Monday, March 28, 2011

Stereotypes

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  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where good wins over evil.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where good wins over evil in the end (and indeterminate things happen before).
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where good wasn't always good and evil wasn't always evil, but they sort themselves out and good (who?) wins out in the end.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where some of the good guys go bad midway, and some of the bad guys see a bright, white light and cast off their sinful ways, and some others retire to their Swiss ranches, but good wins in the end.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where evil seems to be winning right up to the point where good does so, obviously.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where good beats the undead daylights out of evil right up to the point where everyone dies in screaming agony, and everyone else goes home sobbing.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where evil casts its evil eye over everything good, pretty and glowing until everything withers, dies and evil rules its kingdom of blackness.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical good versus evil story where good appears evil, evil appears good, and the writer is award winning clueless, but one of the two wins in the end, thankfully.
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical story where stuff happens, and somebody or the other wins in the end, but wait, is that just sheer banality?
  • Meh, that's a stereotypical something where someone's doing something.
  • Meh, you are a stereotype, real flesh and blood human being; unexist yourself immediately!
Critics, find a nearby pond and drown yourselves. And don't worry, I'll personally ensure that the pond is not too stereotypical. Purple dye should be novel enough, eh? What'd you say? Drowning's too hackneyed? I'm fairly certain drowning in a purple pond isn't, but just to be on the safe side, you could take swimming lessons first.

PS: Nobody likes a Lorite, ye know? You probably do already. Read, watch and listen a little less then, will you?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thoughts on the Avatar

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A little while ago, after I finished watching this series end to end for the second time, I wondered just what it was about the show that enchanted me no end. It’s a cartoon, and as a general rule I find cartoons entertaining, but that wasn’t it. Cartoons are fun and possibly the perfect relaxation after a hard day’s work, but cartoons aren’t supposed to make you brood and reflect and write introspective blog posts about them, are they? So, I decided to make a list.

What are the things I like about Avatar: the Last Airbender? (I had half hoped that I would be forced to go back and watch everything all over again just to make the list comprehensive, and that was half the motivation for making one. Why not? I don’t think I’ll become an incorrigible cynic overnight.) Adventure and humour are obvious plusses, and great starting points at that. If the adventure is grandiose and the humour subtle, and the two are not totally disjoint as a pair, they work even better and Avatar: TLA makes full use of this fact. However, they aren’t what make the show uniquely satisfying. As an unabashed cartoon enthusiast, I could recommend a dozen others that hit the very same sweet spot between proper adventure and proper humour, and yet not reach the same heights. How about a story with a well-defined destination that is not stretched to breaking point by the lure of popularity? That’s a check for Avatar: TLA, and surely the X-factor? I don’t think so, at least not the whole of it, not for me.

Perhaps it was the music. In the corroded metalhead (head) that I’ve been blessed with, there’s still a small part that’s a sucker for grand orchestra. It’s not a coincidence that the films that have made the strongest impressions on me in the past are the ones with the most expansive musical themes. LOTR and the early HP films immediately spring to mind, but this is true for every movie out there. Even the dullest of legal dramas has the potential to transform into a heart-warming epic saga with the touch of a few well-directed orchestral notes. Anyway, the point is that Avatar has a cracking musical theme. Simplicity of tune and complexity of delivery are what make orchestral themes work, and are what make them memorable, often to outlast any specific memories from the parent movies themselves. Surely that’s it then? A few epic, climactic orchestral crescendos and I’m sobbing like a baby, is it? I’ll courageously not deny that statement, but again, it’s not the explanation in itself, because like I said, it would work for any medium. You note the generalization, but don’t accept it perhaps. Surely, it’s the unique awesomeness of Avatar TLA’s music that makes it stand apart from the pretenders, and cut a way into my heart? I apologize for sounding like a parrot with a vocabulary of hundred, but I must repeat myself: it is part of the answer but not all of it, and possibly not even most of it.

Was it the usual story of the fight against the odds perhaps? I say ‘usual’ disparagingly, but it’s far from a clich├ęd theme for me. I don’t think one can, and one certainly ought not to, tire of tales of desperate men fighting against vastly stronger powers – elemental or otherwise – driven by the need for survival, both of their own kind, and more importantly, their ideals. A tiny group of little children battling against a seemingly irrepressible all-conquering army? Surely, that epitomizes any stereotype of the fight against all odds, and consequently lifts Avatar: TLA to cartoon greatness? It’s still not good enough for me, because every adventure story has elements of this theme. In fact, all adventure draws its charm from the age-old idea of the struggle against nature, the most powerful force of all.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the written word is a delightful mistress, and I tend to take a long time to get anywhere with her around. But it is now time to discuss the secret ingredient. The list grew larger and larger as more and more happy memories from my Avatar watching sessions composed themselves into bullet points, and I realized that they all shared a common theme. Philosophy. (Sorry about the attention-grabbing one word truncated sentence that says a lot without saying anything, but it’s perfect here). 

