Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar thoughts: 2nd pass, post-viewing

This morning, after a round of in-house (literally) family celebration, my sister, father, and I went to see Avatar.

As you may have gathered from my previous post, I had some serious reservations about the film's narrative arc.

To simplify a host of fairly irreducible ruminations is difficult; long story short, the film is problematic, but still quite a good film. I would say that most of my concerns were found to have reasonable warrant within the film: some of them aren't so bad, but some - one in particular - are still troubling.

Just a few of the thoughts that I was having while I watched the film, and in discussion afterwards [spoilers to follow]:

1) The film's casting directors acquitted themselves well in presenting often-marginalized faces & bodies.
-While much of the primary cast is Anglo, at the same time, the protagonist is disabled (paralyzed), which is the first time that I can recall, off-hand, a film which has a - the - lead character handicapped throughout the entire film. Big thumbs up to that.
-Non-Anglo characters were present throughout the background and foreground. In my previous post, I was concerned that, of all the primary cast human characters, only two were people of color. This is true; but both had substantive roles, and Michelle Rodriguez' fighter pilot actually had my favorite character arc. There were also several minority faces throughout the background, weakening any charges that Dileep Rao and Rodriguez were token casting choices.
-Female characters were, similarly, represented well in both primary roles of intelligence, strength, and authority, as well as throughout the background.
-In short: Cameron's casting director(s) did a very good job of presenting a wide gender and ethnic spectrum, didn't shy away from presenting a handicapped protagonist, and managed to do so in a way that seemed to bypass typecasting boundaries (except poor Michelle Rodriguez, who just cannot shake the tough-girl image she's born since The Fast & The Furious).

2) I'm still unhappy with the story of Jake Sully's rise to prominence within the native tribe.
-He gets the girl, lives to see the future, rides the bad-shut-yo-mouth flying reptile-bird, and so on.
-Maybe this is more just my general concern with how Hollywood films treat their protagonists: with the universe-on-film revolving around them, every action, person, and event, whether past, present , or future. conveniently happening with them in the center of the action. If this is true, which it seems like it is, then I can't specifically cite this as a shortcoming of either Cameron or Avatar.

3) I'm more displeased than I thought I would be by the conclusiveness of the film's ending.
-The film concludes, seemingly, on a high note: the outsiders are banished from the edenic world of Pandora (an incredibly silly name for a developmentally high-priority planet, by the way: who in the universe would want to "open up Pandora"?), and the tribes, united, stand behind Jake Sully.
-First off, internally, this ending doesn't make much sense. If "unobtainium" (another incredibly silly placeholderish name) is actually so valuable ($20M/kg... although, with inflation in 2154, who knows how valuable that actually is?), then history - economics - and sociology all seem to point towards this not being a permanent victory, but rather an incredibly fleeting respite. But this is neither here nor there; it's more of a technical concern than critical commentary.
-Second, more importantly, this ending is a happy one. This is my major concern remaining after a first viewing:

-The film ends on a happy note: in a literal deus ex machina (or, more properly, ex natura), Eywa, the Gaia-figure of the film, unites the power of the planet (Earth! Wind! Fire! Water! Heart!) to save the indigenous peoples and herself from the plundering, pillaging earth-humans with their murderous technology. Even if the future is indeterminate, at least, for the moment, the victory has conclusively been won.
-This simply is not the way that things have always turned out: for most native peoples, facing encroaching empire or exploitative harvesting, there is no end to the story, and certainly no end that has turned out well. For the Australian aboriginal peoples, the North American first nations, and African native tribes, the story still continues. In some cases, progress has been made; for other peoples, however, the story is simply one of unvarying neglect, social marginalization, economic oppression, and widespread apathy towards their plight.
-This is why Cameron's Avatar is still, for me, so strongly redolent of White Guilt. To tell a story about native peoples is one thing; to mirror the true story of native peoples, as awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassing as it may be, is quite another.

-I can understand that this film is a fantasy. But I hope that it is a fantasy that stirs us to action, rather than a fantasy that provides all-too-easy catharsis: after three hours in the movie theater, we leave feeling sympathetic toward native peoples, guilty about our own exploitative/imperialistic ways, but satisfied knowing that the Na'vi got their measure of justice - even while native and aboriginal people the world over have yet to see their reparations in kind.

But still, on this day, I celebrate with family and friends, rejoicing in - remembering - and hoping for - the presence of one among us who did not just come to save, but to suffer.
And, having suffered to the point of death, and having died, and having been given life again, he was not content that only he might have life, but did not see his work as complete until all poor, heavy-burdened, and unvalued people could come to share in that life. This is true.

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