Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yes, We Have No Bananafish

I can still remember sitting in the study hall at my oppressive Catholic high school, dressed unbecomingly in a regulation red polo shirt, matching red knee socks, and a stiff blue flame- (and boy-) retardant skirt, reading my copy of the Catcher in the Rye.  On flickering TV screens in the corners of the room, Channel One, an advertisement-laden infotainment program, blared Mountain Dew commercials at top volume; a few rows ahead, some kids whispered and played poker across a desk.  No one spoke to me, and with good reason: I was hideous, with hair like a clown wig, a face like a pizza, and a smile like a jack-o-lantern's since, by some fluke of biology, I had never developed two of my adult teeth -- two teeth that, even more unluckily, should have been positioned in the front of my mouth.  Most hours of the day, I was miserable.  I hated the hypocrites who forced us to watch television at school but gave us too much work to watch it at home, the asshole chemistry teacher who told struggling students they'd wind up flipping burgers, the classmates who, when given five minutes of free time before the end of the school day, literally talked around me, leaning over my desk to joke as though it were an unoccupied credenza.  Yet, in that moment, I was happy.  I didn't have many friends, but one of them, I knew, was Holden Caulfield.

Yes, like many literary young people, I loved Salinger's work as a teenager: The Catcher in the Rye, of course, but also Franny & Zooey (my favorite at the time), Nine Stories, Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction.  I was so obsessed that, early in college, I spent far too much money on two volumes of his uncollected short stories, which I promptly devoured; certain of those ("The Long Debut of Lois Taggett," "The Inverted Forest") top even his more widely published work, in my estimation.

The point of this post isn't to dig into the nitty gritty of Salinger's work, as I've tried to do, however ineptly, with the other reviews and commentary I've put up on here before.  Maybe I'll do that eventually, but this time, I'd like to say something less analytical.  Something more like: thanks.  Thanks for making me feel less like shit, JD Salinger -- for making me feel like there was a place in the world for someone like me.

I'll add just one quick aside.  Some critics consider The Catcher in the Rye the first young adult novel. This idea riled me as a teenager: just because the protagonist was my age, did that make his concerns any less profound, the scope of the novel any less ambitious or philosophical? I'd still disagree with anyone who considers Catcher "simply" or "merely" for adolescents, who's willing to dismiss it because of its subject, but now I do see why the reading of it as YA makes sense. Unlike, say, Edwin Mullhouse, which sees childhood fundamentally as metaphor (for creativity, for passion, for adult life), Catcher provides the reader no such distance. Throughout his work, Salinger is obsessed with children and teens, their wisdom and the immediacy of their perspective. The respect with which he treats his narrator, not despite his age but because of it, is apparent from the first page (it's equally true of the other young people, especially Franny, elsewhere in his fiction).  And in that sense, he is writing for young people, not just about them.

Or, I suppose I should say, he did write for them, until today.  Rest in peace, Jerome David Salinger.  You beautiful, beautiful man.

Monday, January 25, 2010

America's Next Top Novelist

I like this painting.

I like White Castle hamburgers.  I like Cinnabons.  I like the TV show Carnivale.  I like the chocolate waterfall in the Bellagio hotel.  I like toy dogs wearing clothes.  I like the rinky-dink kiddy rides at Disneyland, and unlike David Foster Wallace, I actually had a great time at the Illinois State Fair.  I only recently kicked my Mountain Dew addiction, and that's because I moved on to Red Bull.  I've seen Mars Attacks half a dozen times, and you know how I feel about the Kids in the Hall.  I'm going to be frank: I love William Shatner.  It's not an easy thing to admit, but there it is.

Oh the humiliation.

Now don't get me wrong.  With the possible exception of the Kids in the Hall (whom I'm going to discuss again in the near future), I don't regard any of the above as considered opinions.  In fact, if someone argued with me about, say, White Castle hamburgers, I would have to concede every point: yes, they are nutrition-less.  Yes, they are made from horse meat and fingertips.  Yes, their restaurants resemble public bathrooms, with more french fries on the floor.  Yes, I will take a Crave Case, please.

