I’ll say this for ‘Avatar 3D’: It’s better than ‘Inglourious Basterds’

At the very last moment, as the DVD was being released, I went to see “Avatar” in 3D last Thursday night.

It certainly wasn’t as good as its besotted admirers would have it. Nor was it as bad as Jeff Vrabel claimed, although I enjoyed his iconoclastic take on it.

On the plus side, I’ve never seen anything like it, in terms of the visuals. It was richly beautiful, in spite of the Viewmaster distraction of 3D. Which is better than it used to be, but still not convincing — yeah, it looks like things exist in more than one plane, but the items that pop out in front seem themselves to be flat, 2D, like figures in a pop-up book, not realistic at all. You are conscious of the artifice of it at all times (not to mention the fact that anything I’m not looking straight at is out of focus — although maybe that was the effect of wearing 3D glasses OVER my prescription specs). If you want to make something seem real, give me the chiaroscuro cinematography of “The Godfather,” which went much further toward making me feel I was there than these cheap tricks.

I’ll also say the premise, the central plot conceit, is also intriguing — the idea of a character projecting his avatar into a reality (as opposed to a computer-generated virtual reality) that he can’t otherwise enter. Although I have to say that it SOUNDED better, when I read it in advance, than it worked in the film.

On the other hand, there’s the plot. As my son said as we left the theater, he thought it was better done in “Dances With Wolves.” I wouldn’t condemn it quite that strongly, since I regard “Dances With Wolves” as one of the worst films ever made (although nowhere near as bad as the David Lynch abomination, “Dune”). The problem with “Wolves” was it’s triteness, exacerbated by the fact that Hollywood acted as though it was profound and original. (Folks, Mark Twain thought the whole “Noble Red Man” theme had been done to death by James Fenimore Cooper in the first half of the 19th century, and I’m inclined to agree.) At least “Avatar” gives it a new twist, and the dazzling visuals help you forget that you’re watching yet another screed on how wicked white men are — especially corporate white men and military white men. Got it. People in positions of power do bad things sometimes. Noted.

It was particularly interesting for me that I saw this in the middle of reading Flags of Our Fathers, a thoughtful examination of a time in which this country actually celebrated its military and its core culture, to the point of exaggeration that was painful to the subjects of adulation — especially the real-life Noble Red Man Ira Hayes, who ended up drinking himself to death back in the days before we invented the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress. (Fascinating anecdote illustrating the complexity of actual heroism: When fellow flag-raiser Rene Gagnon was identified and was about to be whisked from the troop ship to Washington to be celebrated, Hayes warned him that if Gagnon told the brass that he, Hayes, was also one of the flag-raisers, he would kill him. When Gagnon ratted him out anyway, Hayes didn’t kill him, but never spoke to him as he gradually killed himself.)

But if you set all that aside, “Avatar” was quite enjoyable. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, without the distraction of 3D. I’m leaving it in my Netflix queue.

Speaking of Netflix, I’ll say this for “Avatar”: It’s far better than the execrable “Inglourious Basterds.” I’ve never liked Tarantino, but this took my dislike to a new level. Even as satire, even as self-indulgence, this was badly done, as Tarantino went out of his way to trample on any chance that the film had to redeem itself on even the lowest levels. The title, complete with deliberate misspelling, does capture the film perfectly. I’d far rather see a trite re-imagining of the Noble Red Man theme than this desecration of everything in sight, including the Holocaust. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

On the other hand, to end on a high note, the wife and I (thank goodness I wasted my time on “Basterds” while she was out of town) watched “Fever Pitch” — the original with Colin Firth, not the American remake — Saturday night, and it was wonderful. It made me wonder how much better “High Fidelity” might have been had it adhered to the original setting of Nick Hornby’s masterpiece. But then there would have been no Jack Black as Barry, and pop culture would have been poorer…

9 thoughts on “I’ll say this for ‘Avatar 3D’: It’s better than ‘Inglourious Basterds’

  1. martin

    Wow, you must have missed various members of the Native American acting community singing the praises of “Dances” on TCM for the past month.

    Their take is real different from yours, white boy.

  2. bud

    Interesting that Brad, self proclaimed military brat, enjoyed “Flags of our Fathers” so much. Seemed to me that it was a pretty harsh evaluation of the military. But perhaps I mis-interpreted it.

