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The Spectacle and the Spirit (Another blog on Avatar)

Brad Fruhauff

Brad Fruhauff considers Avatar under the banners of pantheism and the American pastoral.

Okay, so I finally saw Avatar - in "RealD," no less. There has been no end of press about this film, of course, including some reflections on this site by Travis Griffith (with whose comments I will respectfully disagree, for reasons to be described below), but what got me interested finally was when my students started telling me about reports that, after being immersed in Cameron's imaginative virtual world, Pandora, a number of people have been feeling depressed and even suicidal .

I was pretty sure this was an overreaction, but I had to see a movie that made people want to kill themselves.

And I was right - these people are overreacting. Pandora is an impressive, fully-realized world full of natural wonders like pretty glowing trees, but it's still just a fantasy world. In fact, some of the ways it is most realistic also make it less idyllic - take, for instance, the scaly, tendril-waving, giant panther creature or the leathery-winged dinosaur-like ikran, which try to kill you if you try to ride them. This is a world at least as dangerous as it is beautiful. It's also hostile to humans, who have to wear oxygen masks due to the atmosphere, which is also the premise for developing the biological Na'vi avatars in the first place.

It's not "just a movie". . .

But I don't want to be dismissive of these people who go crazy over something that's "just" a movie. Granted, it's not exactly an epidemic or culture-wide phenomenon, but sometimes the "crazy" responses of a minority of people are really a symptom of a wider dysfunction. When a family-systems psychologist, for instance, is brought a child who is "acting out," she will often have the whole family in to study the nature of the home environment; sometimes the healthy response to a sick family culture is to act "sick."

So, is getting depressed over Pandora a healthy response to American culture? It's a response, anyhow, and not an entirely strange one. There is, after all, something in the American psyche that "gets" these kinds of films. David Edelstein is not alone among a multitude of critics who have noted the similarity of Avatar to movies such as Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves. These films seek to redeem both our modern sense of disconnect from nature and the cultural guilt of Euro-Americans toward Native Americans. They achieve this handy double-whammy through romanticized visions of Native American spirituality and/or superficial fantasies of reconciliation and assimilation.

. . . it's something deep in the American unconscious

Edelstein is also not alone among critics who considered Avatar's story "a crock" and yet could not help but speak of it with awe. My wife and I agreed that as long as we weren't paying too much attention to the plot (or dialogue), the movie was thrilling, spectacular, and entertaining. Let's face it, there was very little unique about the heroes and villains in this film, and little in the plot that could truly surprise us. Yet how many of us were still spellbound?

How can these reactions be possible alongside the "I'm depressed I don't live on Pandora" ones?

I'd like to say that some of us are more discerning about the finer points of narration (which were weak) and the craft of film-making (which were pretty strong), but I don't think any amount of special effects and camera-play could have saved a narrative with absolutely no resonance - and Avatar has resonance.

It goes beyond Dances with Wolves. There's a similar impulse at work in Longfellow's famous epic poem of 1855, The Song of Hiawatha, which tries to convince its Euro-American readers that they, too, can have the same mythico-religious relationship to this new land as the "vanishing" Native Americans. As Ross Douthat insightfully describes it for The New York Times, these narratives participate in a decidedly pantheistic impulse that is discernible at the founding of this nation. Our democratic spirit of unity longs to see everything involved in some metaphysical connection, whether in the nature-worship sense or the beacon of history one.

American Pastoral 2.0

This is the American pastoral: a nostalgic myth about being at home in our world and having transcendent experience. The fundamentalist Christian version looks toward some future of American cultural and religious dominance; the pantheistic, "spiritualist" version looks (as Douthat notes) toward an assimilation with the natural world that will also relieve us of our guilt-ridden self-consciousness.

The other side of our expansive democratic spirit is our accumulative consumerism, which is driven by the very technologies that represent our "alienation" from "nature." The tragedy of the consumer, however, is that he cannot accumulate the whole world, and so the spiritualization of his consumptive desire would be a transcendent union with that world that would obviate his need to consume it.

What Avatar does, then, is update the pastoral myth for a consumer-based, web 2.0 world. I know Cameron wrote his first treatment back in 1995, but he's clearly adapted it as our technologies changed (and as we got embroiled in Iraq), because Avatar is above all an American-pastoral wish-fulfillment fantasy that all our virtual network connections could become physical and organic.

Think about it: the very title evokes the virtual identities we create or inhabit in our video games. The Na'vi literally have organic USB cables in their heads that can "plug 'n' play" into creatures and plants alike, and as Sigourney Weaver's scientist explains, the planet itself is a living network of roots more complex than the human brain. It's a compelling vision of life that can satisfy the scientist and the spiritualist at once, and yet it's packed with all the pathos of the modern American soul, for we have connection only through lifeless plastic devices, and the luminosity of our world consists of the neon artifice of Las Vegas.

So, what am I supposed to think?

My goal is not to pronounce this film good or bad for the Christian viewer. I'm glad I saw it once, in the theater, but I don't expect my life will be lacking if I never see it again. It'll probably win all sorts of Oscars, but I expect, like Titanic, we'll remember it more for it's budget and earnings than for anything lasting substantive value. We'll look back years later and say, Avatar was the first to do x, but of course all sorts of movies have surpassed it since then. Or we'll look back and think of it as a kind of cultural marker, a film that crystallized a moment in our cultural and technological story.

Avatar is certainly a kind of cultural "event," and, as event, will fade at last like any other thing. As art, it has certainly done something wonderful: given us an experience that casts us back upon the ordinary world with new eyes, if only for a moment.