Avatar: Reviewing the Reviewers

by Caleb Stegall on December 22, 2009 · 48 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

avatar

avatar

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.”

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks December 22, 2009 at 10:30 pm

This movie may go a long way in addressing the question, or at least one of the questions, that sets PoMoCon and FRPer apart, that is How then should we live?
Caleb differentiates a line of meaning that runs from Voegelin to as yet to be determined Christian, stoic, and Classical philosophers. Life then seeks a certain harmony, revealed in the non-existent reality of God, that signals an acknowledgment within God’s design.
Peter and the PoMoCons argue that this harmony exists quite happily within the capitalist system. Yes, there can be and indeed are examples of excess/sin/greed but by and large our society/culture is on the right track, and there’s no problem with the socialist dems because they’re part of that culture in that revelation demands contrast, and the knowledge that we can dispute the Dem’s Marx-Hegel-Boehme line-of-meaning especially the faux acceptance of creatio ex nihilo and the fascination with “ungrund”, because the argument mirrors the true dialectics in infinitude/infinite.
So, Caleb, you’ve brought forth the reality of the contemporary county prosecutor faced with a culture collapsing into welfare/drugs/child abuse/thievery/and every sort of mayhem who seeks the truth of existence in a nonexistent reality, while the PoMoCons, by and large, find themselves ensconced in an ivory tower, a comfortable life educating the children of “petite” bourgeoisie.
I’m beginning to think that a system or systems will be incorporated by thinking human beings, post-apocalypse. And, one begins to intuit the impending “apocalypse.”

avatar Cecelia December 23, 2009 at 12:27 am

I saw the film this afternoon with my niece,after we left the theater my niece said to me that during the film she kept thinking about the mountain tops being blown up for coal. A Wendell Berry moment for sure and that she had such a reaction gave me a momentary sense of hope they have been listening to us after all. The hope was only momentary though. Most people (or so it seems to me) would find the coal more valuable than the mountaintops and would be dismissive of the notion we might live less wantonly so as to not need that coal so much. The forces against the preservation of traditions, the value of a commonly held ethic, and the countryside are numerous and found on both sides of the political spectrum.

We cheer the blue folks on in their efforts to save their world – would we cheer on those who could resort to violence to save the Appalachians? Those who object to mountain top blowing up have tried the law, the courts, yet the mopuntains keep disapearing. Will they resort to violence? Defense of what is one’s own is easy to cheer when the combatants are fantasy figures – perhaps this film might make it possible for more people to understand the very real need to defend one’s own here in the USA.

I have disagreed in the past with you Mr. Steagall but I think you have nailed it with this post – not just in your comments on the value of the film but your analysis of our culture. I noted this with LOTR when it was making its way through the movie theaters – this sense of loss the LOTR films seemed to provoke in people. LOTR shares with Avatar a well articulated culture with its myths and traditions as well as a people ( and some dwarves and elves) with a shared sense of purpose. The difficulty is that while people respond to these films and do experience that sense of loss it is inarticulate. They do not know what it is they are responding to or what it is exactly they have lost. For certain they do not know how to get it back. More voices such as yours might help them make the connections.

I have been rather surprised also by the reaction of Douthat et.al. and I sadly think you are correct – if you do not know what it means to be attached to place, to even take pride in the history of your place – then you certainly won’t understand that when confronted by it in a film. I almost think there is something in their reaction which suggests that the message of the film is threatening to them. Of course it would be if one is an Empire apologist.

An excellent essay – thank you.

avatar Carl Scott December 23, 2009 at 10:38 am

Interesting…Caleb, did you have a similar response to the tribal life presented in Apocalypto? Nothing much rides on that question, except that I felt it in Apocalypto you had a realistic (and yet still somewhat polly-annish–see Black Robe or Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for greater candor on the terrors of tribal life) portrayal of the a) lack of individual space and privacy in the tribe, as well as the b) ugly costs of and motivations for civilization. I sort of doubt that Avatar would give you either with respect to either the Navi Blueperson Group’s tribal character or their limited(but surely wood-ishly “sustainable,” right?) civilizational steps.

Not that it would matter much if what’s key here is a Tolkien-esque evocation of once upon a time…

avatar D.W. Sabin December 23, 2009 at 10:46 am

Though I have not seen it, rarely paying full boat on Big Extravaganzas anymore, but I understand that one of the summary scenes involves depicting Empire in a less than ebullient light and this must rub Poddy the wrong way. As Doorman for the American Empire, he likes to hold the door for the Swells with enthusiasm and vigor….and is loathe to consider, even for a moment that someone else might be entitled to the piece of land they have inhabited for generations if the Swells have their improving sights trained upon it…..windage checked, trigger cocked.

Still though, I really do enjoy these great intellectuals and giants, strapping movers and shakers of their time, spending their nervous energies on dissecting a fantasy film with blue aliens and floating mountains making the most of computerized fidgetry.

