As I’ve told you before, I don’t get to the movies very often, and less so than ever lately (I did get to take the kids to “Toy Story 3,” or as I like to think of it, “Schindler’s Toy Story”). As such, I only got around to seeing “Avatar,” late 2009′s super-movie, just now.
First thought, continually, as the rapacious mining conglomerate destroyed the planet’s wondrous ecosystem: Damn BP guys, they’re not satisfied to screw up our planet, they have to go a thousand light years away and bleep up another one.
Second thought, also continually: I saw this picture 20 years ago, only that time it was called “Dances with Wolves” and the oppressed group was the Sioux, not blue cartoon zebra-cats.
Third thought, simultaneous with the second thought: I didn’t like “Dances with Wolves” any better than I like “Avatar.” And yet, the former film was more affecting, because it starred actual people as opposed to escapees from video game cut-scenes. From “Snow White” to Jar-Jar Binks to “Avatar,” there’s just something about animating images of human beings that doesn’t quite work.
More than any aesthetic complaint, what bothered me about the picture was that we have to dress up what is essentially a story out of American history as science fiction to get anyone to pay attention. In “Avatar,” natives are moved off their land. In 1831, far more acculturated Indian groups were punted out of the South because we coveted their land. In Georgia their land was thought to hold gold, and suddenly the Cherokee, who were doing their best to assimilate, found themselves living in Oklahoma. The human toll, not just for the Cherokee but for all the relocated tribes of the time, was real, felt not in pixels but in blood. The Trail of Tears is not an event that is likely to make your standard Texas history text book, nor perhaps the massacre at Wounded Knee, but both are a real and important part of who we are as Americans, and are of a piece with other American initiatives, from sea to shining sea and from the Philippines to Iraq to, in a very different way, the lax supervision of the oil companies that led to the environmental and economic disaster in the Gulf. If there is one great lesson to American history, is that freedom can be another word for “I don’t give a damn because I don’t have to.” And yes, I’m paraphrasing Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson, but what the heck, it fits. Americans: we don’t think things through, letting all kinds of crazy dogmas, from Manifest Destiny to Preemptive War override our thinking.
It would help to know this, help to understand our history, but you have to know about it to get it, not have it spoon-fed to you as science-fiction pablum. And hey, let’s be honest about one other thing: the Native Americans were human beings. In our culture, they’ve been alternately been depicted as bloodthirsty savages and nature’s gentle priests. They were neither. They were just people, different at different times and different places, good and bad, warlike and peaceful, and most likely, just like the rest of us the world over, largely populated by disinterested people who just want to be left alone to live their lives in peace but hardly ever get what they want.
Oh, and they were in 3-D, though not blue or stripey or eight feet tall. I guess I should be grateful that this story of our civilization got some play, but I’d rather see that huge silver canvas lavished on the real story, one that could still make you say, “Oooh,” but also cry. And think.