Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar: A Critical Assessment

As you may have noticed, I did not include a rating for Avatar. This is not because I have no opinion about the film, or that it has no aesthetic value. The reason that I did not rate the film is that I could not in good conscious give a single star to the most offensive movie of the decade.

Going into Avatar, I knew almost nothing about the plot. I had heard that it was an anti-war allegory about the invasion of Iraq. While this didn't bother me (in no small part since I did not support the invasion of Iraq), I expected a heavy handed political message. Unsurprisingly, we find out early in the movie that a corporation, which most certainly represents the American military industrial complex, has invaded a foreign planet in order to obtain unobtainium, a precious metal. At this point I half expected a flashing disclaimer on the screen reminding us that "It's a metaphor." So that was it, I thought. An allegory about the Iraq war. Nothing remarkable. However, it soon became obvious that the allegory was not simply about the Iraq War.

The colonized Na'vi are clearly patterned after indigenous North Americans. Had this been a movie about some of the atrocities that occurred during the colonization of North America, I could have sympathised. What makes Avatar truly insidious is it's ahistorical nature. Rather than portraying a specific instance in a Western society had wronged an indigenous population, the film created an embodiment of every Western stereotype imaginable. The futuristic corporation was a staffed by soldiers that represented the American military industrial complex, who were engaging in colonialism to exploit resources with the zeal of SS operatives. There is not one human character that elicits the least bit of sympathy without entirely rejecting Western civilization. By creating a melange of all these stereotypes, the film erased the notion of Western moral progress. Unlike Dances With Wolves, which focuses on a particular historical event, Avatar creates the impression that colonialism is endemic to Western culture. It paints Western cultures as universally rapacious, insensitive, and dependant on soul destroying technology.

The irony, of course, is that the movie was released by 20th Century Fox, and consumed between $300-500 million dollars, spent mostly on the most lavish display of technological prowess in the history of Western cinema. Using this technology, the film glorifies pseudoscience and a rejection of materialism. Many critics who dislike the message of the film were willing to overlook this since they see Avatar as an important advance in motion picture technology. In this respect, the critics are correct. But surely these same critics should be alarmed that a film that contains a full scale rejection of Western civilization could be so universally praised. Perhaps what insulates Avatar from criticism is that it is not offensive to any specific group. Many critics were offended by the Passion, since it was considered offensive to Jewish people. Of course, it is easy for critics to stand up for marginalized groups. It seems that they are willing to put up with all manners of intolerance, but only when equally applied. Only universal Western self-loathing will do.

*This was orignially posted on my film blog, which can be found here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Eglington LRT Dillema: Expropriations, or Major Cost Overruns (Or Both)

The Ambitious Transit City Plan that Metrolinx has designed for the GTA is now getting beyond big picture planning, and into the actual nuts and bolts. To this point, there have been few real costs estimates for the project. Perhaps worse is that no one seemed to alert the public to the possibility of eminent domain use in order to expropriate inconveniently placed homes and businesses. At a recent community meeting, York South Weston Councillor Frances Nunziata revealed that 100 properties would be directly affected by the Eglington light rail line. In order to avoid expropriation, some residents are calling on the government to build the relevant sections of the line underground. Before rushing into a project of this magnitude, someone should have a look at the numbers. Here are some quick facts:

The proposed line is 33 kilometers long (just over 20 miles). The cheapest light rail line built in the last decade cost $31.1 million USD/mile ($33 million Canadian). This was a short rail line along an interstate in Charlotte, North Carolina. Obviously, construction costs will be much higher in Toronto, even if it is entirely above ground. A more likely comparison is the Pittsburgh North Shore extension, a portion of which is underground. That project came in at $243.7 million US ($260 Canadian) per mile. That would bring the cost of the Eglington line to $5.33 billion Canadian Dollars. I should stress that these numbers are taken directly from a pro-light rail organization's website, so it is unlikely that the numbers are exaggerated. The project is projected to cost $4.6 billion dollars. If they increase the proportion of the line that runs underground, my $5.3 billion dollar estimate could look conservative. This also fails to take into account the fact that the average North American light rail line has run 35.8% over budget.