If one is strapped for cash and chary of forking out the sum required to watch this software epic, just go on line and review Wendell Berry’s salute to the poet Hayden Carruth and drink in his invention of the term :”Cowshit Sodality” as a nod to Carruths pean to “cowshit farming”. Just “Google “Cowshit Sodality” and the link will come right up….a magnificent piece it is. It sums the issue up nicely.

One must possess a sense of place in this increasingly simulated world. Hayden had it, as well as a soft spot for its losers. Wendell possesses it, city-dwellers frequently have it in as strong a tincture as their country cousins but to those who Hold the Door For Empire and grip the brim of their hat and salute the Swells of Empire for a living…to them, place has little meaning because they dwell in some imagined future of their own idiosyncratic perfection and have no patience for those grainy things which make this life such a bittersweet and magnificent thing.

avatar Tony Sifert December 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Daniel Larison’s comments on the movie (without him having seen it) suggest a different source for discomfort with Avatar, namely, the situation in which the protagonist finds himself among the blue people–a condescension in which he maintains a genetic and ironic distance and superiority (Rorty’s ideal protagonist or something like that). If anti-empire, the identity with this character is still not the kind of anti-empire that can leave the non-empire (the blue people) alone. A Postmodern Conservative farming among the Front Porchers, to follow Mr. Cheeks. Anyway, here’s Larison:

From everything I have read about Avatar, [pantheism] is not the most remarkable and theologically subversive aspect of the story. Some reviews have mentioned in passing where the word avatar comes from, noting that it is the Sanskrit word used to refer to a deity that has taken human (or animal) form. The great Hindu epic cycles revolve around such avatars, chief among them Rama. In Sanskrit, the word means “descent,” and its equivalent in Christian theological language would be sunkatabasis, which means condescension. The interesting thing about the word’s use in this film is the implication that the human who takes on the form of one of the aliens is actually vastly superior to the kind of being his mind is inhabiting, and that he is willingly lowering himself to their level. In the end, he decides to protect them against others of his own kind, but this is not all that different from the idea of a deity manifesting himself to defeat the demonic forces that are menacing his people.

I don’t know, maybe it’s more like Hemingway’s Robert Jordan.

avatar V. Maro Grammaticus December 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Well, as Hilaire Belloc said, my fires are banked and now they burn…

I am as much as a sympathizer of the Front Porch as any but you really must draw a distinction between the “community” found in Avatar and the “community” of the Front Porch –and the distinction is theological. I realized this when I was watching the movie; the reason that local Western norms, cultures, traditions are to be cherished, defended, upheld, is because they are Christian; it is the culturally-shaping affect that Christianity has had upon the Porch that allows us to cherish it. As a Christian first and foremost, I would not cherish the Front Porch if it sacrificed to Ba’al -indeed, I would advise that it be burned. What we have in the Na’vi is in essence an idealized heathen society, the dark side of which is never shown -but the dark side of which is the most important part.

Now, the movie lost all narrative merit in the sheer amount of left-wing political correctness heaped on it. Every single one of the “bad guys” was a white male; in fact, did you notice that all the “marines” in the Corporate army were likewise white males? Not a single (maybe, in one freeze frame, one) black or Latino marine -because those people would know better than to colonize, as per the liberal philosophy underpinning the movie. Everyone who was not a white male -the female scientist, the black scientist, the Asian pilot- all “see the light” and betray their country to fight the Na’vi. And as for the two white males who are “good guys”, they both are mercifully rid of their white-male-ness thanks to the blue skins that they literally take on.

Now apart from the ridiculous and over-the-top racial dogma present, note the absurd scientific Enlightenment underpinnings of the native Na’vi religion. The Na’vi could not be allowed to be merely spiritual -no, their spirituality (in contrast to the spirituality of the “Sky People”) was scientific. “It can be measured,” one of the scientists explains, “An electrochemical network of connections from which the Na’vi can download and upload information, more connections than the human brain.” That is the very reverse of Front Porch spirituality -it is a materialist spirituality, a scientist, technological “spirituality,” invented to draw a contrast to the “unreal” spirituality of the Sky People. Jason Peters should have steam flying through his ears by now.

And then there were the political War on Terror references. “We will meet their terror with terror,” the general announces, and sighs came from the audience, mostly from liberals who were saddened to be reminded of when “those people” ran the country. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Mr. Cameron thought he was making a “comment” on the War on Terror, but it was painfully obvious that it never occurred to him that the Na’vi never flew four commercial airliners into the “Sky People’s” cities, killing three-thousand. Then maybe it would be a parallel of the War on Terror.

And for all the love of “smallness” and “greenness”, this was the biggest, most un-green movie in history -half a billion dollars in its production, sponsored by the biggest corporations in Hollywood.

