Monday, January 18, 2010

One more note on Avatar

...because it's especially troubling to me that it took home the Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Picture on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. New Kid on the Hallway was asking why we haven't yet got the message that it's wrong to bulldoze people's homes, and wondering why we [can't] all get behind that message by now without needing to see a lot of pretty blue people get blown up?

That's part of the issue, but I think the more significant (and equally problematic) message of the film is about what the right course of action is in a situation where territory or homeland is under attack. For all the money and artistry spent illustrating the "peaceful" race of the Na'vi, in Avatar, there's no question (in the narrative) -- the only proper response is violence. The question of the cost in lives isn't even mentioned. The hostility of the sky people forecloses any possibility of negotiation.

If there were any consideration of negotiation, or of the possibility of the Na'vi leaving their territory, the film would raise a terrible question, hearkening back to the early American treatments of native peoples, and the Trail of Tears. Faced with the possibility of violence or forced migration, which is worse?

Cameron and company suggest that forced migration is worse, leaving them no option but returning the violence. And they're able to easily justify this because of the Soul Tree, the Na'vi's most direct link with their god. I believe the line that Our Hero uses is something along the lines of "If the Soul Tree is destroyed, the Na'vi will be destroyed." And this is where I think the film really turns into a conservative masturbatory bit of fantasy: the idea that a culture or community is dependent upon, and tied to, a tangible, non-reproducible, and vulnerable physical object. I'd argue that contemporary white western civilization doesn't have anything like that. Perhaps we used to, sort of, in the form of the Ark of the Covenant (which, I know, is central to more than white western civ.) -- but we haven't now. And even the Ark was transportable. (If it existed.)

But if such a thing existed, it would be the ultimate justification for military force, at no matter what the cost, in terms of casualties. The American flag has this sort of mythic status attributed to it, but it's not quite sufficiently powerful -- after all; it's quite reproducible, and quite transportable. And if Al-Quaeda were attempting to destroy the Constitution, or the Liberty Bell; if we were fighting them based on that goal, it would be obvious how absurd the fight was.

The closest thing to a Soul Tree is the land itself upon which we live. But despite attempts to attack, no one is actually trying to take the U.S. out of American control.

But speaking of land: I keep thinking about the loveliness of Cameron's landscapes, and yet being disturbed by them. I went into Avatar expecting a stereotypical "peaceful" native culture who were "in tune" with their surroundings. That's what I got, sort of. But as I watched, it felt increasingly like the Na'vi relationship with their environment was nothing more than a fantasy created right in line with right/conservative environmental politics. Everything you kill to eat, you bless/pray over. I suppose that's marginally more conscientious than our current supermarket/packaged meat system is. But there's no particular respect/blessing accorded to animals who try to kill you, as Neytiri's treatment of the black hyena things demonstrates. And Eywa manages everything, apparently, so there's no real reason to take care in consumption and resource management -- if there were, then Eywa would provide some sort of obvious and unmistakable sign. It reminds me of nothing so much as the arguments of some fundamentalist groups that the earth was created for the sole benefit of humans, whose responsibility is to make use of it. To advocate awareness of global climate change is thus to play the false prophet, contradicting God's original directives about earth benefiting humankind.

Avatar sends the same message. "Don't worry about the land. Trust Eywa." Even connectivity is facilitated through magical/divine means, by way of that nice USB interface in the Na'vi ponytails. The only sort of "work" that the humanoids have to do to be connected with the various animals is dominate them -- whether that domination is accomplished by a bridle and bit, or by leaping on to the animals' backs.

So while I know that many people saw Avatar and were impressed by its beauty, I feel as though wherever I looked, I saw more violence.

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