“Avatar,” which set a record as the biggest-budget movie of all time has also set a box-office record with a total world gross in its first two weeks of $617.3 million. It is a technological wonder, seamlessly combining live action and digital images in a story set on the planet of Pandora in the future, when Earth has been ruined by abuse of its natural resources and humans are about to disrupt a peaceful civilization called the Na’vi so they can collect a highly valuable mineral called “unobtanium.”
Most movie critics, including me, have described the story as thin, mundane, unimaginative, or almost an afterthought, just enough to add some emotional weight to the stunning visuals. But any movie with this level of visibility is going to attract the interest of columnists as well as critics. The very thinness of the story has the advantage of allowing for different interpretations, but that can be a disadvantage when commentators want to project their own ideologies onto it.
For example, on the right, John Podhoretz of the Weekly Standard calls the movie “blitheringly stupid.”
“Avatar” is an undigested mass of clichés nearly three hours in length taken directly from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s-the ones in which the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys.
Some people might say it is taken from the actual historical incidents in which the Indians were the good guys and the settlers the bad guys, or from other actual historical incidents involving colonialism and imperialism that resulted in the slaughter and exploitation of indigenous people. Or actual evil actions by corporations in externalizing their costs by pouring toxic substances into the water and air and toxic financial instruments into the balance sheets of the surrounding community. And they might say that comparing the characters’ worship around a sacred tree to the Keebler elves (whose tree is a factory, not a church, by the way) is condescending. But Podhoretz can only imagine that this movie is inspired by other movies or television commercials; he has no interest in engaging with its possible sources in reality.
What I think is especially fascinating about his commentary is his conclusion that the movie is not based in any expression of authentic concern about the issues of environmental stewardship, tolerance, and respect for other cultures. Whether he does not believe anyone can hold those views or whether he just does not believe this particular expression, he concludes that it is all as big a fake as the pixel versions of a lush, natural world on an imaginary planet.
The thing is, one would be giving James Cameron too much credit to take “Avatar” — with its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe and the tribe’s adorable pagan rituals, its hatred of the military and American institutions, and the notion that to be human is just way uncool — at all seriously as a political document. It’s more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard-issue counterculture clichés in Hollywood have become by now. Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance. He wrote it this way not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.
This of course tells us much more about Podhoretz than it does about Cameron or “Avatar.” Podhoretz confuses insult with argument, calling Cameron or anyone who is moved and inspired by a “nature-loving tribe” as “mindless” without taking the trouble to explain why bringing environmental ruin on our sources of water, air, and food is not what is mindless and saying that Cameron would devote twelve years to making a film and then sketch in the story in the most cynical possible way because it does not matter to him. And he goes on to suggest that by telling a story that will connect to the broadest base of audience members, then it must be because the audience is mindless as well. What is particularly funny about this is that Podhoretz is livid at the portrayal in the film of an evil corporation and yet here he blithely assumes that the corporation behind this film is so soulless that it will churn out anything the audience wants to hear. Hmm, an evil corporation. Perhaps that could be the plot of a movie!
At the New York Times, Ross Douthat disapproves of the movie because he sees it as an apologia for pantheism. Movieguide’s David Outten sees it as an attack on both capitalism and Christianity. But a sympathetic, even romanticized portrayal of one belief system is not necessarily an attack on others. The bad guys in this movie are not affiliated with any religious practice or institution. Outten at least notes that it is not the structures that are at fault but the people in them. There is a reference in the film to a time in the past when the different groups on the planet did not live in harmony. And there are good guy humans in the movie as well, so I think Outten’s view is represented in the film, whether he sees it or not.
Some who wrote about the film approvingly or disapprovingly discussed the portrayal of the “noble savage,” the Rousseauian idea of a civilization untouched by corruption. But it is not so much that the “noble savage” is a myth — the idea of the “savage” is the myth. There is just as much savagery in societies of people who read books and live in houses as in those who cook on a campfire and kill their dinner with arrows.
Beliefnet’s own Pagan blogger Gus diZerega wisely called the film “a Rorschach of the Soul.” And then he tells us how it speaks to him as a Pagan:
It is a wonderful and very Pagan movie. As I understand it the movie’s basic messages are that completeness is achieved in connection with others, that harmony is the basic value and its loss the basic failing of the modern mentality, that individuality exists in the context of connection, and that Spirit exists as immanent in the world. It is a beautiful picture of breathtaking dimensions.
