In a review for the book,Queen of the Orcs by Morgan Howell , first in a series and disappointingly the only book in the series I found palatable, I wrote this:
These reviews leave me thinking that people are recognizing patterns in their reading and thinking that the ability to recognize a pattern is actual analysis and not merely the first step in comprehension. Like some blogger I read said about the recent batch of spoof movies; they have no substance and don't actually parody anything, the audience is just laughing because they recognize the pop-culture reference; a Pavlovian reaction?
The concept of recognition has been nibbling at me again since I saw the latest The Last Airbender trailer. That sentence right there, by the way, is warning enough to scroll past if you're tired of hearing people be disappointed at rampant appropriation and whitewashing.
The Last Airbender trailers, and the movie itself, has a lot for fans of the tv series to recognize.
* Siblings in the snow = Sokka and Katara.
* A tattoo extending over a boy's forehead = Aang
* The manipulation of fire, air, water and earth = bending
* Particular names
* Particular phrases
* Particular places
It is exciting to recognize something, to know what something is supposed to be, even when it's in a new form, a new medium; even when it is a new interpretation. A lot of my own enjoyment of Batman Begins, for example, was in recognizing batarangs and other devices, as well as recognizing characters. There's an insider's kind of glee to see the new interpretation but know what the original looked and sounded like. There's a bit of that involved in fanfiction as well, reading it and writing it both; though in writing it the fun is in coming up with a new interpretation whether you're writing an AU or a 'missed scene' or a set of continuing adventures.
That Recognition Glee is what's counted on when Hollywood takes inspiration from somewhere else and brings a book, tv series, comic/graphic novel to life. That's part of why they bother to do it in the first place; because those who liked/loved it once, will WANT to see a new spin on things. Assuming the movie isn't meant to round off a series that never properly ended, that is. Still, taking from somewhere else and bringing it to the silver screen is a unique relationship, with hesitances, false starts, supposedly good natured intentions...
The Batman franchise is not the only franchise I've done this not quite a love affair dance with. There is also Star Trek; largely the movies of The Next Generation cast. Some I loathed, some I loved and in both there were things I adored beyond reason. To me, Nemesis has nothing to recommend it, and yet seeing that Riker and Troi do indeed marry was such a big thing. It is as if I've separated that scene from the rest of the movie, suspended it in amber in my head because as a fan of both characters it was so important and so wanted and so wonderful to see realized.
Recognition (Glee) can go hand in hand with analysis, but that is not at all an automatic pairing. And in all honesty it doesn't have to be.
It isn't granted that a franchise's adult fans will bring more critical depth to a viewing than the younger fans. And when the franchise has primarily younger fans to start with, when that's the core...
A:TLA has adult fans , that's a fact. I am one of them. But there is also this, there are very different skills involved in creating a two hour movie that either entertains adults, or entertains children while hopefully not completely boring the pants off adults and the skills of getting children involved and intrigued in a storyline for season after season, show after show. In the latter doing the job well seems to be all that's necessary to also draw in adults.
I mention this because Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created and midwifed the birth of something amazing with multiple layers. Avatar: The Last Airbender, the animated series has been nominated for and won awards because of that brilliance, dedication, care and respect (for their inspiration sources and their audiences).
The Live Action Movie, only has to build on that; it was already several rungs up to possible success before anything started. M. Night Shylaman only has to infer to those layers, throw a few reference points around and invoke a large enough upswell of Recognition Glee to skate by. The rest can be held aloft by CGI and effects.
I didn't like Star Trek: Nemesis. But the wedding in the beginning carried me through the movie. I didn't walk out. (Nevermind I like to think my sitting there was partly stunned disbelief)
How far will a little Recognition Glee take this film? How many butts will stay in the seats? How many seats will be filled due to the urge to have that experience; that excitement at seeing something beloved come to life in a new way? Can M. Night Shylaman temper the lack of a round, silver haired Iroh with a few bits of jasmine tea dialogue? Can he skate past a Dragon Ball Evolution to an Eragon (just under breaking even) because of Appa?
I want to believe that the lack of Asian culture will be noticed. I want to further believe that viewers of the series who go to see the movie will find themselves admitting something is missing. I'm just not sure I quite dare hope they'll recognize what that something is, and realize the loss of it detracts from the Avatar:TLA experience; and that protesters involved with Racebending.Com ARE NOT just bunch of haters.
And here is why.
Recognition Glee is pretty powerful. I'm currently watching a break down of what's been wrong with the TNG franchise films; it's a quite sarcastic set of reviews by RedLetterMedia. It was actually a shock to have it pointed out that perhaps the reason I hadn't enjoyed so many is because they'd become action films instead of adventure/exploration and were hardly tightly scripted. Even after just watching scenes pointed out, my memories, for example, of Insurrection are of my joy at seeing favourite characters being happy or involved in aspects of their careers they like, or exploring particular aspects of their personalities.
I cannot imagine Avatar:TLA having any less strong a pull of Recognition Glee. And when I add white privilege to that...Will those A:TLA fans be able to see how whitewashing diminishes?
When you put Recognition Glee beside a white privilege that sees everyone as white to start with; white with a prominent nose & curly hair, white with a tan & different hair, white with different eyes...; it becomes, a lot harder I think for people to catch a clue. How things look; how they look as someone always imagined them, or how they look even cooler; how the story matches parts they already know; how there are places and things they can remember and smile about and nod to; that's powerful. Recognition is one of the first skills human beings learn; it's how we learn to speak, how we learn the dog in the book means something in relation to the dog walking by on the leash.
