Perhaps the best thing about Avatar has been its ability to get under the skins of rightwing commentators who are shocked (shocked, I tell ya!) that the film privileges New Age earth mother love over the military industrial complex and the Family's brand of muscular Christianity. But while the Right is complaining about how the film celebrates the wrong kind of faith -- for Ross Douthat, "a faith that equates God with nature and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world" -- I found myself more concerned with what I can only call the deep bad faith of the film and its director.
The unbelievably lazy script has been trumped in review after review by the dazzling graphics of the new 3D (am I the only one who thinks it still looks only slightly less lame than Creature of the Black Lagoon did in 1954?). But, really? The unobtainable mineral which has brought the company to Pandora is called "unobtanium." And if that isn't lazy enough, the selfish company rep (played with muppet-like precision by Giovanni Ribisi) is named "Selfridge." Or: the monkish leader of the scientific team (played with more feeling than the script invited by Sigourney Weaver) is named "Grace Augustine." Within minutes all of it starts to seem very silly, or at least very nineteenth century novel (most of which are, truth be told, pretty silly).
Let it be said: the visuals are truly striking. But they are dazzling only to prove the technological superiority of the filmmakers. And at some point we must stop and ponder the paradox of a film that purports to celebrate Gaia's (or, her Pandora equivalent, Eywa's) triumph over technological superiority -- organic indigenous culture's triumph over the invading imperialists -- with a half-billion dollar Hollywood paintbox to make sure it all comes out right this time. Like the vast majority of the romancing of the "primitive" in American literary and film culture, we should be always aware that what the storytellers are most in love with is themselves. And those storytellers, when they are in control of a half-billion dollar paintbox, are never a member of the indigenous culture they purport to be defending.
All the discourse surrounding this film has been about "the future of cinema" -- with critics lining up to celebrate the spectacle of the immersive 3D. As Kenneth Turan put it in the Los Angeles Times, "Think of 'Avatar' as 'The Jazz Singer' of 3-D filmmaking." This comparison (which has been quoted ad nauseam) is an odd one, to say the least. It also might well be apt for reasons beyond the obvious parallel being claimed here between the 1927 film that served to announce the arrival of sound film and the end of the silent era and the 2009 film that served to announce the arrival of 3D boring, lazy cinema and the end of 2D boring, lazy cinema.
Of course, there are more meaningful comparisons as well. After all, The Jazz Singer, as Avatar surely will be in its turn, is a film best remembered for its technological wonders (Al Jolson improvising on camera: "you ain't heard nothing yet"), and not for its script, which is at best nineteenth-century mawkish melodrama. Second, and perhaps more important, Jolson's performances which are at the heart of those technological wonders -- the spectacles that ushered in the revolution in motion pictures -- were largely performed in blackface.
The plot, in fact, has more than a passing similarity to that of Avatar. In The Jazz Singer, our hero, young Jakie Rabinowitz is cast out of his orthodox Jewish family for his love of jazz, taking on a new identity as Jack Robin in order to make his way in the world of show business that has separated him from his brutally stern father and his beloved mammy. But the loss of his origins proves psychically crippling, and it is only through claiming the "primitive" wholeness and authenticity of African American culture through the putting on of blackface that Jakie is able to have his cake and eat it too.
The "happy ending" of Avatar actually plays pretty much the same way. Here our Jakie is Jake Sully, called in to Pandora to replace his recently-deceased scientist brother in the Avatar Project, where earthlings mind-meld with genetically stewed human-Na'vi hybrid flesh-puppets. Like Jakie, Jake is crippled, although in his case the injury is more physical than cultural, at least at the outset. But also like Jakie, Jake is caught between two cultures, in this case, that of his late brother's scientific community which seeks to exploit the Na'vi in the service of understanding and knowledge, and that of Colonel Quaritch and the Marines Jake left behind when his legs were shot out from under him in Venezuela ("that was some mean bush," Quaritch nods approvingly, in his best Pure Evil intonation). Like Jakie, caught between two worlds, there is only one solution: blackface, or, in Jake's case, blueface.
And as with Jakie, what the racial masque provides our Jake Sully is the best of both worlds: he gets to be a marine and a scientist, to wed the seemingly irreconcilable divide of opposing cultures as posited by the film's Victorian logic. And blue, as should be clear about five minutes into the movie, is the new color of indigeneity. The Na'vi are first and foremost the cinematic heirs to the Hollywood Indian, from Broken Arrow to Dances with Wolves. But along the way their spectrum absorbs as well indigenous cultures from West Africa to Iraq, allowing the film's viewers to share a righteous sense of indignation in the systematic exploitation and (all too often) extermination of indigenous peoples in the name of various natural resources (from fertile soil to free labor to crude oil), while cheering on and taking deep pleasure in the technological prowess that same systematic exploitation has brought to the United States and to its culture industry in the form of IMAX 3D.
But that, of course, is precisely the point. As blackface did in 1927, blueface in 2009 allows Hollywood simultaneously to "mourn" the loss of what is "vanished" while also celebrate its rebirth and continuation through the indispensable mediation of the white male body. The synchronized sound that announced at once the rebirth of cinema and the promise of continuities with the "cultures" of the past was no coincidence: it was the substance of the story being told. So too with Avatar. Here the "future of cinema" is founded on what appears to be a utopian rewriting of the U.S.'s history of invading cultures from the Sioux to the Sunni. But while the film on its surface appears to celebrate the culture being put on by the white man (whether Jakie or Jake) in the end it is, as all Hollywood films inevitable are, about the white man and his culture -- and the white man and his storytelling machinery. The tear shed or cheer raised for the Na'vi is no more authentic than the tear shed for the plantation black culture in Jazz Singer or the last of the Mohicans in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. It is all about white boys showing off how well they tell stories about the tragic loss of indigenous cultures, and how powerful that storytelling ability makes them.
Meet the new future of cinema. Same as the old future of cinema.