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Avatar: Reviewing the Reviewers

Posted By Caleb Stegall On December 22, 2009 @ 7:11 pm In Culture, High & Low | 48 Comments

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  I am not a film critic and what follows is not a movie review.  In fact, my movie tastes run decidedly to the petite bourgeoisie, and beyond freely admitting that I enjoyed Avatar a great deal, I won’t purport to measure its intrinsic worth as a pop culture artifact at all.  Instead, Avatar is becoming much more interesting, I think, as a prism through which one can read the motives, cares, and commitments of its decidedly political reviewers on the right.

Both Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat have written interesting perspectives on the theological overtones of Avatar.  And more tellingly, the film has seemed, overnight, to become a punching bag for conservatives anxious to see Avatar as representing everything evil about liberal “big Hollywood.”  John Podhoretz and Peter Suderman have both reviewed Avatar far more brutally—claiming it is anti-American—than Douthat’s anti-pantheism New York Times column (the native people of the movie become Keebler Elves in Podhoretz’s review and Smurfs in Suderman’s—demonstrating, I suppose, the finely honed art and stiletto wit of the movie reviewer, er, “film critic”).  Now, Peter Lawler over at First Things has promised to heap another helping of scorn.

It is curious to me that this movie has so obviously touched a raw nerve and gotten under the skin of a certain set of east-coast conservatives.  It reminds me a bit of the over-reaction of the same set to a certain book about granola-toting and sandal-wearing cons!

I understand and agree with, to a point, the knock on Hollywood pantheism.  That said, I found Douthat’s critique of the movie to be forced and artificial.  It is true that the tall blue people were a bit tree-huggy, and their primitive beliefs were certainly based on American Indian-type pantheism or nature-worship.  However, the primary expression of this was the native’s belief that all the living things in their home formed an interconnected whole which the natives both oversaw as caretakers and partook of as participants.  Take out the fantasy and sci-fi elements and there isn’t anything here Wendell Berry hasn’t also said.

More interesting is the question Douthat raises of why the natives are attractive, both to the central character, and, in theory, to the audience.  As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the movie a good deal and in no small part because I enjoyed the depiction of the natives.  Why?  Am I just a naïve anti-American nativist, or a sucker for nostalgic, romantic, treacle?  Or maybe I’m just a flat out tree-hugging anti-corporate anti-military liberal!

Obviously, I think not, but I will offer three possible reasons for the attraction:

1) Culture.  The movie showed in creative ways a fully formed and functioning shared culture, complete with rituals, oral traditions, skills handed down, rites of passage, art, linguistic turns of phrase, etc.  This is powerfully attractive in a deculturated society.  We may not be able to articulate it, but we recognize it as something we no longer have.

2) Membership.  The movie showed a moving example of membership and identity in what Voegelin called a “cosmion,” a little world of belonging.  A “people.”  Again, this is strong medicine in our world of facebook friends and warehouse shopping clubs.

3) Dispossession.  As I have studied our political and cultural moment, I think one of the most powerful and confusing forces at work now is dispossession.  People know intuitively that they are losing something invaluable.  The film captured something of this and spoke well to this state of losing what was once yours; of confronting powerful outside forces that are only dimmly understood but are clearly destroying the people, cultures, and places you love.  It articulated the desire to defend those loved things.  People who feel dispossessed respond well to these things, because they feel understood. Again, Wendell Berry lamenting the destruction of Kentucky mountaintops was not far from my mind while watching Avatar.

In short, I thought of Avatar as a “fairie story” which Tolkien would have, by and large, approved.  There is much more to say about pantheism and a “world full of gods,” both good and bad, but I won’t go into that now.

The question that remains then, does not directly concern Avatar at all, but the movie does become the catalyst for its asking: What is the difference between me and Empire apologists like Podhoretz and others like him?

I imagine that they do not have, and have never had, any sense of dispossession or loss.  They have never loved or lived anywhere deeply enough to imagine defending it as a particular place or way.  They are placeless free agents, triumphant, world-striding.  Sure, the materialistic, acquisitive, military-industrial-corporate-statist complex is a cliched trope.  But if the cliche fits …

I, on the other hand, instinctively and dispositionally side with William Appleman Williams, who taught us to “consider the people who lost.”  Thinking about this, I am reminded of the clever manner in which, during the guerrilla warfare around Kansas City in the 1850s and 1860s, one Missouri bushwhacker commander would address his foe, the leader of the Unionist militia, in open letters published in local newspapers: he would address the letters to the “Captain, Commanding the City” and he would sign himself off as the “Captain, Commanding the Country.”


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