I have left my family in Germany and successfully arrived in tepid San Antonio, TX for 28 days of training to become an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (pronounced ‘core’ not ‘corpse,’ though both work pretty well).
I enjoyed myself fully last night as I entered the world of ‘Avatar’, James Cameron’s new sci-fi epic that already handily broke a 1 billion-dollar landmark record of some kind. I’d watch the show again tonight if I could. I’d probably watch it every night for a week like my high school buddies did for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” once upon a time.
You don’t have to care – or understand – the point of the movie to completely enjoy the stunning visual spectacle presented in wide-screen, 3D wonder. In fact, I’d advise constraining yourself specifically to the visual effects and skip putting any real thought to the message of the movie. In essence, just sing along with the song, but don’t think about what the words actually mean.
The story follows an ex-Marine named Jake as he becomes part of a mission to subjugate – or at least translocate – the natives on a strange new planet (a moon actually, but does it matter?). On the n0t-so-subtly-named Pandora, the “aliens” congregate around an enormous tree set in the middle of a seemingly endless forest. They stand about 11 feet tall, with blue skin and luminous yellow eyes and they all seem to carry bow and arrows and daggers. These blue and tall but otherwise disappointingly human-shaped beings generally seem happiest when attending their frequent tribe-wide drum fests – with a terminally simplistic 2/4 beat rhythm that sounds like it might have been pounded out on cool Senegalese drums the Anglo orchestra bought in bulk.
These earthy aliens have a sacred, mystical, spiritual connection to the forest where they live; generally behaving like any nature-loving tribe the Europeans successfully decimated a little over a century ago in North America. In a complete creative hiatus, at one point nature is even called a “mother”. Why not a father, or brother, or just skip the nuclear family reference to nature entirely? The descriptor ‘Mother Earth’ is so unoriginal, it ranks up there with Bless You and Dot Com.
Although 2 hours and something like 40 minutes, you can easily sum up the movie in one phrase: “Dances With Wolves”…but with pterodactyls you can ride.
Basically – Marine makes contact with natives through project financed by aggressive and ethics-challenged Big Business company. Marine plans on helping his financiers destroy said natives. Instead, he inadvertently falls in love with natives in general, and one curvaceous native in particular. He then becomes the enemy of his former bosses, ultimately leading the meek, dumb, dark-skinned simpletons to victory over superior white man.
I haven’t decided if this REALLY tired theme of the White Male swooping down into a primitive race, seeing their genuine good, and then becoming their Great Savior is completely racist. Some are saying it absolutely is. I don’t really think that was the intent. I just think it was lazy writing by a white male who deep-down believes that white men are still the best hope for the world. That they still run it, ultimately. But it is possible that white men really don’t have much to offer the world anymore – that we’ve had our time and made our mark. Maybe it’s time for some non-white, non-men to run the countries, write the laws, own the companies and save fictional worlds. Maybe the white boy has done about all he can.
Big Business takes a major hit in this movie. It gets portrayed as the denizen of all Evil in life. That said, it’s Big Business that has paid for every iota of scientific discovery that has occurred on Pandora. The science taking place on this moon (and taking place on our earth) is an elevated form of existence, no question, but in both worlds it mostly exists because of Big Business, either directly or through taxes. Scientists – and artists – need to accept the fact that to live in that enlightened world of thought and wonder and possibility depends on their benefactor’s mundane ability to sell widgets. Big Business is rarely genuinely evil. True, figuring out when to inject some profit-endangering humanistic principles into a business plan does takes some skill and is occasionally gotten wrong. But for the most part, if business didn’t make the poet, at least it feeds him.
The actual “avatar” is a living being made to look like the aliens, but controlled by the mind of a human. The human links to the avatar neurologically, so it can only be controlled by one specific human. Thus, the human lies in a coffin-like body-pod that connects him/her to their specific avatar. Upon falling into a coma in the pod, the avatar wakes up and the mind of the comatose human controls it.
The doc in me couldn’t help but get hung up on this part of the movie. First, all humans need to sleep. But since the avatar wakes up as soon as the human “sleeps”, and since controlling the avatar is a conscious process, the human never actually does sleep. For some evolutionary reason I can’t fathom, REM sleep is the foundation of all life. This inconvenient fact defies even the mighty pen of James Cameron. By the end of the movie, after staying awake vicariously with the characters, I felt like I’d been on call in the hospital for days on end (felt like I was back in residency again).
Also, the human lays in this coffin thing for hours and hours. At the least, he’s gotta pee himself on a regular basis, to say nothing of the inevitable bowel movement here and there. Plus, the main character’s avatar hooks up with the sexy female alien. Depicted as the first consummating night of an eternal love bond – thus likely a multicoital affair – envisioning the scene (and smell) inside the pod after this particular night left me a bit squeamish.
As mentioned, the power of this movie is in the visuals. It is a “looker” many times over. But the general message is tired, probably slightly racist, and denigrates the U.S. Military (or at least leads the audience to exult in the widespread slaughter of American soldiers/mercenaries). That said, perhaps our culture really should take the main theme of the story to heart. After all, we DID decimate the Native American culture, and based on my experiences on the Crow Reservation in Montana, I’d say we continue to. We’re also strikingly obtuse in our dealings with tribal cultures in the Middle East today. Listening to people from a different culture – rather than melting them with daisycutters and circling drones – has some merit.
But I do wish the movie had added a little post-modernism into the mix and eschewed the evil-good idea altogether. It didn’t have to pit the American Axis of Evil (big business + U.S. Army) against a pristine tribal culture practically perfect in every way. Historic Native American tribes were often duplicitous, aggressive, thieving and hateful (many still are today). They rarely trusted each other from tribe to tribe and may have been just as irresponsible had one tribe attained the raw power that the U.S. Government currently has. The Arab tribes we’re tangling with recently have a litany of faults and cobwebby dark corners too. But they are also a just, priceless, sacred, honorable people. This dichotomy exists in virtually every race in our world. Americans seem to hate this complexity in our fiction – it’s easier to hate one thing and love another and then watch them duke it out.
Thus, the conflict in the movie could have been between two parties filled with faults and frailties but ultimately imbued with genuine honor, honesty and a respect for the rights of others. Standing between them is something they both deeply need and want (trees, mineral ore…whatever). In life, conflicts almost always boil down to two parties who both have blood on their hands, but both are essentially good, honorable…and in the right. e.g., Palestine wants the land, Israel wants the land, both have been evil at times, both have been angelically good at times, and each have some form of legitimate claim to the exact space of real estate. Stick that conundrum in your avatar’s virtual peace pipe and take a deep drag, nature-brother.
Depicting this nuanced world may have weakened the sense of righteous rage as the Army went Operation Flatten Everything. It may have lessened the gloating release when the Ultimate Bad Guy finally met his ignominious end. But it would have made a better movie. It would have made the written story as complex as those fantastic visuals, and created a worthy counterpart to such a sparkling, wondrous vision.
At least, not in the Army. They might just take you up on your offer.
Joe (do I really have to tell you that this isn’t even close to the guy’s real name?) had problems with his left leg after 2 deployments to Iraq and multiple exposures to high-velocity trauma. Lots of problems, shall we say. The leg often doesn’t work much at all. Sometimes, this overwhelming feeling of burning pain spreads from his mid shin up to his knee and then pulses up into his thigh for hours.
But what’s debilitating leg pain got to do with being in the Army? At least, that’s how Joe sees it. Unlike most soldiers in the WTU, Joe is determined to stay in the military. He wants to be sent “down range” (deployed) again. Tomorrow, if possible. He loves his unit and enjoys the excitement of his job.
Joe does not understand that a soldier who can’t walk probably isn’t going to do well in a war zone.
Actually, Joe is quite smart. He understands perfectly well that a debilitated soldier can’t perform a required in a combat situation. But he doesn’t care. He loves the Army. Lives for the Army. So he has worked with a lawyer for over a year now to keep himself in the Army. The WTU doc before me has worked to this end – admittedly with some bemusement – for the past few months as well.
Recently, Joe met with a special review board comprised of high-ranking commanders. They evaluated his chart, looked over the reports of his injuries, and then interviewed him personally. I think this occurred at Walter Reed Hospital, in Washington D.C. in – the Mecca of Army Medicine. As you might imagine, this was a big deal.
I don’t know the exact specifics of that interview, but here’s my reenactment:
“Soldier, you’ve served your country well. We thank you for your sacrifice and heroism. After thorough review of your file, we have determined that you are no longer qualified for active duty and will therefore be separated from the military with full medical coverage and benefits. You will be given an honorable discharge and should have no problems entering civilian life.”
“Sir, it’s the leg, right? That’s the problem?” Says Joe.
“What if the leg wasn’t a problem? What then, sir?”
“Why, you’d stay in the military, Son! Send you down range week after next. Get you back in the fiiigght, boy!”
“Then cut it off! Just cut the damn thing off! I can run on a prosthetic. There’s less to clean up if I get crosswise of an IED (roadside bomb) again, right? Just send me down there with a couple of extra legs in my pack and I’m all good.”
This – honest to God – is a relatively faithful reenactment of this soldier’s conversation with his Army superiors. Admiring his courage and commitment, I was more surprised to find that, following this meeting, our doctors in the WTU received this order from on high:
****de, de, d, d, deeeee —Official communication from High Command: SGT Joe to be referred to surgery for evaluation of chronic leg dysfunction and pain. Consider surgical correction. Amputation a viable option.——-de, d, d, deeee,
I don’t want to get saddled with what I’m sure is annoying extra work. But I’m inclined to volunteer as the point-guy for other incoming clinic staff. Really, helping newbies does not require an advanced degree; just some advance thought.
Within the first two minutes of stepping on the ground in Baumholder, any new professional should be given 3 simple things: A local cell phone, already charged with minutes and a battery, a list of 5 important phone numbers (boss, clinic, sponsor, hotel manager, inprocessing office)…and a map.
Actually, forget the rest. Just a map.
Army bases – for the uninitiated – tend to dominate the neighborhood. It isn’t as if the place just mixes into the typical downtown city neighborhood, “Hmmm, an Indian spice store…Iranian kebabs….electronics store…BAUMHOLDER ARMY GARRISON….a falafel stand.”
No. The place is HUGE. You can’t walk across it in less that a few hours. And my base is considered small. Really, most active Army bases span square miles.
Buried somewhere in all those acres are things like a bank, a grocery store (that takes good-‘ol US money), a thrift store where we can get cheap books for my 9 year old reading addict, restaurants, libraries (also for the addict), a post office, and about a thousand other things we REALLY need.
But all of it is spread out over 39 square miles and NOBODY knows how to tell you where to go to get what you need. They just know. Like monarchs and grey whales and sea turtles and cats who got lost in a cross-country move…they just know.
Thus, one great triumph the other day was finding the “housing office”:
“HI! Wow! I’m so proud of myself. I found your office.”
“We’re all cheering for you. Ecstasy.”
“I’m looking for a house in the area.”
“Gimme your orders.”
“Ummm…I’m a civilian.”
“Civilian? We don’t service them.”
*Sigh* “Seriously? Everyone told me you were the ones to help me with this little housing-for-6 problem I have.”
“We don’t service civilians.”
“Right. Heard that. Thanks for elaborating. Well, so as to prevent this from becoming a TOTAL loss since I rented a car to get here, maybe you can help me find a map of the base. It took me 3 days just to find you.”
“Right. You know, a miniaturized cartographic scale drawing of the place where we currently work?”
“We don’t service civilians.”
“But. A map. Just a map.”
“Oooohhhh. A map. Hmmmmm. Let’s see. Well, you need to go to the LRP office.”
“Never mind what the acronym is. Where is that?” (Since we don’t have a map, which could effectively end this conversation)
“You have to cross the river, well actually first go out of the security gate 4, show your ID and travel certificate, then cross the river, but actually that’s after you pass the golf course, then get your – do you have a clearance 9 tool? – well, anyway, then you take the hovercraft to docking station 33, point your serial wand to frequency mmXB22IB, then EJECT! EJECT! EJECT!, traverse the powerlines, and avoid the ordinance field…then you should see the office in the distance if the smog index is below 44. Once you get to the office, you’ll need to – since you’re a civilian – petition the colonel to write you an exception letter and they should be able to provide you with a microfiche of a Baumholder map…although it will be from 1944 when it was used by the German SS.”
“Thanks so much! That will be VERY helpful!”
“No problem we don’t service civilians.”
Later, I told someone at the clinic that I got zero help at the housing office.
“They didn’t give you a nice book filled with color pictures of available houses, their locations and the prices?”
“They didn’t seem too happy to ‘service’ civilians, which, frankly, wasn’t exactly my desire either.”
“Ooohhhh, you went to the on-base housing office.”
“Yep. Said ‘Housing Office’ on the door. Everybody said, “Go to the ‘housing office’ and all of your wildest dreams will come true. So, I was just taking a leap of faith on the exactness of the words between what I was told – ‘housing office’ – and what was on the door, which read – if I remember correctly – ‘housing office’.”
“Oh. You needed to go to the OFF BASE Housing office.”
“Good to know. Next time I rent a car so I can get around on the base, I’ll try to find that office instead. Or, in 10 words or less, can you tell me where that office is?”
“Sure. It’s directly upstairs from the on-base housing office.”
You can laugh about this stuff, or let it drive you crazy.
So far, we’re laughin’.
I’m elated to be now living in Europe – in idyllic, semi-rural Germany. The cars are smaller, the houses and buildings are almost universally beautiful. Paris is a two-hour bullet train ride from here. Numerous other countries of Europe are easily accessible. The kids are already naturally practicing German. I have yet to see the bland, plain grids of sidewalks and cheap row houses of suburban America. I wonder if cinder blocks and concrete are even legal in this part of the world. It’s like 1960’s architecture tried to gain a foothold here and was told, “Danka, but we’re all full of ugly…try Littleton.”
I do have some serious trepidation about the job, however. Everyone I’ve talked to says it’s really tough. The burn-out rate is very high. No one has survived it past 2 years…and I’m supposed to be here or at least 3. Some of what I was told about days off and CME funding is not true. And the system here is unendingly bureaucratic, which can really weigh me down after awhile.
For example, my wife has informed me that I am not allowed to constantly make note of every inefficiency I encounter in the world of The Army. I’ve already found it tough to avoid observations of bemusement, befuddlement and even real irritation at the level of bueraucratic overhead required to simply do a job in this system.
For example, even though I spent days (literally) getting a special military ID and system access card while on the Army base in Washington…I have to go through the same process here. I’ve signed up to get the card, but the database hasn’t been “consumated” (the word used by the German HR guy helping me through this process), so I can’t get the card. Without the card, I can’t open a bank account, can’t get my mail, can’t rent a house, can’t get a cell phone, can’t do lots of other housekeeping stuff.
So, I’m not sure who consumates with a database (or how it’s done, exactly), but I sure hope s/he gets their freak on soon. We’re cooped up in perfectly nice hotel, but it’s small and we can’t really go anywhere. The kids have been great, but I can’t blame them for getting bored. So…how ’bout a little champagne and strawberries for the database? Maybe someone can light a few scented candles and play Enigma tunes in the room that houses the server blade stacks.
Whatever it takes, people…we’re gettin’ stir crazy here.
So, for now, I live in a hotel. In Europe. In pastoral Germany. I spend my days admiring the sloping, tiled roofs and church steeples off in the distance of my little village. I ponder the meaning of database consumation, and wonder if my job will have me snorting Visteril within a year.
My, how life can change in a week!