Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ohhhh ... That's What Avatar Is About ...

I don't consider myself to be a dolt, when it comes to movies, cinema.

It's been a life-long passion, including, working my teens years at the legendary Brattle Theatre, exposing me to hundreds-and-hundreds of movies, from all over the world, that, had I gone the route of the most of the neighborhood, I would have been bagging groceries, and, thereby, less enlightened.

Over the past week, or so, seeing the trailers for the new James Cameron film, 'Avatar', I was, kind of, scratching my head, saying WTF!

It shows some military, blue people, giant birds, unseen since the Flintstones were on the television, the tease of a love story, and some kind of war, or battle.

So, we have to thank Annalee Newitz, for her post, "When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar?", for hipping me (and, likely, saving 10-bucks).

It's a sci-fi 'Dances With Wolves'.

Which means, that it is a long movie about how cool certain white people are, for trying to help (in their white-of-white ways) people of color, or, at minimum, different then themselves.

Newitz starts off;

Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it's about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy. Spoilers


This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member. But it's also, as I indicated earlier, very similar in some ways to District 9. In that film, our (anti)hero Wikus is trying to relocate a shantytown of aliens to a region far outside Johannesburg. When he's accidentally squirted with fluid from an alien technology, he begins turning into one of the aliens against his will. Deformed and cast out of human society, Wikus reluctantly helps one of the aliens to launch their stalled ship and seek help from their home planet.

If we think of Avatar and its ilk as white fantasies about race, what kinds of patterns do we see emerging in these fantasies?
If you want to find the answer to that, go read Annalee Newitz, it's a great post.

SEK, over on Lawyers, Guns and Money, picks up on it;
In order for the audience to support the transformation of Jake Sully into Braveheart Smurf, it must accept the essentialist assumptions that make such a combination possible ... and those assumptions are racist. In football terms, this is a variation of the black quarterback "problem."

For decades, coaches and scouts wished they could find a black body with a white brain in it. ("If only someone could find a way to stuff Peyton Manning's brain into JaMarcus Russell's body!")


*I'm analogizing race and species here because Cameron's space fable encourages me to do so with all the subtlety of a fry pan upside my head.

Sean Paul Kelley, on The Agonist, sees the above, but offers a different perspective, that this is a common narrative;
Several friends who dogged on Avatar have seen it recently. And every one of them tells me, "go see it." Of course, every one of them says, "it is like an alien version of 'Dances With Wolves' and is all about white, post-colonial guilt and race."


The archetype is a common foundational myth, pops up in many national literatures and historical writing for a reason. It's been used by the Turks, the Mongols, the Mayans and others. It's not about colonialism, it's about the fluidity of tribes, a much older human grouping and one that is much more primal.

Sean John Scalzi, on Whatever, has a review of 'Avatar' (and, he "My Sister-My Daughter's" Cameron);
2. I spent almost no time at all thinking about the fact that most of my time was spent looking at computer animation. The Na’vi (I hope I got the apostrophe right, there) exist on the other side of the CGI uncanny valley; between the actors and their animators, these are real performances. Also, note to James Cameron: The extra time spent animating eyeballs paid off.


I won’t get into the story except to say I found it serviceable, if predictable, and while I don’t really feel the same sort of moral outrage other people have about the “noble savage” stereotype as it applies to this film, it certainly does leave itself wide open for criticism along that line. But as you can tell from the pullout quote above, I go into Cameron films assuming I’ll need to compensate for storytelling anyway. That said, unlike, say, George Lucas, Cameron actually does attempt to tell a story and to give his actors something else to do except stand there. The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.

I don't know.

Blue people, running around, doing crazy things, on, or with, outlandish props?

Maybe the Blue Man Group should sue.

Bonus Links

One For The Film Buffs ... Max Ophuls

Rififi Director, Jules Dassin, Blacklisted, Dies at 96

Swedish Film Icon Ingmar Bergman Dead At 89 ; Police Depressed, Working Through Emptiness, Not Ruling Out Foul Play

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