Jan 6, 2010

AVATAR: the right opens fire on James Cameron

"One of the most left-wing films in the history of modern American cinema" — Nile Gardner, The Daily Telegraph

"Think of avatar as Deathwish 5 for leftists... Cameron's brainchild tribe is boringly perfect and insufferably noble. I wanted to wipe them out." — John Nolte, 'Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy', Big Hollywood

"The snarling vipers of Left Wing Hollywood have been let off the leash in a way way unmatched by any high-priced blockbuster — Miranda Devine, The Sydney Morning Herald

"Avatar has an abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes Goddess worship and the destruction of the human race" — Movieguide, awarding it Four Marxes plus an Obama

"In case you don’t get the analogy, we (the humans) are the Bad Guys who are going to attack the “Tower” that the Noble Savages hold dear. In other words, humans are attacking the environment with technology, and it’s analogous to 9/11. Americanism is terrorism.' — RedState, “Avatar” Is a Steaming Pile of Sith

"Avatar is cinema for the hate America crowd" — Debbie Schlussel
These are dark days for the right in America. A popular democrat in the White House. A democratic supermajority in Congress. Healthcare just days from being signed into law. Now, just to add to their woes, the latest James Cameron movie depicts American marines having their tails waxed by a bunch of 10-foot creatures with Barbie waistlines and skin the color of Marge Simpson’s up-do. The response from the right to Cameron’s latest 3D extravaganza, Avatar, has been immediate and snarling. In an article entitled 'Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy,’ Big Hollywood’s John Nolte called it “Deathwish 5 for leftists". The Daily Telegraph called it “the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made”. MovieGuide (“the family guide to Christian movie reviews”) awarded the movie “four Marxes and an Obama” for its “abhorrent New Age, pagan, anti-capitalist worldview that promotes Goddess worship and the destruction of the human race" an unfortunate formulation which also happens to clip most of my favorite Disney movies. But whatever. You get the picture. In the words of one blogger: “This is cinema for the Hate America crowd.”

The first thing to say is: what took you guys so long? Ever since George Lucas revealed that the real model for his evil empire in the Star Wars movies was not Britain but America — the blockbuster era’s equivalent of Emile Zola’s “J’Accuse” — it has been common practice for the makers of summer blockbusters to encode cryptic commentary of American foreign policy into their car chases and fireballs. Last year, The Dark Knight descended into a probing disquisition on the efficacy of torture; this summer, the makers of Star Trek conducted an equally spirited back-and-forth on the merits of diplomacy versus the phasers when it dealing with obstreperous Romulans.

None of those movies, though, made a billion dollars in 21 days. The right are in a bit of a bind here. Normally they complain that Hollywood's elititest liberals are out of touch with normal cinemagoers, and gone gunning from small, well intentioned granola like In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Rendition and Good Night, and Good Luck. Now they're in the odd position of arguing with big commercial hits that stands every chance of becoming the most profitable movie of all time. Audiences are not dumb. The last time I looked American audiences were not well disposed to reward movies offering a seasonal blend of ecological censure, imperial guilt and high treason. So what gives? Think back to 1977, when America was crippled by gas prices and power outages, toiling in the shadow of a failed presidency and abortive war, along came Lucas with his bright, splendiferous retelling of America’s founding myth — rebels versus the empire, only set in space so everyone could join in. At a time when the country was definitely feeling her age, Lucas gave America a taste of her youth. The man who can do that stands to make a lot of money. So here we are in 2010, in the shadow of another war, one that has created more wounded vets than any other in America’s history and along comes Cameron with his tale of a paraplegic veteran who slips the confinement of his wheelchair to take command of a powerful new body. It’s a powerful rejuvenatory fantasy for the America of Walter Reid, broken levees and crumbling bridges. Who wouldn’t want to slip into a brand new blue bod? It may tell us something about how far we’ve advanced that the fantasy is now not so much rejuvenation as straightforward transplant — not a younger self, but an entirely new one.

