The Corner

Avatar Is Left-wing Filmmaking at Its Best! No, It’s Not!

The LA Times has two different writers gushing over how fantastic Avatar is and how silly conservatives are for complaining about it.

Patrick Goldstein, in some Cameronesque rhetorical overreach claims that Avatar is left-wing filmmaking at its best, disproving nearly everything conservatives have been saying about Hollywood. He writes:

But amid this avalanche of praise and popularity, guess who hates the movie? America’s prickly cadre of political conservatives.

For years, pundits and bloggers on the right have ceaselessly attacked liberal Hollywood for being out of touch with rank and file moviegoers, complaining that executives and filmmakers continue to make films that have precious little resonance with Middle America. They have reacted with scorn to such high-profile liberal political advocacy films as “Syriana,” “Milk,” “W.,” ” Religulous,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” saying that the movies’ poor performances at the box office were a clear sign of how thoroughly uninterested real people were in the pet causes of showbiz progressives.

Of course, “Avatar” totally turns this theory on its head. As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can’t-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits — and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.

Steven Zeitchek, meanwhile, writes:

One reason for the disconnect between the bloggers and the box office may be the simple fact that the movie about big blue aliens didn’t feel all that connected to modern-day politics once the spears and dragons started flying. “A lot of people see ‘Avatar’ as a 22nd-century story and they don’t analogize it,” Podhoretz said in an interview. “They see that the guy turns into a 10-foot-tall blue guy. Whatever political message in it sails over their heads…If [average] people come out and say this is really vile and disgusting and defames our military and defames our country, that would have a different effect. But no one’s really saying that.”

Sometimes politics sit right next to moviegoers when they visit a darkened theater. Six years ago, two mega-hits brought out distinctly different audiences, as liberals turned out by the millions for Michael Moore’s anti-Bush screed “Fahrenheit 9/11″ and a Christian base drove “The Passion of the Christ” to a major success that morphed at times into a polarizing debate on religion in American.

“Avatar,” though, is a film about pure adventure and otherworldly escape and, in terms of spectacle, the sci-fi epic is being hailed by many as a must-see masterpiece — the politics don’t seem to matter much. “People watch Fox News or listen to NPR because of what it says, and what it says about them,” says Syracuse University professor Bob Thompson. “What ‘Avatar’ shows is that people don’t make decisions about blockbusters that way.”

But back to Goldstein. He writes:

There are tons of other grumpy conservative broadsides against the film, but I’ll spare you the details, except to say that Cameron’s grand cinematic fantasy, with its mixture of social comment, mysticism and transcendent, fanboy-style video game animation, seems to have hit a very raw nerve with political conservatives, who view everything — foreign affairs, global warming, the White House Christmas tree — through the prism of partisan sloganeering.

Uh huh. So says the guy who watches Avatar and finds proof that right-wing pundits are wrong about everything.

Look, I enjoyed the movie. But Goldstein’s line how Avatar turns conservative complaints on their head is really bizarre. He recounts a long list of explicitly left-wing movies that bombed, but says all that doesn’t matter because people are flocking to see Avatar. Never mind that, as Zeitchik notes, very, very few people are going to see Avatar because of its political content. Meanwhile, conservatives are “prickly” and “partisan sloganeers” for noticing the incredibly lame partisan sloganeering in the movie!

Let me explain something, if I may. I can’t speak for every conservative who complained about Avatar, but it seems to me that most of the conservative complaints centered on the laziness of the story (a complaint that is hardly unique to right-wing critics of the film). It was hardly bold or daring of James Cameron to put stupid lines about “shock and awe” and the “war on terror” in his storyline a year after Bush has left office. Hollywood has been sneaking that stuff into movies and TV shows for most of the last decade. Resolved: Any political commentary that has already been covered in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is not daring in provocative two years later in a sci-fi movie.

The partisan stuff didn’t make me angry because it took shots at Bush or Republicans. It made me angry because it was so incredibly lame. If only he’d hired Joss Whedon or some other (liberal) screenwriter who can write interesting dialog and chart out interesting plots to take ideological shots!

I think it’s a shame, because Cameron had the resources and talent to make a truly great film. Instead, he made a hackneyed film with some truly spectacular special effects. The impact of the special effects will only fade over time, and what will be left will be far less than what it could have been.

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