Bambi fights back
Kvond has a beautifully written post on James Cameron’s latest, Avatar: The Density of Being (you can tell he’s been reading Brian Massumi), to which I can only add my own quick thoughts after seeing the film this weekend.
1) New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat has it partly right: with its tree/Goddess-worshipping, tribal-shamanic-indigenous-hunter-gatherer-Daoist-pagan New-Age all-is-One-ism, Avatar is an expression of the longstanding American tradition of pantheist nature spirituality. Douthat thinks that that’s mainstream and that Hollywood is fully behind it, but it’s really still the insurgent religion to muscular Christianity and militarist nationalism. This is one of the rare films in which the Goddess (Mother Nature & the Natives) takes on the Capitalist War Machine and… well, you’ll have to see who wins.
2) It is James Cameron: with its rollercoaster-ride, shoot-em-up, special-FX thrills and chills (cf. Terminator, Aliens), it’s probably the most exorbitant and expensive such film in history. There’s cheesy dialogue (JC needs a scriptwriter) and gratuitous violence, with the never-say-die eternally recurrent monster, Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” in the form of the Dr. Strangelove-ish Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang). All put to the service of a fairy tale storyline (cf. Titanic, Terminator) of good guys and bad guys and class tension, with the white-boy hero as an intermediary caught between the two and becoming-heroic by siding with — and leading — the underdog. The broken-bodied (war-victimized) and misunderstood marine with a “good heart” is given a (genetically engineered) new body and falls in love with the dark girl — Pocahontas replayed for the millionth time. The good white boy messianically leads the natives in rebellion against their overlord invaders — which makes it Christmassy in more ways than Douthat’s Solstice-timed op-ed suggests. It is, after all, that Messiah story too (cf. Terminator 2, just no virgin in this version). (Cameron’s initials aren’t JC for nothing: the king of Hollywood born in a manger in Kapuskasing, Ontario.)
3) The Na’vi and their planet, Pandora (Pan-Thea, the tree-forest-rhizome-neural-network Goddess and World Soul, Pandora whose box, when opened, unleashed a million megatons of reality on humanity — it’s pagan mythology with a sledgehammer; gotta love it): They are beautiful — as all the reviews say, there are scenes that are among the most beautiful ever put to screen. Cutting-edge CGI in the service of animating and re-enchanting nature, the movie is a cine-kinetic fusion of Bambi, Terminator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and much else; see kvond).
There are strong resonances with Ursula LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” (a Vietnam war-like attack on a beautiful planet and its indigenous inhabitants) and her utopian ethnographic-poetic-musical epic novel Always Coming Home, its future-primitive Pacific Coastal ‘Kesh’ people being a kind of west coast precursor to the Na’vi. The ethnographic theme — the translation/mediation between two opposed cultural worlds, science and anthropology’s dependence and ultimate answerability only to empire/colonialism/militarism, and the cultural intermediary’s desire to go native, is overly stereotypical but, for the Hollywood thriller format, not badly done. It will propagate the gone-to-Croatan meme for a new generation.
4) Ideology: Behind it all is the Spielberg factor, i.e., that the overt message (‘Man vs. Nature’, or rather high-modernist techno-capitalism vs. Body-Shop-nature-tech) is undercut by the implicit message that it is science, technology, and Hollywood magic — the Image Industry, the Spectacle — that enchants us and brings us what we really want. And they bring us new life, maybe eternal life, through the New Age science of neuro-energetics, gene-splicing, virtual-reality, and all the rest. ‘Jake Sully’ the Na’vi avatar (not the marine) is, after all, a zombie: his body is a remote-controlled, genetically-engineered robot. Are we really supposed to believe that this guy will save the universe and that Na’vi wouldn’t all choke to death laughing at the whole idea? There are resonant images here, but also an underlying subtext: what’s the balance between the two? (This repeats a friendly spat I’ve been having with Pat Brereton over his book Hollywood Utopia.)
Yes, it’s entertainment, and ideology, and religion, and politics… Happy Solstice to all.