On Avatar. Since I Must.

24 Dec

Are there any people out there who haven’t seen James Cameron’s Avatar yet? Well, you five contrarians can skip this post unless you like spoilers. Although really, if you have an internet connection, chances are you’ve already stumbled across tons of people orgasming on their blogs or tweets or columns or what-have-you after watching the movie, so what the hell, you might as well read this one too.

Because Avatar is an event. In fact, it is an Event. It’s as though Cameron watched a Disney movie, one of those old-fashioned hand-drawn pieces of art, and thought to himself, “You know what would make this better? If we upped the violence and the romance and made the animals terrifying and killed and bombed a bunch of people and stuff and were somehow able to drop the audience into the middle of it so that they felt as though they were experiencing it in person. That would kick fucking Bambi’s ass so hard!”

And you know what? It totally does. Avatar is a triumph of the imagination. It throws open a door, illumining a visual corridor that most of us didn’t even know existed or was even possible. As VS Naipaul likes to say:

[A] lot of the novels being written in our own time, how intelligent and amusing, do not have any lasting power. They do not have that tension, that convincingness of what is absolutely new. They are novels written by people who have too many models, and possibly the same thing is true of the cinema, which is a fair comparison. The first 50 years of the cinema were absolutely great years. Original minds were at work establishing the ways to tell a story. And what is happening now is a copying, a pastiche-ing of what was done by great men.

Or to put it more succinctly, the problem facing art forms today is: “None of you can be first. But all of you can be next…”

What Cameron, with the help of Peter Jackson and the folks at Weta Digital, has done is to find a way to be first. Any way you count, that is a remarkable achievement. As Eminem says, “kids nowadays are so used to seeing crazy shit, there’s so much crazy weird shit on the Internet, it’s certainly getting harder to shock people.” Art is not always about shocking people but it is always about prompting a response. And it’s gotten progressively harder to get people to think about cinema.

But no matter how gamed out you are, no matter what you have seen or what you like to watch, Twitter-effect or no, the incredible freshness of the Avatar experience works as a palette cleanser. It’s impossible to walk out of the theater thinking, “Yawn, not this shit again.” And that newness of it is what has gotten people talking. In sharp contrast to the other movies released this year, Avatar and its status as a possible Oscar contender is driving the conversation, even outside of the usual niche awards monitoring sites that spring up around this time every year, with an energy and focus that I haven’t seen since I started paying attention (which admittedly is a mere blip in time compared to most others).

The only glitch in what should have been a moment of surpassing triumph is that Avatar isn’t a very good movie. I suppose you could call it a passable movie, but if you took it out of 3D and put it on celluloid, I can’t help but feel it’d be the kind of thing we’d all be chuckling about for days (not that we aren’t already).

Others have expressed their opinions – where the movie succeeds spectacularly and where it falls flat (that is possibly my favorite Stephanie Zacharek review bar none) with equal intensity – and I really have very little to add to those. But it is the conversations that this movie has provoked among folks at large in the past week or so that have really fascinated me. Or should I say, disturbed me?

Baradwaj Rangan’s mixed review, for instance, prompted this comment that left me with a funny feeling in my tummy:

Give it a rest for once and take in the world you are immersed in….this is NOT a film that requires a solid script with depth…whatever story/script there is is good enough to guide you thorugh the director’s vision…anything more complex will have taken the focus away from it.

(emphasis mine) You’ll find more than one person espousing those views, not just in Rangan’s comment section but across the internet, but it was the last line of that particular comment that really gave me pause. Was that person talking for himself or was he speaking on behalf of a larger majority that is now simply not prepared to handle two things at once?

In a Lincoln Center discussion of Ishtar (the most expensive movie of its day at a princely $30 million – which is less than one-tenth the cost of Avatar in case you’re still calculating numbers that don’t mean squat to you) with Mike Nichols, its director Elaine May said:

[L]ook how quickly we all get used to eating shit… We get used to it very fast. We get used to skim milk very fast. Whole milk tastes like cream. We adapt very quickly to being treated very badly…[Y]ou have to remember most movies are made for 16-year-old boys. Maybe that’s changing, but 16-year-old boys have truly had a poor education. Really the point is that people want to make too much money.

And with Cameron, we’re not even talking about just American 16-year-olds. We’re talking about the 16-year-old’s parents on a date night. Their 15-year-old sisters and their friends. It’s the kind of mega-movie that “better make sense in Kerala as well as Kansas” as Mary HK Choi writes in her love letter to it.

Maybe there really is no intelligent way to do that. Maybe a movie like Avatar is now by definition a movie that you watch for the pretty pictures and awesome sound and leave your brain at home with a babysitter. With the right perspective, even The Lord of the Rings is a just movie about people walking endlessly.

Which is why I find it interesting that the story Cameron chose as universally translatable and instantly relatable is one infused with the white man savior complex. No matter how in tune with their world the Na’avi might be, as Mary Bustillos writes:

It still takes a white man to tame the really BIG dragon, and to outfox the enemy. He will also take the “best” woman, the noblest, the highest born, the smartest, whose token resistance will dwindle its sorry way from faux-contempt to near-drooling adoration in a matter of days. Her former man will die, and her father will, too; her whole civilization will lie in ruins. She will pretty much get down on her knees to thank this white man.

It shocks me that this aspect of Avatar doesn’t trouble more people. Or would it be more correct to say that it shocks me that it doesn’t seem to have occurred at all to a great many people? Is that because this is a trope that has seeped so deep into our subconscious that we don’t even notice it any more or have we gotten so accustomed to our steady diet of tripe that most of us have simply given up on analyzing the meaning of the visuals unspooling in front of us? We’ve been going on a slow march towards the popular view that intelligence is elitist, but has the mere act of thinking at all now become too elitist to indulge in polite company?

Maybe it’s just a simple ignorance of the strong parallels Avatar draws to the genocide of Native Americans. Writing about “the white guilt fantasy“, Annalee Newitz notes:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside…Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode…When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.

As the chatter builds for Avatar as a possible Best Picture contender or even outright winner come Oscar time, it strikes me as absurd. Yes, Avatar has opened a door for the human imagination and the technical detail is amazing. But as a movie? Really? Avatar is your best movie of the year, dated slang and outdated wheelchairs and all?

And then I read this comment on the slang post: “The movie was well written. I’d rather have a movie with good writing all around than one with a few memorable catch phrases here and there.” I had half a hope that it was Wonkette-style facetiousness until I remembered that Titanic anointed Cameron king of the world.

James Cameron clearly knows what he’s doing, and much as I’m awed by his technical skills that fact alone makes me hope that he won’t get the grand prize for this story. I’m glad I went to watch Avatar. Like I said, it was an Event. Those are fun. I’m even more glad I took my brain with me. I wouldn’t even know what “fun” is without it.

Related: David Poland


Posted by on December 24, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Newsmakers, Review, Video


16 responses to “On Avatar. Since I Must.

  1. SJ

    December 24, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Agree 100%.
    Other peeves:
    1. The missionary-type woman, Sigourney Weaver, is carried to safety in a harness and then the entire clan goes into a trance to save her. The natives, including the clan leader, may be left to die.
    2. The first time Sully fights the best warrior in the tribe, he easily knocks him out with a single punch.

  2. pitu

    December 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I was honestly dazed after the movie. Pretty effing orgasmic if you ask me 😀 And the white man thing occurred to me much later, when I could actually process stuff instead of going AVATARAVATARAVATARAVATAR! But I don’t know that it bothers me.

    Part of it is that it was phenomenal on at least one count- that Cameron (and the studio) had the balls to make a firmly anti-war, pro-green movie in a country as polarized as this one. I thought it was ironic that before the film started we were shown National Guard commercials where everyone’s ‘heroic’ and ‘saintly’ and dressed in camo. And then in Avatar you get to see the US Army as the world sees it. As imperialist and frankly, unethical. That takes cajones. So yeah, he does show the white guy being the ‘chosen one’ by Eywa etc but he also shows a side of America very few Americans would like to accept.

    The other part of it to me, is that so many of my favorite novels are simply dripping with the white man’s burden. My thesis in college was on the cultural imperialism in ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, and I actually cried after submitting it because it pained me to say anything bad about C.S. Lewis. I even have Puddleglum’s quote on my resume (honest!) “I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia”. It’s still my second fave literary masterpiece in the world, warts and all. Is it imperialist? Absolutely! Is it sexist? Absolutely! And yet it’s shaped who I am and the person I became far and above any spiritual text I have ever read. (And no, I am not imperialist and sexist)

    I don’t think we should deny or excuse the flaws in ‘Avatar’ but for me, the courage it probably took for Cameron to make his stance is remarkable. And if even one frothing-at-the-mouth-right-wing-Ann Coulter loving-Sarah Palin voting-SUV-driving jackass exits the theater thinking about the movie and its message, hey, it’s a success for me. And yes, I hope it sweeps every Oscar. I will completely be rooting for ‘Avatar’ come March!

    Sry about the long comment 🙂

  3. Gradwolf

    December 24, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    This can’t be called subtle but something like this has better reach than michael moore type documentary lashings.
    Forget very few people realizing the message, did you read about na’vi being vaishnavite, blue colored sri ram, the sky ppl being shaivites etc? How do these things even cross someone’s mind!!??

  4. milind

    December 25, 2009 at 12:04 am

    If it is America in present context, it was UK in 18th and 19th century. The same modus operendie in conquering the world, sending missioneries in guise of winning the minds by providing helping hand, the same brutal wars, cheating innocent minds, and influencing by soft power to destroy the local ethics and culture. Only difference Avatar shows is that a white man unites and fights to win for the poor Na’vis.
    But, well, the cinema halls are running full even here in India, and people can not view ‘betwwen the lines’.

  5. Piyush

    December 25, 2009 at 1:56 am

    why must you ruin everything Amrita??

  6. nsfw

    December 25, 2009 at 10:55 am

    It’s a movie. Any layers are a bonus. As people who watch Bollywood movies (God help us), we ought to be familiar with the concept. 🙂
    And surprisngly, my wife (an action film buff) has decided that the movie for us to catch is 3 Idiots. 🙂

  7. nsfw

    December 25, 2009 at 11:07 am

    And I must echo the protest against the post-colonial white man’s burden subtext that you are reading. Give the man a break. Just how long ago was it since the Western was the definitive American mythology?

  8. ramesh

    December 25, 2009 at 11:15 am

    white man contributes to the majority of any hollywood blockbuster’s turnover .. really why go all metaphysical on a masala flick .. and cameron’s worked on technology, so why should he risk going completely 360 degrees in the story treatment .. look at our films .. all set in foreign lands where indians are the goons, the rich people, people who make a new yaark street sing ‘pretty woman’ to preity zinta and the list is endless (and all this can be read in equally freudian ways which all will make sense of course) .. global warming, imperialism and such adjectives are colouring our daily lives .. why care if one particular masala flick ignores all this (and do not forget that 2012 is when the world is destroyed)

  9. Amrita

    December 25, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    SJ – Sully is Amitabh Bachchan and Rajnikanth rolled into one obvs!

    Pitu – hey, I love long comments! 😀
    Thing is, I don’t think Cameron was particularly brave in choosing the stands he took. Sure, he might have pissed off some evangelicals here and there (that guy who’s posing as him on Twitter is already trying to start a flame war with one of them and its hilarious) but he’s James Fucking Cameron as the twitter says. They gave him 350 million bucks to experiment. Its not like he’s some tiny indie filmmaker trying his shot at the grand prize.
    And the way he paid off the investment was by carefully constructing something that neatly checks off Things Different Demos Want to See – if Manmohan Desai were alive today and making movies in Hollywood, this is kinda what he’d make.
    And this is precisely why I’m rooting against this movie at awards shows even though I’m half-convinced its going to win everything because I feel like its an exercise in cynicism and shouldn’t be rewarded.
    But Hollywood loves him, esp coz he makes them money, and so you’re probly going to see your wish fulfilled. 😦

    Adithya – was that from BR’s comments? 😀 As the fanboys piled on, they just got progressively funnier.

    Milind – yes it’s definitely a continuation of a longstanding process. When’s it going to break is the question.

