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Saturday, January 9, 2010


James Cameron's "Avatar" may make others recall their first "Star-Wars" experience, but it made me think of Northrop Frye...

After overcoming the nearly irrepressible desire to grab onto the iridescent 3D foliage, my lackluster sensibilities began to kick in. I'm not interested in Cameron's less-than-subtle political undertones, but I'm very interested in the mythopoeic aspects of this film.

We have, first of all, the garden of Edenic beauty, inhabited by a race both respectful and reverent of its resources; there is also a "tree of life" borrowed, it seems, directly from Genesis. Frye would call this classic pastoral imagery, though we have none of the traditional animals since this is another world than our own. Another thing Frye would say is that this is an analogical world presented in high mimetic form: "We find here the emphasis on cynosure or centripetal gaze, and the tendency to idealize the human representatives of the divine spiritual world, which are characteristic of the high mimetic. Divinity hedges the king and the Courtly Love mistress is a goddess; love of both is an educating and informing power which brings one into unity with the spiritual and divine worlds."

If you've seen the film, you'll know that the romantic subplot of the film follows this little formula nearly to a t. Another way of looking at it is to see in it the classical Romeo & Juliet motif running through the story; two star-crossed lovers from warring kingdoms coming together for the sake of their mutual love.

The humans in the film are another matter. Coming to colonize this Edenic heaven, they bring all of the steam, smoke and smog of the Waste Land at their heels. The massive space-ships, and heavy-duty industrial equipment are certifiable "Leviathans" in their own right. We should have in mind Eliot's Waste Land, Browning's Child Roland, Dante's Inferno etc. Their (humans of the corrupt corporate world) only goal is to plunder the world of its natural resources and leave, to destroy Eden and the "Tree of Life." They carry with them an entourage of all of Frye's demonic imagery: "the demonic human world is a society held together by a kind of molecular tension of egos, a loyalty to the group or the leader which diminishes the individual, or, at best, contrasts his pleasure with his duty or honor." Again, if you've seen the film, this will sound strikingly familiar.

I was being coy by the way, Frye was the last thing on my mind as I took in this visual feast. Do yourself a favor and go see it.

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