January Cultural Round Up

So I have decided as an exciting new feature to give a quick overview at the end of each month of those things cultural which have taken up my attention over the last month. We thus commence with January.

Books

The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov

In a word, Russian. There is something about the first half of books that requires that the plot really doesn’t move along much – I’ll never forget the endless wanderings around the streets for the first half of Crime and Punishment. Anyhow, I did enjoy the second half and clearly it is fascinating as a product of its social time and place.

The Resurrectionist James Bradley

Have not finished yet, but it is darkly seductive, drawing one in and leaving one dreamily wanting more just like the opium Gabriel finds himself taking. And whoever thought that short chapters made a book easier to put down at night. I find myself reading well past my bedtime, figuring just one, short chapter more can’t take very long…can it?

Cinema

Avatar

Well, I have said my piece on Avatar elsewhere to some extent. Beautiful to look at but empty at its heart. And I am sorry, but a “best Film” should really be a bit more than aesthetically pleasing – I generally demand an actual script and some less by-the-numbers acting.

Sherlock Holmes

Strong auteurial influence – it had never occurred to me to think of Watson as a bit of a geezer before. However, rather an enjoyable romp, though I think it might have been better if the central characters were renamed – really, anything other than Holmes and Watson.

The Princess and the Frog

Classic Disney in the classicist sense. Old school animation, American Dream rags-to-riches storyline…Admittedly the “princess” is a poor girl with a dream (Cinderella anyone) and the Prince is a lay about – but let’s face, he is transformed by love and hard work and she is transformed by marriage, so there we go. Nonetheless, not too bad, and I will even guiltily admit I got a little tear at one point – must have been dust in my eye.

Television

The Wire  – Season 2

The charisma of Jimmy McNulty insidiously creeps under one’s guard, and suddenly one finds oneself with a full blown case of TV boyfriend! So far, season 2 is showing itself to be as intriguing as season 1, full of moral dilemmas and perspectives and a demonstration that some of our notions about crime and morality are not as black and white as they could be. Situation, opportunity and grinding poverty are all keys to the story.

Dollhouse – season 1

It occurs to me that this series was just a big chance for Joss to do what he loved to do in Buffy and Angel – make his characters be someone else. Better mid season than its shaky start, I still long for it to be a bit better. The mid season episodes are improved though by Eliza getting to play Eliza, which has always been her strongest suit.

Games

Lego Star Wars  for the Wii

It must be said that the interstitial moments of Lego Star Wars really make you want to get to the end of the level. Wait, so does the frustration of having to do the same annoying thing over a few times… Having never really played one of these types of games before I was somewhat addicted for the first half of the month – and I can see Zelda purchases in my future.

Music

This month was dominated by the Big Day Out which we journeyed all the way to Adelaide to attend. The best discoveries for the day: my mild interest in The Decemberists was heightened by seeing them perform live and Peaches, let’s just say her show is totally, rockingly, insane. For my full run down of the Big Day Out, see here.

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Looking for a new formula

Walking home in the middle of a balmy summer night after seeing Avatar the other night, the discussion turned naturally to the merits of the film. The question that occurred to me after, is how much of a pass can you give something because of its merit on one front?

It is undeniable that Avatar, for example, is a technologically impressive. It is also very aesthetically impressive. Or pretty, if you would rather. But beyond that, the film’s merits are entirely questionable. The characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional, as are most of the performances (we’ll give you a pass Sigourney, you were OK). The script is at times very laboured, especially the anachronistic use of Iraq War terminology which just grated at times. There was nothing remotely original in the story, and I don’t think there was anything that happened that surprised me (although I did think for a minute they might save Grace, but let’s call that a minor surprise). There were a number of things which were pretty lacking in credibility (for example: if you had invested billions and billions in a business, would you be trusting its management to an unthinking loser like Parker Selfridge and the scenery chewing colonel? And the politics were heavy handed and, amusingly, enough to set off the right (particularly in the form of Miranda , bemoaning the deprecation of the military and the Iraq War and the left, with (justifiable) concerns about the depiction of disability, race and gendered notions about warriors vs spirituality. Personally, I can’t abide the white-man-rescues-poor-natives trope which is the film’s central conceit (see Sociological Images for a nice discussion of that here). I must admit that amongst that litany of problematic depictions, I actually thought that, Na’Vi earth goddess trope aside, the depictions of human women were not too bad. But this is perhaps beside the point. My other concern with Avatar as a whole though was that it, with is formulaic plot and its poor characterisation, bordered on the boring at times.

What I am particularly interested in, is to what extent can one give an artistic creation a pass because of its superior aesthetic value. Many people I know have said “well…it was pretty.” And pretty seems to count for a lot. But how do you stack pretty up against poor scripts, lack of imagination or, indeed, poor politics. Overall,as a society, when it comes to people we do seem to be willing to let a lot slip when faced with superior aesthetics! But people are different from art. Without engaging in hyperbole, or any implication that James Cameron is a Nazi etc, it should be noted that films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia were supremely aesthetically pleasing, and impressive demonstrations of their current technology. It is true, that these films are still watched and studied and indeed admired for their aesthetic values. But the questions remains as to whether they are “good” films. Can their core of rottenness be overcome by their superior aesthetics?

Is there a formula or an equation that can be reached which says, despite its poor script, its aesthetics bring it up to par, but now you add some dodgy politics, it drops out of contention? It is interesting that we often do this in the other direction – the lighting and the sets were poor and it was ugly, but the script was fantastic – it is a “worthy” story. Are there some things which cannot be forgiven in a film, no matter how beautiful?

Update: with respect to questions of the originality of the script of Avatar see this very amusing take on it.

Further update: A good discussion about the idea of considering these questions, plus the representation of race itself in Avatar is here.