    Piyush – because thats how I get my kicks. Duh. :mrgreen:

    Nsfw – it shouldn’t be a bonus though, is the point I was trying to make. 😀 Esp in a movie that people are tipping as awards-worthy. Precious has been getting a fair amount of flak about the things it says about race, but at least it wasn’t a half-assed cynical construct like this one. When was the western last seen as definitive? I think Unforgiven was the last great Western. (I liked the Assassination of Jesse James too, but there wasn’t anything definitive about it)
    Oh, enjoy 3 Idiots. And do tell me if you felt properly chastened at the end of it. It seems to be the new hallmark of all Aamir movies. But try and catch Avatar if you can – it’s quite something.

    Ramesh – that’s the saddest part of it to me. To have someone who made movies like Alien and Terminator where the dialogues are iconic and the scenes are written just so, reduced to just another masala director is incredibly sad. It’s like he’s creating down to us.
    Plus, you know, what I said to nsfw.

  10. broom

    December 26, 2009 at 12:19 am

    Amrita – I will make a confession here – I fell asleep when the Na’vi girl started training Jake. True story. I woke up about 20 minutes later & continued to be bored out of my mind. The amazing graphics kept me engrossed for about the first 5 minutes of the movie and after that it was like watching a slightly more mature Disney movie.
    I cannot for the life of me understand why people (including The Girl) are going so ga-ga over this really really really average movie. Special effects? Really? Is that all we expect from the movies we watch these days?

  11. memsaab

    December 26, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I loved the first Terminator, and Alien scared the bejesus out of me (which I didn’t like, exactly, but at least could respect)…but his work after that hasn’t touched me at all. I want movies that I see to enter my heart, and if they break new ground too that’s even better. But from the promos I’ve seen, this film doesn’t even tempt me a little bit (although your excellent writeup—really excellent, the best I’ve seen yet) comes as close as anything would in providing an impetus…but mostly, JC seems to now believe that he is the “other” JC—and it shows.

  12. James, a bit Sullied?

    December 26, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Like I told you (on the “Turnabout” post) right after watching it last week (and elaborated at Sachita’s, later), I needed it to be more than it was, storywise, to elicit that WOW from me. All that (subtextual) mixing of fiction with fact (messages! Go Green! Love peace! etc) didn’t work for me at all in the movie that was pitched to me as fantasy fare. (Take me away, transport me to a whole another universe. But while at it, please oh please don’t bore me with all my earthly woes better served up by the morning paper! Too much to ask?)

    I’m totally with broom (and also memsaab, re: emotional engagement) in that special effects were awesome and all that but tech porn can do very little to keep me engrossed for the entirety of a movie, especially when it’s James effing Cameron (like you say) at the helm. (Call me biased but the “oooh all this groovy action and so much eye candy, who needs a bloody story” approach works for me *only* when it’s the whop of an ass-kicker that’s the Transformers franchise — way to go, Mr. Bay!)

    And oh, this IS the Mother of all Avatar write-ups, as memsaab recalls.

  13. Srinivas

    December 27, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Great write up Amrita..simply superb. You are right, as an experience the movie was amazing, but the story and between the lines did not pass muster at all.

    Even the movieline points [It was a total WTF moment when JS rolled into the scene in that contraption] were great

    And for all the points about American imperialism, it was still the story of white man tames savage beast – and you know hes going to ride that bird when it first makes an appearance 🙂

    3Idiots was some major – “Yawn, not this shit again”, Avatar just provided some moments of awesome visuals.

  14. badri18

    January 2, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    Totally agree with you. Avataar, dasaavatharam all makes you lose focus on the story and u are wondering whether you are in a circus show or a movie theatre!

  15. Rahul

    January 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I agree with Broom.It was incredibly boring.I think mainstream has lost me for ever.
    Also,did anyone notice the story was plagiarisadapted from “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Bahti hai”?

  16. Rahul

    January 6, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    P.S. – if the gimmicks make one lose focus of the story or vice versa then its a failing of the director,not the gimmick.It still is an important milestone.Maybe someone like Tarsem Singh would use it more coherently.

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