Avatar: In defense of the semi-defensible

A few weeks ago, I set out a threat or a promise to take up the case of Avatar against some of its many critics, especially its TAS critics. Like many things, this became harder to do the longer I put it off. Also, I began by sort of casually including James Poulos’s critiques in with the others I was addressing and then realized that they don’t belong together at all. So, there’s only a little Poulos in this, for now. (Alas, as pop-cultural themes turn into philosophical ones, I have a tendency to lapse into the sort of pedantic earnestness that won me a Poseur of the Year nomination a while back. I have to work on that. In the meantime, enjoy the pedantic earnestness!)

As we know, Avatar hews to a sort of standard Hollywood romanticism in which a nagging conflict between characters we identify with and characters we like is overcome through empathy and openness. Avatar takes this a bit far, as many have pointed out, in having Jake Sully not just become one of the Na’avi but end up ruling them. My supersensitive deep reading of this move is not that it is racist or that it shows the inherent reason-imperialism of even modern humanism, or per Brooks that it shows the inherent “condescension” in the film’s liberal message, but that a movie and an audience that invests almost three hours in its hero’s progress would find it unsatisfying to see him end up a lieutenant. Still, point taken.

But I have to lay my own cards on the table here. One of the things I find so strange about the defensiveness on the Na’vi’s behalf – that they’re the victims of condescension etc. – is that the small moments in which I noted the risk of this (the inevitability that someone would make this argument) were completely swamped by admiration and jealousy and delight in the idea of sentient beings possessed of such excellence. My first comment in defense of Avatar was actually a tweet to my TAS pals, whose hostility was already rumbling through the Twitterverse, admitting that I’m a sucker for “that hyperathletic communitarian warrior shit.” In fact, the core of my enjoyment of the movie, and those of others I’ve talked to, was this. That Jake Sully should want to become a Na’avi struck me as neither traitorous nor pomo-decadent mainly because I wanted to become a Na’avi. I hate to get into the game of spot-the-condescender, but it seems like the claim that Cameron is really condescending to them (or to some earthly sufferers) with his portrait of the Na’avi’s mad skillz and enfolding the Na’avi into an evaluative scheme whose true lesson is “White liberals number 1!” itself suffers from a degree of self-enclosure. Cameron, I’m betting, took his broader and ideologically diverse audience to be capable of seeing something his learned critics either can’t or won’t: That the distinct virtues that he imparts to the N’avi really are both distinct and virtuous. They are not ours. They are theirs. Sitting in the audience, we’re not secretly thinking, Goddamn primitives. Good thing Jake Sully’s around to help them overcome their lack of technology. We’re thinking, They don’t even need cars. This whole theme reminds me of Jonah Goldberg’s sound criticism of the tendency to find racism in movie portraits like that of the Orcs in Lord of the Rings, which is basically, wait, who’s looking at the Orcs and seeing black people? In this case, if when you see blue aliens on screen you think “black people” or “Native Americans,” why is that James Cameron’s fault? Why is your itch to protect people of color from condescension via a movie portrait of aliens from an alien planet (that people of color are digging in movie theaters worldwide) not itself condescending?

This brings us back to Jake Sully’s troubling progress from human to Na’avi. To the extent that some latent identity makes it possible for Sully to migrate from human to Na’avi in a psychologically coherent way (unlike the Sigourney Weaver migration, which is incomplete and touristic and, yes, a little condescending), it is not that he is an imperialist-humanist-white-liberal and the Na’avi are passive colonial objects. It is that they are unfathomable badasses and he’s a Marine. As such, he’s as close as we get to them. Among the more overheated critiques of Avatar is that it is anti-military, anti-Marine. The profoundly offended John Podhoretz says that “its hatred of the military and American institutions” is so pat as represent not so much an argument as an unthought Hollywood prejudice. But, if Avatar has any subtlety in its characterization, and indeed any political sophistication, it’s precisely in the spot it puts Jake Sully in as a paralyzed Marine. The cartoonish Quaratich (a name, I now suspect, that’s probably some kind of Cameronian metaphor that’s going to undermine my defense of him) explicitly plays on Sully’s undying loyalties to the Marine Corps, and Sully is shown responding to those claims at first. He bases this reflexive loyalty on the old saying that there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. But the bogusness of Quaratich’s claims to speak as a Marine is obvious from the start. That’s part of the tension of those scenes, something the audience senses before Sully does (dramatic irony, I think it’s called). Quaratich is not a Marine, he’s a mercenary. He’s using the Marine name, and calling on Marine loyalties, in the service of a paramilitary operation for private interests. As a critique of the Iraq War (which I suspect lingers back there somewhere), this is pretty dumb, but, as a dramatic statement of an entirely defensible general principle, it works just fine, as long as you’re not listening for dog-whistles to chase. I saw Jake Sully as confronted with a series of choices of the best way to be himself, a Marine – remain a paralyzed subject in a science experiment, fight as a mercenary, or become a Na’avi. He chooses Na’avi. Within the moral framework of Avatar, this seems like an obvious compliment to the Marines.

