Monday, January 25, 2010

The AVATAR Phenomenon- Part Three; The Story Teller and Modern Myths

This is the third in a three part series about the phenomenon of the motion picture AVATAR. In Part One we looked at audience reactions and comments about the film, and how it has personally affected some viewers. Part Two talked about the mythology of Avatar, defined "myth", and presented (with video and text) some very important concepts about myths and mythology from the late Joseph Campbell

"One thing that comes out of myths is that the bottom of the abyss is the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At that darkest moment comes the light"......from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, page 37.

We left Part Two with Joseph Campbell's thoughts about attending to one's "inner life". Campbell noted that if you don't attend to your inner self, that eventually with age you will, as he put, "be sorry".

But in order to facilitate attention to our inner selves, Campbell also told us we all need an individual and personal "sacred space". Look and listen to this bit of conversation he has with Bill Moyers from the PBS documentary Joseph Campbell; The Power of Myth recorded in the months before his death in 1987.

There is an importance to having a "sacred space" and taking care of our "inner life". When I first saw Avatar I wondered what Joseph Campbell would have thought about this amazing modern mythology. But that question lead to another one- what would Campbell think about life in the 21st century, where we are bombarded with information constantly? The computer age was dawning at the end of Campbell's life. Could he imagine the conflict technology could have with the spiritual in the new century?

I use the term "conflict" because of the technological revolution and the constant stream of information it generates- and too much of the time its nothing more than useless nonsense- our inner lives are relegated to a back burner. The "sacred space" Campbell talked about isn't allowed to exist, and creative incubation and self discovery never takes place.

PC's, blackberries, and cell phones that can do everything but delivery babies. Texting, tweeting, Facebook, and emails all day and all night. And cable news channels that feed you information, some totally useful and some totally garbage, 24/7. You can hear cellphones ringing during plays, movies, and even while religious services are in progress. Where is the time for creative incubation anymore when we live in a society that seems to us to demand we be "on" constantly?

We don't spend nearly enough time taking walks and gathering in the world around us, or simply looking at the shapes of clouds passing overhead as we did as children. How often do we take time to write, or read a novel, or play a musical instrument, paint a picture or take photographs....or even demanding of ourselves some much needed "quiet time"? And I'm as guilty as the next guy....though the exercise of writing in this blog everyday does help me stretch my mental muscles, as well as help to keep me sane.

Before you conclude that I'm anti-technology, guess again. I think what we've done with high tech communications these past two decades has been extraordinary. I love a lot of the gadgetry. And the very fact that you're reading this on Blogger, and that I'm sharing this information on Facebook and Twitter says that I do have some techno-geek tendencies.

But I think it has a time and place, and I fear that all too often some of us have allowed technology to run our lives rather than using it to serve us. Do we really need to share every moment of our lives with a world that can't get enough of us? I don't think so.

While waiting for Avatar at the theater last week a young couple sat right in front of me. No sooner did they get comfortable then the young guy started to check his messages on his phone, and started texting...and texting...and texting...all the way until the time we were prompted to put on our 3D glasses because the movie was about to start. The young man wasn't even going to allow himself the total escapism of a movie- he was being ruled by need to use his devices.

And I wonder- how did the movie resonate with him? Was it just an incredible exercise in special effects.....or did he "get it"?

Just perhaps Avatar has helped to fill that need to touch the mythological that is lacking in the lives of many of the viewers, the ones who don't have that "sacred space" Joseph Campbell talked about, and have filled the void with the outside world.

The ancients had shaman. The modern world has the artist, in particular the filmmaker, who can serve that same function. Joseph Campbell's good friend George Lucas filled the role of shaman with his classic myths, the Star Wars trilogies. And James Cameron has done the same in Avatar.

Additionally, in our multi-cultural society there is always a need for a common mythology. Maybe Avatar serves that purpose as well. The film may bring some viewers "back on the beam", as Joseph Campbell would put it- a little more introspective and in touch with themselves and the world they live in. It is with great irony that so many people were reminded of what it means to "be human" by the Na'vi, seven foot tall blue humanoids from a fictional world.

There are some who cry out that Avatar is "anti-civilization" and "anti-God".

To those who criticize it for its depiction of humans as being "only the destroyers", there were also sympathetic humans in the story. Pandora,in Greek mythology, was a woman who opened up a box that contained the world's troubles, releasing misery on to mankind. But in this reworking of the theme, it is mankind that brings pain and misery to Pandora. The human characters are only an instrument in this metaphor of reflecting pain inward to destroy goodness and innocence.

The Vatican, for one, has frowned on Avatar for its depiction of pantheism, the deities paid homage to by the Na'vi in the film. But consider this- if intelligent life were found on other planets, wouldn't that leave the traditional answers of Judeo-Christian heritage more than just a bit shaken? Its a topic for another column, but Western religion, as we know it, would never quite be the same.

Avatar might have been one of the most spiritual films I've ever seen, not in a dogmatic sense, but its depiction of a Creator that is present in all living things. This movie was truly a mythology for the 21st century.

The next to last scene of Avatar shows the merciful Na'vi sending the defeated "Sky People" back from whence they came. They give the humans a better break than they might have gotten themselves had they been on the losing end.

The closing scene of the film summed up some of the great themes we've found in religion from the dawn of time. Jake gives up his crippled body and becomes one with his Avatar....we have death, followed by the unknown, followed by a rebirth. Not only have we seen this in world religion, but in the great modern mythologies....Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Star Trek. Avatar is in their good company.

"At the dark moment comes the light"

Abraham Lincoln once spoke of our "better angels". And just maybe the Na'vi" were the best angels of all.

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