January 25, 2010

Oh yeah, we're baaad


Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks described Avatar as an illustration of the "White Messiah fable," a popular narrative formula in which

a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Somewhat in Cameron's defense, the Messiah and his "white man's burden" is a fairly universal trope. And not confined to white men. Its seeds germinate at the heart of any reactionary or revolutionary cause, especially those that can attract true believers with no actual skin in the game.

Its appeal is undeniable. In contrast to the monomyth hero formula that has a lowly beta catching a lucky break and making the most of it through sheer hard work (Rocky), being a Messiah vaults you to the top of the pecking order solely because of your inherent moral superiority. Because of who you are.

It helps if you're Kevin Costner or Tom Cruise.

This is the corrupting feudal apple in the primordeal Eden. Despite our equalitarian pretentions, we really do believe that some animals are more equal than others. Moral superiority requires no effort to possess. You need only announce its presence within you and hew to the proper political platform.

As I point out in my review of The Last Samurai--also cited by Brooks--this version of the "White Messiah" fable actually gets the audience to root against democracy and for an oppressive aristocracy. Saigo Takamori's rebellion was the early articulation of an imperialistic vision that led inexorably to WWII.

We ignore the obvious because identifying with the Tom Cruise character allows us to virtually zoom straight to alpha status without having to go through the grueling Darwinian guantlet demanded of the natives. (If they had the good luck of being born to the right parents, that is. Who cleans the latrines on Pandora?)

As Slate's David Edelstein observes, "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime." So the deeper question is not just why it is so easy to root out our lurking aristocratic inclinations, but at the same time make us actually root against our own culture and the ones who brung us.

A big reason can be found in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (his last good film): without monsters, there's no need for monster killers. The two are complementary. The one rationalizes the other's existence, the good becoming only as good as the evil is evil. As Shakespeare's (not yet) King Richard puts it:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain[.]

What makes Peter Parker the hero is not just his strength but his morality--"with great strength comes great responsibility." This is not a bad thing. In the information age, moral superiority is as telling an alpha marker as physical superiority. But again, without moral supervillains, moral superheroes are out of a job.

Except there just isn't enough easy-peasy supervillainry to go around. Unless the Luther family lives in town. It becomes necessary, then, to proselytize. To sully our names far and wide. Conveniently, the ideological causes that consign the west to the heart of darkness also vault us to the top of the food chain.

These "humble" convictions that posit the United States as the controlling variable in ruining everything--from the climate of the planet to war and peace everywhere on the earth to the survival of every species of life--make us all supervillains. Demi-gods. Masters of the universe. B-B-B-bad to the bone.

Not only that, but theatrical conspiracy theories from Three Days of the Condor to The X-Files to Enemy of the State are, despite themselves, celebrations of unbelievably efficient centralized government apparati found nowhere in nature (except in the Orientalist fantasies of Tom Friedman).

Americans are not alone in this. Apocalyptic Japanese SF fantasies such as Vexille, Akira and Evangelion are really about the Japanese destroying themselves because they're just so darned clever. Michael Crichton's Rising Sun is a similarly backhanded paean to superior Japanese wizardry.

We're great, which makes opposing ourselves even greater. There is no deeper fount of justification and self-righteousness than self-abnegation. The sinner sees the light and preaches reform. And just like in that old time religion, the man on the silver screen suffers for us, takes upon our sins, and redeems us.

That's what Messiahs are for. I mean, it's a whole lot easier than doing it ourselves. All that is required is to watch, agree, and applaud. Because living like those Rousseauan "noble savages" really lived would bore us out of our freaking skulls (if we managed to survive the first hard frost, that is).

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The Big Bad
Apocalypse not now
The Second Coming went
The world ends (and I feel fine)

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Comments:

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I don't know if (or how) true this is, but some of my students today were claiming that Avatar is being accused of causing depression because kids who watch it want to live in it so badly, they get upset when the movie ends (before they go back to their cellphones, I-Pods, and email).

Personally, I think your average angst-ridden teenager is capable to getting depressed over anything. But based on your critique, Eugene, I think it would be kind of ironic if my students were right. A film apparently about the angst of modernity is being held accountable, in a very modern way, for causing a very modern state of anxiety. Hmmmmm.
1/27/2010 1:15 PM