I didn't walk out of Avatar after two of its three hours because I was offended politically, spiritually, or grammatically on behalf of indigenous cultures around the world, as some people were.
I even thought it was kind of fun to pick out the cultural references: Hey! It's the Maori! ...Massai! ...Marines!
I walked out because it was too long, too predictable, too much the self-indulgent project of someone with enough money and power to ignore any checks and balances on his story.
But I think I might have liked it when I was fourteen, the year, godforgiveme, I loved The Trial of Billy Jack.
You know that movie?
It was pretty vivid, I guess, because I remember it fairly well.
It follows the same formula Avatar and Dances with Wolves do:
faux Native guy outperforms Native folk in noble hearted one-with-the-Earthness. Except it also manages to preach nonviolence while serving up lots of Billy Jack's righteous ass-kicking. You get to enjoy this yet accept that Billy truly believes in a Higher Way. It's just that the bad guys are so bad, it makes him crazy.
Come to think of it, that was kind of fun too: you got to have your Gandhi cake and eat Malcolm X cake too.
I don't think these stories are necessarily evil, even when they're lies. They're what Star Trek circles call Mary Sue stories.
"Mary Sue", in a fan-written story, is a young female civilian plunked onboard the Enterprise for some reason. The captain (or whomever the author prefers) falls in love with her, for her incredible pluck, beauty, and uncanny knowledge of warp speed, which saves the day.
Mary Sues represent their authors (and her readers), of course.
Billy Jack and the Avatar guy are Mary Sue-esque fantasy figures.
Where these "let me imagine myself the hero of the tale" fantasies bug me is
1. when they sell themselves as history, or,
2. when they're crap storytelling.
Kevin Costner's character in Dances with Wolves is a Mary Sue too, and the movie's set in a real place and time, with some real characters.
But it's not exactly accurate, at that.
As Paul Chaat Smith writes in "Land of a Thousand Dances" :
"[The film] is based on a novel and a screenplay about Comanches, and then shifted to South Dakota only after the production designer––and this is kind of poignant––finds a shortage of buffalo in Oklahoma. And not a single Comanche or Kiowa character, some based on actual historical figures, is changed.I mean, yo, Kevin, Mike [Blake, writer]: saying Ten Bears is Sioux is like saying Winston Churchill is Albanian.In the movies you can do anything... but don't toss out bouquets for service to the struggle and for historical truth."
Now, I live next door to South Dakota, and an installment in the Indian Wars between the U.S. government and Native peoples took place there when I was twelve, at the Wounded Knee siege in 1973.
I know Hollywood is all about entertainment, of course, but I cringe when Kevin Costner gives this history the Mary Sue treatment.
If it's not your history, these faux-historical movies feel like fantasy. I wonder if I'd love The Lives of Others so much, or at all, if I were East German.
We're supposed to fall in love with this Stasi guy who has destroyed countless lives because he is moved to tears by a piece of music?
Give me a break!
But to me, who has about as much personal connection to East Germany as I do to the LA Lakers (I don't even know what sport they play), Lives is a moral fairy tale spinning the happy message that Art Changes Hearts.
I love that, even though I doubt whether it's exactly true. And I'm not about to believe I know anything about East Germany because I own the DVD.
It's sci-fi, not history, so I was willing to go lightly. If the movie had been 90 minutes, I'd have enjoyed it. But as it was, it reminded me of when I was a kid and my father would predict, stopped at a traffic light, exactly when the light was going to turn green.
I thought he had some kind of magic.
Once I figured out the trick, the magic disappeared.
Before Avatar even starts, you know when the stoplights are going to change, of course. It uses an old formula, which can work well, but you gotta dress it up with other stuff--character, say--or else you're just sitting at a red light.
What movies do best, I believe, is tell a story. True, false, whatever, everything in the movie ideally should serve the story. As I recall, Dances with Wolves and Billy Jack both did that pretty well, whether I liked the movies or not.
But Avatar didn't tell its story well. It dragged on and on because, I suspected, the director was in love with his own young self. And all the pretty plants on Pandora couldn't keep me interested in James Cameron at fifteen.
I didn't leave because I was outraged.
I left because I was bored.
 Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Smith writes: "...it’s a book title, folks, not to be taken literally. Of course I don’t mean everything. Just Most Things. And the You really means We, as in all of Us."
[Other movies I've walked out of.]