The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Billion Dollar Man

Avatar has crossed the billion dollar mark, worldwide, making it the 4th highest grossing worldwide film of all time, and #17 domestically. Yes, Cameron is King of the World.

I saw it again yesterday, in 2-D, and actually liked it better the second time. The images "pop" amazingly, and make me wonder if the familiarity of the story isn't part of the point. Does anyone think that it would be making MORE money if the story was startlingly original and the beats weren't telegraphed? I mean, this story has been done countless times...but as I said, that may be part of the point. The images Cameron wanted to create were so remarkable, that it is possible he wanted a very simple, direct, racial-memory kind of story (One of Us becomes one of Them. Within the "Civilized" man is the nobel savage. Etc.) so that we would be overwhelmed by the immersive experience. Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but I'm not sure.

One thing fascinating is the way it has been criticized by both Left and Right based on their prejudices about the opposite end of the political spectrum. After all, it both criticizes Corporations (Left!) and is a typical White Male Can Do Anything (Right!) story. Ah, hang it up, folks. It's a story. Damn near the exact same story could have been told in any era of human history (and probably has) and people would complain: You're criticizing the Emperor! You're talking about the British East India Company! You're referencing the Vietnam War...etc.

It is quite funny to listen to people whose cinematic or cultural education goes back twenty whole years swearing it is "Dances With Wolves." Sorry, Charlie...these memes have been around a very, very long time. The point of all art is NOT originality of story. It is also presentation. And at that, Avatar does some things better than anyone, ever. Some of those images are so startlingly clear in 2-D that 3-D just ain't necessary. And hey! Cameron actually had a black male character who didn't die. So far as we know. I'll take it.


My favorite Christmas present this year was one I gave to Jason: a gel ant farm. This uses a jello-like blue substance instead of sand. The neat thing is that the ants not only tunnel through it and live in it, but actually eat it and get their water from it. Developed by NASA to test the influence of microgravity on insects. It is far more stable than sand, and therefore could survive take-offs. It is uber-cool to watch the Carpenter ants tunnel--looks surreal. Little buggers are SMART! Every time I tried to open the top to remove ant carcasses (several arrived dead) they knew and swarmed up to the top, trying to escape. So I put it in the refrigerator for fifteen minutes to gentle 'em down. Worked pretty well. They get all groggy and stoned, and only one got out. I corralled him and dropped him back in. Swear I heard him cursing at me, but somehow "May two of your six legs swell until they are as fat as twigs!" just doesn't have much zing.


Day Four of the 101 program (sign up at WWW.LIFEWRITE.COM) deals with the difference between stress and strain. People try to avoid stress. They should not. Life itself is a succession of stress tests, and you are rewarded in direct proportion to your ability to handle stress without folding. The secret is that stress refers to the AMOUNT of pressure you are under. But when that stress begins to deform your structure, it is called "strain." It is strain that is "bad" for you, not stress. The name of the game is to learn how to handle higher and higher levels of stress. "It ain't how hard you can hit" Stallone says in "Rocky Balboa," "It's how hard you can GET HIT and keep going forward."

Well, it's also how good you are at slipping punches, of course. But the point is that at times, life is a storm--better bring your raincoat. The 101 approach to this is to connect everything through your breathing. Once you learn the "Be Breathed" technique (exhaling on active compression, passive inhalation) you practice it five times a day for sixty seconds per session. Then you integrate this breathing into the Five Tibetans, and later into other movements. By pausing five times a day, you will begin to interrupt negative breathing patterns before they become pathological, or spiral you down into a self-reinforcing loop of recriminations, negative results, and depression. You "interrupt the pattern" with sixty seconds of positive breathing. And the breathing is the "canary in the coal mine"--you literally cannot be depressed without breathing in a non-resourceful manner. And you cannot breathe in a resourceful, positive fashion without feeling better.

Because the breath is the link between the conscious and unconscious mind (the only process which is both voluntary and autonomic) it is the key to control of the deep self, and every culture in the world has known this. If you can control this, stress will never become strain. And if stress does NOT become strain, the only way your mind and body can react to pressure is by becoming stronger. It's how we're built. And if you set goals in all three major areas, and manage your breathing as you move forward toward them day by day...every demon in your unconscious will arise to confront you. It is fascinating to watch clients go through this "a meteor will hit your dog" syndrome. I swear it looks psychic or metaphysical the way coincidence will collaborate against you.

This is the path to growth. Nurture your relationships, your community obligations, your body, your relationship with the divine within and without. Walk the thousand mile road, one breath at a time. And from the corner of your eye, you will begin to glimpse your true self.

And what an unbelievably beautiful sight it is. You are. We are, every one of us. If we just learn to drop our fear and limitation.


Steve Perry said...

Not to blow my own horn here, but I agree with Barnes on the success of Avatar, and for many of the same reasons:

Shady_Grady said...

The ant farm sounds like fun.
But likely the ant you dropped back in was a her, not him.. =)

Mike Ralls said...

>making it the 4th highest grossing worldwide film of all time<

I beleive that if you adjust for inflation, Stars Wars I: The Phantom Menace is higher, and can we all agree that that was a lousy movie?

>The point of all art is NOT originality of story. It is also presentation.<

Very very true. I hope the cult of originality goes down a peg or two someday. It's too powerful in the art community, IMO.

