Avatar — The New Testament of the Church of the Left

26 01 2010

So against my better judgment, I decided to fork over a bit of my hard-earned cash to multi-gazillionaire James Cameron in order to take in his latest big-budget extravaganza Avatar. I freely admit that I came to the movie prepared to hate it. After reading quite a few of the reviews and seeing pretty much the whole story in the trailers (I liked this movie the first time I saw it when it was called “Dances with Wolves”) I was braced for the inevitable political sucker punch. I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be a James Cameron movie after all if it didn’t take a smack at conservatives, Republicans, the military, corporations, technology and contain the underlying Marxist world view that shows up in much of Cameron’s work.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying the movie. Nobody does popcorn-chomping eye-dazzling action-packed spectaculars better than Cameron and Avatar shows off Cameron at the top of his game. The movie is stunningly beautiful. The world of Pandora is a lush Eden crafted with the eye of an artist and the latest in cutting edge technology to be completely appealing and wondrous to a crowd of people safely ensconced in a comfortable theater seat in a climate controlled environment (remember that, it’ll be important later). The incoherence and stupidity of the plot set aside, Avatar is a fun movie, essentially a beautiful sci-fi landscape painting created by a master.

What I found most interesting though, is that Avatar is incredibly valuable as a roadmap to the mindset of the modern left wing mind. It is, essentially, the New Testament to the anti-Church of the Left.

Allow me to explain that. If you’ve ever read the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, they predicted years ago the alteration in character that would come over American politics as Baby Boomers began to take the reigns of national power. Baby Boomers are a “Prophet” generation. Prophets:

“… are values-driven, moralistic, focused on self, and willing to fight to the death for what they believe in- and they can convince other people to join them in the fight. They grow up as the increasingly indulged children of a High, come of age as the young crusaders of an Awakening, enter midlife as moralistic leaders during an Unraveling and are the wise, elder leaders of the next Crisis.”

Thus what we’re dealing with in modern American politics is a Left that is no longer a political force but a religious one, one that recognizes no separation between the political, the personal and the religious and is not averse to using secular politics as a club to push its agenda. It no longer just defines itself by what it opposes (western culture, individualism, capitalism, Judeo-Christian religions, patriarchy, industrialism) but has congealed a sort of “anti-church” built on philosophical pillars every bit as dogmatic, irrational, intolerant and inflexible as anything proposed by a Crusading Pope.

Basically what this philosophy seems to boil down to is a classic return to Eden myth as portrayed in “Avatar.” This difference is in the character of that Eden. Rather than an impersonal and patriarchal sky god, the centerpiece of this faith is Gaia, the warm, matriarchal communal spirit of the Earth. This is represented in the film as a literal biological link between the Nav’i and the native wildlife as well as a bio-electric network that links all the planet’s life in a sort of communal oversoul. Humans have sinned against the Earth Mother through all of those things I previously mentioned. As the main character in the movie says, he comes from an Earth with no green, where the humans killed their mother — the goddess within the planet.

Once the tenets of the new religion become clear, so much of modern Left-wing thought also becomes clear. Everything from the zealous belief in global warming (persecution of “deniers,” humans as a disease giving the Earth a “fever”) to the Messianic appeal of Barack Obama, to the embrace of socialism, the sinful nature of unapproved extravagances (SUVs, fur coats, McMansions, processed foods), the attempted suppression of heretical texts (FOX News, talk radio), and the enshrinement of perfect equality (of outcome, not opportunity) as the be-all and end-all of social organization.

If there is a philosopher I loathe more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I am hard-pressed to think of him. As awful as modern monsters like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are, they don’t hold a candle to the influence of Rousseau’s theory of the “Natural Man.” Check out this passage:

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

That may very well be the most damaging passage written in all of human history and Rousseau’s fingerprints are all over “Avatar.” The Romantic and frankly racist idea that mankind in a state of nature is somehow living a better life than those who utilize technonology reminds me of a comment written by P.J. O’Rourke (paraphrased) about how the only people who call the jungle a rainforest are those who have never been there. The irony of “Avatar” is that Pandora is exactly what Rousseau envisioned — natural people living in harmony with the land, sleeping in a tree that literally envelopes them in love when they lay down for the night — and it took the most sophisticated technology mankind has ever invented to create it.