When I started this blog, one of the things I promised to talk about was the fallibility of taste, my own included.  I appreciate it when people say that they don't believe there's such a thing as a guilty pleasure; in theory, I agree that I shouldn't be ashamed of anything that brings me joy.  But those folks clearly do not have the same relationship that I do with objets d'art from Urban Outfitters, or even the worst episodes of Fraggle Rock.

I own this lamp.

I recently re-read Susan Sontag's essay on camp, a classic piece of analysis and beautifully written besides.  However, as much as I'd like to excuse all my bad taste as a "way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon," it's more complicated than that.  Although my feelings on say, Santa vs. the Devil easily fit this bill, there are, to my chagrin, a whole slew of inferior artistic products that have moved me, unironically, in one way or another, and it would take a lot of thought for me to properly explain why.  To pick a random example: in the mediocre 2007 indie flick Year of the Dog, Molly Shannon's beloved pooch dies in the first fifteen minutes; to show the character's grief, the filmmaker treats us to a montage of images of the now dearly departed being cute and generically doggish.  Reader, I wept.  And not just a little bit, either.  Oh no, I was sobbing uncontrollably.  In the theater.  At a Molly Shannon movie I didn't even like.  To paraphrase the Pixies, where was my mind?

In the aforementioned essay, Sontag writes, "Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is na├»ve... Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion - and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas." 

I emphatically disagree with Sontag's statement that morality is merely a kind of taste, and I think her claim that intelligence is also simply a "taste in ideas" is absurd, possibly even facetiously intended.  But I am intrigued by what she's suggesting here about the arts.  She goes on to say that, far from being ineffable, as is commonly supposed, taste has a logic all its own -- "the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste" -- which can, in fact, be articulated, commented-upon, explored.

In popular culture, it seems to me that there are two basic schools of thought on criticism of the arts (especially books and movies).  There's the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down school, which holds that criticism is a kind of product recommendation, an all-or-nothing or graded scale of merit.  For them, the fundamental question is, "Is it worth the money?"  Thumbers evaluate pieces of art alongside one another, often in direct comparison, regardless of differing aesthetics; to them, prizes, awards, rankings make sense as a way of navigating any landscape of creative endeavor.  This is the school of thought behind "Top 100" lists of books and movies, the "Must See" inserts amid Time Out New York's event listings, and even behind a television show like Top Chef, where cooks from widely different traditions and with vastly different aesthetics are pitted against each other with the assumption that someone will emerge from the contest as the "Winner," the "Best," and will then be rewarded financially for his efforts.  (I'd imagine this also applies to American Idol, though I've only ever seen this show once, in a bar with the sound on mute while waiting for a drag show to start.)  And this way of thinking spills out beyond the realm of professional critics: I find it telling that has user reviews in the same format for both books and vacuum cleaners.

Then there's the even lazier school of thought, which holds that "whatever floats your boat -- it's all just subjective."  This is the school of thought replicated through the cruel brainwash machinations of the worst suburban book clubs, where novels are valued for how much their readers can "identify" with the characters.  This makes artistic opinions personal to such a point that they can only be discussed in terms of autobiography.  If you dislike a film that someone else loves, then why try to argue with him?  You can't change who he is.  And similarly, if a book doesn't "work for" a certain reader, well, what can you do?

On the surface, these schools of thought appear to be opposed: the Thumbers see the quality of a work as an objective property to be measured, while the Boat-floaters regard it as entirely subjective, truly in the eye of the beholder.  But both of these schools of thought are, I think, deeply rooted in the capitalist system, because both see the piece of art as a product.  In both schemes, the audience's taste is immutable -- a market to be tapped.  The only difference is that according to the Boat-floaters, saying a film that's grossed a billion dollars is still a failure is absurd (it "worked for" so many!), whereas the Thumbers see success in one particular market (among "sophisticated," meaning educated, savvy viewers/readers like themselves) as more inherently valuable than success in others.  Yet, like the book club frau who requires her novels to feature victimized women springing back from adversity, this "sophisticated" market still has "standards," pre-existing expectations that must be met: generally, in the narrative arts, a "good story" with "developed" characters and "serious" themes, something that's "challenging" without being "offensive," "complex" without being "confusing."

