I spent a great deal of effort avoiding the pre-release hype surrounding Avatar. I didn’t go to the Comic-Con session about it or read any of the online buzz or previews or reviews or interviews. The reason I did this is because I wanted to give this movie a chance to win me over when I finally got to see it. I wanted it to work. I really did.

I have found the critiques of Avatar fascinating. As The New York Times described on its front page, people are reading all sorts of messages into the movie, from the most socially conservative to the most philosophically radical. This, I think, is the measure of a good movie (that is, a movie that is good to “think with”). This kind of flexibility is not a weakness but a gift, the kind good movies give us: the excuse to talk about things that need to be talked about.

As I describe to my students (in a course called “Anthropology and the Cinema”), the meaning of a movie does not reside in what is actually shown on the screen. The meaning of a movie is only created by our using it: thinking about it, talking about it, imitating it, critiquing it. Avatar isn’t about the White Man’s Burden (or white guilt or the Messiah complex, or whatever you want to call it), or about ecology, or about the evils of militarism and capitalism. We can certainly use it to talk about these things and even though much in Avatar is heavy-handed (“unobtanium,” anyone?), it is still good to think with.

How does it do this? One way is to use a familiar story. Many critics and viewers have expressed concern about the “stolen” story of Avatar. They note that this supposed original take on an alien encounter sounds awfully familiar, like Dances with Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Pochohantas, or other movies that include oppressed Native Americans rescued by sympathetic white men. But there are no original stories that would resonate with the large audience Avatar has attracted and it is precisely because it is a “stolen” story, one that our culture tells over and over, that it has been popular.

The story is not just one of military vs science, or military vs natives, or commerce vs nature, or animism vs monotheism (that one is from the Vatican). It is actually all of these and more: it uses one of the most common and general themes of American narratives: what happens when we encounter something that is different. How will we act, what will we think and feel? Will we honor our core values or betray our deep fears? Will we be honest, kind, understanding? Will we be open or closed, mean or helpful? We constantly, daily, endlessly test this in our selves and our culture. The movies offer us endless scenarios for testing this out in a virtual universe that has different parameters (blue people instead of some other color, an alien planet instead of next door) and a lot less real-world repercussions for our testing.

The complaints about this movie being like Dances with Wolves, etc, are not wrong, but they are oh so narrow. This movie is also like Cameron’s own Titanic, The Abyss, the Terminator movies, Dark Angel (on TV), or Aliens. It is like Gran Turino and Atonement and The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire and District 9 and every alien movie ever made, not to mention most buddy movies and chick flicks, and Disney animations from Beauty and the Beast to Tarzan. They all ask the same thing: can you love someone who is different, can you work with someone who is different, can you ever understand someone who is different? I don’t know that we can even find a definitive answer to these and other questions; we are just, as humans, always endlessly looking.

So, is Avatar a good movie? You can apply your aesthetic criteria and get one answer and you can apply your political criteria and get another. But if you apply your anthropological criteria–is it good for thinking about what it means to be human–then Avatar succeeds but not, as Cameron claims, because it is unlike any other movie that has ever existed, but rather precisely because it is so like so many other movies that have gone before.

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Now I remember why I dislike academic conferences so much:
1. I don’t like having papers read to me (does anyone?).
2. I don’t like having one image projected on a screen and never changed for the 15 minutes when someone is reading to me.
3. I don’t like time hogs who use up discussion time: there is never time for discussion
4. I don’t like constant references to failed technology or unfamiliarity with projectors, computers, presentation software, or DVDs.
5. I don’t like that most presenters have no clue how to construct a text slide: your squinting audience is not proof that they are intensely interested. The fact is they can’t see what you wrote in your 12 point type.
6. I don’t like …, well, you get the idea.

The academic conference is a time-honored ritual that needs a facelift. Who could possibly think it is interesting to have someone read a paper to you? At least tell me about your research, like you were giving a lecture in one of your classes. I don’t need the citations and requisite references to this philosopher and that theoretician. TELL ME what you do and why it is important. Put the paper online so I can read it if you have convinced me.

For god’s sake learn to make visual presentations and how to run them. There are tons of websites that tell you how to do this and if you just use the simple rule that a picture really really helps get your idea across, you will awaken true gratitude in your audience. Don’t know what button to push to advance your images? You are not ready to face an audience.

The fact is, I am spoiled. I have been going to digital media conferences (SIGGRAPH, for example) and popular media conferences (Comic-Con, for example) for several years and there, performance is everything. You convince people of your ideas by demonstrating them, verbally and visually. You talk and joke and lighten up. They have billions of dollars at stake and they can do that. Why can’t we?

So here is my strategy for a much improved AAA meeting:
1. Have 3 sessions a day. That’s it. Sessions everyone comes to. Make them big, raucous exchanges. Have the presenters give examples of the most current ideas and most interesting trends in the field. Then open it up to discussion. A big, raucous, out-of-control discussion (with a great moderator to keep it semi-confined). Comic-Con style, people get in line at the microphone and are projected on the screen when they are asking a question. Nothing anonymous about it. As at Comic-Con, you would not be allowed to ask the presenters for an autograph or if you could have their baby.

2. Have the presenters in those three session do dynamic visual presentations designed to get people thinking. If they don’t know how to do this, I’ll show them. These should be prepared weeks ahead of time and refined by presentation date, not done on the airplane ride to the conference.

3. Provide a virtual conference online where those adored papers are posted and where everyone at their own time and place can read and comment on them. Have at least one session a day comment on the most interesting posted papers.

4. Have a big-name lecturer who gets people going and thinking. I remember the year Stephen J. Gould was there. The place was all abuzz after that.

5. Have Michael Herzfeld from Harvard be the Master of Ceremonies. I have never heard a more gracious, interesting, or smart discussant (he was the discussant in session 2-176 on Friday). And he has a great voice. I just hope he likes to sign autographs. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~anthro/social_faculty_pages/social_pages_herzfeld.html

6. Have Tom Boellstorff provide everyone with a metaphor so their presentations are more meaningful. He gave a talk on cloud computing (sounds dull, huh?) that was delightful and structured by a cloud metaphor and it all made sense. http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/boellstorff.php

7. Have Ruth Behar direct a photographer and/or videographer to record the whole thing and then post it online so we can all comment on it. Ruth showed her work with Cuban Jews (cool topic, eh?) and accompanied her talk with the most amazing photographs (taken by another photographer under her direction) and personal reminiscences. Ruth could direct it all and make it both beautiful and meaningful. Ruth Behar: http://www.ruthbehar.com/

8. Have a digital “film festival” in which everyone who wants can try to show their research in a one minute digital video. The model can be a video Faye Ginsburg showed by a man with ADD. It was brilliant and really immersed the viewer into his world. See Scott Logon’s work at: http://www.ligon-art.com/scottvideo.html (why aren’t we making videos like this????). Faye Ginsburg: http://as.nyu.edu/object/fayeginsburg.html

9. If there are still going to be thousands of papers, use an idea from SIGGRAPH (a very competitive, high-end, very technical digital technology conference): run a “Fast-Forward” session the first day. In this session, everyone has 30-60 seconds in which to present their main idea and get people to come hear their presentation. It is fascinating, funny, informative, exciting, and sometimes weird and it helps make conference planning easy. You also get to present your ideas to a huge audience even if they don’t come to your session. See it at: http://www.siggraph.org/s2009/performances_special_events/fast_forward/index.php

10. I could go on but other ideas, like getting the Family Guy ┬ácast to read all the papers, just might not be practical but would be a lot more interesting and thought provoking. But now I remember why I don’t like the AAA meetings. Thanks for the memories…