Monday, January 4, 2010

AVATAR-Can I get a Witness?

I saw Avatar yesterday.
It is visually stunning.
I think Cameron's visual imagination is sublime.
The narrative, however, is beyond cliché—the boy colonialist who goes native, loves the native princess, and in the end is more native than the natives! And along the way, boy colonialist saves the day (or the world) in the epic fantasy/ blockbuster SF tried and true way! Dude gets them to blow shit up!
AVATAR is One Billion Dollars good and counting.
Some people take issue with critiques of the film’s colonialist racism—pointing to the benign intentions of the filmmaker. (MAKE BIG BUCKS!) The lead character, some insist just happens to be a white man. There is no racist conspiracy to malign people of color. This film (like DISTRICT 9) is about our common humanity! The lead character just happens to be a white boy colonialist.
Hollywood has been making variations on the colonialist/Indian Princess story since its inception with SQUAW MAN by Cecil B. DeMille. SQUAW MAN, a western play by Edwin Milton Royle, debuted on Broadway in 1905, spawned a novel, and in 1914 was the first film shot in Hollywood. Cecile B. De Mille’s SQUAW MAN was also a big box office hit! It started the Hollywood Film Industry. SQUAWMAN featured a squaw princess who commits suicide so that the white man she loves and their mixed race son can go off to Europe and claim all the benefits of upper class white privilege. Cecil B. DeMille made this movie again in 1918 and again in 1931.
This was part of a long tradition. Go further back to:
THE INDIAN PRINCESS or, LA BELLE SAUVAGE, an 1808 operatic melodrama by James Nelson Barker and the first stage version of the Pocahontas/John Smith romp.
In the 1990’s we get the New Western. Audiences and filmmaker reconsider the mythic tales we’ve been telling on our American nation. Maybe those old cowboy and Indian stories didn’t do justice to the Native POV. The Blockbuster film with integrity of that age: DANCES WITH WOLVES—Kevin goes native, marries the white girl whose gone native, and has to get rescued from nasty colonialist soldiers by his Lakota warrior buddies. At least they're just as good at being Indian as he is. Can't say the same for AVATAR. Kevin and his wife leave his Lakota buddies and ride off into the snow. A caption on screen tells us the Lakota way of life will be destroyed—but wasn’t it beautiful and wonderful while it lasted.
In all these narratives, the focus is the suffering, growth, perspective of the colonialists.
AVATAR is from the colonialists’ point of view and we don’t really get to know the natives. They are sights. With the exception of the Princess, they are not full characters.
Ideology doesn't need a conspiracy to continue operations as usual. Nobody has to sit around and plan. It's how we already think. It's in the water unless we work it out!

Cameron’s New Wrinkle on this tradition is that the colonialists are defeated by the natural world they are trying to rape and then sent packing by the Blue People. The natural world is called to war by the colonialist gone native who just happens to be a white boy. The colonialist learns Blue People culture in three months. That’s really fast. Either, he is a genius, or the culture is so basic…Well, the natives didn’t seem to know how to solve their problems with nasty human colonialists themselves. Diplomacy fails—war is the answer.
Great action sequences ensue.
Filming diplomacy might require a more subtle script and more acting.
Unfortunately, Cameron has not figured out how to make narrative complexity as much fun as his complex eco-system with its dazzling flora and fauna—the flying dragons(?) were breath taking.

AVATAR is the blockbuster mix of liberal/conservative that is the hallmark of successful mass media since well...THE OCTOROON capitalized on hot button topic without challenging underlying ideology. The Natives are blue but—the chief native just happens to be played by Wes Studi—a Cherokee actor. The Native Princess just happens to be played by Zoe Saldana- an African American actor, etc.
So Cameron can do a feel good movie (hug the trees and blow up the baddies, liberal eco-culture meets militaristic conservative culture) about one of the most difficult, complicated, bloody, dangerous, guilt-inducing issues that face us as human beings—how do we live with and through our differences? Blowing shit up and sending the bad colonists packing is the “melodrama fantasy” solution.
There's got to be something else we can think of!
Can I get a witness?


Anonymous said...


I thought it refreshing to see a guy in a wheelchair prominently featured. I do get bored of how youthful and perfect everybody is in the movies... (Speaking of which, a friend said, "next time I want some fat, cushy aliens.") Unfortunately, by the end of the flick and because of how the story played out, I began to feel that this element was a sort of smokescreen - a way to distract us from our hero's white male saves the day status. (Some species of, 'I can't be racist because I have a Black friend.) The hero, with the help of stolen blue-person DNA, pumped the blue people for their most sacred knowledge in order to soften them up so the plunderers could move in. In the end he is the one who rides the red dragon and saves the day. What? None of the blue people could have figured that out? Neither his working class status or chair-bound physique made him any less the usual hero at the center of almost all the stories we get to see on screen.

