The Spoiler Rises: The Dark Knight Rises

I’ve loved the Nolan brothers’ and Christian Bale’s take on Batman since the first film came out in 2005 while I was in Japan. Between love of the film and homesickness, I must have seen Batman Begins five or six times in the theatre. I don’t normally see films on their opening weekends, but I was thinking about making an exception for their last Batman.

The Dark Knight Rises was in an awkward position its opening weekend; it should have opened as the culmination of the Nolan/Bale series critiquing policing and citizens’ responsibilities in an era of expanding government and shrinking responsibility, but almost immediately upon its release it was overshadowed by a single person’s anti-human actions.

Psychopathic attempts at terrorizing people going about their daily lives – and everyday citizens’ responses to those terrifying events – play a prominent role in the Nolan/Bale Batman world. The perpetrator of the real-life attack played into the mythos of the films, refusing to explain his reasoning at first, leaving assorted weapons and traps scattered about Colorado and remaining, like Bane, the Scarecrow and the Joker, a cipher. Trying to, anyway. In the real world, as Film School Rejects’ managing editor Scott Beggs notes, films may be touched by a tragedy, but life goes on.

Personally, when I heard about the shooting in Colorado, it did make me pause. Copycat events aren’t uncommon when something like this occurs, and I didn’t want to be caught in a theatre with a crazy gunman. But the would-be Banes of the world can only win if people give in to fear. And I really wanted to see that movie. (Seriously, they started showing ads on TV in JUNE. I waited long enough!)

Now then, about the film itself. There will be a few spoilers here, including a big one about the end. This isn’t going to be a review, more like a set of observations. (Let’s be honest – if I were to write a review, it would consist of, “Good film, go see it!” You don’t want to read that.) Originally, I was going to write mostly about Catwoman, but now I’m going to save the for another post. Enjoy!

One of the things that first drew me to Japanese animation was its limited form. Programming for the very young aside, most anime are created to finish in a set number of episodes, usually a multiple of 13. From an American perspective, this means that they are paced more like literature than television or comics. The Batman comics, for example, were popular when they were introduced in 1939, so DC Comics continued to create new Batman stories over and over again. Occasionally a different person was swapped into the Batsuit for awhile, but ultimately Bruce Wayne has remained Batman. Similarly, as much as I love Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, seasons pass and Buffy is still slaying the big baddie, same as always. If you love her the way she is and want to see her do what she does forever, this is wonderful. If you love her the way she is and hope better days will come, seeing her get hurt and keep fighting over and over and over again is psychologically draining. It never ends, there’s no happily ever after.

The Nolan/Bale Batman is different. Yes, they made a series of films and more films could be made in the world they’ve created, but they have ended the story of Bruce Wayne as Batman with The Dark Knight Rises. Bruce Wayne, after 73 long years, hasn’t just retired to his mansion to oversee other members of the Bat-family, he faked his death and left America entirely for a happy-ever-after with Catwoman. The three Nolan/Bale films give us a full story cycle – a hero’s journey – four times over: once in each film, but also once across the three films.

In this larger journey, Batman Begins covers Bruce Wayne’s departure from the world he knew, with his allowing Ra’s al Ghul to die signifying the destruction of the last bind between Wayne and his old life as a privileged young man of Gotham. The Dark Knight gives us Batman’s initiation. In loving Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne is led back to a normal life instead of his dual existence as part-time Batman, part-time socialite. By killing Rachel, the Joker allows Wayne to separate entirely from normal human concerns, leading to his blind faith that the people of Gotham will choose to risk their own deaths instead of killing others. In The Dark Knight Rises, Wayne faces the issue that countless popular comic, film and TV heroes have before him: why go back? Why stop being the (super)hero who saves the world?

Bruce Wayne is an injured hermit at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises. Even though Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham in years, he still lives in isolation at Wayne Manor as though he himself is only Batman’s ghost or shadow. Over the course of the film, we are reminded of what Bruce Wayne discovered as he created Batman: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed, but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” Batman’s power lies not in the man behind the mask, it lies in the existence of a mask. That’s why Bruce Wayne can “die”. He may leave Gotham, but he leaves his city with the fruits of his efforts: Batman, the everlasting symbol.