It's possible their response to the Live Action Movie will reveal them to have fallen for a completely different show than the one the rest of us saw. The characters might have the same names, but the universe might be very different. If they see generic martial arts fantasy that's just using certain names, and some Asian and Inuit props will they stay in those seats, happily, as the box office inches up? Will it be A:TLA to them?
And if they don't see A:TLA in the movie what will they see?
Right now, what seems crushingly more likely to me, is that the movie will sink at the box office for poor production values, dismal dialogue and general malaise of BLANDESS and take the matter of the whitewashing beneath the waves of fail with it. The trailer shows fake rocks after all. FAKE ROCKS! Fake rocks are for theatre productions and a completely different type of suspension of disbelief. Fake rocks also look ridiculous juxtaposed against the backdrop a few scenes earlier of Greenland's icy majesty.
Fake rocks and cgi fire making the movie somehow not Avatar:TLA is not at all like realizing Kataara isn't Kataara, because she's been modified for a 'general audience' and that modification erased who she is. Take the Inuit out of Kataara and you don't have Kataara anymore. Take the China out of the Fire Nation, and you don't have the Fire Nation. It's like erasing memories - remove someone's memory of an experience and you remove how it shaped them, which means you change them. Erase a memory and you erase a piece of them. Ethnicity and culture are one lengthy string of memories that build upon memories that build upon memories; internalized, life experience, recognition glee.
Whatever term they have for it, Hollywood knows all about Recognition Glee & Recognition Rejection. And they've been pointing at Recognition Rejection for years when it comes to heroes and leads of colour - except the place they point to keeps changing. First it was 'The South Won't Show This & We Will Lose Money' and now it's 'Middle America Likes To See Itself And It Is White Or We Will Lose Money'.
"Well we don't want to upset people, and well, the coloureds should just be glad we're risking putting them on screen in the first place. Look, we know what we're doing. We're putting coloureds in roles we know regular people can expect them in - roles that fit them, fit their place in society. That'll get people used to seeing them up on the screen. A Chinese person as the hero? With Chinese culture everywhere?! We'd never make movies again! You can't bring change that quickly,! People just won't accept it! Hold your horses! Patience is the key here. Patience and calm."
Now it's the 21st century and we still have the Mammy/Sassy Confident, The Inscrutable Servant or Villain, The Hot Spicy Cha Cha and all those other stereotypes that 'fit their place in society'; those stereotypes that bring their own Recognition Glee - for white viewers and Recognition Rejection, for PoC sick and tired of narrowed and negative associations.
Hollywood might be a place with individual struggling artists. But the people in power aren't poor struggling producers/movie studio moguls/directors/investors. No. What they are, is soaking in greed and cowardice and have been for so long as an industry they barely know anything different. They're the ones who created the concepts of the 'general audience', and 'relatability' as a sugar coat for racism and white superiority. They're the ones who have the movie industry set up so that equal time equals segregation (black movies, kung fu imports, foreign stuff, foreign brown stuff).
And then, every time Recognition Glee does happen with an audience for a lead/hero of colour, they're the ones calling the phenomena a one off and an exception.
The next time someone dares to spit out the ridiculous 'But Hollywood wouldn't do that - they want to make money! And everyone's money is green!' I shall be violent. We've got history proving that PoC money isn't as green as the money from States that once threatened to ban Hollywood altogether.
We've got HISTORY showing what acceptabilities were codeified, and thus became tropes and visual cliches and thus became how movie makers see the world when they visualize. And as much as other things have changed and aspects of the code have been challenged and dropped; Hollywood's still running scared, cowardly and tight fisting the dollar when it comes to race.
Monster's Ball and Precious are both of the 'fit their place in society' type movies. Academy Nominations and wins don't mean a thing other than they're very good 'fit their place in society' type movies with good 'fit their place in society' type roles.
Meanwhile something like Avatar: The Last Airbender comes along and Hollywood totally misses that its popularity is about Recognition Glee, because it has conditioned itself to ignore non-white Recognition Glee. That's how Hollywood, Paramount, various executives, investors and even M.Night Shylaman missed that Avatar: The Last Airbender's popularity had as much to do with Hanbok's and Jian's; Guru's, Chakras & Yogis; and MesoAmerican Sun Dials; as story, characters and plot.
I'm convinced they don't recognize and realize that PoC word of mouth spread. And that the extra eyeballs for their overflowing demographics and other measuring came from PoC excitement.
"Mommy! Mommy! There's this boy on tv! And he's the hero! And he looks like me!"
I'm sure they can't see the reason so many PoC absolutely adore Avatar: The Last Airbender, is because of how it felt for them, for us, to recognize things on screen. White American audiences (and many white creators) aren't familiar with people besides them, experiencing Recognition Glee. That's how they missed how much it meant for PoC fans to recognize their lives; history, culture and heritage; on screen.
Which is why as obvious as it seems to me that a production crew who removed the cultures of the universe, couldn't then create that universe well via props, script etc... I am scared those fans will sit down in those seats and be convinced they're watching exactly what they've always seen. And worse, be convinced the only reason their Recognition Glee didn't kick in, is because someone didn't CGI Appa fluffy enough.
You've seen the trailer. What do you think?
[Usual Comment Rules Apply]
ETA: To add emphasis.