Avatar’s “Hidden Messages”: Who’s Hiding?

During this last holiday season one of the biggest selling new releases was the movie, Avatar.  Today’s post is by a guest writer, Kurt Kessler, who read my original post titled Avatar-Hidden Messages Not So Hidden, But Still Entertaining. Kurt has a graduate degree in Philosophy and Religion from Syracuse University.  

clip_image001I agree with The Wild Mind; the messages in Avatar are far from hidden, but I’d go further and point out that they’re not messages. They are themes integral to the movie. And I’d add that underlying the designation of a particular movie as having “hidden messages” is the assumption that stories, be they cinematic, printed or oral, don’t generally have themes, don’t generally grapple with relevant issues. Throughout history and across cultures, the role of stories has specifically been to challenge and teach, as well as entertain. And yet, when a film addresses an issue overtly, the tabloid critics (i.e. those that write criticism that sells specifically because it doesn’t challenge or teach), act as though it’s an odd thing for movies to do.

The reason the tabloid critics act in this way has every thing to do with the nature of their market. Their intended audience (real or imagined) doesn’t want to be challenged or taught. They don’t look for themes in movies and only find them when they are particularly overt. If those themes support their current beliefs and values, they either feel all warm inside or pumped and proud. If those themes challenge them to rethink things, or see another side of an issue, they are offended. The tabloid critics can’t point out the obvious fact that almost all movies have themes and deal with issues, because if they did, they’d be pointing out that there is a depth and complexity to movies, and the arts in general, an entire sphere of meaning, that the tabloid audience is missing even though they are surrounded by it. They’d be challenging the tabloid audience to accept that they’ve been missing it, and maybe even challenging them to step up and see that depth and complexity for themselves, challenging them to be challenged and taught by the arts. Issuing this sort of challenge can only reduce the critic’s market share. Either the tabloid audience will be repulsed by the challenge and turn to a non-challenging critic, or they’ll take the challenge on and start thinking thematically about film as well as criticism, which is to say, they won’t have much use for the tabloid critic.

The Challenge of Religion and the Tabloid Congregation

There is a parallel in religion. Here, the themes are always more or less explicit, and the stakes are more directly personal. Accordingly, there are those who go to the temple, church, schul, or mosque because that is where they will hear and experience their beliefs and values validated. They go to feel right and righteous, and to support each other to that end. Others go, maybe even to the same temple, church, schul or mosque, to be challenged to the very core of their being, to be transformed into who they truly are, in relation to the world as it truly is. Of course, even the most challenging priests, rabbis and clerics back off now and again. If you want people to stay in the vehicle (of Truth) you’ve got to go easy on the pedals. People like a cushy ride. That said, in the mystic Jewish and Islamic traditions, angels are terrifying, as is the presence of God. On the Christian side, Meister Eckhart once said of hell, that the dying person who is attached to worldly things thinks that demons are tearing his life away, when in fact angels are freeing him of his or her attachments, so he can move on to communion with God. Buddhists teach that the only way to escape suffering, is through the heart of it. Shamans, vision quests, and sweat lodges need to be understood in this same vein. Through all traditions there is this dichotomy. Those who want to be told there is no need for them to learn or change, as they’ve already got it right, and those who seek to be challenged and transformed. There are those who cling to what they know, and those who seek the challenge to become what they don’t yet understand or even imagine. And of course, there are the people in the middle that need to be coaxed to the side of seeking challenge.


Perhaps I should tell a story of my own, drawn from one of my several traditions, to help pull this all together. When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai, those left behind were afflicted with doubt and grew scared. In order to protect themselves, they built a golden calf, something concrete and solid they could believe in. Had they created and viewed that golden calf as art, in all its meaning and complexity, it wouldn’t have made them feel safe. It would have challenged them to stand in the presence of God; it would have become Sinai rather than merely a golden calf. And so I offer that the theme I have been addressing since the beginning of this rant is the nature of idolatry. Given the explicit and personal nature of religion, escaping religions challenge demands explicit and personal idols, in our age, this is usually specific beliefs about the nature of Reality. In the case of the arts, things are less personal and more subtle, and therefore so is idolatry in film criticism when it occurs. Here, the golden calf is the belief that the only legitimate thing going on in film and the arts in general, as well as in life itself, is entertainment and validation. The deeper spheres of meaning, those that challenge us to venture into what we don’t yet understand, these deeper spheres, don’t exist.

