In a world of their own: Conservatives and Avatar
posted at 10:00 pm on January 8, 2010 by CK MacLeod
Having immensely enjoyed the audio-visual orgy of James Cameron’s Avatar, as the kind of out-of-body experience that big movies are for, I find myself feeling sorry for the many conservatives – published critics, self-publishing bloggers, and commenters – who have blanketed, one might say wet-blanketed, the right side of the internet with their complaints and indictments.
Hollywood has given our anti-nonsense reflexes a lot of exercise in recent years, but I had still expected greater enthusiasm for this movie, or at worst neutrality, from my fellow conservatives. Regardless of how some people feel about Cameron personally, or about any statements he may have made about Avatar‘s intended messages, he remains the same director who gave us Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, and True Lies. By the day that the Avatar trailer played to a national NFL TV audience and on the gigantic new video screen at Cowboys Stadium, it was clear to millions that an audacious effort was under way to re-vitalize the great American movie spectacle – a $400 million gamble by one of our leading auteur-entrepreneurs, in the shape of an advertisement for democratic capitalism at its most innovative, and for the creativity and vitality of American culture during a time when American declinism and every other brand of pessimism about our future have been spreading to an extent not seen since the 1970s.
Those on the right who have been impotently and priggishly attacking the movie, their small-spirited wishes for its failure decisively dashed by a quick $1 Billion in worldwide ticket sales, have not just been embarrassing themselves and their political-cultural allies. They may even have been doing harm to the conservative movement, at least as much as the movie itself may do with its incidental Gore- and Obamaisms.
No one is obligated to like any film, of course. One blogger’s eye candy is another blogger’s eye strain, but the first reviews from the right didn’t just seek some distance from off-putting aspects of Avatar, they full-throatedly assaulted the entire effort. “Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy,” was the headline over Big Hollywood‘s review, which included a bizarre attempt to charge Cameron with politically exploiting 9/11. Other rightwing bloggers seemed to compete with each other over who could write the best put-downs: “cinema for the hate America crowd,” “Production: $183,000,000. Script: $14.25,” Dances with Smurfs – drink more vodka and 3-D headache goes away,””a suicide fantasy, the Hollywood blockbuster equivalent of a troubled teenager’s notebook sketches, scribbled by someone who hates himself only marginally less than he hates the rest of the world.” Gregg Easterbrook, not on the right but here writing from a right-ish perspective, even got espn.com in on the action, explaining at length why soldiers and I guess mining engineers, too, ought to feel deeply “insulted” by the film.
John Podhoretz’s review at The Weekly Standard bought its ticket for the put-down sweepstakes with the title “Avatarocious.” In the review itself, Podhoretz writes of astonishment, not headaches, at the film’s technical achievement, but compensates with the critic’s equivalent of a cuss-out: “blitheringly stupid… among the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen… an undigested mass of clichés… unbelievably banal and idiotic” and so forth. Unfortunately for his credibility as a reviewer, however, he repeatedly refers to the film as humorless, at one point asserting that “it doesn’t have a single joke in it.” Anyone who has actually seen the film, or merely viewed the TV ads and trailers, is left to wonder whether Podhoretz was too busy re-combining derogatory phrases in his head to be paying minimal attention to the movie – which, to be clear, offers a Cameron-typical assortment of one-liners and visual gags. As for Avatar‘s themes, Podhoretz declines to take them seriously except to argue that Cameron’s presumed marketing calculations may demonstrate how “deeply rooted… anti-American, anti-human politics” have become.
Like other reviewers, Podhoretz also indulges in the predictable and familiar charge that the movie’s narrative elements are predictable and familiar. Since Avatar stands in other ways as novelty itself – right before your eyes, in glorious 3-D – to focus overly much on derivative aspects of its storyline would seem an ungracious gesture, even if its selections from among finite narrative alternatives (boy meets female humanoid, boy loses female humanoid, etc.) were poorly justified or badly executed. I don’t concede the last, but, either way, audiences would likely have been disappointed if Cameron had denied them certain expected narrative beats – the step by step development of the love interest, the hero’s education to the ways of the alien tribe. A significant part of the pleasure of a movie like this one is seeing traditional story elements transformed in a new setting, while otherwise the narrative chiefly serves to organize, elaborate, and extend the sensual experience.
