Avatar: I see blue cat people...

Just finished the three hour tour that is James Cameron's Avatar and being a HUGE sci-fi geek I must say I have... mixed feelings.

Beyond the shameless, co-opted caricatures of tribal Native American, African and Aboriginal cultures, I think there is something deeply problematic in the way moviegoers are invited to participate in our own entertainment by sympathizing with the marginalized (as we clearly should, and must) - and then feel good about ourselves for being so sensitive.

The Empire outrages us when helpless savages (or natives, or pagans, or immigrants, or peasants, or "Rebel scum," or Bajorans - that's right, I went there...) are abused, attacked, and hopelessly outnumbered.

Here's the problem: nothing ever changes.

This may not be the fault of the filmmaker. Clearly, James Cameron has good intentions. Good 350 million dollar intentions (so there's a question of how funds might best be used...) but filmmaking makes a big spectacle, makes us clap and cheer, and then gives us PERMISSION to go back to our comfortable lives. Unchanged. Truly, unconvicted. At least, not for very long.

So I teared up when the blue cat people were getting blown to smithereens (yeah, I actually did) but that doesn't matter. And I'd bet what's worse is that I'm crying over a stolen story: this story played out here on U.S. soil, and involved tens of millions, instead of a few thousand.

When we're encouraged to sympathize with the "least of these" (be they human OR alien) and then get off the hook, habitual permission to go back to our lives unchanged, then it doesn't matter if you call it art or entertainment - it's destructive. How do we break the habit of caring enough to cry, but not enough to take action? We are, after all, still waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And ready to do so, elsewhere. The same script plays out in Braveheart and The Last Samurai, and dozens of fabulous, captivating "epics." And they all teach us to care about the RIGHT things. But not to care too much.

As an aside, I do love sci-fi, and Avatar created one of the most vivid worlds I've ever seen on film. After 45 minutes, I even got used to the douchey-looking cat people. It was an experience as much as something to merely watch. I want to give credit where credit is due, and it's an impressive spectacle. I simply cannot divorce my viewing experience from this feeling that makes my stomach more than a little unsettled.


A. D. Hunt said...

Wow Peter, I was soon to post about this...but in reference to Blogging rather than movie watching. I'm pretty damned tired of using the internet as a place to "speak out" about "injustice" or whatever because it has the same effect of creating a sense of self-righteous piety: "We, the righteous, are outraged at this...hear our outrage"

We are the "Show Me" faith.

btw-this in no way references you who I know are active in activities to squell injustice, merely a comment on "blossody" (my name for the science of blogging)

James said...

I agree with you basic sentiment that we need to be a people that are called to action instead of just talk but I hope that you will apply this same reasoning to other areas as well.
I think that you could say the same thing about listening to rap or hip hop. The suburban white male will never really know what it is like to live in the "hood" but they still buy the records nevertheless. The poor and marginalized are characters in much of rap music and are shamelessly co-opted to sell records. But we listen. It makes us think and helps to move us beyond our shallow world.
It happens in literature as well. In grapes of wrath the "okies" were co-opted to make a message about the marginalized. While they were not accurately portrayed the message came through and affected how people moved forward.
I understand your critique but this same critique could be applied to all art.

Peter said...

I agree with the prescription for ME, as the observer/consumer, but I'd have to disagree with the generalized critique of art.

If Avatar was conceived, written, produced and performed by Native Americans - speaking from personal experience - my critique would be unfounded.

If a wealthy old white guy wrote and performed 2Pac's lyrics - even if they were the SAME lyrics - they would be offensive, presumptuous, and co-opted. It would be intolerable. And I think that visual just formed in my head actually reaffirms my feeling about Avatar.

But your right, my personal enjoyment of it has the potential of being just as vapid, shallow, and exploitative. My testimony is, hip hop changed my worldview.

We've talked plenty about "organic" communities. I think (though I could be wrong) the same organic element is necessary for honest, authentic art.

Peter said...

A.D., as usual, your words convict me!

You're right - the whole practice of this daily ranting IS problematic.

Not sure how to get around that. Not sure how to live "awake" without living "outraged." Not sure how to deconstruct without criticizing.

I can't defend the general culture of blogging, and I know I have friends who have been turned off by the evolution of my beliefs here. But I have found it a helpful tool for introspection and processing, and (more importantly!) a powerful part of my own diffused faith community.

Will have to think more on that...

Cobalt Blue said...

Peter-Have you seen "District 9?" In terms of sci-fi allegory, I think it is extremely powerful. I watched it the weekend after a 3 day retreat learning about refugees in Sudan, and the imagery of the movie is in no way overstated. I felt nauseated, convicted and I cried for 40 minutes after the movie ended. The director of that movie was able to make me feel a real connection with beings that were physically disgusting and utterly alien, yet we people do the terrible things that were being done perpetually to one another.

What's more, I was left with the extremely uncomfortable feeling that I could identify all too well with the human "protagonist." I spent the movie so appalled by and disappointed in him-yet empathetic as well. I always want to be the "good guy" in the movie. "District 9" wouldn't let me. People who have no knowledge of "District 6" in Cape Town, and people who have not really looked at refugee camps around the world might have thought they were watching a science fiction movie. I was all too aware how little of that movie was fiction.

Thank you for your blog, by the way.

Existential Punk said...

Peter, i know it's really hard to imagine, BUT, i really don't have anything to say on this post. Sorry, man! LOL!!!

Peter said...

Ha ha, no worries Adele!