And, first chance he got, our hero dumped that wounded body. I found this creepy in the extreme. We do not accept his differences after all. Not a bit. We do not feel that he is equal to those who live the 'able-bodied norm.' The alien lover says "I see you." And that was moving. But they promptly go for the body-switching ceremony anyway. That fits of course, because the story does not intend after all to interrogate the (for lack of better language) white male imperialist paradigm. Not one bit.

Another wrinkle on that moment: We pretend we can shed responsibility or history like a snake shedding its skin. This is the ultimate fantasy of those of us stuck dealing with a legacy of colonialism and genocide - that is, ALL of us. How 'fun' if we could just turn blue, join 'the natives,' and in that way, evade the pain of dealing with what our own have wrought and what we still, to this day 'benefit' from. Because, no matter who you are, as soon as you get a job in America, turn on a light, throw away some trash, or buy something, you become a 'beneficiary' of slavery and the rip-off of Native American lands and lives - whether you directly participated in that or not. It is pretty messy history and it is not over. This is not some dewy past issue, but a reality better faced honestly, wounds bared, not fantasized away. Why? Because that plundering, that destruction of lives is still happening right now while we watch Avatar.

Our stories are who we are and how we live. I don't want to live a life of denial. So I hope next time, Mr. Cameron, with his million dollar budgets, finds some way to mess with the status quo and give us something truly creative.

It is not my film, but I think our hero should have remained who he was. The battle wounds and scars and disabilities and differences we bear are not just hated overlays, they are us. It is fun to leap over trees and ride dragons - who would not want to? But why could he not enter this new reality as himself, mask, chair, crimes and all? And why not use the powerful and amazing instrument of fantasy to really imagine a new way of being - not - just dress up the same disastrous gun battle/chase scene way of dealing in pretty blue flesh - and call it a day at the movies.

Andrea Hairston said...

Thoughtful response.
I like what you add to the conversation.
It is interesting to consider what it means to be seen.
Thanks for your insights.

Eleanor said...

Well, I'll still going to see it. Though it sounds as if I'm not going to like the plot.

Nephilista said...

One more from the amen corner!

Eleanor, you should totally see it; it is visually beautiful and fun. But everything Andrea points out is true, and then some. I was particularly irked by the fact that all the signifiers of "primitive tribal people" were so EARTH-HUMAN. C'mon, they're like 10 feet tall, blue, super strong, have tails, breathe an atmosphere that's toxic to humans, ride dragons (big up, Anne McCaffrey!) and can neuro- spiritually integrate with all the flora and fauna of their world, but their communal cultural thing is drumming and chanting? Really? Seriously?? Ooh, just like in King Kong! Or the 2nd Matrix movie where they go to Zion! Or Pocahontas!

Speaking of Pocahontas and other flicks, music/tech writer Ethan Hein did a good post re: Avatar. More witnesses:

Thanks for this!

Andrea Hairston said...

Nephilista is right. See it. Definitely worth the viewing time!
The "tribal" stuff is definitely not as well thought out as the other parts of the biosphere!

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Did you notice that NPR's Morning Edition said much the same thing in their review today (Jan. 6)? They focused on how derivative the movie is, but mentioned the white boy saving the poor natives bit as well.

And I'll add my own amen to the choir.

Andrea Hairston said...

Yes, a friend told me about that and I just listened.
We've been having quite a discussion on the Carl Brandon listserve and a friend said conservatives don't like it either!
Wow! Nice that art matters.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

As I recall, conservatives didn't like Dances With Wolves and others of that ilk, either; they don't like stories that imply there was something wrong with the way Europeans took over the Americas.

I have to say, I've been hesitating about seeing Avatar, not so much for political or even taste in SF reasons as because I read an interview with James Cameron in The New Yorker and he sounded like such an insufferable bastard that I hate to make him richer. And that's despite the fact that he's made a couple of movies I really enjoyed.

Andrea Hairston said...

Despite my reservations, I think it's worth seeing, but I hear you about Cameron!

Athena Andreadis said...

Aye, indeed: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

Nancy Jane Moore said...

So I broke down and actually saw the movie. Damn. Amen, Andrea -- you nailed it.

How can people have so much creativity in creating effects and visualizing creatures and forest and so forth, and fail so completely at creating a decent story to go with it? Even if you ignore the political narrative as described by Andrea, it's still a crappy predictable story with one-dimensional villains and heroes.

And I'm sure Cameron doesn't understand this criticism. I mean, the Indians defeat the nasty white colonists -- shouldn't that be a great victory? And the story even has some great tough women? Why should it bother anyone if one of the tough women falls in love with the guy who is a fake?

I swear I'm giving up movies.

Cat Rambo said...

It was so beautiful and yet so stupid. The final scenes just made me want to weep at the sad idiocy. I'd love to see something that has a good, moving, true story done with this technology but Avatar wasn't it.