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Avatar and the Noble Savage

I was told many things about Avatar. I was told that it was outrageously expensive, and invented a retinue of technologies to achieve a new, undreamed of beauty.  And I was also told that it was liberal.  That it brutally chastises America for three hours by opening the old wounds of Vietnam, and rubbing salt in the new wounds of Iraq; and that it endlessly lectures us on our lack of respect for our planet and its inherent value.  And let me tell you, as someone who was brought up in public schools in the 90’s, that I have heard all of these songs before, ad nauseam.  Of course, for some of my generation, a certain nostalgia may exist for all of it.  But there’s nothing so tooth-grindingly, knuckle-whiteningly embarrassing as the propaganda of one’s childhood.  Like Barney the Dinosaur and ‘N Sync, it’s something you outgrow, and and then try to forget outgrowing.  Something that, for you at least, never really happened.

Well, I just saw Avatar.  And most of the rumors are true. It is, in fact, a deeply environmentalist, anti-imperialist film.  But it’s also a very good film, and one that should be taken seriously. Too much money was spent on it to allow for it to be merely mindless propaganda; it is fearfully and wonderfully made, and deserves quite a lot of recognition for its quality.

To begin with, it is beautiful. It achieves a simply mind-bending, spell binding beauty.  The landscapes are fine art, reminiscent of the Hudson River School in their painstaking realism and glorification of nature. But the character CG is where the film truly shines. The Na’vi – the native race that inhabits this perfect world – are able to convey such a vast array of emotions that they cease being animated and become real almost immediately.  They are huge and graceful, lightly built but still muscular, a bit like blue Kenyans.  In fact, if our generation invented the barbie doll, it would probably look a lot like the Na’vi.

And the writing was a bit better than I had expected. It rarely came off as hackneyed or lame.  That isn’t to say the characters had any depth, but the film hides it exceptionally well. In fact, the story is extremely good, and navigates the dangerous waters of science fiction admirably.

But there are several points at which the film really grasps for its thesis, and at least one where it fails completely.

First of all, there is a very potent use of 9-11 in the plot of the movie, and it is used in a way that is rather shameless.  In the context of the film, the symbolic tower – actually a giant tree, of course –  is brought down by the western, resource-devouring imperialists, and the natives are the wounded party.  I consider this important, because it means that the filmmakers reminded us of 9-11 purely for its considerable emotional response, to indemnify the westerners and fully endow the blue natives with our empathy. But it’s simply outrageous to portray the worst act of terror ever inflicted on mankind as a crime of western imperialism. 9-11 is nothing if not the product of a dark-age blood-feud, a decidedly uncivilized massacre.

But the film’s main achievement is the beautiful native race, the Na’vi, a great blue tribe of natives that inhabit the planet that the earthlings so desperately want to pillage for its resources.  They are, of course, the Indians; a constant reminder of the peace-loving, harmonious native culture that we so thoughtlessly destroyed just a century or so before I was born.  Except, wait a moment, that culture never existed – it’s a construct of the sixties and a generation that imposed all of its impossibly naive values on those Indians. Never mind any of that now. The Na’vi are something far more important. Yes, they are a naive portrayal of the American Indian, but saying that misses the point. They are an idealized portrayal, an invention that allows us to project our post-modern ideals onto them. They maintain a fierce, horse-riding hunter culture, like the Comanche or Sioux, but also possess the religious environmentalism that no Indian – or any pre-modern, for that matter – ever knew.  Just add a touch of the Vedic religions for good measure, (all is Brahman and Brahman is all, except substitute that amorphous, Oregonian ideal of Nature for Brahman) and we’ve achieved something entirely new.

They aren’t Comanche or Sioux, not Aztec or Inca, Algonquin or Cherokee. To put it  bluntly, they are Montaigne’s idealized cannibals, simple where we are complex and complex where we are simple. A perfect foil to the west.

But then we have a problem. As a rule, the writer who calls forth the Noble Savage never sees how condescending, how childish, how monumentally imperialistic that image is.  It does nobody any favors but you, you who just placed all of your distinctly western ideals onto some entirely different culture that never asked for it.  You just willfully ignored quite a lot of reality so you could have a little ironic fun at the expense of  your audience’s imagined pre-conceived notions.  The Noble Savage is just a silly, useless little invention, a toy that only the smugly civilized can ever play with.

After all of this imagery drawn from the Indians, let’s imagine that the climactic battle that pits the Noble Savage against cold, modern steel is an attempt to re-fight the battle of Culloden. After all, this film was directed by a Cameron.  And the Scottish Highlanders that so catastrophically lost that battle have become perhaps the most Ennobled Savages of them all. That’s not modern liberalism’s fault, by the way, you can blame Sir Walter Scott for that one.  Well, the Scots are noble. But its not because they are savages. The Scots are noble not because they once fought against the encroachment of western civilization, but precisely because they have added so much to western civilization.  Scotland is glorious for its national mind, not for its national sword.

But Avatar unashamedly idealizes unreasoned traditions and vague, communal religion, and pits its heroic natives in a righteous war against the west.  The film has no remorse and no redemption for its western, imperialist soldiers – they wear pedophile mustaches and shaved heads, and nod knowingly when they are told they need to preemptively fight terror with terror, and die gruesomely at the hands of the natives and mother nature. If there was a single soldier in the entire film that wasn’t a grunting, painfully Aryan male, I didn’t see them.

This film is not stupid. It’s not lazy. Even with the complaints listed above, this is a very, very good movie. But it is, for me at least, an oddly and inexplicably old-fashioned movie in its 20th century obsession with empires and resources and trees.  After all the spectacular visuals, for all of its technical triumphs, it remains stuck in a place that that I thought most of us had left behind somewhere in this brave new millennium.


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