Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Avatar's Savage Message," and the Prog-Rock Revival

"Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends..." Avatar is not only a hash of new-age ideas in a technicolor dreamcoat, it's a rehash of new-age ideas in said dreamcoat. The progressive rock bands of the seventies beat Cameron to the punch, and it shows; not only are the visual designs digital animations of a Yes album, the philosophical themes are co-opted as well...including the contradictions.

You know, I went in knowing full well that I wouldn't like Avatar, given my Objectivist leanings. Yet I was intrigued by the Yes-like set designs (which are a little too close to Roger Dean's famous artwork to be coincidence.) So, as a fan of the music (not the philosophy) of Yes and their artwork, I went for the visual experience alone, which was well-worth the extra few dollars for the 3-D; I give credit where credit's due. And I wanted to like the story; there is a certain "sense of life" in those old Yes albums and artwork that appeals to me, that suggests a fantastic, imaginative, beautiful vision of the world. And even though I'm a global warming skeptic, I am concerned with the abuses of ecology that result in blight, and promote the idea of ecological harmony with technology as seen in the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. That said, the story was SO horrid, from a philosophical standpoint. If it had stopped about halfway through (which would have been a regular film length, at that point), I might have been sympathetic to the Na'vi's fight for their home; politically, I am opposed to the government's seizure of land via "eminent domain." But what followed was basically a battle not between freedom and fascism, but a gang war between "Attila's and witchdoctors."

Fortunately, I'm spared the duty of detailing the mess that is this movie, as Ed Hudgins of The Atlas Society has already said what needs to be said in his review,"Avatar's Savage Message." Hudgings hones in on the film's philosophical sources, like the "noble savage" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the new-age "Gaia Theory, and the irony of using technology to condemn technology. He concludes that "hopefully Cameron has so overplayed his hand with his politically correct plot that audiences will leave the comfort of the theater with an appreciation for technology and no desire to flee to a jungle or support the sort of public policies that would reduce our civilization to savagery."

WELCOME TO THE MACHINE

Hudgins's article frees me up to go off on a tangent on my pet topic, progressive rock. Since the comparison has already been made with the visuals to the album covers of Yes, it's interesting to note that the philosophy behind that band, especially that of lyricist Jon Anderson, is almost identical to the theme of Avatar. It's no coincidence that the "Gaia worship" involves floating islands, living planets, and luminescent creatures combined with the sci-fi trapping of Yes album covers, most notable Fragile, with the world giving off planetary spores and the exiles flying in wooden spaceships. (Jon Anderson took this concept further with his solo concept album, Olias of Sunhillow.)

What's even more interesting is that the paradox of using technology to condemn technology in Cameron's project is a familiar one to fans (and critics) of progressive rock. "Man versus machine" is a common theme of Yes songs such as "Machine Messiah" from Drama, which makes mention of William Blake's description of the "dark satanic mills" of industrial England from the hymn "Jerusalem." And by no means was Yes the only group to address this theme; Pink Floyd had "Welcome to the Machine," Alan Parsons and his Project gave us I Robot, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer took it to its apogee with the album Brain Salad Surgery. That album connects with the Yes theme via the album opener, "Jerusalem," and ends with "Karn Evil 9," a Matrix-like story of man conquered by machine. (Also notable is the H.R. Giger cover, which predated his work on Alien, and also brings us back to Cameron.) These bands employed state-of-the-art hi fi, toured with several tons of electronic equipment, and staged elaborate shows to tell tales of technology gone awry while reminiscing of a Romanticized pastoral England (the home of most prog-rock bands.) They, like Cameron, had no problem capitalizing on damning capitalism...


So, then, what is the common denominator of the paradox of progressive rock ideology and the ideology of Avatar? Even more curious; why are some Objectivists fighting over the message of freedom in this movie? It all goes back to the the sixties, of course. Just ask James Cameron:
"I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage, but I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism. Some of these things you can’t raise without being called unpatriotic, but I think it’s very patriotic to question a system that needs to be corralled, or it becomes Rome."
This is the same sentiment behind Yes songs such as "Yours is No Disgrace," a song telling the horrors of Vietnam from the side of the Viet Cong. But it also brings up the paradox inherent in the hippie movement, the paradox of advocating freedom while simultaneously being sympathetic to ideas associated with Socialism or Communism. This is not so surprising, however, if one looks at the history of the Libertarian movement, which started, in part, as a reaction by certain members of the hippie movement who were turned off by the dominance of the New Left in the fight for civil rights, for example. Some were attracted to the freedom promised in the philosophy of Objectivism while simultaneously repulsed by what they considered the uncompromising, anti-hedonistic "fascism" of Ayn Rand. This is all detailed in Jeff Riggenbach's In Praise of Decadence. Without endorsing that book's conclusions (see my review) it does a valuable service in explaining the paradox. Ayn Rand's appreciation for religious themed works, or the works of socialistic Victor Hugo, were based on the work's benevolent "sense-of-life," which often clashed with their explicit philosophy. Hence, it's easy to see why freedom-loving people can be attracted to the "spirit of the sixties," the "rebellion" of rock music against oppression, the idea of "peace and love," or the admittedly lush, beautiful landscape of Avatar's Pandora.

It also explains why the themes don't integrate, why Avatar doesn't truly satisfy as a heroic battle for freedom, and is doomed philosophically by the very means it employs. People like Steve Jobs emerged from the hippie era to create the technology for James Cameron, only to turn that technology back upon itself. Unfortunately, however, if enough people listen, it is mankind that is ultimately doomed, for the world we will gain will not be the luminescent planet of Pandora, but the return to the primitive savagery, the "circle of life" that demands "survival of the fittest" and where man is simply meat.

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