The Power of Myth

All apologies to James Cameron.

A while back, I wrote a half-assed comment saying, “Now if only Shakespeare had written Avatar.” That was obviously before I had seen Avatar. [Note to self: avoid commentary, public or otherwise, on matters you haven’t experienced for yourself.]

God only knows what sort of screenwriter — or filmmaker – Shakespeare might have been. Unlike the great novelists who came to Hollywood in bygone eras and failed, he — with his grounding in acting and drama and superiority in general — would no doubt have been an A-lister. But I don’t know if Avatar would have been up his alley.

Makes for a great Starbucks debate, though. The man who wrote Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lear and the Tempest would certainly have the chops to do anything he felt like; and Avatar falls within the same visceral terrain, more or less.

But walking out of the IMAX theater, satisfied in a profound way like I haven’t been since I was a kid after having watched Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was grateful that Cameron had been at the reigns of this one, and that myth had triumphed in a Joseph Campbell sense.

I’m not sure where Shakespeare would have taken the story. Who knows, but it might have been even greater. I just know that Avatar is perfect in everything it is and aspires to be.

James Cameron truly is the king of the world when it comes to cinematic storytelling on a grand scale. By the time its run is finished, Avatar will have become either the first or second most successful global boxoffice smash for all time, giving Mr. Cameron the #1 and #2 slots (Titanic occupying the other). That’s a staggering feat.

But beyond the popularity, and I believe driving it, is the way it connects to our primal desire for Jungian dreammaking to flourish and survive — and even, in this case, to triumph.

It wasn’t just any ogre the feminine world of Pandora was fighting, but the military might of a masculine, Western empire. Intuition, a deep connection to all living things (a la The Force from Star Wars), fidelity and serendipity — even monogamy — are set against raw brawn and visceral power evincing a primal desire for acquisition at any cost. This is more than a fictional story — it is a metaphor for the particular time in which we live.

Hamlet is Hamlet and Avatar is Avatar. It’s not an either/or question but a celebration of both. Great storytelling is what matters at the end of the day.

While Hamlet enlightens me about the complex world of motivations in which I live, Avatar inspires me to hold onto profound psychological and spiritual metaphors I want to preserve — myths to live by, as Joseph Campbell called them.

And so, in the words of Kurt Cobain — all apologies, Mr. Cameron. Thanks for giving me a cinematic experience I won’t soon forget.

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