Sunday, March 07, 2010

Avatar vs. Ben Hur

A comment someone made on an earlier post about Avatar suggested to me the idea that it might be interesting to compare these two films, thinking they might reveal something interesting about the filmic cultures of their times. Both were huge eye-popping spectacles that relied heavily on special effects. Both were sufficiently in tune with their times to win many Academy Award nominations and make tons of money. Both were frankly mass entertainment and not high art, but both had some pretensions to moral seriousness. I re-watched Ben Hur. Here is part of what I came up with.

Ben Hur is a movie with a clear moral and thematic center. The very first words we hear are those of a voice-over narrator (he turns out to be Belthasar, one of the Three Magi):
In the Year of our Lord, Judea - for nearly a century - had lain under the mastery of Rome. In the seventh year of the reign of Augustus Caesar, an imperial decree ordered every Judean each to return to his place of birth to be counted and taxed. The converging ways of many of them led to the gates of their capital city, Jerusalem, the troubled heart of their land. The old city was dominated by the fortress of Antonia, the seat of Roman power, and by the great golden temple, the outward sign of an inward and imperishable faith. Even while they obeyed the will of Caesar, the people clung proudly to their ancient heritage, always remembering the promise of their prophets that one day there would be born among them a redeemer to bring them salvation and perfect freedom.
There are two groups of characters: the Romans and the Jews. The clash between them is consistently depicted as a clash between ideas: the Romans represent power and the Jews represent freedom. The main dramatic conflict is between two former friends: the Roman Messala, whose first lines declare that he is "in command," and the Jew Judah Ben Hur, who eventually tells Messala, "I tell you the day Rome falls there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!"

Power and freedom are connected in this film with other ideas. The Roman Governor Sextus tells Messala of a carpenter's son who "teaches that God is near, in every man." Messala replies with the authentic Roman view, that "there is divinity in only one man." Power means inequality, while freedom rests on the equalizing effects of Christian love.

Power also rests on fear. When Messala unjustly condemns Judah to the galleys and his mother and sister to a dungeon, he does so as a power play: "By condemning without hesitation an old friend," he says, "I shall be feared." In addition, just as freedom comes with love in this film, so power uses hate as a resource. As Quintus Arrius says to the enslaved Ben Hur: "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."

Such are the ideas expressed in Ben Hur. What about Avatar?

To tell you the truth, I wrote the above paragraphs six weeks ago, and didn't know how to go on. Since the Academy Awards are tonight, I thought I should force myself to finish this post. The best I can do, though, for Avatar, is a sort of laundry list of notions:
  1. One should love one's planet (or, as in the case of Pandora, satellite).
  2. Greed is bad.
  3. Hunter-gatherer tribes are good.
  4. Business corporations are bad.
  5. Military forces are bad.
  6. One should not take the property of others, at least if it is the collective property of a hunter-gatherer tribe.
Two things strike me about these two constellations of ideas. a) While the first group is at least half-way interesting and might deserve some further reflection, this is clearly not true of the second group. And that is because b) the second group consists entirely of cliches. We have heard them all a million times before and there is nothing interesting or clever about what Avatar does with them.

I am not saying that communicating ideas is something that any movie has to do. But if its makers do choose to do this, then standards of intellectual clarity, originality, and profundity come into play. Measured by these standards, obviously, Ben Hur kicks Avatar's butt.


Aeon J. Skoble said...

Exactly right.

Anonymous said...

In the late 60's when anti-semitism was a high profile issue, the Ben Hur story really deepened the understanding about the ties of Judaism and Christianity. I haven't seen Avatar but can see how always exaserbating the tensions between technology, business and society (utilizing hi-tech movie making for high profit movies) does make this one of those movies where the actors recursively appear both on the screen and in the audience.

Anonymous said...

first: both are plainly composed of cliches

second: one should be more wary of superficial observations such as your "4. Business corporations are bad", for what (I gather) the implicit protest concerned a corporation's act, i.e.: its despoliation, rather than its merely existing. Merely existing, it is no more than a group of individual incorporated in some way that somehow involves money (though not necessarily for any purpose beyond their own collective subsistence).

Lester Hunt said...

As to your first point, I think you'd have to make a case that my interpretation is wrong, because though very orthodox, those ideas are not all cliches (there's a difference!).

Your second point raises an interesting issue about interpreting the philosophical meanings of narrative works of art. Story tellers praise or condemn groups my attributing specific characteristics to characters that are members of those groups. This creates an ambiguity: is the real target the group or the characteristic? Is Shakespeare's character Shylock anti-Semitic, or merely anti-usury? Is Dickens' Fagin anti-Semitic, or anti-thievery and anti-exploitation of children?

There are all sorts of ways to tell, or at least collect evidence. Among others, you can look at the author's other works or at other extra-textual evidence (eg., interviews) about what the author believes. These are the sorts of things that influenced me in this case: Cameron's other works (esp. Aliens and Titanic) and comments he's made on interviews over the years.

pappy d said...

There aren't any fresh cliches.

I haven't seen Avatar, but doesn't this cover both of these screen spectaculars?

be true to your school.

power corrupts

all men are created equal,

...therefore victims are morally superior & deserve to win.

...& empires are evil.

Acquired truth (Rome, global capitalism) is amoral.

Revealed Truth (Scripture, Universal Brotherhood) is good.