Hearn Feldman: Art and ‘Avatar’

It’s an age-old story. Several age-old stories: a more technologically advanced and violent civilization invading the world of the nature-loving people who strive to live in balance with all things; an old love story of two people from enemy camps falling in love; goodness and purity triumphing over greed and selfishness; a hero from the outside being able to call on a people to unite against an external evil.

“Avatar” combines a fantasy recreation of a historical tale with a mythological feat. The classic struggle of good versus evil is given a conveniently popular, liberal, anti-corporate, pro-cultural anthropology bent, but really a retelling of the European invasion of the Americas during the age of exploration in which the native population gets a timely insight into the minds of their invaders enabling them to fight back and preserve the purity of their culture.

Most people are saying that the film’s visuals are phenomenal, but the story is less than interesting. I disagree. The visuals are stunning, but the story is powerful and just as beautiful as the world of Pandora. OK, so the dialogue could have used some work, but not the plot. The movie sends a simple message against violence and in favor of cultural understanding. People say that it’s an over-used and mundane message. My question, then, is, if the message is so simple, so plain, so obvious, what is the world still doing at war? Why don’t we respect and understand other cultures?

Parker Selfridge, the corporate manager who is ultimately responsible for the invasion, gives us an answer. He says that investors don’t like killing native populations. But what they like less, he tells us, is a bad investment. Ultimately, compassion and respect come secondary to profits, to personal gain.

Like any movie, “Avatar” has its flaws, but what I loved was that it was unashamedly beautiful — both in form and in message. It didn’t apologize for creating a world that was as visually appealing as technology can produce. (After watching the movie, I want to be 10 feet tall and blue.) Nor does it apologize for its idealism, for believing in love and honoring the heroic. “Avatar” is most beautiful in its ability to rewrite the end of a historical tragedy to create a mythical triumph — this is the power of art.

But why should anyone spend billions of dollars to create a crazy fiction about 10-foot-tall blue humanoids with USB port-like hair? Couldn’t we use that money to send rice to the starving? Improve our own technology? Make life a shade more possible for those on the brink of death? Why art? Why film, theater, visual creation, the written word? Why?

Because through art there is the possibility of atonement. It’s like the end of the 2007 movie “Atonement”: Briony ruined the lives of her sister and her sister’s lover, separating them in ways that lead to both of their deaths. But in her book, she recreates history, reuniting the lovers after the war, and letting them get the ending they deserved. Though Briony’s book doesn’t truly atone for her sins, it is a tribute to those she harmed, and an apology.

In a sense, “Avatar” does the same for the blindness and bluntness of the West. It both recognizes our reality and creates a reality of atonement. Maybe it was just lip service to an ideal on the part of director and writer James Cameron, but I bought it.

Recognition is not redemption. The realities of “Avatar” do not atone for what conquered societies have lost. But a warning of what has been done and can be repeated is passed.

Art has the power to remind. It has the power to come from a cynical place and then turn around and show something positive, beautiful. It has the power to reveal dirt, and to envision great goddesses capable of speaking for silenced voices. Art connects us to Eywa.

Timmia Hearn Feldman is a sophomore in Morse College.

Comments

  • Yale 08

    I’m sure the terrorists will watch Avatar and realize the evil they commit.

    Also, pigs will fly and YDN writers will be coherent.

  • y10

    This is disturbingly naive… but then, so is the message behind Avatar. Terrifying that most Yalies probably agree with this girl.

  • Y10

    I don’t need to see Avatar because I already saw Pocahontas.

    And Ms. Feldman, I suggest you read David Brooks’s op-ed from the NYTimes on this subject. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

    “Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?”

  • y12

    Avatar’s presentation of the aliens is an amalgamation of supposedly common ‘native’ cultural characteristics, from their spiritual connection with nature to their bows and arrows to their skimpy loin cloths. They are stereotypical noble savages. James Cameron’s plot does not foster “cultural understanding” as you posit; it essentializes and degrades indigenous cultures.

    To say nothing of the White savior elements.

  • y09

    Pocahontas doesn’t really fit, unless John Rolfe joined their tribe to fight the English. Dancing With Wolves is a better analogy. The White Messiah trope can be somewhat annoying though, I agree.

    Also, #1, you missed the point of the movie. Not even in a near-miss kinda way. It’s as if you looked at the target and then spun around and fired in the other direction. Hint: it’s a very blatant critique of imperialist capitalism.

  • Ygirl

    Unlike the other posters, everything in this article was exactly how I felt about the movie; Avatar was beautiful, expressive, and completely relevant to today.