Friday, December 11, 2009

Avatar: This Is Not A Review

If I were a lib, I'd write a review of Avatar without having seen it. But I have read some buzz about the film that has disabused me of the notion of assembling the Usual Suspects to go see it.

It sounds to me like this movie suffers from the Hollywood Stupid Tax. And I'm not going to talk about the movie or whether it indeed does do so. Instead, I want to talk about Good Art. Don't mistake my choice of words by thinking I mean High Art. X-Men Comic Books were good art. Babylon 5 was good art. I want to contrast Good Art with Partisan Pornography.

I have a friend who wrote a story where he gave his protagonist the power to grant wishes whereupon the hero had President George W. Bush lose control of his bowels during a nationally telecast press conference. Haw, haw, haw. My friend's partisan leanings are not toward the GOP, and I classify this as Partisan Pornography. Mere wish fulfillment in contrast to the truth of what is. Another wrote a story where all the Socialists were wise and courageous while J. Edgar Hoover was venal and craven. Each depicted the world as he wanted it to be.

Were I to write about an alternate-history where Ronald Reagan served a 3rd term as President, it'd be the same kind of Porn, just different partisans. I am within epsilon of terming Sarah Palin a political pornstar for this same reason. Not that she's ever disrobed before the camera, but that she's become the vessel of so many Conservative wish-dreams. The reality is that Mrs. Palin is not an American Thatcher, though I am not unbiased enough to expect anything less of her.

When the Tigers play the Orioles, I want them to score 20 runs as the Tiger pitcher throws a no-hit shut-out. That's the sports version of Partisan Pornography. Were I a Baltimore fan, I'd prefer the roles reverse.

But the world seldom works like that. And truth is that's a good thing. It's a better game when the score tied 0-0 in the ninth with the bases loaded, two outs, and a full-count on our best clutch hitter facing their best reliever.

Understanding is a three-edged sword the Vorlon of Babylon 5 said: your side, their side, and the truth. Triangulation of this sort is what I think Good Art demands. "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart," said Solzhenitsyn. And thus you can't make plaster saints of your protagonists and utter demons of your villains. Your story must include something that subverts your own side's position and cedes what's right about the other side's position.

You can call this a Hegelian dialectic of thesis vs antithesis. Indeed that's part of my thinking. But not all of it. Mix in some intellectual humility, a recognition that your map does not always match the territory (and neither does his). I think that this is more fruitful than patting yourself on the back and reaffirming what you already know.

I first coined the term Hollywood Stupid Tax when I realized why Star Trek Enterprise had become unwatchable. The show was just too stinking PC to be interesting. It killed the franchise. The closest they came was when they put three episodes in the Spock-with-a-beard alternate universe. It was nice to show them kicking butt and taking names for a change. But that's not right either.

In the original Star Trek series episode, "The Enemy Within," Kirk has a transporter accident and he's split into two parts, a Jekyll part and a Hyde part. Yin and yang. Both are necessary to be interesting. If a writer wants to make good box office, s/he needs to embrace this tension and let the audience negotiate the balance.

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