Oh, About Avatar

Since I am purportedly writing about Avatar, I should probably say a few things about it at some point. First, I’m not saying that Avatar is a sort of Mt. Sinai, far from it. It’s the arts in general that I’m talking about. But as for Avatar, it did deal somewhat accurately, albeit superficially and therefore inadequately, with the relationship between Western colonial and post-colonial powers, and indigenous peoples, and the exploitation, lack of understanding, disrespect and oppression that characterized that relationship.

I think the problem with Avatar is its tendency to over idealize its characters. The characters we are presented in this film basically fall into three pure and simple categories: the good, the bad, and the redeemably ignorant. The good are the indigenous people. The bad are the committed mercenaries and corporate leadership. And the redeemably ignorant are the colonizers who overcome their ignorance and learn to respect the indigenous ways. We don’t have any indigenous people selling out or suffering from any other moral or spiritual failings. We don’t have access to the internality or conflictedness of any hardened soldiers, and none their values are presented as positive. The sympathizers all move toward recognizing the indigenous worldview is correct, without expressing any positives in their own Earthly worldview. The movie suffers from the same characterological over simplification that afflicts similar efforts by Disney to address this subject. It reduces all its characters to monochromatic symbols expressing the new age liberal Gaia cosmology and ethos. This is problematic not only in terms of inadequately addressing the complexity of the issue, but it actually participates in the exploitation it attempts to criticize.

Contrast this with the writing of James clip_image003Welch, a Native American Novelist. In Welch’s work, such as Fools Crow, the Native American characters are allowed to be human. There are sins committed entirely within the native community, there is a respect for the wisdom in tradition and a deep understanding of how oppression has negatively impacted the Native American community, but also there is insight into the need to adapt to changing circumstances (rather than merely hanging on to the old ways) and there is a willingness to accept cultural exchange. (For example, novels are a Western genre, and Welch is a Native American novelist). In short, Welch doesn’t reduce his Native American characters or his portrayal of Native American communities, to rarified symbols of romantic naturalism, but leaves them in as much complexity as he can as a writer. His characters and communities are struggling not only with white men and white culture, but with themselves and their own culture as they make their way in the world. They are Native American people.

In reducing indigenous peoples to mere symbols of romantic naturalism, Avatar, and similar works, are appropriating images of indigenous people and culture to create a Western (liberal) morality play. These images are the raw materials for a product intended for Western consumption. In short, such works engaged in a form of post-colonial cultural exploitation. Rather than encountering indigenous cultures in these movies, we merely encounter a liberal Western cultural commodity fabricated from processed images of indigenous people.

How does Avatar Fair as a Morality Play?

I need to clarify some things. First, I’ve got no problem with morality plays. They, more often than not, are an effective genre of story telling: They can challenge, they can teach, and they can entertain. I’m also not saying that any story can some how be a window onto the material it deals with. When I was in the service, I visited the Louvre. I remember looking at some of Rembrandt’s paintings, the portraits with the lace collars. They are so vividly three dimensional that it’s breathtaking, until you step closer to the canvas. Seen up close, those collars are crosshatched swaths of paint. The three dimensionality, the portrait itself, is an illusion. The same is true of Welch’s writing. In his work, we are not encountering Native Americans or their world. We are encountering language. It’s merely a linguistic illusion, a story. The question I’m asking, in relation to Avatar, is what kind of story is it, one that challenges and teaches (while entertaining), or one that merely validates and entertains.

Avatar is a Western liberal morality play that provides a critique of Western post-colonial conservatism as it relates to indigenous peoples and the environment. It offers no critique of the Western left’s romanticization of indigenous cultures and nature, and it provides no substantial encounter with the issues and conflictedness indigenous peoples grapple with in their encounter with the West. Because of this one-sidedness, the right will be entertained by the special effects but reject the critique. They leave the vehicle because Avatar is too heavy on the pedals. The left will merely find validation for their “appreciation” of indigenous peoples (“appreciation” should be read “patronization”). For the left, this is merely a golden calf. Neither side will be challenged and taught.

Avatar could have presented us with the depth and complexity of our relationship to indigenous people, and their relationship to us without sacrificing its entertainment value. It could even have given an appropriate amount of ambiguity to the distinction between indigenous and Western, but it doesn’t. As a story, as a morality play, it falls flat. The only dimensionality and depth it provides go away when you take off the 3-D glasses.

