Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

“Avatar” spoiler

January 2, 2010 - 9:33pm -- Carol Diehl
Only the thing is, you can’t spoil the plot because you’ve already seen it a thousand times. It’s called a Western. The handsome new guy comes to town, meets a beautiful woman (the schoolmarm, rancher’s daughter or, in this case, the Indian princess) who disses him at first. He has to win her over, and sometimes her skeptical father as well. He proves he’s worthy of her by fighting against the bad guys. There’s a big battle with lots of guns, bows and arrows, and warriors on horses, and just in the nick of time, the cavalry shows up to help save the day. However it’s too late for the wise old geezer (played here by Sigourney Weaver) who breathes his last before he could learn that the good guys were going to win. The really bad guy—and he’s really bad—is the last man standing, and it takes more than one arrow to do him in. In the end, boy and girl get to kiss and ride off into the sunset.

On Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page there’s a discussion about why Avatar is a bad film. Is it because it’s pop? Or has no irony? Noooo….it’s because it’s a formula. Apparently there wasn’t enough money left over for a real screenplay, and since it was all about the special effects anyway, just like a porn film, they tacked on any old plot. “Avatar” is the Dubai of films, a vestige of that crazily affluent time, not so long ago, when people spent money on extravagant baubles just because they could.

"Avatar" (2009)

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948)


I agree that the plot is formulaic and for that reason it can also be predictable (although, I could never get through a single western with my dad when I was a kid, so there
was a point in the film when I genuinely thought the bad guys might win and the natives would meet a similar fate as the Native Americans did in real life.)

However, despite an unoriginal screenplay, can't you see how the message (about war, the environment, religion, culture and civilization) are right on the
money? Special effects aside, politically it was awesome. But does that relegate it to the role of propaganda? I don't know yet, but for the record, I did enjoy the film.

Thanks, Mike! However the political message, actually, makes it even more like a traditional Western, as Wikipedia describes it:

"Westerns often portray how primitive and obsolete ways of life confronted modern technological or social changes. This may be depicted by showing conflict between natives and settlers or U.S. Cavalry or between sheep and cattle farmers, or by showing ranchers being threatened by the onset of the Industrial Revolution. American Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s emphasize the values of honor and sacrifice. Westerns from the 1960s and 1970s often have more pessimistic view, glorifying a rebellious anti-hero and highlighting the cynicism, brutality and inequality of the American West."

In the end, though, "Avatar" turns out to be more about violence than anything else. And the black and white nature of the characters, no subtlety, no understanding, contributes to an "us" and "them" mentality that's all too prevalent in the world today.

Submitted by Don Lawrence (not verified) on
Absolutely agree with you on this Carol. Half way through the film all I could see was Bush, Chaney & Blackwater going up against the Indians. And though I didn't think about it at the time, I knew exactly how it was going to play out in the end. And yes, yes, yes it was going to take more than an arrow it kill the one dimensional Bush/Chaney character who will be the last villain to die.

Although the propoganda/blantent moral-lesson was bent towards my side of the political spectrum, I could not help but roll my eyes when it went over the top (which was pretty much all the time). At a certain point I decided that if I was going to enjoy the rest of the film I will just have to accept it for what it was and find my inner 8 year old. So I did and I enjoyed the special effects roller coaster ride all the way to the end.

The story/screenplay was practically irrelevant. Avatar's images are transcendent. I didn't think the point of the movie was the story. It was a story we all KNOW as a means to convey the REAL message... This time we FELT the story - the story of "SEEING" and being SEEN - of being an empty vessel, of transformation - of FEELING what it is to be alive - that everything around us is alive and connected. I decidedly turned off my brain, it seemed as if that was the point - to FEEL the moment - in the balance - the allegory that THIS is CIVILIZATION'S moment in time - that humanity must SEE it for what it is, that we must wake up to the destruction, that everyone on the planet must WAKE UP to the spiritual energy that binds us all and make a stand to alter the course we are on. The beauty and destruction of Pandora is HERE on earth. Avatar was not the best film ever made, but it was the most moving and powerful work of ART I've ever encountered.

