A meditation on Avatar, the cost of art, and Africa
As many chose to do, we spent a few hours of our holiday season sequestered in a warm, dark place, surrounded by friends and family, watching James Cameron’s $250-million epic film, Avatar, though not in 3D.
It is, by way of passing praise, a monumental kind of accomplishment, beautiful to behold, and not terribly subtle in its message.
Absent that night, though she has been around us much these last few months, is a young friend and sometime employee, now in her early 30s and just returned from three years with the Peace Corps in Africa.
She is one who belongs, to borrow from Robert Service, to “…the race of men who won’t fit in/A race that can’t stay still/So they break the hearts of kith and kin/and roam the world at will.” At the end of each journey she returns to her college job because we will always welcome her back and because she needs sometimes – especially this time, after three years living in a very different place, with very different rules – to be around people who understand her need to reimmerse herself in our society.
She is, then, in a small way, one of the archetypes offered up in Avatar. (If you’ve not yet seen the film, I fear some spoilage is to follow; it is unavoidable.) The premise of Avatar is that mankind (sexist language intended) has ruined and denuded its home planet, and has begun the difficult and expensive process of extracting resources from other planets. In this case, the planet is called Pandora, and it happens to be inhabited by a dizzying array of creatures who bear passing resemblance to dinosaurs and a mashup of indigenous cultures from around the globe.
In its way Avatar offers a typical liberal Hollywood kind of message, railing against colonialism, capitalism, racism (species-ism, in this case), and man’s general inhumanity (sexist language again intended).
And yet it doubles back upon itself.
We are, for example, asked to believe that a marine corporal from our culture has such skill and wisdom and heart that he can rise to lead the indigenous cultures in a righteous spear and bow revolt which defeats his own space-born brethren.
And we are asked to believe that this piece of…art, I suppose we should concede…is worth having spent $250 million on. It is, apparently, the most money ever spent to make a movie. Regardless, it’s a lot of money.
I wondered, as we left the building and the world James Cameron and his very special effects crew had so carefully created, what our friend could have done in Africa with that pile of money. And what it says about us that Cameron and co-producer Jon Landau (Bruce Springsteen’s manager) could raise $250-million to make a movie, but not to make a difference.