The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes and a Living Nativity

Interesting to note that "Avatar" is almost exactly the same on "Rotten Tomatoes" as "Titanic." 82% Titanic, 83% Avatar. I'd guess it won't make the same money...too high a "geek" factor. Plus, of course, it doesn't contain that trope I suspect is secretly quite close to the heart of adolescent girls the world over: their sex is worth dying for. So romantic. Yuck. But Avatar actually steps through the mirror, takes us completely from "100% real" to "100% synthetic" with no clear dividing lines to baby-step our consciousness. NEVER seen that before.


Some people are so petty. There is plenty to be critical of in Cameron's work. But one thing that peeves me is people criticizing him for his "King of the World" speech at the Oscars, twelve years ago (!) They act like: "see! He thinks he is literally the greatest human being who ever lived."

And I've seen comments similar to this all over the web, and in several magazines. What the #$@!!? Did any of them see the movie? That's what Jack, the doomed hero of "Titanic" yells when he is on the prow. That's the way it FEELS. Hell, it feels like you are "King of the World" when you fall in love (something they got right in "500 Days of Summer" by the way). If you won more Oscars than almost anyone in history, at the same time you had the all-time box-office champ, wouldn't you feel that way? Small minds. Small minds.

It might be best if Cameron worked with a collaborator. On the other hand, could he motivate himself to spend the extraordinary amount of energy and time on his projects, if they didn't flow from his own core? Good question, and one I don't have the answer to.


Steve Perry brought up the valid point that many of the voice actors in Avatar are of color. Doesn't that count? Well, yes and no. In terms of actors getting paid and therefore supporting their families and communities, as well as furthering their careers...yes. But this ties right into the theory I developed back when "Glory" and "Driving Miss Daisy" were both in theaters at the same time. Both featured black casts or prominent black actors. And the posters for both obscured the racial characteristics notably. They used deep color in the backgrounds to fool the eye: you just couldn't tell what race the characters were unless you already knew. And for the first time, a little light went on in my head, and I saw how Hollywood was working it's way around the race issue. "Glory" and "Daisy" also featured another treasured trope: complete removal from the gene pool of all non-whites. Total death in "Glory" and aged black man with no apparent outside connections, in "Daisy."

But I digress. In movies like "Star Wars" and "Logan's Run" I started noticing that black faces were excluded more often than black voices. Again, the color shock thing (I posited). So when Disney features black voices in movies like "Lion King" while still not showing any actual black people (a FAR more egregious issue in "Tarzan") my suspicion that the visual image of black skin caused whites discomfort went through the roof. We needn't go to the obvious fact that, throughout American history, light-skinned blacks had social advantages over dark-skinned blacks. Huge ones. Again, if there is an aversion to the "other" in this particular sense, it would explain a lot. What else would we expect? Well, light-skinned Hispanics would be more acceptable than dark-skinned, for instance (and if you watch much Latino television, you would never know that there were black or dark-skinned Mexicans, would you?)

And directors like Cameron, who I suspect, has some subconscious attitudes he has yet to process (note the death rate: Terminator, one black man. Dead. Aliens: two black men. Die in first engagement. Terminator II: one black man. Dead. Do a quick scan of white characters in these same movies, and you have something like a 40% death rate for whites, a 100% death rate for blacks. Either that, or we're not in his films at all.) Clearly, I don't believe this to be a statistical blip at all. It is an expression of unconscious racial preferences, and is no different from human choices made in every other arena of life (and don't dare talk about Obama. He is clearly an outlier. If you want to see how this plays out in American political life, look at the Senate.)

What does this mean? Hell, Cameron is one of my very very favorite EVER filmmakers, and I just have to roll with it. I challenge a single woman out there to say she loves a filmmaker who has killed every woman who appears in his films. I have a hundred dollars that says no one will take the bet. If my favorite director of all time might well be Stanley Kubric--and HE was as huge a disappointment in this regard: either exclusion, inclusion only for the sake of a racial dig (a'la James Earl Jones in "Dr. Strangelove"--only there because the script demanded it in service to a joke), or the sexual nastiness of "Full Metal Jacket" (remember Dorian Harewood turned away by the prostitute because, supposedly, his "soul brother" genitals were too large? And his white buddy who got the girl instead? And remember Harewood sacrifices his life to save the white guy who got the girl? I'll start ignoring that when you can name a single movie where the only WHITE character dies protecting a black man. Come on. A single movie. No? I thought not.)