In short, the movie represents all those things that the Front Porch normally rails against -deification of material things, imperial scientism, arbitrary racial dogma, and a hypocrisy of sticking out for the “little guy” while being firmly in the pocket of the biggest guys in town.

avatar V. Maro Grammaticus December 23, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Not to even mention the rather disturbing phenomenon of watching tribes of blue demons slaughter American marines to general cheers from the audience.

avatar Steve K. December 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Well done, V. Maro Grammaticus.

avatar Bob Cheeks December 23, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Long time no read V. Maro, welcome back, dude, and loved the movie review, one hopes Caleb will respond!
Tony Sifert: think of me as Rudyard Kipling among the Fuzzy-Wuzzies!

avatar Carey Cuprisin December 23, 2009 at 6:25 pm

V. Maro Grammaticus:

“I am as much as [sic] a sympathizer of the Front Porch as any but you really must draw a distinction between the “community” found in Avatar and the “community” of the Front Porch –and the distinction is theological. I realized this when I was watching the movie; the reason that local Western norms, cultures, traditions are to be cherished, defended, upheld, is because they are Christian; it is the culturally-shaping affect that Christianity has had upon the Porch that allows us to cherish it. As a Christian first and foremost, I would not cherish the Front Porch if it sacrificed to Ba’al -indeed, I would advise that it be burned.

I’m a front porch sympathizer as well, but only because I believe that many of the values it espouses can be had without the theology.

I’m fascinated by V. Maro’s willingness to “burn” the front porch if it is “sacrificed to Ba’al.” I’d like to know what exactly he means by this, although I suspect I would not agree with him. In short, I wonder if he’s advocating theocracy.

avatar Cecelia December 23, 2009 at 6:34 pm

V.M. Grammaticus – your comment goes to my question – if you saw the citizens of West Virginia and Kentucky in defense of the mountains – sending the marines packing – would you cheer?

avatar rex December 23, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Caleb,

One might argue that the Na’vi are panentheists and not pantheists. Since they had to invoke prayer and ritual to enlist the powers of their deity, some portion of that deity must exist outside of nature. Too fine a point? The real point is that you are right, Avatar is a faerie tale, picking up theology from it is like trying to learn the law by watching Perry Mason reruns.

I believe you are correct that culture, membership and dispossession create resonance with many people that watch Avatar. I’ll add another – spirituality. People are desperate for it. If you look, you can see it everywhere.

avatar The Jungle Cat December 23, 2009 at 8:16 pm

1. “Take out the fantasy and sci-fi elements and there isn’t anything here Wendell Berry hasn’t also said.”

I’m not too familiar with Wendell Berry’s work, but I would disagree with the contention that “Avatar” was not a pantheistic movie. The only deity referred to in the entire picture was some abstruse earth goddess who does not appear to be distinct from that which is commonly referred to as Nature.

2. Rex: “Avatar is a faerie tale, picking up theology from it is like trying to learn the law by watching Perry Mason reruns.”

“The Faerie Queene” is also a faerie tale; that doesn’t mean that when Spenser presents the small demonic creatures that devour the dragon Error that this is not a parody of Catholic Eucharist and, by extension, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Even faerie tales have subtexts.

3. “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.”

The problem with the alien culture in “Avatar” was that the screenwriter didn’t seem to take any interest in developing it beyond indigenous cliches–such as in the prayer to the wild animal whose spirit is soon to be nationalized. The only work of art that I saw in their tree house was the skull of one of their late dragon-like creatures. But, more important than any of these things, there was hardly anything to individuate the blue people; one was essentially interchangeable with another. There was no sense of a division of labor nor did this viewer get the impression that there was a soul among the masses whose personality was too complex to be summarized (or even described in detail) in more than one sentence. The Na’vi were more like the noble horses of Gulliver’s Travels. The only difference is that Swift was aware that he was writing a parody. I don’t think that Cameron is.

avatar V. Maro Grammaticus December 23, 2009 at 9:24 pm

“I’m fascinated by V. Maro’s willingness to “burn” the front porch if it is [sic] “sacrificed to Ba’al.” I’d like to know what exactly he means by this, although I suspect I would not agree with him. In short, I wonder if he’s advocating theocracy.”

And I wonder, Mr. Cuprisin, if you are advocating intellectual slovenliness. From a personal standpoint, I am a Christian before all else, which means that while I enthusiastically advocate tradition, the enthusiasm of that defense is at least partly inspired by the fact that the tradition is influenced and has its roots in Christianity, even if it is not an exclusively or indeed, originally, Christian tradition. I would not be so enthusiastic in my defense of “localism” and “community” if I were living in Mexico around the time of the Aztecs. So I am merely asserting my priorities here.

Now as to the question of whether the values can be had without the theology, de facto they can and de facto they usually are -nor is Christian theology unique in producing these values. Much of them come naturally from the fact of humans living in community. But there are two points here; the first is without some sort of theology, the values, though they can and are accepted de facto, cannot be justified de jure -they have no ultimate, final weight, and this opens these values philosophically to a broadside from the likes of Mr. Ivan Karamazov.

