Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Fifth World Movies: Avatar

I actually feel very ambivalent about Avatar, so I hesitate to call this an "endorsement." But it sparked some good discussions with the people I went to see it with, which certainly counts for something. Moreover, the points that bother me about Avatar have some significant connections to The Fifth World.

Visually, the movie awes. It even has its moments as a story. I especially liked the part where Neytiri calls Jake a baby. The montage of the outsider learning Na'vi traditions hit the high notes for me, including the language, and even tracking. The intelligent root system—ethernet cords in animals' hair notwithstanding—presents an only slightly more magical version of the mycorrhizal networks that really do knit Earth's continents into enormous organisms (even though the movie's presentation seems to suggest that Earth has nothing like this).

I also liked that the genocide has no real stand-out villains. Even the colonel acts as he does because he has gotten hurt before. He wants to protect his people, and his inability to do so makes him increasingly paranoid. He becomes more and more violent not because of any moral failing, but because of the impact of living in the system he does. The businessman in charge of the whole operation cares about the bottom line; the scientists care, but their arrogance and their need to cast everything in their own terms constantly gets in their way. The genocide doesn't happen because of a villain; he happens because of the systemic problems and relationships between these different people, pushing them forward towards an end that none of them, on their own, particularly wants. Just like real life.

That said, I can hardly deny the deeply disturbing, racist undertones in the movie—once again, the condescending conceit that native people need a big, strong white male to come save them, right down to the "Indian Princess" story. Will Heaven summed this up much better in The Telegraph. Annalee Newitz puts it quite well on io9:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color—their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

I went to see the film with these things in mind. I probably wouldn't have gone on my own because of this, but my brother wanted to see it, and I hadn't passed such absolute judgment based simply on the report of others that I would refuse to see it myself.

First, might it sometimes take a European to fend off other Europeans? After all, consider the depths of sociopathic depravity we see from the humans in Avatar (which only dimly mirrors the sociopathic depravity of Europeans who invaded the Americas, Africa and Australia). They do more than simply "displace" people, they rip them from a rootedness in a particular place that affects them in ways not unlike a collective frontal lobotomy. That takes a kind of bloody-mindedness, a ruthlessness and cruelty—or at the very least, a kind of devastating ignorance—that no healthy person can really understand. To know what they'll do, you might need someone as damaged as they to think in such, frankly, psychotic terms.

Second, it seems to me that Jake Sully's rise to Na'vi savior came from precisely what Neytiri said of him at the start: he acts like a baby. He stumbles about, knowing nothing. He heard the story of Toruk Makto, but he lacks a real feel for it. Most of us have heard the story of Moses, but we wouldn't try parting a sea. Someone else, having heard the story only once, might not know better; and if it worked, well then! Seen in this light, Jake Sully becomes the hero—both when entering Na'vi society, and when becoming the "great white savior"—precisely because of his ignorance, and his willingness to admit his ignorance. He does something amazing not because he is amazing, but because he doesn't know better, so he tries.

I don't think these perspectives absolve Avatar of its faults. I don't see much ground for taking these as authorial intent. They provide what seems to me like the most generous reading possible, and even then, I have to wonder to what degree these serve simply as the rationalizations of another white guy?

I think I liked Avatar most not for the film itself, but for the discussions it sparked—discussions of race, identity, cultural appropriation, imperialism, privilege and white guilt. The Fifth World raises these questions, too. I hope to handle them somewhat more honestly, though.