I'm using the scare quotes here because I think these terms represent critical assumptions that are so common they've become nearly invisible to us.  We anticipate that any new book or movie will be evaluated along these lines, as if each reviewer is issued a rubric to score the work in each category.  These tacitly agreed-upon terms make it easier to shrink reviews to a paragraph, or even a pithy sentence or two: convenient, considering the decreasing availability of review space in popular magazines and newspapers.  Strictly descriptive terms acquire positive or negative connotations: "dense" is worse than "lean" but better than "bloated," "shocking" is better than "disgusting," but has nothin' on "haunting."

I'm not faulting reviewers; for the most part, and with the exception of the truly insensate, they're doing the best with the space they have.  But I wonder what would happen if those same critics turned their analytical gaze not on a new work, but on the critical assumptions themselves, attempting, as Sontag does, "to snare a sensibility in words." 

One effect would be that readers would be empowered to correct for the taste of their reviewers.  For example, I only occasionally agree with Roger Ebert.  But since I've been reading him since childhood, I am now able to gauge, with a high degree of accuracy, what I'll think of a film based on the way he describes it.  I don't mean that I only read his reviews for what they reveal about a film's content; his evaluative statements also contain valuable information about what the movie is like.  But now, when he says a film is "deplorable" or "inexplicably riveting," I know what he's getting at, what it means when he makes that statement.  I can see through it.

The second, and perhaps even more important, effect of reviewers laying bare their critical assumptions would be the reviewers beginning to correct for these assumptions themselves.  But, you might argue, if reviewer corrects for her taste, what will be left?  "Objective" standards?  Whose are those, and why shouldn't they be corrected for too?  For the sake of argument, let's agree that Sontag is right and that, in the arts, there is no higher authority than taste.  Even so, the "tentative, nimble" work of explicating one's sensibility would force a reviewer to think harder about the standards she's using, and at least try to apply them more consistently.  Working out a theory in writing has a funny way of opening one's mind, too.  It can start a dialogue, with others or even within oneself.  Far from setting a reviewer's sensibility in stone, I think that more often than not, it would lead to her questioning -- and perhaps ultimately rejecting -- the most knee-jerk of her received ideas.

This is what I'm working on, anyway.  And the more honest I am with myself -- and you, dear reader -- about my weird proclivities and turn-offs, the more meaningful any criticism I offer will be.  At least I hope so.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 3

This movie has a bit of Barthelme in it.  Throughout Watchmen, Snyder directly appropriates sound and images from popular memory: the moon landing, the Zapruder film, Dr. Strangelove's war room, Ridley Scott's perfume commercial, Apocalypse Now's potent mixture of Wagner and Vietnam.  Even the scenes that are not in direct homage to earlier sources are made to look like found objects: we see police footage of Rorschach; Adrian Veidt poses for photographs with Annie Leibovitz; Nixon speechifies, live, before the post-apocalypse damage is even tallied.  And when characters break, that happens iconically, publicly, too: Moth Man's institutionalization, replete with flashbulbs; Dr. Manhattan's prime-time freakout.  Televisions are everywhere in this movie, just as print matter (books, newspapers, comics) turned up page and page again in the graphic novel.  The Comedian, minutes from death, flips channels, adjusts the volume; protesters throw explosives through the window of an electronics store glowing with illuminated screens; we hear about Rorschach's arrest and Mason's death from the nightly news; at the film's close, Veidt brandishes "another ultimate weapon": his remote control.  Snyder has adopted the book's technique of collage, but tailored his allusions to work in moving pictures rather than static ones.  The result isn't just that, as he modestly and somewhat repetitiously states on the director commentary, "it looks cool," but that, like the graphic novel, the world of Watchmen the film is an explicitly postmodern world, inhabited by postmodern characters who are aware of their actions not just qua action but as public symbol, metaphor, myth.

