Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Avatar and Paganism

This evening I just felt a bit bored and decided to see a movie. Nothing on offer looked particularly attractive at first sight, so I finally decided to buy a ticket for a new film called Avatar. At the door I realized that this one might be a bit different, because we received 3D glasses. But still, I didn't expect very much of the whole thing, to be quite honest.
Well, I was mistaken. Three hours later I came out of the cinema utterly thrilled and amazed by the total experience I had just gone through. Visually, I honestly don't think I've ever seen anything in my life that compares with this: it's an altogether new way of experiencing a movie. Sitting there with your 3D glasses, you are literally sucked, body and mind, into an incredibly exciting world which feels impossibly real. You're not outside: you're inside, and you just don't want to leave once it's over. Avatar is already marketed as a landmark event that heralds "the future of cinema", and it's hard to disagree. For example, I am certain that Peter Jackson is grinding his teeth right now, wondering "why didn't I wait just a few more years before making Lord of the Rings": rather than "just" seeing Arwen outrunning the Nazgul, in 3D we'd be flying right next to her, feeling that the iron-clad hand might reach out to us any moment, the Balrog's whip would be swinging right into our face, and the magic of Lothlorien would be, well, more than three-dimensional. Admittedly the 3D technology seems made for showing fantasy worlds more than modern urban architecture: in Avatar, too, the spaceship scenes with which the film begins look interesting but slightly strange, and it's only once we enter the forest that the magic really begins.
Apart from the obvious joys of watching such a spectacular movie, I was also struck by something quite different. Avatar, it seems to me, tells us something about how Western culture and society has been evolving over the last half-century. A convenient term of comparison is a famous blockbuster released exactly fifty years ago now, in 1959. Ben Hur won no less than eleven oscars at the time and remains an all-time favorite repeated on TV every Christmas season.
It is subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", and although most viewers will remember it mostly for the dramatic human conflict culminating the circus of Rome, the story plot is really about how the Jewish/Roman hero is converted to the Christian faith. The interesting thing is that this was a big budget movie, designed to appeal to the largest audience possible; and as such, it shows that an evangelical morality tale about the superiority of the gospel over Judaism and Roman paganism was still unproblematically convincing to audiences on the eve of the 1960s.
And now what do we find fifty years later? Avatar is the most expensive movie ever made, and like Ben Hur, it must be designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. But the message could not be more different. The heroes of this story are the Na'vi: a blue-skinned tribe living in "Pandora", a wild natural world of spectacular beauty. Their way of life is based on a deep respect for nature, and their spirituality is a kind of generic shamanism centred around the supreme divine power, a universal feminine presence that permeates all living things, and is named Eywa: a transparent inversion of the male monotheistic deity, Yahweh. It will be remembered that the missionaries who "christianized" Europe in the middle ages were in the habit of cutting down the sacred trees of the native population to demonstrate the power of their god over the pagan deities. In Avatar, barbarian hordes of businessmen and mercenaries launch a savage attack on Pandora because of its mineral treasures, and they go right for the huge tree at the center of its culture. When it is destroyed by firebombs, the Na'vi gather around another tree, the most sacred of all. It is called the Tree of Souls, and in its branches one can hear the voices of the ancestors. It represents the very heart and essence of the Na'vi's culture, and the invaders understand that if they succeed in destroying it too, their victory will be complete and final. The night before the final battle - which you will have to go and see for yourself - a healing ritual is performed under the tree, to save the life of a mortally wounded victim. Sitting in large circles and holding hands, the Na'vi are chanting and swaying back and forth in a collective trance, while the female shaman invokes the power of Eywa.
Looking at that impressive scene, I realized how deeply our culture and our religious instincts have changed in no more than half a century. For at the time of the Ben Hur movie, audiences would undoubtedly have recognized all this instantaneously as pure paganism and idolatrous worship. Fifty years later, we see it differently: the very same beliefs and ritual practices that used to be the very antithesis of Christian morality are now recognized by us as reflecting a deep respect for the sanctity of life. And more than that, the fact that this movie is designed to appeal to the largest audience possible suggests that those who created it understand something even more remarkable: that even convinced evangelical Christians, for example in the United States, will probably not recognize something as pagan if they are looking right at it!
In short, Avatar proves a very important point about contemporary Western culture, but one that is seldom recognized. From the devil's own ritual, paganism has now become the religion of our dreams.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Yes, I've neglected this blog for far too long... Surfing around on the net, I came across a blast from the past: Van der Graaf Generator, a band of the early seventies that used to appeal greatly to a very young Twilight Traveler. For starters, here's a very beautiful ballad, Refugees, from their early album The least we can do is wave to each other. If you like it, you might perhaps be ready for the more difficult metaphysical/existential stuff, such the albums Godbluff or Still Life, or (who knows?) for the absolutely weird extremes of The quiet zone / The pleasure dome. But if you start with Refugees, here are the lyrics for you:

