"s&co" - a photo by Flickr user austinevan
Thoughts on media, culture, and the world-at-large bubbling up from the dusty corners of my cluttered mind
May 15, 2011
The Crew

Bridesmaids was marketed like a raunch-com centered on female friendship and the absurdities of weddings, but there's a whole lot more going on. The film's wide-ranging (and, to some, surprisingly cross-gender) appeal appeal is based on something far more universal.

Posted By Saralyn on/at 2/03/2010 08:25:00 PM

Before I begin, I have a bit of a confession to make. I really enjoyed watching Avatar - far more than I should have, given my acute awareness of the extremely problematic noble savage-White savior-Fern Gully meets Pocahontas in space issues it raises and fails to question (not to mention the absurdly formulaic plot and the way it positions itself around gender and (dis)ability). As a film-going experience, though, I found it captivating and exciting. I still get excited when I watch the trailer and my eyes skip about the extremely rich visuals. And, while I may disagree with its presentation of the argument, I can understand Cameron's desire to draw parallels to environmental devastation and the havoc (both environmental and cultural) Western (and particularly American) society wreaks by going in with guns blazing and dollar signs in our eyes. He is very open about the fact that Avatar is a political film.

As with any film and filmmaker that claims a desire for moving people towards social change, I wonder how well Cameron achieves this. As the strengths and failings of Avatar's content are being widely discussed in classrooms, blogs, and message boards across the world, I'd like to take a little bit of a different approach. Specifically, does the hyper high definition technology work in favor of stirring up useful emotions for social change or does it actually work against it? To look at this question, I'd like to turn to every creator of avant-garde cinema or theatre's good friend (or the bane of their existence) - Bertolt Brecht.

(Image retrieved from http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/A-Robert.R.Lauer-1/Brecht.html)
Brecht was a fascinating and radical director and artist, believing that revolutionary theatre (and cinema) could be used to address social problems and create positive social change. I won't explicate his theories and practices too greatly here, as I'm only scratching the surface in my own reading and a quick Google search will bring up far more in-depth and eloquent summation than I can provide. Most relevant for this discussion is his firm belief that realism and all its concomitant formal and technical 'tricks' are insufficient where social change is concerned. Realistic acting, staging and costuming, an audience "lost" in the viewing experience, and (most) emotive manipulation fail to produce active, motivated audiences. The audience and their experience with the work remains tied to the theatre and does not translate to useful outrage and actions for change in the real world. Instead, Brecht favored techniques of distanciation - or distancing - whereby the audience was constantly reminded of the artifice of the work they were viewing and challenged to approach the politically-charged content on an intellectual level. "Heroes" that are difficult to sympathize with, direct addressing of the audience by the actors, songs, and textualization were just a few of the tools Brecht utilized in his efforts to politicize his audiences. While his methods have been criticized for being sometimes inaccessible to precisely the groups he wanted to reach, Brecht's approach continues to be a major influence on avant-garde cinema and theatre that seek to inspire audiences to "get up and do something" when they leave the theater.

The connection and potential conflict with Cameron's project is easily found. From Cameron's interviews, I believe it's a fair statement that the visual hyperrealism of Pandora and the Na'vi are supposed to make the horror of what the Big Bad Corporation/Western society/the American government or military strike home and raise our (the audience's) awareness/desire for change. The more beautiful and realistic the world, the more distressing it's destruction for the audience. If you connect with the characters, you are more outraged when they are burned. (Interestingly, this is implicit in the narrative of Avatar, as well. It is only by immersing himself physically that Sully can connect with the Na'vi emotionally and see the need to fight against the status quo.) It is a fairly traditional approach to filmmaking and attempting to affect the audience - and precisely what Brecht would attack about the film.

While I am drawn to Brecht's project on an intellectual level, it is difficult for me to deny the emotive power of films like Avatar (for better or worse). Perhaps it all comes down to the question of what we came out of the darkness of the movie theater thinking and feeling. Was it how atrocious the war in Iraq is? Did you come out disgusted about devastation of the rainforest and displacement of indigenous peoples? Did you write your senators, join Greenpeace, switch to fair trade-ecologically friendly products?

Or did you spend the first few minutes after the lights came back up sitting in awe while your heart stopped racing, turn to your buddy and babble about the visuals, then have a brief discussion about its racism/environmentalism/narrative predictability on the way home to continue going about your life like before?

For anyone interested in the issues Avatar raises (or fails to), I highly recommend Film Studies for Free's recent entry on Avatar and allegory. At the end of a discussion/demystification of "allegory" is a great list of articles/reviews/resources on issues the film trudges up.

Also, it isn't scholarly in any way, but I found it rather amusing (although there is a smidge of language some might find "vulgar" or "offensive"):

Final Note: Do not be surprised if I return to this topic later. I find Brecht fascinating and full of wonderful insight and problems, and I feel this wasn't quite as eloquent and connected as I'd have liked.

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