Avatar : Contradictions of Cameron’s Animation Masterpiece

The contradictions of capital-intensive history:
James Cameron’s animation masterpiece

The stunning experience of nature, culture, and politics does achieve an important spiritual reversal of the Cowboys and Indians plot.

By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / December 28, 2009

“I’ll sell it to you for $12 what I paid,” she says to a man holding a pale sign that says “Needed, 1 ticket.” Cheery thankyous move the long line forward, one step closer to Avatar on the last day of this box-office- busting Christmas weekend.

Inside the IMAX theater, just before the house lights come down there will be two more tickets to exchange. Mother and son pay cash at the door to strangers and locate a small, impromptu space where they can sit together against the wall, giving the rest of us the chance to see what we look like with our 3-D glasses on.

The one and only preview belongs to the Disney-branded Tim Burton edition of Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp. Everything about it looks brilliant in IMAX 3-D. The Mad Hatter does not fail to chuckle. Imagine seeing all of us from his point of view, looking like a wall of human flies on flypaper, all bug-eyed.

As for the main feature, which opened Dec. 18, 2009 worldwide, it is true what the fan said who chased in vain after James Cameron’s grumpy autograph at LAX: “The plot is so simple a three-year-old could follow it.” Yes, okay, the formula of colonial imperialism is a cosmology that every preschooler can comprehend. It used to go by the name Cowboys and Indians.

Something about Cameron’s capital-intensive mythology is laudable for a Hollywood Blockbuster. The stunning experience of nature, culture, and politics does achieve an important spiritual reversal of the Cowboys and Indians plot. The audience is skillfully maneuvered into anti-imperialist sympathies so that we can tearfully commit to an improbable reversal of the kind of history that any three-year-old knows.

I came away thinking that I might like to try the Xbox version of the Avatar adventure, with opportunities to win battles of liberation using fantastic weapons upon exotic landscapes. Of course, I realized as I was pulling out my car key that a more effective spiritual reversal would have me renouncing all my capital-intensive desires and the battles they advance.

A truly improbable Avatar reversal would produce a global back-to-nature movement liberated from plastic 3-D glasses because something like “real nature” was being returned to its sacred center of attention. “I see you,” we would say to all living things. Cameron’s deeper vision suggests that all living things would be able to sigh a biologically verifiable response of collective awareness: “And I see you.”

At the high point of the plot’s arc, a masculine body of “skin” touches the feminine surface of a producer’s fantasy. In that very moment, the saturated hues of Avatar’s animation affirm what the plot renounces. Experience moves relentlessly toward the desire to be more immersed in the jungle of technology than we already are.

At any rate, the contradictions of the Hollywood Blockbuster are not proprietary to Cameron. They are the contradictions of capital-intensive history itself. With few exceptions here and there, audiences have not failed to purchase their Avatar tickets in advance.

[Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com.]

The Rag Blog

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5 Responses to Avatar : Contradictions of Cameron’s Animation Masterpiece

  1. If this was anything other than a fantasy of fiction, the blue skins would be mining ore 24 x 7 from their former home site and living in cramped metal huts provided by the mining company. I wasn’t the only one in my theater laughing and cheering when Hometree came crashing down.

    We all like our nice safe convenient lives where everything from food to shelter to sex to healthcare is at our fingertips as soon as a thought enters our brain. If our lives were full of struggle to eat and find shelter and sustain ourselves, we would gladly ignore the abuse/enslavement of some far away tribe in order to make our lives more pleasant. Want proof? I offer western civilization in the 20th century.

    For 99.9% of Americans, they have the luxury of rooting for the Navi since their existence requires no struggle at all.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Extremist to DHS, your point is well-taken, about most of us with easy lives. However, when you say: “we would gladly ignore the abuse/enslavement of some far away tribe”, you have to understand that at this site anyway you’re going to have to speak for yourself only.

  3. Anonymous, I do understand that. I appreciate your reminder. I was speaking in the larger context of what I have observed in American society.

  4. Pollyanna says:

    Ursula K. Leguin, one of the greatest American science fiction authors, has a wonderful little short story that has appeared in various places called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. It concerns a city-state, Omelas, where everyone is happy and has everything they need, where there is no distress or conflict.

    Except for one little child, locked in a dark basement, taunted and tormented to death and then replaced with another innocent.

    This is the price for Omelas’ peace and plenty. In LeGuin’s story, citizens who find themselves, all at once or over time, unable to live with that price, simply “walk away” from the city and their lives of ease.

    It’s a short story; she doesn’t take it any further than that. It has always left me wondering where they go, if they meet up with each other, and if they are working together to find a better way to live in society.

    As long as we are able to distance ourselves sufficiently from suffering, as long as we are sufficiently diverted by spectacle and amusement, it’s easy to pretend we don’t know the price of our comfort. Racial segregation, for example, was easier to maintain when Black people in the US were forced to live in cramped, decaying, ill-served ghetto housing, often in close proximity to noxious industry or waste areas, because white people avoided those areas whenever possible. Out of sight, out of mind. But increasing urbanization, as Black folks lost Southern land holdings, made the growing ghettos impossible to not see, the conditions of life forced upon their residents impossible to countenance.

    I still believe that when people are confronted with the actual suffering of other people, in the flesh, they tend to respond as fellow humans, rather than amused observers.

  5. Marvelous, and rather marvelous that this is the THIRD Avatar review to appear in this blog — good to know we all still have at least one foot in the “marvel” universe!

    NO really, Greg, very good points. Cameron’s film, of course, achieves its reversal because the protagonist experiences within his “one soul” both poles of the contradiction: he is both oppressor and oppressed.

    I recall a similar sense of confusion and awakening myself, the year that I began to understand both institutional racism and institutional male chauvinism. In the one case, I was an unwitting oppressor; in the other, an unwitting victim. It’s the “unwitting” part that changed, for me and for Cameron’s hero.

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