Movie Review – Avatar

I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind.  I’d watch the show again tonight if I could.  I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.

You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder.  In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie.  In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.

The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?).  On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest.  They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers.  These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.

These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America.  In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”.  Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely?  The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.

Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.

Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company.  Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives.  Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular.  He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.

I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist.  Some are saying it absolutely is.  I don’t really think that was the intent.  I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world.  That they still run it, ultimately.  But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark.  Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds.  Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.

Big Business takes a major hit in this movie.  It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life.  That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora.  The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes.  Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets.  Big Business is rarely genuinely evil.  True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.

The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human.  The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human.  Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar.  Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.

Soohh...who gets to clean this thing?

The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie.  First, all humans need to sleep.  But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep.  For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life.  This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron.  By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).

Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours.  At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there.  Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien.  Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.

As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals.  It is a “looker” many times over.  But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries).  That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart.  After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to.  We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today.  Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.

But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether.  It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way.  Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today).  They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has.  The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too.  But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people.  This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world.  Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.

Yeah, YEAH! Die lame-oh Americans! Wait, didn't an American make this movie?

Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others.  Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever).  In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right.  e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate.  Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.

Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything.  It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end.  But it would have made a better movie.  It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.

This Move, That Move

I”m writing this blog while perched on my toilet.

Nice image, huh?  If it’s any consolation, the lid is closed, and my pants are in place.  So, I’m not actually toileting. This is just the only place I could find to sit.

house2When we moved to Israel for medical school, we had no help from movers.  In retrospect, I can’t even imagine how we managed.  Every single, tiny detailed problem had to be taken care of by us.  There was nobody else.

This move (complicated by 3 more kids than our last international move) has professional movers doing all the major work for us.  Everything is paid for.  I’m sitting around blogging while they’re working.  The hardest part for me is that the only place I found to sit was on the toilet.

With some very occasional and sparse moments of stress, I can say that this move has been almost, just maybe…fun.  Fun?

It’s all about perspective, right?  The majority of our packing for Israel occurred in the 23 hours prior to our plane’s departure.  Seriously, our entire lives were barely even packed less than a day before we left the country for the first time.

So, we stayed up nearly the entire night, and left with over 20 boxes of junk – many still open and half-packed – that needed to be taken to the post office and mailed to us.  THAT idea cost us over 1000 bucks and tons of work for my hapless mother.  We didn’t get those boxes in Israel for nearly a half-year, so easily 80% of their contents were totally unnecessary.

house1Words fail me in describing the stress and expense of that move.  Probably the worst part, though, was that every single expense – down to the pack of gum we bought at the gas station on the way to the airport – was paid for on loans:

“Hello, sir.  That will be 38 cents.  Enjoy.  Oh, actually, you’ll pay about $12.50 for those 16 strips of minty chewing freshness since it’ll be about 40 years until you pay this off…assuming you don’t flunk out of med school or get killed by terrorists.  Did I mention to enjoy yourself?”

Reader Q: My Med School

bgucloseI get lots of questions about my med school.  For those few not in The Know, I attended the Medical School for International Health.  The school is located in Israel, in the ancient town of Beer Sheva (you can find it in the Bible, dude…can you say something like THAT about Maple Acres, Kansas?).  The institution is Ben Gurion University.

The program focuses on providing medicine in an international context; particularly to the 3rd world.  The school is a collaboration project between BGU and Columbia University, so blokes like me have a reasonable shot of doing residencies in the U.S. after graduation (got my 1st choice in residency program).  

Anyway, emails come in from all over the world asking me about my experience there and soliciting my advice about going.  This latest query was so expansive and had such good questions, I figured that if I was going to go to the trouble of replying to it, I might as well post it as a blog so everyone could check it out:

My name is Bryan and I am an accepted MSIH student from Provo, UT headed to Israel in July.  Here are a few questions for you:  

What did your spouse and kids do while in Israel for the 3 years?  

They found all kinds of things to do.  Getting settled in Israel is quite a job compared to the U.S.  Everything is slower to accomplish, from records to mail to shopping, things just take lots of time.

That said, my wife and I had 2 children while in Israel, so that kept her busy in ways that older kids wouldn’t.  She also took a Hebrew class that provided lots of social interaction, friends and experiences in the culture.

Additionally, you will have WAAAY more time that you might expect.  The first year, you don’t even take an exam of any kind for 5 months.  Not one.  You just go to class.  Or don’t.  Depends on your learning style.  Then, when exam time does roll around, you are home studying most of the day.  I don’t know if that’s how it is at other med schools, but that’s the way we roll in the IS.

So, you won’t be gone as much as you probably envision.  And, the family will have more to do that you might think.

BGU from a distance:  Lots of dirt and dust...then, suddenly, CITY
BGU from a distance: Lots of dirt and dust...then, suddenly, CITY

Did your kids attend school at all?

Mine didn’t, but they easily could have.  I started the program with just one 2 year old girl, but we had 2 more by the time we left (like I said…you do have, *ahem* free time).  The oldest would have done fine in their preschools, called Gan (pronounced GONE, means garden).  

I would recommend it, especially if your kids want to learn Hebrew.  Like most European countries, education is a huge emphasis, so they’ll want your kid there EVERY day, all day.  Even preschool.  This was the hang-up for us.  Something M/W/F might have worked, but my wife wasn’t ready to ship our 3 year old off for full-time school, so we skipped it.

Did your kids and your spouse learn the language?

 

See comments above about wife.  Kids didn’t learn it (although for some reason, we ALL still regularly say ‘agvanot’, which means tomatoes).  I wish they had been a bit older, becuase then I would have insisted on school for them.