The most postmodern stroke of all in the film's ultimate cut, though, is the one that does directly reference comic books: the Black Freighter subplot.  Even after seeing the theatrical cut of the film and reading the graphic novel, I had doubts about the possibility of integrating this story into the film -- though I saw the thematic connections, I wasn't sure what it would really add.  The ultimate cut proved me definitively wrong.  The Black Freighter sequences, executed in vivid (and often disgusting) 2-D animation, aren't just a visual triumph.  If in the book this captain's sordid tale ran parallel to the main story, serving to provide mainly a meta-textual commentary on the nature of comic books themselves, in the movie it becomes something less cerebral: a kind of David Lynchian opening into of the city's troubled mind.  In one scene, the camera zooms on a single panel of the comic -- slowly the waves begin to lap, and we are transported.  Yet the animation, bracketed by a primarily live action film, serves as a constant reminder that the story we're viewing is the creation of someone, that it's the product of a particular psychology and perspective.  And while the graphic novel told us who drew Black Freighter and why, creating a larger context in which the comic functioned as society's mirror, the movie allows us to access the comic's grisly seascape only through the more junior of the two Bernards, whose response to it is nuanced, perplexed, and largely internal.  If Veidt's creation -- a united world -- is meant to be that public and impersonal thing, the greatest good for the greatest number, the Black Freighter is the perfect counterpoint: private, handmade, self-contained, the product of neurosis and obsession, and without a materially positive effect on anyone, yet somehow viscerally true.  It's apt that we see the obliteration of this comic, and this reader, in Veidt's nuclear blast: in destroying the city, he hasn't just wrecked one real world, but the millions of tiny imagined ones carried around in people's heads.

I could spend some time pointing out what's wrong with this film -- the unintentionally hilarious sex scene, Malin Akerman's wobbly performance (she sure is cute though), the dialogue's sometimes clunky exposition.  But none of that interests me nearly as much as the picture's sweeping ambition, and its great success on the whole in realizing it.  The Village Voice once famously said reviewing Mason & Dixon was like "reviewing the Atlantic Ocean"; I'd have to say the same thing about Watchmen.  It's dark, and deep, and sometimes very cold, but it merits a lot of exploring.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 2

I have never liked superhero movies.  I didn't care for Spiderman, Iron Man, X-Men, Superman, or Transformers.  Mystery Men was sporadically funny but mostly stupid.  The Incredibles was cute but silly.  Unbreakable was okay.  Hellboy was dazzlingly bad.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was muddy and incomprehensible.  Except for the brief appearance of an adorable vampire Pomeranian, Blade was interminable.  And though I saw merit in both the Nolan and Burton visions of Batman, especially in their iconic villains, their films as films left me strangely cold.

My favorite supervillain, until recently

I did not particularly want to see Watchmen.  I anticipated two plus hours of latex and explosions, and I'd heard rumors about a giant naked blue guy (a theme that, unbeknownst to the moviegoing public, would be revisited by Avatar later in the year).  I figured it would be crowded, with long lines at the concession stands and teenagers kicking the back of my seat, and that if the comic book's dark ending had been changed, as I'd heard – I hadn't yet read it at the time – the film no doubt would close on a montage of sequel-mongering and sexual consummation.  It sounded like the kind of movie they'd play on flat screen TVs in Circuit City to demonstrate the picture quality.  

All of this changed for me nearly the instant the film began.  A lot of reviewers have commented on the title sequence, in which the lives and, often, deaths of the Minutemen (the original superhero organization in the film) and then the Watchmen are related in brief to the tune of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin."  Obviously, this sequence sets up the tone of nostalgia; by inserting these characters into iconic national moments – VE Day, the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination – the film grounds them historically, in a context already rife with associations, and thus renders them "unforgettable" for viewers. 

But for me, this sequence did something else too.  The film opens with a scene of the aging Comedian thrown to his death by an unknown assailant; if that was followed immediately by Rorschach's ruminations on a possible Mask Killer, the story would have begun on the trajectory of a classic murder mystery.  But by jarring us from that thread right away with a sequence that reveals the forward movement of time to be the world's only indestructible power, the movie forces us to step back, to remove ourselves from the immediate suspense of the situation (The Comedian is dead!  Who killed him?) and read it metaphorically instead. (The Comedian is dead, sure – and so are Silhouette, Dollar Bill and JFK.  So what?  Even the larger-than-life aren't larger than death.)  Structurally, we fall into a Dr. Manhattan-like intellectual remove, reading this story on two levels, the specific and the abstract, almost before it even starts.

