January 27, 2010

The uses of Avatar

"I would defend Cameron's film at the level of the Idea: it is better to make a statement against colonialism and imperialism (yes, even on behalf of the Other if you mean it) even within (since where is there authentically an outside?) cultural productions of capitalism than not."

This comment from EM at Giovanni Tiso's blog strikes me as perhaps the sharpest comment I've seen emerge from all of the lively ideological to-ing and fro-ing over Avatar this past month. The film scholar David Bordwell talked last year about the sheer volume of discussion around Inglourious Basterds as an internet-age phenomenon -- not just the volume and the quality, but the speed at which it emerged compared to the snail crawl of academic publication -- but that was a drop in the ocean compared to the Avatar discussion. Counterpunch had at least four separate pieces on the film within a week, including one from Gilad Aztmon that called it:
The biggest anti War film of all time. It stands against everything the West is identified with. It is against greed and capitalism, it is against interventionism, it is against colonialism and imperialism, it is against technological orientation, it is against America and Britain. It puts Wolfowitz, Blair and Bush on trial without even mentioning their names.

Go to Tiso's blog for summaries of and links to some of the key arguments, as well as a great photo of a lone Avatar dissenter who might even be taken as a stand-in for the author. Overall, the imperialist/anti-imperialist dimension seems to have been the most widely discussed. But some have tackled its obvious spiritual ambitions. You heard that the Vatican worried about nature worship; as others have said, it's a film that makes pantheism's metaphors literal and transparent. Erik Davis gets the shamanistic connection -- maybe Cameron was reading Carlos Castaneda while he listened to those old Yes albums. This guy is one of many to take off from the coincidence -- but surely nothing here is a coincidence ... -- of the word "Navi" meaning prophet in Hebrew, extending that into a messianic interpretation. Which isn't the feat of over-reading you might suspect if you remember that Cameron had a messianic figure with "JC" initials in both his Terminator films (plus a Grace Augustine here). Hinduism reminds us that it has its own traditions around the (Sanskrit) word "Avatar" and blue gods ... The success of Avatar: it's hard to find a culture that doesn't think Cameron has taken something from its tradition.