Anytime our sympathies are being manipulated the screenplay, no matter how trite, is important.

The film is a wolf in sheep's clothing; while it pretends to espouse all these good things, the overriding message is that violence is the solution.

All that stuff about nature and connectedness is there simply to get us to root for the "right" side in the ultimate shoot-'em-up conflagration.

To employ yet another proverb, it doesn't practice what it preaches.

Hi Carol!
Avatar was a cartoon for goodness sakes - I kept expecting Ren and Stimpy to make a cameo appearance - and if you look carefully you'll see them both on the back of one of those flying dragons. The whole movie was drenched in irony (cat faced aliens with Carl Lewis physiques - I mean, Really?) pandering to the power of programs and pogroms. That being said why would Jerry Saltz, after these last few silly months of Glenn Beck challenges and NUMU defences, have the balls to speak about irony-free cultural products when his facebook page may be the internet gateway to an irony free zone? What was all that serious blather about artist's statements the other day? By the way Carol - your comment was the best (and without a hint of irony - at least to my eye)

Carol, I was going to write something on your Blog about "Avatar" but i do not see any comment box??. Does it require admid. However what i want to say is that I have not seen the film, and do not intend to, but i have read many articles about it. Your comments however, are more important than the film. It is not that you critize the absence of... See More plot, the point is that you give, in outline form, the structure of this type of plot, and in this way, all westerns and all action films take on a different perspective. You are doing here for the film, what Aristotle did for the play, whe he formulated his idea of unities. You once said that my descriptions of "Red Dwarf", were more interesting than Red Dwarf, and here I must return the complement. I just yesterday watched a thing called "The Borne Identity". It this film the handsome stranger is the new guy in town. He meets a pretty girl, and she is afraid and skeptical of him. He kills off the bad guys one by one, and in the end, has to kill the worst bad guy, just exactly as you point out.
But the film was good because it added this twist. The new guy does not know he is a good guy. He does not know he is "fast on the draw". He is ignorant of why the bad guys want to kill him. It is interesting in that it does something completely different with the story line, regardless of the formula. Now, about the special effects, and the three d stuff in "Avatar", give me a break. When it comes to a description of action I would take a Mark Twain understatement any day, over the most ambitious billion dollar effects, because they can't beat, "My own sweet imagination" (line from Paul Simon's kodochrome)

I felt the story was simple so that it could dissolve out of the way. I guess I'm easy like that... in this case anyway. My take was that violence was the problem - not the solution. The destruction was heart-wrenching, not glorified. The deaths, needless, not victorious. The battle was tragic. Our culture has been sterilized and blind to the toll of war for the past 9 years. I saw the film as a wake up call.

Unlike the western - with its blithe manifest destiny sub-text, Avatar starts off as an anti-mining, exploitational/industrialist tract. This is not so much about colonization as corporate raiding. That's about the most interesting part. The two camps are extreme culturalist - digging up and exhausting natural resources versus naturalist - the fabled 'living in tune' with nature, worshipping a supreme integration - some sort of Gaiea thing?

Anyway that's the 21st century hook - only Cameron really has no resolution for that and so reverts to type in the second act - and soon we get a long and very disappointing shoot'em up - and pretty much an abandonment of the underlying issues. It has to be his stupidest movie - and that's saying something!

That stupid 1500' tree annoyed me most - the scale of the thing never really sustained - like leaves and branches when it is demolished (!!!) and when human-scale items are half the scale of the natives! All that budget still couldn't buy a little more modeling smarts.

It's bad because it promises so much and just can't deliver.

Submitted by katharine (not verified) on
I saw the movie yesterday and was immensely disappointed. Your comments are right on the money. However, just as in westerns, I was very uncomfortable with how the "natives" were portrayed. It smacked of colonialist ideas about indigenous people- worse in the movie because it pretented to admire then. And of course, isn't war always the answer? the last 25 minutes of this way overlong film was just your typical action movie pap.

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