The day after the Golden Globes and I just wish the media elite would give James Cameron a break. He doesn’t need the break; he’ll be just fine with his awards and billions, yet I am annoyed at what some of the press and other intellectuals do not see in Cameron’s work. That being said, I do agree with the sentiment so eloquently expressed by David Brooks. Avatar is another white messianic tale of saving people in the way the white man thinks is best. This is a time honored, disturbing trend and I do not take it lightly. However, Cameron’s science fiction masterpiece (yes, I said it) deserves much praise not only for its jaw dropping special effects (a Cameron specialty), but also for its power as a piece of propaganda.
Propaganda is a problematic word more often connoting Nazi Germany in our society than anything else, but I define it differently. Well, at least I think my definition is different. I have not studied this type of communication yet, and my sense of humor aside, I never viewed the kind of PR I did for my clients as propaganda. I see propaganda as a powerful tool of persuasion, an instrument that deftly hides the complexity of various issues to meet the ends of its makers. Avatar, imperialism aside, is a sort of preaching to the choir, or “good” propaganda. Most among liberal Hollywood, the press and my personal friend list do not need to be persuaded that putting people and trees before oil interests is a very good thing. We sing Cameron’s tune here even while we look down our overeducated noses at his gross, overstated script. We don’t like to be whacked in the head.
The trouble is we listen to our tune with equal thumping from the likes of The Daily Show or other more hip sources all the time. Stewart and his gang distort as much as the Fox gang, although I believe they go about this distortion in a more ethical, modern journalistic manner. From screenplays to “fake news,” storytellers make gobs of choices. The stuff on the cutting room floor (what a quaint cliche´that has become) contains layers of information that someone does not want you to see. The art house film lovers among us, myself included, yawn at Cameron’s script choices–the static depiction of the military in Avatar, and the predictable plot. We stomp our feet and hurl blue tinged insults at Cameron. Yet, we are not normal and we are not special. Who among us doesn’t break people, States, ideas into red and blue? Our idealistic melting pot is burning at the bottom, replaced with a dangerous, political game of Red Rover en masse. I am no better. I cringe at every person who would impinge upon my right to marry the future person I will love. Imagine if I actually wanted to wed this person now? How much more intense would I feel? My cutting room is already littered with evil “family values” rhetoric that I can’t stomach. It is pretty simple to me.
My point is that before we take a collective piss on a film that actually has a message of change, unity and hope in the face of certain evil, maybe we should pause and reflect; pick a different tree. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to pay my $12 to see Colin Firth get his gay man on in what sounds like a complex, richly rewarding film. But I’m also going to admire the world Cameron and his cast/crew created with dazzling skill. Hollywood also begat Mel Gibson, the anti-Cameron. Maybe we desperately need this kind of Cameron-esque preaching as a counter-measure? He could be winning hearts and minds to “our” side. Am I contradicting myself? Didn’t I just say such simple divisions were destroying us? Yes and no.
Before my first screening of Avatar in the tiny rural town of Brooksville, Florida where my grandmother lives, my entire family was treated to a jingoistic, frothy brouhaha of an advertisement for the U.S. military. The media buyers assume that people are stupid, that the military industrial complex so simplistically portrayed in Cameron’s film could not possibly resemble our own military. I hope by the power of good old-fashioned American storytelling that the media buyers are wrong and that our propaganda is better than theirs. It just might take bigger cinematic guns, three dimensions and giant Smurfs. If Avatar persuaded even one potential recruit not to enlist in a military that too easily trades blood for oil, that too easily sacrifices a disproportionate number of poor people, then I say give Cameron the Oscar, just not for screenwriting ;).
P.S. James, for the love of huge trees, please stop using James Horner to score your films. I can defend your scripts (see above), but there is no defense for an endless loop of My Heart Will Go On.