I guess now is as good a time as ever to do what many bloggers have been doing over the past few months and throw in my thoughts on the crazy phenomenon of a multi bazillion dollar movie known as Avatar. I wasn't initially planning on writing anything about it, but it seems like people get in such a fuss over this stuff and get all Roger Ebert about shit, so I suppose I'm writing just to vent my frustrations about the fact that I don't think it's really that shitty. I don't really understand what pisses people off about this movie, but I imagine a lot of it has to do with anticipation or hype or whatever, which is something I was completely not privy to at all going into the theater (I didn't even see a goddamn billboard anywhere, so I don't know where people were getting the hype thing from). So anyway, here are my impressions after seeing the movie twice and hearing what people had to say about it.
First off, of course it's visually brilliant and technically revolutionary and those are great reasons to like the movie... that's pretty much a given. I don't really feel the need to talk about that because it's been talked about elsewhere and much more eloquently than I could ever try. What I don't understand, and what I'd like to share my thoughts on, is the backlash this movie has been getting for not having a 'complex' enough storyline. This seems sort of off base to me, as it's pretty clear that James Cameron is going for something more akin to Joseph Campbell's monomyth than a really nuanced, character-driven story. Like all variants of the monomyth, it puts together the fundamental building blocks of a story in a specific way that says something about us as a culture at this given point in history. This particular manifestation of the myth provides us with an opportunity to assess something fundamentally messed up about ourselves and our way of life: the current trajectory of our civilization is unsustainable and it hinges on the exploitation and virtual eradication of subaltern populations in order to continue. It's an incredibly simple, universally understandable explanation of why corporate imperialism is bullshit, and it doesn't aim to be much more than that plot-wise.
Yes, there's an obvious irony that this was produced by 20th Century Fox, a subsidiary of one of the corporations most responsible for propagating the very same bullshit that the film overtly rallies against, but chances are that Rupert Murdoch and the Fox team couldn't care less about this irony, seeing as it's made them money and that's pretty much what they were in it for. For all I know, that's what James Cameron was in it for too... but one thing I do know is that we as an audience can understand this film as more than a marketable product and actually start to look at where it connects with what's going on in the world. If people are complaining that the film is too preachy, then lets do the simple task of actually backing up the preaching with history.
As the rights of indigenous peoples are being continually violated for corporate gain, there develops a fundamental necessity to create some kind of dialogue in the mainstream about the injustices our culture is responsible for. There is no better medium for this dialogue than film, as it is the art form for the masses. As the imagined J. Edgar Hoover said in the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic said, "I have to wonder if you people realize the level of responsibility you carry. From my way of thinking, Motion Pictures are potentially the most influential form of communication ever invented. And there's no control over it. Your message reaches everyone, everywhere." So what films have been made thus far that carry this message? I've heard a lot of people comparing this movie to the ever-so-lovable 90's animation, Fern Gully. So one of the most significant causes of the past 100 years gets to be championed by 90's faeries voiced by Christian Slater? As far as I see it, Avatar is basically filling the void of having a cultural reference point that can be taken more seriously and seen by way more people than Fern Gully while still remaining in that same realm of simple communication that people (families, kids, people who aren't self-made internet film critics) can understand.
Sure, the plot and dialogue are nothing original and the message is delivered in a completely blatant way, but I guess my point is that the message wasn't delivered in a way that doesn't ring true to people who actually concern themselves with this kinda shit in real life. The fact that 10 languages die each year, and with them an entire culture's worth of stories, customs, and subtleties is one of the greatest unsung tragedies of our time. Beyond that, there are even more perceptible manifestations of environmental racism being faced by the indigenous peoples of Peru, the Ogoni people of Nigeria, Puerto Ricans on the Island of Vieques, and Native Americans living on reservations in the United States (all of which can be discovered through a nice and easy google search). So while also being an entertaining film, Avatar is also an opportunity to bring a lot of these issues to light. This blog has already done a much better job at that than I could, and anyone who can read Spanish should definitely check it out, because it's worth your time.
The fact that someone had to make a film with an invented culture of imaginary blue people and throw in a white "everyman" into the mix just to draw attention to the continuous threat of ethnocide is sort of depressing in its own right, but this wasn't the first time and it definitely won't be the last time that a sci-fi/fantasy story has established that sort of narrative structure to develop interest in what's going on in our current reality. They just did it a few months prior to Avatar with District 9 and nobody seemed to have any complaints. Or maybe American's want their political critiques to be so understated or layered that average consumers don't understand it or care about it. When I think about more complex stories that address the same kind of exploitation addressed in Avatar, I'm reminded of films like Fernando Meirelles' artful but somewhat hard to follow adaptation of John Le Carre's "The Constant Gardener", which ended up getting viewed by a marginal audience, and out of those who did see it, many were left feeling confused and ultimately sort of disinterested. Is the intricate arthouse film the only artistic paradigm that progressive ideas need to be confined to, even in such a widely varied medium? I dunno.
What I personally think is that stripping the story down to address the basic premise of what is wrong with globalization (displacing indigenous populations,
shooting people out of helicopters, etc) and taking these ideas to an unspeakably huge audience is pretty much one of the steps that needs to be made to start moving shit in the right direction, even if it doesn't capture all of the subtleties of the human condition. If it is to be understood universally, then make it simple. I hate to mention Charlie Chaplin again, but isn't that pretty much how he did things? "Modern Times" didn't wow us with its character depth, it just laid out some shit that was goin down for an audience that it could mean something to.
I dunno... maybe I'm just losing my cool leftie points, and it's only a matter of time before I'll be kicked out of the league of academic progressives. Given my current chances of getting accepted into a decent college, I'd say it's a definite likelihood.