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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Avatar: Jumping On The Bandwagon Of Cultural Criticism

Avatar: Benevolent Violence

PSA: Arthur is writing.

I don't go for doing movie reviews - outside my interest (though I love movies beyond what is decent, and read reviews incessantly) and frankly I probably don't have the chops. That said - Avatar has provoked quite a bit of white-guilt navel gazing. As well it should, by my lights.

On Avatar, the inimitable (well, if one had an ounce of morality, one could conceivably get close) Arthur Silber (edited to get to my point and, need I say, go read the whole thing... and his other work, dammit!):
Just look at the critical story elements. In his Na'vi body, the (white, straight) injured Marine falls in love with a Na'vi woman. This opens his eyes to the beauty and value of the Na'vi, and he learns to appreciate and love their world on Pandora... We learn that only five -- five! -- Na'vi men (only men, please note) had become Great Leaders, symbolized by their bonding with the Big Scary Bird in the Sky. So, of course, when the Na'vi desperately need a Great Leader to end the Time of Great Sorrow... our Noble White Man figures out how to bond with one of those Big Scary Birds. ...and whammo! He's the Great Leader they need to survive! See, none of the Na'vi men could have done that. (The Na'vi women aren't even eligible, so forget that.)...

And none of it would have happened without the Noble White Man.
Now, I saw the movie after hearing of this (entirely correct) meme from other sources, so I was on guard for a totally spoiled experience.

It wasn't spoiled, for two reasons. The primary one, I think, is that I'm still in touch with my inner reptilian response system. I disregard it in real-world, face-to-face with the Other situations, but I still tear up at Disney tropisms that are blatantly offensive and paternalistic, as they unfold. I am ex post facto in judgment of myself for this fact every time, but I still get all sentimental when I see these fantastical sentimental things. Such it was for Avatar.

The second reason is that my temperament causes me to focus on the salvation, redemption, education, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it of the Noble White Man protagonist. Such a bon-bon! Such a sweet! I can insert myself into the story and emerge from my dumbass cocoon as an ecologically conscious Herculean butterfly!

OK, I guess the second reason is pretty much tied up with the first.

Bottom line - Arthur is right, as he frequently (haha, pretty much infallibly) is. After all - what is the worth of the redemption of the oppressor, if it is not at least accompanied by the cessation of the oppression?

One more thing, (Arthur, again):
Finally, a word about technology and realism. The testimony of history establishes that, if a people or nation with more advanced technology is sufficiently murderous and determined, it will destroy another people or nation whose land or resources the more technologically advanced force covets. In that respect, the victory of the Na'vi may be a pleasant fantasy, but that's all it is: a fantasy. See the fate of the Native Americans, or the fate of the Philippines, or the fate of a number of nations the U.S. has placed in its targets (to say nothing of the numerous conquests by other countries and peoples throughout history).
I laughed when I read this, because the first thing that occurred to my cynical ass, when the movie ended, with the bad guys being escorted off the planet, was that this thing was crying out for the obvious sequel: When the greedheads come back with nukes.

But, more importantly, I'm going to pile on with a couple of more closing criticisms.

One - the movie reinforced the idea that a few charismatic people direct the fate of the masses. That was ugly for me.

Two - does anyone else find it offensive, that the solution to this ostensibly pastoral community is the mastery of superior violence? Again, wait for the fucking sequel, if there is any honesty in this world, or in Cameron.

Oh, and Arthur - skip Dancing With Wolves. It is as facile, if not moreso, and will only make you angry.


  1. Your Favorite BartenderApril 26, 2010 at 8:53 AM

    (First of several!)

    Well now you went and stepped in it Petro.

    As a avowed film geek, this might not be baseball, but it’s damn close.

    Avatar is, simply, an astonishing achievement. Visually remarkable (and even more so in 3D…it’s the first non-animated film to actually use the technology well that isn’t a slasher flick), it can not be watched without at least a little bit of “Wow!” unless, and this is where Mr. Silber seems to be coming from, you’ve started hoping to hate everything about this money-grubbing-actors-are-pawns-I-hate-James Cameron-and-his-massive-ego flick.

    Now I can understand that feeling. I’d imagine a true film geek would have the most incredible, and frustrating, evening if he or she were permitted dinner and conversation with Mr. Cameron. He’s brilliant, a true innovator, and not only does he know it, but he knows that you know it, so he acts the role. It was the most expensive film to produce in history, and certainly in a political-ish blog such as this one it’s easy to throw around the “how many of the world’s ills could we have solved if Cameron had thrown that $400 million into something worthwhile.” Finally, if you want to look at Avatar as some sort of political statement, it really does fall far closer to the “white man saves natives” ilk than the supposed “environmental” leanings it’s writer/director and his minions tried to sell the public.

