Sunday, January 03, 2010

Avatar: Orgasmic Dazzle, Trashy Cinema, or Racist Propaganda?

Or all of the above.

Before reading any further you should check out Eric Repphun's review of James Cameron's Avatar, which has been astonishingly well received by critics and the unlettered, boasting an 83% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Eric has no more to do with this chorus of praise than I do, however. He's offended by the film's sloppy politics and egregious racism. I was nonplussed by the orgy of special effects and dazzle unaccompanied by an iota of substance in the storyline. Critics often skewer films like this for either set of reasons, so I'm not sure what's going on.

Before I'm dismissed as an arthouse snob, I should emphasize that I'm not entirely hostile to action blockbusters, and with Eric acknowledge that "there is still a decent worldwide market for quality, historically aware blockbuster cinema, as the success of District 9 and The Dark Knight have shown us." To these two must be added The Lord of the Rings films, which I in fact rated the best of the decade. I can certainly be impressed by films like this, but good ones are hard to come by -- and Avatar isn't one of them by a long shot. Here we have a futuristic epic set on a moon being mined for a priceless mineral (yawn), while the indigenous humanoids resist the colonial expansion threatening their ecosystem (descent of the eyelids), and one of the colonials goes native and bad-ass on his compatriots (actual slumber). Okay, so I was kept awake by the amazing CGI show, but even that stuff gets old -- and fast -- in a story completely bereft of narrative innovation.

But let's consider Eric's objections. He claims that, like Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and countless other films, Cameron's tale suggests that the best native is a white guy gone native, superseding the actual natives who are portrayed as "noble savages":
"Avatar is the most astonishingly racist film since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps worse even than 300. The film’s noble savages, the Na’vi – many of whom, though they are computer generated motion captures of real actors, are played by non-white actors – are an amalgam of all the noble savage clichés dating back centuries. They are in touch with nature. They believe, in fact, that their planet, Pandora, is the one living organism (Pandora’s bookshops must sell a lot of James Lovelock). They are violent but admirable. They like to hold hands and dance. They are sexually ambiguous, but still sexually appealing. They are superstitious and reliant on magic and all sorts of often brutal rites of passage. These may be noble savages in the film, but they are still savages and the film treats them as savages, as lesser people."
If you didn't know The Dunedin School better, you might think Eric was writing a spoof as I once did, following the audio commentary begun by "Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky" for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. In these commentaries, Zinn/Chomsky and I exposed the racist underpinnings of LOTR, the cruel nature of the hobbits, the fascism of wizards like Gandalf, the warmongering of the Wise, and the savage stereotyping of Sauron's minions. Jackson's Haradrim may not be "noble savages" like Cameron's Na'vi, but they're typically exotic: they paint themselves, ride Oliphants, chant wildly, and have yellow, brown, or red complexions -- and they're inferior, is what matters. And don't forget the Black Riders, of course, an offending use of color symbolism for the strongest representatives of evil. The Free Peoples of Middle-Earth, by contrast, are all white, and Gandalf even evolves from "Grey" to "White" with a capital "W". But back to Eric's grievances:
"Avatar is the ultimate in Orientalist fantasy. When Jake opens his eyes at the end of the film, having defeated the Europeans and sent them packing and having fully, literally become one of the Na'vi, he is living out the dreams of every white neo-pagan, Druid, or Wiccan out there who wants to truly recover a past that is, for the most part, a Romantic fantasy that has no roots in history. Unlike Wikus in District 9, who also becomes an oppressed alien but takes up arms against the oppressors because he is a selfish git largely concerned with saving his own ass (a fact that the film is smart enough to admit), Jake is a classic Hollywood hero who is able to be both coloniser and colonised at once. He is a coloniser without the need for guilt or any serious reflection on what he has done (he is instrumental in destroying the Na'vi's village) but he is also colonised in that he can take part in a fantasy culture where everything is sunshine, simplicity, and sacredness. Jake is liberal guilt made flesh."
Again, this almost sounds like a lampoon, except we know Eric is dead serious, and admittedly not without cause: Cameron goes out of his way to invite the Said-speak at every turn. While I have little patience with those who see racism under every rock, in this case it's hard to miss. The film implies -- like zillions of films these days -- that it takes a white hero to save primitive natives. It's a guilt fantasy about giving up one's whiteness, but without losing white privilege. Cameron's analog for the Native American Indian is bogus to boot, a Native American Hollywood-projection, with results as ludicrous as the patronization of Islam (and demonization of the Christian crusaders) in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. I don't expect films to be realistic on a documentary level, but they have to do a lot better than this.