The Bat Signal is regenerated for Commissioner Gordon’s use. The Bat Cave has been left ready for Robin John Blake to take up the mantle. Bruce Wayne’s hard-won knowledge has been left to the denizens of his world, leaving Wayne himself free to live again. The story of Bruce Wayne as Batman has come to an end, but the Nolan/Bale Batman world is wide open. The symbol of Batman supercedes the man.

For a quick snapshot of the hero’s journey, try this website, made by the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction

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Linkspam the Second: At the Movies

First, a New Year’s Resolution: I may or may not post a whole lot, but I will at least stop promising posts that don’t materialize.

Anyway, here’s your next linkspam, themed around film.   I still have a ton of links on other topics, so more will be coming eventually.  However, I’ve got a handful of other things I want to write about (as opposed to copying-and-pasting about), so things will get done as they get done.

The first lot relates to women in action movies:

Next, some technical/behind-the-scenes articles:

Uh-oh. I thought that that would take care of a hefty chunk of the links I’ve stored up, but no such luck. Maybe I’ll get them all done by next year…

The B-word

There are four films out this week. Film A looks like a decent way to pass two hours, but I don’t want to see it because it’s an effects-filled extravaganza with little in the way of plot, and I’m in the mood for something with a bit more heft. Film B looks like a decent way to pass two hours, but I don’t want to see it because it’s a horror film and I think it’ll be too scary for me. Film C looks like a decent way to pass two hours, but I don’t want to see it because its female characters are all scantily-clad idiots whose only aim in life is to find hot guys, all of whom are smart and fully dressed, and I find that personally insulting. Film D looks like a decent way to pass two hours, and I end up seeing it.

I tell Random Man why I didn’t see film A, and he says okay.

I tell Random Man why I didn’t see film B, and he says okay.

I tell Random Man why I didn’t see film C, and he incredulously bursts out, “You’re boycotting it?!?”

 

 

I’ve had this conversation many times. I have, as yet, restrained myself from pointing out the sheer idiocy of comparing my not wanting to use my limited funds and time to buy something I’m not interested in to the great boycotts so well-utilized by the twentieth-century civil rights movement. But I may, next time, respond with my own incredulous outburst.

RED and a Reverse Bechdel

I was all set to post about Mechademia, but then I saw RED today and somehow my plans changed. (I also saw a soccer game at which they gave away red scarves, but I didn’t get one, so who cares?) Anyway, on with the show.


Slight spoilers, though not too bad.

RED is the story of Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA assassin who is having trouble adjusting to civilian life, but also beginning to find love – until he is suddenly attacked by assassins. Bada bing, bada boom, he is back in the game. In short order he collects his lady love Sara Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) – to keep her safe, of course – and a handful of old comrades (or at least pleasant enemies) and sets about finding out who wants him dead/stopping them. It’s a fun movie that I would encourage you to see. For all the violence of the premise there’s not a ton of gore. There are plenty of explosions, which always pleases me, but your mileage may vary on that one. No, what I want to talk about here is the Bechdel test. For those of you who don’t know it, the Bechdel test came out of Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip. It’s gained notoriety because it showcases cleanly and clearly how badly women are represented in films. The test has three parts, as follows.

A movie must have:
1. two female characters
2. who talk to each other
3. about anything except men.

It sounds so simple. Women constitute about half the population. We talk to each other often at work, at home, on the phone, in locker rooms and restrooms… Topics of conversation include our jobs, our bosses, our kids, our hobbies, our yoga classes, new recipes, plays… You would think films would capture this as a matter of course. But they don’t. If you want to see how your favorite films stack up, head over to The Bechdel Test and search for them. You might be surprised. Then again, you might not. The Social Network failed, for anyone who’s been following the hubbub about that.

Now, you’re probably thinking “So, does RED pass?” and really, I’m not sure. There are four named female characters with speaking parts that I recall*, and of them I think two do speak together about something other than a man. That being an exchange along the following lines:

Boss: “What are you doing?”
Employee: “Nothing. Just… nothing.”

Not much, but enough to pass. Remember, this test is a basic measure; it’s not meant to be the be-all and end-all of realistic portrayals of women. There might have been more such exchanges, too. As I said, I didn’t pay that close attention. (I was too busy having fun.) What I did notice was how multiple characters pulled aside Frank Moses and spoke to him… about a woman.

