Essais > Avatar and Erotic Multiculturalism

Écrit par: Alan Bourassa

10 février 2010|

2 Commentaire(s)|Lu 83749 fois


I am about to offer a jaundiced vision of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I feel a bit like the guest who kicks the magician at a children’s party. I will certainly see Avatar again, if only to revel in the hallucinatory flora and fauna, the waterfalls tumbling from mid-air mountains, the leonine beauty of the Na’vi’s faces. I am more than excited by the possibilities of the technology that had to be invented to make this movie, technology so dazzling that had it been used to make a movie about talking squirrels colonizing Neptune I would have been equally impressed. In a strange way, the breathtaking CGI of Avatar serves the same purpose as the use of black and white in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: it is an index of the film’s moral seriousness. After all, if we are to narrate the moral fairy tale of how an edenic world is protected from evil, it is desirable that the audience be drawn as deeply into that world as possible, and it is the job of technology to draw the viewer in. It is the particular mode of this drawing-in that gives me a moment of hesitation. Like the film to which it is often compared — Dances with WolvesAvatar is a film that stands and falls on its moral message about our relationship with the cultural “other,” the fellow being who irresistibly demands a kind of moral responsibility of me. In the case of Avatar, this moral responsibility extends beyond the Na’vi to mother nature herself, as threatened by the incursion of the human mechanisms of death and destruction as the beings who dwell in her embrace. Avatar, in short, offers a moral message about what is owed in way of respect, protection, even love to the racial and cultural other. The problem is that in order to present this racial and natural other as worthy of our love it must be eroticized to the nth degree. Nature in Avatar is a bright and irresistible candy store of desires. It is nature that you want to run your tongue over. Much the same can be said for the blue temptresses of the Na’vi. Outside of pornography I don’t remember ever having seen camera work that took such delight in the spectacle of perfect bodies. What Marlene Dietrich’s face was for Sternberg, Na’vi buttocks are for James Cameron. Don’t misunderstand me: I am in favor of eroticizing anything from sunsets to iphones to pudding. It becomes a problem when the imperatives of moral duty become entangled with the libidinal pleasures of erotic fantasy, because then the cultural and racial other (the immigrant, the aboriginal, the stranger) becomes worthy of my care and concern only insofar as he awakens my fantasy. The nature we want to save in Avatar is not the nature of viruses, dirt, and predation but a creamy, fruit-flavored, perfectly consumable product. In the same way, there is nothing of the Na’vi that might make us uncomfortable, that might challenge us to see beyond ourselves because the Na’vi are pure reflections of our own unattainable desires: taller, stronger, healthier, more beautiful. It is as if Cameron could not trust our ethics to awaken unless it was prodded by our lust. And is this not the challenge of any multiculturalism that aspires to ethical seriousness? It is not to the degree that the other dazzles me, makes my pulse beat faster, awakens in me desire and longing, that I should attempt to build a peaceable world with him, just as it is not only a tarted-up version of nature that deserves protection. The other whose presence disturbs my equilibrium, the stranger, the sojourner, calls for an ethical response that is decidedly not titillating. It is made up of small accommodations, legal debates, everyday decisions to thwart one’s own fearful hostility. This work is hard enough without also demanding of the other that he arouse my desires. As I said, I will certainly see Avatar again. However questionable, a thing of beauty is a thing of beauty quite apart from its truth value. Besides, with the pace of technological evolution, I’m sure by this summer Avatar will be old hat and we will all be dazzled by the adventures of the talking squirrels colonizing Neptune.

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Avatar: jrac
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jrac 12 Fév. 2010
Fetishizing the other seems to be what we do. Even Levinas (somehow) gendered the other that infinitely demands an overwhelming ethical response. We seem to be stuck in the cycle of waiting for some other to elicit an ethical response, and we can only respond to what we acknowledge (I think it's safe to say we acknowledge only that which is beautiful or horrifying). It is the idea of an ethical response (a reaction) that must be rethought, rather than the fetishized other. An ethical action should take place without impetus, or prodding from the other. Only an ethics that is self-propelled rather than coaxed into response can hope to support multiculturalism. Oh, and am very eager for the Talking Squirrel/Neptune film (I've heard tell that Mr. Affleck is attached).
Avatar: renholder
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renholder 12 Fév. 2010
Thank you very much. I don’t’ think I can ever watch avatar and NOT look at their blue humanoid-feline stereoscopic three dimensional blue butts. Thanks a lot. Speaking of blue private parts. Check Watchmen, the motion picture, to see Dr Manhattan’s galactic blue dong swinging wildly on celluloid – this review could’ve totally been usable for that movie too . Oh and one other small things I don’t know how fair it is to insinuate, if it that is what you’re claiming on doing, that Cameron specifically made the Naavi aesthetically pleasing, maybe highly erotic, in a malicious evil-scientist-esque plan to have the audience accept the movie’s thematic elements and its underlying morality. I don’t think Cameron was smart enough to realize that making the Naavi anything other than ridiculously blue and sexy would’ve been permissible for his pedantic , corny, but oddly childlike morality of Gaia/horrible evil corrupt man- be viable for the world audience. It is human nature to sympathize with the plea of something that excites us rather than repulses (call it the Panda effect : i.e – Panda’s and the Congolese blind mole rat could both be endangered, but I bet most people would fork some change at the unicef box if it had a panda insignia than the mole rat- beauty sells). However, we can’t go so far to say that eroticizing the indigenous population was something that Cameron had looming over its head in concordance to the effectiveness at which he could stick his pro-life /anti-technology message down our collective throats. Naavis are cool, they are sexy (ok sure) , so what? It’s fantasy man, enjoy the blue butts. By the by, I think contrasting this movie with what Bloomkamp did with District 9 could be helpful. That movie deals with “the Other” and has strikingly similar themes -minus the corny dialogue-I think the South African director totally avoids the pitfall that Cameron made by turning many of you on by his sexy aliens by making the aliens of District 9 to be totally repulsive (unless insectoid/crustacean bipedal creatures with tentacles for mouths and a penchant to twitch and slur and click and crackle instead of speaking English in an Afrikaans accent like the naavi) to be hot. That movie works, almost in spite of the aliens to be sexy- I don’t know whether it means that eroticizing subjects outside of ourselves is a necessary condition for us to more easily accept any kind of moral deficiency and inequalities we might have of our own- Bloomkamp sort of bypasses the whole argument. Sorry, this is an avatar review. Lets keep talking about blue buts. However, just a word of notice, if you find the aliens of District 9 hot you’re totally weird. But to each their own man, to each their own. -a student
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