This is just the lay of the land. I've learned to deal with the fact of a low-level aversion, a mild subconscious violence that can only be alleviated by conscious awareness (which drives me crazy when Conservatives decry awareness of racial issues. They mean well, but if you don' watch this crap, the natural wiring will slant the field in the favor of the majority, every time. )


Dan Moran brought up a serious issue: what do you do in a film if you KNOW that a given performer cannot do a given thing? In "realistic" films this might be an issue more than in "fantasy" films where, for instance, we know that Christopher Reeves cannot fly. The "buy in" when we walk through the door is a willingness to believe. I remember some yahoo complaining about Star Wars, that there is no way that a human being could out-think a tactical computer during the Death Star run. Putz.


But what do we make of Antonio Tarver fighting Sylvester Stallone in ROCKY BALBOA? Well, if you're like Dan, and have actually boxed, then it takes you out of the Zone, and into the "that's not real" category where you have to sit and say: "it's only a's only a movie..." when what you want is to surrender to the illusion. This is made worse by the fact that...well, Tarver wasn't exactly an actor. He could really only play himself, which he did pretty well. Personally, I think that Stallone chose a real boxer because he wanted to push himself completely out of the comfort zone. The knowledge that he was stepping into that ring against a light-heavyweight champion, when they have agreed to actually punch each other (which they pretty obviously did) had to be the kind of knowledge that gets you up early and keeps you up late. Stallone trained for six months for that movie: Tarver probably just rolled out of bed.


Interesting that BALBOA came up, because it's in my DVD player right now. I was watching it last night, without any idea that it had emerged as a topic on the blog. And my sense is that it is a minor miracle. Stallone reached WAY down to find something he hadn't touched in a very long time: the essence of the original film. Watching the delicate dance between Rocky and Little Marie was heartbreaking. The combination of raw animal strength and utter emotional vulnerability in Rocky...well, that is fine movie-making. Even Paulie, finally, after all these years, telling Rocko that he loved him...brings a tear to my eye. Stallone was a pretty decent actor who discovered he could make a lot more money being a star. And didn't turn down the big paydays, even when they led him right down the toilet. I think he is quite conscious of the mistakes he made, and is grateful for a second chance. Both "Rambo" and "Rocky Balboa" were films true to their actual core. The fact that he will make no more "Rockys" (thank God!) and that he changed his mind about pitting Rambo against a super-soldier (thank God!) suggests that he may be through selling himself out. At least for now.


"The natural tendency of the low performer is to do what is fun and easy before he or she does what is hard and necessary. " I came across this quote, and loved it. To "fun and easy" we could also add "imperative as opposed to important." The prioritization of tasks is essential to having a successful day. Do you?


Went to a Living Nativity display at a local church. It was lovely, and the snacks afterward were great too. And the people who put it on were actually pretty polite about recruitment--just a few polite probes from the deacons. And because I was on their territory, I kept totally to myself any thoughts about Christ's exclusive divinity. This is a holiday which, in general, seems to make the world better for a couple of weeks. I see people being kinder, happier, more loving, more polite. And even if just for a couple of weeks, that is no small thing. And I see children believing in miracles, trying desperately hard to be good for Santa Clause, and utterly enraptured on Christmas morning. Damn it, I remember that. I remember feeling totally surrounded by love and hope and cheer. And I wanted that for Nicki. Thank God Toni's family had a marvelous Christmas tradition, because I got a little burned after my Mom's death--she died right before Christmas, and it was a bummer that still makes it difficult to get into the mood. I want that same thing for Jason, and will be damned if I let my own pain stand in the way.

I can still reach down and find that wide-eyed kid I was. Remember him? The one who thought everything was possible? Who didn't know death, or real disappointment, or even real pain physical or emotional. Who had all the dreams that have powered my entire life.

I love Christmas, and want to lose myself in it even more deeply in years to come. It is a present to the little kid inside me, and the little kid who is my son, and all the boys and girls who will walk a long, long road in life, often bereft of magic or even love or hope. I say that a little muffling of my skeptical opinions is a tiny price to pay for a lifetime of stellar memories. Sometimes, a memory is all that sustains you.

I love you, Mom.


Dan Moran said...

The only reason "Rocky Balboa" worked as well as it did is that most people don't know much about boxing these days. (Which I thought for many years was racism -- but then the Klitschko brothers came along, the first legitimate white champions in decades, and America's indifference never wavered -- it was really the sport, not the skin color, that the country had grown away from.)