There isn’t a reverse Bechdel test – two men who speak to each other about anything except a woman – because we don’t need one: practically every movie would pass it with flying colours. RED is a little different. It works Moses’ progress in falling in love to his progress in settling into retirement. In other words, it realistically suggests that, for a male character, a girlfriend isn’t merely a person the bad guys can kidnap at the appropriate moment or a fun roll in the hay while waiting for an assassin to come. She’s someone to talk to, someone you have to work with – and occasionally someone you really, really want to like you even though you effectively kidnapped her. In short, she is a part of your life. So we have Moses mentioning the woman he collected so that she wouldn’t be killed to his old friend, and then his other friends ask him about her, repeatedly, and then when the bad guys kidnap her (as you knew they would) naturally they have to mention her on the phone to him and again to each other. She’s central to the movie, as she’s central to Moses.

I didn’t keep track at the beginning of the movie because it’s so rare, but I wonder if this movie could pass a reverse Bechdel test? It might not. If Sara Ross is involved in all of the scenes where they’re planning how to find the bad guy, I don’t think it would.

This left me thinking, if a movie failed a reverse Bechdel test, would I care so much if it passed the actual Bechdel test? After all, if a movie solely included mixed-sex group scenes it would be incapable of passing the test, but at the same time it would be putting female characters front and center throughout the entire film, which is what the test was made in hopes of. I could go for that.

Final note, for those who are skeptical that the short dialogue above should give any proof of a movie’s seriousness about depicting women: I’ve noticed, over the years, that some TV and film pieces manage to work in small hints that yes, there are these creatures called women out there. A short scene in NCIS where the head of NCIS, an agent and a forensic pathologist – all female – discuss the most appropriate courtroom attire to ensure that one is taken seriously. Use of a sanitary pad to staunch blood flow from a bullet wound in Salt. There is such a moment in RED. I’d be happy to tell you about it, but it alone of all the scenes in the movie (and there were many funny moments) got the entire audience laughing as one. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but I assure you that it’s there. In addition, please note that I have written this whole post without mentioning Helen Mirren’s Victoria. This is because she is so fantastic I didn’t feel I could do her justice in the context of a Bechdel test-related post. And someone chose to make the most noticeable assassin female. Good choice. Offhand, for major characters I’m counting seven male and four female. For an action movie, that’s rather astonishing. Go take a look and see if you don’t like it.

*I should note that some people only count named characters for the test. For the purposes of this movie, I only recall the named characters + one unnamed woman who only spoke to men, and there wasn’t a huge speaking cast besides, so it shouldn’t have an impact.

Fried Green Tomatoes (at the Whistle Stop Cafe?): Adaptation

Sorry for the long delay in posts – something great is going on IRL that I will be able to mention shortly.  In the meantime, an overdue post on a book and its film, with spoilers.

Evelyn and Ninny, Idgie and Ruth

As (I think) I’ve written before, I am interested in adapting works – manga to anime, for example.  Awhile ago I saw the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, which is adapted from the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.  Now, I saw it for a reason which is, ultimately, unrelated to why I like it so much. Well, tangentially related.  Every so often I see an actress or actor in something and just suddenly realize that whoa, s/he is goodNCIS: Los Angeles spurred that realization for me where Chris O’Donnell is concerned.  (Stay with me, I am going somewhere.)  In NCIS: LA, O’Donnell plays an undercover federal agent who is supposed to be one of the best.  As such, the show often features him, in particular, suddenly changing his character, onscreen, while O’Donnell himself is already in character.  It’s impressive to watch.

Okay, so I was inspired to hunt down a bunch of O’Donnell’s previous works.  Fried Green Tomatoes was one of the first ones I found (many thanks to my local library and IMDB).  It’s one of those insta-classic films, like A League of Their Own, that you watch and pretty much immediately know you want to own.  Not because it has Avatar‘s special effects, or Saving Private Ryan‘s gut-wrenching realism, but because you see yourself sitting down to it on a lazy summer evening some years down the road.  You need good acting for that sort of impact, but what I didn’t realize when I rented the movie was that O’Donnell’s character dies shortly into the film, after perhaps two minutes on screen.  Oh well, those were a good two minutes.  (The following minutes were all sorts of confusing, because I had rented the movie for O’Donnell, so they couldn’t have actually just killed him off, right?  Right??  … No.)

