Monday, February 15, 2010

Reel Diplomacy: Avatar

With more passion than punctuality, I'd like to respond to the Gormogon claim that Avatar and similar films are inspiring anti-Americanism abroad. I haven't seen Avatar (I'm more of an indie film sort of girl), so I can't respond to the movie itself. What I object to is the idea that open dissent and dialogue are values we don't want to export.

Thought-provoking is definitely the word for this article (as opposed to, say, convincing) because the author's claim that movies critiquing the United States could generate anti-US sentiment is obviously possible (and even likely in some cases) but it's not universal. Box Office Mojo lists the following 10 films for all-time global earnings:

1. Avatar
2. Titanic
3. The Return of the King
4. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
5. The Dark Knight
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
8. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
10. The Two Towers

I'll start with the obvious note that only one of these movies takes place in the United States, and follow by pointing out that the global media market seems to be hungry not for anti-American sentiment, but for escapist fantasies. A lot of these stories involve outsiders taking on corruption and underdogs beating the odds -- both of which have frequently surfaced in pro-US narratives.

Also in the top 50: Independence Day, ET, Up!, Finding Nemo, Forrest Gump, Twilight: New Moon, Spider-Man, Star Wars, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park and Momma Mia! (Full list here.) Which supports my first point: Anti-American movies exist, but they're not the most popular movies available. (A brief aside here, that I'm using the term "anti-American" to mean any movie with themes that suggest the United States is corrupt or malignant.)

Point two: audiences are not universal. Some people liked romantic comedies. Others like action flicks. Sometimes people like the same movie for completely different reasons. If I run a pro-American film in my cinema, you can be sure the audience isn't going to file out in lockstep whistling the national anthem. The same applies to negative depictions.

Point three: at the heart of our national identity is an unwavering commitment to democracy, which is based on dissent and the ability to voice conflicting opinions. What better demonstration of free speech can we have than the ability to openly criticize our government and institutions when we believe them to be in the wrong?

Whether you support the United States or oppose it, in this country you will always have the right to make that opinion clear. Dissent isn't the problem. The real danger lies in projecting an incomplete picture. Like showing a history of worker abuse, without showing the worker's rights advocates or legal reforms that have improved those situations over time. Or claiming that your average American knows more about Kennedy's paranoia than Kennedy himself, or that unpatriotic movies are sowing the seeds of hatred abroad, for example.

I think our Gormogon poster himself recognizes the limits of his argument, which is why he starts hedging his bets before he's finished. (Making a gender assumption here, and I apologize if I'm off.) Ultimately I think he had a clever idea and a lot of fun and clever words to describe it, without the facts to back it up. As somebody who dearly loves the sound of my own voice, I can sympathize. I've been there. But that doesn't change the fact that an interesting, cleverly written piece won't stand up to a hearty sneeze if it doesn't have solid factual support.

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