If Stallone had cast Ali as Apollo Creed, "Rocky" would have been a universal joke -- everyone would have known that there was no way Ali wouldn't have destroyed "Rocky/Stallone" in the first round. But by the time of "Rocky Balboa" (we'll skip lightly over Rocky V) even much of the "Rocky" audience really didn't have an idea who Tarver was. I sat in the audience listening to people cheer that -- calling it comic book is an injustice to comic books -- listening to people cheer the old man going toe to toe with a boxer who'd have left him a bloody smear in 30 seconds in any real encounter. Let's be clear: in the real world Antonio Tarver would knock Sylvester Stallone out in about the time it would take Stallone to get his hands up. Young Sylvester would have stood a better chance with Ali than old Sylvester stood with young Tarver.

Obviously it worked well enough. It didn't ruin the movie for me -- I went to see it in theaters twice, and took my sons the second time. But it was (for me, anyway) the difference between a really good, flawed movie, and a potentially great one that could have been stood up next to the first "Rocky," without apology.


My dad died on December 8 -- 8 days after my birthday, 3 days after his youngest grandson's birthday, 17 days before Christmas. Every year in my family we have Thanksgiving, seven birthdays in the space of two weeks, the anniversary of my father's death, and then Christmas ... I told my daughter the other day that I looked forward to Christmas the way marathoners look forward to vomiting at the finish line, but mostly that was just a good line. Despite the associated stress, Christmas morning is still a great time, watching excited children tear open their presents, watching "Hogfather" together, Christmas dinner with all the kids home ... hard to beat that, and certainly worth all the associated stress.

Merry Christmas, Steve. :-)

Mark Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan said...

Can I name a single movie where the only WHITE character dies protecting a black man?

Why, yes, Steve, I can. ;-D That would be the "The Quiet Earth," New Zealand sci-fi flick, 1985,in which there is a midde-aged white scientist, a big Maori trucker, and, well, a young white female (all more or less attractive people), and ultimately the white guy gives his life specifically so that the other two can live. (Big SPOILER if you decide to watch the film -- sorry about that) Doesn't exactly meet your scenario, and the fact that it's not an Amercian film may be significant ... but still. You can see how I just had to mention it, can't you?

Check out the trailer on IMDb.See if it piques your interest. I know I want to see it again.

As long as I'm here I'll introduce myself :: Xenophilic liberal female, about to retire so I can live as a struggling artist, and I have loved science fiction for well over fifty years. Love your blog, which I started visiting because I so admire your writing (and Tananrive's, as well). Have read Blood Brothers, Charisma, and just finished Lion's Blood (fantastic -- I'm normally not all that keen on alternative history type novels, but yours was far and away above what I expected it to be. Absolutely loved it and can't wait to read the sequel. Then I'll go back and read some of your earlier stuff.)

I absolutely do not know how you do all that you do!

Cheers, and happy holidays.


Mike Ralls said...

Having the director have complete creative control is, imo, a value neutral state. It can be good, it can be bad. Depends on the director and the state of mind they are in.

For an instance of how bad it can get when one guy is can do whatever he wants, may I recommend this _70_ minute review of why "The Phantom Menace" is a bad movie?

(Seriously, fantastic review, one of the best I've ever watched)

Shady_Grady said...

A more skeptical review of "Avatar" by Annalee Newitz.
This has SPOILERS.

Avatar Review (Spoiler) and Race

suzanne said...

well I watched the Quiet Earth preview
and immediately added it to my netflix queue

Pagan Topologist said...

This discussion has brought a question to my mind that I want to pose. A couple of years ago, Steve, you said something like "If Will Smith can't get laid in a film, Obama can't get elected." This thread has made me wonder: Would Obama have been elected President if he had had sons instead of daughters? One hopes so, nevertheless, I am not sure.

Steven Barnes said...

"The Quiet Earth" sounds like a terrific movie. Maoris aren't black by any definition I had intended, however, in New Zealand they are roughly equivalent to Native Americans. However, that said, that actually is pretty close, and a movie I'd like to seek out.
Regarding Obama's daughters...I don't THINK it would have made a difference, as long as they were pre-pubescent.

Marty S said...

Steve:I just saw a trailer for the new Karate Kid movie with a Black in the role of the Karate Kid. I think this has to be a big step in the right direction, at lest if done at all right. Have you heard heard anything about it and if so is the scuttlebutt positive or negative.