The best critique of Avatar I’ve read is Noah’s, in which he makes the straightforward point that the Na’avi, as characters, are are not alien enough. I think that the possibilities for plain weirdness in movie sic-fi are woefully underexplored. Cameron, or somebody writing more or less in defense of Cameron but soundingly disappointingly like me, might respond that the big emotional notes he’s straining to hit would be inaccessible in the context of a weirder anthropology. (Or the Cameron at the Golden Globes would say something about how “we’re all connected.” Sigh.) I think, still, with Noah’s critique in mind, that even with what Cameron has give us, he might have gone much deeper. You might encapsulate this by saying that Cameron fetishizes what the Na’avi can do and ignores who they are. It might have been cool to see them situated in a living political universe, in which power struggles and tense tribal relations yield that pleasing Machiavellian drama provided by the Sopranos and Deadwood. (But, thanks to their lushly providential natural environment, wouldn’t they live perpetually in uninteresting times?) Anyway, for me, in the theater, seeing what the Na’avi could do was enough. When I watch it a second time, I’ll no-doubt sense a gap where Al Swearengen should be.

This whole hullabaloo arises in the first place because some of our esteemed friends and commentators – I find myself disagreeing in this with the handful of writers I enjoy and read and respect more than about any other American commentators. Ross, for example, isolated as Avatar’s most troubling indulgence its apparent celebration of pantheism. But even if this pantheism belongs to some argument Cameron is trying to make, he chooses to do so through the language, the archetypes, of popular art. His greater commitments are clearly to them. If we want to see what cinema-as-argument looks like, there’s plenty of other examples out there, and they feel nothing like Avatar. Spend an hour being hectored by Crash, or addled by its cousin Babel, or jerked around by Million Dollar Baby, and you’ll see the difference. These anxious movies don’t risk for a second having their philosophy overtaken by their poetry. James says, forcefully, that “pantheism is not poetry,” but that is to steal the very point under contention. A poetry of pantheism is not, or not necessarily, the same thing as pantheism.

To the extent that the film exhibits a quasi-philosophical coherence that might excite certain suspicions that it’s earnestly trying to sell us a bill of pantheistic (or whatever) goods, I think this owes to two things, one novel, one familiar, neither very philosophically troubling when looked at. One is its sheer scale, the amazing comprehensiveness of its world. The other is the familiarity of its themes, which become even more potently familiar when mapped onto its massive scale. Part way through the movie I found myself laughing at the grandiosity of some scene – I think it was one of the flight scenes – and I thought, damn, Cameron. In order to create a narrative equal to his imagined world, he has no choice but to risk looking idiotic for confecting the ripest adventure-melodrama in the history of cinema. Likewise, in order to treat the well-worn romantic/pastoral theme of alienation from nature on such a scale and comprehensiveness, he has to go all out and create the most embracing natural world the world has ever seen. Anything less would be a let-down, out of scale. The fact that Cameron is probably not himself a pantheist is but one reason of many to view his portrait of Pandora in terms of genre aesthetics rather than political or moral prescription. Since the archetype for Avatar’s nature-love already exists as a virtual pillar of our popular culture, and since the schema for overcoming some curse of earthly finitude through loving something or someone a whole bunch is likewise a familiar emotional set-up, and since his world is so big and beautiful and convincing, he can get away with this. We aren’t pantheists, either, but we’ve imbibed enough nature nostalgia and romantic overcoming in our cinema that we can dig where Avatar is coming from. We know how to enjoy it, aesthetically. It’s that other stuff, only bigger and more beautiful. But the way Avatar’s super-pastoralism plugs into its own archetype so powerfully gives it, to the viewer especially attuned to argument, the whiff of a treatise or manifesto. For the rank-and-file moviegoer, the successful fusion of scale and content is even more reason to ignore the bits of sermonizing and treat the movie as a movie. For the suspicious pundit rightly tired of romanticism as a political pose, this same unlikely formal achievement is a reason to treat the movie as one of those essays on the back page of Time magazine.