Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar, cont'd

In response to my last post on Avatar, a commenter wrote:
Avatar was a cliched, predictable remake/re-imagining of every white-man goes native story out there.

Dancing with Wolves, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse back to the story of Pocahontas.

However, I still enjoyed the hell out of it for the simple reason that, in spite of its many flaws, it worked.
This. Is why I have limited use for Saussure or Joseph Campbell. Not no use at all: identifying the story-archetype being utilized in a given case can be a useful starting-point for analysis or appreciation. But too many of us stop there, and assume that if what we're watching or reading follows a template we recognize, it can't be any good. But if we throw away every story that's not new, we'll be left with very few stories - Saussure and Campbell teach us that much.

It's not about coming up with new stories, at least not on a deep level. It's about retelling the old stories in meaningful ways. Not even, necessarily, new ways. Just ways that work.

Identifying the archetype can be a useful short-cut. If, for example, you know you hate white-man-goes-native stories, then identifying Avatar as one of them might help you decide whether or not to sink 12 bucks into seeing it. For me it's the opposite: I'm very interested in this particular theme.

It resonates with me on both a close personal level and a broad cultural level. Personally I've been in that situation: I've been a white boy in a non-white culture, puzzled and entranced and slowly immersed. I've felt the frustration with the limitations of one's own background, the obvious flaws in one's own culture, and the lure of another culture whose limitations and flaws are, if not lesser, then at least different. At different times in my life I've felt more or less eager to abandon my own cultural identity for another; sometimes I want to, sometimes I don't, but at all times it's a theme whose emotional heft I've weighed for myself.

Broadly, I think this pull has fueled a lot of my favorite art. Certainly it's the driving force behind a lot of my favorite music. All those Sun rockabilly artists: white boys entranced by blackness, trying to do it themselves. They couldn't: what came out was something else again, something new. The Stones: trying to be not just black, but American black: a double remove. And like Elvis, it's not that they succeed, it's that in trying to make themselves over they create something new. Something they wouldn't have made if they hadn't had such an overpowering desire to be the Other. If the Stones don't try to sound like South Side Chicago, maybe they end up sounding like the Kinks. (Of course, the Kinks went through their own American fascination, with Muswell Hillbillies.)

Love and theft: it makes great art.

And it's probably worth observing that the desire to go native is hardly exclusive to white people. I mean, that's what Mizuki Shigeru's contemplating in his Rabauru senki. It's the same thing.

1 comment:

RedMaigo said...

I remember an interview that George Lucas did for the Criterion edition of Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress".

He had heard somewhere that there are actually only 31 stories in the world. Everything you've seen, read or have been told is nothing but a variation of those 31 stories.

When I watched Hidden Fortress I finally realized that the first Star Wars film was basically a retelling of the Kurosawa spaaaacccceeee.

Some people wear their influences on their sleeve (Star Wars, Avatar) and others manage to inject enough of their own personality and/or style that it becomes something completely different (rock & roll).

Your observation about rock & roll was spot on. My mother made a comment that rock & roll was white people doing black music badly. In the end, it became something entirely new.

And a new thing is nothing but an old thing done a different way.