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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—8 January 2010

Glenn Kenny

The Politics Of Avatar: Do They Matter?: The year is new, and there's not much to talk about, we suppose, so we also suppose it's only natural that this topic is what you'd call a hot one. Various critics and bloggers were noting the left-leaning politics inherent in the putatively allegorical content of James Cameron's Avatar from the very start; heck, your correspondent was one of those folks. The subsequent discussion of them on his own blog was fiery, and sundered at least one virtual friendship. Since then, commenters of all stripes have weighed in, expressing dubious notions. One argues that Avatar's success means that audiences really aren't turned off by anti-Iraq-war sentiments. Another—a fellow who should have learned a long time ago to never, ever, ever write about films—mourns that the slaughter of American military personnel (hired or not!) is now apparently your best entertainment value. And so on, my own fave being the fellow who's unhappy with the way Avatar "frames" its argument—what a card.

The only thing we find genuinely interesting about Avatar's politics is the extent to which they actually matter to the film itself and what it really puts across, and which we think is really not so much. Which is to say that its politics are not prescriptive. One of the things that makes D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation so hateful, and so uncomfortable to watch, is that its politics are prescriptive. Its view of the shiftless, easily corrupted African American who lusts after the white woman is presented as more or less definitive (the one-time slaves who stay loyal to their masters act as they do only because, it seems, they've come to understand what's good for them), and its chronicle of the Ku Klux Klan's birth actively advocates this particular solution to the problem. "Go, and do likewise," the picture seems to be saying, and some historians argue that Nation was directly responsible for a revival of the Klan in the 20th century.

The closest we've come in recent years to such an overt advocacy view is with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which revives any number of anti-semitic tropes, right down to that good old blood libel people like to bring up out of its original context more and more these days (partisans for the film can say "It does not" until the cows come home, or Christ comes back, or whenever; but the fact is, it does).  But Gibson's picture stops short of exhorting its audience to kill a Jew, or a Commie for that matter, for Christ. Instead, it adopts a more resigned tone, along the lines of "Boy, those Jews. Couldn't trust 'em then, can't trust 'em now. But how about our lord, huh? He could sure take a beating."

While it's disingenuous for conservative commenters to insist that Avatar's politics are just going to go over the mass audience's head (and by the way, have you noticed that for some of these guys, the relative intelligence and moral fiber of "the people" is determined by what they're buying? When it's Going Rogue, the American public is brilliant and patriotic, when it's tickets to Avatar, they're dumb amoral sheep; how about that free market...) it is more than likely that said audience will percieve the politics of the film as, by and large, a set of characterizations and propositions with which they're familiar. Corporate interests=greed and indifference to life. Military and/or mercenary collusion with corporate interests=more of the same. Earth scientists=enlightened third way. Primitive people who have a literal connection to their natural world=you're wiser than us. These notions are hardly novel, particularly in science fiction. Flip this script, for instance and you have Hawks and Nyby's The Thing From Another World, wherein science is delusional and suicidal, and military interests (defense, self-preservation) save the day.

Just because Cameron spruces up the old tropes with specific allusions to the Iraq war and Arab-world style ululations when an Earth enemy is vanquished and so on doesn't make these characterizations and notions particularly fresh. Nor is there any probable or plausible sense of inspiring the audience to its own insurgency. One is reminded somewhat of, to name one of what could be dozens of examples, 1990's Die Hard 2, which posits a one-time Latin American strong man (played by Italian Franco Nero) as its villain. The plot line seemed a fairly explicit critique of the Reagan administrations coddling and then vilifying certain dictators for the sake of its own convenience. And yet the film itself plays as determinedly Reaganite. Because the fact of the matter is—not to sound like a puling peacenik or anything—that any film that asks its audience to exult in the spectacle of violence is by definition reactionary, whatever its supposed politics pretend to be.

Smokin!: A.O. Scott's blog post on smoking in movies has gotten the usual suspects who need something to get exercised about so they can maintain their posting paces predictably heated up, and good for them, I suppose. I'm genuinely grateful the topic came up, though, because it yielded the funniest typo, I think, of the new century, if it is in fact a typo: "But filmmakers, who are also conscious of social morays, must be allowed to do as they see fit within guidelines of what can be presented to the audience they are seeking out."

Who else? Also, does this count as breaking a New Year's Resolution?

[Hat tip: Jim Emerson]

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