03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated 5 days ago

Avatar and the Commons

John Wayne's shoot-em-ups helped the American public learn to handle imperial war. Avatar is an inverted western. It's James Cameron's achievement that the corporatized military is led by a Dick Cheney with muscles, and that the "Indians" have a practical and potent earth-based spirituality. Cameron faces down the tree-hugger comments of someone like Rush Limbaugh by making the star of the movie a tree, and making it taller than the Empire State Building. Then he puts 3-D glasses on all of us and throws us from the top, and we dive off into the air, willingly swan-diving with a powder blue Naomi Campbell-like native, into the giant foliage below.


We need to urgently ask the question - how is it that American colonial wars that have nothing to do with "freedom" or "democracy" rage on for years? Can the underwear bomber really extend the war? That's all it takes? Thousands more will die? The old story structures that persuade us to be violent need to be upended, and James Cameron has done that. But - we've had great movies before. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the cold war. Think of The Truman Show and consumerism. The fact is that Avatar is not enough. A movie theater is not a commons. Power cannot shift there.

Savitri and I went to Avatar in our neighborhood in Brooklyn. That's the theater on the roundabout on the southwest corner of Prospect Park. By the end of the film, as the spirit in the animals and trees and rocks is pushing back the invaders, the audience is flying into political daylight. It is quite a lift after the gray, heavy year of 2009. And then, as the credits rolled and the lights came on, I noticed that we movie-goers could barely move. Wrung out by the special effects, we drifted out to the freezing sidewalk. That is Avatar's contradiction, the content competes with the affect. It's a problem that we need to solve.

We can't just spend $14, consume the picture and say "Wow - Great film!" Our earth, our neighborhoods and our families are invaded by corporate expansion and war. So let's remember how the natives in Avatar gathered their power - in public space. They intimately knew their natural world. They circle-danced and sang, speechified and prayed and stood up to bulldozers and bullets. Their revolution, in other words, was out of the playbook of most successful uprisings in history - it came from the commons.

Their commons is under a gigantic tree. Our protective umbrella is the First Amendment, and we go to public space with its rights. Then the thriller called citizenship begins.