Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind;
His soul, proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk, or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has given,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven;
Some safer world in depth of woods embraced,
Some happier island in the watery waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
To be, contents his natural desire,
He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire;
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.
I saw Avatar yesterday. As I was sitting in the theater waiting for it to begin I checked my twitter feed and found a tweet from @chavelaque to an article, “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like “Avatar‘” that I quickly skimmed, an article raising issues I already had myself from what I’d read about the plot But I was there to see the movie because I’d also read that despite the storytelling problems, the visuals made it must-see viewing.
And now that I’ve seen the movie I have to wholeheartedly agree with the article’s writer. In fact, I’m flummoxed by the critical love the movie is getting. Yeah, it is an impressive piece of visual filmmaking, but that story, that dialog, those stock characters, and so on is lame, lame, lame. Especially the plot. I mean, I’d thought and hoped we were mostly beyond the sort of sentiments expressed by Pope in the 18th century. That is, the objectifying of the “primitive,” the rehashing yet again those 19th century tropes of the vanishing red man, the 70s environmental Indians-are-the-keepers-of-the-earth-and-we-whites-need-to-do-something, and on and on and on that is front and center in this mediocre piece of storytelling.
While a few of the enthusiastic critics mention this, they are so overcome with excitement for the visuals, the absorbing world, the technological wizardry that they don’t seem to see them as significant. Yes, for a while I was fascinated and interested in the filmmaking, but the clichés and the hokey tropes kept jumping out at me and kept me from getting lost as seems to happen to so many other viewers . The noble savage, Pope’s “lo, the Poor Indian” attitude brought forward a few centuries, the pristine environment, the fake “primitive” language, the various ceremonies and rites, and so on was all too much for me to suspend my critical stance and just go with the imagery.
Art for me is about meaning-making. Great art is about making me think and be moved and transcend my lousy little world. This one puts me in another world, I’ll grant you that, but a world that looks all too much like one I’d like us to move beyond.