It’s no concidence that people like Cameron, who view the natural world through the windows of an 8,500 square-foot bungalow in Malibu or at the wreckage of the Titanic through the glass of their own personal submarine, have a Romantic view of nature. Like Marie Antoinette and her court who used to play at being peasants once a year in a suitably cleaned-up peasant village, James Cameron and his ilk sit at the top of technological pyramid supported by an enormous amount of infrastructure built by people who work harder for much less money in much less glamorous circumstances. Life for folks like Cameron is so nerfed and removed of it’s rough edges that they don’t even realize how utterly removed from the reality of life for 99.9% of humanity throughout history they really are.

Thank goodness you're one of those hot aliens, otherwise I'd never betray my own species for you.

At one point in the movie, the main character say that the Na’vi want nothing from us, that all we can offer them is “light beer and blue jeans.” Ya know, for the majority of humans who live lives as “natural” as the Na’vi, that sounds like a pretty good deal. We tend to forget that rattlesnakes, tornadoes, smallpox, a 35-year life span, 40% infant mortality and rancid food are also “natural.” These are all things that Cameron has never experienced but I guarantee that the Na’vi have. Of course, neither have I, but the difference is I’m appreciative of the collossal level of human ingenuity and industry that has worked for two million years to give me a really comfortable life and I never take it for granted. Nor would I make a movie that called me a monster for encouraging others to improve their own lot in life.

It’s not for nothing that Cameron is taking flak for his comments in Entertainment Weekly that he “likes ecoterrorism.” I’m sure he does — at least until it’s his own house that gets burned or his own movie set that gets sabotaged. For “kings of the world” like Cameron, money and jobs and economic disruption are just unfortunate things that happen to little people. They don’t really count anyway, after all. They’re just proles who’s major function in life is to fill theater seats in Cameron’s movies.

Indeed, it’s sort of ironic that even within the movie, the characters rely on a technological solution — transferring their conciousness into a cloned body — to get back to nature. Without that technology, they can’t even breathe the air. I think that’s a metaphor also, but not quite the one Cameron meant.





Lunacy: The Madness of Twilight — New Moon

24 11 2009

So this weekend, I did something that I thought I would never do. I went over to a friend’s house and watched Twilight, the first movie in what is laughably called “The Twilight Saga.” The reason I did so was because they were “getting ready” to see New Moon, the latest edition of what threatens to be a four movie saga — possibly more given the massive box office numbers of the latest installment. I went because these are my friends and I love them and I love getting together with them. Plus my friend Theresa makes some awesome chips & dip.

Now full disclosure. About a year ago, my wife brought home the first Twilight book on CD. At the time I was working at GameSpy and I had a massive commute every morning so I spent a lot of time listening to books on CD they she would borrow from the library. She knows I like fantasy and SF and according to the book’s description, Twilight was about vampires, so she thought I’d like it. I didn’t know anything about Twilight either, so I listened to it — and I liked it. It wasn’t great literature by any means, it was cute in that “High School Musical” sort of way — it’s a romance aimed at tweeners that just blew up into this massive thing that defies reason.

The benefit of that was that by circumstance I happened to have read Twilight before it blew up into this big pop culture phenomenon and that offers an interesting perspective on it. When my friends and I got together to watch the first movie, about half of us are really into it, while the other half are what you might refer to as “haters.” The thing was that my friend Theresa actually had T-shirts made up that said “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” and she had gotten her husband a T-shirt that said “H.A.T.E. — Husbands Against Team Edward.” It was then that I realized that none of us was actually serious about this.

Here’s the thing, I know that there are people out there that really like Twilight and enjoy getting caught up in the hype of a phenomenon. We’ve all done it with summer blockbusters or best-selling novels or other “madness of crowds” moments. The thing is that the other side of that also enjoys it on a certain level. “Haters” are also caught up in the hype and they’re enjoying provoking the fans. Having listened to Twilight and enjoyed it and now joining the “haters” camp kind of gives one a bit of remove from the whole process. I’m having fun poking at all the Twilight lovers out there but do I truly “hate” the book? Obviously not, I already mentioned that I enjoyed it.

To me, the only real danger of something like Twilight is there are always those who forget that no matter what side of the “debate” you’re on, it’s all ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that young girls need their dreamboats. Team Edward and Team Jacob are just the latest in a long line of bobby-sox idols that stretch back through the New Kids on the Block to David Cassidy to Elvis to Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee. Twilight will fade, as all such fads do. If something like Twilight excites your anger to the point where you get really mad about it, may I suggest you take two spoonfuls of perspective and call me in the morning?





