An Intrigue in Success and in Failure
As an experience, it is singular and frankly amazing. As a sheer creative/technical effort and advancement to the visual potential of cinema, it's an olympic gold medal long-jump. As an ethnography, it is rich and fascinating (though it has the potential to be so much more). As an ecological survey it is staggering. As a story, it is erupting with unique specificities, and emotes powerfully though broadly. As a premise… well, its been done before. To reduce things crudely, AVATAR is an interplanetary version of The Last Samurai via Pocahontas, with a twist of the She’s All That’s “You mean I was just a bet!?” thrown in the mix. But truthfully, there is so much contained within the universe of AVATAR, a film that you necessarily experience rather than watch, that if you summarily dismiss it at any single point of criticism (viable and crucial to the whole as they may be), you are in neglect of a bounty of intriguing captivating moments and heights.
The best complement to AVATAR is that it begs questions, many important questions. Questions more immediate and important now, in this information age of astounding global connectivity and learning, than ever before. Questions I ceaselessly pose to myself, and fervently seek to answer in the way I open myself to all experiences and ideas. As I watched AVATAR, these questions bubbled to the surface and molded into the tactility of its manifestation. While it hasn’t the aptitude to truly and deeply explore and answer these inquiries, AVATAR none the less stands, as best it can for what it was made to be, as an example, a full-blooded scenario, and allows if not inspires us to think more deeply in its stead.
It asks... what is cultural identity? If cultural identity is learned through accumulation, can it be learned after the fact? Is culture fluid, or fixed? Are we born into our home, or do we find it? What is home? Is culture a matter of choice, and when does it become so? Is language culture? Can culture exist without language? Is culture only quantifiable in relativity? At what point does imitation become embodiment, or deceit transform into honesty? At what point does façade seep deeper into the tissue and simply… become? AVATAR explores a now classic scenario of “going native;” in this case a kind of elective Stockholm Syndrome, where “seeing how the other half lives” is a platform for self-criticism and learned humanism. And because of the films groundbreaking optical tactility and subsequent inclusiveness, this message effects deeply, perhaps deeply enough to actually affect a generation so swamped in the ubiquity of information and art, that nothing upon nothing shocks them.
One of the most admirable material qualities of AVATAR, a film whose fully realized sense of place and space is its presiding facility, is how seamlessly the technology of the humans is incorporated into the fabric of its orientation and usage, meaning that it is shown and therefore understood mostly diegetically, seeming to be as natural a part of its environment as a Plasma TV and a two-section couch is to the modern American living-room. There is a relationship between all the technologies that makes them seem contemporaneous as a whole, if not familial, and strikes a perfect blend between material and digital, abstract and mechanical. Unfortunately, this treatment of diegesis is not afforded to the same degree to Na’vi, where, as a result of the central plot device of an outsider “learning the ways,” higher instances of exposition are employed. Thankfully though, even those are expressed minimalistically, and much is allowed to be shown and enjoyed without words (A proclivity that, had it been applied much more liberally and as a general rule, would have engendered a great sense of earned and imaginative learning from the audience about Na'vi culture. Cameron should have watched Malick's THE NEW WORLD).
AVATAR’s other cause for accolade is its development of the strong and beautiful spoken Na’vi language, which contains its own uniquely crafted morphology, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Because the Na’vi people are so attuned to nature and its processes, the spoken language incorporates a great deal of gesture and movement in its expression. It has a clear relationship, as does most components of the Na’vi, to Native American lingustic, aesthetic, and spiritual culture.
What endeared me the most about the Na’vi language is its greeting, “I see you,” whose implication is that of a deeper sensibility of knowing, awareness, and feeling of another person. Its not just “I see you” its “I see into you.” It reminded me of the Mayan greeting “In’Lakesh,” and its response, “Ala’kin.” Roughly “In’Lakesh” means “We are different faces of each another” or more concisely, “I am another you.” “Ala’kin” is the confirmation “it is so.” Implicit here is the notion of each person being an expression of the same life and energy, a communion despite differentiation. In short, we are all one.
