Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Avatar and the Goddess

When Glen, the kids, and I arrived at Cinemagick to wait in line for a computer to print our pre-bought tickets to James Cameron's Avatar, the show was already sold out—like every showing since it opened. It was probably even worse because we’d decided to splurge 2 more bucks per ticket to see the Imax
version in addition to the basic 3-D. We scrambled to get there earlier than I’ve ever arrived at a movie and still couldn’t find four seats together. So once we settled in our comfy Imax seats wearing those funky glasses and had the slightly-scary experience of a couple of 3-D previews, I was feeling a bit defamiliarized. . .

. . . and not prepared to find, embedded in the usual action film, much in the movie deeply and surprisingly familiar. A culture that treats the interconnected energy of life with respect. Women as spiritual clan leaders. A scientist's dying words, “I’m with Her. She’s real.” In this thealogy, the Goddess “cares for the balance of life.” They call Her the “All Mother,” and men as well as women live as if, in the words of the song, “we all come from the Goddess.” Even the planet’s name, Pandora, is believed by scholars Charlene Spretnak and Merlin Stone to have referred to an original form of the Great Goddess before the later myth demoted her to the curse of mankind.

Cameron borrows from scads of movies, from “Tarzan" and "Dances With Wolves" to “Castle in the Sky” and “Lord of the Rings,” but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Goddess-centered culture depicted so coherently in any film or at least any big-budget film. Have you? It was a wild experience—albeit nowhere as intense as visiting the Museum of Heraklion in Crete and basking in the subtle, sophisticated, and shockingly fresh art of a real Goddess-based civilization.

Yule shopping in our local pagan store last week, I noticed as often before the dearth of serious quality in pagan and goddess-centered art (Mayumi Oda one obvious exception, and please comment here if you know of others!). Cameron’s movie is characterized by an oddly compelling sort of strange ugliness, and, though there is rhythmic chanting in the untranslatable native language, goddess poetry is notably absent. Watching it makes me want to continue to help fill that gap. . .


Jane said...

You can find a lot of patriarchy in Avatar, too, if you care to look for it, but I'm glad you're taking it as inspiration to write more poems!

Annie Finch said...

Yes, plenty of patriarchy. Which makes the goddess part all the more surprising to me... Glad to see you here Jane!

Mari said...

I found the film to be archetypally rich: the integration of masculine and feminine, initiation, the hero's journey, the Messiah archetype, death/rebirth, etc. I also found it to be visually stunning, although much too loud, as so many action/adventure films, both animated and non, are today.

Anonymous said...

This makes me think I just might see the movie. Thank you!

Christopher Woodman said...

Of course it's familiar, of course it's all the same, as it always is and always has been. Heraklion or Machu Picchu, Stonehenge or Chartres.

The truth needs very few notes to play it's full symphony, when or wherever.

The cult film Zeitgeist is a good example of how muddled you get when you expect the truth always to be "new" and "original." The film gets off to a terrible start by suggesting that because lots of gods were born of virgins on December 25th and died on crosses, Jesus must be a con. Really? Is that how it works? And is that why you also need a conspiracy theory to help you “see” how the Twin Towers came down, or to “make sense” out of the power of money?

The challenge lies not in finding something new to say, the challenge lies in knowing precisely why whatever you say is still ancient. Higher thoughts are not essential to that either, or deeper feelings, or knowing the field better than anyone else while making it uniquely your own. The challenge is to find yourself in your audience -- as James Cameron and his crew have so generously done in Avatar. The challenge is to let the ancient voices of the people speak newly through you and your poem.

Of course there are breathtaking details in Avatar, little things that if you let them will transform you. Like having four fingers, slim hips, those tails and so much flashing, transformational, feminine anger.

I personally found the height of the Na’vi walking beside the marines at the very end revelatory. How can I evolve that quality in myself, I wondered as I walked out of the cinema on my short legs. How can I pass that height on to my children?

Thanks, Annie,

Christopher Woodman said...

Of course what I want to pass on to my children is the stature -- what might be called the mythic dimension of height.

I hoped someone might challenge me on what I called the "transformational feminine anger." Men have often flee it to their clubs, and messy, outdoor hobbies -- even down the coal mines according to D.H.Lawrence, who never quite realized what he was saying. How interesting that Jake Sully should have been trained in the ultimate athletic arts by a female, and disciplined so creatively by not a dominatrix but a fully-empowered woman!

(The closest female athletes to the Na'vi on our planet can be seen performing on the backs of the royal bulls at Knossos.)

Christopher Woodman said...

Dare I say it helps to have lost your legs if you want to learn to run and jump like Jake, or to smoke like the scientist if you want to breathe fresh air?

Annie Finch said...

Thanks for the comments, Christopher et al--and I do agree, on the transformational power of female anger.

Christopher Woodman said...

Thanks for that, Annie.

Re. racism, if it's not too late to comment on that after it has been so widely discussed elsewhere.

Had any other racial type been used for the reluctant hero in this film, James Cameroon would not have been true to himself or to the industrialized western culture to which his myth is primarily addressed. For it's the white man who is the imperialist in our age, and it's the white man who needs a myth that will not only relieve him of some of his guilt but suggest ways he might actually clean up his mess!

The paralyzed soldier, Jake Sully (what a name!), is hardly an archetype of racial supremacy either, his helplessness obviously as mythical as it is historical. Indeed, save for the event that paralyzed him, almost certainly some imperialist, regime-cleansing war, he would almost certainly have been as gung-ho as his colleagues. In a wheelchair, on the other hand, he's lower even than the kids, lower even than a girl. He's a cripple, damn it -- PC considerations be damned, he's a sissy (that was all there in the opening scenes, and for anyone who is handicapped, very painful).

The irony is, of course, that Jake doesn't rescue the Na'vi with some superior skills or strategy peculiar to his race, time or culture, but teaches them the long forgotten epic code of heroism even as he recreates himself as a 'primitive' warrior -- a Masai, tall, Cherokee Brave, or Black Panther.

The real problem in the film is what sort of message is that, and it's on that level that Avatar's myth may fail (I hated all that computer game violence). On the other hand, parables always fail when asked to address more than they intend, like whether it's fair to pay the workers in the vineyard all the same.