On V, Obama and the Worship of the State

5 11 2009

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So I watched the premier of the the “re-imagining” of “V” on ABC last night. The series is, of course, a retread of the early-’80s vintage piece of sci-fi cheese that starred the Beastmaster, Jane Badler’s sexy shoulder pads and the blonde chick from The Greatest American Hero. The storyline remains the same. A race of aliens that look just like human beings land on Earth bearing a message of peace and an offer of technological assistance in return for our friendship and a chemical they need to survive. Naturally there’s more to the “Visitors” than meets they eye and as they insinuate themselves more and more into our daily lives, they gradually begin to assume a fascist control over our world, sparking the inevitable rag-tag resistance filled with photogenic rebels.

The good news is, the re-make is actually quite good. I enjoyed it and since everybody knows by now that the aliens are actually carnivorous lizards disguised as humans, the producers wisely chose to get that minor revelation out of the way in the first half hour and move on to the real meat of the story which is apparently a criticism of the Obama Administration and the cult of personality which has grown up around our President — particularly the slavish nature of the mainstream media. It’s tough to miss if you’ve been paying any attention at all to, like, life since the coming of The One. At various points Anna, the leader of the Visitors, makes pretty speeches to the frightened citizens of Earth, addressing themselves to protesters against the aliens’ presence, telling them that embracing change is difficult but that we must resign ourselves to it and promising them all kinds of goodies if only they’ll place themselves in the Visitors’ caring hands. At one point, Anna tells reporter Chad Decker (played by Party of Five’s Scott Wolf) that the Visitors would like to become the Earth’s sole health care providers — literally offering us “Universal” Health Care.

It’s Wolf’s reporter character that makes the criticism most obvious. Decker is a pretty-boy talking head on a cable news channel who has dreams of being a real reporter (a story idea he comes up with is praised by his boss and then handed off to another journalist while Decker is directed to return to his TelePrompTer). Yet when presented with an opportunity to be a real reporter, Decker muffs it — twice. First he actually shuts down fellow journalists who have the temerity to ask Anna some semi-tough questions, telling them to “have some respect.” Having shown himself to be pliable, Decker is then offered the opportunity for the first one-on-one interview with Anna where he’s told to “not ask any questions that might put us in a bad light.” When he objects, he’s told his big exclusive will be cancelled unless he plays ball. He does so and delivers a softball interview, only to be offered an ongoing exclusive arrangement with the Visitors that basically turn Decker into Anna’s Chris Matthews. On accepting this arrangement, he’s actually told by one of the Visitors that “sacrificing one’s principles for the greater good isn’t a bad thing.” That, of course, could be the motto for the Obama Administration.

The big thing though, is the worshipful attitude that the public begins to adopt about the Visitors. They are literally the “Deus ex Machina” — the machine out of the sky that has come to solve all our problems. It’s also the element that’s most changed with the original series which was a pretty explicit analogue for Nazi Germany and a forceful fascist takeover. The difference is mainly in tone. Rather than an explicit takeover, the new series seems to be more about gradually conditioning the populace to depend upon the Visitors for everything and turning gratitude into worship. It’s not for nothing that one of the lead characters in the new series is a Catholic priest who is dismayed rather than overjoyed by the suddenly filled pews in his church (he disagrees with the Pope’s acceptance of the Visitors as God’s creations by pointing out that rattlesnakes are God’s creations too.) He realizes that times of strife can awaken religious longings in people in search of security — longings that can be subverted by those looking for power by replacing God with the State.

It’s this theme that resonates most strongly with Obama. Now before the objections start, I am NOT comparing Barack Obama to Hitler or a Nazi. What I am saying is that — as Jonah Goldberg points out in “Liberal Fascism,” — both American liberalism and fascism share intellectual roots. Both are ultimately concerned with the proper ordering of society and the proper redistribution of wealth along regimented, almost militaristic lines in the interest of complete equality and fairness of outcome. The problem with that, of course, is that that is incompatible with individual free choice, so naturally that’s the first thing that has to go. There’s also the idea of the State as cornucopia — the font of all good things. At the heart of this idea is the belief that it’s the responsibility of the state to care for its citizens in loco parentis, — a key point of contention for those like me who would like the State to stay the Hell out of our business.