In Maori culture, a common greeting is for each party, with eyes closed, to place their noses to the other and take a deep breath, as if inhaling a sense of that person, both bodies taking in air and living simultaneously. This gesture is borrowed by the Na’vi and assimilates perfectly into their gestural vocabulary. But more than all that, what the functionality of these lingual flourishes touches upon the facility of language to inform upon attitudes, how its nature can affect if not determine the way thoughts are conceived, communicated, and how people relate to one another. It finds evidence in languages where words like “mine,” or “lie,” don't exist, and how within these cultures, often tribal, concepts of deceit or possession or singular self-preservation have no place. Does language form culture, or the other way around?
My main, and apparently common, quarrel with AVATAR, beyond its use of a wholly unoriginal plot premise and dramatic character arcs (get over it, AVATAR didn't invent “unoriginality”), is the fact that it posits a white man (crippled in fact) as becoming a better Na’vi than any Na’vi could be; learning their ways, leading them into battle as a warrior king, uniting their clans, communing with their deity, mating with the Chief’s daughter, etc.
This presents a bifurcated issue.
In one sense AVATAR creates a positive ideal; that not just in the sharing, but in the combination of our efforts, minds, hearts, ideologies, and convictions we can achieve great things. That in the collaboration of disperate selves and attitudes lay the greatest power.
Inversely, AVATAR employs a kind of subversion of cultural sanctity; almost an imperialism through assimilation; a reversal of imperialism through indoctrination and conversion.
This is where a film like DANCES WITH WOLVES, which AVATAR has been both properly and improperly compared to, succeeds fantastically; because in spite of his affection for and investment in the Sioux Indians, his exploration of their customs, language, and daily life, Union Soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) doesn't become a Sioux Indian, doesn’t assimilate beyond a point of no return, doesn’t assume an infallible measure of acceptance (though he might hope for it), doesn’t lead the Sioux proudly into battle (The chief refuses to allow hip to assist in a war party against invading Pawnee, and later, in fact it is THEY [the Sioux] that mount an attack to save HIM from Union Army imprisonment)… and in the end the cultural divide sorrowfully asserts itself. Dunbar attests that his presence with the Sioux could only be transient, and that the oncoming storm of subjugation would separate them with inevitability. As a testament to the tact and sensitivity of his portrayal of the Sioux and the film’s enduring popularity, Kevin Costner was adopted as an honorary member of the Sioux Nation, an interesting if not ironic phenomenon in context with this discussion of cultural identity.
My other quarrel is that AVATAR, which takes place in a somewhat distant future, purports to carry such archaic and simplistic attitudes of race and personhood, and renders such standardized caricatures for its antagonists (even some of its principal cast) to inhabit. AVATAR infers that the human race is in a dire situation of survival, but inferred is all. No weight is given to that basic desperation to “find a new homeworld,” and ALL weight is given to the propensities of economic voracity, indiscriminant shows of military force, professional arrogance, etc. The scientists are sympathetic, inquisitive, and ultimately weak, the soldiers are complete goons, and “the company” is a heartless profit-seeking beast. Are these archetypes COMPLETELY out of line? No. Are they reflections of historical and extant attitudinal realities? Yes. Does racism and prejudice still virulently exist today, as in places like Uganda in which anti-homosexuality legislation is in place to criminalize homosexuality as punishable-by-death? Yes. Will racism always exist? Probably. Does it make for interesting complex drama, rife with engaging and natural ambiguity, to create a story about as “Good Guy, Bad Guy” as you possibly can? No. But does AVATAR, alongside clear inadequacy, create an utterly sweeping, broadly appreciable experience with clear lines of conflict, obvious cautionary intentionality, and a valuable lesson of understanding and collaborative existence? A resounding Yes.
Pluses and minuses considered, AVATAR wins. It is wholly interesting in its successes and failures, in its emphasis and miss-emphasis, in the ideas it delves into, the questions it raises whether it knows it or not, the enveloping experience it provides, the emotional catharsis it revels in (though tinged with more than just a little bit of “white guilt”), and the dynamism of its physicality, its surface, and its dance.
OTHER FILMS TO WATCH
These following films are virtual master-classes in where AVATAR either miss-emphasizes, treats its subjects too simplistically, or avoids opportunities for irony and ambiguity. They posit varied outcomes, degrees, and motivations of cultural integration and exchange.
THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (Budd Boetticher, 1951)
THE NEW WORLD (Terrence Malick, 2005)
HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMEN (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971)