In short, while I am in favor of local communities, local cultures, local rule, and so on, generally, there are limits; and where these limits especially occur is when one leaves the confines of the Christian world. It is then that my political sympathies must yield to my religious sympathies, and though I am by no means promoting some sort of imperial theocracy spreading Christendom (a conclusion to which the secularist naturally leaps, over several shades of nuance and logic), by the same token, I am not going to shed many tears over the destruction of local Papuan culture, so long as that culture includes the consummation of human flesh. Nor will I defend the “folkways” of the Taliban and the “shared wisdom” of Shar’ia law. In short, what I am saying is that I am a conservative only because I happen to agree with what I am conserving, which is Western-Christian culture, and when I am not conserving that, my inner Rumsfeld peeps out.

“V.M. Grammaticus – your comment goes to my question – if you saw the citizens of West Virginia and Kentucky in defense of the mountains – sending the marines packing – would you cheer?”

Have you ever spoken to the citizens of West Virginia and Kentucky and suggested to them that they send the marines packing in defense of “the mountains”? I expect the reply you would get would include the words “America-hatin’” “tree-huggin’” and “latte-sippin’ commie-sympathizer.” But if these citizens -did- rise up, which they have no intention of doing, I would hardly support them if their casus belli is that they don’t want coal mining -because, after all, nobody is forcing it on them and, if you ever spend time in Kentucky, you will find a great deal of support for coal miners. Coal runs deep in that region’s culture. So the scenario is impossible; but if it did happen, no, I would not cheer, unless they had a better reason than “the mountains.”

avatar brad evans December 23, 2009 at 11:31 pm

The idea of putting money in the pockets of a man who’s already got more money than most African towns so that I can watch him denounce colonization while helping him live at least six time zones away from where any Camerons came from 200 years ago, in a house that almost certainly has a bigger carbon foot print than five average homes and then hope to so the hydrocarbon-based play toys later on is simply too grotesque.
Should I ever wish to see pretty colors and lights flashing in front of my eyes, I’ll find a friendly local hippy and see which mushrooms he thinks might do the job.
“Avatar” is another Thing White People Like, the bastard child begotten on Rousseau’s Noble Child by the ideological son of the Mainline Protestant churches’ “Social and Global Justice” ministries of the past 30 years.

avatar Cecelia December 24, 2009 at 12:28 am

The soldiers in the film – are not after all marines but rather mercenaries hired by the corporation. So the audience cheers are not quite so anti American as some may see it. My question about the objectors to mountain removal mining goes to an oft stated notion here – that our government is much too deeply in cahoots with corporations. It is not inconceivable that some day such a government, faced with strong popular resistance to something like strip mining, could use troops to “restore peace” ( a euphemism for letting the corporation get on with its work). In the past government troops were used to put down strikes at the urging of the corporate owners. So if such a thing happened, if people did resist to protect their “place” – would we not find some empathy for that?

As for speaking to the people of Kentucky and West Virginia – my family for several generations once owned a summer place in West Virginia. It was rustic but us kids loved it. It is gone – as is the place it once occupied. Unfortunately – there was coal in them thar hills.

I used the MMR example because of the Wendell Berry association but there are any number of examples of local/regional culture, livelihoods, communities being destroyed for the sake of corporate profit or convenience. That is often the origin of the sense of loss Mr. Steagall referred to. I don’t see it happening yet – but there may come a day when people do not believe the government represents them – and they do resist.

avatar Kevin J Jones December 24, 2009 at 3:24 am

From the content of the reviews it seems Avatar, like District 9, raises questions about loyalty to one’s own. But the humans’ goals are so unsympathetic that disloyalty is presented as the honorable option.

There is something treasonous in siding with an alien species against one’s brothers. And, to pun, something alienating.

Why all the anti-humanism?

avatar Rob G December 24, 2009 at 8:21 am

I’ve not seen ‘Avatar’ and do not plan to. However, from all that I’ve read, the spirituality/religion/morality of the thing seems to be the same as that of Disney’s ‘Pocahontas’ except writ larger: native nonwhite ethnic peoples are good, pantheistic, peaceful and in touch with nature. White Europeans are the opposite.

Also considering that James Cameron is on record as being anti-religion, i.e. anti-Christian, I’m inclined to see this flick as a huge expensive piece of propaganda for a leftist, multi-culti, anti-Western (thus anti-Christian) worldview.

