It was a snow day, no school, and thus the perfect afternoon to huddle in a movie theater with my fifteen-year-old son Daniel and watch Avatar in 3-D. Because the only time I go to movies is with my kids, my expectations are not high. I walk in assuming I’ll find fantastic animation with lots of noise and things that bump and zip about, centered around the brotherhood of man and fighting the good and moral fight. Usually there are some burps and farts. These make the movies bearable.
Half way through Avatar, when the good guys versus the bad guys theme was becoming painfully clunk, clunk, clunk, I had to leave the theater for a moment. I wanted to twist someone’s ears really hard (that someone being James Cameron) and, also, I had to pee. When I came back, the soulful, beautiful blue woman, Neytiri, was riding her winged dragon-like animal, pronouncing deep thoughts about fusing with nature while Jake, the clueless, paraplegic, earthborn man-turned-temporary-Avatar, was falling in love with her even as he was betraying her by feeding inside information to the scarred and scary American bastard corporal with the slightly southern drawl.
Despite my attempts to suspend my disbelief, I found myself watching in complete disbelief when all of the blue people sat together in front of Hometree, the Tree of Souls, where their goddess, Eywah, resided, and palms upraised, “ohm’ed” themselves into hoarseness in order to bring Grace, the earthling scientist, back to life. Why were the Na’vi, the indigenous folks of Pandora, using up their chants on Grace’s life when surely there were lives within their own tribe that were hanging by a thread? I couldn’t get past this.
At long last, Avatar was over. As someone who has spent the last twenty years seeing Disney movies, I can truthfully say that Avatar could have been Aladdin or the Lion King or Pocahantas. Interchangeable. Boy and girl from two different economic/social/racial worlds meet, fall in love, get separated, then find each other again, and somewhere along the way, learn a little bit about themselves and each other, including the discovery that the Other isn’t so Other as they actually thought. Ho-hum.
A simple message about befriending “otherness” can do no harm, especially for the under-ten set. Avatar, however, aspires to more than Disney’s “let’s be friends” trope. At the film’s core is a meme older than Disney’s movies, one that reaches farther back into our culture’s history and collective unconscious. Avatar is a new version of the Garden of Eden syndrome.
Here’s how that story goes. Once, there was an Eden, and we were “noble savages.” Like the Na’vi, we lived in harmony with God and with nature. Somewhere else (Pandora?), or once upon a time, the grass was truly greener. But then, hiss hiss, enter the serpent, or let’s call it white man, who screws up everything, resulting in humanity being cut off from paradise, from God, from each other, from ourselves. In this telling, ever since the beginning of time, we’ve fallen from grace, walking about broken, inside and out, like Jake, unable to stand upright unless we return to the more natural, Avatar self that is within us, ready to be unleashed.
This interpretation of man’s presumed fall largely comes to us from Christianity, via Milton and Augustinian midrash. Theologians needed to create a world of suffering and sin that could be redeemed by Jesus. So the snake becomes Satan, the decision to disobey God and eat of the fruit becomes the cause of all suffering in the world, and only Jesus’ blood can return us to God. I’ve always felt the punishment was rather harsh, given the crime, but you don’t argue with God. That’s what caused the problem in the first place.
But that’s not exactly the biblical account. In the real story, let’s face it, God and Eve lie and trick each other while they’re still in the garden, before the fruit in question is eaten. To the snake, for example, the woman says that God told them they couldn’t eat or touch the fruit or they would die. Untrue. God only told them not to eat it. God, it turns out, lies too: God says that “in the day you eat it, you will die.” Technically, Adam and Eve don’t keel over and die of poisoning that very day. The myth that has permeated our culture is that back in the garden–pre-civilization and pre-fig leaves–life was perfect, and humankind happy. One day, a messiah figure will come and restore the world to that idyllic state. (It’s worth noting that nowhere does it say in the Bible that that garden was idyllic. In fact, Adam had been put there as a gardener, to till it and tend it, and take it from me, farming is no idyll!) That utopian no-place allows us to imagine impossible solutions for the many real problems we face daily. It is a childlike thought, that if only we could disappear our current world, a better one would magically appear.
Whether James Cameron was channeling Genesis, consciously or unconsciously, I don’t really know. I will point out, though, that “Na’vi” is crazily similar to the word “navi” in Hebrew, which means “prophet”; that their goddess’s name, “Eywah,” at least sounds phonetically like the Hebrew word for the mother of all living, Eve, “Haya” (or however you choose to transliterate it from the Hebrew), and even more so when Eywah is read backwards, “Hawye”; and that it’s literally a tree of life, the tree of souls, that the self-centered earthlings want to grab as their own.
Late the following night, Daniel and I sit at home on the couch and watch The Office, a completely nonsensical episode replete with mixed-up Valentines, two dogs sticking their noses in a man’s crotch, and Phyllis’s terrible case of gas. There are no epic themes (thank God!) and it’s unabashedly politically incorrect, and I wonder if Avatar might have been more interesting if the blue woman had fallen in love with Grace instead of Jake. Of course, I’m sure the movie censors would have told us that such a story line would have been offensive for young children – homosexuality is so much more corrupting for young minds than genocide. But maybe I would have bought into the chanting.
In Genesis, the serpent told the truth. “You will become like gods, knowing good and evil,” the serpent says, and so we have. No longer bossed around by God, we have our own free will. Sometimes we screw up, and we become monsters.
In the future, exercising my own, fully human awareness of good and evil, I think I’ll make an adult choice in entertainment. I’ll opt for Phyllis’s toot-toots over the heavy-handed tut-tuts of comic books on steroids.
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