In the 3-D eyes of the beholder

A cigar is just a cigar, said Freud. Or is it?

Not when it comes to how people view movies. The bigger the movie, and the more people who see it, the more interpretations that arise. At least that’s what Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times describes in: “You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!”

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

Some conservatives seem certain that their readings of “Avatar” are dead-on:

In a column for the Christian entertainment Web site movieguide.com, David Outten wrote that “Avatar” maligned capitalism, promoted animism over monotheism and overdramatized the possibility of environmental catastrophe on earth. At another site that offers a conservative critique of the entertainment industry, bighollywood.breitbart.com, John Nolte wrote that the film was “a thinly disguised, heavy-handed and simplistic sci-fi fantasy/allegory critical of America from our founding straight through to the Iraq War.”

But should we view “Avatar” as a big-screen cigar? If so, its primary function would be to succeed as mass entertainment. Mission accomplished!

Itzkoff’s article–which probes deeply into matters of postmodern criticism without getting bogged down in pointy-headed lingo–offers other perspectives:

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

The “Avatar” camp isn’t endorsing any particular interpretation, but is happy to let others read the ink blots. “Movies that work are movies that have themes that are bigger than their genre,” Jon Landau, a producer of the film, said in a telephone interview. “The theme is what you leave with and you leave the plot at the theater.”

I mistakenly thought this Jon Landau was the same Jon Landau who served as a manager and producer for Bruce Springsteen. A diligent reader gently corrected me.

But if we think about “Avatar” the way we think about Springsteen (or Tom Petty) we can see what “Avatar’s” Jon Landau is saying. Springsteen and Petty are artists who knows the value of big, broad themes that evoke a wide range of feelings in a wide range of listeners. At their best, these artists combine a few simple chords and a few seemingly simple words to create vast idea-worlds that inspire the imagination.

So, is “Avatar,” which may be on its way to being the most financially successful film in history, anti-capitalist? Sure, if you think it is!

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  • Jerry

    feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; …
    overdramatized the possibility of environmental catastrophe on earth.

    So it seems that people of different political persuasions are ignoring obvious facts and sound science in favor of ideology.

  • http://aafeders.com/blog Marcus

    Different Jon Landau. Do your research a bit more thoroughly!

    • Steve Rabey

      Sorry. Thanks for pointing this out.

  • http://bonald.wordpress.com/ Bonald

    “This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.”

    Well, at least that sounds like a conservative victory of some sort.

  • Kim

    I’m not seeing the “animism over monotheism” theme so much. There wasn’t even a strong representation for a “monotheism” side in the movie; there was just the largely areligious bulk of the human invaders and the animistic Na’vi.

    If anything, it was belief versus nonbelief, so it should have been the secular humanists exploding with rage. Or something.

  • http://bojopayne.blogspot.com Brendan

    So true! Avatar has so many themes, it says more about who’s watching it than the film itself.

    “criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion”

    Call me crazy, but I thought the film’s theology was not incompatible with a Christian universe. The theology of the Na’vi, dubbed animism or pantheism by some, seems to me closer to the “Christian” faith of alien species in C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. And like Kim said, the film is belief vs. nonbelief. The film pitted the oppressed, pious Na’vi against greedy human materialists who use violence can be used to support exploitation – that sounds like James 4-5! Moreover, the film supports sexual monogamy against casual sex – how much more “family values” can you get!

    I think Avatar is successful because, like a good Pixar film, it lets us swallor pills of troubling themes through the sugar coating of simple, eye-popping beauty. Since Avatar is so much more beautiful, it can coat many and more troubling themes than any film before, and we will still see it again and again. It’s hypnotic, but sooner or later we have to wake up and talk about these themes.

  • thomas hendricks

    A Columbia professor named Lou Forsdale wrote a book about movie criticism called Every Movie Is a Rorschach Test. Your column brought this back and sort of verifies his thesis.

  • J.Cox

    Apparently, “Avatar” is being pulled in China because the Chinese-in-the-street see it as…a defense of property rights. Far from being an attack on capitalism, it’s seen as advocating a fundamental capitalist principle.

    Here’s a reference to that from the Volokh Conspiracy legal blog, including a link to a Libertarian in the U.S. who thinks that is, in fact, a main theme of the movie. http://volokh.com/2010/01/14/avatar-and-property-rights-in-china/

    Re 7.thomashendricks, I assume Prof. Forsdale subsequently issued several sequels to his book: “Every Painting is a Rorschach Test,” “Every Photograph is a Rorschach Test,” “Every Top 40 Hit is a Rorschach Test”…..


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