Sunday, February 07, 2010

Dances with Avatar

I finally saw Avatar this afternoon. I'm a couple months behind everyone else, but since I'm 400 years behind in my reading, I wouldn't worry about a couple months.

A couple things struck me. First, it felt like a movie that knew colonialist fantasy narratives are a problem, and yet it just has so much desire that it does colonialist fantasy anyway. It's like when you're hanging out with someone who doesn't want to be a sexist, and doesn't think of him/herself as a sexist, but just can't resist telling sexist jokes. And then s/he excuses the jokes, because they're just jokes, and so on.

The colonialist fantasy narrative is powerfully appealing to white folks, isn't it?*

(*And by "white" here, I mean dominant white Anglo-American culture, though there were some people of color represented within that dominant culture.)

So we get the white guy who goes native and becomes a better native than the natives, and so can save them, but look, there's a strong female native character who just happens to want to mate with the white guy who is now better at native stuff than the natives, but look, it's not all about high tech because she saves him at the end with a bow and arrow, just moments before she figures out to get his mask thing on just in time, but look, the spirituality stuff here is really real so he can get his fantasy body better than the old one, leadership of the group (since the old chief and next in line guy are dead), and the native woman.

The return of the repressed ghost of Rudyard Kipling.

The movie could have been a whole lot shorter, and a whole lot different if the helicopter pilot (imdb gives her character name as Trudy Chacon) had, at the moment of deciding she wouldn't participate in shooting up the hometree, also backed and raised up a tad and shot down the big helicopter ship and as many of the others as possible. She could have taken a lot down before they got turned around to fire back. Game over. Or if not over, seriously shortened. Take out the big gun helicopter things, and the indigenous folks could have taken out the rest in short order (because they'd have been convinced of the need, even with the big helicopter thingies down).

What would happen if a woman of color saved the day, and it wasn't the one the white hero is having sex with?

But then what would have happened to the white colonial fantasy? The white guy wouldn't have been needed to save the day by mastering the universe. And there wouldn't have been the need for the big fight at the end. And he wouldn't have gotten his temporarily-abled life with the indigenous folks back.

Speaking of the big fight, all I could think of, for both sides, was

Half a league, half a league,
  Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

Yes, someone had blundered, on both sides. You just knew there was massive death in the making, but unlike the disastrous Ewok battles in whichever Star Wars film, I felt enough identification with both the white folks and the indigenous folks to think about hell and the jaws of death. That's something I never felt about the Storm Troopers, so maybe that's a good point about this film?

I went to the film with a friend from the Indian sub-continent, whose experiences of the world are really different from mine. My reaction to the film was sort of as a Native American allegory; she read it more from a world colonialism point of view. So, at the end, when the colonists were being kicked off, my reaction was that no amount of kicking white's out would work for very long; there's no way that a bigger, badder white army isn't coming back. That's my reading through Native American history. But, from a world colonialism perspective, if WWII messes up the European powers enough, one can end colonialism (even if just to morph it into imperialism).

The naming was interesting. There are two names for the indigenous folks in the film, Na'Vi, which is what the whites use, and the other name they use for themselves, Omaticaya (I think; I found something on the web that looked right). Is Omaticaya the name for the beings, or a subgroup? I could only remember "Na'Vi" when the film finished.

It felt to me like the way some indigenous groups have an outsider's name that's in common use, and may or may not have anything to do with what people call themselves. For example, if you were studying anthropology in the 60s, you might have learned about the Jivaro. "Jivaro" is a Quechua word that means basically "barbarian" and not what the Shuar call themselves. But because westerners had contact with Quechua speakers, and through them with the Shuar, they used the Quechua name. (Most now use Shuar, I think.)

How come the dragon thingies can only have one rider, but apparently a rider can have multiple dragon thingies? Seriously, if the bond is all that, shouldn't the rider feel something about his/her dragon thingy? (Yes, I realize, we had to have the very special dragon thingy to demonstrate just how much better than almost all the natives the white man is at doing native stuffs.)