Did you have any Hebrew before MSIH, or did you buy a program like Rosetta Stone to get you started?

I had none, and sucked at it all the way through.  Figured out how to buy food pretty quick, though.  I bought a tape-series that supposedly was used by State Department people, but never even opened the box.  

The school provided a pretty good immersion class, but really you need to take the same Hebrew class that my wife took at night to actually learn the language.  The Israeli people (unlike many lame ethnocentric Americans like me) know English almost universally in addition to their native Hebrew.  So, they would rather work on their English with you than let you work on your Hebrew with them.  All of your classes are in English.  You actually don’t get as much exposure to the language as you might think.

Furthermore, on the wards, I’d say Hebrew is only spoken by about 60% of the patients.  Beer Sheva has to be one of the most nationally-diverse cities on the planet.  Walk down a typical medical ward, and you may hear anything from the Big Three:  Hebrew, Arabic and Russian, to many “lesser” languages of the area like English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Yiddish, Romanian, French and others.  Although Jewish in heritage, the people who immigrate to Israel come from nearly every country in the world.  Their primary language usually isn’t Hebrew.

If you truly want to learn the language – and the best reason to is so that you understand the ward doctors during your 3rd year – my recommendation is to go to Israel 2 months early and take a true immersion course.  This is how they do it for the new immigrants.  You live in a house with other immigrants and they DRILL the language into you.  You’ll have it forever after that.

Did you buy a car?

 

We did.  It was very expensive and a bad idea.  Getting all the paperwork for it took 3 solid days of sitting in offices all over the town of Beer Sheva.  Gas is spendy.  Insurance and licensing is more than in the states.  

We should have just used cabs instead.  They crawl all over the city all the time.  You never wait for them, and a trip anywhere in town is only 15 shekels, which is about 3 dollars. We calculated that we could take 60 one-way cab rides a month for the monthly cost of the car.  

Years out, I still talk to the guy on the left a few times a month.  He's starting a fellowship in pulmonary/critical care next month at Henry Ford in Detroit.
Years out, I still talk to the guy on the left a few times a month. He's starting a fellowship in pulmonary/critical care next month at Henry Ford in Detroit.

Right about that time, I got into a minor wreck;  we parked the car after that because we didn’t want to spend the money to fix it.  I watched with interest as teenagers slowly dismantled the thing on a semi-nightly basis over the ensuing months.  I ended up with a twisted metal creature that can only loosely be described as a “machine”.  They took everything.

“Oh well,”  my friend Brian consoled me one day.  “Just be happy that you probably made some high school kid’s senior year 10 times funnier as they systematically ripped your car apart every night.”

Do many students buy cars while there?

Nope.  Just the dumber ones.

How else can you get to the more remote sites like Masada, Dead Sea, Elat and the like? 

Rent cars.  Fairly easy.  Fairly cheap.  Pool with friends if you aren’t going with the fam.  We saw EVERYTHING in Israel in nice Skodas or Seats (see-aht) with power windows and A/C and no worries about breaking down.

You can also take the train, which is efficient and fun…except when its crowded and you’re crammed between 6 sweaty IDF soldiers with automatic rifles, some of which are pointed at you and your kids. 

Where did you do your residency and what specialty did you choose?

Olympia, WA.  Family medicine.  I felt then, and still feel, that my specialty is absolutely the best preparation for medical mission work.  

I have not once regretted my specialty choice or the residency program I chose.

Did you know of any MSIH grads applying to the handful of International Health Residency Programs?

None of my class applied, but this largely had to do with location, not competitiveness.  We wouldn’t have had a problem getting into those programs, in general.  U of Rochester had a good connection with our school and a few of our grads went there.  Their Intl Health cirriculum is fantastic (or was a few years ago when I was looking at them).

Is there any personal advice you think would be beneficial to me; advice that might not be included in the admissions packet?

Be flexible, don’t whine like an American.  Don’t expect anyone to care about you or your little worries.  Be a traveler.  Be observant and end your sentences with question marks rather that declarative periods at a ratio of at least 2:1.  

ipconflictRecognize that there is no answer to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.  Accept that you have no right to have any opinion on the issue until you can say honestly that you have deep friendships with BOTH an Israeli and a Palestinian.  Until then, try as hard as you can to shut up learn.

Travel, travel, travel as much as you possibly can.  Drive the country from end-to-end at least twice.  Stay at a Kibbutz or Moshav.  Swim in the waters of Gan Hashlosha and the Med.  Absolutely see the Golan Heights in the spring when curtains of flowing green grass are punctured by brilliant red Israeli poppies.  Try as many foods as you can and never turn down invitations to Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanna or Succoth. 

Spend lots of time in Jerusalem – especially the Arab Quarter of the Old City – and try to hang out in the Armenian Tavern for dinner at least once.  See the Wall and the Dome on the same day.

The Golan
The Golan

Jump on chances to go to Europe, especially the eastern countries.  See Turkey, Jordan and at least the Sinai of Egypt.  Get certified in SCUBA in 3 days on the Gulf of Aquaba (look up a guy named Hamdi in Dahab if you are interested).  Consider your experience there a colossal failure if you miss out on many of these opportunities.

Pick up a cause that will build the school.  I started the literature and medicine class.  I think it’s a required class now, so if you hate it, you can thank me.  Pour part of your life into the school.  Put MSIH on the map in your own small (or big) way. 

Will every moment of your experience into the marrow of your soul; drink its precious nectar as if you never will again.  Because you won’t.

And pass your damn tests.