Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: Blindness in an Old New Vision

I witnessed the spectacle of Avatar in 3D on the weekend. It was a late night showing and the cinema was totally crowded. The audience applauded at the end, and I understand why. Visually, Cameron's film is an amazing piece of work. Nothing is spared in the optical extravaganza that fills the 162 minutes film. On the other hand, I found the narrative at times inconsistent and unoriginal. In Avatar we are witnessing a recounting of Dances with Wolves, told by J. J. Rousseau with a bible in his hand. The film can be excused for this, as the image of the forests of Pandora are what people have come to see. But it is the imaging of the film that actually drives so much of the narrative.

In a similar sense to a computer game being composed of its own narrative architecture, the visual components of Avatar are primary in how the story is conveyed. The stereoscopic cameras (pictured above) are used to place the viewer in the perspective of a witness, in regards to the narrative action of the film. Action sequences are not shot in panorama (although there are plenty of such shots in the film), but are composed by a series of point of view shots from within the action. What is the result in the reception of the narrative? I gained some idea when I stumbled upon the Avatar fan site;

"I've read on this thread and various other sources on the web about Avatar fans feeling heightened sense of mood changes along the lines of despair and depression from the realization that Pandora and all of it's inhabitants are not tangible. I have also read about fleeting thoughts of suicide, self induced coma, and prolonged sleep from members of this website and other websites as possible ways to physically and metaphysically connect with Pandora and its inhabitants".

"I've had problems with depression for years, and the first time I saw Avatar didn't help. My entire reality was shattered, so to speak. there was such a wave of emotions flowing through me that I really didn't know what to feel. I simply had to see it again, which helped a bit. A little less shock and awe, but still some general depression with the reality of how much of a crap-hole this planet is".

"There's something about the Na'vi that I just love to watch. They must have stuff that we Sky People do not..the connection with their world, animals and each other that I wish was possible to obtain".

"I also plan to hand out ballot papers during the convention, but I will be giving them to everybody, including non-Avatar fans to ensure a fair referendum. The issue will be as follows:

Option A: The Na'vi remaining part of Avatar based fangroups (An autonomous tribe will not be formed) (the status quo)
Option B: The Na'vi becoming a self governing tribe according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Option C: The Na'vi becoming a new ethnic group and community in hopes of "self-determination"

I am astounded by the reactions of these (and many many more) people to the film. Especially when one thinks of the struggle by actual indigenous groups in the world (i.e. planet Earth) to survive in the present moment as distinct cultures. Consider a story such as that of anti-mining activist Dora “Alicia” Sorto Recinos, who was murdered last week in El Salvador, while carrying her two year-old child. Is anyone in the United States or Europe likely to form a tribe dedicated to the Environmental Committee of Cabañas? No, I doubt it. But the giant blue forest-dwellers of Pandora seem to have awoken an almost Noble Savage fantasy in the minds of many. The prospect of a stunning, green, far away world where apparent harmony with natural forces is what governs society is attractive to many people. The visual technologies of Avatar have succeeded in bringing the image of such a place into such a sharp focus that people are willing to believe that it is possible for it to exist.

"First of all I would like to say that everything on Pandora is 100% scientifically possible, yes even the floating mountains. but more to the point I would like to direct everyone's attention to these two articles about more or less the same thing: we may very well discover a planet a like Pandora within the next few years (i'm not sure how many few is supposed to be but lets be reasonable and say 10 years.) For all we know now, there could be a planet out there very similar to Pandora, all we need to do is discover it!

I would suggest that people who are looking for a deeper sense of meaning in their lives check out sites such as Intercontinental Cry, a blog that focuses on "the world's many indigenous struggles, and reading material focused on alternatives, movements, social issues, and related". Or the website Conversations with the Earth:

Conversations with the Earth is a collaboration between an international indigenous-led advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples Land Is Life, an expert in participatory video, InsightShare, and a Paris-based photographer, curator, and specialist in maintaining oral traditions, Nicolas Villaume, founder of Conversations du Monde. CWE also draws on contributions from a range of editorial sources, including Project Word, a media NGO that helps develop journalism articles on indigenous communities and by native writers.

A generally felt need for a more engaged sense of presence in relation to the biological processes of the planet is reflected in both the forums of Naviblue and in the enormous earnings of the film. In Avatar, we are presented with an idealized image of the Other, where any need to question the values of our late Capitalist, post-industrialized, globalized world are relieved by the Hollywood fantasy that it will 'all be right in the end'.

The POV created in Avatar places the experiencing of the narrative of the film in the sight of one sharing the struggle of the Na'vi. A struggle for what their savior, the ex-marine 'gone native' Jake Scully describes as "our land". The contradictions are many and the vision as old as it is new. The power of new forms of cinematography to present these old subjects in new skins is something we shall be seeing more of in the near future. Where they shall lead people is going to be interesting to watch. Where it has come from is not such a mystery:

A detail from Benjamin West's heroic, neoclassical history painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1771), depicting an idealized American Indian.


Dennis said...

I agree with your take on Avatar. I had high hopes in the beginning with the capitalistic ideals as the center of the conflict, but I felt like they even went away from that to simply portray the antagonist as a cold-hearted general who enjoyed killing savages before dinner.

