April 23, 2010

Privileged Straight White Men Are the Best!

I suppose it's possible, in some utterly fantastical galaxy far, far away, that an unimaginably privileged and affluent straight white man, one celebrated and made fabulously wealthy by his culture, could be an inspiring champion of all oppressed peoples and creatures throughout the farflung universe, and a marvelous feminist as well. It's similarly possible that I'm actually Xpotwvifzgyt, from the planetoid Buirflecqtz, sent here in the person of Arthur Silber, to ready your world for the takeover that will occur on December 21, 2012. I am Xpotwvifzgyt, and that is what's going to happen. Some of your people got the date right -- we're still figuring out exactly how that happened -- but their explanation of its significance was completely nuts. Typical of you. Our farseeing leader told me I could reveal the truth to you, and you'd never believe me. Just wait, suckers. Hahahahaha!

Well, we're not in an utterly fantastical galaxy far, far away, and James Cameron is not that man. Yes, I've now seen Avatar. What a huge to-do about comparatively nothing. Qualifications: since I'm housebound, I only saw Avatar on DVD without the 3-D. Even so, some of the images are strikingly beautiful. I'm sure the 3-D effects are, like, way cool. Technology may make many wonderful things possible (it unquestionably does), but it's not automatically correlative with original, arresting artistic achievement, or even artistic interest, right? Please tell me you knew that. A bit more about technology and related matters in a moment.

So in what follows, please factor out issues relating to the full 3-D experience in a theater, as well as specifically cinematic concerns (for the most part). My focus here is on the literary content, that is, story and characters. Cameron wrote the screenplay, so it's his baby all the way.

As I watched the film, I kept thinking: "This is a cartoon, man." There's something about the movie that just makes me talk that way. Oh, yeah, it must be that scads of adults spent gajillions of dollars making a damn cartoon. I mean that in a much broader sense than the look and general "feel" of the movie -- but since I had been thinking that (a lot), it struck me as pretty damned funny when a quick internet search on some issues relating to Cameron turned up this. That's funny, dude.

Besides the Pocahontas-Avatar combo, that link mentions that people have argued (apparently, with much evidence to support the claims) that Cameron's film is a "blatant rip-off" of Firekind and Dances with Wolves. All those similarities may well be true. In fact, I assume they almost certainly are (I'm not familiar with any of the other works, although I plan to watch Dances with Wolves soon, since I'm curious now), because what struck me was how completely derivative everything to do with the literary elements of the film is.

Many artists of all kinds borrow elements from others (to say nothing of the numerous influences that writers, composers, etc. have on those who follow), and sometimes writers will even appropriate characters or story elements intentionally and obviously. Shakespeare famously stole stories from everyone. None of that is unusual, and it need not be troublesome in the least or lead to a negative judgment of the borrowing work. What matters is what the artist does with the material in the new work. Along with the elements/influences from others, we hope to find new combinations, original insights, connections that hadn't occurred to us before.

I always begin reading, listening to or viewing a new work (new to me, at least) with that hope. As I watched Avatar, that hope began to fade after the first 10 or 15 minutes. ("It's a fucking cartoon, man!") After 30 or 40 minutes, that hope had vanished altogether. ("And I've seen it before, many, many times.") At about the mid-point of the film, I took a break for a few minutes. ("It's only half over?!?!?!")

Everything in the movie concerning the story and characters is a literary trope of long duration, occurring in an endless number of works (and in an endless number of films). There's the tough-talking scientist broad, introduced crabbily demanding a cigarette, and she orders people around like a goddamned drill sergeant from hell. Oohh, we don't like her much at first. (She's tough and mean! And she smokes!) She turns out to have a heart of gold. Could have knocked me over with a feather. There's the dedicated military guy, who at first seems a bit intense, but, well, okay, he's a seriously dedicated military guy. He's got a job to do. As events unfold, it turns out he's a maniacal, sadistic killer. Never saw that one before.

Every character is a cliche, and the dialogue is, ah, forgettable. All of it gone with the wind. (Hey, good title! You can have it, Jimmy. Shucks, forget the thanks.) I kept searching for just a single genuinely original moment somewhere; finally, I gave up. (But Cameron is so clever! "Unobtainium." Shoot me now. A comic book, for not terribly bright boys.)

Many people seem to believe that Avatar is an enlightened anti-imperialist tract, subversively presented to the unsuspecting and unwashed in the form of a supercool, wildly popular mass entertainment. This is what you can expect from a relentlessly superficial culture, where words and empty symbolic gestures are granted precedence over actions and the ugly reality that lies beneath symbols designed only to prevent people from discovering the truth. The same people who herald Avatar as a stirring message of the evils of exploitation and oppression are doubtless many of those who whooped in triumph that America had finally overcome racism and elected a black president.

So I'll say it again for the blithering dolts: the only reason Barack Obama was able to run for president and win is that he ran as a white man. Not only that:
[I]t is Obama himself who has adopted the white racist framework. Yes, I repeat that: Obama has adopted the white racist framework with regard to every issue of importance.
Very interestingly, however, [Uri] Avnery neglects to mention a further critical reason for Obama's identification with "American whites," although he hints at it. That reason is one I discussed in the first part of my "Triumph" series, and it must never be forgotten. It's a simple and terrible reason: Obama wants power. This is not a secondary or related, tangential issue: we are talking about politics here, so it is the reason. He wants power. In America, if you want power, you must be white -- or you must adopt all the trappings of the white rulers. That's it, that's the whole thing. Power accrues to the white, male ruling class. Period.
Start here, and follow the numerous links if you care to. I can't go through it all again, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference if I did.

