Two Critiques: ‘Avatar’ vis-à-vis ‘Cinema Paradiso’
(First of 3 parts)
If there are two seemingly widely diverging objects of critical appraisal, these should be none other than these 2 cinematic masterpieces: one, a digitally-enhanced masterpiece of virtual reality; the other a classic masterpiece of consummate devotion to the cinematic mode of classic realism, an evocation of an era forever gone with the rubble and smoke of a deafening explosion of demolition – the demolition of Time and its treasury of Art, Love, Hope, and Memory, in the pursuit of Progress, Change, and Modernism, the frontiers of which are pushed back with each new update/advance of Technology.
“Avatar” As Critique of Imperialism
What does “Avatar” mean? Passing thru a slum area, I heard a little boy say, “Ano ina ang avatar man?” It seems there’s no getting away from doing a review of the film which is still showing in some theaters in the country, even as its box office take continues to mount in the billions of dollars worldwide.
So what is “Avatar?” Setting aside the obvious superiority of its technical aspects which results in the seamless digital evocation of the life and culture of the Navi, inhabitants of the planet called Pandora by humans, the film is just one more treatise on the imperialism agenda of the Ugly White/Western Man, in the East or other parts of this globe, this time in the unknown territories of outer space. As my teen granddaughter puts it, it is the story of a man sent to destroy a people, falls in love with one of them and ends up saving them. You’ve heard this one before, I’m sure. But why Avatar?
I can’t place when or where the word “avatar” was used in the film. But it refers in the film, to the transformation of a human being into the body and mind of a Navi, the indigenous people by Pandora. “Avatar” comes from the Sanskrit word “avatara”, meaning “descent”, as in coming down from a higher place. The Merriam Western Dictionary/New Edition c. 2005, pp. 248 – 49, gives its meaning as “incarnation, the embodiment of a deity or spirit in an earthly form” (when spelled with a capital “i”, it means the “union of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ”, which is a very Roman Catholic use of the word!) But why “avatar” as title for a sci-fi film? Is James Cameron aware that he might be stepping on hallowed Hindu ground, so to speak? Because the blue skin of the Navi, which the hero Jake Sully acquires in his transformation from a human paraplegic (wheel-bound) to a Navi avatar is the same blue skin of the Hindu god Krishna in his Blue Reincarnation of the God-Preserver Vishnu. One calls to mind the Hindu Trinity of Godhood: Brahma the Creator of Life; Shiva the Destroyer of Life who causes Death; and Vishnu, the Preserver/Protector of Life. According to Hindu belief, to save the world from destruction, Vishnu is reincarnated and one of his reincarnations or avatars is Krishna, usually depicted in Hindu symbology as blue. Krishna is a god beloved by the people (esp. women!): human-like, approachable, often flawed but always strong, brave, and powerful, seeking to redress wrongs and grievances of the people he encounters. But Jake Sully in his Navi form is the avatar of what, of whom?
If, in “Titanic”, Cameron achieved in excavating from the depths of the sea the timeless romance of true love and the starkness of human tragedy brought about by human hubris, i.e., the unsinkability of the colossal man-made ship, in “Avatar”, the director has achieved in integrating both the Western and Eastern worlds’ treasured myths to remake them or make new myths with their own reading for our time and for future generations. The film is a deconstruction of the avatar myth, and by the use of the word for its title, attempts to affirm the need to protect and preserve the natural environment even as it seeks to preserve the world’s capitalist culture which uses everything in its possession to seek new areas to explore and exploit in its drive for commercial profit and power. The film invites viewers to look back and forward, and perhaps to desist from such actions, for by year 2154 (the film’s setting), earth’s resources shall have been so depleted that a commercial enterprise with its own army and hardware sends out an advance guard, complete with scientists and volunteers for a transformation program, to the planet Pandora to investigate, explore and eventually to colonize it with the goal of harnessing its element Unobtainium for the energy requirements of humans on earth. (To be continued tomorrow)