Friday, January 8, 2010

SO much more!

David Brooks took a cheap shot today at the brilliant movie, "Avatar." In his "Messiah Complex" column in the New York Times, he pins the protagonist as a "white messiah." One could argue that it's the female characters throughout, and their male allies, who are the real saviors in this story. Matriarchy lives!

Brooks reduces the heroine (and arguably a savior as well) to the Na'vi's "hottest babe." Neytiri, a woman warrior, is a fully-realized person who happens to be ten feet tall and a compelling shade of blue. She fiercely teaches Jake Sully the ways of her world, embuing respect for the sacred path along the way.

Of course, I can see why a self-identified "white" man like Brooks might prefer to see this film as a new rehash of an old trope; however, this movie asks much more of each of us as individuals, regardless of tribe, color or gender.

Race is not an issue, except among the racists. The mercenaries' leader Col. Miles Quaritch, played as a purebred Nazi-like-wannabe by the talented Stephen Lang, calls the people of this planet "monkeys." The corporate leader, played with calculated, banal indifference by Giovanni Ribisi, cares only for profit not the safe-guarding of others.

A moral option is always an individual choice. The protagonist, Jake Sully, realizes this after having given his legs in military service to his country. Quaritch promises Jake "new legs"--paid for by the corporation--in exchange for Jake betraying the Na'vi. Quaritch is just doing his job. He enjoys destruction and tells Sigourney Weaver's character, Dr. Grace Augustine, that he wouldn't hesitate to shoot her. If he's an archetype, then so is she.

A brilliant scientist who reaches out to new worlds and makes connections with humility and respect, the aptly named Dr. Grace is a fierce advocate of living in balance with other cultures, like the Na'vi do with nature. She asserts herself as a student and teacher of these people whose world has been invaded. Harmonious alliance among species (Dr. Grace, Neytiri, and the mother/shaman Moat) and amongst females is powerful.

I'm not sure if Brooks can identify with her character--some people find it tricky to bond with a female hero--but this movie presents her and her (multi-gendered, multi-ethnic) team as the real avatars of our future, if only metaphorically in a movie.

These people, who enjoy interacting with other species and have no problem meeting them on an equal footing, are a real hope for the continuation of much that is good in humanity. On the other hand the film's corporate military-complex is a selfish, brutal denier of humanity, as well as other species' rights to anything. It's not just a company; it's an EVIL monopoly of greed. Or rather, a baby that needs to be taught.

As a "mostly white" person, happily embracing her newly-discovered diverse genealogy (and not much surprised by it), I prefer to see this movie as the individual's embrace of what is right and the repudiation of selfishness, greed and racism.

While there is certainly nothing wrong in being a white person or any other hue, I'd bet Mr. Brooks that Jake Sully doesn't identify himself by race. Instead, I'd wager he sees himself, discovers himself in relation...spiritual connection to consciousness; he and we all are so much more than a mere physical manifestations.

People's heritage is much more than what they think it is. Besides, in identifying yourself as only anything, you may fail to see a more diverse possibility of family. In the end there is only one human race, but our existence may lie in expanding our ken and recognizing the familial bond with all persons--human and non-human alike.

Continuing with his blind eye view, Brooks cynically reduces Neytiri and Jakesully's choosing each other as life-long mates as merely "having sex." He refuses to acknowledge their spiritual union. They choose each other.

Brooks asks us to see Jake as the lone savior, saying "he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master." He's hardly a master; Jake joins in a symbiotic relationship with another being, thus becoming something greater than himself. He rides with the red banshee with a humble purpose, not false divinity.

While the Na'vi are in various states of awe at his accomplishment, he doesn't fall into the trap of abusing power. He asks the leader and former-competitor-for-Neytiri's affections, Tsu'tey, for permission to speak to the people. Neytiri does not worship him but sees his brave act for what it is, a redemption. A new future awaits.

Much of value is in its perception. Brooks' shows his own bias against oral culture. He presumes the Na'vi are illiterate, when in fact, they are living a dynamic narrative in the present with an awareness of the value of their past. Their music and stories imbue their traditions with dramatic literacy. The Na'vi "see" one another and "speak" when they have something important to share. This is relational communication, and denigrating it as inferior is arrogant. Brooks is ready to snub a culture, that may be as rich as his own, because it doesn't rely on parchment to leave its mark.

