Reason #1: John Smith / Pocahontas stories suck
Some people remember 1995 for the OJ Trial. I remember it as the year the torch was passed in movie animation, when Toy Story proved that Pixar was the future and Disney had to get on board or get out of the way. At least, that’s one side of the story — that in 1995, Toy Story was awesome. But there’s another side of the story, which is that, in 1995, Pocahontas sucked.
After Pocahontas, Disney could never again call itself the King of animation. While it still did fine at the box office, the streak that ran from The Little Mermaid through Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast to The Lion King finally snapped. Disney would love to tell you that it was because technology trumped talent and experience, but really, it was because Pocahontas stories suck, and everybody knows it. They threw their weight behind a lost cause, and they, shocker, lost.
Still, moviemakers keep insisting on pumping out the darned things like John Smith and Pocahontas are some legendary mythological couple whose tale speaks to the human condition and stands the test of time.
Unfortunately, they’re not. The John Smith / Pocahontas story is awful, and the insistence on telling it over and over again is a foolhardy exercise in wishful thinking. From what it seems, Avatar is at its heart a John Smith / Pocahontas story — a man who is a bit of a ragtag outcast from a company of colonists goes to meet the natives and accidentally falls in love with a native woman, who teaches him the beauty of her world even as tries to decide whether or not to conquer it. Avatar’s participation in the John Smith / Pocahontas quasi-mythological sham is as strong an indication ahead of time as you are going to get that it will suck.
This realization came to me about a month ago as I started falling asleep halfway into the “watch Colin Farrel doing nothing” / “listen to James Horner doing nothing” film The New World. This meditative memory movie about Jamestown, John Smith and Pocahontas was critically acclaimed for its treatment of historical perspective — it grafts vivid moments of immediate observation to constructed personal meaning through reflective narration, self-conscious pacing, subtle handling of theme and context, and a deliberate, intense treatment of what is not said or done. It’s the birth of America, painted in fleeting images of Virginia mangroves.
The New World is an impressive piece of directorial craft, and I see where the praise is earned. It also sucks a whole lot. Like, it sucks donkey balls sucks — unambiguously (as opposed to all the ambiguous donkey balls out there). I would not recommend watching it.
(To be fair, I did turn it off after some interminable stretch of time, which was still before Christian Bale showed up, so maybe it eventually got better. But the part I saw was miserable. Brilliant, but really miserable.)
The director has plenty to say about landscape, about people meeting people, about the exotic, the immediate, and the distant — but the story is dead weight. It feels like it’s going for what Roman “The Rapist” Polanski’s MacBeth or Sean “The Rapists for $200” Connery’s Robin and Marian did — pull the audience into a challenging visual and symbolic vocabulary with an understated take on a classic tale, Except, because the tale in The New World is neither classic nor interesting, The New World repels us from its stirring and complex imagery with half-apologist, half-exoticist hot streaks of disappointment.
I’m sure we all wish the John Smith / Pocahontas story were good. We wish Vanessa Williams and Mel Gibson could really fall in love, we wish it weren’t so creepy when Colin Farrell was making eyes at that little girl as she wanders about dehumanizing herself, styling herself a cross between Dr. Dolittle and Jessica Rabbit. It would be convenient to contemporary political consensus and to audience appetite for historical romance for it to be so. It would be a nice counterpoint to all the tales of empire that tend to come down pretty strongly against romance as a viable alternative to conquest.
I mean, love conquers all, right? Right? Please tell me that’s right?
Unfortunately, it isn’t, at least not in the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. In the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, love is a big part of the problem, but nobody ever takes this problem seriously, so the story flops. There are stories that support this much hoped-for thesis, that people can find in each other a new way of living and understanding, but this isn’t one of them. All the movies people make leaning on this thesis and based on this story get lost and end up sucking.
The first clue that the John Smith / Pocahontas story sucks is the ever-haunting sense that the ending is always wrong. In real life, the story ends in a sloppy, multideterministic way characteristic of real life: Pocahontas got together with John Rolfe, not Smith, and left her people to go live in Europe, where she enjoyed some celebrity. Eventually, her people were driven like leaves before the wind out of their homelands and Pocahontas died of diseases to which she had no natural antibodies.
This is unsatisfying, which is why the “John Smith / Pocahontas” story is usually a drastic fictionalized departure in tone and plot from what actually happened. Usually, there’s a notion that she should or wanted to end up with John Smith, who is really a pretty big d-bag.
Still, the story intuitively points in that direction. Even people who know the real story well walk into Pocahontas stories assuming she’s going to end up with John Smith, having to correct themselves (and usually others) that, no, that isn’t how it ends. They also assume her people will achieve some sort of happy ending — that some sort of reconciliation will be affected or the natural world will be saved from the ravages of the white man by the power of love. That John Smith, Mr. “He who does not work shall not eat,” learns something about nature and cultural diversity from the whole experience.
There is no evidence that he did so, and shoehorning it into the story always seems false because it contradicts with so much of the other stuff that is going on.
Once you really dig into fictionalizing the history to make a John Smith / Pocahontas movie, the first thing you have to do is fix the ending, and I have yet to find a solution that actually works — whether you’re talking about Disney’s Pocahontas, Cameron’s Avatar, or Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest.
