AVATAR: white heroes and noble savages

With all that’s already been said by others on Avatar, it seems a bit redundant to chime in on the phenomenon at this point. So let me respond to the ongoing phenomenon by linking to some of the most interesting perspectives I’ve come across so far:

  • At io9, Annalee Lewitz approaches it from what I perceive to be its most obvious (and most problematic) aspect, which is race. She argues very convincingly that Avatar falls neatly into a genre of films about white guilt, in which she lists other notable examples such as Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Dune. In these films, the focus lies strongly on a situation “where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member.”
  • Acephalous is beautiful when he’s angry, swinging for the rafters with his blog post title alone: “Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist.” In a remarkably concise bit of sharply observed analysis, he first explains that the mercenaries doing the imperialist company’s dirty work in the film do not constitute an attack on the US military (as right-wing critics of the film have alleged), but “a perversion of the military” that clearly references ‘security companies’ like the infamous Blackwater. Jake Sully is an example of a real (i.e. non-mercenary) soldier, who lost his legs in a legitimate military conflict, as is, I might add, Michelle Rodriguez’s character, who “didn’t sign up for this shit.” The piece then moves on swiftly to Avatar‘s race problem, which Acephalous condemns across the board:

    The film argues that once a white person truly and deeply understands the non-white experience, he becomes an unstoppable combination of non-white primitivism and white rationalism which is exactly what happens. In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible … and those assumptions are racist.

  • Of the three different takes offered by the staff at The House Next Door, Ali Arakan’s full review provides the most convincing explanation of the film’s strengths and weaknesses, eloquently likening the experience of watching the film to “staring at an ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ cover for eight hours while somebody drips LSD on your eyeballs.” He manages to point out the good stuff on the screen, like the “exceptionally expressive features” of the Na’vi and the spectacular vistas on display throughout, with fauna that is “silly, but rather splendid.” But in spite of these strengths, one of the main problems with the film I find myself agreeing with is simply that Cameron’s ideas are half-baked: Avatar is “a sumptuous feast for the eyes that’s as dumb as a rock. Then again, you don’t go to Hooters for the food.”
  • Gerry Canavan provides his own terrific roundup of quotes and links related to the film, with an outstanding blog post that moves swiftly through its racial, gender, and religious problems before developing an interesting perspective on Avatar‘s relationship to genre, pointing out that it uncomfortably straddles the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy: “by the end of the film any pretense of scientific plausibility or internal logical coherence has been abandoned altogether: telepathy and transmigration of souls are real, MechWarriors pull Bowie knives from their belts, and not even gravity seems to work anymore.”
  • Of the many straightforward film reviews out there, Walter Chaw’s review is -unsurprisingly- the most convincing and the most edifying, opening his piece with a memorable shot across the bow of the SS Fanboy by identifying the film correctly as “a morally, historically, socially, and politically childish amalgam of Pocahontas and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.” If you don’t believe him, watch this fake trailer.
  • The Christian right also chimes in on the film over at MovieLand, finding fault with the film’s “abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes goddess worship and the destruction of the human race.” I guess there are any number of roads that lead to disliking Avatar.
  • As for the issue of Avatar being a kind of open text, a Rorschach blot in which we see whatever we want to see, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times editorializes further on her original review by suggesting -somewhat redundantly- that we tend to see our own views reflected in whatever text we’re talking about. She claims to find ideological readings of films unproductive, which is a rather tricky point to make here. But she’s right in pointing out “that movies are filled with contradictions,” and that this dialectical nature of capitalist products such as this may be the thing that we’re observing in all the ongoing arguments on Avatar.
  • Finally, just to pre-empt the inevitable ‘why spend so much time thinking/talking/writing about a movie?’ response, allow me to refer you to this outstanding user comment to the io9 article on race listed above: ‘Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???”’
  • Update:About a month after the general wave of blog postings and magazine articles that followed the general release of AVATAR, Slavoj Žižek chimed in as well with a short article in The New Statesman. Many of the customary Žižekian snark on the film’s obvious “brutal racist undertones” rang familiar by that time, but the Slovenian theorist makes a strong connection to the real-world political situation of the Indian Dongri Kondh people, which is uncannily similar to the fictitious plight of the Na’Vi.
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