08 January 2010

"Avatar" and the White Messiah complex

Haven't had a chance to see "Avatar" yet, a fact partly explained by snow storms and cataract surgery. Both at the same time can complicate your life. I have been reminded of the fact that Carmen really doesn't like winter on a mountaintop. Anyway, we have not been able to see the movie, though I, Carmen, Maire, Murty, and young Clovis all intend to see it soon when the weather lets up (say, April).

We are all agreed that we want to see it mainly for the stunning visual effect due to the new technology involved. None of us have heard anything good about the plot, dialogue, etc. But David Brooks offers his own commentary on the movie as a story, or myth, involving the ubiquitous "White Messiah."
This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

He then goes on to recount most of the action in "Avatar," making it sound slightly foolish and naive. Not to mention a bit racist.

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains

Now when we actually see the movie I will write my own reaction to it. For the moment I will just say that I never thought illiteracy was a path to grace. But then, I was a Federal bureaucrat once.

but I got out after 10 months

UPDATE: Please see the comments. A reader thinks that Brooks is deriving much of his idea from this article from "Racism Review". He has a point. Check it out. If a student did this I would gig him not for plagiarism but for failure to cite the source of his inspiration.

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At 08 January, 2010 12:11, Blogger autodidact said...

Someone else already wrote Brooks' column. He just changed a few words.

At 08 January, 2010 15:43, Blogger Clemens said...

VERRrY interesting.


And welcome.

At 12 January, 2010 13:25, Blogger Elliot said...

Check out Gabriel McKee's review: http://sfgospel.typepad.com/sf_gospel/2010/01/avatar-pantheism-proof-and-pretty-stuff.html

He also picks up on the White Messiah stuff.

I don't know about the illiteracy part of it... the aliens' mind-connecting bio-technology renders literacy partly irrelevant.

At 13 January, 2010 23:33, Blogger Clemens said...

Obviously you have already seen it Elliot. Carmen and I will go see it this Saturday, weather and other things permitting. Maybe we can get Mulan to go with us.

Then I will write something about it. So far the general reaction seems to be: worth it for the knock-out visual effects, content so-so.


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