The conflict between these two points of view, and the moral consequences of each, is the conflict at the heart of Watchmen.  At the abstract end of the spectrum – get ready for some serious spoilers, folks – is Adrian Veidt, supposedly the smartest man in the world, who literally destroys that world in order to save it:  in a utilitarian calculation that would make Peter Singer blush, he wipes out dozens of major cities in order to bring what he believes will be humanity's only lasting peace.  He is the only main character whose dreams and memories we never access* in the film, and it's an appropriate omission:  to him, the subjective experience of a single life is without intrinsic value.  The only thing that matters is the big picture, the Alexandrian "vision of a united world." 

At the other end of the spectrum is Rorschach, a man whose very name evokes the irreducible complexity of a specific human mind.  Nursing grudges (his enemies list would, heh heh, dwarf Nixon's) and neuroses (his attitudes about sex and hygiene make Ignatius Reilly look datable by comparison) yet unflinchingly loyal to his band of "masks," Rorschach does not believe the ends justify the means.  "Why does one death matter against so many?" he asks rhetorically. "Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this." Like a deranged Kantian, he lives by unshakable moral principles of his own making, hard-won after a lifetime lived in "gutters... full of blood": tell the truth, stick close to your friends, and never compromise.  Though his voiceovers may sound jaded, he's the film's one true idealist, the only one heartbroken by deaths that do not affect him directly.  As he mournfully observes, "A Comedian died last night, and nobody cares. Nobody cares but me."

Suspended between these two polar opposites, of course, is Dr. Manhattan, the one person (notice I don't say human) who might have the power to tilt the balance.  Though paranormally equipped in his perception of reality and time, he can't help but suffer human emotions as well:  loneliness, jealousy, tenderness, guilt.  The internal conflict of these two contrary perspectives comes to a head during his time on Mars, when he tries to eschew his humanity entirely by seeing reality only through the abstract.  He tells Laurie there is no point in saving life on earth from nuclear holocaust – "The universe will not even notice" – but then promptly changes his mind when presented with the unduplicatable fact of another human being: her.  Observing the bizarre circumstances of her birth, he says, "It's you – only you – that emerged. To distill so specific a form, from all that chaos. It's like turning air into gold. A miracle."

The joke here, of course, is that Laurie isn't a miracle, any more than the boy reading comic books next to the newsstand, or Rorschach's shrink, or the Comedian himself.  She doesn't even have superpowers (unless you count her uncannily gorgeous hair).  She's just a human being, and abstractly, objectively, as Manhattan earlier observes, a live one and a dead one have the same number of particles.  What he realizes in that scene really has nothing to do with genetics or probability: it's the intrinsic value of her personhood, something that has no structural properties at all, something that, outside of the law of human morality, doesn't empirically exist.  Manhattan's realization is not an arrival at superhuman knowledge; it's a temporary regaining of human perspective, which he of course quickly casts off again in later scenes.

A superhero movie confronting ethical conundrums is nothing new.  But what surprised me the first time about Watchmen, and surprises me even more in the extended version, is the film's true refusal to take sides.  Although Rorschach dies a hero's death (hey, I warned you about spoilers) the movie's cliffhanger ending indicates that his personal idealism may posthumously fuck things up just as much as Veidt's cold utilitarianism.  And we're given no reason to believe that Adrian "I'm not a comic book villain" Veidt is motivated by anything more selfish than the reasons he supplies.  There's no twist ending where he becomes president (though Ronald Reagan may), or benefits directly from what he's done.  Instead, the movie leaves us responsible for drawing our own conclusions, ones that may make us realize things about ourselves we'd rather not know. 

In reading over this post, I realize that much of what I've said about the film, with the exception of my discussion of the opening sequence, could also apply to the graphic novel.  Let me say a word or two about that, since it was such a source of controversy at the time of the film's release.  Although the movie certainly cuts rich and meaningful elements of the graphic novel (Dreiberg and Mason are significantly more developed characters in the book, for example), I think the only major regrettable omission in the theatrical version of the film was the Black Freighter story, which is masterfully included in the ultimate cut version.  In my next post, I'm going to talk a little about the movie's use of collage, and why I think it was fundamentally faithful not only to the book's plot and "look," but also to its genre-shattering postmodernism. 

And maybe then I'll get back to complaining about shit I hate.