Cobalt, thanks for the reminder - I didn't see District 9 in the theaters, but really wanted to! I've heard it's surprisingly powerful!

Not sure if that creates problems for my argument here or not, but I don't get the impression from previews that District 9 uses thinly veiled caricatures of existing cultures. Maybe it's parallelism, versus appropriation? What do you think?

Cobalt Blue said...

Peter, in response to your argument-I suggest that there is a large difference between art and popular entertainment-one of them evokes feeling thought which lingers, informs, and transforms. The other touches those places of feeling thought, but doesn't seriously disturb it. Entertainment takes a great risk any time it pushes back, a risk felt in ticket sales.

In films, the line between art and entertainment is very tricky as the art may erupt in many places-(for me, the opening credits of "Watchmen" were Oscar-worthy, while the rest of the film fell considerably short of the genius of the graphic novel) such as the sound track, or the action sequences, but still miss the mark overall.

That being suggested, it seems that the viewer has the responsibility to critique the reality presented in film, music, and other art forms. It seems that you were moved to emotional response by the film, but your rational critique was not fooled. You "saw through the fourth wall." Something that was visually artful was shallow in its storytelling. What's more, you perceived that story to be a problem-inauthentic, wrongfully appropriated and manipulative.

Then the question comes down to the viewer/receiver, not the artist. Why don't more viewers experience the disjointed reality between caring for the "blue people" in the movie and supporting the resource-hungry empire in their voting? Also, where does responsibility lie if I want to be as good Peter Parker but end up behaving more like Wikus Van De Merwe?

I contend that we give ourselves permission to go back to our comfortable lives unchanged. Releasing tension through a good cry is a long way from rearranging your life so you don't have that tension to cry about. I contend we choose our entertainments, relationships and situations such that we meet or avoid challenges to our individual world-views, lifestyles and ways of being.

I also suggest that some of us are not as well informed as others. The "co-opted caricatures" that were so obvious to you might have been completely unrecognizable to someone else.

Last, I believe that action primarily arises from relationship to community (both creative and destructive actions), and a watching a movie (reading a book, listening to a song, or viewing a dance routine) is a solitary individual experience.

Brendan Hogan said...

Hi Peter, I just got back from watching Avatar and was hoping you would have some insightful critiques and you didn't disappoint. I know you’re questioning the value of blogging but I would encourage you to not underestimate the power of what you do. The ideas you put forth here are important and rarely heard. Even more important than what you say is how you say it. Social discourse is too often filled with ideologues, reactionaries, and defensiveness. By being thoughtful, self-aware, open to criticism, and critical of your own privelage, you lead by example and encourage others to do the same – that, in and of itself, is a form of advocacy.
I think you’re right about Avatar, Cameron probably did intend to be progressive and to advocate but ended up being like the corporate bigwig in his film – educating from on high in a way that only furthers repression. In general, I found the movie to be at odds with itself. It condemns the macho heavy-handed methods of the military then proceeds to praise those same qualities in its heroes. It romanticizes the low-tech earth centered ways of the Na’vi while marketing the technological break-through of the movie itself. It delights in the wonders and joys of being out in nature yet entire sequences were thinly veiled advertisements for the upcoming video game. It praises it’s hero for aligning himself with the oppressed but glosses over the fact that should he fail, he would wake up in his real body and lose nothing; while the Na’vi lose everything (a metaphor I don’t think the film makers intended). The first ¾ of the movie is a potent allegory of American history while the last ¼ descends into absurd fantasy. Also, as you have pointed out, it allows us in the audience to congratulate ourselves for our sympathies without condemning us for our complicity. However, I think there is an even more damaging way in which Avatar lets us off the hook. It furthers the popular myth that humans are inherently destructive and greedy. By hating ourselves we are allowed to feel moral and by believing destruction to be inevitable, we are spared from actually having to do anything about it.
Personally, I think there are too many ‘cautionary tales’ and not enough ‘exemplary tales’, too much cynicism and not enough hope, too many ‘complicated characters’ and not enough role models, too many easy breakthroughs and not enough hard won realizations. This leads me to share your frustration with the apparent impotence of media. However, media as an awareness altering tool works in subtle ways though. It’s impossible to measure it’s effect. Who is to say whether or not Avatar (despite it’s many hypocrisies) will contribute to a greater sympathy for indigenous rights, or whether your blog will inspire others to more closely examine their role in oppression. Should we have faith in our chosen mediums or quit fooling ourselves and get law degrees? Whatever the answer I hope you keep blogging.

Peter said...

Really great insights - and not just because you agree with me ;) You highlighted some things I hadn't even thought about!

I just re-posted some of your comments and my responses, here:


Anonymous said...



"I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage,
but I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism. Some of these things you can’t raise
without being called unpatriotic, but I think it’s very patriotic to
question a system that needs to be corralled, or it becomes Rome."
—James Cameron on the film Avatar




Avatar's Christian theme
By Mark Silk

More Spiritual Than You'd Think
You Can't See Nothing If You Close Your Eyes
by Mike Furches

A Must-See Cinematic Spectacle
Our Spiritual Desire On Display
Yo | 12/21/09

The True Avatar
by Lane Palmer

Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Wake Up - It's Grace

Peter said...

I understand and am not surprised by Cameron's intentions and stated ethos for the film. Clearly, he had noble intentions.

My argument is that the medium, the approach, the tone, and the source of the critique are all inherently problematic, and in my view outweigh the beneficial messages about earthkeeping and post-colonial critique.

Thanks for the links though, always interesting to see what other folks are saying!

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