Anyway, I liked the movie and found it interesting enough that I returned to the library for the book.  Which I also liked, for totally different reasons.  Which I also found interesting, for totally different reasons.  Okay, to be honest, practically the only attraction the two shared was the Southern accent.  In the intervening months, I’ve thought off and on about how the book was adapted, why and to what effect, and now I’m going to share a bit of what I’ve observed.  A lot of the differences lie in little details, so the next two paragraphs will be relatively long descriptions of the two properties.  If you’ve seen/read them, the jump should take you straight to the analysis.

I saw the movie first, so I’ll start with that.  Fried Green Tomatoes is the twinned story of two pairs of women, Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, in between-the-(World)-wars Alabama, and Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode in the mid-1980’s in the same area.  The movie opens with the middle-age Evelyn meeting Ninny, an elderly woman residing at the same nursing home as Evelyn’s cantankerous mother-in-law.  Evelyn and Ninny become solid friends over the course of the film, with Ninny encouraging Evelyn to turn her boring life around and Evelyn eventually inviting Ninny home to live with herself and her husband.  This turnaround involves Evelyn’s becoming a successful Mary Kay saleswoman, taking hormones for menopause, exercising, dieting and generally standing up for herself.  In part, Ninny encourages Evelyn by telling her stories about the tumultuous lives of Idgie and Ruth, which we see as flashbacks.  Idgie was incredibly attached to her brother Buddy as a child, so it deeply changed her when he (O’Donnell) died in a train accident.  She runs wild for a few years, until Ruth (depicted as Buddy’s girlfriend) is roped into trying to reform her one summer.  Things go well for awhile, but at the end of the summer Ruth marries, and Idgie returns to running wild.  Unfortunately Ruth’s husband beats her, and she eventually returns to Idgie.  They set up a household in town, and start to raise Ruth’s son, Buddy, Jr., together.  All goes well until Frank Bennett’s car is found in the river sans Frank Bennett.  Idgie and a black family employee named Big George are taken to Georgia (the husband’s home) to be tried for the crime, and it looks bad until a preacher perjures himself to get them both off.  They return to town; Buddy, Jr. loses his arm in his own train accident; Ruth dies of cancer.  There are grounds to think that Ninny is actually the elderly Idgie, and we later hear that Big George’s mother killed Frank Bennett while he was trying to kidnap Buddy, Jr., and Big George cooked the body and served it to the locals via the cafe.

Ooookay.  The book follows that general structure – scenes of Evelyn and Ninny interspersed with scenes from earlier on – but encompasses much, much more.  The movie is increeeedibly simplified in a variety of ways, and the reasoning behind that is clear.  In addition to the stories of Idgie, Ruth, Evelyn and Ninny, the book includes an awful lot about Big George’s family: his mother (who we find out adopted him), his wife, their kids and even their grandchildren.  Big George and his mother are prominent in the film, but the family as a whole is covered about evenly with Idgie and Ruth in the book.

Idgie, Ruth and Buddy

Aside from that family, Buddy Threadgoode’s story was also simplified rather a lot, as was his impact on Idgie or the reflection of him that you can see in Idgie.  In the film, Buddy is portrayed as the perfect son, a bit of a rascal and a horrible flirt, but ultimately a good boy who is devoted to Ruth.  In the book he is more complicated.  He and Ruth do not have a relationship – he never even meets her.  Instead, he has a long-running, serious and somewhat scandalous relationship with a woman called Eva Bates, a loose woman from a lower class who is devoted to him – and is later devoted to Idgie and then Buddy, Jr.  She doesn’t show up in the film.  The book has many sections about hobos and hobo life, and excerpts from various newspapers and newsletters that illuminate life in that time and place.  Finally, the book goes into more detail about Frank Bennett’s character – namely, in addition to beating Ruth, he also impregnated and beat a number of women in his own town, which helped convince a judge to sweep his maybe-murder under the rug.  As for the contemporary sections of the book, we mostly learn more about Evelyn’s trials and tribulations, including her time at a fat farm.  Ninny is clearly not the elderly Idgie, whom a short chapter shows selling honey at a roadside stand, and she dies at the end. Continue reading

Cannes idiocy

This is a bit late, but I wanted to direct your attention to the fact that the Cannes festival this year featured no films directed by women in competition. That is correct: zero. That is also pathetic. Last I heard, eighteen men-directed films are in that competition, and they couldn’t even find one decent woman-directed film to add?!?!

A letter is being sent to the organizers complaining about this, and you can sign it at You Cannes Not Be Serious. It’s easy and quick, and you can add a comment of your own if you’d like. The text of the letter is below.

