Rod Dreher

I finally made it to “Avatar” today. Whatever else there is to say about the film, it was well worth seeing for the visual spectacle alone. I saw it in 3D, and it was great fun. It’s also fun, in a way, to see it as a Rohrshach test of one’s political and cultural orientation. “Avatar” has been thoroughly analyzed as a cliched story about white guilt/reverse racism, cheesy noble-savage mythologizing, cheap anti-capitalist fantasizing, pantheism, environmentalism, anti-militarism, and so forth. In its storytelling, “Avatar” is not morally nuanced, or even sophisticated. And yet, I found myself enjoying the film more than I expected to, and I believe that of all the criticism I’ve read of the picture, Conor Friedersdorf’s take seemed the truest to my own experience this afternoon. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Ultimately all these critics miss out on a rare chance to reflect on the tragic flaws of earth and humanity in a novel way. Think back to those basic kinds of narrative conflict we learn about in elementary school. Man versus nature stories show us how the hard realities of the human condition impact our lives. Man versus man stories render the fallen nature of our species: since at the Greeks we’ve understood that we’re condemned to be forever hubristic, greedy, violent, jealous, etc. In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different. “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.” (link)Sure, I wish the villains would’ve been a bit less one dimensional — Avatar isn’t an inquiry into the characters of individual humans or the nature of evil doers, nor is it a masters class in intricate, delightful plotting — but the characters and the plot serviceably accomplish their main objective: putting us inside an alien society and landscape, awing us with its contours, and threatening its destruction so that we feel how thoroughly we’ve grown to like its best attributes.

NOTE: In the discussion of the plot below, you may find some spoilers. I tried to keep the discussion as general as possible. Everything I write about below are things I knew about the plot going into the film, because I’ve read a number of reviews. If you’ve been following reviews and discussion of the film, you won’t be surprised by anything below either. But a reader requested that I put a spoiler alert into this post, so here you are.)A couple of things in particular struck me about “Avatar” that i haven’t seen much commented on. Aside from the pantheistic religiosity at the heart of the film, I was taken by Jake Sully’s character arc in terms of a conversion story. I kept thinking about Robert De Niro’s slaver in “The Mission” (one of my favorite films), and how after his conversion to Christianity, he began living with and serving the Indians he’d once hunted, and ultimately came to defend them violently against his own civilization, which saw them not as fellow humans with dignity and rights, but as obstacles to the exercise of economic and political will. Mind you, “The Mission” is a more subtle film (by a mile) than “Avatar,” because it is tragic: the Indians, now Christians, are sacrificed with the permission of the Church, which also doesn’t see them as worth much in the grand scheme of Rome’s geopolitical interests. “Avatar” lacks that narrative twist, but it’s still a conversion story: the tale of a man who comes to find that life among the alien people is in fact more meaningful and life-giving than life among his own. He dies to himself, and becomes one of them — even, in the end, being willing to fight and die to protect them from his own people. What’s particularly interesting to me is that Jake began his journey as an imaginative experiment, aided by 22nd-century technology (i.e., he inhabited the body of his Na’vi avatar without leaving his actual body; he was play-acting at being a Na’vi … but the act of living in what for him was essentially an imaginary world turned his reality inside out, as he came to identify more with the unreal world than with the real one). It’s been said that if you don’t believe in a religion, live for a while as if it were true, and you may find that the faith comes alive for you, once you see the world from the point of view of the believer.Secondly, and more importantly, “Avatar” is more or less a three-hour sci-fi meditation on the points the anthropologist Wade Davis makes in his 20 minute TED lecture, which you can see here:In the talk, which focuses on endangered indigenous cultures, and what we stand to lose by losing them, Davis says that to travel and to live among these fringe cultures

…is to really remember the central revelation of anthropology, and that is the idea that the world in which we live in does not exist in some absolute sense, but is just one model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of adaptive choices that our lineage made, albeit successfully, many generations ago.

More Davis:

Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who’s raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource or that place than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s the abode of a spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant. What’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world. I was raised in the forests of British Columbia to believe those forests existed to be cut. That made me a different human being than my friends among the Kwagiulth who believe that those forests were the abode of Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven and the cannibal spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world, spirits they would have to engage during their Hamatsa initiation. Now, if you begin to look at the idea that these cultures could create different realities, you could begin to understand some of their extraordinary discoveries.

I really urge you to watch that Davis talk, because he talks about concrete examples of knowledge beneficial to us that comes from the experience and knowledge of these people, who have been taught by their traditions to see the world differently from us. What he goes on to say is that these cultures are not dying out naturally; they’re dying out because of the brutal imposition of power, political and economic. And see, this is what’s happening in “Avatar;” the scientists are discovering phenomenal things through their study of the Na’vi and the biological life on their planet, but all of that means nothing to the corporation that’s mining the planet for a valuable mineral. (And lest you think this is a crude indictment of corporate greed, it stands to reason that this corporation is only giving the people back on Earth what they wish to have to live as they have grown accustomed. OK, fine, Cameron has made a simplistic, moralistic film — but the “Avatar” narrative really does have something important to say about the way we live today. Who and what are we willing to discard because it gets in the way of our desires? And how might we be not only hurting ourselves morally (by crushing the dignity and rights of others), but also practically, by denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from the wisdom of these peoples, as impoverished and technologically sophisticated as they are? Some conservatives condemn movies like “Avatar” as politically correct cultural self-loathing. There usually is more than a little of that present, but I think the reason movies like this strike a resonant chord is that many people, whatever their politics, have a deep and troubling sense that for our technological advancement — our civilization — has come at a real price. We secretly fear that what we have rejected, despised, trampled on, discarded as worthless and even killed may have actually been something with a critically important message for us. Read your Bible; this has precedent. And so, I find myself substantially in agreement with my deeply conservative friend Caleb Stegall, who defends “Avatar” here, and remarks, “Take out the fantasy and sci-fi elements and there isn’t anything here Wendell Berry hasn’t also said.”To conclude, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a television interview toward the end of his life, said that “this world in itself is so fantastically mysterious, so challengingly marvelous, that not to realize that there is more than I see, that there is endlessly more than I can express, or even conceive, is just being undeveloped intellectually.” I agree with that. But if my memory is correct, in his famous interview with Carl Stern 10 days before his death — I have a transcript of it in a book packed away and in storage, alas, so I can’t quote him verbatim — Heschel spoke about proselytizing of Jews by Christians. As I recall, Heschel quoted a conversation he’d had with a Christian, asking him if he really believed the world would be a better place if every Jew accepted Christianity, and there was no living Jewish religious and cultural presence left on earth?As a believing Christian — one who accepts that Christianity is true, and that Jesus of Nazareth is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that God desires all of His creatures to come to Him through Jesus — I find that an extremely difficult question to answer. But it’s the kind of question believers in any universal religion or ideology (e.g., liberal democracy and its advocates) ought to ask themselves when confronting other, weaker religions and traditions. I’m not saying we should be complete relativists; some religions and traditions ought to be confronted and defeated (suttee and other forms of human sacrifice, for example). But I think it’s in our nature for us to behave exactly like the exploiters on the planet Pandora were acting: treating the weak and the “backward” as disposable. Don’t for a minute think that there aren’t tens of thousands of people walking out of “Avatar” convinced that they would never side with the cruel exploiters in the film, and how they are always on the side of the exploited, the downtrodden and the marginalized … but who are precisely the kind of people Wendell Berry criticizes in his essay “The Prejudice Against Country People.”

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