ESPN Explains Why I Have No Interest In Sitting Through Avatar


“Outer-Space Cartoon Says Americans Are the Bad Guys: “Millions for defense, not a sixpence for tribute,” Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, once a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, said in 1796. “Millions for special effects, not a Starbucks gift card for writing,” might be the motto of modern Hollywood, at least if “Avatar” is the exemplar. “Avatar” should have been marketed as a cartoon and best animated feature of 2009. The special effects were great — though yours truly increasingly finds computer-drawn special effects boring, since they are so obviously fake. The script was as dull and predictable as the special effects were flashy. Maybe the dialogue sounded better in Na’vi.

Hardly anything was explained — so let’s start with why the whole plot was set in motion in the first place. Sinister humans are bent on removing peace-loving blue aliens from a point on Pandora above some minerals the sinister humans want to strip-mine; the peace-loving natives won’t move because the place is sacred ground. Reader Bryan Law of Independence, Ohio, notes: “Even today, horizontal drilling means you don’t have to destroy the surface above a resource to obtain it. So why wasn’t the problem on Pandora solved by horizontal drilling? Don’t tell me that 150 years from now, humanity has become capable of interstellar travel, yet forgotten a basic mining technique.”

The mineral is an anti-gravity substance that floats. Midway through the movie, we learn there are entire mountains of it floating above Pandora. So why not mine the floating mountains, where no Pandorans live, rather than go to war with the natives? The clichéd super-heartless corporation that wants the mineral is depicted as obsessed by profit. War is a lot more expensive than mining! If profit is what motivates the corporation, war is the last thing it would want.

Because hardly anything in the movie is explained, we never find out what nation or organization has built a huge base on Pandora, then brought along an armada of combat aircraft. The Earth characters all look, act and talk like Americans — in fact, slang hasn’t changed in 150 years! But does this project have some kind of government approval, or is it an interplanetary criminal enterprise? It’s hard to believe that 150 years from now, humanity’s first interaction with another sentient species would be conducted without any public officials present, but that’s what is depicted.

And who are the gun-toting fatigue-clad personnel commanded by the ultra-evil Colonel Quaritch — are they regular military, mercenaries, private security contractors? Audiences never find out. They’re just a bunch of trigger-happy killers who want to slaughter intelligent beings, and all of them but one do exactly what Colonel Quaritch says, even once it’s clear Quaritch is insane. The colonel must work for somebody — for the Pentagon, some government agency, for the corporation. So why isn’t he subject to supervision? No organization would entrust a project costing trillions of dollars — a town-sized facility has been built five light-years away — to a single individual with unchecked power. You’d worry that the single individual would commit some huge blunder that wiped out your trillion-dollar investment, which ends up being exactly what happens. I found the colonel with absolute authority a lot more unrealistic than the floating mountains.

Then there’s director James Cameron’s view of military personnel. If I were a military man or woman, I would find “Avatar” insulting. With one exception, the helicopter pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez — her character is twice referred to as a Marine, suggesting the military personnel are regular military, not mercenaries — all the people in fatigues are brainless sadists. They want to kill, kill, kill the innocent. They can’t wait to begin the next atrocity. It’s true that the U.S. military has conducted atrocities, in Vietnam and during the Plains Indians wars. But slaughter of the innocent is rare in U.S. military annals. In “Avatar,” it’s the norm. The bloodthirsty military personnel readily comply with the colonel’s orders to gun down natives. No one questions him — though in martial law, a soldier not only may but must refuse an illegal order. Plus the military personnel are depicted as such utter morons — not a brain in any of their heads — that none notice the TOTALLY OBVIOUS detail that Pandora’s unusual biology will be worth more than its minerals. Yes, movies traffic in absurd super-simplifications. But we’re supposed to accept that of the deployment of several hundred, every soldier save one is a low-IQ cold-blooded murderer.

What does “Avatar” build up to? Watching the invading soldiers — most of whom happen to be former American military personnel — die is the big cathartic ending of the flick. Extended sequences show Americans being graphically slaughtered in the natives’ counterattack. The deaths of aliens are depicted as heartbreaking tragedies, while the deaths of American security forces are depicted as a whooping good time. In Cameron’s “Aliens,” “The Abyss” and his television show “Dark Angel,” U.S. military personnel are either the bad guys or complete idiots, often shown graphically slaughtered. Cameron is hardly the only commercial-film director to present watching evil U.S. soldiers slaughtered as popcorn-chomping suburban shopping mall fun: in the second “X-Men” flick, U.S. soldiers are the bad guys and graphically killed off. Films that criticize the military for its faults are one thing: When did watching depictions of U.S. soldiers dying become a form of fun?”

