The Blind Side and Avatar: Let's Congratulate Ourselves On Re-Colonizing The Other With Weaponized Syrup
Watching The Blind Side and Avatar in a 12-hour period is not recommended, but is nevertheless instructive.
For those of you who avoid my baseball entries, I've written in the past about the reaction to players who accuse MLB, or individuals within MLB, of racism. The official reaction is customarily quite careful, but the reaction among media and fans is often to blow these allegations off at hurricane speeds. Why? A few of the dismissers are actually racists, or merely terminally insensitive; many others, operating from a position of white privilege, simply don't want to deal with it.
But many Caucasian-Americans, I believe, respond with a modified version of plugging the ears and wailing "LA LA LA LA LAAAAA" because we just don't want racism to still exist. We don't want to believe that it continues; we want that problem in the past tense, because it is a blight, a disgrace, in which we all feel implicated and for which we can't make amends. Nor can we go back in time and fight that shadow, so instead, we act as though it has retreated for good.
Or we rewrite history in our art to congratulate ourselves on siding with justice and righteousness. This is a good-hearted and appropriate instinct — mostly; it's difficult to read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and not clench the book and mutter, "Come on, come ON, the negotiations won't work, please just start shooting and save yourselves," even though you know how it ends.
But the instinct is one thing. Inserting a member of the dominant cultural group into the narrative; writing that member not only to master the native ways, but to best the natives at their skill sets; implying that only through the smarts and leadership of the formerly reviled, but now trusted and even lionized, Moist White Dude can the poor peaceful natives and their gooey relationship with nature be saved…in one sense, it's the actualization of a white-guilty desire for things to have gone differently, which, while unsophisticated and patronizing, does mean well in its inception.
But it's condescending, it's simplistic, and last but not least, it's boring to watch, because we have seen it done I don't even know how many times already. Avatar is a gorgeous movie to look at in 3D, but the rewatch value is pretty much nil, because the storytelling is hackneyed limousine-liberal global-village garbage straight from the output tray of the Platitudotron 4000.
The storytelling is beside the point, of course. So is the acting (fortunately, because: stinky; ditto the dialect work). I get the feeling James Cameron comes up with a cool visual idea, invents the technology to execute it, and reverse-engineers the script from there, and if you hadn't already figured out that expecting nuance from a Cameron film is a fool's errand, well, now you know. But it isn't a story, really; it's an event, and while I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, that's likely because I thought I would absolutely hate it.
The Blind Side is a different version of the same problem. It's based on a true story, but I don't know how much slack that cuts it in terms of how loudly it congratulates itself on helping out a black kid from the projects — the projects! Egad! I haven't read the book, but I suspect that Michael Oher's story is just a bit more complicated than the "seldom speaks, except to reveal deep pools of insight…unless it's more convenient script-beat-wise to go back to portraying him as developmentally delayed" gentle-giant sketch he's given here. Sean Tuohy's "Who'd have thought we'd have a black son before we'd know a Democrat?" line is played for laughs, but: blech. The iron-magnolia character, which Sandra Bullock doesn't completely sell because she's thinking too hard about that accent: double blech. These "real" people feel as fake as a focus-grouped View-Master reel of cornbread.
Of course everything ends up going Michael Oher's way. Of course he never behaves in any scary or complicated manner; how perfect that practically the only hip-hop in the movie is a 20-plus-year-old track from Young MC — which then leads to a car wreck. Of course his mama just turns him over to the Tuohys, and of course the two mamas have a bonding moment, because the white lady is the bestower of virtue and mercy — but still sassy enough to call a homeboy "bitch" right back! You go, girl! To get me some insulin!
Perhaps everything did happen exactly that way, I don't know. No doubt some troubling incidents got elided in the name of uplift; if not, the screenwriter should have created a few, if only to tone down the sanctimony and drown out the back-patting. And the screenwriter absolutely should have cut the "Shame on you" and "He's helping me" lines, because the character is hard enough to relate to with her 1.5 dimensions without having to watch her beatify herself.
As for their Oscar chances, well, Avatar is going to win a lot of things, der. I think it takes Best Director plus all the effects stuff, and Best Picture goes to something else, but it could win BP too. It didn't get any screenplay noms, so: fine. Proceed. It's a huge achievement, the movie, but it's movies like it that make me wish the Academy had a separate category in which to place cultural events like Avatar, which in many ways doesn't belong in the same conversation with a film like An Education.
Sandra Bullock: tough call. As an actor, she's a hard worker, and I respect that about her, but I wouldn't give her the statue for this, not with Mulligan in the category. She didn't suck, but I'd have nominated Michelle Rodriguez instead.
…HA HA HA! No, not really. Come on. Anyway: without having seen the other nominees, I can't call this one yet, but rumor has it Bullock is the front-runner. No real mystery there: they go with Best Supporting Actress for Precious's one statue, skip over Mirren and Streep for winning before, and don't see Mulligan's performance, so it's Bullock's. I don't love it, but that's one reality.
Death Race 43, Sarah 15; 1 out of 24 categories completed
Tags: bad accents Carey Mulligan Helen Mirren It's Log James Cameron Meryl Streep Michelle Rodriguez movies Oscars 2010 Death Race Sandra Bullock Young MC