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Avatar? Political? Seriously?

UPDATE (01/19/10): NY Times: "You Saw What in Avatar?":

"Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron's intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about," said Rebecca Keegan, the author of "The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron." "It's really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties."

The "Avatar" camp isn't endorsing any particular interpretation, but is happy to let others read the ink blots. "Movies that work are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre," Jon Landau, a producer of the film, said in a telephone interview. "The theme is what you leave with and you leave the plot at the theater."

I'm fond of saying that movies are never made or exhibited in a vacuum. Even the most timeless films are inescapably also products of the times in which they're made and seen -- socially, technologically, aesthetically, politically. But at The Auteurs, Glenn Kenny poses a question that is nevertheless worth asking: "The politics of 'Avatar': Do they matter?" How, he wonders, did this become a hot topic -- what with conservatives vehemently attacking the movie... from both the right (as a pantheistic, tree-hugging, anti-capitalist tract that celebrates the slaughter of armed Americans) and the left (as an offensive "White Messiah fable")?

I think Kenny nails it:

The only thing we find genuinely interesting about "Avatar"'s politics is the extent to which they actually matter to the film itself and what it really puts across, and which we think is really not so much. Which is to say that its politics are not prescriptive. [...]

While it's disingenuous for conservative commenters to insist that Avatar's politics are just going to go over the mass audience's head (and by the way, have you noticed that for some of these guys, the relative intelligence and moral fiber of "the people" is determined by what they're buying? When it's "Going Rogue," the American public is brilliant and patriotic, when it's tickets to "Avatar," they're dumb amoral sheep; how about that free market...) it is more than likely that said audience will perceive the politics of the film as, by and large, a set of characterizations and propositions with which they're familiar. Corporate interests=greed and indifference to life. Military and/or mercenary collusion with corporate interests=more of the same. Earth scientists=enlightened third way. Primitive people who have a literal connection to their natural world=you're wiser than us. These notions are hardly novel, particularly in science fiction.

I don't have much more to say about "Avatar" than I already said after I saw it, but just to clarify what I said: It's not just the technologies (the CGI and the 3D) that I found unimpressive, but how they've been used to realize a candy-colored visual design that struck me as unimaginative, trite and tacky. That's what's really disappointing. When phrases like "Where's Tinkerbell?" and "Dances with Smurfs" come to mind during an experience that's clearly intended to be, as they say, "visionary," you realize all the technology in the world wouldn't help. The truth is, "Avatar" simply recycles visuals even Cameron himself has used to better effect before. Next to that reality, everything else (character, story, politics -- such as they are) pales in significance for me.

But back to the politics -- the "fourth dimension," if you will: John Podhoretz called it "an undigested mass of clichés" and said of the equations Kenny mentions above: "Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance." That was indeed what he tried to do, but mythic resonance isn't achieved simply by cribbing together bits and pieces of familiar (er, "universal") folklore. As my friend Kathleen Murphy said about "Avatar," there's a difference between simple and simplistic.

The movie can explicitly mention some thematic concerns in dialog, but how deeply are those themes really incorporated into the fabric of the film itself? Are the politics of "Avatar," as expressed in the movie, of much interest to you? Or are they just easily available hooks upon which to show off movie technology? How important are they to the experience of the film? And how do you interpret them?

UPDATE (01/09/10): Wesley Morris writes in the Boston Globe:

The controversy the movie has generated for its depiction of race seems limited in part because Cameron's fantasy is based on a return to innocence that's charmingly cuckoo. This is a little boy's wish to shed his skin and not only live with blue people but become one of them. Their bodies look so cool.

The movie's identity politics spring from an epic conflation of Cameron's hawkish and dovish sensibilities. The muscled trigger-happiness of "Terminator'' meets the humane scientific wonder of "The Abyss.'' The rage that emerges in the delirious final act actually brings the allegory close to the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Sully and the Na'vi team up to take down a fleet of ex-Marine mercenaries who work for a greedy mega-corporation trying to mine a precious energy source on the moon called Pandora. The white American dude joins the insurgency. [...]

... And virtual reality is what saves the movie's politics from itself: It's a literal fantasy set, after all, on the moon....

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