Well said, Mr. Easterbrook. Well said.

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The Jury System Should Be Discarded

The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers has been a foundational right in Western legal tradition for many centuries, and is present both in English Common Law and the United States Constitution. Americans are raised to believe in the iconic (and stereotypical) image of twelve ordinary, reasonably intelligent citizens taking their duty seriously and returning a fair and impartial verdict. We persist in the delusion that twelve individuals of no particular training or experience will interpret and apply the law better than an individual who has spent his life being educated and trained to do just that. This is, I suppose, a byproduct of our narcissistic belief in the “wisdom of the common man.”

12 Angry Men - The 1957 classic that helped create the fantasy jury stereotype.

The reality is that what we end up with, more often than not, are twelve people selected not on the basis of their qualification to stand in judgement of a particular case, but precisely for their lack of qualification and knowledge about the central issues of the case at hand. For example, as potential jurors are being screened by the attorneys, if a citizen admits to being an expert in case-law regarding the key elements of the trial, he or she will be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, should a potential juror admit to being so indifferent to legal issues as to be unaware of even the illegality of the charges against the defendant, this person is considered an excellent candidate for the jury. The more serious the case, the more vigorous will be the search for the perfect juror.

Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.

Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant (i.e., the O.J. Simpson jury).

The Simpson Jury (sketch by Bill Robles) - The forgettable 1995 reality show that demonstrated one of the major failings of the modern jury system.

Sometimes, jurors attempt to overcome their ignorance by educating themselves on the issues, but even this genuine search for truth is not allowed. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, this new concern about jurors using the internet to gain access to information not presented during the trial is examined. Judges, lawyers and legal experts wring their hands over cases of jurors doing “research” on the case as they attempt to reach a fair verdict. Remember, the perfect juror is clueless and remains completely dependent on their case’s lawyers for information. Curiosity, even in a quest for justice, is not permitted.

Another problem presented by the existence of advanced technology is what legal experts call “The CSI Effect.” This refers to the often unattainable expectations that many jurors have about the quality and breadth of forensic evidence in criminal cases. Many times, these “blank slates” sole knowledge of the judicial system comes from watching television programs where every crime leaves plenty of damning physical evidence, evidence that is scientifically conclusive, indisputable and easily understood by laymen. When prosecutors fail to present evidence that meets these unrealistic expectations, jurors assume that their case is weak and acquit the defendant.

Television and the media in general are responsible for another problem with juries: the celebrity juror syndrome. In high-profile trials, jurors may be oblivious to practical information that they could use to render an intelligent verdict, but they are very aware of the presence of cameras and reporters. Realizing that their willingness to participate in the media frenzy could give them their “fifteen minutes” of fame,  some jurors might begin to weigh the relative value of a particular outcome to their quest for celebrity.

Up to this point, I have been addressing criminal cases only, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention civil juries. We have all read about outrageous monetary penalties levied by juries as the result of lawsuits, and perhaps wondered how such a figure might have been arrived at. This exposes another failure of the jury system: human emotion. In our stereotypical jury, emotion plays no role whatsoever in the verdict; only the evidence and the law are considered. In the real world, when witnesses are hurting, and when testimony is riveting and heartbreaking, juries respond favorably. Once you’ve seen the tears and heard the story, it becomes comparatively easy to punish the cold, impersonal corporation by giving away their money. It also makes you feel good, sort of like Robin Hood. Who wouldn’t want to be Robin Hood?

Having weighed the evidence myself, I am prepared to overturn the dysfunctional jury system and relegate it to the annals of history. I realize, though, that to do this, laws, and sometimes constitutions, would have to be rewritten. Since legislatures are dominated by elected lawyers and lobbyist lawyers, I’m also smart enough to realize that it will never happen. So it goes.

The Day The Music Died – For Me

We’ve all heard somber-sounding people on television or the radio asking the question: “Do you remember where you were when you heard about (insert traumatic event here)?”

