Wouldn’t you know it? Just when I was planning on cleaning my room, Avatar is on TV.
Have you seen it? I’ve seen the latter half before, and now I’m seeing it again. I’m sure you’ve heard enough about it that I don’t have to give you a synopsis. It’s a great movie, and of course I’m tickled by how nearly plausible it is. It may be totally plausible. Actually, the first time I had a real conversation with Tom (whom you know) we ended up spending most of a long car trip figuring out how Eywa could evolve. Ask me about it some time, if you want to; our version involved a type of bacteria with a mutualistic relationship with a mutagenic virus. We even explained why the people on that planet are blue.
But, this time the movie falls into place among several others we have seen recently. Funny how that happens? It’s like how the various required courses first semester wove into each other, like voices singing together the disparate notes of a single chord? I assume that was done on purpose, though I’ve never asked. But the same thing happens sometimes even without any apparent orchestration, and it’s happening now.
A few months ago, we saw Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a strikingly heart-wrenching movie, of course, and a surprisingly ecological movie. Sitting Bull’s argument in favor of his traditional way of life was not sentimental, nor even religious in the European sense. His argument was that living by farming on the Great Plains is stupid; “grasshoppers eat corn; you tell them to plant it!” I don’t know if that was historically accurate, but it is plausible that he would know why his people lived as they did. The focus on livelihood certainly added a new dimension to the issue of cultural survival. More recently we’ve been watching the Centennial mini-series, which you may, or may not, remember from the seventies. Chris did, and got the series on DVD. The series is based on a James Michener book of the same name that traced a family through over a century of history in the Rockies and the Great Plains. The first main character is a mountain man, then the focus passes to his Arapaho sons and their sister and her husband. Eventually, we get into cowboys and so forth, but the whole thing is accurate historically—no racism. The genocidal sequences shocked even me, though I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know happened. Actually, that made it worse, I think. It would be one thing to see fictional atrocities committed, another thing to know that while the details are fictional, the atrocities are real. I mean, when one character orders two little kids shot because “nits turn into lice,” I’m pretty sure someone actually said that. The kids were too little to even run away when they were dumped on the ground so the soldier could get out his gun. The shots were fired off-camera.
Then, we saw a documentary on Custer, which was sympathetic to him but only so far as history will allow, which isn’t very far. Then, we saw Cowboys and Aliens, which is just as fun a movie as you’ve expect, but also really good. The aliens—and I don’t think this is giving too much away, if you haven’t seen it—are interested in resource extraction, and are on a scouting mission. If the scouts get home to make their report, there will be no stopping their invasion. A nice touch is that a remnant band of Apaches joins to cowboys to fight off the aliens, so it’s actually cowboys and aliens and Indians—also done with no racism. The Apaches are people. And now, here is Avatar, in which painted, ululating people riding animals and carrying bows defend themselves against more aliens bent on resource extraction, except this time the aliens are human (and apparently American). Cowboys and Indians again.
What is this collective recurring dream? I’ve long thought that as dreams are to the individual psyche, stories, and, in the modern context, movies, are the societal dream. Just as some unresolved idea or tension may work itself through in the symbols of recurring dream, society gets to know itself, recreates itself, through its movies. Monster movies, spy movies, war movies, these recurring tropes are clumps of culture-stuff we are collectively pulling on, like someone might pull at a tangle of yarn to free it of knots. Or like someone might prod the edges of injury or bite down on a teething tooth. Or, like someone might pace and pace over familiar ground in order to find something gone missing.
What does it mean that our country exists at the expense of other countries? Who are we? What exactly happened? When the dreaming is done, we as a country will be able to make amends, I think. If we last that long.
I’m going to have to go back to cleaning my room, now. The annual housecleaning is upon me—not that I only clean once, but every year I go through some portion of my stored stuff and get rid of what clutter I can bear to part with. I’m a definite pack-rat; I have sentimentally valuable twenty-five year-old homework assignments. Going through my stuff involves going through my past, my memories, reclaiming some and letting go of others. It’s a psychological process, as well as a physical process. Today I agreed to burn my old journals from my early adolescence—they were completely illegible, my handwriting is not now what it once was. Why keep something I can’t read? But some aura of memory, of felt self, goes with the objects, or seems to. I got rid of letters written to creepy ex-boyfriends—I no longer need their warning note. I kept the writing assignments I did when I was twelve, marked as they are with my teacher’s diplomatic hand. I put them in a drawer with the early drafts of my thesis and another teacher’s equally diplomatic hand.
I go over these objects, these artifacts, and…that illegible handwriting is me. That self-important, adolescent poetry is me. Those drawings of unicorn skeletons is me. What? Don’t most eleven-year-olds draw unicorn skeletons? I wasn’t being morbid, I was interested in unicorn biology. It occurs to me that if some historian gets a hold of my stuff, those drawings could well be misinterpreted. Perhaps I should annotate them? If they survive future culls.
I used to have dreams that my house was a sinking boat, and I had only an hour to rescue all my stuff. I don’t have those dreams anymore. I think when we become willing to look at our stuff, see it for what it is, we have a chance to move on to other dreams.