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Avatar, Linqua Franca or just Francs?


This is in response to Dave M. post over at Lost In Translation.

I wonder if some of the general objections made of Avatar and others in its vein can be rolled up to a difference between preferring a story (implying human archetypes) and creating an alternate reality.  Namely, how far should a movie or story be realistic to be compelling?

As a space geek, “sound in space” is one of those classical gotchas.  Also, space vehicles flying around like airplanes (even the beloved Battlestar Galactica straddles this line) can really make some people groan in their seats.  And if we examine Avatar, I am sure many a military geek noted the absurdity of mounting a land and air campaign when you have a ready space infrastructure capable of dropping rocks from space to quite explosive (and safe) effect.  But in spite of these gaffs, a story moves forward; or to put from the perspective of the director, the attainment of reality is not compelling enough reason to adopt it (reality) over something else (fiction).

I still argue Avatar is a (damn) good movie if put in proper context: a story that entertains and makes money.  It takes a lot of liberties (noble savage being a significant one), but it still tells an interesting story of the clash of cultures, loves, and the rest of human life generalized down to 3 hours.  And as such it is open for dissection with extreme prejudice by more critical minds.

I believe one premise of Dave’s argument/critique of the movie is more of the commodification, as it were, of languages (and thereby extension the associated cultures).  Avatar introduces a readily digestible set of sounds that make up a “language”, but a language without a meaningful culture to substantiate and flesh it out. I am not sure Avatar creates this phenomenon, rather it merely exploits it.  And it is a phenomenon that has been around in one form or another.  How many books are there on “Learn XYZ Language in 15 Minutes a Day”?  And how long have they been on our shelves?  Well, maybe not yours or mine, but you follow me.  Let us take Japan as example.  As a culture it has assimilated en masse innumeral words from the English language; so much so that whenever at a loss for a word in Japanese you can throw in the English word pronounced as a Japanese would say and you will often be understood (and right!).

I believe the other premise which Dave introduces inductively at the end of his blog in the form of a question:  “But, given Cameron’s goal of depicting a clash not just of different species but of civilizations … should (and could) Na’vi be so easily, so directly, translatable into English?”  I would agree with the embedded critique within that question if Avatar had truly remained at the level of cultures.  However, at least for me, the movie stayed solidly within the personal spheres of its characters; as such those clashes of civilization and culture remained mere background to a different story, one that I thoroughly enjoyed: twice.

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