I particularly like his description of the way that the conflict in the movie is more than anything else about power. Again, this is Outten’s point that it is not the belief systems or the societal structures but the people who struggle to aspire to the values of those systems and structures that get into trouble. And that is also the point of the movie.
An award-winning animated student film has been turned into a full-length feature with intricately-designed visuals but a story-line that feels stuck together with chewing gum and Scotch tape. Tim Burton protege Shane Acker has proven a better student of the letter of his mentor’s work than the spirit. Burton’s films are macabre, even grotesque. His characters may be haunted (literally or metaphorically), tortured (ditto), or murderous (ditto again), but they are as rich and complex as his strikingly imaginative visuals. Acker permits his images to overwhelm the story and the result is a film that is too dark for children and too thin for anyone else.
9 is a little burlap rag doll (voice of Elijah Wood) come to life who finds eight other doll-creatures who appear to be the only sentient survivors of an apocalypse that has extinguished all living things on earth. They are being stalked by the same murderous machines that wiped out their human creators and the movie’s greatest strength is the design and operation of these contraptions. Indeed, it is impossible not to think that the film is more interested in them than it is in its ostensible heroes.
The story keeps getting in the way of our connecting to the earnest little figures whose quest is murky at first and then undermined by an unsatisfying conclusion. “9” only gets a 6.
Coming this spring is “Letters to God,” inspired by a true story, about a young boy with cancer whose daily letters to God change the life of the man entrusted with making sure they are delivered.
Thanks for all the great questions!
Question: Several years ago there was a movie about a man who got notes from an old desk a woman wrote who owned the desk in another time period They continued to communicate this way and fell in love.
Answer: That is “The Love Letter” with Campbell Scott.
Question: Could you tell me what movie the person screaming “Stellaaaa!!!!” is from? Thanks for any help.
Answer: That is Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Question: My 66-year-old dad has been talking about a movie he grew up watching! All he can remember is a mother and daughter that were too poor to buy a Christmas tree and on Christmas eve money started to fall from the ceiling. Apparently a squirrel knocked over a jar of stashed cash and they ended up having a great Christmas. He says he would love to see it again to bring back good memories. He thinks it was made in the 30’s or 40’s. could you please help me so I can give him a great gift this year.
Answer: I believe he is thinking of a movie called “A Christmas Wish” (sometimes also called “The Great Rupert”) with Jimmy Durante.
Question: My friend wants to find this movie and here’s what she remembers:
original is in black and white, musical about one woman who gets married 4 times. The first 2 husbands die (accidents) and leave her wealthy. She marries a non-rich guy – tap dancer clown. He gets famous and dies getting trampled. She goes to a psychiatrist and tells him her story, then ends up marrying him and having kids. There is one final death scare with this guy but he doesn’t die and they all lived happily ever after. What do you think – any ideas? She doesn’t remember any of the actor’s names although she did say they were famous..thanks in advance
Answer: That hilariously entertaining film is “What a Way to Go,” with Shirley MacLaine as a woman who marries poor men who become rich — including Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, and Robert Mitchum. Enjoy!
Question: years ago I watched a movie, I believe it was on Lifetime. Tyne Daly was a controlling mother of sons. One of her sons married a young woman who would not be controlled. Tyne Daly had her killed. I thought the name of the movie was “The Good Mother.” However, when I look up that title – all I find the one with Diane Keaton. I definitely don’t want that one. Any idea? Thanks for your help.
Answer: The film you are thinking of is “The Perfect Mother” with Tyne Daly and Ione Skye.
Question: This movie was about a couple that was divorced or divorcing. They had a young daughter. In the first scene the father is in a toy store and buys a small toy horse for the daughter’s birthday. Near the end of the movie, the daughter nearly drowns in a lake or the ocean. They find the horse washing up on the beach.
Answer: That is “The Marrying Kind” with Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray.
Question: I am looking for a movie that I thought starred Charlton Heston, but all my research of his movies has not led me to an answer. The man (Charlton Heston??) was a major or colonel or something like that at a military school for boys. I can’t remember if he was the head of the academy or a teacher or what. He was very stern and hard-hearted as I recall, but his heart was melted by the cutest little blond headed boy. The man also had a love interest. I can’t remember who she was either, but she would get mad at him for the way he treated the boys at times. It reminds me of the modern day movie of Major Payne which is more of a comedy than the movie I’m talking about, but there are similarities. Can you name that movie for me? It’s driving me nuts. Thank you.
