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Issue #1462      7 July 2010

The politics of Avatar

Now that the dust has settled and Avatar has been released on DVD and the Gee-Whizz of 3-D has abated and most people have seen the film, it is time to take stock of the highest grossing movie of all time and assess its true political impact.

Avatar is pure escapism – cartoonish in its characterisation.

This is no meek topic! From the outset, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine waded in to pan the movie as “left wing propaganda”, anti-American (“…while American soldiers are dying in dangerous wars”) and with a “sanctimonious hippie sensibility”. “The snarling vipers of left-wing Hollywood have been let off the leash in a way previously unmatched in a high-priced blockbuster,” she snarled. Miranda’s knee-jerk response pretty much sums up her usual level of analysis.

Just to fulfil the prophecy, Solidarity’s reviewer, David Glanz, claims that Avatar shows us the way “…if ordinary people unite, we can win extraordinary victories over capitalism,” and concludes “…The right hates this movie for a reason. On a moon far away in time and space, the battles of today are being fought in 3D – and they are being won.”

Hmmm. “A moon far away,” indeed.

Colin Murphy, in Le Monde Diplomatique, had a more measured view. In an article entitled “Avatar, not as liberal as it looks”, Murphy suggests that director James Cameron’s clever use of classic American narrative clichés such as “heroic self-defence”, and that of “the lone good soldier who defies corrupt orders from the hierarchy” (as in Rambo, one of Cameron’s first Hollywood scripts) to support an authentic, natural, freedom-loving community (the Na’vi) – all this turns the innocent Na’vi into “Americans”.

The same Americans whose “holy tree”, the Twin Towers, was destroyed by heartless terrorists, forcing them to take matters into their own hands – the modern “Boston Tea Party” protestors, perhaps.

Comforting sub-texts

Murphy is correct on this basic point: Avatar poses no threat to the American military psyche. It is comforted from the very start by the fact that the narrator, Jake Sully, speaks as an archetypal “American”. He has lost the use of his legs fighting as a marine, he is a veteran, thus in a sense he can do no wrong. We are assured from the very beginning that, no matter what happens in this story it is a dialogue within the heart of the Empire itself.

Jake Sully, speaks as an archetypal “American”.

And the Empire provides opportunities unavailable to the rest of us: they can zoom to the farthest corners of the universe, there is the latest in scientific power and the chance to immerse oneself in the exotic, to change form and to embrace love with a different (but nevertheless, beautiful) species.

It’s an adventure exclusive to the rulers of the galaxy. Wow! Just like John Smith and Pocahontas, just like Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai and a hundred other romantic colonialist epics: these colonisers are so nice, who (no matter how exotic) could fail to love them? Wouldn’t we all just love to be part of this Empire, rich in adventure and exciting things to do?

The Indigenes of Pandora, the Na’vi, are drawn in such idyllic, romanticised “oneness with nature” terms as to be risibly Disney-esque. It all hearkens back to the “noble savage” vision that permeated European colonial art and literature of the latter 18th Century. They’re so spiritual: they have a huge natural cathedral rather like Enid Blyton’s “Faraway Tree” and they commune with beasts and luxuriant plants and everything. No class struggle there!

But the Na’vi’s resistance to ruthless exploitation of “Unobtainium” mines is pretty hopeless: they are naïve, disorganised for warfare, and still shoot bows and arrows. Heaven forbid that, like the Vietnamese, they devise their own strategy for slaying the Beast. Only when the expertise of the Empire (good ole Jake) comes to them, only when, in fact, the American military psyche consents to their rebellion, do the Na’vi stand a chance. They can then get on with the job of engaging in some “Firepower Pyrotechnics” so we can witness wham-bam explosive violence in all-consuming 3-D surrounda-fluff. After all, that’s what everyone came to see: simple “Entertainment”.

Examine the context

Too much analysis of Avatar itself, however, can be mind-numbing and counter-productive without an evaluation of its context, its “place in the world”. As Marxists, it is our obligation to do so, since to study a work of art in isolation denies society the courtesy of acknowledging its role in the creation of Avatar, and the impact it has.

Let us assume that Avatar is indeed the anti-capitalist, anti imperialist, eco-sensitive “spectacle” that most admirers/critics claim it to be. On the surface, at least, it does appear to be just such an ideological attack on the American Empire. Why then, did one of the world’s foremost transnational globalisers (“capitalist-imperialists”), namely, Rupert Murdoch, finance the film?

Murdoch is CEO of the most rapacious media network in the world today, News Limited. This “parent” company owns 20th Century Fox, the producer of Avatar. At a confessed minimum, the capital put up to make the movie was US$230 million. Time magazine offered a revised estimate of US$300 million in production costs, however, with marketing costs to create the necessary “hype” and Cameron’s own delayed contribution, according to the New York Times, the total pre-release amount was pushed to US$500 million, making it easily the most expensive movie of all time.

Meanwhile, world capitalism faced a “Global Economic Crisis” – not a time for risky investments. In the background, the Iraqi occupation and war in Afghanistan, conflicts rabidly encouraged by Murdoch media both in the United States and here in Australia, showed no signs of any resolution, let alone “victory”. So why would Murdoch, no friend of the working class, nor of rebellion and most certainly no fan of worthy left-wing causes, stoop to financing his own gravedigger?

There are several options to consider. One, that Murdoch took no editorial interest in Cameron’s project and didn’t comprehend the danger within it, a prospect surely not in accord with his own form as a successful investor and Icon of the Empire. The evidence is that he took a close and personal interest in its progress. There was a lot of money at stake.