Of course, bringing this up irks Obama supporters no end. Thin-skinned as our Dear Leader seems to be, they seem offended by the idea that a mere science fiction series might be criticizing Obama or worse — pointing out the almost religious cult of personality that’s grown up around him — so they do their best to dismiss it. I’ve heard everything from the fact that this re-make was in development before Obama was elected to it being a mistake to read too much into an action-adventure series to the fact that the storyline is a pretty solid match for the original. The last seems pretty ridiculous to me. It’s like saying that the new “Battlestar Galactica” wasn’t about the War on Terror because the original series was a sci-fi re-telling of the Book of Mormon (which it was, by the way.) As for not reading too much into it — this is science fiction people. This is the genre where, as Rod Serling pointed out, “A Martian can say things a politician can’t.” Metaphor and allegory are as natural to the form as rockets and rayguns. Why get so upset? I got over the Anvilicious “red energy is the source of all evil, blue energy is the source of all goodness” political commentary in Astro Boy. You can get over this.

The original “V” showed the “1984”-esque face of fascism — the “iron boot stamping on a human face, forever.” The new one shows the kinder, gentler sort of fascism, the “Brave New World” –esque universal nanny state. It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it and whether Obama’s supporters can be as tolerant of criticism as they claim to be.





The Tipping Point: Polanski, Moore and why Hollywood Hates You

7 10 2009

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MaryAnn Johansen of at The Flick Filosopher lists this week’s box office numbers and asks the question why the re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are outperforming films like Whip It and Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying. At the risk of restating an obvious theme, can I put out the possibility that it’s because Hollywood hates its audience and everything they stand for? We may have finally reached the tipping point where Hollywood realizes that it’s in trouble.

Before the obvious objection, I acknowledge that this is not the only reason for the precipitous decline. There’s a lot of technological reasons. The ubiquity of home video, a new universe of entertainment choices including video games, the Internet and all sorts of homemade entertainment options has to take a bite out of Hollywood’s pie but it’d be stupid not to acknowledge that that Hollywood’s screwed-up value system has finally started to bleed over into the work itself, producing films that either insult, sucker punch or fly right over the heads of their intended audience while dripping with contempt for the people they’re trying to sell tickets to.

Take Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying.” Here’s a movie that sells itself as a quirky romantic comedy with an interesting premise (What if everyone told the truth all the time?) that then devotes it’s middle third to lecturing its audience that all of their deeply held beliefs are just convenient fictions. It’s not that I have any particular objection to Ricky Gervais making a film about his atheist beliefs, it’s he (ironically considering the subject of the movie) then has to lie to us to get us to go and see it. First with a tremendously deceptive trailer, then by trotting out the classic John Stewart “I’m just a comedian” defense in an effort to salvage the film’s sagging box office numbers. If you’re going to make an atheist screed, have the courage of your convictions and be willing to accept that maybe you’ve just limited your own box office.

This didn’t used to happen. Sure, Hollywood was always liberal — even leftist. But they used to know how to create great movies because they respected the intelligence and acumen of their audience enough to create stories for them — not thinly disguised lectures. It isn’t that the audience disagrees with you, it’s that nobody really enjoys paying $12.00 to be lectured by people who obviously hate us.

Even worse, our 24-hour news cycle celebrity-obsessed culture has simultaneously exposed the sick and twisted culture of Hollywood while at the same time holding it up as something to be admired and envied. Is it any wonder that Hollywood, a town filled with pathologically insecure, envious people desperate for the validation of others would begin to believe their own press releases? These are pathetic conformists who only exist inside a make-believe bubble and have the world telling them 24-hours a day that they’re better and more important than the regular proles who exist only to fill theater seats. It’s not wonder the arrest of Roman Rolanski inspired such outrage in the creative community. It’s not just that they arrested an artiste whose brilliant creative output puts him above such mundane concerns as a little child rape, it’s that they arrested him at a film festival! Check out this delightful passage from the petition to release Polanski.

“Filmmakers in France, in Europe, in the United States and around the world are dismayed by this decision. It seems inadmissible to them that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him.”

When the Hell did a film festival become the equivalent of a foreign embassy? There’s no diplomatic immunity for directors! The thing is, to these people, there should be. Film festivals are where the Olympians gather to display their art. Why should they have to worry about petty matters like the law at such rarified heights?

To be fair, there are always idiots who validate this world view. They range from sycophants who can’t understand why someone would care about the forced sodomization of a 13-year old when there are wonderful movies like Chinatown to watch to the followers of Michael Moore. Moore is a millionaire capitalist whose latest film is an unvarnished plea for the overthrow of the very system that supplies him with cheap Twinkies and Ralph Lauren Polo shirts.