For my parents, there was Pearl Harbor and then the assassination of John Kennedy. For most people of my generation, we have 9-11. But I think there exists a second category of psychic traumas, traumas that are not national ins cope, but are more personal, and leave their scars on a smaller, more targeted audience.

For me, the shooting death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 falls into this category. I’ve always been a Beatles‘ fan, surrounded as I was by older brothers who were Beatlemaniacs (until I was 8, I was led to believe that all music was Beatles’ music). As I got older, I developed my own love for the Beatles, and for John Lennon’s music in particular. Being a sixteen-year-old in the winter of 1980, I guess I identified with Lennon’s rebellious nature, his brutal honesty and the raw truth in his lyrics. Lennon bowed to no one, and had a reputation as a troublemaker. All of this I found very appealing.

On the night of December 8, 1980, I spent a good deal of time tying up my parents’ telephone line in conversation with my best friend, Dave Padgett (that was how we communicated with each other back in the day). We laughed as we imitated Monty Python skits, in particular, The Piranha Brothers, and we talked about playing an elaborate practical joke on my brother Alan. It was a typical, nondescript Monday night.

Much of America heard about Lennon’s shooting on Monday Night Football. At that moment, however, I was in my family’s upstairs bathroom, having just finished washing my hair. As I was vigorously toweling it dry, my mother, who had been watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the living room, called to me that NBC News had just broken into the program to say that a Beatle had been shot. I rushed downstairs, telling myself that she must have misunderstood, that someone with a similar sounding name or something must have been shot. It had to be a mixup. When I got there, Johnny was back on the air, seeming completely oblivious to the incredible news (I didn’t realize that his show was taped).

Flipping around the few channels we had in 1980, I found a reporter in front of Lennon’s building in New York, the Dakota, with a growing crowd behind her. As the taped interviews with witnesses and the updates from Roosevelt Hospital came in, it became clear: John Lennon was dead. I called Dave, who hadn’t been watching television. We hung up quickly to watch the coverage, which alternated between reporters at the hospital and the chaotic, sad scene outside the Dakota. By 1 AM, there were literally thousands of people gathered around Yoko’s building, singing John’s songs, hugging and weeping.

Radio stations of all formats immediately switched to all-Beatles programming, and I stayed up all night, listening to the music, listening to the tributes, listening to the DJs struggle to make sense of it all. It was strange, but I kept checking the newscasts, almost believing that there was still a chance that it was all a mistake, but the facts remained unchanged. John Lennon was dead, killed by a mentally ill fan. We later found out that Lennon had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for his killer, Mark David Chapman, earlier that evening, and the moment had been captured by an amateur photographer:

At school the next day, Dave and I made plans to travel to New York for what was certain to be a massive public funeral. As it turned out, there would be no funeral. Instead Yoko opted for ten minutes of silence on Sunday the 14th; it is said that tens of millions stopped to observe it.

During that week, it seemed like every magazine featured a tribute to John Lennon, and I wondered how much money was made from the grief.

For my part, I kept reading newspapers, listening to the radio tributes and talking to Dave. I sent a short letter to Yoko expressing my feelings of loss, knowing that it was one of a million letters she’d never see. It all seemed surreal.

Over the next few weeks, it felt like we struggled to place John Lennon in context. Was he a pop superstar, a troubled poet, a rebel rocker, a peace activist, or a feminist house husband? How could we label him for easy, convenient packaging? Lennon reinvented himself so often it was hard to pin him down. I remember DJs starting to refer to him as “The Master,” as if he required a label (maybe because Elvis was “The King?”). Thankfully, the attempts to label John Lennon soon passed. The selling of John continues unabated, however, and I expect that he will be redefined and repackaged by each succeeding generation; such is the price of immortality.

For me, though, it was more personal than that; I felt robbed of Lennon’s future almost as if it were my own. I recall being in a record store in Lansdowne soon after and overhearing two middle-aged women discussing the tragedy. They were tsk-tsking it, saying what a shame it was. You have no idea, I remember thinking. You have no idea.

