Friday, January 01, 2010

Avatar-Dump

As with Star Trek, the conversation about Avatar is loud but not particularly broad. It seems to center around the divide between those who like the film unreservedly and those (like myself) who appreciate its visuals but roll their eyes at its script and underlying message (and, on the one site where I've followed such a discussion, devolved so quickly into the former accusing the latter of cynicism and snobbery that I'm not sure it's an avenue of conversation worth pursuing).  These, however, are some of the more interesting comments I've seen on the film, which try to extend the conversation beyond this debate.
  • More on the film's racism: Scott Eric Kaufman considers the film's presentation of humans and Na'vi, and concludes that its message is a variant on the "black quarterback problem":
    This is not a vision of a racially harmonious social politic: it is an inversion of the logic of passing that seems acceptable only because it imagines the experience of becoming a person of color as necessarily ennobling. The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist.
    He has some more comments here on the film's casting.  I'm not entirely in agreement with Kaufman, who I think is too quick to dismiss both the effects of the humans' presence on Pandora and the complexity of the Na'vi's society, but his conclusions are, I think, undeniable.

  • At The Valve, Aaron Bady talks about Avatar as a fantasy of a return to childhood, but notes that that childhood is not the innocent idyll that crops up in rose-tinted fantasies of childhood (usually written by adults who have forgotten their own) but "a Western fantasy of spoiled childhood: pure id."
    Where the movie goes wrong, then, is in making the sociopathic immaturity of a spoiled Western brat into the ideal form for the child-human that it wants anti-modernity to be. After all, while even your Rousseauvians understand the noble savage as a contradiction of modernity, as a cleansing bath washing away its discontents, the Na’vi only confirm Sully’s most childish presumptions of privilege: their world turns out to be nothing but toys to play with, nothing but one long summer camp fantasy of being the fastest, bestest, most awesomest ninja-Indian ever, and then a big giant womb to hide in when it all gets to be a bit much. There are no consequences there, nothing you can do to make mommy stop loving you (though Lord how he tries!). Like toys and parents to a three-year old, it is unthinkable that they say no or exist without you, and all they can ever ask is that you play with them.
  • David Hines has a memo to the corporation that serves as the film's villain.
    That's right; you are on this planet to collect an extremely valuable element that levitates when exposed to a presumably magnetic field, and your planet has great big levitating rocks in an area characterized by strong presumably magnetic fields.



    Might I suggest that if you're having so many problems with the natives, you might want to ignore their goddamn village and check out THE GIANT FUCKING FLOATING MOUNTAINS, because you can bet your ass they are chock full of unobtanium.
  • At CHUD, the website that brought us a blow-by-blow description of how Christian Bale's ego made Terminator: Salvation a much, much worse film than it needed to be, Devin Faraci has a side by side comparison of Avatar and Project 880, the script treatment James Cameron wrote not long after completing Titanic.  It not only addresses Hines's point above, but does all the things I was so dismayed to discover a James Cameron film neglecting.  Project 880 takes place in a fully conceived future world, it features development of both the main and secondary characters, and it has several kickass set-pieces.  As Faraci notes, there is no way this treatment in its entirety could have made it onto the screen, and its underlying assumptions are no less problematic than the finished product's (not to mention that Neytiri--here called Zuleika--is less prominent and less interesting in Faraci's description of the treatment than she was in Avatar), but Project 880 sounds like a film I would have enjoyed for more than its visuals.

  • Sady Doyle has the definitive response to those who argue that Avatar is a politically brave film for having an environmental, anti-corporate message.
    So, you mean to say that this particular movie – called “Dances with Wolves in Space,” subject to more Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest comparisons than any cultural artifact in recent memory save Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest itself, already noted for belonging to the benevolent racist “white guy saves and/or bangs the natives” (going Nativ’ei! GET IT) tradition of cinematic craftsmanship – actually attempts, much like many a terrible Star Wars prequel of years past, to wedge in an unnecessary, blatant, and manipulative set of parallels to the Iraq War, the American genocide of Native peoples, and some rainforest shit possibly also? Goodness! Such a feat has never been attempted until now! Or, to be more precise, such a feat has never been attempted by James Cameron, within the last month! Until now!
  • At the New York Times, Ross Douthat has a very interesting article about the Na'vi's pantheism, and more generally about the way that pantheism has become the go-to religion or religion-like-object in Hollywood films.
    At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

16 comments:

telepresence said...

I think Douthat is missing something big about pantheism or animism in Hollywood movies and TV shows. The overwhelming majority of writers, directors and producers of these media come from a monothiestic, Judeo Christian cultural background, even if they aren't themselves very religous.

It is a deeply ingrained notion that singular gods who are not God, _The_ Biblical God, are false or evil. They're computers trying to fool us, or aliens trying to fool us or demons trying to fool us or geniuses gone insane or tyrannical rulers gone insane. The idea of a singular, true, benevolent alternative god, a non-Judeo-Christian god worthy of a capital G, I would argue is simply an idea most folks, even Hollywood types, are really uncomfortable with.

