Henceforth I will devote my Friday posts to something I like almost as much as literature–which is to say, movies. Film is, after all, a narrative art form, and I teach film history and theory as well as literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Although I may, at times, look at intersections between film and literature (as I do in today’s post), there will be times when I focus only on film.
My wife and I watched James Cameron’s Avatar a couple of weeks ago and came away much impressed with the look of the film. The plot, on the other hand, reminded me too much of Dances with Wolves. The movie has an environmental and anti-militarism messages that I approve of, and it’s always nice to see someone “speak for the trees” (to quote Dr. Seuss’s Lifted Lorax). However, I couldn’t help seeing the drama through the skeptical eyes of Dan Ingersoll, a colleague in our Anthropology Department.
Years ago I interviewed Dan on our campus television station about Dances with Wolves. Dan pointed out how, in such movies (he also mentioned Quigley Down Under), dreams of returning to a more innocent world, a Garden of Eden if you will, are often accompanied by fantasies of one’s superiority. This superiority, Dan pointed out, is often made possible by the very technology that is bringing an end to primitive simplicity.
Not, Dan hastened to add, that indigenous cultures are simple. But our idealization of them can be.
In Dances with Wolves, for instance, Kevin Costner shows up with a gun that allows him to save an Indian child from the charge of a buffalo. Jake Sully, meanwhile, wields both machine gun and his knowledge of the invading culture to rally the Na’vi people.
If you want one of the more ridiculous examples of a movie joining old and new, think of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II. With his bow and arrows he invokes an Indian primitive—only the arrows are tipped with explosives.
So in Avatar, sensitive white colonizers gets to be the major players in this war to save our connection with the earth. For me, Avatar’s most embarrassing scene is when the Na’vi, despite just having had their sacred tree blasted by the invading armies, devote their entire healing efforts to save the white anthropologist Signourney Weaver. Don’t they have their own dead and wounded to attend to?
For that matter, why does it take a white messiah (now turned blue—which is to say, gone native) to tell Mother Nature to let loose with everything she’s got. Can’t she figure this out on her own? Or have one of the Na’vi tell her?
Despite those objections, however, what interested me most about the film was how it continues an American dream that goes at least as far back as James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Natty Bumbo has all the attributes of the noble savage, to which he adds a rifle. (The French-speaking Indians refer to him, with fear and respect, as “la longue carabine.”) In 1826 the East Coast Indians were no longer a threat to America, which is why writers could begin to idealize them. Indians are noble savages only as long as they aren’t burning down your farm.
For the origins of this return-to-Eden dream, one can go even further back. Many of the early colonialists saw themselves coming to a land where they could start history over with a clean slate. Then, when history unfolded as history tends to do, they became disillusioned and told stories of lost innocence. Sometimes they used native peoples to symbolize that lost innocence. We’ve been telling those stories ever since.
Part of me doesn’t want to criticize the movie because I understand Cameron’s environmental anger. If you want real-life versions of the film’s villains, look at those people in West Virginia and Tennessee that are removing entire mountaintops to retrieve the coal underneath. We are seeing a wholesale destruction of mystical trees.
I have had Cameron’s fantasy that all of nature will rise up and repel the invaders. The problem with the fantasy is that I have to pretend I’m not one of those invaders. (I can tell myself it’s others who pump for the the oil that fuels my car and dig for the coal that provides me with electricity.) The scene in the movie where the revolt occurs (I won’t describe it in case you haven’t seen it) reminded me of a scene from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books. In one chapter Mowgli, who has returned to the jungle from the village, discovers that the couple that adopted him are in danger of being killed because of his association with them. He therefore persuades the animals, especially Hathi the elephant, to destroy the village, which they proceed to do. Here’s how the chapter ends:
They heard, as the last burdened family filed through the gate, a crash of falling beams and thatch behind the walls. They saw a shiny, snaky black trunk lifted for an instant, scattering sodden thatch. It disappeared, and there was another crash, followed by a squeal. Hathi had been plucking off the roofs of the huts as you pluck water-lilies, and a rebounding beam had pricked him. He needed only this to unchain his full strength, for of all things in the Jungle the wild elephant enraged is the most wantonly destructive. He kicked backward at a mud wall that crumbled at the stroke, and, crumbling, melted to yellow mud under the torrent of rain. Then he wheeled and squealed, and tore through the narrow streets, leaning against the huts right and left, shivering the crazy doors, and crumpling up the caves; while his three sons raged behind as they had raged at the Sack of the Fields of Bhurtpore.
“The Jungle will swallow these shells,” said a quiet voice in the wreckage. “It is the outer wall that must lie down,” and Mowgli, with the rain sluicing over his bare shoulders and arms, leaped back from a wall that was settling like a tired buffalo.
“All in good time,” panted Hathi. “Oh, but my tusks were red at Bhurtpore; To the outer wall, children! With the head! Together! Now!”
The four pushed side by side; the outer wall bulged, split, and fell, and the villagers, dumb with horror, saw the savage, clay-streaked heads of the wreckers in the ragged gap. Then they fled, houseless and foodless, down the valley, as their village, shredded and tossed and trampled, melted behind them.
A month later the place was a dimpled mound, covered with soft, green young stuff; and by the end of the Rains there was the roaring jungle in full blast on the spot that had been under plough not six months before.
This is a revenge fantasy, however, not a blueprint for collaborating with nature. The reality is that environmental catastrophes strike the innocent as well as the guilty and turn us all into homeless and foodless villagers. If Avatar functions as a call to environmental action, then it will have done some good. If, on the other hand, it pushes us into apocalyptic wish fulfillment, then it will be hard to engage in those sensitive negotiations where measures to save the earth come up against people’s need for jobs (say, the needs of West Virginia and Tennessee coal miners). We can and must pass those measures, to we have to be sensitive and smart.
Added note: I see that New York Times columnist David Brooks beat me to some of these ideas in an article a reader alerted me to entitled “The Messiah Complex.” Brooks’ article concludes:
Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.
It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.