Archive | January, 2010

The Face of Nyarlathotep

And when he saw that crag he gasped and cried out aloud, and clutched at the jagged rock in awe; for the titan bulge had not stayed as earth’s dawn had shaped it, but gleamed red and stupendous in the sunset with the carved and polished features of a god.

Stern and terrible shone that face that the sunset lit with fire. How vast it was no mind can ever measure, but Carter knew at once that man could never have fashioned it. It was a god chiselled by the hands of the gods, and it looked down haughty and majestic upon the seeker. Rumour had said it was strange and not to be mistaken, and Carter saw that it was indeed so; for those long narrow eyes and long-lobed ears, and that thin nose and pointed chin, all spoke of a race that is not of men but of gods.

So writes Lovecraft in his novel Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath. Given his interest in both Easter Island and ancient Egypt, I suspect he had in mind both the mo’ai of the former and the visage of Akhenaten from the latter.

Akhenaten and mo'ai

Akhenaten and mo'ai

Dragonriders of Venus

I forgot to mention that I saw Avatar before my trip. So here’s a belated review.

Frazetta's cover for Burroughs' LOST ON VENUS

Frazetta's cover for Burroughs' LOST ON VENUS

I’ll start with the negatives. If there’s a problem with this film, it’s that it’s completely formulaic and predictable. In terms of plot (as opposed to visuals), there were no surprises – none. Every step of the story was telegraphed far in advance. Now I’m all for Chekhov’s dictum about hanging a gun on the wall in the first act and firing it off in the third; but here every gun essentially gets hung up with a neon sign that says “hey, watch for this gun to go off in the third act!” If even a fraction of the creative effort expended on other aspects of this movie had been devoted to story development, it could have been a much better movie.

Now, the positives. Foremost, of course, are the magnificently beautiful special effects. But I want to talk about some more specific things that I personally found especially meaningful.

1. As I’ve mentioned before, around age eleven I was introduced, on the same day, both to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus novels and to Anne McCaffrey’ Pern novels, so they got themselves lodged in my imagination fairly early on. I’d already noticed, from the trailers, Avatar’s resemblance to both, but the similarities were far more striking in the full movie.

There on the screen was Burroughs’s Venus, with its “causeways high among … giant trees” that “dwarfed the giant Sequoias,” traversing an “an endless vista of foliage,” an apparently bottomless “abyss of leaves” bathed in “soft light” – and occasionally shaken by the “terrifying dissonance” of “hideous screams and snarls” and the “crashing of some heavy body through the foliage.” There, too, were McCaffrey’s dragonriders of Pern, wheeling and swooping through the air just as I’d always imagined them. (The flying scenes alone are worth the admission price of the entire movie.) So that was a double treat.

Whelan's cover for McCaffrey's DRAGONFLIGHT

Whelan's cover for McCaffrey's DRAGONFLIGHT

2. With all the compulsive and compulsory adulation of the u.s. military that we’ve been subjected to over the past decade, it was great to see a movie that offered a more libertarian perspective. (Sure, the guys in the movie were corporate mercenaries, but in artistic terms they clearly stand for the u.s. military.) The movie’s most important message may be this: soldiers are responsible, as individuals, for the actions they carry out, and when they’re ordered to do something immoral they have an obligation to disobey. Spreading that message is an important step in the (r)evolution.

3. Finally, this excerpt from a review by AICN’s Harry Knowles (who is himself disabled and uses a wheelchair) brings to the film another perspective, one that I found quite moving:

Jake hates his wheelchair. He doesn’t like being treated like a cripple, doesn’t like having to depend on others and most of all – he’s out to prove that he may still be worth something, even if he is half a man. … Jake can’t afford to fix his legs, and the fucking government that got the legs fucked didn’t take care of it. So he has to go the corporate route to get adequate Healthcare. Man, can I relate. Instead, he’s had to see the legs wither. The very best effects work on the film are these emaciated dead legs of Jake. Nobody questions them, yet this visual detail tells us everything about Jake. …

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in AVATAR

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in AVATAR

To watch your own body begin to wither because you’re not capable of financially rescuing your own limbs from atrophy and uselessness, it is a bitter pill to swallow. …

Anyway, by the time Jake comes to – and he sees toes he can wiggle …. Look, I went over this when I saw this footage at Comic Con. I got excited by just what happened in the lab. However, when Jake busts out of the facility into the poisoned air of Pandora and can breathe without fear of imminent death … and then when he just takes off running.

People in wheelchairs dream of running. Trust me on that. I know I’m a fat geek in a wheelchair, but we all dream of running. This is Jake’s first step towards being intoxicated with his Avatar. Hell, I doubt I’d ever want to wake up if I could have a Na’vi body that was as nimble, fit and amazing as this. …

Sure, Neo plugged in and fought in a fantastical version of our world. But when he woke up, he was still Neo, just with a better haircut and sharper clothes. … Jake’s human existence, over the course of the film, you can see the effort it takes to pull himself out of the AVATAR machine. Every time he comes out of these ‘dream like’ realities – he’s back in a sterile environment, having to open up his chair, carefully swing his dead sickly legs over the side and back into his chair. The real world sucks for Jake. …

That isn’t to say it sucks for everyone in a wheelchair, it is just … for a man like Jake – a true Man of Action – life in a chair can feel like two feet in the grave. As a 4-wheeler myself … I alternate between hating and loving my wheelchair. However, I feel thankful that I live in a world that is as accomadating [sic] as possible for my condition – even if the dentist I went to today had painfully inadequate facilities to take care of me and my shattered wisdom tooth.

So there you have it: Avatar appealed to my eleven-year-old Venus-and-Pern-loving self, my present-day anti-militarist anarchist self, and my likewise present-day plodding fat (though thankfully not in a wheelchair) geek self. But not so much to my ingenious-plot-loving self.

Hail Caesar!

Check out this merry message from our friends at the Census Bureau:

Census ad

And be sure to read Tom Knapp’s comments, as well as the Bible’s animadversions on King David’s earlier census.

I’m tempted to add a shiny poster of Jesus being crucified, with the text: “This is how Jesus died. Jesus cooperated with the Roman Empire’s criminal justice system. Don’t be afraid.”

Prax Vobiscum

Tom Woods

Tom Woods

Tom Woods has an excellent piece on LRC today criticising Catholic social theorists who think they can derive policy proposals from papal pronouncements without having to know any economics.

Of course I think Tom’s case against extending papal authority to economic facts is an equally good argument against accepting it for the moral and theological facts that are supposed to be its proper ambit, since these facts too “cannot be protested, defied, or lectured to” but “can only be learned and acted upon.” But since he so nicely cites my abstraction paper I won’t press the point.

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