Also, for a great many people questions like "What does God want from?", or "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" or "Why is God so down on things that seem fun?" or "Why does God hate my Uncle Jeremy and his roommate?" are the source of a lot of spiritual tension that it takes an entire society's worth of reinforcement to control, and many people still can't do it and fall out from dogma to some greater or lesser extent, or give up and just compartmentalize like crazy. Newbie Capital G Gods don't get any such breaks, people just jump immediately to "Why does God need a spaceship?", which makes trying to write a benevolent "true" God really tricky even if you wanted to, anything less bland than Santa Claus would risk swift rejection.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

which makes trying to write a benevolent "true" God really tricky even if you wanted to, anything less bland than Santa Claus would risk swift rejection

Surely the question isn't how you write the god, but how you write the religion? Avatar, after all, does have a god, but its nature is determined by the form of religion that Cameron has chosen, one that, as Douthat says, deemphasizes the individual and their works in favor of disappearing into nature. If the Na'vi had a more structured, more prescriptive religion, Aywa would be a very different god.

(Slightly off-point, but I'd cite Deep Space Nine as an example of a Hollywood product that imagines a believable alien religion far more complex and prescriptive than pantheism.)

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I do agree with Hines's point about the Corporation being needlessly evil. Ribisi himself says that under the tree is the biggest deposit of unobtanium in 200 kilometers. Really, Evil Ribisi? 200 whole kilometers? On the whole planet? And there isn't an equally large, or at least decently sizable one that doesn't have people living on it? It does seem like his whole game plan is more about being dicks to the Na'vi than actually getting unobtanium.

communicator said...

Of course Douthat doesn't like pantheism - he's a religious authoritarian: his personality depends on fending off the numinous.

(PS I like the new comment-ID feature)

Foxessa said...

Not to defend Cameron's shallow plotting and character creation, but it is importantt to recall that there is a persistant and abiding spiritual experience of trancendence via the expansion of the spirit provoked by the grandeur of our continent's wild places. It has been a strand of the USian experience and character from the beginning -- as well as a part of the national European characters of particularly the UK, Germany and the eastern regions, as in Poland.

John Muir, of Scotts heritage, was the great 18th c pionering conservationist and nature of writer of California. The later John Muir, born and raised in the Orkneys was another.

They are representative of a persistant cultural idenity in this nation, a folkway, if you will, as David Hackett Fischer researched it in his Abion's Seed.

I describe the people of that regional migration from Scotland's Highlands and Englands northern border states like this:

"Along with the ability to work hard and survive extreme hardship, with loyalty to family and country, and deep love of music and poetry, this American irrationality is part of a persistent regional identity. That identity traveled to Appalachia and the southern Atlantic backcountry from Scotland's Highlands and the English northern Borderlands, a beautiful region of harsh climate, isolated, self-sufficient clans, and scant natural resources. There was little educational opportunity and less work, which made for deep generational poverty, while the brutalities of invasion, conquest and oppression imposed centuries' long instablilty."

Daniel Boone was of that folkway. His ecstasy from being alone in that Cumberland wilderness mountains and forests are part of our classic frontier experience. Lord Byron wrote verses about Boone in the wilderness, even.

Also people who are characterizing Dances With Wolves as white man saves the Indians are not remembering the movie or the character correcty. He did not culturally appropriate. He was running from the horrors of so-called civilization's Civil War to the isolated sanity of the prairies. This is not cultural appropriation -- as even the Souix who joyfully helped get this film made, who to this day -- along with many other native peoples, regard Michael Blake an excellent friend.

There is cultural appropriation and fantasies of being the great white savior of primitive peoples, and then there is this other thing, which is an authentic spiritual path and experience.

Of course though, sadly, that is not what Avatar is.

Hollywood power people really should know more history, then they wouldn't do these stupid things.

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alison:

I don't know much about Douthat except that he's a conservative, though the essay I quote here was obviously written from a Christian perspective. I do agree with him, though, that there's something unpleasantly wishy-washy about trying to rid religion of morality and prescriptivism, and that the end goal of pantheism - the disappearance of the self in nature - is not a particularly interesting form of spirituality.

Foxessa:

Interesting point, thank you. If the CHUD article is to be relied upon, the original concept for Avatar incorporated the element you describe here, of the white character's need to escape from the horrors of his civilization (in Cameron's case, from environmental collapse and overpopulation). But as it stands, there's very little sense in Avatar of either the main character escaping a palpable evil (except, of course, his paralysis) or, more importantly, of life in the wilderness involving "harsh climate, isolated, self-sufficient clans, and scant natural resources." Rather, the life the protagonist escapes to is, as Aaron Bady puts, one long summer camp.

Matt Hilliard said...

It's funny that Hollywood associates pantheism with primitive cultures. The reason pantheism is widely palatable is because it is what modern people want in religion: no restrictions on behavior, just make life seem meaningful when necessary, and otherwise stay the hell out of our lives.

Yet before modern times, religion was for people who desperately wanted something to control their lives. Sacrificing to the gods, praying to your ancestors, donating to the monks, you seized on anything that might allow more children to survive to adulthood, less women to die in childbirth, and fewer men to die in war.

