Sunday, January 17, 2010


I saw the much-hyped movie "Avatar" a few days ago. Nope, I wasn't shirking my fatherly responsibilities, just taking advantage of the fact that Betsy and Henry had gone to a book club meeting that evening. So I went to the movies, which I haven't gotten to do for a while. I decided to see Avatar, partly because I like to be up to date on popular culture and partly because I like Science Fiction movies. Yet I admit that James Cameron makes me uneasy. Aliens was great, of course, and so was the original Terminator in an 80's kind of way. Also, as a kid I really liked The Abyss. On the other hand, I have a hard time forgiving him for Titanic. I really despised that film. It was corny and cheesy and manipulative in the most transparent ways. It was utterly derivative, too.

But what really makes me dislike James Cameron as an artist is the whole Lost Tomb of Jesus nonsense that he created. Basically, he claimed to have unearthed the supposed tomb of Jesus. His evidence was weak and argument flimsy. Okay. But what really bugged me is that he misrepresented the opinions of the scholars he interviewed. Using very selective editing, he made it appear as though they supported his opinions when, in fact, they did quite the opposite. As one scholar put it, the "documentary" was a "hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest" (source). Ted Kopple created a documentary of his own, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus-A Critical Look," which tore the Cameron film apart. He even secured written denials from three of the key experts that appeared in the original Cameron film.

I don't mind people making claims of various sorts that I disagree with. You can claim that Jesus was married and that there was no resurrection and so forth and I'm just gonna shrug my shoulders. But when you start lying about supposed evidence you have, that makes me question your integrity.

So... all that is to say that I have mixed feelings about James Cameron! But I suppose art should really stand on its own merits, anyway.

Avatar... I liked it. The plot was predictable (and, again, derivative) and the dialogue forgettable. He even resorts to a voice over by the hero and stupid video journals to get through the plot as quickly as possible (and without developing much in the way of drama, by the way). But the whole point of this movie seems to be to get us through the necessary formalities of story as soon as possible so we can see the pretty world of Pandora. This is a stunning visual universe that wows you with eye candy. It's gorgeous. No doubt. Especially in 3-D.

The theology of the film, however, is troubling. I don't just mean the sort of quasi-scientific eco-pantheism that much of the religious press has focused on. I mean this sort of post-colonial philosophy that has apparently learned nothing from the real history of colonialism. It's telling that the saviour of the native people is a member of the oppressor race and that he saves them through violent rebellion--but only after having a conversion experience inspired by romantic love--Pocahontas style. Ghandi this ain't. Nope, here we have our culture's prevailing myths of Cult-of-Romantic-Love meets redemptive violence--the notion that revenge and violence can save you if you are willing to rebel against the rules and do what you want to get the girl. Notice that our hero in the movie never even masters the language of the people he is leading to freedom! Besides his decision to side with the "natives," there is no personal growth, no transformation. He's the same man-of-violence he was before he fell in love, he has just switched his allegiance. This is a movie where might makes right. it has little insightful to say about love, justice, or truth.

Contrast that to some of the stuff written about colonialism by, say, George Orwell. Orwell is best known for his novel 1984, but his essays about being a civil servant of an occupying government in British Burma are stunning, stark, and disturbing. "A Hanging" and "Shooting an Elephant" are among the best personal-narrative essays ever written, IMHO. There is a deep ambiguity about being an occupying authority, no matter how pure you intentions. And Cameron totally misses that. The notion that the "scientists" like Grace (played by Sigourney Weaver) get a moral pass on the sins of colonialism because they just want to understand and educate them heathen is nonsense! Read Foucault. Science and education are never politically neutral--in a colonial context they almost always serve the interests of the occupying authority.

Another thing that bugged me a little. Cameron looks at nature like Emerson did--through a window in his study. It's a very theoretical and abstract vision of "nature" that is a far cry from the world inhabited by people that actually live in harmony with nature. In other words, he's a city boy who dreamed a dream about the woods as he would like them to be.

But it sure is a pretty movie. Very pretty.

Still, I liked it. As one friend of mine put it, people were leaving the theatre smiling--and that's a good thing!



Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC said...

'Saw the movie with Brs. Bede and Adam today (in 3D). Beautiful and captivating but yes I agree with your criticisms. Essentially, it's a simple tale with very fancy clothes on. It's a pity that the personalities and cultural issues weren't a bit more thought through. As the credits rolled, I found myself praying that we'll find ways to live with the planet and one another. When will we get this type of production means put to use for a win-win-win scenario with depth of characters and complexity of issues... Back to the storyboard Mr. Cameron.

Padre Mickey said...

I enjoyed the movie. To me, it was just a movie; spending much time analyzing it reminds me of my wayward youth when with consciousnesses altered, my friends would read all manner of profundity in Moody Blues albums.
It was a cool movie with cool effects; ya know, like Star Wars.

Tay Moss said...

There is a NY Times article today about how people are reading all kinds of things into this movie. It has become a kind of ink blot test of the viewers concerns and fantasies. Interestingly, Cameron himself intended the movie to be an environmental morality play. Perhaps that pedagogical undertone is part of the reason people feel compelled to respond in kind to what they believe is the embedded message?

But as you guys point out, it was still a fun movie!