Brooks identifies the mercenaries as Marines or Americans (although some U.S. service people are immigrants who may not even have citizenship) and claims that this fact allows audiences around the world to enjoy the death of Americans. That's not the only scenario.

It's an example of how any country or cause could lose its moral bearing, if people are in blind servitude to corporate or military-industrial entities. Jake Sully sees this, too. He knows he won't receive new legs from service to "the company," If that were true, he would have had the operation when he was initially injured and not have to sell his soul to pay for it out of his civilian pocket.

The Na'vi, on the other hand, try to heal any of their people and friends. The whole group unites to give positive energy toward preserving the world--which they don't try to control but, instead, live with in balance. Is that primitive? Sign me up.

This is not the story of a "messiah" but of a soul returning to the sacred path. "Wake up!" Neyteri tells Jake. Still a baby with much to learn, Jake strives to understand this new/old world and to do right by it. In return he receives not only his legs back but a new consciousness. No longer just a wounded man linking with an avatar, in the end Jake emerges as a new being with a new chance at wholeness. This new man, and a beautiful one at that, does not identify with hierarchically imposed expectations but uses his brain to make smart decisions.

Brooks starts to lose it toward the end. "The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones." Are those mutually exclusive?

The Na'vi are as history-making as anyone else in the film. It is they who save Jake's life. They shape their story by embracing universal truths, not by enslaving the other. Their and the non-crazy humans' futures lie together in a more peaceful world.

In the end it's up to brave individuals to take a stand, like the helicopter pilot played by Michelle Rodriguez. "It's not what I signed up for," she says, removing her finger from the trigger before the destruction of the Na'vi holy tree.

Helping other people whose worlds are imperiled by our own requires acknowledging the truth. The Creator loves all her children. We must live in balance, practicing harmony, to bring on this shift in consciousness. In "Avatar" Jake and his team make this human proud.

"Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration," says Brooks. What does that even mean?

Perhaps, instead of cynically fighting over patrimony in this world--some forever ready to destroy one shrine to build another--why not build a future that acknowledges our common link with the One? or even the vast Nothingness.

Stop the delusion of dominance and live in balance.

2 comments:

Xoynx said...

J here. You just proved my point: Avatar fans can't accept that anyone else doesn't enjoy the movie as much as they do.

Okay, I wasn’t going to rip on it, but since you proselytized on my FB page, you’ve made it fair game.

What I liked about Avatar:
- The 3D was kinda cool. I can understand how anyone who hadn’t seen Beowulf, Coraline, or any other recent 3D films would be awestricken by the F/X.
- Ten-foot humanoids rationalized by putting them onto a less massive planet.
- I laughed a lot, although that’s primarily due to my biggest problem with the movie.

What bugged me about Avatar:
- I haven’t heard dialog that hilariously melodramatic since Revenge of the Sith. Weaver is a good actor, but even she couldn’t speak those words convincingly.
- Speaking of melodrama, the good guys were purely good and the bad guys purely evil. That dynamic is perfect in a light-hearted romp like Star Wars, but Avatar takes itself seriously. Whereas you love to hate Darth Vader, you just plain hate that Sgt. Hatred guy in Avatar. It wasn’t enough to make him a stereotypical American; he had to have a Texan accent to boot.
- Oh yeah, and that plot—the masculine, destructive West raping and pillaging the feminine, creative East. A 3D cliché is still a cliché. I’d have liked Avatar a lot more if Cameron had shown just an eency bit of novelty, even if the new idea were as simple as gender reversal (female Marine meets male Navi).
- “Unobtainium”? Seriously?
- The Navi are presented as a peaceful folk, literally interconnected with other species. Why then do they even have a warrior class? And why is such a class so respected? It makes no sense. Again, if the movie didn’t take itself so seriously, I wouldn’t be picking nits.
- Same with floating mountains. It worked in Rocky & Bullwinkle but not here.
- Having evolved on a planet with greater gravity, humans should be commensurately stronger than the Navi. That exoskeleton looked cool, but it should have been entirely unnecessary.
- For $14, I expected more than I got.

candace said...

One of the best commentaries on Avatar I've read -- thanks!