On Sheila Dixon, Freed Killers, College Pornography and More

Finally, after what seems like forever, Sheila Dixon is getting her day in court. Accused of stealing gift cards intended for needy families, Dixon can justifiably say that she has already been convicted in the press, and therefore, the court of public opinion. Of course, to say that is somewhat disingenuous, as politicians rise on the backs of the press and public opinion, and almost certainly fall from there as well. But the press won’t be the ones acquitting or convicting her (which makes her threat not to “allow the media to control this trial” all the more laughable), and public opinion probably won’t be changed by the verdict. For almost all interested observers, she’s already a martyr or a felon, due process be damned. (A quick check of the Sun’s message board is enough to confirm this.) Helping to diffuse potential race and gender issues is the fact that, if convicted and removed, Dixon will be replaced by Baltimore City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, another African-American woman. This is a blessing. Now perhaps we can focus on the fate of just another politician accused of small-time larceny.

When I first heard that alleged killer Dante Parrish had recently been released from prison after having served only ten years for murder, I was incensed. Having read a little more, it seems as if Parrish was the victim of bad counsel at his original trial and that witnesses from that time were now recanting, forcing the state to strike a deal. What I’m thinking about now though, is the role played by the intervention of a well-intentioned (but in this case, horribly wrong)  organization, the Maryland Innocence Project, that provided the legal assistance that caused Parrish to be loosed upon the population. Did Parrish deserve a new trial? It would seem so. Was a new conviction unlikely? The state thought so. Once the trial errors were pointed out, was there really any other choice but to let Carter go? Probably not. So, does this killing lie at the feet of the Innocence Project? Emphatically: No. If individuals wrongly convicted can be exonerated by DNA evidence, then we would be worse than human to not avail them of the chance to be so. If Carter was truly guilty of the 1999 murder, then the state shouldn’t have fouled up the case. If Carter wasn’t guilty in 1999, he shouldn’t have been in jail. It’s natural to blame the liberal do-gooders when something blows up in their faces, but this one’s on the original prosecutor.

The University of Maryland Board of Regents yesterday, in a move that appeared to surprise everyone, stood up to state Delegate Andy Harris and refused to be the first university system to attempt to define and then restrict pornography. Good for them. This courageous stance comes at the threat of legislative action once the new session convenes in January, but I suspect that there’ll be more important matters in the State House than deciding how much exposed breast is too much exposed breast. If I remember correctly, the state has a bit of a financial crisis that should keep our elected officials plenty busy.

When Carrie Prejean, the former Miss California, was denied the Miss USA title because of her belief in traditional marriage, she had my full sympathy. Now, after months of ugly revelations and nasty legal tiffs, it’s become clear that she’s not the poster-child for family values that she made herself out to be. In fact, she’s become quite the media gadfly, crafting inventive ways to stay in the public eye without ever having to accomplish anything. Last night, having accepted Larry King’s invitation to appear live, she abruptly decided that she didn’t like the format and removed her microphone (oddly enough, she didn’t leave; she just sat there like a stunned duck). Frankly, I’m way past tired of these reality show, event driven insta-celebrities who have neither talent nor aspirations beyond staying topical. We should attach a clinical-sounding name to the phenomenon. How about “Gosselinistic Personality Disorder?”

The Ravens tried out a couple of other kickers, but apparently they were even worse than Steve Hauschka. Hauschka says that the players “are backing me up.” Be careful there, Steve. They just might be backing you up against a wall if you miss another clutch kick…

Oh, Sweet Irony, Thou Art A Hard Mistress

Irish rockers U2 will play a free concert at the Brandenburg Gate tonight in Berlin, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  The show is part of MTV’s European Music Awards and is expected to draw a walk-up crowd of about 100,000.  Organizers, however, have decided that capitalism can’t survive in an atmosphere where large numbers of people can get to see the show for free. Their response? Sheer genius.

The Berlin Wall was constructed beginning in 1961 to protect communism by keeping East Germans in their place – and away from a clear view of freedom. Now, somehow oblivious to the irony, U2 concert promoters have ordered a 12-foot wall erected to protect capitalism by keeping non-ticket holders in their place – away from a clear view of the band.

So now, we have a large wall separating the people of Berlin from a show that is celebrating the destruction of a large wall separating the people of Berlin.

Perfect.

Maybe 20 years from now, the surviving members of U2 can be wheeled onto a stage in Berlin to celebrate the destruction of that wall, too. If you want to see that show, though, you’d better make sure you get there early to get a ticket, just to be on the safe side.