  3. Brad

    What “Flags of our Fathers” is is realistic. It’s war with the bark off. And what I am trying to tell you is that that’s the way I see it, always.

    Even as I get a thrill in my heart from viewing that photo, one that speaks to the basic elements of patriotism and valor and glory and the whole schmeer, I appreciate knowing the truth behind it — that even though in the days before and after this was taken the Marines were under murderous fire every step of the way, this was in a lull in the fighting, not under fire. That this was not the initial flagraising over Suribachi, but the raising of a replacement flag after some unseemly political squabbling over “ownership” of the first flag between the Secretary of the Navy and a Marine officer. That while every man in the picture was a hero many times over for his actions before and after this rather forgettable moment (forgettable, if not for The Photograph), there was nothing heroic about THIS particular action, which caused a huge sense of disconnect in these men’s minds — the three survivors’, that is — because the world acted like they were heroes BECAUSE they raised the flag. That while it looked like a moment of ultimate triumph, three of those men would die in the subsequent fighting. That Jack Bradley, the Navy corpsman who is the central figure in that tableau, joined the Navy because he thought it would keep him safe from actual combat. And yet, despite that less-than-“heroic” motivation, ended up receiving the Navy Cross for his utter disregard for his own safety in treating the wounded under enemy fire (NOT for raising a flag). That combat is an extreme form of real life — complicated, contradictory and often ambiguous.

    You shouldn’t be a bit surprised that I embrace all of that, unless you really believe in the simplistic ideological boxes you try to put me in.

  4. Michael P.

    “better than Inglorious Basterds”, well that’s not saying much. Since Inglorious Basterds sucked.

  5. bud

    Brad, while I agree “Flags” was a very good movie it was somewhat dismissive of the Japanese. That was corrected by the “Letters From Iwa Jima” later on. The two in tandem demonstrate that in spite of cultural and historical differences the similiarities in the military mindset is pretty universal. These films are powerful in conveying just how very careful we should be about allowing military men to make decisions about when and where to go to war. That mindset is flawed in that it vastly understates the costs. The Japanese learned that lesson from WW II. Hopefully the USA will eventually get that side of the equation.

  6. Brad

    Actually, Bud, I haven’t seen the movie. I’ve saved it for after reading the book. I’ll be done with the book soon, and will order BOTH movies — which were always intended to be seen in tandem — from Netflix.

    But if seeing both movies gave you the impression that both illustrated the same things about a “military mindset,” then you definitely need to read the book — and a lot of other books besides — to correct that impression. The Japanese on that island were a generation that had grown up in a totally militarized society, in which they were ciphers whose lives meant practically nothing. To their society, they were nothing more than “issen gorin,” which translates as “one yen, five rin,” or “penny postcard” — which is all they were worth, because that’s what it cost to draft another soldier to replace them. This is how their higher-ups referred to them.

    The Americans came from a decidedly nonmilitarized culture in which the military is completely subservient to the civil system built around respect for the worth of every individual citizen. The shock for the Japanese, indoctrinated as they were, was that such a nation could stand up to and defeat them. And yet we did. And you know how we financed it? Voluntarily, with War Bonds — a form of finance I would think you would appreciate.

    To suggest that the MILITARY somehow drove our participation in that war (or really any war, but particularly that one), as opposed to our participation and determination to win being something that rose up from the will of the people, is to suggest something that shows a complete lack of understanding of actual history. I don’t think you mean that, but the way you worded that suggests it.

    The fact is, had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, our involvement in the war — if there had been any involvement in it — would have been seen by political opponents much the way Democrats see our involvement in Iraq. They would have called it “Mr. Roosevelt’s War,” and seen it as an illegitimate expression of his Anglophilia or Europhilia at the expense of “legitimate” American isolationism.

    Fortunately for the world, after Pearl Harbor, our involvement — from Europe to the Pacific — was a completely legitimate and necessary thing in the mind of the average American.

  7. Burl Burlingame

    Saw “Avatar” again but on 2-D and on Blu-Ray, and it’s just fine in that format. I’m preparing an essay on the meme for my own blog, but in the meantime, the mpst impressive thing about the film is the complete immersion in the alien world.

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