Same for the dialogue, another common attack point: Whether you respect the craft on display or decry its lack of expressive power and wit, the dialogue is not the movie’s main, secondary, or even tertiary reason for existence. Anyway, as someone who in a previous life read and critiqued thousands of screenplays, I feel professionally qualified, very likely much better qualified than any of the critics I’ve quoted, to declare Avatar‘s dialogue better than movie-competent – maybe a little broader than necessary even for an all-ages global audience, but at the same time demonstrative of Cameron’s unrivaled skill at inserting new phrases into popular discussion: “I see you!” may be a bit too peek-a-boo to achieve the same status as “I’ll be back,” but it’s already an understood punch-line on the Daily Show and RedEye.
The charges of being anti-American and anti-military might seem more significant, but they’re harder to take seriously in relation to a film that includes exactly as many references to the United States of America as Podhoretz says it has jokes: Zero.
The movie is set in the year 2154, a multi-lightyear interstellar void away from planet Earth. We never learn whether the U.S. of A even exists 140+ years from now. The soldiers do seem American, some Australian accents notwithstanding, but, even so, our main character informs us early on that they are the tools of corporate interests, not the armed forces of a nation: “Back home, we fight for freedom. Out here, we’re hired guns.” It’s possible that corporatist liberals in the Vietnam Era LBJ mode may have come to power in the elections of 2148 or so, assuming there were elections, but we don’t really know the precise extent to which the soldiers are mercenaries, and, if not, whether they’re misused conscripts or volunteers or something wholly other and 22nd Century.
At most, the force represents a military or paramilitary force with some apparent American roots or resonances, on a mission gone wrong, its bad ends defeated by… a typically exceptional, highly sympathetic, and more than equally American, underdog-supporting Marine and his friends. To call the resultant developments “anti-military” or “anti-American” would be like calling “Dirty” Harry Callahan, Die Hard‘s John McClane, and Robocop‘s Officer Murphy anti-police figures; or calling John Rambo an anti-American and anti-war icon. Following this paranoid logic, the same logic that has led some conservatives to mis-identify Jason Bourne as anti-American, 300‘s Leonidas would become an icon of kneejerk leftwing anti-imperialism. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington becomes an attack on constitutional government. Mr. Incredible becomes an animated Ché Guevara. All of them, even Leonidas (and even Ché as fictional construct, come to think of it), are typical and very American heroes, loners whose personal characters, experiences, and moral courage lead them to fight against enemies who have corrupted and distorted whatever powerful forces or institutions they have come to control.
Such hero figures are legion in American popular art, with a lineage stretching back to America’s origins as a revolutionary and Judeo-Christian enterprise, and to our first breakaway action blockbuster, James Fenimoore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, featuring Hawkeye, the ultimate “gone-native” American warrior. Our Hawkeyes are almost always isolated, and are frequently reviled – on the way to eventual, audience-pleasing redemptions, when “everyone” realizes how right they always were. In Avatar “everyone” is represented on screen by the defeated soldiers and corporate lackeys sent bedraggledly back to from where they came, secondarily by those who will greet them – Terrans or Americans who, we are repeatedly given to believe, would also disapprove of what the depraved Colonel Quaritch orders his soldiers to do.
Conservatives should have little difficulty envisioning Avatar‘s bad guys as futuristic neo-liberals and their lackeys, unrestrained by authentic republican democracy, indulging in ill-conceived and gradually escalated measures that inevitably lurch to overkill and self-defeat, but many of us have forgotten both our real history and our movie history – the truths of Vietnam and Somalia, for example, and also the truths underlying the final scenes of a bygone conservative fave like Rambo, a glorious rampage against military bean counters and their machines. Bad or misled American soldiers have done bad things on bad American orders, and it’s not un-American or anti-military or un-conservative to admit as much, to try to understand why, to hope for and believe in something better, or to dramatize it all for broad consumption.