Of course, do the Na'vi have any of those problems? I suppose not. Hollywood always portrays "primitive" cultures as being blessedly free of the downsides of modernity but mysteriously already in possession of almost all the advantages.

communicator said...

abigail we just won't ever agree on religion. I suppose I feel that religion should not have any moral prescription at all: morality should be humanist, and religion should keep right out of it. On the other hand solace should have no moral conditions attached at all. But now having put that in words, I do know it's better not to argue about it. Strangely, opposed as our beliefs are, I'm pretty sure I'd feel just the same about Avatar as you do.

telepresence said...

Abigail, I guess I'm not communicating my point very clearly. All I'm saying is that I suspect most Hollywood writers write gods and religion the way they do, because audiences are conditioned by our society to see most expressions of religious expression outside of bland, soft feel-good nature hugging as cultish and evil.

Of curse, I don't see Eywa in Avatar as a true god in the supernatural sense anyway, I see it as a fairly sci-fi standard alien intelligence (distributed neural network) that a primitve people mistake for a god.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alison:

I should say that I have no problem with the rejection of religious-based morality in general or that of a particular religion or stream (as a reform Jew I'd be in serious trouble if I did). But I think Matt has got a pretty good handle on pantheism in his comment above - it's not rejecting religious-based morality in favor of a humanist one; it's rejecting religious-based morality in favor of a creed designed to make people feel good about themselves without making any demands on their life.

Telepresence:

audiences are conditioned by our society to see most expressions of religious expression outside of bland, soft feel-good nature hugging as cultish and evil

I'm pretty far outside of American society so I'll have to take your word for that, but wouldn't it be possible to replace 'society' in that sentence with 'Hollywood'?

Simen said...

There are many pantheisms and I doubt all of them are simplistic feel-good creeds. Nor do I agree that pantheism is necessarily an uninteresting sort of spirituality, but I recognize that interest is a personal matter. And I'm not a particularly spiritual person, of one variety or the other. Can't comment on this particular fantasy religion as I haven't seen Avatar yet.

I agree with telepresence's first comment: I have a feeling that society (as defined by my own limited experience, at least) tells us that worshipping more than one god, or something other than the one god, is suspect. If it's not the Christian god you're worshipping, at the very least it should be a singular god, not space aliens or multiple gods or nature-as-god. Personally, I think all of them are equally ridiculous, but I guess that discussion won't lead anywhere productive.

Matt Hilliard said...

We're not talking about versions of pantheism that people actually believe in, we're talking about Hollywood, and I think it's basically correct to say Hollywood only depicts one kind of pantheism, the simplistic feel-good variety. Although the audiences respond well to it, that doesn't mean they actually consciously believe it.

Simen said...

So when you wrote "The reason pantheism is widely palatable is because it is what modern people want in religion..." I take it you meant only "Hollywood pantheism"?

Foxessa said...

Hollywood's dogma includes Joseph Campbell as the alpha and omega of mythology, heroism and archtype, as well as McKee as same for story-telling narrative. This latter probably because McKee introduced the very word 'narrative' into Hollywood consciousness. I say this because friends I have who are video and film makers and always have been hailed the advent of McKee as a second coming and after taking his stupid class came to me and asked, "Do you know anything about this thing called narrative? You know I never understood why you were interested in story and plot before." I am not making this up.

But really, no one could expect Hollywood, per se, to have any complex concept of spirituality of any kind when one examines the history of Hollywood's portrayal of women in film, and particularly women's sexuality. Particularly now when women only come in the age group of 12 - 19. Cameron's no more immune to this than Joss Whedon.

Love, C.

Matt Hilliard said...

Simen, yes, I should have said Hollywood pantheism. The original Douthat article argued that most Americans, nominal but unenthusiastic Christians, are sympathetic to pantheistic themes. The article went on to treat this as a religious issue but I see it as a cultural issue. These are not people who would actually agree to flatly stated pantheism. Rather, today's culture distrusts modernity and idealizes premodern conditions, hence a sort of wistful glorification of nature. You can see just how tepid American pro-nature values are whenever environmental legislation comes up that would actually require sacrifice, behavioral change, etc.

Joseph Campbell, McKee, etc. are just people that Hollywood latch on to in a desperate attempt at providing some predictability to a subjective product. I am sympathetic to their problems there. They are spending vast sums up front without being able to predict whether the result will be any good. By sticking to "safe" formulas they improve their chances of making a movie that's not awful. Compare to novels: the best novels don't follow Hollywood forumlas and would be far worse if they did, but most of the rest (the majority?) would be improved if they adhered more closely. At least most Hollywood blockbusters have proper endings.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think of a comment about the Peter Jackson film of LOTR, made in a book whose name and author escape me. He (I think) argued that films tend towards stereotypes because so many people are involved in their production. These people all need to have the same idea about what effects they are working together to achieve. Any given film is therefore limited to playing variations on existing widely-understood tropes eg Disney films, amoral oversexed female villainesses etc.

The bigger the film, the bigger the number of people involved, and the bigger the problem.

He thought that LOTR mostly escaped this problem, simply because so many of the people involved had already read the book.

Obviously, Avatar would not have had this escape route open to it.

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