According to Fortune Magazine, Moore’s films have grossed over $300 million worldwide. His highest grossing film was “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which critiques the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and earned over $200 million worldwide.

Moore reportedly was paid $21 million by Disney for producing, directing and creating the film.

Moore also earned 50 percent of the profits of his 2007 film “Sicko,” totaling $25 million plus DVD sales, according to Vanity Fair.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Moore would receive all of the profits made from DVD sales of “Sicko,” sales of which have been estimated at over $17 million.

(credit: CNS News)

One would think that Lord Moore would be concerned about his own image, considering the politics of those who believe every frame of his movies. Not so much:

The Capitalism: A Love Story premiere party was a study in decadent excess.

“The event, hosted by Esquire, doubled as the launch of the magazine’s “Ultimate Bachelor Pad,” a fully tricked-out, 11-room, nine-bathroom, 9,200-square-foot signature penthouse in SoHo, filled with flatscreens, sleek, modern furniture and luxury brands—each room meticulously designed around an advertisers’ theme. (The Hugo Boss bedroom! The Heineken lounge! The Lufthansa kitchen!)

As Esquire publisher Kevin O’Malley explains in the Esquire SoHo brochure, part of the reason that the magazine does this every year—alternating between New York and L.A.—is to meet its “advertisers’ growing need to create relevant and innovative new consumer touchpoints for their brands. Our affluent readers share a range of passions: a real desire for the best-of-class products and services that our advertisers represent.”

In other words, the pinnacle of capitalism. A fantasy in capital excess. A byproduct of the corporate greed Moore rails against in the film.

By the time Moore arrived, the party was in full swing, with revelers enjoying the 360-degree views of Lower Manhattan on the 3,000-square-foot terrace, top-shelf themed bars, sipping signature cocktails (there was a guy hired to blow dry ice on one pomegranate-and-melon-martini thing) and devouring skewers of filet mignon.

Esquire even hired models to strip down and slip into the obligatory hot tub.”

Yet Moore will get away with it because he’s our better. We need to do as he says, not as he does. And no, this is not about hypocrisy. It’s about an explicit call for the overthrow of the capitalist economic system and its replacement with the system that made economic and environmental paradises out of the old Soviet Union, Cuba and now Venezuela that he himself is not willing to participate in. Well, the leaders of the Party need their Black Sea dachas after all.

For the record, I begrudge not a single penny of the money Michael Moore has earned. It’s his. Let him keep it.

Somehow, I doubt that he would give me the same courtesy since he seems to want the government to take away yet more of MY money.

Before I sign on to Mr. Moore’s wholesale redesign of the American economy, I expect him to reduce his living standard to the equivalent of $150,000 a year and use the remainder of his money to purchase health insurance for as many uninsured families as he can afford. Socialism begins at home– his home. His multimillion dollar thousands of square-foot Sasquatch-of-a-carbon-footprint bulldozing-a-wetland home.

Somehow socialists are never willing to part with their own money while grabbing it away from those evil white RethugliKKKan businessmen.

This is the guy you want as the spokesperson for your movement?

Wondering why Hollywood is losing its box office power is like Marie Antionette in the cart wondering why everyone misinterpreted her remark about pastries.





Can a Critic be Too Biased?

15 09 2009

I really like A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times. He’s smart, usually on target and manages to do it without picking up the obnoxious “I’m so much more sophisticated than you” tone that seems to creep into most of the Times writing. Probably comes from being a veteran of Newsday, the big Long Island newspaper. Speaking from experience, Long Islanders never quite get over their awe at being in “The City.” Here’s the thing, though. I’m about to accuse Mr. Scott of being biased — yes, a biased critic — because of his review of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” on the latest episode of At The Movies.

