Palestinian activists go Na’vi
(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)
It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.
The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.
What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.
In Ecuador, as the above video shows, members of various indigenous groups have been impressed with the parallels between the Na’vi and their own struggles against mining corporations and corporate or governmental military proxies. A little digging reveals that this meeting of indigenous people and movie screens, reported on The World and disseminated widely on web sites, was arranged by Lynne Twist of the Pachamama Alliance after reading Tom Atlee’s blog post suggesting that very kind of thing. (See more on that here.) Meanwhile, Bolivia’s indigenous president, Evo Morales, has praised the film as an “inspiration in the fight against capitalism”. Elsewhere, proceeds from the film are going to fund reforestation projects in Costa Rica, and in India, a tribal group has appealed to James Cameron to help them stop the open-cast mining of a mountain by the (perversely named) Vedanta Resources mining company.
The indigenous response, of course, hasn’t been all positive, and most of it is prefaced by low expectations, along the lines of “we don’t expect anything from Hollywood to reflect our perspective, so we’re not surprised that it took a white guy to save the Na’vi, but . . .” Aboriginal studies professor (of Cherokee ancestry) Daniel Heath Justice provides a nuanced analysis of the film that takes these many things into account.
In China, meanwhile, as the film has broken box office records and with the government more recently banning, or at least restricting the film to a small number of 3-D screens because of its seemingly (counter)revolutionary potential, activists have also been encouraged to see the struggles of the Na’vi as their own. China’s other main connection to the film, apparently, is that the mountains on Pandora were modeled after China’s Huangshan and Zhiangjiajie mountains, a point that locals have begun to make use of in tourist promotion.
Some of the more interesting discussions about these kinds of issues have taken place among anthropologists, which isn’t surprising given how many anthropologists study similar but real-life cases of the same relationship between land-based indigenous groups and resource-coveting outsiders. Kerim at Savage Minds describes the film as being “like a giant anthropological piñata,” while other anthropologists have picked up on the resemblance between the film’s “avatars” and the real-world human terrain avatars of the U.S. military’s occupation of Iraq — anthropology being historically deeply implicated (at times) within militarism as well as colonialism.
On the E-ANTH environmental anthropology listserv, while many listserv members have taken the film to task for its sins — the white messiah complex and the stereotypical portrayal of the Na’vi (one of them sees the tails on the Na’vi as a reminder of Victorian pictures of Africans and Irish drawn to look like monkeys) to the violence displayed throughout as the only possible solution — a greater number have praised it for capturing with such force what indigenous people around the world recognize as their own struggles against mining companies (in Ecuador, India, Costa Rica, Peru, and elsewhere) and colonial invaders more generally. Some have reported audiences as far apart as Brazil and Malaysia leaving theaters energized and mobilized for discussing issues of imperialism, globalization, capitalism, and struggles over control of resources. The film’s pro-mining humans, one contributor suggests, are recognized as the same faces as those of private security companies at extractive mines around the world, at a time when human rights abuses at such mines are up to an all-time high. Another theme referred to positively on EANTH is the film’s sympathetic portrayal of disability in the character of Jake Sully — something all too rare in popular cinema, according to one contributor (though I’ve read critiques elsewhere that this portrayal is superficial and more of a squandered opportunity).
Among the phenomena that have arisen in fan responses to the film is the aforementioned (and not yet in the DSM) post-Avatar depression, a malady suffered by those for whom the real world of Earth seems black-and-white-and-all-too-gray in comparison with the deliriously alluring world of the Na’vi. What this sounds to me like is a combination of eco-despair — the response, according to ecopsychologists, that many people feel when they come to recognize the extent of the ecological crisis — and a version of Virtual Reality withdrawal. Because Avatar is a movie and not the kind of VR environment that’s repeatedly visited by gamers, and yet comes close to being as immersive as VR, at least when viewed through 3-D goggles, the withdrawal symptoms are hidden or subsumed into the seemingly more real ecological reality check. The film’s version of the “wilderness sublime” is made real, if not hyperreal, in the intensity of its cinematic portrayal. And the equally intense depiction of the viciousness of the colonizers’ land grab, the assault on people and nature and the accompanying Trail of Tears-like dispersal of the Na’vi, is hardly mitigated by the reprieve they seem to gain at the film’s end — a reprieve that anyone who knows history understands can only be temporary. What awaits our inevitable return to Earth, then, can be doubly disappointing.
Help is on its way, though — in the form of video games and, for the more dedicated, dictionaries and biological and social history field guides. It won’t be long before Na’vi fan cults with appropriate garb and rituals take the place of the Klingon and Elvish reconstructionist clubs (and religious groups, for that matter), though it might take a sequel or two to generate more Na’vi vocabulary.
Without that ecopsychological sensibility, though, the film’s virtuality could hit a different set of nerves. Caleb Crain’s lament at Steamboats are Ruining Everything captures this rather, entertainingly, well. Crain attacks the movie’s “moral corruptness,” arguing that its anti-imperialism and anti-corporatism are red herrings planted to distract us from “the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness.” On Cameron’s Pandora, he writes, where the Na’vi are “digital natives” and “all the creatures have been equipped by a benevolent nature with USB ports in their ponytails,”
“the animals cavort with one another much like the peripherals on his desk, plugging and playing at will, and the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”
Aren’t we there already?
All of this makes for a wild set of relays spinning off the thousands of global screens showing what some call “just a movie,” but what is really a dense intersection of images, intensities, narratives and affects weaving their way into the thoughts, feelings, bodies, dreams, conversations, and socio-political worlds of their viewers. It’s not the kind of film I would consider “great,” but if a film is what a film does (as I argue in the book I’m writing), this one has a rare combination of power — by which I mean Hollywood power, made of money, technology, and a better distribution network than anyone on Earth — and “juice”, by which I mean a certain visionary wizardry in the way it melds image, sound, story, and spectacle and sets them into affectively compelling motion. The fact that it deals with some of the most important themes around helps to make it an important movie, but whether it does that well or not is a matter of diverging opinion. At least it does it better than The Day After Tomorrow.
Thanks to the members of the E-ANTH listserv for sharing their thoughts on the film, and especially to James Igoe for a nice articulation there of the argument about Avatar’s “hyperreality.” And a final plug for Kvond’s series of posts on the more bodily-sensorial dimensions of the film, which set out on a very promising line of inquiry that was unfortunately cut off by the sudden (and hopefully temporary) suspension of his blog. Anyone else care to take up that trajectory?
(Note: Two typos corrected at 7:17 am 02/16/10. And somehow I missed Mediacology’s post about this, which includes a few more relevant videos.)