Cameron was always going to make an elusive target for the right. He’s no Robert Redford. The guy wrote Rambo, not only one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movies, but together with The Terminator and Aliens, single-handedly responsible for the single biggest build-up of military hardware in the movies since Sam Peckinpah discovered machine guns. “Here I am a member of the gun control lobby in a picture where I do nothing but shoot guns,” complained Sigourney Weaver during the shoot of Aliens in 1985, but remember what happens in the finished film: the marines descend to the surface of the mining colony LV-426, only to find out that they cannot use their guns with detonating the plant’s nuclear core, while their hi-tech armor, now hissing with the alien’s acidic blood, cannot be ditched fast enough. The movie is a study in hubris, in other words — Cameron’s big theme from The Terminator through to Titanic. When he was five, he saw the United States invade Vietnam, and was 21 by the time the US removed itself, which means that he spent his teenage years — the years spent learning to drive trucks and fire guns and fuck women — watching his giant next-door neighbour take the beating of its life. It left him with a peculiar mixture of political DNA all his own — the leanings of a liberal trapped within the titanim exoskeleton of a hawk — with an almost forensic fascination for How The Mighty Fall. Look at the enemy he concocted for Arnie in T2. Almost any other director would have come up with a Terminator that was bigger than him — heftier, more hi-tech — but Cameron went completely the other direction, devising a slim, sinuous shape-shifter — a Porsche” to Arnie’s Panzer tank, mercury to his might. What makes T2 such eerie viewing now is seeing how accurately that T-1000 prefigures the very real threat America would face on 9/11: a hydra-headed demon who uses the weight of its aggressors against them, absorbing every punch, its molecules scattering before regrouping again. Cameron is our foremost director of asymmetric combat, with an unerring feel for the way that small forces defeat larger ones, for the pivots and turning points by which overwhelming military strength is turned against itself. It’s what gives his fantasies their vicelike grip on the national consciousness, and what makes him a very useful director to have around right now. If I were on the right, I’d be kissing and making up fairly soon in the immediate future, celebrating the director for the keen-eyed, conservative critique he offers of Wilsonian foreign adventurism. Although do you want to know what I really learnt from his movie? I learnt that the best way to catch a really big dragon is to come at him from above. “Tarouk is the baddest boy in the sky. He never gets attacked,” says our hero, Jake Sully. “Why look up?” With yet another jetliner bombed in American custody, that would appear to be a lesson we have yet to learn.


  1. Happy new year and a fascinating analysis.

    Cameron always struck me as being an interesting balance of right-wing (guns, soldiers, technophilia) and left-wing (strong women, working class heroes, respect for science) elements. Something almost classically Marxist about him, actually.

    As for the right wing's tendency to bond by ranting about things, I think it's fascinating that they seem to have latched onto the kind of outrage that was always the least attractive feature of the left wing ideologue and made it their own...

  2. I know! They're in the weird position of arguing against what could be the most popular (and profitable) movie of all time. I agree with your take on Cameron: he's like Coppola and Milius wrapped in one. It makes him a very potent mix for cinema which easily bores of people in perfect agreement with themselves

  3. Hmm...

    I was going to post something about cinema being too visceral an experience to suit ideology, but then I started thinking about propaganda films and more or less completely changed my mind!

    I wouldn't agree with Leni Riefenstahl's politics, to put it mildly, but she certainly makes being a Nazi seem jolly exciting. I found THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN pretty thrilling when I last saw it and that is hardly fair in its depiction of, for example, the clergy.

    There is a theory that all art is propaganda for a state of mind (I think I may be quoting Alan Moore there).

    Perhaps with Cameron, it isn't so much that he is in disagreement with himself as presenting the possibility of a coherent mindset that takes bits and pieces from both parties? James Cameron as Hegelian synthesis? It sounds ridiculous, but I think you could make a case... (!)

  4. Sorry, that last paragraph should have read:

    "Perhaps with Cameron, it isn't so much that he is in disagreement with himself; rather, he could be seen as presenting the possibility of a coherent mindset that takes bits and pieces from both parties. Which would make James Cameron a kind of Hegelian synthesis? It sounds ridiculous, but I think you could make a case... (!)"

  5. You've made it better than I could

  6. ! Thank you.

    I was a big fan of BLOCKBUSTER, so it's great to discover more of your writing on the web...