The conservative Avatar-haters know this all as well as anyone, a fact that makes me think that what they’re really unhappy about has little to do with Avatar, and much more to with Hollywood’s near complete refusal to celebrate America’s contemporary military heroes. I share that disappointment: There are by now several Summers’ worth of un-made blockbusters that should have portrayed the brilliant feats of arms and moral courage of American soldiers in places that for most of us might as well be alien planets.
On the happy Wednesdays and Fridays of at least one possible future in which those movies are finally released, blowing and bloodying up theaters in vivid 3D, Avatar may indeed be revealed as a relic of an abbreviated Age of Obama. Yet most of those stories, if treated honestly and interestingly, will likely depict the dynamic tension between, on the one side, bad ideas, bad leadership, and tragic costs in blood and treasure, and, on the other side, the valiance of our real-life Rambos: Jake Sully Petraeus opposing an array of institutional forces… accused of going native… gathering a few allies… learning to fight, think, and work with insurgents… on the way to a glorious synthesis of high tech Americanism and indigenous culture.
As for the other criticisms of Avatar, I find it odd that anyone is significantly concerned with the conjectural practicalities of “unobtanium” mining, or the next-century economics of spinal medicine. I don’t see a conservative problem with a good-hearted red-blooded tech-enabled American guy fighting for truth, justice, and the 10-foot-tall blue humanoid he very monogamously loves. I’m not willing to give the theme of spiritual re-birth – “one life ends, another begins” – to the left or leave it for New Age hippies only, partly because I don’t see Christianity as merely a “suicide fantasy.” And it strikes me that something may have gone wrong in American conservatism if any hint of the “noble savage,” of intimate and mysterious connections to nature as God’s creation, has become off-limits according to the same people who, at a different time of the day or night, or a different blog post, will be celebrating the authentic frontier virtues, character, and elitist-mystifying spirituality of Sarah Palin.
Finally, the idea that the film (or, in theory, any film) could be “anti-human” may be the most interesting criticism, partly for its relation to extreme environmentalism, but mainly because it’s confronted directly within Avatar‘s own central themes – the parallel pscyhological, technical, and emotional challenges before the hero, the film maker, and the audience: to recognize the “Na’vi” as human; to see refusal of their humanity as wrong, primordially inhumane. It’s a dynamic similar to the one at the center of Blade Runner – Deckard and his “replicant” beloved Rachel, and us, on one side; “skin-job”-hating cops on the other (Roy Batty flying above everyone).
Cameron’s ability to exploit such “true lies” in his story concepts and on the level of form goes back to the Terminator, a character whose outward humanity was precisely the condition of his threat to humanity. Since that time, Cameron’s science fiction has crossed back and forth across the question “what is human?” – as in Aliens‘ species-traitor Burke, less human than an acid-blooded monster; as in the machine from T2 who fully attains humanity in a paradoxical final act of self-sacrifice. Along the way, in exquisitely multi-leveled film-authorial gestures, the supposed neo-Luddite Cameron has also explored the ability of special effects technology to erase the difference between “natural” and “manufactured” realities in the universe of cinema. The objective testimony of box office receipts proves he has done so with fantastic success. The lack of interest by supposedly conservative critics in such matters, and their unconsciousness of where they’re aligning themselves, will prompt a fan of the film to wonder who in the end the real skowns are.
Do American conservatives now believe that the left owns nature, spirituality, communitarian values, bold trips where no one has gone before, and all willingness to defy mealy-mouthed corporate squishes and sociopaths in or out of uniform? Of course not. But some are acting that way. Playing up and then decrying these messages, in this context, implicitly defining them as wholly owned property of the left, is to cede invaluable cultural and therefore political ground for no good reason. At a certain point, it becomes something worse than “blithering stupidity”: It becomes an unforced, hard to repair political error, reinforcing the stereotype of the conservative as aggressively defensive moralizer, living in a world of his own anger and prejudice. It’s a much less attractive and interesting place than James Cameron’s Pandora.
cross-posted from Zombie Contentions