There were points where the mechanics of the movie jumped out at me as very mechanical. It's like reading Titus compared to Lear. With Titus you can see the strings being pulled; that makes it easy to teach, because if you can teach students to see how the strings work in Titus, then they'll get Lear in a deeper way.

We get to meet the dangerous hammer beasties, big black scary beastie, and wolf pack-ish beasties because we'll need them later. But then they never figure into anyone's wanderings around the forest. Seriously, if there were big scary beasties wandering around the woods where I snowshoe, I'd make sure to mention that to my friends when we went out, and we'd keep our eyes open and not rub our braids together in the woods. (So watch, suddenly a grizzly's going to show up in the woods near my house having decided to vacation instead of hibernating; black bears are around, but not during winter!) It's the same thing with the very special dragon thingy, which jumps in as a concern only so we'll get the story of the five super special dragon thingy riders, which will matter later, because it's oh so important that the white guy can ride the biggest, baddest dragon thingy. Then, all the rest of the riding, no one ever bothers to watch out for them.

Another thing about the big predators. Why is it in films with big scary predators that the predators are just about to catch the hero when they get stuck in a tree because they're apparently too lousy at being predators to realize that trees have branches? (I'm looking at you, Jurassic Park.) Have the people who write these films never seen a dog go through the woods? And dogs, dogs are lousy predators compared to predators that actually have to kill to get a meal every single time. I bet no leopard ever has been slowed for a moment by a fork in a tree, certainly not when pursuing a slow humanoid.

I did enjoy Sigourney Weaver playing the role she did. I also thought she had one of the best lines about not playing with his braid or he'd go blind. Which made me wonder, shouldn't there be a whole braid thing instead of humanish kissing? Wouldn't you think these folks would rub braids or link up or something, instead of kissing and getting in a sort of hetero-human sexual position?

As long as I'm going scientific on you for a moment, did you see how the creatures tended to have two sets of front limbs, but the indigenous folks only had one set? Humans and others in our evolutionary line (say, vertebrates) tend to have a one limb set up front, one limb set in back, with a general tendency to one, two, many bones as you look at the limbs away from the main body. So, take our arms, one big bone at the top, two biggish bones at the next area, then a whole bunch of bones. That's the general form vertebrates have on earth. Now there's no reason to think that another planet might not evolve along a different model, but would two very different models happen to animals that are similar enough to do the link up thing? It's like if we were to be linking up with molluscs or something with a radial organization, or maybe insects with a bilateral organization, but really different segmentation evolution.

So, anyway, like everyone else, I thought the visual was pretty amazing (though the three D thing gave me a bad headache) and the narrative clunky with some serious colonialist narrative fantasy problems.


  1. Anonymous6:57 AM

    I haven't seen the movie yet but I appreciated this post. I'm the equivalent of a humorless feminist (not a bad thing in my view!) when it comes to repetition of colonialist narratives. This is why I've been so frustrated with the "yeah it's colonialist but" quality of much that I've read about it. Yeah, but it's amazing cinema. Yeah, but so is dances with wolves. Yeah, but he goes native, how amazing and different! Yeah, but the indigenous people are victorious! Doesn't that make it different?

    No. No, it doesn't.

    Yeah but it's still repetition of colianlist narratives. And given that I think colonialism has become cultural imperialism, I'm kind of concerned about mapping those narratives onto the ecological crisis. Especially coming out of an American filmmaker. Just...ick.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

  2. I think most people have been making colonialist/Native American comparisons, and I think those are definitely true. But I also had a more literal interpretation about the paramilitary dudes in the movie--to me it seemed similar to strong American guys (in quotes) going into Iraq or Afghanistan and assuming the people of those countries were somehow less deserving of respect than they (Americans) were.

    But the whole thing about the white guy being better than the natives at saving their own culture--yeah, that's very Dances Wtih Wolves.

  3. This movie was a stinker. My favorite laughable plot point: the mineral the whites are looking for on planet, wait for it, Pandora, is called, wait for it, unobtainium. Really?