Post-production was brilliant, though

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Yes Dennis, I also thought the Colonel Miles Quaritch character was a heavy handed figure. When you consider that most United States commanding officers have some training beyond the stereotypical WWII 'coming-up-through-the-ranks' idea. It was an anachronistic portrayal of a military figure, considering it was supposedly set in the year 2154.

And yes, post-production is astounding and that is why it is going to be a turning point in the history of film.

Anthony Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ant sullivan said...

Hi James.

I was very impressed with Avatar, it is of a quality that brings change not just to the medium but maybe to society as well. It was wonderful to loose myself in the moment and just enjoy the spectacle and be entertained like this, even when in the back of my mind I recognise this as a retelling of the American foundation myth of Pocahontas, the thought arises “that all art is political”.

The film's heroic militarism is similar to the series of warrior adventures of the 1980’s that re-imagined and popularised US militarism and lead to the invasions of Panama, Granada and ultimately to Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet touches on the failure of humanity and morals that problemised and undermined popular support of the military culture in 1970’s post Vietnam American war movies (I love the smell of napalm in the morning!).

The fetishistic glorification of the Sci-fi military hardware and guns, and the George W Bush era Commander who thinks “terror should be fought with terror” are emblematic of the recent and still dominate US culture of the past decade. While the honest, wheel chair bound vet just doing the best he can and the pilot who has to turn away, channels the rising anger and discontent for the excess and human waste of US involvement in foreign conflicts that are not going well and a deep recession fuelled by Wall St greed. When combined with the earth mother ideology of Pandora and international concerns with climate change this movie is tapping deep currents in the present society; and cinemas continue to be completely sold out weeks after the movie has opened in Australia, even mid week.

That the movie industry has embraced an anti-war movie at this time and used the high quality cutting edge 3D technology about to be released on televisions is hardly surprising. Brecht said that art is not a mirror held up to society but a hammer to shape it. Like the economic stimulus that governments are using to cushion the fall of their financial high fliers (and somewhat limit the fallout on the rest of us) this detournement of the military and Green desires works to redirect resentments and a desire for change, that unchecked could lead to a demand for revolutionary change in politics, industry and society.

Of course revolutionary change is usually quite messy so I hope this is a harbinger of the evolutionary change that we need. Enough blood has been split lately and it is becoming clearer to more and more people that if we don’t rein in our industrial and consumer excesses somewhat, we may all have to start considering the finer points of ark building while species becoming are going extinct by the day!
(ps: tell all your friends to go – it’s an amazing movie).

Cheers Ant

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Hi Ant,

So nice to hear from you. It has been a while.

I agree that Avatar is an important film. I also agree there are distinct themes that challenge some of the recent excesses of the United States administration. Coming from a major Hollywood studio, the use of popular themes that are packaged with ancient forms is not new. Utopia is an effective device for a story, but it does not empower its actors. It is 'no place' and anyone there is 'no one'. We remain passive but central in the machinery of the form:

"They search into the secrets of nature, so they not only find this study highly agreeable, but think that such inquiries are very acceptable to the Author of nature; and imagine, that as He, like the inventors of curious engines amongst mankind, has exposed this great machine of the universe to the view of the only creatures capable of contemplating it, so an exact and curious observer, who admires His workmanship, is much more acceptable to Him than one of the herd, who, like a beast incapable of reason, looks on this glorious scene with the eyes of a dull and unconcerned spectator." More, Utopia. (1516)

As to the revolution, I think we are a long way from it in regards to Avatar. The politics of identity (something I tried to refer to with the quotes from the Avatar fan site) is something we all contend with. There is no longer a Winter Palace to storm or a single street to take over (or even a highrise tower to crash an airplane into). The Brechtian view of art is so distinctly premised on a modernist perspective that it seems quaint now. Art is business (read: consumption, monetary value, exchange, surplus and hierarchy), and if it is not is contends with the politics of space in an almost siege-like situation.

The character of Scully was a hero in the avatar sense, who descends from the clouds to change things. To basically correct wrongs according to a moral code that is never questioned. He is the veteran, the wounded healer who has tasted pain and has grown larger than it. The Sigourney Weaver character provides an interesting counterpoint to the character of Scully. The well-meaning scientist who does not make it (written without revealing too much of the plot) in contrast to the man of action. I think of references to climate change and a general mistrust of the boffins in society with Weaver's character.

We identify with the Scully character, his fumbling attempts to understand his situation and how he is being manipulated. But he emerges the lone hero, the masculine savior who regains his strength and even gets the girl.

I think this is the main problem with the film. Bourgeois individualism is not challenged in the narrative. It is not the collective mind of the Na'vi which saves them, but the actions of the lone hero. Distance is maintained in the construction of the Scully character for those viewing the film. The viewers are positioned in close visual relation to the action, but it is as one of the masses watching Scully save us.

just a rave...but thanks for the inspiring words Ant...

Anonymous said...

Jim, I love your take on the film. I also wanted to add one thing (I haven't seen the film yet) that I found surprising no one had mentioned. It is not just a major Hollywood studio -- it is a film whose profits support Rupert Murdoch his right wing, climate change denying media organizations that make up NewsCorp:

Ben said...

Anonymous Rupert Murdoch seemed to really enjoy himself during his viewing of Avatar according to Micheal Wolf from vanity Fair: