Lo, the poor Na’vi!

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.

From Alexander Pope’s  “Essay on Man”

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.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Lo, the poor Na’vi!

  1. Bridget

    Hmm, I’ve been seeing a lot of academics up in arms about this film, so wasn’t surprised by your dismay over it. I actually really enjoyed it … in fact I went and saw it twice lol

    It was a simple story because those tend to suit epics the best. (Think Star Wars … hero rescues princess, defeats father, saves day!)

    I personally like the noble savage motif. The noble savage doesn’t actually represent Native people; s/he represents more of an ideal. That’s why the marine boy eventually joined up with them and became one of them.

    As for the business guy (Giovanni something…? I forget the actor’s name) … he was kept simplistic because he really was just a face to represent Capitalist Greed (or what have you). Of course there are people willing to do anything to earn a profit.

    The soldiers for hire … I saw that as Blackwater/Halliburton conglomerate, frankly. The film made a point of saying that these soldiers were ex-marines, i.e. mercenaries.

    This was also a big eco-friendly, tree-hugging sort of film; the hero mentioned something about having destroyed all of the plant life on Earth. So it’s a bit of a “warning” film.

    And it’s a great love story :) Sorry, I love a good love story, where the characters have chemistry and the female lead is strong.

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  2. Well said, Monica. As I watched the film, I emailed myself a series of txt messages but gave up. There was too much wrong with the film for me to be able to keep up with the note-taking on my cell keypad in the dark theater.

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  3. “I’ve been seeing a lot of academics up in arms about this film, so wasn’t surprised by your dismay over it.”

    I’m a fourth grade teacher not a college teacher; but perhaps you mean something else with the word “academics”? I actually wrote this because the reviews I read were mostly very enthusiastic and was wondering if I stood pretty much alone with my response. Guess not!

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  4. Pingback: Avatar and Peter Pan – the dark side « EA300 Children's literature: a tutor's blog

  5. Julie Corsaro

    While it’s hard to argue with Avatar’s billion dollar haul (so far) and it’s visual prowess, I think the movie “District 9′ about segregated aliens–of the ET variety–in South Africa is what Avatar should have been in its “missionary” story line: insightful, engaging and darkly humorous.

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  6. Nina

    I was livid sitting through that movie. Felt I needed to watch the whole thing, but almost left several times. My poor movie-mates…I just burst out at the end of the credits: “Sorry James Cameron, you’re not black and you never will be!” Which doesn’t make too much sense, but the movie felt like watching blackface to me.

    It wouldn’t upset me so much if it wasn’t such a blockbuster, and being heralded for it’s “progressive” and “good” environmental message.

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  7. Nina

    …(I don’t mean historical blackface, I mean the way a artist might use blackface today trying to show that they are beyond racism, but having it go horribly wrong).

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  8. It’s blockbuster status tell us little about its merit and a lot more about Americans (and the world, now that its showing worldwide).

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