Friday, January 08, 2010

Messiah-mania at the Movies

I recently watched the movie Avatar in 3D. It was big, beautiful and a true movie theatre experience. I've always been a sci-fi fan, and this movie created a lush scene that allowed for enough suspension of disbelief to get into the plot.

There is a rather uncomfortable theme that runs through the plot of this movie, at a deeper level than all the pro-environment, anti-American, anti-corportation themes that a lot of folks will focus on. David Brooks appropriately identifies this as the "White Messiah" fable that runs deep in our current popular culture. To which I can only say: well done sir.

(Yes, this does make two David Brooks refrences whithin a week for me. Hat tip to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker for this most recent one.)

I am glad to know I wasn't the only person thinking of Avatar as Dances With Wolves...IN SPACE!! But Brooks' inclusion of The Last Samurai is also notable. Now, I like all three of those movies, but there was always something pinging a plausibility sense as the part of my brain that suspended disbelief wrangled with the cynical brain that tracked the probability that the story could actually happen.

I think one divergence of Avatar is that the protagonist uses only the tactics of the natives to defeat his old foes, while the protagonists of the other two films combine aspects of their culture with the culture-to-be-saved (the unearthing of guns in DWW and the Thermopalye references in LS).

Thinking of other films where this mythology comes into play led me to think of Last of the Mohicans (white boy raised by Mohicans expresses superiority of native culture), Glory (white colonel, black troops, but based in strict historical fact), and Star Wars (white heroes & robots + Lando & Chewbacca lead diverse galaxy in triumph over white Galactic Empire). Not that I think any of these movies are bad - they are all favorites of mine - but they all display strong characteristics of a white messiah theme. I wonder how many of our historical stories and narratives would fit.

How racist is this theme? While it speaks to race, I think it lends itself more to selling a story to insecurities within our society's controlling demographic - white men. What it plays on is the individualistic, hero-complex that runs deep within the white male psyche. The messiah figure is symbolically fighting against anonymity and the ordinary - each comes from a relatively obscure existence to become a cult of personality to a freer, more authentic "other" demographic where values are calculated differently from the society they left.

That such a narrative is repeated over and over in some of our culture's most important popular creations is a testament to how powerful the psychology of race still is. "The past is never dead, it isn't even past."

Notice also that none of these messianic protagonists have children within the scope of their respective narratives. Offspring being a responsibility that would intrude on the individualistic nature of the myth.

Children also taking away some of the appeal of the myth, as they form a de facto "other" demographic where the father figure can actually acheive cult of personality or hero status outside the need for narrative.

Could this kind of narrative be an essential aspect of the often elusive "white culture" that Glenn Beck labors to identify? I say this with all seriousness, as I've often wondered what constitutes "white culture."

That is a lot to think about.

As for the other stuff, there are a lot of folks out there who will complain about the anti-Americanism of Avatar. The "bad guys" are Americans in the form of former-Marines-turned-contractors and American corporations who exploit natural resources, don't care about the environment, or the science of things, or the lives of natives. The heroes and heroines are scientists, conscientious objectors and members of the native population who want to study and understand this new planet. There isn't a lot of subtelty about who we're supposed to root for.

But I don't have a problem with much of that. It is an accurate oversimplification of our current culture war: one narrative vs. another narrative. In 50 to 100 years, I'm sure historians, social and political scientists will use it as a reference point to demonstrate our deeply divided society.

The "anti-Americanism" and "anti-corporatism" are based in the worst parts of our own history (though some would excuse those behaviors) and sci-fi canon (which is mostly futuristic extrapolation of historical behaviors). The fact that sci-fi usually frames this in a fantastic setting also lessens the harder realizations so that they serve more as warnings than actual representations.

In closing, think about this: Would an accurate movie version of A Terrible Glory achieve blockbuster status without a white protagonist injected somewhere?

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