So You Did (or Did Not) Like Avatar?

By | May 18, 2011

Your verdict may have to do with what you think of the major figures in the colonization of America, such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Much of what we know about them and the colonization process is, well, not much about them or the process.

George Monbiot’sThe Holocaust We Will Not See,” published in the January 11, 2010 Guardian (http://www.monbiot.com/2010/01/11/the-holocaust-we-will-not-see/) is the most succinct critique of our fascination—or disgust—with Avatar that I’ve come across. Here is an excerpt:

“[This film is profound because it is] the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.

“But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept…. In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinction was also engineered.

“When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease, and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished, and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peaceable, democratic, and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives’ extraordinary hospitality….

“The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered…by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disemboweled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off…. The soldiers cut off women’s breasts, sent people back to their villages with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks, and hunted Indians with their dogs for sport…. It was cheaper to work Indians to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy in their mines and plantations was three to four months…. A Franciscan missionary called Junipero Serra set up a series of “missions”: in reality concentration camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to African-American slaves in the 19th century…. Junipero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint.

“The British…surrounded the villages…and murdered them as they slept…. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his nation’s wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe ‘is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi’…. Troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating all the corpses and keeping their victims’ genitals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event ‘as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.’

“The butchery hasn’t yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe. Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience…. Had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way…. [We] will tolerate no comparisons, but [we] were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.

Avatar is crass, mawkish, and cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important—and more dangerous—than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.”

Whether someone loves or hates the movie is not important to me—I am listening to what their feelings say about us as a people. About why we go on exterminating to satisfy our hunger for domestic foods and comforts, or for the lost happiness we are sure we’ll get back with the next acquisition.

Are our national folklore and recorded history manipulative whitewashes, or are they merely innocent, winsome dreams of a golden age America never had? The evidence points to some of each going on, which leaves me deeply concerned about how we are going to change a tide when much of what we know about it is an absurd fantasy.


4 Comments

GC on July 30, 2011 at 5:54 pm.

Forgive me for replying to such an old post.

It was cheesy in storyline, yes. in fact I saw a 2nd-grade-level review of Pocahontas that, when the names were scratched out and replaced with character names from Avatar and it was striking accurate.

Apocalypto was incredible, especially in comparison.

That said, I liked Avatar for the same reasons you and the first commentor did. The cliché abounded and cheese rained down from the skies like ikrani, but in the end, the natives won. No matter how contrived it might be, sometimes it’s good to have a happy ending.

I’m enjoying reading the blog very much. I wish I could lay claim to the same circumstances that led you up to this point!

Reply

Tamarack on July 31, 2011 at 2:26 pm.

Greetings GC,

Thanks for your kind words regarding the blog. I’m having big fun with it. And no problem with the timeliness of your comment on Avatar—especially since mine came 2 1/2 years after the film was released.

I can go for years without seeing a Hollywood film, so I’m in no position to comment on the relative merits of the industry’s products. Still, I doubt that anything of recent vintage compares with Apocalypto, or I’d have heard about from somebody. I wish as many people had viewed it as Avatar, and I would like to have seen discussion groups after each viewing so people could help each other grasp the immensity and scope of what the film presented. It was so pregnant with metaphor that the screenwriters must have been ecstatic having a project of such relevance. I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen Apocalypto to do so.

Regarding our different histories, I’d be surprised if I didn’t find something fascinating with your story. Our unique experiences enable us each to reach different groups of people. I hope to hear your story someday.

Reply

Laura Lynne on May 24, 2011 at 12:31 am.

For me, Avatar brought back memories of the sacred possibilities that exist here and now in the Native People connecting with people, plants, animals and seen and unseen forces of life. The sound track and huge machinery seemed an accurate depiction of the opposition to those precious forces backed by human will and fear. The contrast was intense.

As I read about the atrocities you speak of I had to wonder how a film about those cruel and brutal realities would be perceived in today’s climate. Would it stir a deep mourning in the souls who witnessed the horror or would it be viewed as the next Friday the 13th series?

How sad to learn of the fear, misunderstanding and greed that took place against our Native People and that is still taking place today. I am grateful to be reminded to stay alert to the subtle and aggressive actions in our daily lives that lead to the extinction of beauty, grace and the highest of intuitive gifts.

Thank you for your bold and clear sharing.

Laura Lynne

Reply

Tamarack on May 31, 2011 at 6:53 pm.

Hi Laura Lynne,

I appreciate your comments. Yes, the contrast between living with and lording over in Avatar was brutal. Typical Hollywood mega-drama perhaps, but in this case I saw it as you did—a metaphorically accurate depiction of the clash of lifeways.

You wondered how the stark presentation of the brutality would sit with the audience. I’m afraid the film made itself impotent with its stereotypical ending. Instead of leaving us with the biting awareness that we are still that great, death-inflicting machine, we are left with a silky score-one-for-the-Natives feeling.

For a more realistically based counterpoint to Avatar, I’d suggest Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. It is based on the last days of the Mayan civilization, which gives us a general picture of the twilight of any and all civilizations. The film depicts the Old Way-civilization clash more accurately than Avatar, and it is a potent metaphor for the cycle of civilizations. Even though done in Hollywood style, the film graphically illustrates the exploitation upon which civilizations are based, along with how it precipitates their downfall by rotting them to the core.

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