Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movies are Still Black and White.

Would it not help improve the level of political discourse in this country if people had a greater appreciation of the complexities of the policy issues we are debating?  Would we not expect to tone down nasty and hateful rhetoric if people made a greater effort to understand opposing points of view?  Of course.  Unfortunately, sometimes our popular culture encourages people to view issues in black and white, us vs. them, terms, rather than to understand the ironies and nuances of the problems we need to address.  When we are encouraged to view the world as composed of good guys vs. bad guys, without many shades of gray, we are in danger of losing the capacity to empathize with people of different political viewpoints or nationality. We are in danger of seeing only a warlike solution to problems.

A case in point: the new movie Avatar. Basically it is a science fiction re-telling of the Pocahontas story.  That story offers a lot of possibilities for shedding light on current problems including terrorism, imperialism, and the need for sustainable development.  Unfortunately, the movie chooses to frame these issues in rather simplistic terms.  For example, the military commander is portrayed as a cartoonish, bull-headed, racist killer.  But what if he were a smart and sophisticated general, like a David Petraeus?  If such a commander genuinely made an effort to win the hearts and minds of the local population, but was still somehow "forced" into military action that causes death and destruction, the war would be much more tragic and multi-dimensional, instead of just asking us to root for the innocent forest people being attacked without provocation by an evil, rapacious army.

The movie also tells us that the indigenous Na'vi have no interest in any of the technology or culture brought by the humans to their planet.  Their life is meant to be perfect as it is.  But from history we know that most such populations are attracted to at least some of the offerings of their invaders, whether ships or guns or tools or medicine or refrigerators or television.  If the humans had something to trade, that would have made the story more realistic.

Then there is the cause of the war, a mineral called unobtanium (funny).  We have to assume that it must be valuable for some purpose, but the only thing the characters in the movie tells us is that it will bring the evil corporation funding the mission gigantic profits. But what if unobtanium were able to cure cancer, or save life on earth from global warming?  Then the refusal of the Na'vi to relocate their camp to allow the earthlings to mine for a material that might save their own planet would look a bit selfish.

The Na'vi are shown as spiritually pure, innocent, and living in harmony with nature.  They never fight except to defend themselves or to hunt for what they need to live.  But what if they were shown committing a few tiny acts of selfishness or barbarism?  Couldn't the audience be trusted to sympathize with these people even if they were not quite as wonderful as they are shown to be in the movie? 

I am not saying that James Cameron was wrong to make the artistic choices he did.  He certainly has a better sense of the commercial prospects of his movie than I do.  The movie I might have preferred to see could have been a box office bomb, which no one could afford to make on this kind of budget.  And even looking at the script as a series of purely artistic or moral choices, I am not saying that it was wrong to portray our civilization as the bad guys and an indigenous "primitive" civilization as the good guys.  All I'm saying is that I would have preferred to see a few more shades of gray.  But maybe we should not expect more from a mass audience movie than to shake up conventional expectations a bit, and maybe James Cameron should not be expected to water down his message that nature is good and war is bad.  (Of course in Hollywood nowadays, it is already fairly conventional to show corporations, the military and our materialistic society as evil. A truly unconventional movie nowadays would show pharmaceutical companies healing the sick or Wall Street tycoons helping the poor.) But wouldn't it would be even more interesting if none of the characters in a story could be neatly classified as either a good guy or a bad guy?

Perhaps this movie was cast in such unambiguous terms because it was aimed at children.  But children have some capacity to appreciate ambiguity.  It seems a shame to have developed such incredibly novel and ingenious movie-making techniques, in the service of a story that does not rise to the same level of originality and sophistication.

1 comment:

  1. It is supposed to be about the Iraq/Afghanistan war.

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