Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar: The Wasteland and The Holy Grail

This is my February-March Grassroots Press column:

James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar deals with an important theme currently playing itself out right here on Earth: planetary destruction. Will the culture of destruction win, or not? Right now it looks like there’s little to stop the destroyers. The pro-Earth forces seem too few, too compromised, and too weak to make the necessary difference. But no worries, let’s just take $300,000,000 and create a movie with the desired happy ending!

The year is 2154, and the Earthlings have pretty well destroyed their own planet. So they’ve invaded Pandora, a paradise located in a nearby star system, for some necessary resource extraction. The Earthlings are white, corporate Americans with a militaristic bent. In this movie, at least, it looks like the Republicans took over our planet and destroyed what was left of it. With rare exceptions, the Earthlings of 2154 are a bunch of assholes. In fact, the corporate boss looks and acts remarkably like George W. Bush.

Pandora is inhabited by a race of 9-foot-tall, blue humanoids with tails who live in harmony with their planet. The Pandorans are trying to defend their home from the invading Americans, who have overwhelming firepower and a no-nonsense culture of total destruction. The ensuing conflict is what we would expect in a movie: cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, might vs. right. But Cameron turns convention on its head by making the Pandorans the good guys, and the Americans the bad guys. What a change of pace to see the Americans shipped home in humiliating defeat! Cameron has wisely (from a commercial viewpoint) tapped into the global zeitgeist of fear and frustration with the out-of-control American Empire. In movieland at least, America gets its long-awaited comeuppance.

The movie gives Cameron the opportunity to contrast two opposing cultures: the sterile, exploitative, high-tech American corporate culture, and the magical, harmony-oriented world of the Pandorans. Like Star Wars, Avatar is lifted right from the pages of Joseph Campbell. In this movie, as in real life, the Americans have lost the Holy Grail, the spiritual connection with reality which Campbell calls the “infinite depths... of the living waters of the inexhaustible source,” and consequently live in a spiritual and physical Wasteland of their own creation. The Pandorans, on the other hand, have never lost the Grail in the first place.

We are already all-too-familiar with the American Wasteland, since we live in the middle of it. Americans, and by extension the entire industrialized world, are projecting their spiritual desolation onto the planet, and in so doing, laying waste to it. The Wasteland culture reduces life to a routine whenever possible. Everything is ordinary; nothing is sacred. The wealthy set the agenda, and technocrats run everything. Indigenous cultures are destroyed. It’s all about money and exploitation; anything not for sale is valueless. As Campbell says, the Wasteland is “... where there is no poet’s eye to see, no adventure to be lived, where all is set for all and forever: Utopia! It is the land where poets languish and priestly spirits thrive, whose task it is only to repeat, enforce, and elucidate cliches... There is no time, no place, no permission – let alone encouragement – for experience.” In other words, life is always tightly programmed within the Wasteland culture, and the vital essence of life – which requires long periods of unstructured time in which to grow -- has been squeezed right out of it.

The critical mass of Americans don’t feel spiritually desolated. They don’t even realize they’re living in a Wasteland. They’ve adapted to it, and in so doing, have lost more than they realize. The Grail is a strictly optional experience – powerful, yet exceedingly subtle. Experiencing the Grail within the Wasteland culture is like trying to hear a bird singing in a tree next to a busy freeway – the bird is singing, but all you hear is traffic. (I don’t want to minimize the amazing creativity and spirituality to be found in our country. But when we look at our behavior on the national level – war, torture, environmental destruction, financial exploitation, on and on – we must conclude that something is terribly wrong with this nation.)

What’s most fascinating about the movie is the Pandoran culture Cameron created. The Pandorans are in full contact with the Grail, which I would define as the lived experience of connection with the transcendental ground of reality. The Pandorans are TUNED IN: to their emotions, to their own animal nature and spiritual nature (animal and spirit are one and the same), to the spirit of the planet that gave them birth. The Pandoran culture Cameron created is loosely based on Native American spirituality (in which everything is sacred), and as such is perhaps the first exposure many young people have ever had to a culture with a spiritual orientation to life. This is a good thing: I imagine that many a Quest has been activated within the soul of many a young person from watching Avatar. This movie might spark questions like: What is life all about? Does my pre-programmed religion or non-religion really satisfy my spiritual needs? Where are my people? Is destruction the only possible human outcome? Hopefully, questions like this help to break the tyranny of the take-it-all-for-granted mindset of the Wasteland. Even a Hollywood caricature of nature-based spirituality is better than nothing.

One positive aspect of the movie is the way in which Pandoran women – and specifically the heroine, Neytiri – are portrayed. They are the equals of men in every way; they come across as powerful, competent, physical, spiritual, sexual. Being products of Cameron’s imagination, they transcend the “mere human.” They are archetypes more than accurate representations of actual living creatures. For all practical purposes, they are goddesses. Neytiri and her cohorts are excellent role models for young women living on the cusp of a collapsing Empire. They (along with people of all sexes) will need some major inner resources as chaos fills our planet.

Cameron has tapped into the hunger for harmony and magic that many people feel within the Wasteland culture. After all, the Grail (or whatever you want to call it) is closer to us than our own breathing. Even if we’ve been distracted out of noticing it, it’s always there. So it stands to reason that a certain percentage of Americans feel dissatisfied with the spiritually primitive nature of American mainstream culture: “Where is the culture that amplifies and supports my own inner experience?” they might well ask. Mainstream America has made remarkably little progress since the heady days of the 60s and 70s, when many of us believed that surely we could create some sort of alternative to the madness. Now, 40 years later, it seems obvious that things are significantly worse. The wealthy now control all the levers of national power, the rabble are thoroughly trivialized, life is more tightly programmed than ever, and the biosphere is on the verge of collapse.

But we still have our inner experience, as free as ever. What can we ever hope to accomplish with such evanescence? As with every generation, today’s young people will have plenty of opportunities to figure this out for themselves, or not. They’re inheriting a stark new world, in which the traditional explanations will be revealed to be the prattle they’ve been all along.

In the final analysis, spirituality is not about outcomes. It’s about awakening from the hypnotism of the altered state of consciousness we take as “normal,” and reclaiming the birthright which has been ours all along. Looking at it that way, all Avatar can ever hope to be is just another movie. It’s very entertaining, to be sure, and will no doubt cause at least a few young people to seek the real thing in terms of nature-based spirituality. This is probably more than Cameron ever intended... which, along with being a blockbuster success, is not a bad outcome for any filmmaker.