Avatar: A Contradictory Text

from "Race and Revenge Fantasies in Avatar, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds" by John Rieder, Science Fiction Film & Television vol. 4, issue 1, January 2011:
The stupendous commercial success of Avatar may have been achieved in spite of its ideologically retrograde character, as many of its early reviewers seemed to think, but it seems more likely that its revivification of old-fashioned, reassuring exoticism is one of the principal reason for its popularity. In a contemporary economy whose financial, political, and commercial core continues to rely heavily on resource extraction from peripheral sites, Avatar offers a painless adjustment of colonial-era fantasies of appropriation to contemporary ecological and political conditions. Its vision is essentially akin to the widespread contemporary ideology -- arguably the dominant coprorate and political vision of the present-day US -- of a "green capitalism" that keeps the flows of resources and systems of profits intact while purging them of corruption and waste. The aspects of the capitalist world system and the US's dominance within it that Avatar repudiates -- ecologically damaging resource extraction and arrogant militarism -- are effectively erased, rather than criticized, reconceptualized, or reformed by the protagonists' whole-body assimilation into the Na'vi, because this transformation is cast as a return to pre-industrial harmony with nature (the strong similarity of the Na'vi to American movie Indians is no coincidence). That this prior state of harmony is just as imaginary as Colonel Quaritch is brutal only confirms the underlying coherence of Avatar's liberalism with its fetishism.
Avatar testifies to the continuing, apparently indomitable vigour of American exceptionalism, catering to the US audience's seemingly bottomless thirst for imagining themselves the heroes of world history.

 Some perhaps not very coherent notes on the two items above:

Remixes are wonderful for the ways they can break through the interpretations we've settled on, but because they do violence to the original text by tearing away its contexts, they are, at best, illuminating collages. They tell us as much about themselves as about the original, and so while the Avatar remix does indeed show us some tendencies within that film and others, so, too, do The Shining Recut and Wonka: Drug Baron.

The similarities between the films in the remix are amusing and disturbing; they certainly demonstrate some of the White Man as Savior narrative that has been popular in U.S. popular culture for a while, the guilty mirror image of the Non-White Man as Evil Savage story.

I've seen most of the films that are remixed in with Avatar in that video, and don't think much of very many of them, but I also think the video encourages readings of those other films that are, in at least one case, the exact opposite of what is actually in the movie itself. The most obvious example is The New World, which is about many things, but among those things, it is about how human beings from vastly different worlds experience contact with each other. Its characters experience the attractions and horrors of exoticism, the difficulties of communication and understanding, and there are consequences to all of it. It's an extraordinary movie with which to think and feel through the complexities of contact, vastly more nuanced than any of the other films included in the remix.

The remix video, then, while offering some real insights is also perpetuating an uncritical rejection of works in which the presence of certain elements common to problematic stories is what makes those stories problematic. But it's how the elements are used in the story that determines the ideological meaning of the work, not the mere presence -- if presence were all, Birth of a Nation, Rosewood, and O Brother Where Art Thou would be equal because they all include the Ku Klux Klan.

I find John Rieder's view of Avatar persuasive, but while some of those elements do seem to me to be part of the film's popularity, it's an utterly white-US-centric explanation of a movie that made more than twice as much money outside the US during its theatrical run. It is not, apparently, US audiences alone that have a "seemingly bottomless thirst" for tales of US exceptionalism and historical triumph.

In some ways, a more interesting view of Avatar would find a space within it for a non- or anti-imperialist audience -- Nnedi Okorafor seemed to be able to view it that way, and while certainly lots of people enjoyed Avatar because of its special effects, and looked past other less exciting elements (whether the dialogue or the plot holes or a particular political view), I'm really not willing to say that millions of people around the world embraced a racist movie just because of the cool effects.

Helpful to such a discussion would be Edward Said's essay on the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, "Jungle Calling". Here's the final paragraph:
Yet before we throw Tarzan completely away as a useless degenerate without either social or aesthetic value, he ought to be given a chance as what in fact he is, an immigrant. Yes, he belongs to the same epoch that produced traveling imperialists like Lawrence of Arabia, Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and of course Cecil Rhodes, but despite Hollywood and Burroughs himself, Tarzan is much less of a dominant figure than any of those white men. He is vulnerable, disadvantaged, and, because of his lonely silence in the movies, pathetic. Weissmuller's face tells a story of stoic deprivation. In a world full of danger this orphan without upward mobility or social advancement as alternatives is, I've always felt, a forlorn survivor. Quite clearly that is not what Hollywood intended to convey. But it is what still comes through: Tarzan the hero diverted from worldly success and with no hope of rehabilitation, in permanent exile. More unusual still is the fact that Weissmuller's performances as Tarzan are both better and more uncompromising than the novelistic original. Time for a Weissmuller revival.
In Avatar, Jake Sully and Grace Alexander achieve what Lawrence of Arabia and Kevin of the Wolves could not: they transmigrate. Their brain patterns may be human, but they have given up the identity privileges attached to their white human bodies. They can't go back. This, then, is a somewhat different story from most -- probably all -- of the films the remix bundles together with Avatar, because this particular movie is science fiction, and so its world contains the technology to move it from just a "going native" story to a "staying native" story.

