When I launched this blog a year ago, one of my hopes was that it would support the tendency of our popular culture to serve as a medium of discussion through which people of all ideological stripes comment on issues of the day. Unfortunately, it seems that pop culture is no longer serving this function. Rather, according to a recent Newsweek cover story, our movies, TV, music, and books have ceded this function to our ongoing obsession with celebrities’ private lives.
The article’s author, Neal Gabler, who wrote despairingly of this trend a decade ago in his book Life the Movie, seems entirely too sanguine today about conceding that the morality plays that make up celebrities’ personal lives have become more compelling to us than movies or TV or books as a way of having a national conversation about what matters to us. According to Gabler, our tendency to privilege celebrity gossip is more a function of our fascination with new media (and our boredom with old media) than a reflection of increased shallowness on our part, or on the part of our professional storytellers. But it seems to me that even our best storytellers have fallen down on the job here, and exhibit A is James Cameron’s visually stunning, well-meaning, ultimately unsubstantial message movie Avatar.
A master showman, Cameron usually doesn’t let his message get in the way of a good story, but he usually does have one (the anti-militarism in the Terminators and The Abyss, the anti-corporatism in Aliens, the proto-feminism and anti-aristocratic populism in Titanic). In Avatar, he’s essentially retelling Dances With Wolves (soldier goes native and protects his newfound tribe against his former allies) in order to deliver a pro-environmental message, but he’s also making an allegory about the Iraq War (Marines get bogged down in a quagmire in an inhospitable place inhabited by hostile natives, a place they’ve invaded in order to seize its mineral wealth for their side’s own energy needs).
Alas, in Avatar, while Cameron has created a visually dazzling world in which to set his tale, and while he’s broken new technical ground in presenting that world in vivid 3-D, the characters, dialogue, and plot are strictly 2-D. The old adage goes that no one ever leaves a Broadway show humming the scenery, but here, that’s all there is to remember. So the issues Cameron means to raise have barely stirred a ripple among moviegoers.
This is largely Cameron’s own fault, not just for the way the story is told, but also for the way the movie has been marketed. Avatar has been sold to the public not as a voyage to a new world or a tale with resonance to our own situation, but as a technological leap and a visual feast; its chief selling point has been Cameron himself, the King of the World, busting the bank to drag the 19th-century medium of cinema into the 21st century. The nature of the story itself was largely kept secret, in part to avoid spoilers, but also because it’s a tougher sell than Cameron’s own brand. He’s the star of the movie (not the little-known Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana), and its his own celebrity that has been the focus of most of the discourse about Avatar. (See, Gabler was right!)
As a result, there’s been little discussion in the op-ed pages, the blogosphere, or on cable news, about Avatar’s messages. Almost no one has pointed out the Iraq War critique, and the most prominent discussion of its environmental theme has come in this weak editorial by New York Times cub columnist Ross Douthat. He takes issue with the movie’s back-to-nature message, not because he’s a conservative anti-environmentalist (though that may also be true), but because he sees the aliens’ tree-hugging animism (which Douthat mistakenly calls pantheism) as anti-Christian. He suggests that Christianity is the only proper response to man’s estrangement from nature (an assertion that ought to offend the non-Christian majority of the human race), but he does not consider that Christianity may be a cause of (rather than just an answer to) that estrangement. If your religion teaches you that this world is but shadow and that it’s the next world that counts, or that the Rapture is imminent, what incentive do you have to preserve the world for future generations? Indeed, why not despoil it? What consequences would you have to worry about? Contrast this with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, the notion that we are to help God complete His creation, not destroy it, a precept that leads many Jews to plant trees every year on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. My point here is not to denigrate Christianity or extol Judaism but merely to point out the superficiality of Douthat’s argument, which is more an excuse for him to trot out his own favored talking points (and add luster to them with the borrowed popularity of Cameron’s movie), rather than to engage in any serious, logical, or coherent way with the ideas and themes of Avatar.
Indeed, when Avatar came to theaters a couple weeks ago, I really expected the folks at Fox News to try to engage it, if only to refute it. (Which would then have spawned rebuttals in the blogosphere or elsewhere, so that people on whatever side of the partisan divide would be discussing what the movie had to say.) I mean, c’mon, here’s a blockbuster hit indoctrinating unsuspecting kids with propaganda promoting anti-corporate environmentalism and anti-militarism, where the foreign Others are the good guys and the Marines are the bad guys! Where’s the outrage?
But they didn’t take the bait, and in retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the folks at Fox News aren’t going to criticize a product in which sister company Twentieth Century Fox has a nine-figure investment. The Marxists used to say that capitalism will sell you the rope with which to hang it, but Rupert Murdoch would never have greenlit the most expensive movie in history if he thought that its anti-corporate, anti-militaristic message was any kind of a threat to his own agenda. Clearly, he did not, even if he didn’t anticipate exactly how Cameron’s visual and technical razzle-dazzle and the studio’s cult-of-personality marketing pitch would overwhelm the movie’s themes. Murdoch knows, better than Gabler does (since Murdoch has been a primary driver of the trend), that fame and showbiz have become distractions from ideas and dialogue, not facilitators of them. Maybe artists could change that, if they focused again on storytelling instead of spectacle, but they’d have to learn how not to be distracted by the flashing lights, including those emanating from their own publicity machines.
UPDATE: The Weekly Standard‘s John Podhoretz, bless him, rises to the bait and responds to Avatar with some juicy right-wing ridicule. He imagines that what he perceives as the film’s anti-Americanism will doom it at the box office. (Note to Podhoretz: The movie’s been out for two weeks already and has earned $250 million in America and twice as much overseas, where anti-American sentiment is probably a plus. Try again.) He also notes (without recognizing that he’s contradicting himself) that Cameron crafted the plot to be as uncontroversial and mass-appealing as possible. Not mentioned: that Podhoretz’ own boss, Rupert Murdoch, was counting on that mass appeal and lack of controversy when he greenlit the movie. So Podhoretz loses points for regurgitating predictable right-wing talking points, but he gains points for sticking it to his own employer, however unwittingly.
And Jonah Goldberg offers a similar contribution to the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, in which he basically seconds Podhoretz and Douthat without adding much in the way of his own thoughts, save for the suggestion that if Cameron wanted to write a truly radical plot twist, he’d have the aliens convert to Christianity. (No, what would be truly radical is if the aliens converted to Judaism or Rastafarianism or Zoroastrianism.) Like Podhoretz and Douthat, then, Goldberg doesn’t really object to Avatar as a vehicle for propaganda, only to the fact that it’s not their side’s propaganda.