HT to Women and Hollywood, a lovely blog everyone should follow.

******************************
To: The Organisers of the Cannes Film Festival

As people who care about and are interested in films we must protest the lack of female directors in competition for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Women make up over half of cinema audiences and we demand a fairer representation of female directors in the main competition.

We are raising our voices in protest in hopes that in the future this will never happen again.

We are watching. We will not be silent.

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

Alices’ Wonderlands

I wrote awhile back about the Alice in Wonderland trend. Well, I kept thinking about it, and I’ve decided to do a series of posts on various adaptations of Alice. Most of the posts will be about Japanese variations, but since I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland yesterday, I thought I’d start with that. Fair warning, sailors, spoilers be ahead!

Okay, so what is Burton’s Alice? It is neither Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland nor Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, though it features characters and situations from both. However, the plot is largely new. Burton’s Alice is a 19-year-old lady facing an uninteresting marriage proposal at the beginning of the movie. The new plot involves the Red Queen as a murderous despot, whose fearsome beast Alice is foreordained to slay. Alice, however, is uninterested in slaying anything, and only gets backed into it through her deep friendship with the Mad Hatter.

(I feel the need to insert here that Johnny Depp portrays the Hatter with both charming and convincing insanity; Mia Wasikowska’s Alice is endearingly independent in a rather timid manner [at least at first]; Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is self-centered in a greatly amusing way; and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is just great – kind, but not all there, if you know what I mean, in a way that strikes me as perfect. And it wasn’t just them. There was a lot of good acting going on.)

*Ahem* Anyway, Alice is made older and the plot involves more action. This is where I got very excited: this film is crazy female character-centric. While TtL-GawAFT had the two kings show up for various portions of the book, the only time either shows up in this film is when we see the Red King’s head (sans Red King) floating in the Red Queen’s moat. Moreover, Alice’s story comes a lot closer to traditional male coming of age tales in this movie than it does in the original. In fact, the original is really more about a daydream (well, a pair of dreams) than about growth as a person.

The new movie is, instead, a bildungsroman. The unwanted marriage proposal creates social pressure which forces Alice to run away for a time to Underland (as it is called in this film). In Underland, she is informed that she has lost her “muchness”, to the extent that she is not even considered to be Alice. The White Queen eventually spells it out for both Alice and the audience: she will stand alone against the Jabberwocky, so she must choose – alone, without the pressure of others – whether to fight.

Once she has regained her muchness, or become self-actualized, Alice can then make choices for herself. She decides to leave Underland, and turns down the proposal in favor of going into business. In our final view of her, she is standing on the bow of a ship headed to China for trade. The implication is that she kickstarts trade between Great Britain and China.

Burton’s Alice is a young woman who begins by being swept hither and thither by whomever is around, but ends by changes the currents of global trade herself. From one who is acted on, to one who acts. And Alice acts kindly. She tries to help an old, delusional aunt, she helps preserve her sister’s peaceful marriage and her business acumen supports herself so that her mother won’t worry. She backs up that kindness with steel: she kills the Jabberwocky that terrified Underland’s citizens into behaving. In other words, Alice becomes the ideal classical warrior. I wonder what Lewis Carroll would say?

Aliens/Terminator/Avatar: the mash-up

I’ve already written about Avatar as a story about new modes of life, now I want to look at it as part of the works of James Cameron. I could (and should) write more than I will, but I wanted to get something out before my memories of Avatar fade away too much, so I didn’t take the time to review Cameron’s other films first.

Avatar has reminded me more and more over time of Cameron’s Aliens, another film starring Sigourney Weaver as a woman who, for whatever reason, ends up becoming closer to an alien species than most of the rest of humanity. Aliens is a sequel, so it doesn’t compare precisely, but one character popped out at me in both films: the Company. In Avatar, Aliens and also Cameron’s Terminator films, the great evil is not a person but a company. Moreover, representatives of that company are divorced from the actions of the company as a whole.

But wait, you’re thinking, Selfridge, the Company’s administrator for Pandora in Avatar, is a human representative of the Company and makes all of the decisions which lead to the war between the Na’vi and the Company. Yes and no. But first, let me talk a bit about the role of the company in Aliens and the Terminator films.

