Friday, January 01, 2010

More on Avatar

  1. I found myself thinking at one point that the make-up was fantastic. It takes some pretty impressive effects work to make you forget that it's computer-generated.
  2. I hated the story, for so many reasons. It's incredibly generic, as far as the mechanical details are concerned. There's the grizzled war-veteran lead-baddie, who is obsessed with killing stuff for no clear reason; the amoral CEO who explicitly notes that he's answerable to the shareholders, not his conscience; the angry young prince who needs to learn that his rage will destroy him; the romantic interest who is at one with nature and must nurture the lead; the main character who is damaged and needs someone to help him put it all back together, but has to find that help in the wrong places before finding it in the right one. And the actors are serviceable - Col. Quaritch is fantastically camp as the villain, though I'm not sure that this should qualify as a 'good' thing, necessarily.
  3. The two most popular ways to interpret the film are as environmentalist fable (this seems to be how Cameron is pushing it and what most mainstream critics privilege) or a neocolonial narrative, those who seize on the former often doing so to the exclusion, implicitly or explicitly, of the latter. But it's not necessary to separate them out like this - ostensibly primitive people have always been associated with nature and their comparative lack of technology with environmentalism, even if the associations don't hold upon closer examination. But the point is that the two themes have been so entirely conflated that one always implies the other.
  4. The fact that whole groups of people can be given a symbolic weight that doesn't necessarily coincide with their lived reality is not a new argument, but it's one worth reiterating here. Jan Pieterse's collection of European images of black people over the past 500+ years is particularly good at illustrating how the representation of alien people says more about "us" than it does about "them". He traces how representational strategies of Africa, to focus on a tiny section of the larger book, change dramatically to reflect tensions at home - the 'noble savage' was popular among reformists who wanted to critique their peers indirectly, while the ignoble or devilish savage gained currency in advance of and during periods of imperial expansion. But accurate or not, those representations are read as truthful in some sense, and romanticizing the noble savage is just as problematic as demonizing them.
  5. Which strikes some people as counter-intuitive, I know. The 'good' stereotype is preferable to the 'bad' one, right? Not so much. Among people who think they know better, the bad stereotype at least has the advantage of being obviously false. But the romantic noble savage, of which the Na'vi in Avatar are a perfect example, is not so obviously fake. Worse, in reality the people who are idealized as noble savages tend to be punished for failing to live up to these impossible expectations. Again, Pieterse notes how the transformation in representations of Africa was also due to the disappointment of the Europeans who failed to find the characters they expected, and so came to assume that the people they did encounter had fallen from a prior grace like Biblical devils.
  6. I should also add how annoying it is that these native vs. conqueror stories always feature a parallel romantic story. It ends up making it unclear whether the hero has actually came to sympathize/empathize with the natives or whether that's only a secondary result of having fallen in love with the female lead. And it only contributes to the whole romanticization/exoticization of the natives on the whole - they would be less sympathetic if they weren't also worth lusting after. (And this is another way to think about how their depiction reflects us rather than some other, how they exist for us as viewers looking to be entertained rather than for oppressed peoples striving for liberation.)
  7. On Facebook, someone asked me whether the native vs. conqueror narrative could have a happy ending and not be problematic. I suspect that it can, though nothing that I've seen comes to mind. A poetry professor during my undergrad once said that he hated how the Toronto Transit Commission placed poems on the subway, suggesting that they weren't invitations to read poetry but, rather, were inoculations against poetry. I have the same feeling about the happy ending in these sorts of movies. Rather than motivate people to action, they console us - rather than encouraging white people to confront their guilt, they forgive it. Avatar is especially egregious insofar as it goes a step further and tries to erase race altogether - unlike the male leads in Pocahontas or The Last Samurai, Jake is literally transformed into one of Na'vi. Similarly, while the return of the Europeans and the industrialization of Japan hang over the endings of those other films like a dark cloud, there's no suggestion that the humans will come back with more soldiers and bigger guns to start what they've finished. Because massive corporations are known for having a conscience, no doubt, and people who fancy themselves civilized have always backed down when the indigenous populationthreatens to revolt. Right. You have a problem when even Pocahontas could be said to be more politically progressive.


Jason said...

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Ahem. Just kidding.

Another thing that annoyed me about "Avatar" was this very notion that an alien culture has to connected to a non-white indigenous culture of some kind. I realize that it's because of the bone-headed allegory Cameron wanted to make, but it's yet another way that he establishes these cultures as "other." And then the earthlings -- who are almost uniformly white, except for Michelle Rodriguez (and I think maybe there's a black extra at one point) -- show up and are like, "Whoah, this culture is so weird and different and exotic."

It's boggling to me that in 2009 people are still making movies that so blithely and sanguinely align "white" with "human" and "non-white" with "other." Maybe that's just my naivety. (Or is that "na'vi-tay"?)

neilshyminsky said...

It shows a profound lack of imagination, certainly. Alien cultures have only ever resembled Enlightenment Western Europe on Star Trek, near as I can tell. (And even then, only rarely.)

Also, I came *this close* to deleting your post on sight - when I went to the review screen, only the first line popped up. The spam I get can be so absurd that I almost didn't notice it was a joke. :)

neilshyminsky said...

And also, on the Michelle Rodriguez thing - unsurprisingly, she switches sides and joins the Na'vi. Which is pretty easy to read as 'she was never one of us anyway'. So...

Jason said...

I figured that opening joke was a danger, but I decided to go for it. I live on the edge!

The Michell Rodriguez character, I must admit, annoyed less for the potential problems of her being the only non-white character amongst the "human" contingent and more for the atrocious (even by the movie's overall standard) dialogue.

"You're not the only one with guns, bitch." I just hated that we the audience were meant to be cheering at her bad-ass lines, when the reality was that they were cringe-inducing.

Christian said...

Open question in regards to the White Guilt issue:

How do you differentiate between the underlying racism of "whites becoming great leaders of non-white cultures" and general storytelling cliché, where your protagonist usually has to matter and become a leader? It's been bothering me with films like Avatar and District 9 as of late.

neilshyminsky said...

I don't think that you would necessarily need to differentiate - there's a moral judgment implicit (or not so implicit) in any story where the protagonist rises from obscurity to become a leader. I can't think of one where the protagonist is not, at first, outside of the culture in some sense, and where his ascent does not also provide some commentary on the stagnation/futility/immorality/malevolence of his society - the one that he comes from as well as the one that he leads - if simply because only in a profoundly wrong society could its natural leader have started at the bottom run of the ladder. (And i'm using a masculine pronoun because i'm also struggling to remember examples with a female protagonist.) So I think that the 'white becomes great leader of non-white culture' is a particular sub-genre within an older tradition that includes other sub-genres like 'poor boy becomes great leader of corrupted culture of excess' or 'pious guy becomes great leader of morally suspect culture', or even 'noble guy becomes great leader of misguided peasants and scoundrels'.

I would also add that while the Na'vi stand out insofar as they're obviously the good guys where any examples of 'corrupted culture of excess' or 'morally suspect culture' are likely the bad guys, there tends to be at least one bit of common ground - these culture are always poised on the precipice of extinction, or at the very least stagnant and unchanging. This is why they need a liberal leader and a narrative of progress to come and sweep them up - they need to be saved from themselves (their inaction, their gradual decline) as much as they need to be saved from the enemy. It's benevolent assimilation.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the larger category of this particular cliché always has that kind of political potential buried within it - the 'white guy becomes leader...' trope is just one particular take on it.

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James said...

re #6: Note that she unbraids her surprisingly silky, Caucasian hair for the make-out scene. JakeSooly* doesn't want to go too native, after all! Which, I could be way off-base, but I think the idea of braids is that they make very coarse hair easier to keep clean? They seem redundant for the Na'vi, who look Pantene'd up to the max. Also: useful that a Na'vi/Hu-Manclone grows a plaited pony-tail right in the tank, there. Must have something to do with that brain-tail/nerve-ending jobbie, which: holy evolution, Batman! What the hell happens if you cut that thing off? (As you can see, I was as much bothered by the lazy/illogical design as I was by the sociopolitical clusterfuck. Hello, boring 1:1 Earth-animal analogues!)

*How did they come up with that particular mispronunciation without seeing his name written? Those whacky Aborigines!

The main things I wanted to say, though: I couldn't help but get some perverse pleasure out of a movie that sees a mainstream American audience cheering the pornographic destruction of contemporary American armed forces. Which is slightly undercut when our heroic white oppressor/liberator's victory hinges on him having the biggest dragon-fucking dick in town. That said dragon-fucking happens off-camera is its own story-telling catastrophe - I swear there is no way there was more than one draft of this thing.

cease ill said...

I guess for me the movie put me back in touch with my past, how people with respect for nature and spirituality were my friends and how I look for the nurture of that culture again today in a strange city. But criticism is in fact the only way to possibly pass along the flaws in storytelling and make them right at a future date---so more power to ya!