AVATAR – Hidden Messages Not So Hidden, But Still Entertaining

avatar_bigteaser This is the season for movies it seems.  I’m not much of a movie goer having been very restricted by post-divorce financial realities until just recently. I prefer to read books over watching TV, so dying to see the next new movie release is just something I don’t do.   This holiday season, however, there are several movies I am dying to see.  In fact, there are no less than five.  That’s a lot of ticket fees and popcorn costs!.

One of them, the recent release, Avatar, is getting quite a bit of press.  I’m not much of a sci-fi fan but this one looked interesting to me because of my interest and involvement in the internet, blogging and social networking. The story is completely different than what I thought it was going to be based on the trailer I saw. I predicted it would be something more like Star Wars meets You’ve Got Mail, where two people in a virtual world get to know each other and fall in love in that virtual world and then end up falling in love in real life somehow. That’s NOT what Avatar is about.  I still thought Avatar was a great story line though not hugely original (something more like Dances With Cats, really) but very entertaining even so.

Over at Yahoo, the movie is getting some press about the hidden messages it contains.  Excuse me, but the messages contained in this movie are nowhere near hidden.  In fact, they are obvious and blatant to the point of discomforting.  Subtle is not a word that fits the description of the overt and almost obnoxious messages that are contained in this film.  You can click on over to Yahoo’s Holiday Movie Guide to read the analysis.  I won’t bore you by replicating it here.  I agree with it for the most part.  Enough said. 

I still think the movie is well worth seeing.

In spite of the messages that come close to detracting from a good fun story, the video is one that I will see, all told three times by the time this holiday season is over.  It is a movie worth seeing and enjoying just for the sheer creativity and technology involved.  The creation of the world, Pandora, is over the top detailed and beautiful.  The flight sequences, battle scenes and the creatures combine to deliver an experience that saturates the senses with color, motion, sound and adrenaline.  One can’t help but sit back in awe and wonder at the creative brilliance behind the work.avatarmovie-pd

Even if you aren’t into sci-fi, I’d encourage you to go along just for the ride.  See it in 3D if you can.  It will be a wonderfully entertaining experience that won’t leave you having to wrestle too deeply with complex ideological undertones.  If you can get past the overt political and social messages, Avatar is a movie that is just good, creative fun.

Musings About Alltop: A New Wild Mind Find!

Here’s a highlight of another of The Wild Mind’s recent finds.  I don’t know how long these folks have been around, but in less than a week they’ve come to be my favorite place to go and be…besides here, of course.  😀

7520_3779You’ve got to go check the genius out at my new favorite site: Alltop.com.  It is like a giant magazine rack of all my favorite places on the web.  Alltop aggregates the best sites about my favorite topics all in one convenient place on the web.  No more going from link to link on my blog roll.  No more crowding my favorites tab on my browser.  Yeah, and I’m still trying to figure out how RSS feeds work so Alltop solved that one for me too.  I just go to Alltop. It’s ALL there!   It not only does this for me personally, Alltop provides this service for millions of other people all over the web just like you.  Alltop would be glad to be your online magazine rack as well. 

Think of it this way.  If you are a magazine lover or a newspaper nut you understand how these treasures can accumulate over time.  In my living room and a518690_27261394round my house I used to have a pile of newspapers here, a stack of magazines there and when I had a coffee table the thing was continuously piled with magazines, newspapers and books about the things I was interested in and the author’s I was currently reading.  Then, I got rid of the coffee table, piled the papers in a neat wicker basket and the magazines in a cool container or two, by topic and genre, so they could be displayed facing forward for easy access.  Alltop does (exponentially, I might add)  in digital world what I just did in my living room.

I suggest you go check it out and see for yourself.

While you’re there if you like my blog, suggest Random Musings of The Wild Mind to Alltop.  I’d really love to show up there, because, well, then it would just mean I was hanging out with all the other cool kids…and you!  


The Wild Mind’s Latest Up “Dates”?

The Wild Mind Meets the Aztec Dancers - April 2009
The Wild Mind Meets the Aztec Dancers - April 2009

Look at my most recent date(s)!  LOL!  Just kidding!  These really are not people I dated. They are also not contacts I met from online.  These are two of the Aztec Dancers I met when I attended the All Nations Tribal Pow Wow this weekend in a city nearby. 