Answer: It is Charlton Heston! That is “The Private War of Major Benson.”
Question: This movie was about a powerful cop in the Spanish Gov’t. His wife or governess becomes a traitor and meets with the rebels in the mountains.
There is a good fairy or some other worldly power in a stump or ruin in the woods that she thinks can save her. Quite violent and not more than ten years old.
Answer: That movie is “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Question: I think this was an animated movie about a young witch who ran away and her cat stopped talking to her and started talking to someone else. I remember when the witch flew into a train and slept there on the hay.
Answer: Sounds like “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”
Question: Hi, i remember seeing an old film when i was quite young, but can’t remember the name or the actors. All I can remember is that at the end an old man is in the attic with his grandchildren and he is telling them a story (but its about him and his wife) which is the film – in the film a young girl goes to a dance, and while she was dancing her long johns fall down around her ankles. I think her partner was either a doctor or a teacher. If anyone could help i would really appreciate it.
Answer: That darling film is “Margie” with Jeanne Crain, released in 1946.
Question: I am looking for a movie in which a mom and her daughters are staying in a department store because their house burned down. The time of the movie was around Christmas. Also, in the end, I believe they help catch a jewelry thief.
Answer: That movie is “The Greatest Store in the World” with Dervla Kirwan as Mum.
Question: can you name the film about native American Indians fighting the Japanese with the Americans. It has Nicolas Cage in it. Thanks.
Answer: That is “Windtalkers.”
Question: Can you tell me the name of this movie? There are four black guys who are like a crew. It’s the raspy-voiced actor from “Life” and “You Got Served” and in this movie he gets killed by a pimp named Twinkie who he finds out is his father.
Answer: You are thinking of “Blue Hill Avenue” and the actor is Michael Taliferro.
Question: This one has been driving me crazy for years. I remember an old animated film from my childhood (1980’s) about two toys, a father and son, whose hands are connected. I believe they start out in a toy store but end up going on an long adventure. They cannot move themselves very well. I think there was a group of evil rats which the father and son were trying to evade, and I believe there was a frog that helped them. I remember the frog tripping over the root of a tree at one point and I think he had a fascination with trinkets from the human world, perhaps a ring of some sort. And something about a train, or train tracks. I recall this cartoon being similar to the Secret of Nimh animation style and at about the same time period. Can you help? I have searched numerous animated film databases and I cannot find anything.
Answer: You may be thinking of “The Mouse and His Child.”
Question: I saw an old western when I was a kid (early 60’s) about a cowboy who had his gun hand smashed with a rifle butt. He went on to practice his quick draw with the other hand, left I believe, and became even faster and eventually track down his attackers. Any idea what the name of this movie is?
Answer: I believe you are thinking of “One-Eyed Jacks” with Marlon Brando. It was released in 1961.
Question: I remember a movie about a bunch of women in a concentration camp and they are picked to play in an orchestra. I believe they play Madame butterfly. It just went over how they were treated and their experiences in the camp. Can you please, please help me with the name of this movie?
Answer: That is “Paradise Road” with Glenn Close.
Question: I saw this movie many times in HBO when I was in US during 1998 to 1999 about a mother and her two sons. One of the son is a writer facing writer-block and so he shifts to his mother house for a couple of days. In the house he finds some good material written by her mother stored in one of the boxes. In the past he always felt that his mother loved his brother more than him and so this time he found the reason that after his birth his mom had to sacrifice here carrier of writing and that somehow resulted in her behavior towards her. It was a nice and soft movie about a mother and son.
Answer: Hi, Sanjay! That movie is “Mother” with Albert Brooks and Debbie Reynolds.
Question: I’m looking for the name of a black & white movie that I saw years ago. It’s about a man back from the war, scarred on his face and crippled I think. He moves to a house away from people and falls in love with a homely woman who works there. To each other they dont see scars the scar and he sees her as beautiful. Can you help me?
Answer: That is one of my favorites! “The Enchanted Cottage” with Robert Young and Dorothy Mcguire.