As far as coal mining goes, regular mining is one thing, mountain top removal mining is a different thing altogether. I’ve been to southern West Virginia and have seen its results — thousands of acres that look like the effin’ moon — and have met a man, Larry Gibson, whom the coal companies have attempted to force off his ancestral property after he refused to sell to them. If folks of his sort were forced to take up arms against the gummint to preserve their homelands, I’d cheer ‘em on.

avatar V. Maro Grammaticus December 24, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I have often wondered (and I do now wonder) if the Front Porch project, for all the talk of place and localism, is not in its essence misunderstanding the fundamental nature of America. I wonder if the Front Porch does not wish to make America Europe -to have those sorts of traditions, tied to place, that sort of culture, etc. Allow me to say something that may be outrageous; there is no “place” in America and there never has been. America has always been in the process of expansion, always a Frontier, and when the Frontier closed, people just started moving back and forth within the territory -sure there are some places where generation after generation lived, but in most of those cases, as soon as they could get out, they did. That is the curse of America, but it is also, perhaps the blessing -the “atomized individualism” has unleashed human potential in both its creative and destructive aspects… I think I have been heretofore sympathetic with the Porch because I am a European, after all, who moved to America, and what the Front Porch was defending reminded me of “Europe” and synced with many of the critiques me and my other expats have leveled against “Americans.” But do we really want to make America Europe? Perhaps not…

Having serious qualms about the Porch,
V.M.G.

avatar The Jungle Cat December 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm

“I almost think there is something in their reaction which suggests that the message of the film is threatening to them. Of course it would be if one is an Empire apologist.”

This is precisely the sort of rhetoric that pollutes discourse in the public square. For the record, according to the NYT (Douthat’s employer), Douthat does not support the War in Iraq. Not that this is relevant, because there are many empire-builders who, doubtless, would support imperial objectives while objecting to the means by which the imperialists in “Avatar” pursue those objectives. What is particularly horrible about rhetoric like this, though, is that it leaves no room for ambiguity. It lumps everyone who objects to the simplistic method of “Avatar” under the unattractive label of “empire-builder” while not acknowledging any room for nuance or ambiguity. (E.g. Does the film actually portray localism at its finest or is it rather an artificial cosmopolitanism ‘avatared’ into catlike blue bodies?)

But I think that this sort of rhetoric does serve as a good springboard for some troubling questions of Front Porch Republicanism. The Front Porchers’ reverence for community is admirable; but their reverence for community-above-all-else (as I understand it) is not. Those Front Porchers who are men and women of faith may value their creeds above their communities, but to read their writings, one could draw the conclusion that faith was merely worth preserving as one cog in the communal machinery. This is one issue that Front Porchers should address–i.e. is there a higher good than “community” and are there spheres in which it is appropriate for an individual to act and think as a cosmopolitan rather than a local?

The more pressing problem with Front Porch Republicanism is that it devotes so much energy to distancing itself from the mainstream conservative movement that it–much like Great Britain’s New Tories–has never really convincingly distinguished itself from the ends of contemporary progressivism. Both advocate nature conservation, for instance (something which I would say is a noble endeavor), but how–in practice–would such efforts be different when they were handled by a Front Porcher rather than a bureaucrat from Washington?

avatar D.W. Sabin December 26, 2009 at 1:51 pm

VMG,
The Front Porch of your qualms, much like The United States of America, is many different things. The fact that they both generate qualms in all of us is a good thing because we never learn nor discover the important essence of things, nor dispel illusions while in contented ease. Grab ahold of your qualms and enjoy them!

As to there being no “place” in America, given its frontier mindset….I would agree that the notion of Frontier, the place apart, the limitless horizon…these things have deeply imprinted themselves upon the restless American psyche. But to assert that there is no enduring “place” in America is wrong. While much of the suburban sprawl of the last 5 decades is appallingly without a resonating sense of individual place…hence its ubiquity…it is a one size fits all benediction to the short time horizon of materialism, there still are “places” of profound quality …from our national landscape and its superb National Parks, to many unique regional built expressions, both historical and modern. Seek them and you will readily find them, stem to stern….some places more than others but still….all around us. Do not fall into the notion that the vicarious agora, our ever-present media and its entertainment assigns represent anything other than a kind of Potemkin False Front of the real America of you, your family and neighbors residing upon a unique place in time and territory.

Hopefully, we will return to the important craft and responsibility AND UNMITIGATED PLEASURE of creating “place” once we have completed this round of psychosis that manifested itself as a result of the congruence of the advent of American Superpowerdom and the “event” of the closing of our frontier (to an extent, the technological fecundity of the nation is caused by our embrace of maintaining frontiers…and breaking them and crafting them anew). At least I hope so because we still possess that most important frontier…the frontier of the mature and probing mind, the inner frontier. I truly doubt we will ever become anything like the Europe we left behind…the polyglot nature of the people will make this impossible. What we should all dread and work assiduously against is the increasing consolidation of the Nation State and a so called “New World Order”…. that deracinated life of bureaucracy that seeks perfection in triplicate and checked boxes and will, if we let it, erase the notion of “place” from our collective conscious because a sense of place stands between the bureaucrat and their aim of making the apparatus of the State the only important reality in a world made increasingly more dangerous by unbridled States always on the lookout for a serviceable enemy of the State, internal or external. Certainly, there is evil and real enemies and the State sometimes plays an important role in consolidating the resources to combat evil but more and more, you will find that the line between real and imagined enemies is blurred to an extent that there is a hobgoblin under every rock and we would not recognize a real enemy if we tripped over them.

Jungle Cat,
“nuance and ambiguity”…in a breathlessly touted 3D motion picture out of Hollywood? I’d like to see a matrix developed with a scale measuring those two categories and I believe you will find continuity across the board and it will be in the low registers, whether a movie on animated Chipmunks, Blue Aliens or the so-called Decorators Porn of Nancy Meyers. “Nuance and Ambiguity” are like kryptonite for the modern American Movie industry……until one reaches independent film, where “blockbusters” are unheard of.

It continues to amaze me how much ink is being spilled and airspace filled with the discussion of deeper meanings in our Hollywood output. Hollywood has a Covalent Bond with Washington so perhaps this is why the Swells attempt to divine mysteries uniting the two. That we seem to have some kind of National Death Wish , Apocalyptic Anxiety or at the very least, an intemperate addiction to ennui is a subject kicked, killed, dug-up, buried again and then exhumed for another round of profit-making. Not that this is a bad thing because we need the steady stream of minute-old suckers to keep the old economy going. Next time, try simply being entertained . Someday we’ll stop our search of “nuance and ambiguity” in fantasy and return our attentions to that place where it exists in endless amounts: Real Life.

avatar Julien Peter Benney December 27, 2009 at 7:42 pm

Avatar sounds like a movie which I would be interested in. I am very concerned about how cultures work and why they collapse, and am very well aware of the potential both for demographically- and ecologically-driven collapses. The point about the value of the movie is quite interesting, too, especially concerning the connections people have to land and culture. People should not forget that historically the modern environment movement antedated such movements as homosexual rights, second-wave feminism, and Wicca.

What is perhaps critical, as Wendell Berry shows, is the need for an ideology that can steadfastly resist notions of mechanisation and industrialisation as desirable.

avatar Ryan Davidson December 28, 2009 at 9:39 am

I think it might be worth pointing out that this is a movie where ten-foot tall blue cat people fly around on dragons. Which, while ridiculously awesome, is perhaps not the sort of foundation upon which one can base any kind of sophisticated theological argument.

Front Port Republic: overthinking plates of beans since March 2009.

But if I am forced to be serious, all attempts to read theology into this movie, whether that be pagan, pantheist, heathen, or panentheist, are literally missing the Tree for the forest. The theology of the movie is thoroughgoingly materialistic. There is nothing supernatural that happens in this movie, nothing which cannot be explained except by reference to a world beyond the seen. Eywa, the Na’vi’s “deity,” is an organic being with a physical location who can be killed by a bomb. If we’re going to object to anything religious here, it’s that Cameron thinks even things like ancestor worship and the life everlasting are ultimately biological processes. Making them look amazing and beautiful does not change the fact that all he’s doing is adding a sixth physical sense through the Na’vi’s nerve-interface appendage. It’s completely ambiguous–and probably unlikely–that anyone in the movie has an immortal soul.

This movie is not pantheist, not panentheist, and not even really pagan. All of those require some form of spirituality, and that’s one thing Avatar does not have. If we’re going to complain about anything, we should object to the fact that Cameron tells us we can have our religious experiences without needing to reference things unseen. He cloaks it in spiritual language, but what he’s saying is that spiritual language simply obscures physical realities. This is a far more dangerous assumption than any possible spiritual direction others may say Cameron is going.

I’ll also object to Larison’s comments, mentioned by Tony Siefert above. “Avatar,” in this context, need not have any spiritual overtones. It’s a video game reference, just like “unobtanium” is an engineering joke. You play a video game, particularly a massively multiplayer one, and your character is called an “avatar.” This usage has been commonplace for decades. Again, I think this is a far more likely interpretation than anything more serious. I just don’t have enough respect for Cameron as a thinker to go anywhere else.

But damn, people, this is a James Cameron movie. James Cameron made Aliens, Terminator, and True Lies, for crying out loud. These aren’t movies you critique for the substance. They’re movies you critique artifactually. The culturally interesting things here aren’t his amateurish, puddle-deep politics or theology, but the implications Avatar has for the cultural medium of film. Just about every other of his movies, with the exception of True Lies, about which the less said the better, has had a sizable impact on the way movies are produced and consumed. Terminator 2 is a movie where robots come from the future to assassinate a future world leader. This is either really cool or really stupid (or some combination of both) depending on what you think about time-traveling robots. But that’s not important. What’s important is that the movie became the new gold standard for visual effects for quite some time and essentially introduced the concept of the shape-shifter into plausibly-doable screenwriting. Avatar, may well represent a return to the theater as a dominant means of watching movies, because for the first time in quite a while, we’ve got visuals, now enhanced by 3D, to which even large HDTVs can’t really do justice. When I’m flying dragonback through floating mountains, dammit, I want that sh*t to be three stories high. This could have far wider significance than whether or not a particular Hollywood director likes or does not like President Bush.