*OK, I have to offer a caveat: we do see his memories of the Comedian during the funeral sequence.  But even here I would argue that we never have access to the personal significance of his memories in the way we do with, say, Laurie Jupiter's.  Nor do we see how past events transformed Veidt in the way that we do with Rorschach, Manhattan, etc., because to Veidt, biography is not a reason for action – only logic is.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 1

Negative reviews -- of both books and movies -- tend to be more popular with readers than positive ones do.  In my opinion, this is true for a number of reasons.  First, negative reviews tend to be funny, or at least have more potential for humor.  By casting a serious attempt at artistic craft in a light that renders it absurd, the reviewer has ample opportunity to display his own wit, skill with language, and imagination.  In some of the most hilarious negative reviews, the author, like a good prosecuting attorney, is able to simply step aside and let the work damn itself.  Second, negative reviews allow the critic to insert himself as a character in a way that positive reviews often do not.  Held at a remove from the work, the critic is witness, narrator, and, at times, even protagonist.  In Roger Ebert's classic review of Caligula, he appears as a solitary and powerless figure -- a lone sane nobody, unable to redirect the stampede of movie-goers as they plunge endlessly into the abyss ("Surely they know there are other movies in town that are infinitely better," he writes.  "It is very sad.") .  But third, and I think, most importantly, the arguments made in negative reviews at least present a veneer of objectivity: the reviewer has "standards," these "standards" have not been met, and thus, the work is flawed.  Why oh why, the negative review asks, didn't the author approach his work some other way -- in the first person, in the third person, in a plainer style, at a faster pace?  What's with this structure, why didn't the writer stick to a tried-and-true arc -- or if he did, why didn't he reach for something fresher, more innovative, surprising?

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that negative reviews can't be accurate, or even enlightening; defining one's own aesthetic against something one considers "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash," to use Ebert's phrase, or even just deeply flawed, can bring one's opinions into sharp relief.  And, unlike some folks, I would not argue that "critics with staying power never employ snarkiness"; to the contrary, a well-crafted zinger -- even an empty one -- can linger in the reader's memory far longer than its intended target. 

But I do find that writing negative reviews, especially the ones that have me snickering as I type, can leave me at something of a loss when I approach material I really love.  If the negative review asks, "Why this way and not some other?" then the positive review must speak to the necessity of the choices made by the work's creator; otherwise by comparison, it reads like hollow praise.  Especially for works that are sprawling, ambitious, and complex, it can be easier to speak in enthusiastic generalities.

This is all a long way of leading into my subject: the 215-minute monster that is the "ultimate cut" of Zach Snyder's film Watchmen.  This movie, uneven, bizarre, pulpy, and mammoth, discredited by comic book purists and scoffed at by the easily confused, blew me away in the theater, but this longer cut was a revelation.  My next post may not have the entertainment value of a pithy dismissal, but I will try my best to dig into at least one or two aspects of a work that kept me transfixed for three and a half hours, and still left me wanting more.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Joining the Blue Man Group: James Cameron's Avatar

Certain qualities -- stunning special effects, explosions, a fast-paced story, stars -- may guarantee a strong opening weekend for a movie.  But it takes something extra to propel a film to true market domination, to the level of an "event."  It requires an ability on the part of the filmmaker to tap into the subconscious of the moviegoing public, to understand the paradigms that underlie the way they see the world and somehow render those paradigms onscreen.  A film that succeeds in this way does not necessarily succeed artistically; it doesn't necessarily fail either.  That sort of accomplishment is beside the point.  The point is simply to create something both so spectacular and yet so recognizable that audiences inhabit it as easily as their own dreams.

If America dreams, it dreams James Cameron movies.  And though Avatar may at times seem like the result of too much bad pizza right before bed, it nevertheless speaks to our national preoccupations and desires far more directly than I suspect even its fans would like to admit.  A lot's been written already about the hilariously bad dialogue ("Come to Papa," "let's dance"), the creepy love story ("local tail" has never been used so literally), and the blundering obvious-ness of the characterizations.  For anyone who's seen Titanic, none of this will come as a surprise.  But the thing that's weirdest about Avatar, and in a way, most interesting about it, is what it has to say about nature and technology, and the surprising way those two intersect.