Two. Rupert Murdoch really is an aesthetic philanthropist who is prepared to sponsor oppositional views for the sake of Art and Culture, regardless of how they may impact upon him personally. At least one Hollywood blogger seriously posited this view. All evidence is to the contrary, however. Whether the opposition was his own employees at Wapping or whistleblowers on the phoney “weapons of mass destruction” issue, Murdoch has always been utterly ruthless in dispensing vilification and suppression of ideological opponents.

Three, that he is an entrepreneurial gambler prepared to take the risk of cultivating mass opposition to wars in the Middle East, the despoliation of the environment and capitalist excess for the sake of a windfall for News Ltd in the face of sliding returns from the GFC. In fact, the latter did occur, and Avatar’s receipts kept News Ltd in the game while others crashed. But Murdoch, a “gambler”? Not on this scale, and not with any real prospect of global uprisings upsetting those self-same profits. No way. It was the issue of “mass opposition” he was sure about.

Only the final option can be seriously countenanced, that is, that Murdoch the producer was in no way threatened by the thematic content of Avatar. On one level we can say that this is a far cry from Miranda Devine’s recurrent nightmare of the American Project being subverted. Rather it is a clear gesture of contempt towards the Left and how it might exploit the issues so clearly presented: it is just too weak to mount any serious challenge to the institutions of capitalism.

On another level, it is hardly the fault of the Left that tens of thousands of cinema-goers are not rushing from Avatar screenings shouting “Down with Capitalism” because the film is simply not effective as a vehicle for active engagement. Far from it. Its role is to create passivity, and it does so beautifully.

Imperialism with an Avatar face

Back to the film itself. The purpose of Sully’s transformation as an avatar was to find some peaceful way of winning over the Na’vi: in the words of Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), to find a “diplomatic solution” to their resistance. Of course it had to fail if we were to achieve our inevitable wham-bam climax, but the audience is nevertheless left with the subliminal conclusion: all that death and destruction could have been avoided if Sully’s mission had been fulfilled.

After all, an Empire that can create “other people” can surely convince an innocent bunch of Pandorans to share their goodies. If only the Bush-style militarists hadn’t taken over with their “Bust through or Bust up” strategy, America would not have suffered the humiliation of defeat and been shown the door. The Empire’s civilisation is really too sophisticated for that!

Sully’s love affair with Neyitiri (Zoe Saldona) is central, here. It proves that the Na’vi could be lulled and taken over nicely. After all, he was invited to provide the leadership in their liberation struggle, wasn’t he?

Just coincidentally, a very “nice” President has been elected to lead the United States. In many respects, Obama is the liberals’ last hope of grasping the heart of the Empire. His role is to win back the respectability of US imperialism world-wide – to undo the damage of the Bush term fiasco, fix up the economy and regain moral leadership of the globe. Already troops have been “peacefully withdrawn” from Iraq (actually there are still 90,000 + troops there), and the language of the Afghan war has changed, from using drones to selectively bomb the enemy into oblivion, to “supporting and protecting” the local populace.

For liberals like James Cameron, this is Avatar’s sub-textual alternative to the barbarity of Bush-style militarism. And it is something that people like Rupert Murdoch, at least tactically, might be prepared to endorse. Fundamentally the aim, US hegemony on a social, political and economic plane, remains the same, but the strategy must be more subtle, more sophisticated, more “cultured”.

Form over content, every time

Whatever “deep” interpretations we might tease from the movie, however, the general public’s appreciation of Avatar is at a more basic level: after a rollicking ride through some amazing 3-D Utopian immersion, a predictable plot with some pretty clunky acting leads to the defining battle where good defeats evil. End of story. Successful, passive “Entertainment”.

What remains is a residue of image and form: the sub-aquatic blue of Pandora; the strangely alluring and exotically CGI (computer generated imagery) crafted Na’vi; the noise and 3-D confrontation of battle lurching from the screen. Form totally overshadows substance, the “meaning” of the movie is utterly secondary. Now, ain’t that the way of it all? Small wonder Rupert and his News Ltd ilk could be relaxed about James Cameron’s message.

Avatar is pure escapism. There is simply no “reality” to it, even as allegory or parable. It is sci-fi, way, way out there, “on a moon far away in time and space”, it is so “exotic” as to be absolutely remote from suburban life and, yes, it is cartoonish in its characterisation. In short, it deliberately aims to make its audience sit back, relax, and be an object. Not, it must be stressed, as a “subject”, one capable of engaging in the consequent reality of action, no, everything is co-opted onto the screen.

Today, it would seem, the audience is less inclined to even discuss issues arising from the cultural immersion around them. “Why ruin a good movie by analyzing it?” they say, “Just enjoy it for what it is: entertainment,” they say, “You read too much into things,” they say, “Oh do shut up,” they say, “you are making a scene.” There is a fear, here, a “self censorship” that seeks to avoid the confrontation of debate, conflict, and the hidden truths which might emerge.

Those truths relate to capitalism and the way we separate “work” from “entertainment”. The way we sit back, exhausted, switch off mentally and allow junk to flow through us. To engage, to exercise our critical faculty, to clarify our own position, to act on our “entertainment” might involve some work for our minds, some conclusions which in turn might require struggle and our emergence to adulthood.

For surely, we are being manipulated by the capitalist entertainment industry, which is treating us all like children. If we do not resist, the Empire’s avatars will have our minds and US hegemony is assured, without so much as a shot or arrow being fired.  

Next article – Peter Pan and child trafficking

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