Culture Shock

Posted in books, culture, movies by johnsnavely on February 18, 2010

Last night I watched half of District 9. I probably should have watched it sooner.

It’s the story of a white man, sent to investigate (infiltrate) an alien culture, with the ultimate aim of relocating (or eradicating) that culture. Eventually the man finds himself a member of that culture and must battle against his former friends and colleagues who wish to oppress his new found community.

If this doesn’t sound remarkably familiar, then you haven’t watched Avatar.

Now Avatar is a steamy pile, but it has been dipped in golden technology and buffed with Cameron’s millions. It’s pixel perfect. But I couldn’t help to compare the two movies.

In my mind, they use the same plot but for very different ends. Avatar is about fantasy and escape– which is why people are getting depressed with reality after watching it:

In District 9, however, crossing a fictional cultural divide is about shedding some light on our own cultural problems and proclivities. That’s not to say Avatar hasn’t inspired some District 9 like repercussions/reinterpretations: Witness a Palistinian protest in full Naavi costume.

I’ve been leaving my Lamour obsession behind and getting back into science fiction. I’ve just read Snow Crash, started Steal Across the Sky, and am rereading a collection of Phillip K. Dick’s short stories (including Minority Report). I enjoy science fiction because like Avatar it offers fantasy and escape; but I come back to it because like District 9 it tells me something about the world I live in, or in the best case will live in.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness presents a similar dilemma of a man struggling to integrate with an alien race. Only this race has no concept of “he” or “she” for the majority of their lives. The main character’s difficulty in understanding the world he’s faced with is written in such a way that we (the reader) have the same trouble picturing what these aliens look like or how to understand what their interactions mean. Only partway through the novel, do we realize that the main character is black. There are all these shorthand ways of “understanding” that can be rooted in our pre-configured notions of gender or race.

I think I might need to re-read the book just to more fully understand the fashion world’s current obsession with androgyny, which by and large, I think has produced some pretty creative designs.

Anyway, now that I’m reading again. Do you (gentle & few) readers have some suggestions?


8 Responses

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  1. Edwin Gardner said, on February 18, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I just started Pattern Recognition by William Gibson … which digs in to -at least what I get from the first pages- simulacra, dealing with hyper-association caused by the internet, omnipresent media etc.

  2. Jason Prado said, on February 19, 2010 at 4:05 am

    Can I borrow Left Hand of Darkness when you’re done?

    One of the last things I read was McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, edited by Michael Chabon. I think you’d like it.

    • johnsnavely said, on February 19, 2010 at 4:12 am

      I own it. You can borrow my copy.

      I’d like to borrow the Sweens, if you’re willing to trade.

  3. son1 said, on March 2, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Now Avatar is a steamy pile…

    Jackson and I both agree that you’re missing the point on this one, John.

    Sure, the story is an incoherent mish-mash of Last of the Mohicans and Independence Day. Sure, the acting’s often wooden, the ending predictable, the emotions trite… blah blah blah.

    Did you see that sh*t in 3D? I’m assuming that when you say, “has been dipped in golden technology,” you really mean “was the only truly new thing I saw in a movie theater this year.”

    Also, in my mad rush to express some things as combinations of other, previously-existing things I assert that:

    Tracy Morgan = Andy Kaufman + Christopher Walken

  4. johnsnavely said, on March 3, 2010 at 5:11 am

    Oh I saw the 3D shit out of it. And yeah, it’s nutso-balls. But I didn’t need to watch the whole thing to get the visuals. It would be like saying Speed Racer is “not-that-bad”.

    Also, not to be polemical, but I will only believe your assertion about Tracy Morgan if you mean Tracy Morgan from Martin not Tracy Morgan from 30 Rock. Goddamn Walken, dude. That’s Walks-without-rhythm Walken you placed into that equation. Kaufman– meh.

    • son1 said, on March 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      But I didn’t need to watch the whole thing to get the visuals. It would be like saying Speed Racer is “not-that-bad”.

      Again, it depends on what you mean by “the visuals.” I was kind of bored by Cameron’s whole take on what an alien ecology would look like (“everything’s 50-5000% bigger, half of it glows, and the other half has an extra pair of legs”). And the tech visualization was, like you said, either ripped off from his own 20-year-old movies, or already done better in District 9. (HUD, anyone?)

      But the point is, in nine years we’ve gone from this to Avatar, from a crude simulacrum of Donald Sutherland to some sort of wacky blend of live-action and animation where I can’t tell anymore at what point the actual human stops and the graphics start. It was like living through a waking dream. I didn’t see Speed Racer, but I seriously doubt that its special effects were anything near as seamless or as comprehensive.

      And the comment about Morgan was more of the same, but on the level of “celebrity personality.” I can’t tell where the facade ends and the actual crazy person begins. Also, the cadence of his voice: talks-without-rhythm.

      • johnsnavely said, on March 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm

        Sure. Sure. Avatar was the biggest party my eyeballs have ever been invited to. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t hungover the next day….

  5. Indifferentiated « Choicelessness said, on March 15, 2010 at 4:01 am

    […] 15, 2010 · Leave a Comment I wanted to write more about androgyny, mentioned in that last post. I’m probably biting off much much more than I can chew, since I can tell you I know pretty […]

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