December 22, 2009

Noble savages in Avatar

A good review of the SF sources Avatar borrowed from and the narrowness of its vision:

All Energy Is Borrowed:  A Review of Avatar

By Gary WestfahlWhat is disturbing is that Avatar marries its argument against ravaging one's environment to an argument against scientific progress itself. The film's position could not be clearer: Living off the land in a forest is good; living in a protective metallic shelter filled with scientific devices is bad. Killing animals with a bow and arrow is good; killing them with machine guns is bad. Riding through the air on the backs of pterodactyl-like creatures is good; riding through the air in futuristic helicopters is bad. Using scientific methods to turn you into an alien is bad; hoping that a magical goddess in a tree can perform the same trick is good. The only value of machinery is that, in a pinch, natives are allowed to temporarily employ guns and grenades in order to destroy the people who brought them and restore the planet's preindustrial tranquility. And this has to represent the ultimate irony of Avatar: James Cameron has spent half a billion dollars on the most advanced technology available in order to argue that we all need to abandon advanced technology and return to the simple lifestyles of ancient Native Americans and other noble savages. Well, if that's the way you feel, Mr. Cameron, why don't you abandon filmmaking and go live with the natives in Papua New Guinea, where you could assist them in staging the rituals that help to make their simple lives so much more satisfying than ours?

Cameron also conspicuously stacks the deck in arguing for the benefits of living naturally: when Sully first enters the Pandoran forest, the film acknowledges that nature is filled with both wonderful and terrible things when Sully is almost killed by two gigantic predators and by smaller dog-like animals. However, once the Na'vi resolve to teach Sully about their idyllic lives and benign philosophy, these dangerous animals completely vanish from sight, the forest is re-envisioned as a lush paradise, and the only perils involve the Pandoran habits of running madly along narrow tree branches and leaping across chasms (which would logically result in most natives dying from fatal falls well before they reached adulthood, but hey, this is a movie, and having them move with more reasonable caution would be much less exciting). Then, just when you have entirely forgotten that this wondrous forest was ever home to horrible monsters, all of them abruptly reappear—because it's revenge-of-nature time, and now they are the good guys since they are trying to kill humans instead of aliens.
Not only are the natives too good, but the humans are too evil:Bluntly, a character like Cameron's Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who calls the natives "roaches" and is eventually observed grinning in glee as he kills yet another alien, might have been acceptable thirty years ago, but he must be regarded today as nothing more than an outdated and offensive stereotype; Vietnam was one thing, but whatever else occurred in Iraq, there were no psychopathic American colonels fiercely dedicated to the genocidal slaughter of its citizens.Comment:  Conservative critics are denouncing Avatar for its pro-indigenous, pro-environment message. This message is a good one, but Avatar doesn't convey it in the most effective way. Here's how James Cameron could've made it more realistic and therefore better:

  • I'm not sure if Avatar's humans want Pandora's "unobtainium" to save their dying planet. But that would've been a better motive than simple greed. It would've given the military leaders conflicted feelings about harming one world to help another. Doubts and fears would've burdened them as they carried out their orders.

  • The Europeans who invaded the Americas had various motives: colonizing a land to keep it from rival powers, converting the inhabitants to Christianity, fleeing from religious persecution, starting new lives, seeking one's fortune, etc. It wasn't all about greed and avarice. Avatar could've given some of these motives to its humans.

  • Indians often were ambivalent about the appearance of Europeans. Some saw it as an opportunity to boost their wealth and power. Some even joined the strangers to fight against their fellow tribes. Others gave up their independence and adopted the white man's ways. In short, there was no black-and-white rejection of the foreigners.

  • Indians quickly adopted the best of the Europeans' technology: guns, horses, metal implements, cotton clothes, etc. And they had their own techniques for building large edifices, digging irrigation channels, creating farmland, etc. Their knowledge of fields such as astronomy and medicine was equally developed.

    Given a choice, most people would use "unnatural" devices and methods to make their lives easier. That includes Indians and other indigenous people. So again, there was no black-and-white rejection of the foreigners and the things they offered.

  • Avatar's liberal propaganda

    When two cultures meet, a cultural exchange usually begins. Both sides learn from and adopt the best ways of the other. People who reject the "new ways" for the "old ways" eventually die out.

    Why? Because societies are like people. A hybrid, multicultural society is generally stronger than a "pure," monocultural one. You can declare that you know best and avoid contact with others, or you can learn from others when their approach is better. Education and exposure to new things are how people and societies improve themselves.

    It's a shame Cameron made the "noble savages" in Avatar too noble. That lets conservatives reject the movie's message as false or misleading. (Conservatives apparently are incapable of a nuanced thought such as: "Avatar went too far, but I agree with its basic message.") Even liberals are uneasy with the storyline, calling it formulaic, clichéd, or derivative.

    I don't know whom Cameron was targeting: the same children who loved FernGully? If he was trying to send a message to adults, he should've used more depth and nuance. Avatar's message might've been a shocker 50 years ago, but these days, people are too sophisticated for poster-style propaganda.

    For more on the subject, see White Guilt in Avatar and Army vs. Indians in Avatar.

    7 comments:

    dmarks said...

    "Ferngully" was pretty bad: I can't imagine anyone would be thinking that there would be a wave of nostalgia for it.

    Yes, the "savages" (the word is used a lot!) are noble. There's no bad-guy Na'vi. Not even anything like the pure evil Pawnee of "Dances With Wolves". There's conflict among them, and opposing Na'vi characters at time, but none could ever be called a villain.

    DB Dowd said...

    Rob, I came straight here to see what your take on Avatar had been after getting back home from seeing the movie. Arrgh. Points well made, similar to my initial take. I'll give it a little thought and post myself, with a link here.

    Anonymous said...

    Rob, you'd think a white guy co-opting an "other" culture to feel better about himself would be a subject close to your heart.

    Also it's a fictional science fiction cartoon. It doesn't have to line up exactly with every nuanced detail of the Europeans' colonization of the Americas.

    dmarks said...

    "Rob, you'd think a white guy co-opting an "other" culture to feel better about himself would be a subject close to your heart."

    I go look for those photos of Rob in an eagle-feather head-dress attending pow-wows under his other name "Wise Hawk".

    L. said...

    I came across your post when searching the web for correlations between the Tecumseh story and Avatar. On first viewing, it seems as if Cameron has combined the myth of the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket (where a white man joined the Shawnee and became one of their greatest war chiefs--a myth that has since been proved just that by DNA evidence) and the story of Tecumseh (the signs to the appointed one, the event that proves his appointment and the gathering of the tribes for collaborative warfare against a common enemy. The only difference between these stories and Avatar is Avatar is in space and in the end, the indigenous people have some help the Shawnee didn't have.

    The movie is visually amazing--I have to give it that, but I'm already thinking of it as "Shawnees in Space." I'm really surprised noone has called him out on this yet.

    Rob said...

    From what I've read, Cameron doesn't know much about Indians. I'm guessing he doesn't know anything about Tecumseh, Blue Jacket, or the Shawnee.

    But people have called Avatar "Dances with Wolves in space" and "Pocahontas in space." "Shawnees in space" is kind of the same idea.

    Rob said...

    My comments could apply to any indigenous tribe on Earth or another world, Anonymous. They're not just about Native Americans.

    The "it's just a movie" argument is weak to the point of nonexistence. If you don't think movies influence our perception of Native people, you don't know what you're talking about.