Fantasies of the Master Race – in 3D!
This moneyquote from Hollywood Elsewhere on the political implications of James Cameron’s Avatar is making the rounds. But it’s pretty juicy, so here goes:
The political import of Avatar — and there’s no waving this aspect away because it’s right in your face start to finish, and especially in the third act — is ardently left. It is pro-indigenous native, anti-corporate, anti-imperialist, anti-U.S. Iraq War effort, anti-U.S.-in-Afghanistan (and anti-troop-surge-in-that-country, or strongly against the thinking of President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal), anti-rightie, anti-Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, etc.
I am all of those things, too, but I can’t get quite as enthusiastic about it as Jeffrey Wells. My first (and subsequent) impression, based on the trailers and a New Yorker fluff piece on Cameron is more in line with snarky right-wing assessment by AllahPundit: “A three-hour lecture on imperialism starring Smurfs.” Audience reaction to a special preview shown at Comic-Con last summer, judging by the tweets from my friends who attended, focused on the Smurfy qualities of Na’Vi, the natives of Pandora. Yet the more I think on it, they remind me of Ewoks.
What neither Wells nor AllahPundit seem to recognize is that for all of “pure Che Guevara (more the Motorcycle Diaries or Che-in-Cuba version than Che in Bolivia), Naom Chomsky, Hugo Chavez, Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal, Oliver Stone, etc.” politics, Cameron’s portrayal of an exotic indigenous culture and white boy assisted uprising is squarely within the traditions of imperialist literature. Start with James Fenimore Cooper, follow the trail to Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” — but, please, do make a detour at Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man”, which subverts the genre — and note along the way how indigenous cultures are romanticized in the eyes of the white protagonist. You’ll see this trope in several movies on the American war in Vietnam from the 1980s, although Joseph Conrad pushes that view in a darker, yet no less romanticized direction. The plot hinges upon the White Savior’s ability to rescue the indigenous culture from the ravages of the imperialist forces. If he fails, it’s a tragedy; if he succeeds, he’s Luke Skywalker chuckling at the quaint minstrelsy of the Savage Teddy Bears.
The nutjobs on Sean Hannity’s forum are incensed by Cameron’s “liberal fantasy”, mostly because they reject reflexively anything reminding them that their American privilege rests upon the violence Europeans have inflicted upon the rest of the world. But they do have a point. It’s a small one, but it’s worth teasing out. The liberal fantasy does not deny the ravages of imperialism, and can eloquently decry it; but then what? We watch the movie’s portrayal of cultural genocide and ecological devastation, and either feel the white protagonist’s sorrow in surveying the carnage; or we cheer that some small blow has been made against the Evil Empire. Then we walk out of the multi-plex movie theater attached to the ginormous shopping mall full of goods manufactured overseas by people subsisting on less than a dollar a day; get in our cars that put CO2 in the atmosphere, warming the planet and raising sea levels that threaten to erase entire island communities that have existed for thousands of years; and marvel at the 3D special effects that cost almost half a billion dollars to produce.
In sum, this is the same blind “feel good” shit that our current President traffics in, even as he pursues policies of war, torture, detention and globalization. Even as his negotiators in Copenhagen weaken and subvert global efforts to address the negative impacts of climate change felt by indigenous people around the world.