Avatar gets a rock-bottom (1-star) rating from me, because it's thoroughly predictable, cliche-ridden, and hollow -- even boring, despite the onslaught of CGI dazzle -- and yes, Eric, the fantasy colonial formula is part of that hollowness.

UPDATE: Yahoo comments on the movie's alleged racism. This part struck me: "Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of the sci-fi Web site, likened Avatar to the recent film District 9, in which a white man accidentally becomes an alien and then helps save them, and 1984's Dune, in which a white man becomes an alien Messiah." District 9 is a bad comparison, however, because the white "hero" is driven by self-serving motives to the end (as Eric pointed out). Dune is a better analogy, though the book (written between 1957-1963, recall) remains a landmark classic and great story -- as much as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as far as I'm concerned. Accusing Herbert or Twain of racism is like accusing Tolkien of sexism. This is the year 2010: Cameron can be held to better standards in a film that is trying to promote a positive message. It's time for stories about natives who can save themselves for a change, without the patronizing leadership of the white man.


Blogger David said...

I had a very different reaction.

The Native American parallels were quite obvious, but it struck me as a smack-in-the-face to the dominant white culture.

The other dominant thread was the characterization of the military as culturally ignorant and arrogant, believing that they were justified in doing whatever they wanted because the natives were not up to their standards. While some may interpret that as racism, I interpreted this as a slap-in-the-face at the cultural arrogance that the USA today does in fact display. In fact, it seemed to me that Avatar could be seen as an anti-war, anti-Bush Administration protest film. I am sure that hard core military types will not appreciate this part of the film.

As for the Gaia mysticism, perhaps this was also a criticism of the dominant style of spirituality that is practiced in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This was certainly the most beautiful aspect of Avatar, despite the use of overworked themes such as the hero taking up with the other side.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...


On one level you're obviously right, but just because films like Dances With Wolves and Avatar are intended as assaults on western imperialism doesn't mean they do it remotely credibly (the source of my dissatisfaction). Nor does it follow that a new western arrogance doesn't replace the old (the source of Eric's outrage).

I'm always exceedingly cautious about what I call "racist" -- not least because I, of all people, have been branded this way! -- but it's obviously true that liberals can be racists as much as conservatives, and that the liberal breed can be especially patronizing. Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven is another glaring example (as I mentioned in the review) of a liberal filmmaker pandering so much to Islam that it's not only anti-historical in the extreme, but does more harm than good with the potential to fuel Islamic fundamentalism.

Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Loren, did you see my lengthy review of Avatar on Facebook? Let me repost it here:

Avatar sucked.

All the best,


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Good review!

Anonymous Mike Koke said...

Good review Loren. I got stuck in the front row watching Avatar 3-D and while I enjoyed the special effects and action and I think the film-makers were well-intentioned in trying to create a pro-environment, anti-imperial message, I definitely saw the same problematic things with regard to Orientalism and just poor writing that you and Eric point out.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Avatar exhibits "egregious racism"? What utter nonsense. Your other criticisms of the film are certainly reasonable (though they didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film nearly as much as they did for you). But it's disappointing to see you parroting the ridiculous accusation of racism that's currently making the rounds among the oversensitive. It indeed sounds like a lampoon, and it's sad that people actually take this seriously.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Avatar exhibits "egregious racism"? What utter nonsense...

Hello Bertrand! Hiding under the rocks of anonymity, eh?

Since racism has become so elastically understood these days (and there's at least a part of me that rebels against Eric's charge here), let's put it this way: Avatar is, at the very least, as condescending as a film like Dances with Wolves, and the fact that such films may seem pleasant remedies to old-school bigotry doesn't change this. Is that racism? Is putting women up on a pedestal sexist? Romantic fantasy and liberal patronizations may not always be best described as "racist", but sometimes they are, whatever benign intentions drive the filmmakers. In any case, Avatar was garbage, above all, for the reasons that stuck in my own craw, and the fact that you enjoyed this picture, well, it doesn't surprise me at all.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm saddened that you were so uninterested in Avatar's basic plot : an indigenous culture resisting a foreign multinational corporation that threatens their culture and ecosystem. This is a story that is being replayed in real life every day, except that the natives usually lose at the end. Hopefully after browsing through the following website you may find the topic to be less of a bore, I assure you it is anything but boring for the indigenous people around the world who are losing their homes and their way of life:

Does the film engage in stereotypes? Perhaps, as do most Hollywood movies, but Avatar's stereotypes are cultural rather than racial. Projecting idealized concepts of Earth's native cultures onto an imaginary alien species is a trivial crime at worst, and far outweighed by the film's positive message about indigenous rights and environmental stewardship. But a positive message does not necessarily make a good movie of course.

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Not District 9 or Duke, but Pocahontas.


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