Monday, March 29, 2010

How To Train You Dragon, Avatar, or Native American

We went to see How To Train Your Dragon this weekend. Short version: We all loved it, and I think I may have enjoyed it more than Noah or Paige, though it was a close contest. The sensation of flying on a dragon's back was captured just as magically, if not more so, in HTTYD as it was in Avatar, the characters were more likable, the dialogue vastly improved, and the action just as engaging, though it didn't have the immersive quality of Pandora's jungles.

Here's the thing, though; the story is almost exactly the same. Sure, there are dragons and Vikings, but Avatar had its Na'vi and Marines, Dances With Wolves had its Native Americans and Union Soldiers, The Last Samurai had its Samurai and Union Soldiers, Last of the Mohicans had its Native Americans and colonists... you get the idea. This is not a new story.

But two of these stories in such close proximity, and both enjoying such wild critical and box office success, has me wondering about the zeitgeist. What does this say about us? I wonder if the marines references in Avatar obscured the point, to some extent. Sure, these can be read as a critique of U.S. foreign policy. They can be dismissed as the normal liberal PC apologies from Hollywood. As David Brooks pointed out, the "White Messiah" fable is both a racial pat on the back and more than a bit racist when it's about human beings, so dragons are a bit safer in that way.

But I wonder if there's more to this coincedence.

Zygmunt Bauman, in this interesting piece, posits that we are living in an "interregnum", a period between the traditional power structure of the nation-state and a period where the next order, of some new and as-of-yet undefined nature, takes hold. I'm skeptical of these pieces. Part of me wonders if they are the academic version of a guy standing on a street corner with a sign that says, "The End Is Nigh!" (For that matter, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers was published in 1987. Every time I read someone say he was just a bit ahead of his time, I wonder how long we can stretch out that "bit".) Still, Bauman makes an interesting case, comparing the way multinational corporations, international criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and individual "non-state-actors" can all circumvent the traditional model of national sovereignty. Could films that tell us to reexamine some of our presuppositions about our friends and enemies be tapping into our collective discomfort? Perhaps this goes well beyond our disenchantment with US foreign policy. We should all have felt some unease going back long before the "War on Terror" to our involvement with the Contras, supporting Saddam, the internment of the Japanese, ignoring the plight of the Jews at the beginning of WWII, and on and on. A critical eye toward the actions of the US government at home and abroad is both healthy and patriotic. But, in the context of this interregnum (if that's truly what we're experiencing) I wonder if these kinds of films can also tap into a queasy feeling in our stomachs related not to seeing our government's warts, but instead caused by a world that is genuinely shifting under our feet.

Maybe we just want to fly with dragons and have sex with giant blue people. Fine. I have no problem with either of those. Zoe Saldana is super hot, even when digitally remastered, and I've been into dragons since I was a little kid. Maybe it's just a coincidence. But if I was going to go into a Hollywood pitch meeting tomorrow, I'd want to sell a story about one of US joining up with THEM, only to discover that THEY are cool and WE need to learn to understand THEM. We want to believe this story right now, because we know the world is changing, and though we're not sure who exactly THEY are, we hope they turn out to be friendly.

Please submit your suggestions for the wildest versions of THEM and US. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't really matter.


Mr. Thissell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. Thissell said...

I enjoyed reading your writing. I can not speak intelligently on either of the films; I have seen neither. To your question of how long can we stretch out P. Kennedy's forecast, he spoke recently in an interview with Newshour

Sorry, it is not hyperlinked.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Interesting interview. On the one hand, he concedes that he was wrong. On the other, he says he may have just been 23 years off. But he holds on to the mechanism, based on the rationale that all empires end. To
me it reads like me saying you are going to die tomorrow, then admitting I'm wrong in a few days but qualifyinh the statement with the dodge that I might only be sixty years off in my prediction since we all die. But my arguement still stands. I think that's pretty weak, but Nostradamus has gotten a lot of play out of it.

'abdul muHib said...

When comparing District 9 (which I have seen) to Avatar (which I have not seen and only read about), I much prefer the former. There it is US joining THEM, but not to help Them rise out because Us is the savior, but rather because Us (the individual) needs to be saved by Them. It is the Myth of the Oppressed Savior (if myth is used in its real meaning as an overarching story), a reversal of the Cargo Cults, and I found it quite illuminating and uplifting.