In the film, our protagonist, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic, a Marine injured in combat who's now given a second chance at life when he's called on a mission to the planet Pandora.  Once there, he is to remotely operate an avatar grown from a mixture of extraterrestrial and human DNA that resembles a member of the local alien race of blue humanoids, and thus insinuate himself into their community.  In short order, he experiences the wonders of the forest, becomes enamored with alien culture, and goes through the "fun part" of his tribal initiation to manhood with a local hottie under the glowing tentacles of a ghost tree.  I won't go any deeper into the plot: it's unnecessary, and based on ticket sales you've probably seen it already.

What I will point out is the rather obvious fact that, inherently and from the beginning, Sully's attraction to the new world bears no resemblance to our traditional ideas about a love for nature.  What he is attracted to is, bizarrely, provocatively, unnatural: the opportunity to trade his broken body in for a new one.  By creating a character -- a young disabled veteran -- who indisputably deserves a second chance at fitness and finds it in a body not his own, I'd offer that Cameron is slyly sneaking in an idea, increasingly prevalent in our culture, that flawed bodies (overweight, aging, scarred) do not "represent who we are" -- that, in some way, physical imperfection, not the correcting of it, surgical or otherwise, is what's unnatural.  Part of the fantasy here is not just that Jake Sully gets his legs back; it's that any of us can imagine plopping into a blue body that's like our own, only with longer legs, firmer abs, golden eyes, and arms that swing gracefully from tree to tree.  This is reinforced by the appearance of the two other characters who also go avatar: Sigourney Weaver's character, a tightly wound, middle-aged chain-smoker, seems effortlessly athletic and relaxed in alien form, and Joel Moore as Norm Spellman, her gangly, nerdy sidekick, turns valiant hero when he switches bodies.

I mentioned plastic surgery already.  But there's something else this resembles even more clearly.  When Sully sees his alien for the first time, suspended in an aquarium of what I assume is Blue Dude Amniotic Fluid, and later, when he first entombs himself in a gel-packed pod filled with nerve-grabbing hookups and wires, I found myself thinking of another zeitgeist-courting film of yore: The Matrix.  Released ten years ago, when our dependence on computers was still incomplete, that picture hinged on Keanu's decision to choose the red pill, rejecting a comforting simulacrum for a grittier, grayer-toned reality.  That film was characterized by a deep unease with our still-nascent desire to leave our bodies behind.  Now, in the era of Second Life, Facebook, the iPhone, the Wii, the PS3, and such, where folks -- like me and most everyone else -- spend half their lives in front of a flickering screen, we've become more comfortable with our avatars.  In fact, they're starting to look more like us than our real reflections do.

And the plugged-in quality of Avatar's world goes deeper than just Jake's point of access.  Cameron (and many viewers) may think he's evoking the web of life, but Pandora is closer to another web: the World Wide one.  We're told that the planet's tree roots form a network with more connections than the human brain; data, including sound, is stored in phosphorescent vines.  And the local people walk around with connectors in their ponytails that recall nothing so clearly as USB ports.  They can hook into anything -- horses, dragons, plant life, you name it -- and immediately download and transmit information.  In one of the film's weirdest lines, Sigourney Weaver says that the aliens' attachment to the ghost trees is not "just some pagan ritual"; the trees, she explains, contain actual, scientifically measurable data.  Has America arrived at its atheist moment?  (If so, go team.)  Because this is tantamount to saying that knocking out Google's servers isn't like trashing the Vatican -- it's much much worse.

Part of the reason that, historically, nature has been both appreciated and systematically destroyed is because large parts of it are not immediately useful to us.  Here on Earth, we cannot charge up our cell phones by touching a toadstool or discover our grandma's favorite cookie recipe by licking a tree.  What we can do is look upon nature in wonder, as something outside of ourselves and our direct control (a feeling that can inspire a sublime religious or spiritual perspective), or we can look upon nature practically, as a collection of raw materials to be shaped.  Neither perspective is plausible for the characters who inhabit Avatar.  Pandora is a video game world.  Everything there is already a tool, a toy, a challenge, a sex object, an entertainment system.  To plug in, all you have to do is pick out a skin -- preferably a more attractive version of yourself, and definitely blue.

After watching the movie, I walked out of the theater declaiming on it at some length. 

"I kept thinking one of them was going to get his ponytail cut off," I said.  "Shouldn't they have explored that?  What would happen then?"

"He'd probably just have wandered around forever, looking for a wireless signal," said one of my friends, turning his phone back on.