Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Avatar, Iraq and the Demise of the Value of Imagination

I'm sure there are many reasons why Avatar didn't win best film at the Oscars, being beaten by The Hurt Locker. Many of them have nothing to do with the value of the film(s) involved; and anyway, 'value' is pretty much in the eye of the valuer. And, yes, it is quite possible that in many ways it is a better and more worthy film than Avatar. I don't know; I haven't see it yet, and so I'm not judging it. But I'm not actually interested in the films' relative merits, but more in some other reasons, some of which have nothing to do with 'merit', that will also have been in play—and one in particular.

Some of the reasons were no doubt political and had to do with the current fashion in popular issues. Right now, politics and political ideology definitely trumps currently-less-sexy issues like the rights of indigenous peoples. Fashions come and fashions go, and right now 'international law' is a much more powerful buzzphrase than, say, 'right to a way of life'. And Iraq, where The Hurt Locker story is located, is prime territory for political jacking-off. The irony, by the way, is that, as I predict with some confidence, in the future, when historians look back at this period in time—if there is still a human civilization with historians who know about this period—they will probably note that, in terms of its effect on human history, the war in Iraq was far more important for the continuance of civilization than that in Afghanistan.

Other reasons for Avatar being given a less-than-flattering treatment by 'The Academy'—which, by the way, is a handy way for the members of said 'Academy' to absolve themselves from personal responsibility for their choices—include the fact that it was been the highest-grossing movie in cinema history. That alone disqualifies it from consideration. What the masses flock to in such droves surely must be inferior; this has always been the reasoning of the arty elite. The story surely has to be simplistic, so they actually 'get' it, because the masses have no taste and can't handle profound or deep stories.

Well, as I may have mentioned, I'm inclined to agree with the dim assessment of the capabilities of the vast body of humanity. But I disagree with the notion that 'profundity' is found where the intellectualigentsia thinks it's found. They think it's in the mind, when in truth it's in the heart. And, yes, I know, that view isn't exactly fashionable. Which brings me to the next, 'other' and main reason why Avatar didn't win the Oscar for best picture: it was sci-fi/fantasy.

To the best of my knowledge, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was the only movie in those genres that ever won an Oscar for best picture. And I'm certain—other universe, I know—that, if the trilogy hadn't been based on what's considered, rightly or not, one of the great works of literature, nothing Peter Jackson could have done would have gotten that Oscar.

Which brings me to the main topic of this blog. Sorry for the long intro.

Science fiction and fantasy are, of course, nothing but the most obvious of modern day incarnations of fairy tales. These in turn—while having certain social, political, satirical, cautionary, educational and demagogical components—are, by and large, stories of the imagination. They were the stories told to what might well be called 'simple' people—and children, of course. Which probably means that the likes of me, who love fairy tales are simple and childish. Well, so be it.

Many people—actually 'most', or so one would have thought until Avatar—just can't relate to sci-fi/fantasy/fairy-tales simply because, as they will tell you in various direct and oblique ways, "they can't really happen". Now, I don't know if you noticed, but young children, until they're brainwashed by well-meaning adults or life in general to think otherwise, don't actually care about that. But it appears that adults do—or at least the adults littering the societies of the West today.

Or is this true? Well, actually it isn't. Most people believe that religious texts, which are almost all patently fairy-tale, allegory and myth, are 'true'. But it appears that these kinds of tales have some special status, which they do because people believe in God and gods and all sorts of things that surely are, at best, highly speculative.

So what have we got here: People who will, usually dull-wittedly, accept religious fantasy—or the equally fantastic cosmology and metaphysics of the Brights for that matter!—but at the same time dismiss 'fantasy' stories that don't lay any claim to being real as somehow inferior and less relevant to life, or whatever they want them to be relevant to, than stories with content that "could actually happen". Am I really a member of a truly tiny minority who think that this is quite bizarre? ('Truly tiny', because I don't hear/read many others—well, none actually that I can recall offhand—talking/writing about it.)

Children do not look at things that way. I know this, because I have been a child and remember at least that much of it—possibly because there's such a lot of it left, too—and because I have children, and I have watched them closely for that aspect of their mental development. I have come to the conclusion that—unless there's a clear pathology of some sort, but it has to be serious and disabling—one of the worst crimes a parent can commit is to interfere in a child's relationship with the stories they are exposed to. Or, for that matter, to allow others to do so in your stead; which means of course, that one ends up battling our brain-washing educational systems, an army of basically arrogant bureaucrats and apparently well-intentioned teachers, and the damage they wreak on children's mental development; a process that nowadays extends, in places like Australia, from before the age of 5 to about 18!

Children should be allowed to figure out 'stuff' on their own. Teaching children 'critical thinking' should not consist of telling them what they should think critically about and how, but merely that they should use their intelligence, powers of observation, deduction, analysis, intuition—about themselves, the world and especially what people tell them!—to build up an image of the world that enables them to survive in it and to lead lives which they may actually find to have meaning, purpose and that kind of thing. Because, believe it or not, but all those things ( intelligence, powers of observation, deduction, analysis, intuition, etc) are actually intrinsic and require no 'educational' input. Education can provide tools, because the raw faculties need to be trained and provided with a framework of knowledge to make them work more effectively. But that knowledge itself must be allowed to be subject to critical inspection itself. That is the essence of what a proper education should be like.

Parental duty consists of educating by example and making available the facilities that will help children to develop their faculties. The education system, on the other hand, should be a mere servant in 'facility provision'. But that's in an ideal world, and it isn't ever going to become real, is it?

I've digressed, but that's nothing unusual. What I really wanted to point out is that we are living in a world where adults become progressively more conditioned not to relate to stories in the same way as they might have been able to as children. I don't know if it's overstating the case, but it seem sfairly obvious to me that stories about "things that could happen" are inherently less imaginative and less imagination-stimulating than stories about things that can't. And I, for one, think that adults whose imaginative capabilities are so stunted that they've come to that point should be considered...well, 'impoverished'. They don't know it, of course, and they never will.

Maybe all this amounts to a 'progressive' development, and certainly Richard Dawkins, in his Andrew Denton interview took such a position, and appeared to support progressive removal of all fairy-tale like stories from our cultures, because he considered them to be "lies" (sic). Needless to say, I find the fact that anybody, even a Bright like Dawkins, should entertain such thoughts, nauseating, abhorrent and quite frightening.

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