Avatar: The Slings and Arrows of Savage Romance
Avatar is the second big-budget Hollywood movie to attract the interest of RS contributors this season. The first, Roland Emmerich's 2012, interested us for obvious reasons -- RS authors have published several books and dozens of articles on the subject of the Mayan calendar end-date. (See Antonio Lopez's piece on the movie in these pages.) Similarly, our interest in Avatar stems from its treatment of themes close to our hearts, such as environmental sustainablity, inter-cultural and inter-species communication, global networks of consciousness, the rights of indigenous people, and shamanism. My present interest in the film has to do with the way it replays old narrative lines that predate the film medium itself, and the extent to which the more interesting and apparently new thematic content might be helped or hampered by the old story lines.
“Avatar” comes from the Sanskrit avatāra (a passing down, ava down + -tāra a passing over). In Hindu myth, an avatar is a god incarnate. Right now, in a theater near you, an avatar is a 1950s B-movie US Cavalry character reincarnated and, once again, sent to parlay with the hostiles.
James Cameron's Avatar is an old fashioned shoot-em-up-bang-bang that draws on the cowboys-and-injuns clichés that played over and over from Tom Mix's silent classics of the 19-teens to television's The Lone Ranger (1949-57) and throughout the entire genre of "westerns" (including Star Trek, which was originally conceived as an updated western).
Ten minutes into it, I was imagining the pitch to the studio executive who bought the concept. "It's Little Big Man meets Terminator meets Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs are the good guys, and the natives are naked, leggy, and have nice boobs (or pecs), but are not R-ratable because they're not really human, like the African babes in National Geographic!"
This last feature makes the love scene dispensable -- the lovers kiss, then we cut to morning's "now we are mated forever." I would have thought with all that blue flesh on display, some sort of interesting scuffle was in order.
Let's transpose the story back to where it came from, the tired (staggeringly-exhausted-should-have-died-with-great-grandpa) old style Hollywood western scenario where a disaffected or otherwise handicapped (white) Cavalry Guy (a Marine in this case) gets sent to parlay with the injuns (blue injuns in this case, not red injuns), is nearly killed on first encounter, is reluctantly taken on by the wise yet feisty Injun Princess (which seriously irks her warrior bf). Then guess what happens? She falls for the guy!
During their quieter moments, we hear the haunting sounds of the injun flutes that have lately become popular with honky wannabees. Guess what else happens. Our disaffected soldier turns against his evil boss (think George Armstrong Custer in an oversized Terminator suit), and becomes one of "the people," a true "warrior." Astonishingly, if not hilariously, we then get a dance routine right out of King Kong, 1933, where the witch doctor jumps around roaring ooga-booga syllables while grease-paint extras in feathers and grass tutus (dreads and loin cloths in this case) wave their arms and ooga booga in response. (By the 1940s this scene had become a comedy bit -- Cameron must have missed Bojangles Robinson making a mockery of this number in Stormy Weather, 1943.) Finally, Cavalry Guy finds his true mission in life, which is really the true mission of every movie good-guy honky -- to play Great White Savior to the benighted savages. That this is the template is, dizzyingly, at once a shock and no surprise.
The cardboard characters just keep on coming. There are the comic-book villain types, thinly drawn and clichéd to the max -- the snarling mining company executive whose only motive is stock price; the scar-faced colonel who lives to blow shit up; his mercenary crew who last appeared, I thought, as the Penguin's henchmen in TV's Batman series (1966-68); the tough-girl type -- the very cute, slightly butch helicopter pilot who defects to Cavalry Guy's cause; the dying injun chief whose last command to his daughter is to take his bow and protect the people. Then there are the objects of contention -- the precious mineral "unobtanium" (whew) that happens to occur in its richest concentrations (you guessed it) under the blue people's most sacred site.
Well, it was a tried and true formula fifty years ago, so why not? Finally comes the oldest theatrical cliché in the book, older even than Willy the Shake -- the deus ex machina. In this case, make that the dinosaurs (or dendrites) out of the machine, where in the last act, the hitherto hinted-at interconnectedness of all being on planet Pandora manifests as a planetary consciousness in defense of the environment that sends the nasty and practically invulnerable beasties that nearly killed CG early in his jungle adventure out in force against the bulldozers and bombing planes of the Penguin's (Custer's, Joker's, whatever) goons who are summarily shipped back to the planet Earth that, we are now told, they had killed before coming to work the same murderous routine on Pandora.
So the novelty here, the big draw or twist, or up-to-the-minute ideological firecracker turns out, interestingly, to pull the oldest trick in the book. Honest injun.
So much for the fun stuff, now let's be serious. The forest sequences are beautiful to look at, and the blue people are curiously attractive, which makes one reflect on the nature of the beautiful -- never a waste of time. And Sigourney Weaver is in it, so it has to be good, because we love her.
What about the message about capitalism, nature, the environment, the interconnectedness of being, etc? It's pretty clear at the start that Cameron is going to make a statement about environmental devastation and the displacement of indigenous people when the biggest dump truck in the universe rolls across the screen, its giant tires pin-cushioned with feathered arrows.
The bulk of the narrative grows out of the three-sided conflict between the mining company chief and his mercenaries, the indigenous people, and the small faction of enlightened honkies (a couple of scientists and our hero and his friends) who are forced to mediate (hopelessly) between the two major factions. This is at once old hat and true to life, when we consider that some scientists in the field have found themselves at one moment producing the knowledge that enables the exploitation of indigenous people and at the next moment organizing on natives' behalf against the exploiting corporations.
This is an important film. It has earned more than a billion dollars at the box office in two weeks, so it's reaching a lot of people. It's important in its use of new technology which, one hopes, will become cheaper and easier of access, so that Cameron's replacing the major studios' massive sets and equipment with a warehouse and a computer could foretell a new localism and renewed independence in movie production. And it is important for its message -- plants and animals do speak to us if we have ears for them. I don't think there is a thoughtful person alive today who wouldn't be able to agree with that statement one way or another, metaphorically or literally, and it's a good thing to get people who might not have thought about it doing so. And maybe the clichés are OK, maybe it's more important to stop the bulldozers first before we finally do something about our persistent habit of idealizing and infantilizing people of color, and see that our heavy machinery and our savage romance are two aspects of the same compulsion to co-opt and consume.