Saturday, January 16, 2010
"Avatar": The Blue People
"Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshorement, that leadlike look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; ...afflictions of the spirit--dumps, mopes, Mondays--all that's dismal--lowdown gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach;...blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean...watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity." After seeing "Avatar," I wanted to check out William Gass's rare book, "On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry," because, well, because half the characters in "Avatar" are blue.
I hadn't really been looking forward to seeing this movie. To preempt my friend Bill Rutherfoord"s words, I was going with gritted teeth, "largely from a sense of zeitgeist-fueled compulsion." Besides, digitally enhanced block-busters (a la "2012") are not my thing. I'd heard the visuals in "Avatar" were spectacular, but the plot was superficial--something about a valuable mineral resource ("Unobtainium") found on a distant planet called Pandora, and a cadre of corporate, Exxon-type, bad guys in cahoots with the U.S. military, planning the usual resource-extraction rape and plunder. "Let's scatter the roaches...I want to be home before dinner," says Col. Miles Quarritch, the commander-in-chief of military operations, speaking from inside his giant, killer robot, which becomes the face of the dominator species and its destructive onslaught--the modern technological world gone berserk.
The "roaches" refer to the blue people, an indigenous native population who, predictably, prove recalcitrant to being "relocated" elsewhere and separated from their enchanted habitat--a sort of luscious mangrove rain forest, teeming with biodiversity and mythic, prehistoric creatures that take their revenge on any destructive disturbance. The landscape of Pandora, especially when viewed through 3-D glasses, is the visual equivalent of Gaia theory, which posits that all of life is an extraordinary, invisible web of intercommunicating geomagnetic pulsations, whose flowing patterns of subtle energy mysteriously connect with your own cells, drawing you in even as you sit there, upright in your seat at the movie theater. Believe me when I say, all this works in a manner that puts our non-mystical world of graphs and charts and statistics about climate change virtually out of business. At the center of this exotic, verdant landscape is the most unearthly, haunting, luminous tree. It puts you immediately under a spell, transcendental against the raw world, with pink, icicle-like, filament branches that glow as if lit by some cosmic chandelier. This tree is obviously the sacred god of the blue people.
There is no sugar coating at the end of this film. The movie doesn't offer much comfort, just business as usual for Western civilization. Having destroyed the mother planet, Earth, it has now moved on to Pandora. But when the plan to infiltrate and subdue the blue people fails, a "shock-and-awe" battle of "Star Wars" proportion ensues, in which our capacity for destruction, both military and environmental, knows no bounds. For me, the ending brought to mind nothing so much as the memorable last lines found in Hexagram 2 (the Receptiive) of the "I Ching," the Chinese Book of Changes :
"Dragons fight in the meadow. Their blood is black and yellow. The way comes to an end. At this moment the dark principle advances out of the realm of the morally indifferent and becomes positively evil. There ensues a battle with the Light-giving primal power coming from without to oppose the darkness, in which both elements suffer harm.
"In the top place the dark element should yield to the light. If it attempts to maintain a position to which it is not entitled and to rule instead of serving, it draws down upon itself the anger of the strong. A struggle ensues in which it is overthrown, with injury, however, to both sides...When black and yellow blood flow, it is a sign that in this unnatural contest, both primal powers suffer injury."
In this unnatural contest, nobody wins. Everybody loses. If there is a telling message in "Avatar," it has to be found in these words by Robert Lawlor, from his 1991 book, "Voices of the First Day":
"We are blinded by the delusions that rise from our hollow and rotting social order. It is vain pomposity to believe that humanity can advance while the earth and its native peoples, plants, and animals are enslaved, desecrated, and destroyed. The dream of human origins and destiny as an evolution from monkeys swinging in trees to men in space suits lumbering off to other planets is an adolescent dream of uninitiated men drunk on the power of the cerebral cortex. Unfortunately, the men who maintain this dream are the ones who hold economic, military, and political power today. Whether it be by sociopolitical revolution, economic disaster, or environmental catastrophes, the overturning of this power is the only hope for the earth. The change must occur while there is still time to nurture the seed and to prepare ourselves inwardly for the dream of regeneration....
"To shed the shell, to view the world from a fresh perspective, we must risk turning upside down the most fundamental constructs of the past 10,000 years of civilization. To dream anew, we must see the shadows in all that we assume to be light. We must dare to see the degeneracy in what we have called progress. We must acknowledge the superficiality of our most precious treasures, the corruptibility of our ethics, the selfishness beneath our charity, the barbarism of our most exalted ambitions, the shoddiness of our values, and the disturbing vulgarity of what we call sacred."
It may not have the requisite, upbeat ending, but "Avatar" successfully makes use of digital techniques to reflect the degeneracy of what we have called progress, the barbarism of our most exalted ambitions, the shoddiness of our values, and the disturbing vulgarity of what we call sacred. As a bonafide member of the "worrying-about-collapse" community, I have encountered nothing more shattering in the way of a visual mirror reflecting back our civilizational flaws than this film.