Avatar: TLA is perhaps best described as a parable, with bits of fable thrown in. It is preachy, and I understand that for people out there who liked it without caring much for its lessons, it will always be good, but never great. They’ll still adore the adventure, the humour, the music and everything outside of its philosophy, but those things won’t be enough to make it outstanding in their minds. For me, though, every lesson that came my way resonated deeply, and that was what made the story it told memorable beyond its happy facade. What the bloody heck am I talking about? Maybe I’m only retrospectively seeing philosophy in what was just a veg-out fun trip when I actually watched it, right? I don’t think I captured all the points I’m going to make later the first time I watched Avatar: TLA, but I’m pretty sure there were instances during the second iteration when each of them appeared fully formed in my head. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Avatar: TLA is an unending paean for peace. This fact is never lost upon you, even when you’re smack in the middle of the fiercest of bender-clashes. The Avatar is born in the Air Nomads, a great society that has achieved peace with itself and with the external world, and has inherited much of their collective wisdom. The show repeatedly reiterates that no amount of luxury born of conflict is a substitute for the simple satisfaction that can only be found in lasting peace. 

Avatar: TLA is a plea for tolerance. People in the universe of Avatar are more unequal than any in our world; there are people with vastly different elemental powers which make them nearly as disparate as beings from different species, and they live side by side with perfectly ordinary people with no superpowers. Avatar: TLA makes a poignant plea for equality in spite of all differences. It argues that no amount of societal differences is enough to choose the path of conflict. It is only a cartoon, but the lesson is humbling.

Avatar: TLA hammers in the point that all life is sacred till it’s wedged in tighter than a moth in amber. The Air Nomads are vegetarians for they cannot bear to hurt the littlest creature that walks the Earth, and inevitably, so is the Avatar. But it doesn’t preach this point unequivocally, and I’ll get to that point later. More importantly, it places an unattainable price on any human being’s life, shown by the Avatar’s final rejection of mortal punishment. It emphasizes that there’s always a way out, a second path of non-violence that avoids loss of life, that’s closely woven together with the need for peace.

What I personally thought was a great touch was the implicit plea for animal welfare. A personal grouse of mine, animal welfare does not even come close to enjoying the same status of ‘nobility’ as the other philosophies I talked about. I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar: TLA’s take on it. Appa, the Avatar’s flying bison, and Momo, the flying lemur are treated as equals, beings that are capable of suffering and whose limits must be respected – the fundamental premise of all animal welfare.

Another deep-lying moral in Avatar: TLA concerns the issue of destiny. It ultimately rejects it, despite initial indications to the contrary, and marks it as an excuse for stubbornness, the easy way out for people who don’t want to think about the consequences of their actions. And as a corollary it strongly espouses second chances. If you think your destiny is to stay as a complete git, you really cannot change, can you? I can’t emphasize how much I hold the ‘it’s my destiny’ or even the more palatable variants ‘it’s in my blood’, ‘it’s my nature’ in contempt. There are inequalities but not merely two of them, good and evil. There are infinitely many of them, and even with worst handicap you can still drag yourself over to the right half of the line.

Last, and an extension of what I just said, is the notion of ambiguity. The word no longer sounds even slightly complimentary, but ambiguity is not all bad. In many cases, as Avatar: TLA says, it’s wiser to accept that there are different ways of doing things, than to strive for the ‘one’ right way. (Perhaps, ‘balance’ is a more palatable word here.) Vegetarianism, which I brought up earlier, falls under this grey zone and Avatar: TLA is big enough to accept that every action is not clearly marked out on an ethical roadmap. However, turning this belief around and applying ambiguity to every action there is, is half the reason why the world is such a mess today. There are fundamental tenets which are superior to everything else, and there are lines which must unambiguously never be crossed. Peace is axiomatically better than war, and a life is always sacred whether it is in the context of war or terrorism.

Ultimately the fact that Avatar: TLA takes itself just enough seriously to not be instantly forgotten, but not so much that it ends up wallowing in its own pretentiousness (most ‘adult’ parables inevitably end up in this state) is what makes it tick. Its philosophy is not flawless however. The unresolved question of whether a perfect democracy is better than a monarchy fronted by a perfectly good ruler is left untouched. What if the Avatar turns out to be a selfish megalomaniac, and uses his almost limitless power to carve himself a vast dominion in the world? Again, it strikes the appropriate balance between knowledge and ignorance. I really hope the next instalment (see this, if you have no idea what I’m talking about) lives up to the high standards of its predecessor.

(On a concluding sidenote, all those Indianisms that litter the series from start to finish do nothing to detract from its awesomeness. An Earth King called ‘Bhoomi’, a sky bison called ‘Appa’, talk of Chakras, and the concept of the Avatar itself? Delightful, for all us insiders.)