Aliens opens with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) explaining what happened in the previous movie to a disbelieving corporate task force. We are shown Ripley trying very hard to impress the danger of the alien menace on nameless executives who are simply unimpressed. Almost immediately after, we find that Ripley has been dumped in a tiny apartment doing menial labor – forgotten and held unimportant by those she was trying to convince. Until, of course, the colony near where Ripley encountered her alien is suddenly and inexplicably incommunicado. At that point, a company representative called Burke takes Ripley and a group of Company marines to find out what happened. So far, we have a company deciding what to do about a potential threat to all of humanity, a company that has its own marines. Both of those are usually thought of as government prerogatives. However, in contrast to elected government officials calling the shots, we have largely nameless Company employees.

Most of Burke’s team dies in the film, and we find out that Burke himself had prompted the attack on the colony by sending uninformed, unnamed Company employees out to the site of the first movie’s attack to look for aliens – without telling them that there might be dangerous aliens about. At first glance, this might seem to blame Burke for everything, but why did he do it? To cover himself in case Ripley was right. Burke didn’t think that there were aliens, he just needed to be sure so that the Company didn’t get in trouble.

Fastforward to the Terminator movies. In movie one we find that Cyberdyne Systems created an artificial intelligence called Skynet which then instituted nuclear destruction of the world. Note that Cyberdyne doesn’t do anything wrong, exactly, it was their invention that wrought evil on the Earth. In movie two we are introduced to Dyson, the scientist most responsible for Skynet. He isn’t depicted as believing that his work will be either particularly good or bad; he’s just doing his job. When convinced that his work will lead to nuclear holocaust, well, he changes his tune. Terminator II gives us Cameron’s version of “hope”: Dyson’s efforts – at the cost of his life – appear to stop the destruction of humanity.

I’ve covered a lot of ground quickly, but I wanted to present an overview of the role of companies in some of Cameron’s major films. As you can see from these three films, companies are treated almost as living organisms themselves. People can affect the Company, maybe, but not in any meaningful way. Burke’s actions were in service to the Company. If he had not prompted the initial attack on the colony, the growing colony would eventually have prompted an attack (on a much larger population) as it spread to the aliens’ area. Moreover, Burke was the only employee of the company who took Ripley seriously enough to even send someone out to check on her claims. In Terminator II, the company is unmoved by Sarah Connor’s attempts to halt its research. However, Connor, her son and the Terminator helping them are eventually able to convince Dyson, a member of the company, to try to change its path, and he appears to manage it at great cost.

Now we have Avatar. Selfridge is in charge, and does okay various actions by the employees, but he’s also shown as, well, wishy-washy. As the embodiment of the Company, Selfridge does not really decide anything. When the scientists argue forcefully, they get what they want; when the militarists argue forcefully, they get what they want. His actions are decided by who is talking to him at any point in time. Even at the end of the movie, as he is being escorted off the planet, Selfridge pauses and looks at the victors. Confused, searching for words, he eventually gives up and goes home, seemingly unsure of just what happened.

The character of Selfridge reaches a pinnacle in Cameron’s use of employees as a (body)part of the Company. If the Company of Aliens and Terminator is uncaring, hard to move, faceless, a monolith that appears to have no motives – not even profit, really – then Selfridge is caring (unless it goes against profit, which it does); easily moved in the short term, but too wishy-washy to effect permanent change; and so full of motives that he can’t choose just one and stick with it (profit? but he doesn’t want to hurt anyone; making nice with the natives? but he doesn’t really care about them).

And here is where Cameron’s companies become evil: not in the conscious pursuit of evil actions, but in the employees of all ranks who simply try to do what the Company wants, despite the fact that companies are not alive and cannot “want” anything. Instead, employees assume that the company wants something, usually profit, and then subsumes their own selves to that company. We don’t really know anything about Selfridge the man after seeing Avatar, only Selfridge as a part of the RDA corporation.

The evil lies in that no one is responsible for the corporation’s actions. If Selfridge is simply a part of the company, then the company is responsible for his actions. But a company is not a person, and therefor cannot be punished. A government ought to have the ability to at least attempt a punishment through fines (hitting the company in the profit motive it is often assumed to have), but we never hear much about governments.

This is an eerie parallel to what we’ve been seeing in the U.S. financial system. Companies are too big to fail, so they are given money instead of fines. Yet the traders that ruined the economy and caused untold damage have not broken any laws, and therefore are not punished for their actions. The government has little to no authority over the companies, which are not bound by anything to pursue good.