My problem was that I just didn't think that Avatar was a very good presentation, effects aside and effects haven't been enough to carry a movie for me since Jurassic Park when I was 15.

For one thing, I just didn't see the Navi as real people the way I did the Aliens in District 9. The Navi were a MESSAGE! MESSAGE FOR YOU SIR! (Hey Cameron, use western union). Hell, Last of the Mohicans, published almost 200 years ago, avoids more Noble Savage cliches and treats its subjects as more real people (they were both both good and bad folk who happened to be on the unlucky end of the history club) better than Cameron did.

>it both criticizes Corporations (Left!) and is a typical White Male Can Do Anything (Right!) story<

I found both aspects to be rather hackneyed and distracting. Obviously this is a sign that I, alone, am perfect. ;)

> jello-like blue substance instead of sand<

I've seen one, and they are very cool.

>"May two of your six legs swell until they are as fat as twigs!" just doesn't have much zing.<

At this point I have to highly recommend Missile Gap by Charles Stross available free (by the author's permission) here;

> Because the breath is the link between the conscious and unconscious mind (the only process which is both voluntary and autonomic)<

VERY good point.

Anonymous said...

Actually there are several autonomic processes that you can learn voluntary control of; breathing's the freebie, though, yeah.

From sniper tricks like slowing your heartbeat to frat party tricks like sucking water up your ass (a yoga colon-cleansing practice) to... well, tantra, let us say, though, lotta bridges.

Marty S said...

My favorite Christmas present this year was finding out I,m going to be a grandfather again.

bud said...

I was riding in a friend's car the other day, and he's a big C&W fan. On the radio is one of those New Year "countdowns". I'd never heard it before, but #39 is a song by Brad Paisley entitled _Welcome to the Future_, whose lyrics surprised me, expressing the shift in cultural and racial attitudes that have occurred over the years. I'm old enough to remember (with a distinct sense of embarrassment) the casual use of the "n" word within my working class white-bread family, and I can't imagine this imagery in C&W music 40 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Do you have a web link to that ant farm, Steve?

Sounds like a cool present.

Lucho said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrea said...

I agree that stress need not become strain. I work in an environment that has the potential to be high-stress- a psychiatric emergency room. But when I am exercising regularly, eating right, and meditating, the busiest, most hectic days are the ones I thrive on! I get an energy rush like you wouldn't believe, while multi-tasking like crazy and running around putting out fires (metaphorical and sometimes actual!).

Dan Moran said...

Congratulations, Marty. :-)

Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"I gave to Jason: a gel ant farm."

This is a fantastic means of nurturing scientific interests. Perhaps you should follow this up by giving Jason an insect field guide. I enjoyed perusing these between 6-8 years old, looking at and reading about the fantastically bizarre bug-eyed aliens hiding beneath every leaf and pipe. They're also a great stealth means of vastly increasing vocabulary and reasoning ability. Before long, Jason will be speaking of Arthropods and understanding taxonomy.

The material in the ant farm could be a form of Aerogel:

"It is strain that is "bad" for you, not stress."

To expand upon the analogy from Mechanics and Physiology, strain's not bad per se, just extreme levels that cause excessive contortion of the psyche and emotional or physical failure. Moderate strain that hardens the psyche and increases overall fortitude is in fact necessary for character development. Even stain that causes moderate distress is useful. Bones and muscles are strengthened by exertion that amounts to moderate injury, hence sore muscles post workout. The healing process both repairs the damage, and strengthens the tissue, optimizing it to withstand greater loads. Similarly, emotional distress produces psychological trauma that initiates intensive analysis and reflection, producing compensatory mechanisms that equip us to surmount obstacles. To adopt the lingo of Materials Science, moderate strain hardens us to stress, enabling us to withstand progressively greater loads. Nietzsche understood this well: (within sane limits) “That which does not kill us, makes us strong”.

Jan said...

Can someone please tell me how to place the little picture with one's comments?

I enjoyed Infidel's comments about the Ant Farm. Wonderful gift for children, especially bright and curious ones. Jason is a lucky kid!

OTOH, I must confess that my enthusiasm for the ant farm is somewhat dampened by the fact that the ants keep trying to escape! I wonder why they would want to leave all that free food and drink?


Shady_Grady said...

"Can someone please tell me how to place the little picture with one's comments?"

To add a photo to your profile, choose an image from your computer or the web.

Sign in to your Blogger Dashboard.
Click the Edit Profile link.
Click "Browse" and locate the desired image on your computer.
If your desired image is located on the web, enter the URL of your image next to From the web.
Save your profile.
Pic must be 50K or less in size.

Mike Ralls said...

>the ants keep trying to escape! I wonder why they would want to leave all that free food and drink?<

They might not be trying to "escape" so much as trying to "spread the colony." If you left the lid off, some ants would probably stay in the tank, while the rest would go and live all over your house. Any species is going to try and spread over as much area as possible.

Steven Barnes said...
They are so CUTE!!! And damned clever. I just can't stop watching em, and Jason has actually "named" them. What fun.

Lorenzo said...

I thought at the time that people were way over-impressed with Dances with Wolves. It had nothing to say that Little Big Man had not already said, quicker, better and with a queer Indian character included.

But, as you say, very old themes.

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