Thursday, February 25, 2010


In Woody Allen's Stardust Memories the central character, a film director played by Allen himself, is accused of making films that are merely psychological and not political. When we think politically we think in terms of types: old people, workers, children, disabled people, Muslim people. Art allows us to see political problems through idiosyncratic individual experience. Unlike politics, art can concern itself with the specificities and ambiguities of human lives. Marx and Engels were keen that fictional characters should combine typicality (the quality of being representative of politically-relevant types of person) with individuality. Such characters "incarnate historical forces without thereby ceasing to be richly individualised".

It is with this idea in mind that were I making a film about a black child in the American state of Georgia in the 1970s and I wished to have a television in a scene, I would be wary about having the television play Rumpole of the Bailey despite the fact that I know that Reginald D Hunter, who is a black man raised in Georgia, watched Rumpole of the Bailey on the television during that time. It would risk subverting the typicality of that experience. Probably, there are other examples.

Avatar is a film that fails politically and psychologically.

Its psychological failure is of an unremarkable kind commonly associated with admiral-class blockbuster movies. There are several characters in the film: a soldier, a scientist, a corporate man, a general, some tribespeople. The soldier is a wheelchair user and the scientist is an occasional smoker. That's it for characterisation. This is a film that embraces typicality so completely that it is anti-human.

Avatar's political failure is far richer and more unusual. In this its central achievement is managing to be racist (in at least three distinct ways) while also being crudely anti-militaristic.

The first way in which Avatar is racist is in the portrayal of the indigenous Na'vi people. The Na'vi are a blue-skinned alien race who inhabit a mineral-rich world that is invaded by bad imperialist Earthlings. They are depicted dismissively as generic savages who are closer to beasts than the capitalist military colonialists. They growl and tense when confronted with disagreeable things, they wear tan loin-cloths and discount faux-tribal jewellery from Accessorize, they are vaguely "spiritual" and are concerned about ecological "balance". You do not have to be an anthropologist to imagine that there might be more to aboriginal people than this thoughtless stereotyping. There might even be cultural differences between different groups of aboriginal people. More of this sordid association with typicality, then.

The second way in which Avatar is monstrously racist is that it assumes that its story will be only be broadly appreciated if told through the eyes of a Western white man: a normal person. It is this nice normal person who renounces his technologically-rich upbringing and industrialist society and embraces instead spirituality and balance. This white person, with whom the entire audience can so easily identify, goes on to become the very best of the savages; a prophesied Warrior-King of the beast people who lands them a great victory. It is beyond the abilities of the charming, dumb aboriginals to bring about their own victory and no one would have appreciated a story told from their perspective.

It is in this feature of the film that we are invited to bear witness to the process by which the white man appoints himself entitled to absolve himself of his sins. We thus feel very good that we the audience, being nice post-white white people, identify with the white man who liberates and leads the oppressed rather than the cruel, pillaging white people with whom we have nothing in common. Similarly we have nothing in common with our colonial forebears: that is why everything is fine now.

The third way in which Avatar is racist is contained in a single piece of dialogue from the smoking scientist character. The religion of the Na'vi is based on ancestor worship. They believe that they channel the wisdom of the their ancestors through large sacred trees. The scientist explains that much of the flora of the planet is connected in the manner of synapses and exists as something like a planet-wide brain. The Na'vi, she explains, are able to tap in to the accrued knowledge of the planet through their sacred places.

So while the invading imperialists are dreadful, bad and evil they are, in fact, right and they have a better understanding of the natives' planet than the natives themselves who, earnest simpleminded pagans that they are, have but a misconceived and primitive apprehension.

So much for the racism. The anti-militarism in Avatar is not so elegantly trifurcated as the racism but it is impressive that the filmmakers were able to combine it with all the other disagreeableness. The soldiers in the film are portrayed as relentlessly mean, bloodthirsty bastards. We cheer as they are toppled from their hideous machines, stripped of their nasty overtly technological weapons and dismembered on the sacred CGI forest floor.

Western powers are currently engaged in war and the message that Avatar seems to be keen to send to the soldiers is that the wrongness of war and the root of much of the pain caused by war is the simple bastardry of the average soldier. Politics plays a part in the upper-echelons, of course, but the major problem, lest we forget, is that soldiers are awful.

But Avatar's failures are not only political and psychological they are also visual. Everyone but everyone but everyone but everyone seems to think that – whatever Avatar's other flaws – to look at it, to actually see it with your eyes is to be confronted with a parade of cinematic frames of such poignant beauty that they surpass not only all the images from other movies that we may have previously considered beautiful but all other sights that have ever encountered human retinae. I'm here to tell you that this isn't the case. The emperor is a hideous dresser.

The Na'vi are proud, lissom elf-cat people of the sort that can be found on all fantasy art forums:

The CGI forest looks fairly real but not much more so than the forest in the 2007 video game Crysis and certainly not more real than real forest, which has been seen in some films before. Throughout the film, the hatefulness and banality of what is going on taints the film so all pervasively that it is impossible to find any of it beautiful.

It also turns out that 3D does not look so much like the 3D we are used to from the real 3D world, what counts as 3D, apparently, is a series of two-dimensional planes. And high class 3D, which we are told is what Avatar has, does not involve having things appearing to point out of the screen or dangle before your eyes (in the fun way that you get in Disneyland), high class 3D is about being distracted by different layers of jellyfish seed things and having a headache.

You would be better off watching Local Hero, a film with a similar premise featuring a lanky and youthful Peter Capaldi. In Local Hero the agent of the oppressor is a young American oil executive, MacIntyre, who is sent to the northwest coast of Scotland to buy out the land from under a village in order to build an oil refinery. There he finds a close-knit community where the local hotelier is the lawyer and the preacher too. But, unlike the Na'vi, these indigenes are glad of the arrival of the neocolonialist and they see it as an opportunity to become very rich.

At first, they feign scepticism to drive up the price of the deal and MacIntyre's time there is prolonged. What follows is at once more humane than Avatar and mystical in its own right.

And, what is more, featuring, as it does, the sands of Morar, it is better looking than Avatar:

I enjoyed some other pieces about Avatar.
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