Cameron’s response to this is Jake Sully’s growth, which I have argued is like opening to a new way of life, but which is also comparable to growing into an adult (his body becomes bigger, hairier; he enters a marriage; he gains skills by which he can support himself). If we look at it as Sully finding a new way of life as an adult, then that suggests that Company life is childish. To subsume your identity in a company is the same as subsuming your identity in your parents: you live on their/its terms, you accept their/its values. I think Avatar is a wonderful argument for accepting responsibility, which we could use more of.

Avatar Racefail: Now with spoilers

I finally saw Avatar, so I thought I ought to write about that, in addition to the commercial. A lot has been said about the film as an allegory of colonialism, particularly the Europeans-in-Africa variety. Perhaps because I already had that in the back of my mind, I saw another story unfold as I watched.

Avatar is about a disabled veteran, Jake Sully, who takes over his brother’s job after his unexpected death. That job? To inhabit an alien avatar on the planet of Pandora in order to learn about – and try to exploit – the Na’vi, the principal form of alien life on the planet. Over the course of the movie, Sully comes to feel that life in his human body is like a dream – with the unspoken corollary that life in his avatar body is real. Sully also falls in love with one of the Na’vi, and undergoes what is explicitly called out as a permanent mating with her. The movie ends with Sully risking his life in order to permanently inhabit his avatar, and the final shot is of avatar-Sully’s eyes opening and looking directly at the viewer.

You’re probably getting a feel for the story I saw: Jake Sully’s awakening to a new form of life. What really drove it home for me was that final shot. Sully’s eyes open, metaphorically, and what he sees is us. I’m not sure what to do with the fact that he’s looking at us. But the eyes opening? That’s not exactly subtle. There’s also the fact that the movie’s title flashes on the screen not at the beginning of the movie, as is standard, but at the end, after we see Sully’s eyes. So Sully sees life through new eyes, and then we see AVATAR. It’s very suggestive. What is real life? What is living through an avatar? Which is real? And, how can you tell? Sully does not change simply because he inhabits a new body. Instead, he changes because his new body allows him to learn new ways of life, grow and change as a person. At the end of the film, Sully has grasped a greater way of being.

The whole movie is about what constitutes a “self”. Aside from Sully’s journeys between bodies, there are also the soul trees. Throughout the film, the Na’vi connect to various other lifeforms via fibrous extensions that are normally hidden in their hair. When these fibers connect a Na’vi to another animal, the Na’vi is able to feel the animal’s body and order it as though it were part of the Na’vi herself. Eventually we find out that the Na’vi can also connect to special trees, called soul trees. However, where the Na’vi are able to order the animals around through their connections, they can only hear the voices of deceased Na’vi and ask for assistance – which may not be granted – when connected to the trees.

Here I need to get a bit technical. It is developed in the human-only scenes that these trees are connected to each other through fibers much like those the Na’vi and other alien animals have. Basically, the human scientists posit that the trees are a sort of biochemical computer/life form. So we’ve got some Gaia theory going on. It’s mentioned at one point that the humans who want to strip mine Pandora have already destroyed their own planet, so we have some symmetry there as well.

Ooookay then, we’ve got Sully learning about a new way of living as a Na’vi, and we’ve got an entire other life form – the planet Pandora – that is so far beyond the human characters’ reckoning most of them can’t believe it exists as anything more than native superstitions. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the story. What is life? What constitutes one’s self? Can one’s self continue after one’s life ends, as those Na’vi whose voices and memories are recorded in the soul trees’ databases continue to speak to the Na’vi and act to preserve their world? There are some other questions you could ask (When we look for other intelligent life in the universe, will we even be able to recognize it?), but those more post-structuralist questions are what popped out at me. Those final two shots – Sully’s eyes opening and the word Avatar flashing on the screen – seem designed to make you think not about colonialism, but about what constitutes you.

Academics and fans: never the twain shall meet?

One of my perpetual irritations as a scholar of anime and manga is the disdain that some academics hold for fans. I’m not talking about those scholars who just think all popular culture is trash. No, I’m talking about a subtler form of disrespect. I’ve been reading some old issues of the Journal of Asian Studies – going through the book reviews for things I ought to have read – and came across a review of Japan Pop! that brought it to mind. I should note that the author of the review isn’t blatantly disdainful, it’s just that the introduction to the review brought it to mind. She tries to briefly summarize the reason why Japan Pop! was put together (to bring together fans and academics) by casting fans as pleasure-seeking consumers and academics as critical analysts. This is a false dichotomy.