Neither the happy “let’s all frolic in the forest” ending, nor the “I’m going to go to England with John Rolfe and I’ll miss you — remember everything we learned together” work, and there isn’t a comfortable place along the continuum for it to work either. You end up with a story template that is in itself a huge problem.
Why pick a “classic” story to base your fiction on if the template is ugly — if the ending always has irreparable problems? You pick a template because it makes things easier, cleaner and more elegant, not to make your movie more difficult to make and alienate your audience.
Think of Hercules on his funeral pyre wearing the cursed cloak that killed him, given him by his wife without her knowledge or intent — and compare it to Darth Vader on his funeral pyre, in his cursed suit also given him by his wife sort of by accident. Two men of power felled by their misunderstanding of love — there’s a reason the scene repeats, and there’s a reason it ends multiple good stories.
There’s reason nobody ever watches Disney’s Pocahontas and why nobody ever gets my jokes that quote “Colors of the Wind.” It’s because the structure of the underlying story sucks, as the structure of Avatar will suck, too.
The second clue the John Smith / Pocahontas story sucks is its contradictory way of looking at the differences between races. On one hand, we are to believe that the bond of love, or at least of curiosity and excitement, between John Smith and Pocahontas is enough to build a bridge, if only for a moment, between their vastly disparate peoples.
But on the other hand, every version of the John Smith / Pocahontas story I’ve ever seen treats her as extremely exotic. She has magical powers, she can talk to animals, she has a Sisters of Avalon nature virgin sex goddess vibe going on, whatever. She’s almost always in some sort of slinky imagined Native American garb — more than she wore in real life when with her people, but as it is for the sake of provocation, not accuracy. Pocahontas as superhot crunchy sex spirit is so ingrained in the story that, if the woman isn’t depicted as sexually exotic, if that isn’t one of John Smith’s main motivations in wanting to be with her, it isn’t a Pocahontas story.
But if the chief quality of Pocahontas is that she is extremely different from John Smith to the point of not even qualifying as human in any way he can understand, then she fails to build a bridge between peoples — their relationship fails to serve as a lever for communication, mercy and understanding. She actually just further “otherizes” Native Americans and advances the notion that they are not people in the same way white folks are people.
If this story is supposed to teach us something about how not to colonize people, then why is the central romance itself a colonization?
The archetypical, fictional Pocahontas is a comfortable meeting place for discussions of “diversity,” but not a good one for actually talking about race. She lends historical legitimacy to the notion that people who are different from each other should try to get along, but she reaffirms prejudices rather than shedding light on them. She encourages us to see each other as something other than enemies, but also as something other than equals. She is the American landscape that is begging the European man to take what he wants from her. She’s the head Uncle Tom of a fictional nation of magical Indians that would be more at home in Never Never Land than they ever would be on the coast of Virginia.
Of course, what she really wants is to sleep with white dudes. That is awfully convenient when building an imperial narrative for white dudes. And any pretentions this story ever has to being about how imperialistic white dudes shouldn’t take what they want when they want is undermined by its reckless — and essential — fetishization of the exotic.
The worst part of all this is that we know the John Smith / Pocahontas bond fails. We know her people — indeed, all the peoples similar to hers for thousands of miles in any overland direction — are eventually all but exterminated by the buddies of this guy she just had to save from Powhatan’s wrath. And we know that the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas is a model for exactly how that is going to happen.
And yet the Pocahontas story is still put out there as something positive, as a mark of hope, as a heroic narrative of love and understanding, rather than the first act in a massive, massive tragedy.
Sure, it’s positive, fun and exciting for the couple of dudes who get to have sex with Pocahontas, but it sure sucks for everybody else!
The tale of John Smith and Pocahontas is a boulder The New World shoves uphill for three hours. It’s bad news that Avatar has its own John Smith / Pocahontas boulder and its own three hours of ours to waste pushing it. The whole thing feels dirty and dishonest, as I don’t doubt it will in Avatar when Sam Worthington inexplicably and inevitably falls in love with the CGI cat lady and they save Christmas or whatever the frig they end up doing.
You want a good narrative about forbidden love across different peoples set against the clash of civilizations and the expanding drive to colony and empire? You want a story that is still pretty sexist, but that at least doesn’t suck about a woman who makes a questionable decision to spare a man for sexual reasons and ends up paying for it in the eventual demise of her country? Give me Dido and Aeneas (the Roman myth in any of its forms) over Pocahontas any day of the week. At least Dido and Aeneas acknowledges what is actually at stake in the push for empire. At least it properly locates the power of eros in the scope of human endeavor (i.e., not strong or sincere enough to slow down people who are seriously committed to taking over other people’s countries — and usually actually encouraging them).
Avatar better have a really sad ending, because if these cat people are actually saved because Sam Worthington gets a fur-on for one of them, that’s just nonsense.
But no, I think Avatar, like most Pocahontas stories, will shoot for a happy or ambiguous ending by trying to play it both ways — endorsing colonialism in its romantic narrative while condemning it in its political narrative, leaving it a broken mess of pronouns severed from antecedents and modifiers cut adrift from what they modify.
In other words, because it will be dressed up as an unconventional political movie, but will actually be a conventional romance that endorses the very status quo it attacks, Avatar will meander into a train wreck with itself and will suck.
And also because of the cats with human boobs. Freakin’ cat boobies.