N. was somewhere years ago and cold:
ice locked the people's hearts and made them old.
S. was birth to pleasant lands, but dry:
I walked the waters' depths and played my mind.
E. was dawn, coming alive in the golden sun:
the winds came gently, several
heads became one
in the summertime, though august people sneered...
we were at peace, and we cheered
We walked along, sometimes hand in hand,
between the thin lines marking sea and sand;
smiling very peacefully,
we began to notice that we could be free,
and we moved together to the West.
W. is where all days shall someday end;
where the colours turn from grey to gold,
and you can be with the friends.
And light flakes the golden clouds above:
West is Mike and Susie,
West is where I love.
There we shall spend the final days of our lives...
tell the same old stories: well, at least we tried.
So into the West, smiles on our faces, we'll go;
oh! yes, and our apologies to those
who'll never really know the Way....
We're refugees, walking away from the life we've known and loved...
nothing to do nor say, nowhere to stay; now we are alone.
We're refugees, carrying all we own in brown bags, tied up with string...
nothing to think, it doesn't mean a thing, but we'll be happy on our own.
West is Mike and Susie;
West is Mike and Susie;
West is where I love,
West is refugees' home.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

He's not there

I had heard of the movie I'm not there about Bob Dylan, but had no idea how brilliant it was. Today I watched it, and although I couldn't make head or tails of it at the beginning, I was gradually drawn into it, and halfway through I realized that I was watching a masterpiece. Bob Dylan himself does not appear anywhere in the movie, except in the final shot. What we see is fragments about other people, sometimes with well-known names (Woodie Guthrie, Billy the Kid), but they are not those persons either. It's the movie itself that is Bob Dylan, and he is present everywhere precisely because he keeps eluding the viewer. Still, once that elusiveness itself begins to look like a stable identity, it is deconstructed as well (never more painfully than with Dylan the gospel singer). Again and again, Dylan appears by being absent, for example in a scene where a singer with a painted face in a village roadshow sings "Going to Acapulco", and we realize that although it looks nothing like Bob Dylan and The Band, it is they who are present on the podium. Central to the film is the stunning impersonation of Dylan by Cate Blanchett (see photo), in black-and-white. His conversations with "Mr Jones" have the effect of a continuous series of démasqués where the joke is always on the viewer, who will find that not Dylan's but his own identity is on the line. Perhaps the whole movie is summed up in the 7th "simple rule for a life in hiding", recited by Dylan's impersonation as Arthur Rimbaud: "Never create anything, it will be misinterpreted, it will chain you and follow you the rest of your life, it will never change".