This particular dichotomy pops up a lot, so I’ll unpack it a bit. The review’s author does note that some academics are fans, but says that even so they want to analyze. The problem is that “analysis” is a very vague term that suggests intelligent/thoughtful action. If you sit down and think for a second, you can probably remember sitting down with someone at some point and going over a character’s motivations; that’s analysis! People do it every day. Pop culture fans in particular are known for incessantly going over what character did what in what series, why, what things in the real world might have nudged an artist toward making this, that or the other creative decision… Given the zounds of hard-core fans (to say nothing of casual movie-goers) out there and the relative paucity of culture-focused academics, fans analyze popular culture far more than academics.

Well, hey, now, how many fans reference Foucault, you might be thinking. I will grant not a ton, but more than you might think. How many students try to write papers on their favorite movie or TV show for their Intro Whatever course? In my experience, rather a lot. (And that’s not even counting all the other aspects of pop culture.) However, let’s leave aside how often – and critically – fans think about series. What about the academics?

This is where the disdain issue bugs me. Okay, irritates the heck out of me. One of the earliest academic books about anime is often favorably mentioned to me by academics who don’t really know their popular culture. (I won’t mention it, but if you know anime you most likely know the one I’m talking about.) Now, this book has gotten rather good reviews from various academics, and is looked down on by fans. Some of these academics know that fans look down on the book and take that to mean that the fans are silly widgins who just don’t care about critical thinking.

The book in question is full of factual inaccuracies. I’m talking everything from getting references wrong to getting plot/character details wrong. Admittedly, messing up a reference happens to everyone at some point, but this book is a particularly egregious example. The plot issue, however, undermines the whole book for me. A lot of the author’s arguments are based on the plots and characters of a handful of main anime – and s/he gets them wrong! Throughout the book!

I’ve heard academics who purport to study anime and manga argue that getting those plot details wrong doesn’t really matter. Really? Getting the facts that you’re basing your argument on wrong doesn’t undermine your argument? Seriously?

Let’s be honest: if I wrote a book about women in the Tale of Genji and I confused all of Genji’s paramours I would get jumped on faster than lightning. I would probably never get a job in academia again.

I’m not writing this to say that ye random anime of the week is of equal quality and academic interest to the first novel ever written. The thing is, anyone who is seriously trying to study popular culture needs to treat it with the same respect that other academics treat whatever they focus on.

Back to the fans=fun-loving lack of thought, academics=Serious Inquiry dichotomy, when a fan reads an academic book on their topic, they may not know the obscure scholar whose works are briefly mentioned on page 13 (and yes, most of the scholars referenced in academic work are obscure). They will know the series under discussion, and possibly have extensive knowledge of production details, including things like whether the studio pushed for sex scenes that the director never wanted, whether the series had to be ended early because the magazine it was published in was folding, assertions of plagiarism and so on. All of this affects the final product, and fans know it. Academics writing on popular culture are talking to a well informed audience – that happens not to know as much about critical theory as we do. Sloppy research will be caught quickly, and why would fans respect an academic who proves, on every page, that s/he does not know what s/he is talking about?

I’ll give another, similar example. Japan Pop! is a bit different than the unnamed book above. It’s meant to bring together academics and fans, and it came from a conference aimed at the same. It ends up being a bit uneven as some of the authors focus more on fans or more on academics, but that’s to be expected. Still, I remember wondering why a Canadian girl’s Sailor Moon doujinshi was included. Fans already know about doujinshi, and if the idea was to show academics who didn’t know anything about Japanese popular culture about the vibrancy of the doujinshi industry, why not include a Japanese one? Another article in the book argued that a shoujo manga showed great gender equality in Japanese culture – but looked at that one manga alone, without comparing to a sea of cookie-cutter manga that all show female characters being almost – but not quite – as smart as the boys. Taken as a group, the issues become clear, but the author missed the larger themes.

When I write, I try to assume what I’ll call a high level of uninformed intelligence. My imaginary reader may not have seen the movie or book in question and may not have learned the theories I’m using, but she has the ability to understand all of the above. That approach has, generally, worked for me. Even if an author assumes that I know five series and seventeen theories that I’ve never heard of, though, it’s fine with me so long as it’s clear that they know what they’re talking about. When you are blatantly uninformed about the topic that you chose to write about, however, I will have little interest in your work.