Tuesday, February 23, 2010

--Oh, the earth is the best! That's why I'm a vegetarian.
--Well, that's a start.
--Uh, well, I was thinking of going vegan.
--I'm a level 5 vegan -- I won't eat anything that casts a shadow.
The Simpsons

If this year's newly broadened selection of Oscar nominees for Best Picture, doubled from five to ten, isn't quite as silly as the Dodo's demand that "all must have prizes", it is enlivened by the same spirit. All must have honorable mention, and any boost in video rental revenue that might accrue from it, in the hard commercial reality that is our side of the looking glass.

Perhaps the diluted field of nominees will subsequently dilute the indignation of arbiter elegantiarum and also-ran alike when the Academy, say, acquiesces to the brute force of box office by honoring the technological brilliance and treacly storytelling of Avatar, or, observing some other shadowy political consideration, declares the shopworn caricature of masculinity at war that is Kathryn Bigelow's capable but unexceptional The Hurt Locker worthiest of worthies. There are more important foci for one's outrage after all.

Speaking only for myself and having just endured Avatar with a novel combination of awe and abhorrence, I must give Mr. Cameron his due, earned by the sheer scale of his ambition and the fruits of his technical innovations. Uncle. If today's self-styled cognoscenti condition their praise (or praise mostly out of fear Cameron--or an avatar thereof--will turn up at their door in some sort of amphibious/aircraft/diving-bell plaything), tomorrow's will resurrect him in some future Next New Wave movement. Right now it's just "too soon", like joking about a recent human calamity.

Still, I protest hoarsely through this constricted windpipe: while I understand the epic expenditures of these films necessitate a simplified story that travels well from language to language, need they be so cloyingly cliched? To resort so reliably to hoary politico-sociological themes? I'm just asking. The vast back-catalogue of Western art that is our great public domain brims with basic, broad story-lines that have long ago proven their cross-cultural appeal. Pick a template and leave the demagogy to the politicians, I shout up at the colossus (only echoes answer).

Cameron's recourse to the theme of colonial capitalism despoiling a land and the wise pastoral folk intimately connected to it for his science fiction epic takes fashionable liberal misanthropy to its logical conclusion. You hate the rich? The West? White people? The male sex? Corporations? All of the above? Sluggard! We hate humans. Game, set, match.

But where does one go from here? The charitable view has Cameron merely throwing red meat (or, more appropriately, something fair-trade and/or free-range) to the censorious set to pacify them as he indulges his, and our, appetite for spectacle. It's a shopworn conceit already after all (I'm sure I recall "I don't like humans" surfacing as an epithet for this passé pose years ago among the hipsters). But what to do when, once led by the Sherpas of sanctimony to the summit of conspicuous contrition, we find the land already settled? Come back down, I implore; way too much development on Mt. Misanthrope.

But this is no answer for the ambitious. As a general in the regnant cultural empire, he must conquer new territory always, thematically as well as technologically. It matters little to the martial hero what standard he bears, as long as it bears him. So, if the noble ideal of racial equality, bogged down in the stubborn swamps of human nature, had to turn on itself and declare first that one race (guess which) should become the cathartic repository of the resentment of the rest, then finally that race as such is an illusion (created by the aforementioned "race" and its "science", thereby brilliantly adapting the shoddy narrative while keeping its villain ever in the foreground) then it necessarily follows that the species itself eventually has to fall from grace.

This we already know as the extreme boundary of environmentalism. Just as the noble ideal of equality of the races of man before God withered in the absence of God and became the perversion, and inversion, it now is, the eminently practical ideal of maintaining the environment for humanity's preservation has gone the same route. Some now proclaim humanity is the disease threatening the environment's preservation. First the White man as scourge of the globe, now the species as a whole is the great cosmic pestilence. Next up: "species" do not exist.

Forgiveness is a necessary component of the movie-going experience for all but the best directors in this cinematic Age of Indulgence. All things being equal, artistic freedom is a good thing. But when are all things ever equal? Many of today's directors would benefit from a little more harness (I know we would). Taking in a little Tarantino? Don your lead apron of lenience against the careless doctor's irradiation of idiocy. Bring a jumbo-sized tub of forbearance, salt it as necessary with resolve, and enjoy the pretty flashing pictures. Just don't confuse them with reality, or imbue them with morality.

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