To reiterate: the city plans to spend at least $4.6 billion dollars to replace the current bus routes on Eglington. That is enough to purchase 10,000 of the most expensive transit buses ever constructed (hybrid, of course). This will have little effect on congestion. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that in Portland, the poster child for light rail, the massive investments in light rail only took 1300 cars off of the road during rush hour. That amounts to $225 USD per car every day. At that cost, it would actually be more cost efficient for the provincial government to pay corporations to incentivize telecommuting. $5.3 billion dollars could convince a lot of people not to drive through rush hour traffic. I'm not suggesting the government actually spend this money, but at least it would actually reduce congestion.

One more thing I neglected to mention: the Eglington line only accounts for 33 of the 125 kilometers of rail the city plans to build. Don't be surprised if the total budget for the initiative approaches $20 billion.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The 40th Anniversary of the Altamont Tragedy

The sixties were a tumultuous political era, wrought with intergenerational conflicts, and major civil strife. This fact has been obfuscated by the romanticization of several major events in the decade. The most obvious examples were a pair of music festivals, the Monterey Pop Festival, and Woodstock. The Monterey Festival was a fairly small event in 1967, with a peak attendance of around 10,000. Though it does not have the iconic status of Woodstock, it was the first major rock festival, and was seen as one of the catalysing events of the 'Summer of Love. The festival was considered an unmitigated success.

Unlike the Monterey Festival, Woodstock was far from an organizational success. Several major problems, such as a late change of venue, and the loss of several key acts, threatened to undermine the event's success. Moreover, despite the fact that the concert was supposed to be a profit making enterprise, it was overwhelmed by over 100,000 ticketless fans. The total attendance was around 300,000, despite the fact that the municipality had been informed to expect no more than 50,000. This prompted the local township to declare a state of emergency. Despite the potential chaos, there were only two fatalities at the event. One was from a heroin overdose, and the other a tractor accident. Though the event was marred by horrible traffic and sanitation problems, it was considered successful.

Though the 40th anniversary of Woodstock was met with fanfare earlier this year, the anniversary of it's much neglected cousin, Altamont, has been relatively muted. The infamous Altamont free concert was billed as the West Coast version of Woodstock. The only major difference was that it was going to be free of charge. Like Woodstock, there was a late change of venue, and the peak attendance was estimated at around 300,000. While Woodstock has become a symbol for love and peace, Altamont has become a symbol for the opposite. The festival was headlined by the Rolling Stones, who made the unfortunate decision to ask the Hell's Angels to provide security for the event. For those who were unfamiliar with Hunter Thompson's expose of the Angels, this may not have seemed like such a bad decision. In hindsight, it was.

The concert was punctuated by random acts of violence throughout the day. The two most notable being the beating of a fan by Hell's Angels, curiously armed with pool cues, and the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane receiving a knockout blow to the head. Despite the carnage, the Stones took the stage. By the time the Stones began their third song, Sympathy for the Devil, fights began to erupt. The documentary Gimme Shelter, which followed the entire concert, captured the entire scuffle. Mick Jagger attempted to calm down the crowd, joking how every time they played the ominous song, weird things happened. As they continued, so did the scuffle. At this point, the crowd was beyond control. In the documentary, the camera man is standing behind Jagger, who is flanked by Angels, as the crowd gradually enveloped the stage. This chaotic scene culminated in the death of 18 year old Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels after drawing a firearm. It is for this moment that Altamont will forever be remembered.

Though it is conventional wisdom that the chaos at Altamont was entirely the fault of the Hell's Angels, this is a poor interpretation of what happened. Altamont was a tragic experiment in anarchy. Though the Angels aggravated the crowd, they had no real choice. Unlike Woodstock, which did have a significant police presence, Altamont did not. Though most of the victimless crimes were not punished at Woodstock, there were still authority figures to prevent the chaos from erupting. Without that legitimate authority, Altamont was doomed from the start. Even if they had employed a security force other than the Hell's Angels, the situation would still have been unmanageable. With no ability to detain rowdy fans, they were put in a situation where they were often engaging in self defense, rather than policing. This is the lesson that we should all take away from Altamont. Flower children or not, in the absence of a legitimate authority, there is little to prevent minor conflicts from escalating into tragedy. Altamont is to anarchism what the fall of the Soviet Union is to socialism. Though it is not definitive proof that anarchy would be chaotic, it does not bode well. Perhaps in the future, someone will reinterpret these events and prove me wrong. I sincerely doubt this will happen.