    Truth is though it’s NOT that “green is good” film, and it’s NOT a “white man saves all” film anymore than Pretty Woman (for one example) is a “rich man saves hooker” film or a “being a hooker is a good way to meet Richard Gere” film. This is a big budget action flick! This is, as my mother used to refer to them, a BDAP (Big Dumb Action Picture). Stop looking for cultural meaning! You know why it’s the highest grossing action movie ever? Because it looked WAY cool, it had an incredible marketing campaign, it used 3D as it had never been used before (this is probably the most important factor in it becoming the highest grossing film, because the significantly higher ticket prices in 3D meant that most people “paid” for the film three times, once to see it in 2D, then when they loved it and went back they paid almost double for a 3D ticket), and because it was James Freaking Cameron. You gotta admit, the guy has a pretty decent track record for making highly entertaining films.


  2. Your Favorite BartenderApril 26, 2010 at 8:54 AM


    Let’s go back and look at what Mr. Cameron has done, both to support the previous point and to set up my next one:

    Terminator 2: Judgement Day
    True Lies
    Oh…yeah…and Titanic

    Collectively these films actually have several things in common.
    1) With the exception of the first Terminator they were highly profitable films (and Terminator has made roughly a gazillon dollars on video/DVD/Blu-Ray).
    2) These films feature cutting edge special effects
    3) And here’s the one that should slap Mr. Silber upside the head, and truly makes me believe he hated Avatar because he WANTED to hate Avatar. These films ALL feature STRONG female characters who are willing to lead groups of (generally) weaker or less intelligent men.
    Now, maybe there are varying levels of success on #3 (the first two points are indisputable). Jaime Lee Curtis is not exactly doing a Gloria Steinam impression in True Lies and there is no doubt that Mr. Cameron’s idea of a “strong woman” is, in fact, a literally strong woman. Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver, Jaime Lee Curtis are all pretty beefcake (though Hamilton comes close, none of them actually reach Angela Basset in What’s Love Got to Do With It levels, but all of them certainly would fair better in tests of physical prowess than most of the beer drinking, football watching slobs in America).
    An interesting case is Kate Winslet in Titanic. Though not the typical “buff” Cameron female lead, you can make a pretty strong argument that “for the time period” she’s a strong female character…sure she’s got to be saved by arguably the most effeminate male lead in existence (Love Ya Leo!) and is running from a cartoon character of a “bad guy” (Billy Zane + bald head = two dimensional) but hey, she’s certainly as empowered as the women in the Merchant Ivory films of the 90s that are so regularly celebrated for their female roles.
    The point it, he’s trying. He clearly likes strong women (he’s been married to both Linda Hamilton and director Katheryn Bigelow, who would easily beat the crap out of me in a dark alley), and he tries to bring them to the screen.
    I say all this in direct response to Mr. Silber’s sniping about how none of the female Na’vi could have been a leader. No, in that culture in which plant life is treated as deity they only elect male leaders. What a HORRIBLE thing to write in a script! he says…seriously? Please, the “Na’vi” are presented as a somewhat sheltered culture, and Neytiri is clearly a pretty independent woman…seeing as how she defies the presumed leader, and her parents when she starts palling around with the white guy!


  3. Your Favorite BartenderApril 26, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    Almost done…of course you’re right, of course there will be a sequel, it will focus on the Oceans of Pandora…Cameron has already announced he’s working on it. But one quick word on the “greedheads” theory…and it also dovetails nicely for my defense of Cameron’s “politics.”

    It has been WIDELY reported that Cameron’s idea for Avatar started when he was 12 years old. Obviously he’s been working on it since, but the basic idea for the story, and the characters, and most importantly the Na’vi, came to him at 10. So this has been a labor of love for a guy with an incredible imagination since he was a child. I can guarantee a couple things…1) 10-year-old James Cameron didn’t care a lick about social politics 2) 10-year-old James Cameron ALREADY KNEW he dug strong chicks…

    Finally: In response to your closing points. “the movie reinforced the idea that a few charismatic people direct the fate of the masses.” What’s the problem here? Of course they do, they always have. One of the reasons I read you, that I noticed you amongst the thousands, is that you are charismatic…this is the case for both the “good” (I dunno…Obama?) and the “evil” (Palin/Rush/Beck/Coulter) and the reason why pretenders to that throne (Steven Baldwin) just go away…

    Watch the film again before launching on the second point about “mastery of superior violence.” The Na’vi are not a peace loving culture in the first place. They certainly understand and commune with nature far better than us humans, but they are fully ready to kick ass long before the humans attack them. The “solution” they found wasn’t “superior violence,” it was a superior plan. This is like saying the Republicans are kicking the Democrats asses by using politics…both sides do it, one side simply does it better…


  4. You really *are* a simple creature, aren't you? (Sorry, this is a movie thread, and you must know where that line comes from - clumsily used twice in the same film...?)

