Saturday, January 23, 2010


A host of complaints have been lodged against the new blockbuster film, "Avatar," which I caught up with a few days ago. The most absurd of these--the horror! the horror!--I can scarcely bear to write these words, but write I must. The character played by Sigourney Weaver is shown . . . s m o k i n g. What an example for our youth!

If I were a young person faced with this paternalistic b.s., I would go right out and buy a pack of cigarettes--and blow smoke at anyone I chose to. Actually, I hate smoking. But I also hate the way smokers have been demonized, exemplifying Durkheim's theory that as one group--gays, transies, etc., take your pick-=escapes the net of proscription, another must be conscripted into the ranks of the abnormal. The definition of normality implies, as night follows day, the ascrption of abnormality.

Could we not just drop this judgmental dichotomy? Oh no; that would be worse than smoking. Civilization depends on demonizing people who are out of favor.

The real problem with the film is that it presents a utopia of vintage 1969, or thereabouts, when presumably director James Cameron was an impressionable youth. Those were the days when rural communes, low tech except for the inevitable music system, were all the rage.

Unbelievably, the Nav'i don;t even have cell phones! In their "small is beautiful" paradise, there are no electronic devices of any kind Their's is the society of an ant colony: they comunicate psychically, all under the direction of the Great Mother Aywah, or whatever the harridan's name is. Of course, the Nav'i are inherently peaceful, with a deep reverence for life. If so, though, why do they have a warrior class? Whom do these warriors make war on?

Many years ago, in a series of studies now neglected, the historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy charted the Western infatuation with primitivism. He distinguished two types: soft primitivism, when the denizens ostensibly just kicked back and enjoyed themselves, and hard primitivism where life was challenging but good, because scarcity inhibited covetousness. "Avatar" leans towards the latter.

It also incorporates a staple of the sci-fi space operas, in which the hero must quickily master an unfamiliar culture in order to become its savior.

"Avatar"'s earthling hero, who dies in the end, can assume this role because, paradoxically, he has a strong sense of individuality. The Nav'i do not.

To me, it is this glorification of the suppression of individuality that is the ugliest feature of the juvenile plot. Of course, many still think we have too much individuality--the source of acquisitiveness, lack of caring, and the all-conquering ego. Such any rate seems to be the view enounced in a new book by the scientists Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies." This authors look forward to the triumph of the superorganism principle in the human species. If this development does occur, though, it will not be through the 1970s notion of a return to nature, but through an ever- proliferating repertoire of electronic devlces, the pivotal one possibly to be imprinted on the eyeball at birth. In this way we will achieve the ultimate togetherness. Ugh.

Of course by utlizing cutting-edge technology the film's creators have achieved dazzling visual effects. Twenty-first century technology is needed to visualize a stone-age society! This irony seems to have been lost on most viewers.

The name Nav'i, btw, is the modern Hebrew pronunciation of the Hebrew Nabi, prophet, underlining the retro stance of the movie.

I doubt very much if "Avatar" represents the future of movies. We saw this kind of thing sixty years ago with "Buana Devil." Who wants to have to wear those dorky glasses?

UPDATE (Feb 4). The annual ritual of the Academy Awards is almost upon us. I have never taken this event as marking any serioius or lasting premiation of the best in cinema. Those who vote are mainly motivated by opportunism and commercialism. Foreign films are relegated to a tiny ghetto. The Academy Awards are part of Hollywood's survival mechanism. Don't be fooled into thinking that they are anything else.

"Avatar" has been nominated, and will certainly win in a nmber of categories. Also nominated, curiously enough is a film of great value, "District Nine." (Such aberrations happen in Tinseltown from time to time.)

"District Nine," which pulls no punches, is a far more searing indictment of colonialism and ethnocentrism than Avatar could ever hope to be. See it.



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