Saturday, December 26, 2009

Where is your Avatar?

In keeping with the traditional Jewish/atheist observance of December 25, I went to the movies with friends yesterday, followed by dinner at an Asian restaurant (Thai being the Chinese food of the West Coast). We saw "Avatar" in non-3D, because one of my friends can't deal with the 3D thing. Now maybe with the benefit of 3D glasses, this movie has some subliminal content that is new and different, but the version I saw should be called "Dances With Wolves in Space," though to be fair, the infinite battle scene comes straight out of Star Wars with some Lord of the Rings thrown in, the computer-generated animals bear some resemblance to The Golden Compass, and people who saw Pocahontas say there's a passing similarity there too.

Now I am curious whether the film's seemingly anti-imperialist message will get across to the millions who will flock to their local IMAX over this holiday season. If indeed the throwaway lines about the resource under the ground which justifies the foreign military attempting to drive the indigenous peace-loving "savages" off the land which gives them life translate into increased activism to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. aid to Israel, I promise to eat my words. Compared to "Lord of the Rings," the movie had good roles for women, especially Trudi, the fighter pilot, though of course the noble white guy gets to give the orders in the end.

I also have to acknowledge that I didn't actually fall asleep or look at my watch during the 2.6-hour movie, though I considered doing both. (Most of my friends did one or the other, some did both.) So if that's the standard by which we judge a movie, I guess it wasn't that bad. But when you consider that it took ten years and $500 million dollars – yeah that's right, twice the cost of one day of war in Iraq, I can't help asking if there wasn't something the undisputedly talented James Cameron, not to mention my beloved Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez, could have been doing with themselves for the last decade.

But the worst part of the movie was not the feature itself, but the previews. Some I have mercifully blocked out, but "The Book of Eli" and "Legion" definitely seem like ones to miss (in fact, both bear some similarities to "Avatar," but as far as I can tell without the redeeming beautiful scenery and groovy messaging). So when I got home, I read for a while, and then turned on the TV, but there was of course nothing I wanted to watch playing, so I started surfing through the On-Demand titles, and found a movie that looked kind of amusing, called "The Truth About Charlie." I started watching it and it was okay, but then I realized it was a remake of "Charade." Now "Charade" is one of the great movies of all time, I watched it twice during my chemo months, would probably watch it again if it happened to be on TV, but why would I want to see a remake of it? Either it's going to be the same, in which case I already know it too well to get anything much out of it, or it's not going to be as good.

This all brings me to a question I have grappled with for years now: Why do they keep making the same movies over and over? Do they think there are just so few stories to tell, that they have to keep telling the same four or five again and again? I think the answer is yes, they do think that. In fact, in my days of attempting to be a screenwriter, I read a number of books that pretty much make that claim. All stories can be reduced to a few critical elements – the hero, the quest, the sidekick, the totem, the turning point, the misstep, the resurrection, the romance, the confrontation and the redemption. If you want to be cutting edge, you can throw in the character flaw, which of course the hero miraculously overcomes in the course of two hours. If you want to seem really brainy, you can add some just-for-its-own-sake existential dialogue, and then your movie will qualify to be called a "film" and may even get the sobriquet "carnivalesque." Okay, it's not a bad thing to keep in mind, that every story should have an arc, that there should be some kind of fulfillment, that we can't keep track of too many characters so you probably want to have one or two people who embody the qualities your protagonist doesn't have, and that characters should have clear, believable motivations. But that doesn't mean that there all stories are really the same retelling in different scenery; it just means that all stories have certain things in common.

So while I was unsatisfiedly watching "Avatar," I came up with a list of movies that I would like to see made, and my recommendation to whatever studios or producers or whoever has millions lying around to make movies with, would be to give two or three million to each of 150-200 people (possibly chosen at random - they couldn't do worse than the pros) and see what they can do with it, the only requirement being to make a movie that has NOT been made before.

Here's a short list of possibilities, just what popped into my mind yesterday:

A feature based on the documentary "Burma VJ," about the massive popular uprising in Burma in 2007 and the underground videography collective that brought it to the world (I know I said movies that haven't been made before, but "Burma VJ" is a documentary with subtitles, and not apt to draw a big American audience, so a feature film would do something different).

The story of Specialist Suzanne Swift and her mother, Sara Rich, who brought the issue of sexual harassment in the Army to the fore by refusing redeployment to Iraq and went to prison for it.

Crows Over a Wheatfield, by Paula Sharp, is a feminist adventure story dealing with the issues of domestic violence and child sexual abuse in a nonmelodramatic and complex way. When I read it 14 years ago, I thought it would make a great movie, and I'm really surprised that it has never been made into one.

Any and all of the Maisie Dobbs books (Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather), about a woman detective in the aftermath of World War I, would make great movies, as would Laurie King's Kate Martinelli series, set in San Francisco, especially A Grave Talent and Night Work.

Michael Nava's mysteries starring gay lawyer Henry Rios deal sensitively with gay life in the age of AIDS, in a non-stereotypical way. The Hidden Law and The Burning Plain are my favorites. These have the advantage of being set in LA, so since Hollywood's favorite subject is itself, they should appeal.

There are tons of books about the Triangle shirtwaist fire in 1911, three that come to my mind are Elana Dykewomon's Beyond the Pale, Meredith Tax's Rivington Street, most recently Katharine Weber's Triangle, and all use the disaster to bring out the context in which the modern women's and labor movements were forged. Some hybrid of the three would make a great blockbuster movie.

Okay, that's it for today's rambling, but feel free to add your own movie ideas as comments here.