Other than that, I think Caleb’s observations are about as far as this film will let you push. Cameron is about spectacle held together by just enough melodrama to avoid being another one of his IMAX documenaries. Enjoy it for what it is, critique it for what it is, but leave it at that.

avatar Bruce Smith December 28, 2009 at 11:45 am

Although I’ve not seen the movie judging from the reviews and comments the subject matter of Avatar would appear to be the arrogation of power on which neither Hollywood nor the conservative critics seem to have much constructive comment with regard to its containment. Ross Douthat misses the biggest clue by “panning” Pantheism relative to Monotheism when both offer insight into the need for containment. In his book “The Age of Empathy.” Frans De Waal talks about the reliance of the Bushmen of Africa on community for survival and how “They work hard to reach decisions by consensus and fear ostracism and isolation more than death itself.” De Waal talks about one of their women confiding that “It is bad to die, because when you die you are alone.” Link this with Eckhart Tolle telling us that the easy way to experience a sense of the fundamental unity of everything is to still your ego having thoughts of the past and the future. It is after all your ego he argues that insists upon having an atomistic life apart from all other beings and things and demanding the right to arrogate control of the past and the future to itself. Follow Tolle’s recipe and at least for a short period you get the Kensho experience described by the Zen master Sokei-an Sasaki; “One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire……and Ztt! I entered…….I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created I was the cosmos; no individual Mr Sasaki existed.” Or take the analysis of Near-Death-Experiences where the predominant reportage is that God is usually not seen but there is calming and unifying brilliant white light and an awareness of being surrounded by multitudes of other human beings who have passed on into this other world and are all now at ease and in harmony with each other. Don’t all these narratives unify pantheistic and monotheistic experiences around the desire for social cohesion? And doesn’t social cohesion fall apart through the excessive arrogation of such things as power and material possessions and by refusing to discuss with others the level of that arrogation? Isn’t free-riding on communities the issue that conservatives should be discussing in relation to this movie?

avatar Roger S. December 28, 2009 at 1:02 pm

“I realized this when I was watching the movie; the reason that local Western norms, cultures, traditions are to be cherished, defended, upheld, is because they are Christian; it is the culturally-shaping affect that Christianity has had upon the Porch that allows us to cherish it.”

avatar Roger S. December 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Well I dont think that corporations are exactly Christian institutions nor is waste and consumerism valued Christian traditions. Sometimes a movie is just a movie. I saw Avitar as a great 3-D experience albiet wrapped in Lord Jim. Though the authors of the screen play had little imagination when it came to theology, they did manage get to a core feeling of loss that I shared with the
blue guys who at least had a place to live and raise a family.

avatar The Jungle Cat December 28, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Sabin,
I wouldn’t expect “nuance and ambiguity” if Cameron had made a film which did not ask to be taken seriously (think “True Lies”), but Cameron specifically asked that it be taken seriously (see wikipedia/”Avatar (film)/themes and inspiration.) I had no problem watching a movie like “Indiana Jones” seriously, even though one could make a case that its underlying assumptions were gnostic. Such questions don’t interest me there, because the film doesn’t ask me to share its opinion. If a film asks me to share its opinion, then it should treat its theme with the complexity that it deserves.
Cheers

avatar Jason December 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Jungle Cat,

Something you mentioned in an earlier comment reminded me of a concern I have had with Front Porchers: they value place above principle. It looks like no one addressed that particular agument in the subsequent comments.

Patrick Deneen has an essay titled “Patriotic Vision” in Intercollegiate Review in which he recognizes the problem too. It would be nice if someone would discuss the problem further on the Porch itself.

avatar D.W. Sabin December 29, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Jungle Cat,
Fair enough but Hollywood exhausted its potential seriousness a very long time ago and is now chiefly engaged in the act of ushering folks down a corridor of conventional pieties with a side of amateur
concupiscence. That one of them would ask to be taken seriously is really kind of funny.

P.T. Barnum at least winked when selling farce. “This Way To the Egress”.

Jason, an interesting idea but it seems to me that the idea of “Place” is itself a principle. It is the immediate life, the full moment, the authentic surroundings, the distinctive, the human touch and the direct experience of human intercourse in all its forms. It is the antidote to the pseudo-Place, the Vicarious Agora…our Electronic Entertainments, that is subsuming a less brassy local . We accept it as a depiction or forum of culture even though it is, by and large a coarse simulacrum spawned by the Entertainment Industry. When one’s “Entertainment Industry” is one of the largest industries one possesses, it is not surprising that it should start to be taken as some kind of important and lasting phenomenon in our lives, rather than the comic and shallow thing it is. Fortunate for us, something synthetic and artificial can never remain anything other than a chimera and so therefore cannot actually subsume reality, ….reality, the local, the “place” continues apace, sometimes banal, sometimes truly remarkable. The good news is that approaching reality as a craft still is a distinct possibility in this larger place, our lapsed Republic. “Place” will be that reality we return to when we have worn out the allure of the junk food that is our popular culture. We may even be able to order it to a higher degree of resolution whereupon we preserve the vibrant aspects of the mosh pit of our popular culture, while renewing our profounder attachments to the places we exist within.