These men were amazing!  (Oh, I could go so many places with that, but no, I’m going to play this one straight.)  There were 5 of them in the group; one drummer, four dancers. These two ictured were dancers.  They were in incredible shape and they danced constantly for thirty minutes.  If you’ve ever seen anything like this you know that this kind of dancing is very physically active and strenuous (again, the places I could go…but…I’m containing myself here). 

The headdresses were easily three feet across and just as tall.  Every one of the men had different regalia on (don’t call them costumes…they are not costumes!).    Anyway, I’m including a video, which is not the video of the group I saw, but it is the most similar to the dancing I saw including the lighting of the fire at the beginning and the positions (Hee!hee! Okay, I won’t go there) of the dancers.  The dancers I saw were much more precise in their movements and much more energetic as well. 😉  Enjoy! 

Romance Is A Game Best Played On A Level Playing Field, Act 2

Continued from previous post….sfcablecar1

Sure enough, The Beau met Old Flame on Thursday night in San Francisco (liar, his phone was not off, duh!)

The Beau then took about 25 minutes to tell me something that really only required 5 minutes discussion and which I already knew anyway.  I kept wanting to interrupt and say, “Cut to the chase, please” but I refrained due to the remote possibility that I could be wrong and he could be telling me that he finally once and for all put it on the shelf with the Old Flame and wanted to move forward with me. 

I now understand the very definite advantage to going silent.  If someone is going to give me that kind of news, I’m not sure I ever want to sit through half an hour of hearing about how much fun they have with someone who is not me in what happens to be my favorite city in the whole world.  That was the most painful part.  Da** him!  Now I have to pick another favorite city. 😀

Apparently, The Beau and Old Flame (who is, get this, almost 21 years younger than he..I so knew my being only 11 years younger was an issue for him) picked up where they left off, but since she’s living with a fiance of 5 years that she’s supposedly leaving, and because she lives in Texas, there are complications.  Even so, before leaving her on Friday, he told her “If you’re leaving him, I’m interested in pursuing us.”

This, from a man, who couldn’t make a 90 minute twice a month commute work out with someone who has no five year live in fiance still in the picture.  

Yeah.  Like I said: When a man is into a woman….he knows, she knows and there is no obstacle too great.

5blarge5d5banimepaper5dwallpapers_range-murata_dioma1_6__thisres__70420Okay, so none of this came as any surprise to me, though it was painful because it was so disappointing on so many levels. I really liked The Beau. He travelled easily and by this I mean, he fit seamlessly (from our perspective) into our family. I absolutely know, and I speak with confidence from experience not from arrogance or wishful thinking, that we could have blended our families so easily. There was just a high level of mutuality, compatibility, communication and willingness to negotiate without giving ourselves completely up. And we agreed on expectations for behavior from the kids. He also had a wonderful way of calling the kids out respectfully, humanely and without overstepping his bounds, something that is such a must have for me. I think that is important in a relationship but especially when kids are involved.

But for all that The Beau really liked about me and he did “like” me, I was, for him, what the I.J. was for me. Everything, EVERYTHING about me for him stacked up in the “works for me” category for him, except one very important thing: chemistry (while we had it in spades, or so it appeared, it just wasn’t what he had with the Old Flame) .

In addition, The Beau simply was not emotionally available because he had a ghost from his past that just wouldn’t die. He has to follow his heart. I get it. I do wish him all the best.

I did tell The Beau this, “Remember way back when I told you my When A Man Is Into A Woman Philosophy and you disagreed with me?”

He nodded. hes-just1

I continued, “You just proved my point. You think nothing of trying to pursue something in Texas, when 90 minutes killed you with me. When a man is really into a woman….” I let my voice drift off. 

What could he say?

I told him, he needed to follow his heart ( like he needed or cared about getting my permission) and that I totally understood. (I really do understand and I wouldn’t want him hanging anywhere near me if any part of his heart is still somewhere else.)  I told him that I am disappointed but only because the way he feels about the Old Flame, is how I someday hope someone will feel about me and vice versa.  I am unwilling to settle on that score.  I reminded him that this is what I was trying to tell him a month ago, when the status of our “whatever we had” changed. I also told him, that I predicted he’d be married to her by the end of the year. We shook on it.