But those people (which is most people) who are unable or unwilling to understand that will also fail to see the significance of the actual story arc of Avatar. (Catch that? "Story arc." I am totally Hollywood, man. I do live in L.A. after all.) For I saved the major character for last: the Noble White Man. Whatever would we do without the Noble White Man? According to Cameron, all those oppressed peoples would die without the Noble White Man to save them.

Just look at the critical story elements. In his Na'vi body, the (white, straight) injured Marine falls in love with a Na'vi woman. This opens his eyes to the beauty and value of the Na'vi, and he learns to appreciate and love their world on Pandora. (Wow! Never heard this storyline before!) We learn that only five -- five! -- Na'vi men (only men, please note) had become Great Leaders, symbolized by their bonding with the Big Scary Bird in the Sky. So, of course, when the Na'vi desperately need a Great Leader to end the Time of Great Sorrow (that's what Cameron calls it; I am not making this shit up), our Noble White Man figures out how to bond with one of those Big Scary Birds. His solution is mindbendingly complex: he rides a smaller Bird in the Sky over one of the Big Scary Birds, drops onto the Big Scary Bird, and mixes their tendrils (whatever) together -- and whammo! He's the Great Leader they need to survive! See, none of the Na'vi men could have done that. (The Na'vi women aren't even eligible, so forget that.)

Wait, there's more! The Noble White Man (in his Na'vi body, natch) communes with the life spirit of Pandora and asks for help in defeating the evil imperialists. It appears this particular move didn't occur to even one of the many Na'vi men. (Women not eligible, etc.) The Na'vi woman with whom he's "mated" says the life spirit doesn't "take sides." She's wrong (what do women know? that's one of the reasons they're not eligible): the life spirit does takes sides. Lots and lots of creatures on Pandora magically appear to fight the evil imperialists, and the Na'vi triumph!

And none of it would have happened without the Noble White Man.

Makes you feel all warm and tingly to be a Noble White Man, doesn't it? I'm sure it does wonders for Cameron.

In addition to the points noted above, here are two more about the film's portrayal of women. The climactic specific battle within the long (I mean, looong) final battle sequence is between ... oh, you guessed: two white men, Evil Military Guy and Noble White Man. That's a two-fer: Na'vi and women excluded. Yes, Noble White Man is in his Na'vi body, but he's still Noble White Man, right? And the Na'vi heroine provides an assist, and she does deliver the final killing shots to Evil Military Guy -- but that fight never would have happened at all except for Noble White Man. And women are such good little helpers, aren't they?

The following is a minor point in the context of the entire film, but it's an issue that truly bothers me, in real life and in art (I use the term somewhat imprecisely). I realize that actual men in the military call each other "ladies" (to motivate the men to prove they're real men and not "ladies" at all; gotta love the subtlety of it, doncha?), and that they refer to people they despise as "bitches." So that's a "realistic" touch, but then, the movie isn't all that heavy on "realism," is it? And I found it sickening that, in the midst of the climactic final battle, one of the heroic and good women (who has to die, of course) says, as she opens fire on Evil Military Guy's aircraft, "You're not the only one with a gun, bitch." It's a very, very ugly word, and a very ugly usage. Both these usages are symptoms of our culture's deep cultural loathing of women, which I've written about at length. Ugly and very bad stuff.

Given all the writing I've done about the profound evil of U.S. foreign policy and the great evil of oppression, conquest and exploitation generally, I obviously tend to view works that offer a strong, consistent anti-imperialist message very favorably. And Avatar contains elements of such a message, but only in the most superficial sense. Embedded within the film when we delve more deeply, as I've indicated, are very significant factors that undercut that message at its foundation. In many ways, and in the most significant ways, this is an anti-imperialist film made by a certain kind of liberal: it is enormously self-congratulatory, and its creator completely fails to see how he continues the same vicious theme of the Noble White Man and his innate superiority. I've written about these issues, too: see "Liberal Race Porn."

I looked briefly to try to determine whether Cameron is an Obama supporter. I couldn't find confirmation of that point specifically, but given Cameron's other well-known views (his environmentalism, his enthusiasm for Obama with regard to specific policies), and given what's in this movie, I find it impossible to imagine that Cameron did not vote for Obama. It's entirely possible that Cameron thought that Obama was opposed to American exceptionalism and American imperialism in some manner; a great many people did, including many people who could and should have known better. I need refer you to only a few essays to show how wrong that judgment was, and that the error could have been detected well before the 2008 election: "Songs of Death," and "Obama's Whitewash." You might also want to consult "The Fatal Illusion of Opposition."

Finally, a word about technology and realism. The testimony of history establishes that, if a people or nation with more advanced technology is sufficiently murderous and determined, it will destroy another people or nation whose land or resources the more technologically advanced force covets. In that respect, the victory of the Na'vi may be a pleasant fantasy, but that's all it is: a fantasy. See the fate of the Native Americans, or the fate of the Philippines, or the fate of a number of nations the U.S. has placed in its targets (to say nothing of the numerous conquests by other countries and peoples throughout history).

Technology can be wonderful; it can also be unforgivably destructive. And advanced technological marvels may indicate certain qualities in a particular nation or people -- but technology alone tells you very little about whether a given culture is "civilized" in any genuinely meaningful sense. Similarly, it tells you very little about the quality of any particular creation, including a film.