Saturday, January 9, 2010

Avatar: The free market speaks, calls America a douche

[spoiler alert, blah blah who cares you've probably seen it already]

Conservatives are up in arms over Avatar. Does it surprise anyone that David Brooks is too?

His whole review has an air of self-pity to it. How dare James Cameron portray the military industrial complex as ruthless? Why should I have to spend a moment questioning the superiority of my culture? And how can those ingrates -- whether within our borders or beyond our shores -- enjoy the sight of a clearly American force being beaten, even killed, after all we've done for the world these last ten years? And psssh, the environment? Are we really still talking about that elitist liberal stuff? We live in a post-Climategate world, you know.

But to avoid being outed as the reactionary he is, he dresses up his objections, couching them in terms of how disrespectful the movie is to the natives. Er, yeah. The movie that shows a clearly Americanized military slaughtering the natives and pouring explosives into their holiest sites, all so they can strip mine the planet, is doing a grievous disservice to, well, whatever culture or cultures the Na'vi represent. That's what Brooks is really steamed about.

So rather than speaking plainly about how he thinks his side is being slandered, he tries to tap into the same rich vein of white guilt and use it to his advantage. Isn't it disrespectful, the way those poor, benighted Na'vi needed a white warrior to come save them? Isn't it suspicious that the white guy is not just part of the tribe, but the awesomest tribesman ever?

Not only is it sneaky, I don't think it's even a fair reading of the movie. Jake doesn't become the bravest or the boldest of the tribe's warriors, or the most skilled hunter or flier. At least, I saw no evidence of it. He eventually gets skilled enough to endure the same coming of age ritual that everyone else in the tribe underwent as teenagers.

He gets the girl, yes, but not through the power of White Awesome. He does so because they spent time together, shared adventures, and found common ground. Also, never underestimate the power of a sexy, exotic accent.

Only in mastering the "big red bird" does Jake step fully into the realm of awesome, and even then it isn't made clear why nobody else did it first. What did seem clear is that a long military career taught him to approach it as he would any tactical situation, and that he was taking a new and untested approach to the bird problem.

This is something that Brooks' criticism doesn't make allowances for. Cameron is pulling out one of the ancient archetypes/tropes: a man who shares the heritage of two worlds, and who is exceptional because he can draw on the strengths of each. Jake is exceptional, but not because he's smarter, or stronger, or braver than the other members of his tribe. He leads the attack because he has the best understanding of the enemy. He eventually wins the war not by his own strength, but because only an outsider could convey to The Great Treebrain the true nature of the threat it faced.

The point of movies like these isn't that we should all dump our iPhones and MRI machines, break out the loincloths, and go smoke peyote in the desert until we find our spirit guides. The Right just likes to spin it that way because it's easier than trying to tackle the actual, more reasonable message. You remember the line about "seeing" that Cameron drove into our heads with all the subtlety of an Irishman pounding in a railroad spike?* Maybe he was so blatant about it because that was the real message. Jake couldn't be anything to the tribe until he learned to cast aside his old preconceptions and see the world with new eyes.

A bit corny, perhaps. But eight years into the "war on terror," and our elected officials still seem unable to articulate why the terrorists want to do us harm. To the detriment of both our military efforts and the greater peace, we insist on treating Al Qaeda not just as evil,** but as moustache-twirling cartoon villains. The message is simple, maybe even simplistic, but it's relevant, and we would do well to heed it.

Yes, underneath the blue, tattooed skin of Avatar lies a blunt morality tale about respect for other cultures, the perils of technological exuberance, and the merits of a simple, peaceful life. Oh, and not invading foreign lands to secure their mineral wealth. In that way, Avatar is a litmus test of sorts. If you think the basic premise of the United States as benevolent dictator to the world is a wonderful one -- and I've always gotten the impression that Brooks does -- then I can see why you might have a problem with Avatar.

For others, for those who can see the ugliness of America's recent past, maybe a movie where we can root for the demise of that ugliness could be a small step toward recommitting to the ideals we still hope to uphold.

And for the rest of us, omigod this 3D stuff is awesome!

Afterthought: Brooks closes with the deep-sounding thought, "benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind." As condescending perhaps, but less dangerous. When America adopted the attitude that Native Americans needed our religion, our political structures, our writing, we sent federal agents to take their children, uproot them from their homes, taught our ways, and forbidden to speak their own language. When Americans adopted the attitude that we needed their culture, we sent a small army of hippies out to ask for wise words and maybe a hit of peyote.

* What? Too soon?

** Which it is, of course. But I shouldn't have to go on the record and say that, yes, it's evil to try and blow up a plane full of civilians, or to crash a plane into a tower full of people. Really, some right wingers don't seem to grasp the idea that we all hate terrorism.

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