Thanks for the ref to Deneen’s essay.

avatar John Willson December 29, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Jason,
Yes, it is a concern. This kind of duality doesn’t bother me, but it is a serious question and one to be answered. Let me just say now that I cannot live in Principle, Massachusetts; I can live in Hillsdale, Michigan and work out things with my neighbors, even though we are all sinners. And for now, here’s a line from Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” which anybody who wants to understand the last, lamented century must read and study: “The destructive capacity of the individual [I would add the community, the corporation, the church, the family], however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless.” Rather than niggle about small minded small towners, or spend hours that you can’t get back dealing with the “principles” of endless ideologues, first get it straight what is the real danger to our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
Caleb,
Thanks for writing this. I’m going to see Avatar because you wrote it. But first my wife and I are going to see “It’s Complicated,” starring the dufus Steve Martin, the hated Alec Baldwin, and the glorious Meryl Streep.

avatar John Willson December 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Friends,
Reporting in. “It’s Complicated” has no redeeming value of any kind, unless you are the saddest sort of Meryl Streep fan, as I am. Otherwise the film is amoral, a few funny scenes, don’t waste your money. Next movie is Avatar, which at least has the value of people knowing they will make millions off dumbasses who play video games all day and will pay to go to a video game at night. Classic capitalism.

avatar Bob Cheeks December 29, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Well, John I was going to make a comment re: Meryl and her affection for all things “Left”, as in why would a conservative be infatuated with a commmie-wench actress? However, while she has really, really poor taste in political philosophy, she’s a good actress.
What is impressive and touching is that you were concerned enough for your friends on this site that you warned us about this crappy movie and for that I’m appreciative though Meryl’s charms have limited affect on me…now.
Allow me to suggest “Paranormal Activity” which I’ll be getting from Netflix shortly.

avatar Jeffrey Polet January 5, 2010 at 10:34 am

OK – I know this is off the topic, but since at least two people have praised Meryl Streep, I have to offer a dissent. I can’t stand watching movies with her in it, because I think she’s not a good actress. She doesn’t have that art that conceals art, which is the sine qua non of all good acting. She is too mannered by half. To put it bluntly: she sucks.

avatar Bruce Smith January 6, 2010 at 8:36 am
avatar Albert January 12, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Matthew Milliner discussed Caleb’s review here at Public Discourse.

I like the guy, but find this particular piece oddly weak. He bills Caleb’s criticism (and indeed the whole FPR project) as motivated by a desire to return to Eden and the belief it is possible to do so.

I see why such an evaluation might be plausible for the occasional lurker, and I actually don’t know whether Caleb himself believes a return to Eden is possible or desirable. Milliner is certainly right to condemn that project, if anyone holds it.

I think, though, that the goal of FPR is not quite so idealistic (and thus unrealistic) as a return to Eden. The goal is not the elimination of history (which a return to Eden necessitates) but the recovery of memory which is indeed the opposite of such an elimination. Nor is it a total rejection of the goods we have inherited and received over time, but a recognition that such goods are never pure and thus immune from criticism, but are reflective of their historical development, which is always sin-laden. Contrary to a lack of realism, then, the goal of FPR is to understood and wisely act upon the present and historical realities of life in late modernity.

It is here that the tables may be turned a bit. Is it a sign of realism to laud the small moral successes in the marketplace represented by CSAs and say nothing of Wall St. raking in billions and Walmart displacing more and more small businesses, as if CSAs are the dominant norm rather than the economic exception? I believe in appealing to desires and not just waving sticks (as happens often in some circles), but it is realistic to see our pursuits in the current democratic capitalist order as merely a fair contest on the playing field of beauty? Or are there other considerations shaping the playing field, considerations that FPR routinely discuss but that are often ignored by those with more faith in the neutrality of economic modernity, considerations that may call for a rejection of some cultural practices and institutions?

It is true that we cannot return to Eden. But perhaps it is too easy for some to mistake the desire for redemption for a desire to see Eden. In the end, those on the cruciform road ought not ignore Eden, for that is from where we come.

avatar T January 12, 2010 at 6:17 pm

‘Avatar Blues’

Fans contemplating suicide etc…

http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html

avatar Matthew Milliner January 15, 2010 at 1:15 pm

As I tried to articulate where Albert posted those comments originally, I do not concur with his characterization of my position. Actual enemies of the FPR probably don’t go around saying (to quote directly from my review) “The ideals of the Front Porch Republic are essential to the rehabilitation of conservatism…”

Leave a Comment

{ 11 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: