Friday, January 15, 2010

Extraneous Thoughts on the Great Blue Thing

Since first viewing Avatar a few weeks ago, I've had a few leftover thoughts beyond my initial review, both on the film and on the inevitable tempest of opinions re. the film. So I figure now's as good a time as any to, er, purge them.

First: Avatar is an allegorical fable, and this permits a certain amount of simplicity and bluntness that I think has been unfairly maligned. The broadsides against imperialism, and American imperialism in specific, should be taken seriously. They aren't subtle or well-developed, but they aren't inaccurate, either. It would have been just peachy keen if Cameron had seen fit to produce a deft polemic about our current crimes in Iraq, one that took into consideration both the mendacity of the power base and the press' complicity (not to mention the complicity of the intelligensia), but let's be real: That ain't Jim Cameron. His first priority is to rock our socks off, and he does this with aplomb. The inclusion of certain unmistakable signifiers ("shock and awe", "fight terror with terror") isn't a cheap or cyncial ploy, it's a serious comment - simple, but serious.

The key distinction is that between simplistic and simple (this has been noted elsewhere w/r/t Avatar) - Cameron's movie is absolutely the latter. Again, it's a formal thing - Avatar never presents itself as anything more than a fable. This allows the film to retain a level of integrity that several ostensibly realist projects end up missing. The allegory to aggression against indigenous populations (Native American, Iraqi, Afghani) can be broad, touching on the major points of evil without going into the socio-political context that a more historically minded piece would require.

While it might seem like having his cake and eating it too, it's actually just a case of playing it smart as an entertainer and a thinker. Film, being strictly bound by temporal constraints, makes this kind of context difficult. I'm not saying improssible - just difficult. For an example of just how badly one can err when treading on such thin ice, see Lions for Lambs, which was fusty, didactic, and smug. But Cameron doesn't have to worry about this, because his criticisms are more general. When he has a character say "we're gonna shock and awe 'em" or something like that, he's giving that phrase exactly as much consideration as it deserves - a jingoism uttered by a corporate thug.

If you're under the illusion that Iraq is a "mistake" and that the our actions there exist in some kind of ethical gray area (and this is ostentibly the case for most of the mainstream media) then it's easy to see why you'd be rankled, if not offended, by Avatar's politics. If, however, you've got anything like a clear perspective on the issue, there's no reason to complain. The quibble that Cameron "didn't go far enough" is valid, but not as related to the film. Cameron himself may have a long way to go in his evolution as a progressive filmmaker, but the film has to be taken for what it is, not what it isn't.

The other big area of critique, though, is a bit more thorny, although I remain willing to let Cameron off the hook. Basically, this line of attack centers around the issue of racism - that of the Na'vi and that of the humans, and it breaks down into two main points: one, that Avatar is another case of enlighted-white-man's-burden. The main precendent is Dances With Wolves, and everybody knows why its politics are queasy; white man hero undergoes a spiritual transformation by learning the ways of the natives and then becomes their savior, defending them against his own race. The other critique is that the film basically sets up a moral preference between two races: the Na'vi are just intrinsically better than the humans, and therefore they deserve our sympathy. This assessment is usually followed by a corollary, noting that the Na'vi aren't all that admirable by our standards - they're a martial, stratified culture without much apparent variation or heterogeniousness.

This is a significant caveat, and I think it does partially compromise the ethical high ground that Cameron siezes at the outset. More than one commentator has called this a kind of typically Western arrested-development fantasy, in which the white man-child returns to an idealized edenic bliss. But a) I think this problem has to be considered as separate from the allegory of imperialism and b) I still think it's not as serious an issue as some have made it out to be.

Again, keeping in mind the fable or pageant formal context is essential. Literally, the Na'vi are a biologically distinct race, with blue skin, displaced genetalia, and nerve-endings in their ponytails. But this is science fiction, and the best science fiction functions by literalizing (in the imagined techno-biological realm of the future) basicly human ideas. Thus, the human crisis of identity and mortality is literalized, in Blade Runner, by the conceit of a race of artificial humans. This is an old trick but a good one, and its everywhere in world literature - fantasy, surrealism, gothic horror - pretty much everything that isn't straight realism, incorporates the same technique (This is, incidentally, such a favored method in film because film deals with the abstract directly throgh the concrete, which makes strong - ie, visual - metaphors so useful). Which is, of course, a long way of saying that the Na'vi are humans, too, on a metaphorical level - a different race, sure, but still human, and their radical difference is contextual, not intrinsic. There's no facet to the Na'vi that doesn't have an analogue in human culture. Their connection to the land is literalized, but again, this is merely the logical extension of the Gaia ethic, imaginatively transferred into the realm of fiction. The other major comparison that Avatar gets saddled with is that of the Pocahontas story, and this one is far more accurate than DWW. And in both Avatar and Pocahontas, what is it that ultimately breaks through the bonds of culture? Why, only the universal panacea of love, the one true Magic Bullet. So Avatar basically boils down to the old saw about love conquering all - that elusive and exalted human trait that permits us to overcome even the most entrenched and vile of prejudices. It's love that turns Sully around, love that gets him to give up his former "humanity" and cast his lot with the Na'vi. Now, the way this story is told certainly lacks the requisite dexterity and nuance that we'd all prefer. But I think it makes it clear that while Cameron might be guilty of mawkishness, he isn't making any serious moral transgressions.

Phew. I wasn't expecting that to take so long, but there you have it. Jim C. is exonerated

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