    As I pointed out in the post, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. But I am also self-aware, so I am very cognizant of the primitive nature of the thought systems that are reacting to the manipulations of image, music, cultural themes, etc.

    Hell, I love Independence Day, but I still can't help but wince at this exchange:

    "It's the Yanks!"

    "It's about bloody time! What do they want to do?"

    ...whereas the right-wingers would be pulling out a tissue at this point... and not to dab at tears.

    So - I salute Cameron's work, and I enjoy it, but he doesn't get off the hook of cultural criticism when he plumbs so many cultural archetypes in the crafting of his tales.

    Did you click through this very funny link that Silbur provided?


  5. Your Favorite BartenderApril 27, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    Yes, I did click through the link, and yes, it's very funny. It’s also beside the point, as Mr. Silber himself admits, everybody steals from everybody. There, quite literally, isn’t a story that hasn’t been told before. It’s about the execution of the story, and Avatar executes its story (and it mimics Dances With Wolves FAR more than Pocahontas) about as flawlessly as any film produced in the past year.

    Here's my issue with the sort of criticism (aside from the jacking of the basic story from other films) Mr. Silber (and it appears you) are giving to Avatar. On its face it's justified, it's on point, it works. Unfortunately it's also lazy.

    When critics attack a film like Avatar they can attack clunky dialog, they can attack poor editing, poor cinematography, they can even attack the way a story was presented, but to attack either A) the fact that the story is recycled or B) (even worse) the "politics" in a film, it's like complaining about a politician because they have blue eyes. There's no correlation between the success of a film (and I'm defining "success" here as "the film is entertaining") and its politics. One of the great films in history is "Birth of a Nation." It's studied in film schools, it is critically praised almost universally, and it's essentially a piece of KKK propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda films are brilliant, almost universally praised, and they are NAZI PROPAGANDA! Why are those films considered brilliant where as the "politics" of Avatar (or Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Red Dawn, etc) detrimental?

    It's about what you expect from a film. You don't walk into Independence Day expecting high minded political discourse, just as you don't walk into a Michael Moore film expecting explosions and special effects. Avatar has a "green" bent, and it's certainly not the film I'd put out there as my poster child if I were a leader in the environmental movement. It also has a decidedly militaristic element, but I'm willing to bet my bottom dollar the Armed Forces are trying to get Cameron to let them use it in recruiting ads. Nor are leaders in the Native American community chalking this one up as a "win" and who gives a fuck?


  6. Your Favorite BartenderApril 27, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    This movie is not for any particular political or social movement, it's FOR THE ENTERTAINMENT OF THE MASSES. At the beginning of your piece you mentioned that you were "not qualified" to be a movie critic. That may be true if I was asking you to review the latest French New Wave jumble, but in my humble opinion you are PERFECTLY qualified to review Avatar, because you are its target audience, which is to say that you're a human being with the means to purchase a ticket (or rent a DVD). That's Cameron's audience, persons that are alive.

    Now what I will say is utterly insane is when a "movie critic" decides he or she is qualified to opine on the political or social relevance of a film on a grand scale. THAT is pathetic. It is EXACTLY the same thing as when Tipper Gore decided that N.W.A. and Ice-T were producing music that was bad for the world, or when McCarthy and his ilk were banning books. These are people who have no training, no knowledge, of the subject matter (music, books) they are critiquing. Can't a movie JUST be a movie? Can't Naked Lunch just be a fever dream spawned by withdrawal? Can't Straight Outta Compton JUST be a collection of songs based on things the artists saw/experienced?

    I (and everybody involved in the making of Avatar) could have called this backlash from the beginning. It’s the highest grossing movie of all time, and any time you are the biggest, there’s going to be backlash. There’s going to be people desperately looking for something to tear down that BIG THING. Personally, I look at movies differently, I want them to be good, I want my hard earned cash to go to something worth while. Maybe’s that’s just me…

  7. Sir,

    You are having an argument with yourself. I have ceded that I enjoyed the film as a film, and I am certainly not trying to tear it down.

    I still think that these things can be used as springboards for discussion in what they reveal about ourselves.

    I can walk and chew gum at the same time.

  8. Your Favorite BartenderApril 27, 2010 at 2:54 PM

    Well first of all, some of my most interesting discussions have been with myself, but more importantly, is it valid to tear down a film for it not being...I dunno...let's use the word "aware" of its own politics?

    Isn't this like being angry at Saving Private Ryan because it wasn't romantic enough?

  9. Well, my friend, I doubt if Cameron et. al. are that thick. I'm sure they're aware.

    But if they weren't, that would be even more of a reason to articulate it for them!

    New post upstairs.


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.