free time and technology available to me and simply be a writer. I was watching an episode of Sex in the City the other day in which Carrie says to her boyfriend's mother "I don't do anything. I just have this tiny sex column". "Yes", the mother says, "but it's a contribution. You're a part of the conversation". So even if this blog is read only by my nearest and dearest, or maybe not even by them, it's me contributing my thoughts on many different aspects of life in the best way I know how, rather than letting ideas fester in my head while I'm trying to fall asleep at night. I don't expect to give anyone some grand revelation, but maybe there will be a few nuggest of unintended wisdom that will help me or someone else look at something a little differently. That's what writing and reading is all about: expanding viewpoints and becoming more understanding.
So in a nutshell, this blog will be about my thoughts on things, be it my own life, music, television/film, books, politics, friends, and society. This blog is, in a way, my new year's resolution, and I hope to keep it up fairly regularly throughout this year. But for now, I'm going to nurse this nagging hangover. Happy New Year, whoever bothered reading this! =]