According to Mr. Scott, this is a film that takes a middle road in its portrayal of the 1970s German terrorist organization. According to Mr Scott (and I’m paraphrasiong from memory here as the show’s not up on the offical site yet) the film doesn’t ask you to sympathize with them and doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of their actions but also gives insight into their motivations as a bunch of idealistic kids trying to make a better world. While this already sounds like the words of an apologist for Baader-Meinhof excusing mayhem and murder because their motivations were pure, what really puts his comments beyond the line for me is when he later wonders why Hollywood can’t create political movies that portray controversial topics with the kind of passionate intesity on display in this film. He surmises that Hollywood is “so afraid of offending its audience that they won’t take a stand on issue.” (again paraphrasing)

Excuse me? Has he seen the output of Hollywood in recent years? Never mind the list of anti-Iraq war movies as long as your arm. There are liberal jibes, commentary and messages in virtually everything put out by Hollywood. And they’re often in the places where you’d least expect them and where they’re the least appropriate. Take Definitely, Maybe, a treacly little romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin. This is a film where the main character is made a political consultant (a Democratic political consultant, natch) stricly for the purpose of becoming a mouthpiece for the director and writer’s liberal political views. In one scene for example, Reynolds expresses shock and outrage that a woman he’s interested in isn’t a Bill Clinton supporter (a man well known for how well he treats women) or at least a Democrat! There’s also one scene that has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie and exists solely to take a potshot at George W. Bush. The idea that Hollywood is somehow afraid to offend half it’s audience flies in the face of the reality that that’s exactly what Hollywood does — continually. To the point where they continued to make anti-Iraq war movies depite their box office failures and continued to come up with desperate rationalizations about why they kept failing.

Now I don’t expect critics to adhere to some sort of nonsense about being “objective.” They’re critics, after all. Their whole existence is based on them having opinions which are, of course influenced by their biases –including their political ones. This is not my objection. One of my favorite film critics, MaryAnn Johanson over at The Flick Filosopher is an outspoken liberal, something that comes across quite often in her film reviews. Roger Ebert, who I also enjoy, is the same way. I read them and I trust them because their biases are right out where everyone can see them and my judgment on their judgment can be filtered through my understanding of what colors their opinion.

What I object to is when a political bias becomes so strong that it distorts everything about a particular review including the reviewers judgment. Mr. Scott did this in his “Baader-Meinhof Complex” review. Is his political judgment so far to the left that he honestly thinks that Hollywood films are middle-of-the-road politically because they’re afraid of alienating the audience? What does that say about his judgment of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex?” Is he somehow so sympathetic to the aims if not the methods of the Red Army Faction that iT skews his judgment of the film’s quality? I don’t know. After that comment I can’t tell and as a result I can no longer trust Mr. Scott’s judgment.

Too bad. He’s a big improvement over Ben Lyons.

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Angry Bear 16 is Up! The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever…

10 09 2009

I love me some Soren Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he’s the brilliant mind behind much of the gaming goodness that was Civilization III and Civilization IV. As such, whenever he speaks at a conference or updates his personal blog, he’s always worth listening to. What I wasn’t expecting was Johnson’s July 16th entry (called “So this is what Twitter is for…”) regarding a fascinating Twitter exchange he had with some of the leading lights in game design regarding the relative importance of narrative versus actual gameplay.

According to Johnson, the conversation began in response to a somewhat controversial talk given by Too Human designer Denis Dyack at the Design 2009 conference. Johnson Tweeted to Dyack after the talk and was This was responded to by Harvey Smith. Then Clint Hocking Rob Fermier. Brenda Brathwaite and a host of other leading game designers that included Ian Bogost, David Jaffe, Damion Schubert and even John Romero started a long, complex conversation about the boundaries and importance of gameplay vs. narrative. It went on for a while.

(This week’s Angry Bear is my take on Dyack’s talk and the conversation that followed. At the risk of stepping on the toes of all these game designers whose work I’ve long admired, I’m going to say that while I understand where Denis is coming from, he’s drawn absolutely the wrong conclusion from his study. I’m hoping for some heated conversations this week.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here!

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

transformers2007vv6

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Ponyo and the Art of the Unsaid

23 08 2009

Warning: Spoilers ahead

I don’t particularly care for profanity from stand-up comics or explicit sexuality in movies. It’s not that I have any moral objections to four-letter words or people doing the nasty (particularly the latter), it’s more that I believe that great art comes as much from what is not shown as what is. The tighter the boundaries a piece of art must push against, the greater the breakthrough when something really works within a particular set of conventions. I think great art is found in the negative space where the audience is forced to dig in and work. It’s not for nothing that the term Anvilicious was coined to mock the heavy-handed “This is the message, people!” moments that pass for social commentary in movies and TV shows. I thought about this a lot today while watching the new Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo with the kids.