I also told him I was removing him and her from my Facebook. Not because I’m angry, but because I don’t need daily reminders that I came in second. Not that love and romance is a competition. It isn’t.  I don’t view it that way.  But I do not need reminders daily that I spent the last three months entertaining the idea there might eventually be something, when in fact, there never was the remotest possibility.  Ghosts who are not dead are fully capable of reincarnating themselves.  The real and vibrant living have absolutely no hope against the imagination especially when it centers around ghosts from the past and thoughts of what could have been.  In dating situations like this the the playing field is just.not.level.

Cue sad, romantic music.  Lights gradually dim as The Wild Mind sitting pensively at computer (stage right), picks up coffee mug, leans back in her chair and stares thoughtfully into space (somewhere stage left).   Curtain drops on Act 2 as music fades.

To be continued…

Those College Years In Song

Most people go to college to gain skills to get a decent job so they can earn a living.  I went to college to escape my small rural hometown, and my restrictive home.  I had no idea what I wanted “to do when I grew up”.  In many ways I still don’t.  It was and is the classic case of so many options so little time.

Anyway, thought it would be kinda fun to chronicle the years through the songs that provided the backdrop to many of my activities during college. 

First, my main purpose for going to college:

One of my very first encounters with Weatherford Hall, an all male dorm, with some really interesting guys.  This building was amazing, so were some of the guys in it.  I loved some of the music I often heard blaring out those old windows on a Friday afternoon as I headed back from my last class of the day gearing up to kick into party mode.  No, I did not go to college in 1975.  Even though this was an older song by the time I hit the college scene, I never heard it until college.  It was still very popular in the early 80’s.

Then, of course, I dumped my high school boyfriend and got a new boyfriend and here’s what I thought of him:

Yeah, like so many others after him, he didn’t last long.

But then I changed my major to business and found out what the guys in the business school were all about:

And, living in Oregon, this was my theme song:

But I quickly learned that most guys don’t want to talk because well, they just don’t.  Takes a much older and more settled man to understand that good conversation is actually good foreplay, but, whatever!

I remember slow dancing with my last college boyfriend to this song.  Today, Sting, is still one of my favorite artists, and, though I loved this song at the time, I realize it was not his best by any means.  In fact, not sure now why I liked it so much then.

This summer didn’t remind me of any particular boyfriend, but the title reminds me of how I felt about the summer I had to return hom between my junior and senior year:

And, of course, what’s college without a little Greek experience going on?  I definitely had my share of all things Greek and this definitely was the backdrop to many a function and house dance.  I somehow also connect this song with workouts with the lifeguards and swim team members…and rollerskating through the city (now it would be roller blading). 

Ahhh, those were the days!  Living on someone else’s nickel but still being able to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. 

Now, if I could just only figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

It Appears I’m The One Going Silent This Time…Sorta

A short post tonight.  I’m tired.   I still have a ton to do before tomorrow, when I can hop in the car and travel 90 minutes north for my mini-vacation of sorts with The Beau.  We have plans to relax (I’ll probably collapse) Friday evening.  Knowing him, he’ll cook for me, I’ll eat, we’ll talk till wee hours of the morning (yeah, right). 

Saturday morning, he’s cleaning his garage, I’m going to grade papers.

Saturday afternoon it is a wine pairing session at our winery.  That will be fun.  I will actually be able to talk intelligently about something I know nothing about afterward.  Okay…I am becoming such the wine snob.  Not!  However, it is true.  I now know the difference between a $15 bottle of wine and a $6 bottle of wine.  And the $30 bottle?  Oh my! 

Then Saturday evening I do believe we have a concert he’s lined up.  I really like not having to be the one to come up with ideas for stuff all the time.  I dated one guy recently and he couldn’t make a decision if his life depended upon it.  I’m a pretty decisive person most of the time, but that one wore me out.  I was actually glad he went silent.  I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be dating someone who is somewhat imaginative, creative and, yes, takes the initiative, oh, wait, and he communicates too.  Wow.  What a concept. 

I’m going to be behind on laundry when I get back, but…it will be worth it. 

Okay, I have to go.  I’m tired.  I have a big day tomorrow.  I probably won’t post much this weekend…for obvious reasons.  Ha!Ha!  It appears I’ll be the one going silent this time.  Okay, but I warned you in advance and it isn’t indefinitely.  So don’t be too unhappy.  I will be back with stories to tell. 

Sorry for the rambling, disjointed post, but I’m about ready to fall off this chair.  I’m going to be surprised if I reread this and there are less than a dozen typos.  I’m really that exhausted.