And while the allegorical impulses of Avatar are obvious, at the most basic level Pandora is not Earth and the Na'avi are not American Indians because within the diegesis there is still an Earth and, presumably, at least a couple Indians left. Avatar is a story of finding utopia and a story of reincarnation. Pandora is better than Earth because it's still got some trees left, and the Na'avi fit a hippie vision of Indians as ahistorical beings in a static environment that stays static because they don't exploit it -- thus, Pandora is a utopia in which the Na'avi are creatures the film presents as perfect because they better fit a sentimental concept of "primitive" people than do any Earthly candidates. It's not at all true to Earth history, but it's perfectly true to Pandoran history, because Pandora is what James Cameron wants it to be. It's no more or less realistic than Dante's Paradiso. The Na'avi are a tribe of angels, and Grace and Sully earn the right to enter their blue heaven. (Ugh, those names! Sully gets unSullied and Grace is ... what, disGraceful? Or no, maybe she's the Graceful Dead. Or -- okay, sorry, I'll stop...)

All of which is just to say that I think Avatar is utterly contradictory, and any one ideological reading of it is going to be wrong, whether that reading is validating or questioning the film's narrative moves. Avatar draws from some imperialist traditions, yes, but it also draws from utopian traditions and religious traditions and pop cultural traditions and science fictional traditions. Few if any of them are thought through or are the engines of thought in the film, which is part of the reason it is so contradictory -- but really, it would require something like a genius saint to be able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars using the most advanced technology of our time (some of it likely including minerals such as coltan) to make a coherent critique of consumerism, militarism, and resource exploitation. I can believe that James Cameron is some sort of genius, but certainly not a saint.

John Rieder's essay is worth seeking out (I had to use inter-library loan to get a copy, because Science Fiction Film & Television is included only in the more expensive Project Muse databases, our university library doesn't subscribe to those, and the journal itself charges $35 for online access to one article -- let me pause here to say that I think places such as Liverpool University Press, Duke University Press, and others that charge high amounts for access to single items are completely and utterly insane. Who thought up these policies? Did somebody say, "Hey, I think it would be great it we charged more than the price of the average hardcover novel for access to a 10-page essay. People will understand! It provides us with the funding to make knowledge accessible to the world!" The people who set pricing for these academic journals probably go home and, to wind down from the hard work of turning potential readers away, pick up a pistol and shoot themselves in the foot.), though I think he undervalues Avatar, overvalues District 9 (I have come to admire it less over time), and analyzes some elements of Inglourious Basterds well while also simplifying its effect too much and so missing its most powerful aspects. (Of the three, Inglourious Basterds strikes me as the most interesting, complex, and challenging -- a true masterpiece -- and I say that as someone who previously never really understood people's infatuation with the films of Quentin Tarrantino.) (For a more comprehensive take on Basterds, see the extraordinary explication of it at The Seventh Art.)

I've devolved to putting parentheses after parentheses, so it's time to stop before all my vision is peripheral...


  1. As you pointed out, Avatar did most of its business outside the US. According to boxofficemojo, Avatar only got about 27% of its revenues from the US, far different from the usual 50/50 split. Rieder's belief that it is the racism of the US audience responsible for Avatar's commercial success thus is pure dumbfuckery at best. Which suggests he had no judgment, just malice against the audience.

    Because of cost I won't be reading this mystifyingly persuasive essay. I will note that when the skyscraper tree falls like the World Trade Center or the white guys do the perp walk, that when the Indians win instead of being romantic victims, there are images and themes offensive enough to racist sensibilities to explain the disparity. On the other hand, anyone who doesn't have much problem with the imagery in District 9 doesn't have much clue about racism in the US. When anyone talks up District 9 over Avatar, I'm pretty sure we have the time honored attempt by racists to accuse someone else of really being racist.

    There is something seriously wrong with Avatar as a cinematic work of art, a thematic falseness that diminishes it: Religion That Works. The inability to notice that reflects a popular prejudice for religion. But despite its acceptability, this is no more admirable than racism. Your comments about Heaven and angels came so close, but you forgot that was silly pablum, sugar for a summer treat.

    The remix couldn't even get the name of the movie The Ghost and the Darkness correct! But clipping Val Kilmer's character instead of Michael Douglas' was truly inept. If they had clipped in the white guys being saved by the charge of the Egyptian slaves, though, you might have a little more of the flavor of Avatar.

  2. Can't type, sorry. The white guys in Stargate were saved by the charge of the Egyptian slaves, one of two climaxes in the movie.


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