Ponyo of course, is the latest animated film from the genius behind Spirited Away (among others). It’s the light-hearted tale of a magical goldfish named Ponyo that falls in love with a five-year boy named Sosuke and wants to become human. There’s more to it, of course. There are a number of plots running though the piece including bits about Sosuke’s mother’s job at an old-age home, worries about his father who’s the captain of a ship that may be lost at sea and the cosmic rift that Ponyo has unwittingly opened that threatens to destroy the Earth. Of course the real reason to see it is absolutely spectacular imagery that Miyazaki created using the kind-of old-school animation techniques that would have been recognizable by Walt Disney himself.

What’s really amazing about Ponyo however, is how much of what the movie’s actually about is left unsaid. There’s only a single truly anvilicious moment in the film when Ponyo’s father (a formerly human sorcerer who now lives in the sea and struggles to maintain the “balance of nature”) mentiones that he really doesn’t like humans because of the way they mess up the ocean floor and get in the way of his work — and I’m not sure whether that’s actually the product of Myazaki or the translated English screenplay produced by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison. Make no mistake about it though, environmental degradation and humanity’s responsibility for it are a big part of Ponyo’s story, but one has to dig deeply into what’s not said to find it.

The beginning of the film, for example, shows the viewer some absolutely spectacular imagery of the living seas — jellyfish, fish, diatoms and all kind of beautiful undersea lifeforms wheeling about in a spectacular dance. It’s a stunning “Circle of Life” moment. Ponyo then escapes from her controlling father and heads for the surface world. What follows is an absolutely brutal yet lovely sequence of Ponyo’s Dad struggling through the trash-strewn harbor waters around Sosuke’s home searching for Ponyo and Ponyo’s near death from a dredger and a discarded fruit jar. This is followed by what on the surface is a lighthearted comedic moment that’s actually bitterly ironic where Sosuke’s mother takes Ponyo’s father to task because she believe the spray pumper he uses to keep himself wet on land is some sort of weed-killer and “we don’t use weed-killer around here.”

It’s this kind of subtlety that’s at work throughout the entire film. Miyazaki never comes out and says that humans are evil for messing up the environment or that there’s a Captain Planet-like conspiracy to befoul our home. Indeed, this is a film notable for the fact that there are no villains. Everyone in the movie is doing what they do out of the best possible motives. The real villain of the movie is parochial self-interest — being so narrowly focused on one’s immediate concerns that one doesn’t take the time to revel in the world around oneself and appreciate the magic and wonders that lie right in front of our noses. At one point, Sosuke’s mother Lisa casually tosses off the practiced line “Life is full of wonders” — casually dismissing the miraculous appearence of a little girl who came to them running on a wave. Indeed, Ponyo herself is the greatest perpetrator of this — being so focused on her affection for Sosuke and her desire to become human that she nearly destroys the world.

This sort of parochialism is shown again and again throughout the film. After a storm has ravaged Sosuke’s tiny fishing community, Sosuke and Ponyo go on a quest in a tiny boat to find Sosuke’s mother. As they travel, the audience is treated to incredible undersea vistas showing the now-drowned landscape with Devonian fish swimming along underwater freeways and through submerged forests. Much of this is shown from the height of the children;s waists, looking down as their feet pass over these marvels while they look ahead, completely unaware. Yet when a fleet of brightly colored flag-bearing rescue boats evacuating villagers comes by, Sosuke says “It’s like a parade!” completely unaware of the potential human tragedy that these boats represent. When the residents of the nursing home where Lisa works are miraculously healed and saved from drowning by a jellyfish-like air bubble provided by Ponyo’s dad, their main concern is eavesdropping on Lisa’s conversation.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem to me that Miyazaki believes that humanity is evil for what it does to the Earth. The vibe I got from the film was more one of sadness that responsible stewardship of the planet seems to require two characteristics that are awfully hard to reconcile with each other. The first is the child-like capacity to accept, appreciate and utilize all the wondrous and magical things that the universe provides. The second is the adult-like capacity to be a responsible caretaker with the hard-headed practicality to get things done. Ponyo herself is forced to give up magic to become truly human and Sosuke is asked to make the grown-up choice to take responsibility for her and Ponyo does indeed, get her happy ending. The central conundrum of the movie, however, is left unresolved. Is it possible to have both sides in the same person? Ponyo’s father would seem to be a likely candidate, but his gaunt, haggard appearance and acknowledgment that he’s long since left his own humanity behind don’t bode well for those trying to split that balance.

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