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Yes we can

I hadn't expected I would ever be talking about politics on this blog, much less American politics. But then again, there are many things I hadn't expected. About two years ago I read Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, and just couldn't help agreeing with his chilling analysis of the decline of even the USA's most fundamental values under the Bush administration, and his dark predictions about the future. As Berman argued, the Roman empire fell ultimately not because of contingent external factors: its fall became inevitable, because the Romans had forgotten what Rome was supposed to be all about. Likewise, the USA seemed to have forgotten what America was supposed to be all about. Berman saw no light at the end of the tunnel of paranoia, fear, arrogance and cynicism that the USA and much of the Western world seem to have entered after 9/11, and neither did I. Every time I went to the USA during the last years I came home more depressed by the mentality of blind chauvinism and egocentrism - my country, right or wrong - that I saw and felt everywhere around me. How could one do anything but give up faith in a country that had (re-)elected a president of such monumental incompetence surrounded by a bunch of obvious crooks, a people that seemed capable of confusing democracy and freedom with the "smart totalitarianism" of neocon-plus-fundamentalist ideologies, gave new legitimacy to torture, felt free to ignore international law and basic human values, or seriously considered the option of "preventive" nuclear strikes?
What made it all even much worse was the fact that - again, as rightly emphasize by Berman - the USA had no excuse, because its population should know better. A memory I will never forget is that of october 8 to 9, one day after the invasion of Afghanistan, when I was on my way back from Los Angeles to Europe, but got stuck in Washington. An official at the airport warned me not to go downtown (she seemed to think there were terrorists everywhere), and when I did anyway, I found that one could stay in the most expensive hotels for 1/3 of the price. I got one a few blocks from the white house, and made a long walk the next day. The weather was beautiful, and although I'm told it's usually crowded, that extraordinary day I seemed to have the Mall all for myself. I began at the Lincoln Memorial and spent a long time there, reading the fragments of his speeches on the walls. I've been told that every American schoolkid is raised with this heritage, but I hadn't been, and I was deeply impressed by the profound ideals, the wisdom, the hope, and the humanity expressed in those texts.
During the years that followed, as the USA and much of the rest of the Western world (including my own country) entered their steep descent into blind irrationality, fear and hatred, I was often reminded of that visit. Thinking about the tragic distance between America's core values and its actual behaviour, in my head I used to hear those enigmatic lines from American Pie (in my case, as sung by Madonna):

I met a girl who sang the blues
and I asked her for some happy news.
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
where I'd heard the music years before,
but the man there said the music wouldn't play.

That was the mood, and it lasted eight years.

And now, this evening the music was playing again. I was watching the concert organized, at the steps of that very same Lincoln Memorial, in celebration of Barack Obama's inauguration this tuesday. I saw Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé and many others singing about hope and optimism, and I saw so many expressions of deep, genuine emotion and sheer excitement at the very thought that this open and intelligent, young and dynamic african-american president has been elected as President of the USA. And I realized, not without a feeling of shame, that I had allowed myself (along with Morris Berman and many others) to give up hope: "no we can't, forget it, this country and its mentality is beyond cure or recovery". It had simply been beyond my imagination that the same people that elected Bush in 2004 would be capable of electing a black man four years later.
What I should have realized, or rather, should not have forgotten, is the real power that resides in the ideals written on the walls of the Lincoln memorial, or in similar ones as expressed by Martin Luther King on its steps: a power that is in no way inferior to those of hatred, despair and negativity, and does not grow any less because its opposite grows stronger. And I should have remembered how many people, during these past eight years, must have felt like me, and must have been thirsting for an opportunity to believe in the future again.
Of course I know that the concert was a perfectly staged event, designed to manipulate my emotions; of course I know that the myth of Obama will soon enough catch up with reality; of course I know how difficult it is for ideals to survive in the presence of power and political realities; of course I understand that no human being can live up to these expectations, and I realize that Obama was not born on Krypton.
But for now, for the first time after eight years, I'm going to allow myself to be hopeful and optimistic, not cynical and "realistic". And whatever disappointments Obama's presidency might have in store for me, I'm grateful to him for having reminded me that, yes, we can.