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5/23/2010
WHAT WAS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT AVATAR?

If you haven’t guessed previously, I am not a fiend for pop culture. It’s not that it was any better 40 years ago either. For all the nostalgia that boomers have for the “good old days” when rock music was edgy with social commentary, and TV featured dramas and comedies that pricked the conscience of the nation, we tend to forget that about 99% of what was considered “pop culture” back then was just as awful, just as puerile, just as mindlessly boring as anything put out today.

Once I grew out of AM radio and series TV, I have never gone back. I can proudly say I have never seen a complete episode of Seinfeld, 30 Rock, or any other hit show of the past 15 years except 24 and the occasional Law and Order SVU rerun.

While this has made me an ignoramus when it comes to a lot of pop culture references, it has also allowed me to gain a perspective not vouchsafed many commenters on American culture. When I see a movie, for instance, I come to the experience free of many biases that others may harbor.

This includes my viewing fare last night. I decided to pay $6 and watch Avatar. The avalanche of criticism directed against this movie on the right had piqued my curiosity when it first came out. Unfortunately, in my case, there isn’t a decent movie theater within an hour’s travel time that features a Dolby sound system and a wide enough screen to make the trip worthwhile. As with almost all blockbusters since I moved out here two years ago, I waited until it came out on video or was shown on cable.

I watched in awe as the dazzling combination of computer generated reality and Hollywood glitz lit up my TV screen as no other film save perhaps the Lord of the Rings trilogy had done. This film was a truly majestic accomplishment by Cameron and whatever you think of his politics, you must credit him with some boffo originality in how the film was produced.

But after the film, I was forced to ask myself; why the wave of virulent criticism - especially on the right? While the movie was spectacular as a visual experience, the plot was as shopworn as anything Hollywood has ever done.

Has everybody forgotten Dances with Wolves already? Or, going further back, A Man Called Horse? There were also echoes of Little Big Man, Cheyenne Autumn, and a dozen other Hollywood productions that portrayed Indian culture and their way of life as superior to that of the western white man and how evil men deliberately tried to wipe it out.

Avatar, as far as the plot was concerned, was a pretty run of the mill oater. Gung ho military type (Costner, Harris, Widmark) find themselves living with the natives, learning their ways, coming to appreciate their race, and eventually loving some aboriginal woman. And when push came to shove, abandoning their racial loyalty to fight with the Indians.

Avatar anti-military? Anytime an American can’t root against a corporate army hellbent on destroying obviously peaceful people, something is wrong. As a modern day metaphor for Blackwater and other private armies fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t see it, although there have been plenty of questions raised about their actions.

There are a lot of old westerns that portray the railroads the same way Cameron wrote the Avatar bad guys. Why no outrage there? In many films, the railroads have their own private security guys or have hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to do their dirty work. There was nothing new in Cameron using the greed of a corporation to contrast the pure motives and superior culture of the natives. It’s as hackneyed a device as anything Hollywood produces.

I guess the biggest objection to the film was the “Green” message it tried to convey. You don’t have to be an environmental wacko to know that the rain forests are disappearing before our eyes (largely through slash and burn clearing tactics of those same natives who are supposed to be attached to the land). Nor is it doltish to understand the interconnectedness of the biosphere and how the death of one species can radically impact the entire food chain. I didn’t find those messages intrusive in the film at all, except that Cameron used the Na’vi’s environmental sensibilities to prove how superior they were to us evil white people.

Anyone who has read Rousseau recognizes “the noble savage” in Cameron’s portrayal of the Na’vi, and the re-occurring theme that the simple beliefs and quality of life lived by natives is something to be admired and envied by those of us trapped in western civilization. The true nature of living in the open forest - at the mercy of the elements, snakes, terrible bugs, horrible diseases, short life spans, astronomical infant mortality rates, and dirt, dirt, dirt - never seems to make it into these paeans to the authentic primitive.

The spiritual life of the Na’vi I found to be pretty silly - as I find all religions. How much sillier is it to believe in the Na’vi planetary female deity than it is to believe a carpenter’s son rose from the dead? To my eyes, not much at all.

I didn’t buy the last 20 minutes of the film. How did the killing of Stephen Lang’s character lead to the surrender of the rest of the army? They overmatched the Na’vis in firepower, and even if the animals joined the fight you can’t tell me if they had explosives that could bring down Hometree that they couldn’t kill the dinosaurs who had inexplicably joined the fight.

Not credible in the least.

I would have liked to have seen the idea that Sigourney Weaver theorized - a planet wide network where all the plants and trees were interconnected with each other and that this energy could be tapped by the Na’vi and presumably, the animals as well.

A planetary consciousness? That would be true science fiction. If that had been the case, the trees and plants would have attacked as well, which would have been more compelling than the wolf-like things and sorapods going after the bad guys.

Some of Cameron’s statements after the film was out were very stupid and indicative of someone totally ignorant of science. But if we haven’t learned by now to love movies by stupid left wing loons, then what’s the point of going to a film at all? Taxi Driver is one of the most compelling dramas ever made even though Martin Scorcese is liberal nutcase. And though I despise his politics, some of Sean Penn’s performances have been awesome (film acting doesn’t get much better than his performance in Mystic River).

There are indeed far left wing politicized films that need to be strenuously, and relentlessly criticized (the Plame-Wilson Fair Game, for example). And on one level, Avatar may cross the line between entertainment and politics - but no more so than any of the films I mentioned above.

Viewed as entertainment, I found Avatar to be thrilling, visually stunning, and worth watching again. In this case, I can stand a little preaching if the film delivers a solid 2 hours of adult entertainment.

By: Rick Moran at 9:15 am

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