Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar and the Athropological Romance of the Noble Savage

I majored in Anthropology at UCLA. I graduated Magna with departmental honors. I was elected to the Golden Key Honor society for packing a 3.925 GPA during my Junior year, but who brags about these thing?

I only mention this because Avatar has hit the scene. Overall, it is a dandy. It's one hell of a movie. James Cameron never fails. I sat engrossed 160 minutes (2 hours 40 minutes), and never even got up to go to the restroom. Of course, my busted knee would have made that a tad painful, but I always take at least one break during a long movie. I generally hate long movies. The longer you run, the lower your grade will usually be. Not this time. Avatar flows. It has great rythm and pace. It keeps you locked on. There isn't any loose, spare-change rattling around in this movie. It stays on point.

At the core, Avatar is an example of the Anthropological Romance of the Noble Savage. This is a complex of fallacious reasoning which ethnographers are extremely prone to fall into. I am sure you have seen many examples of this story form. A man or woman goes from a technologically advanced Western Industrialized Society to a tribal society of hunters and gatherers. They are anything but industrialized or technologically advanced. They live close to nature. This Westerner lives among The People; and their self-identified corporate name usually boils down to The People. He gets in tune with nature for the first time in his life. He loves it. He goes native in a big way. Then he has a near religious revelation that entire way advanced civilization is living is just plain damn wrong. He then defends The People against the incursion of Western Civ.

If you have seen any of the following movies, you know what I am talking about:
  1. Farewell to the King (1989)
  2. Dances with Wolves (1990)
  3. The Emerald Forest (1985)
  4. Little Big Man (1970)
  5. A Man Called Horse (1970)
Avatar borrows heavily from Farewell to the King. Infact, you could state the following formula:
  • Farewell to the King + Aliens = Avatar
And you would almost be right. You have to mix in some of The Ewoks Battle for Endor in there and a little bit of Star Wars: Phantom Menace in there also.

So what happens in this movie? Sam Worthington plays a crippled Marine named Jake Sully. Jake becomes an accidental ehtnographer, as he is embeded by the military industrial complex into a alien society on an alien world name Pandora. He must learn about the Navi (sorry for omitting all your diacritical bullshit) and report back to his miliary master. Oh did I mention he is driving the body of a Navi warrior throughout this process? I guess you figured that out during the trailer.

Jake goes native in a big way. He becomes trusted. He falls in love with the daughter of the chief. She falls in love with him also. They fuck (once). This really puts the zap on his head. When the miltary decides to destroy the tree home of the Navi to acquire a precious rare mineral, Jake has to take up arms against his species. In so doing, he turns out be The One, The Messiah, and The Golden Child.

The whole thing is very powerful and effective argument against the destruction of the Amazonian Rain Forrests (jungles) here on good old planet Earth. For this reason it also resembles The Emerald Forrest, but the story structure is quite different. The ultimate point is the same.

This is all very entertaining and I give it 97 out of 100 points. That's a damn high score. You gotta see this one. Pretty awesome.

So what about the fallacious Romance of the Noble Savage that we Anthropologists are so prone too? Let's talk about that next time, in my next blog entry.