Monday, May 31, 2010

Notes on Avatar

Always a little late the party, I managed to bring myself to see Avatar over two nights this long weekend. Each viewing was accompanied by a pair of martinis, and chicken on spinach or cauliflower. When the roommate leaves, me eating habits become elemental, and my drinking habits alternate among martinis, bourbon on the rocks, and Liberty Ale. It;s a reduced life, but the solitude is pleasant. In that mood, I climbed the stairs to take advantage of my upstairs neighbor's absence to use his Hi-Def TV for my Avatar experience.

I don't like adventure films, and I define the genre broadly. They seem contrived, and because they rarely are based on genuine psychological portraits, they tend to employ cheap plot tricks whose only point is to induce thrills in those who enjoy the suspension of disbelief. I have no problem with that ... I am not trying to be a snob. I just don't enjoy this particular set of cheap thrills. Of course, my reductions here are informed more by extrapolation than by filmic experience. I have probably choked my way through fewer than a dozen "adventure" films in my life. I couldn't force myself to watch the third Lord of the Ring after almost ripping my hair out watching the second ... "will this never end" I quacked. I did enjoy The Shining, but you know how long ago that was.

So I came to Avatar a skeptic.

And I left a skeptic also. That said, I quite enjoyed it.

But first the good part. The special effects, even without 3D,were fabulous. But what I would want ... and I recognize that I am in a tiny minority here ... would be a steady state, plotless, anthropology-style excursus on life on an alien planet. All the drama and the cheap plot just get in the way of a perfectly lovely fantasy.

So to the cheap plot. One wonders why Mr. Cameron employs such a thin kitbag of character stereotypes. Tuf and gruf, goofy but likeable, balsy female pilot, hero with a heart of gold but confused. Of course such banalities of character loom as Einsteinian relativity beside the single-digit algebra of the native population. It is a curiosity that liberalism prefers to depict primordial or universal religion in terms so reminiscent of the popular representation of Native American religion that I expect a pow wow to break out. And indeed, eventually one did.

Notwithstanding the central action of an improbable battle in which arrow-firing cavalry brings down a massive modern air force, and notwithstanding the underlying theme of the struggle of nature against technology and the fight of primary extractors against the military/industrial complex, I think this is fundamentally a religious film. The society of the natives is riven with religion, and indeed nature itself on Pandora is religious in its geo-biology. Not too much intelligence is spilled in constructing this pantheon ... there is a simple pantheistic god and lots of mystical communicating via trees and dandelion seeds and what not.

I am sure that most people came for the adventure and the special effects. I wonder what they make of the pantheism. Is it just that this sort of religious prattling is common in scifi? Or do they just not care.

A recent states that fully 18% of Americans no longer profess a religion. I suspect the figure is actually radically higher, but most people like to pretend they have a religion because it is generally thought to be expected. That Avatar's religious message exacted so little chatter is a sign to me that the religious debate in this country is controlled by that tiny array of fanatics who strike fear into those who would say the emperor is nude. Many more Americans are actually pantheistic quasi-animists than would admit or even know it. I think that is why the religious content of this movie provokes so little discussion.

Religion and war go together of course, and so too in the movie. But while the religion presented at least had some intellectual pretenses, the military stuff was a joke. I mean, cavalry in a jungle. 2,000 troops are all they could muster? And suddenly firearms appear without apparent explanation.

But that too, I suppose, is part of the adventure genre. It is not about the sense of it, nor is it about the factors or the psychology. It is about setting up the action and then riding it.

I enjoyed the ride, but I could not suspend disbelief. I'm waiting for the documentary.

Photos by Arod, from Quane Alley, I believe.

No comments: