Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Thinking of Avatar

So the Oscars night ran its course and Bigelow kicked the shit out of Cameron. Fair and worthy I call it, and I’m glad it went that way. I was rather disappointed by Avatar, expecting more pathos and deeper characters. Personally my objection was an excess of raw material – it would have made for a great trilogy, with the first film focusing on the training, the second on the betrayal, and the third on the comeback. As it stands, despite the three-plus hours of running time, the plot and characters are just not sufficiently developed to build a real emotional connection, and you can’t empathise with them the way you did with, say, Luke Skywalker or Neo.

Still, much of the critical reception to this film had me perplexed. Some of the claims that it is ‘unoriginal,’ for example, are in my opinion short-sighted. The bare-bone plot structure was banal in films like Star Wars or The Matrix too (to stick with those examples) – archetypal, even, with tropes like ‘saving the princess’ and assuming the identity as the ‘chosen one.’ It was their technical and imaginative execution which made these movies refreshing despite the unoriginal tale, and it’s obvious that Avatar should be judged on the same grounds. Similarly, I had no gripe with the way the film picked up the culture of Native American Indians for the Navi. After all, Tolkien picked up Celtic mythology for The Lord of the Rings and Herbert did the same with Middle-Eastern imageries for Dune. Revisiting old narrative structures or cultures is not deplorable per se, as long as the execution is engaging and interesting enough. And there’s no doubt that the flatness of Avatar’s writing has been overstated, too – people call it ‘terrible,’ but if this is terrible, what do you call the new Star Wars trilogy, or the Harry Potter films?

Ultimately Avatar is a rather mediocre film in terms of script and characters (the bad guys are particularly boring), no more than that, and I think the most synthetic criticism was brought up by Cynthia Fuchs from Popmatters:

For all its powerful technologies and even Grace’s subtler dimensions, Avatar can’t get out from under its essential cardboardness. It can point to the evil effects of racism, but remains entrenched in the fundamental premise: the tribe both endangered and saved by the cowboy, the marine, the same-old romantic lead. Okay, so he’s also blue, in an appropriative and opportunistic way. He’s still the One

True, all. But while a great deal of the critics have been quick to point out these flaws, very few have been receptive to the more subtle aspects of Avatar as well. Praise for the film has been even more superficial than the criticism, and that’s why I felt the need to add my voice by means of this blog-post. The real value of Cameron’s latest creature is its successful assumption as flag-bearer for a new movement of science-fiction – one which had been timidly announced by Wall-E, and importantly stated by The Matrix. Avatar is more subtle in its discussions of virtuality than the film by the Wachowsky brothers, and I’ve seen very little analysis of this. The question was posed most pertinently by Keith Uhlich from New York Time Out, and no-one, to my knowledge, has cared to answer it:

It’s more than a little disconcerting that the film’s manufactured landscapes—with Jake Sully acting as their destined-to-be-reborn pantheistic savior—have a comparable weight to the most rugged terrain of our own great outdoors. The question lingers as the movie comes to its triumphant body-swapping close: Is this a pro-environment parable or a prophecy of virtual realities yet to come? Cameron’s new world may very well be a verdant Matrix.

Yeah. The naturalistic pantheism is couched in a discussion of virtuality, and this is the juice of the text. The opening of the film is the opening of an eye (meta-statement, but also throw-back to Blade Runner, the most representative film from the ‘old’ generation of sci-fi), and the very first words bring our attention to the nature of a dream. Of course, this has a certain ironic taste – the film is lifting a mirror to the spectators, who are also ‘opening their eyes’ to the dream represented by the story. The dream discussion is touched sparingly, but sustained throughout. Halfway through, Jake Sully tells us that real life has become the dream, and the dream has become real life – a reference to his alternation between his real body and his artificial avatar, and an obvious nod to the evolution of virtuality itself and how we experience it in contemporary culture. It should also be noted that Jake’s ‘real’ body is on a wheelchair, i.e. it requires an artificial support. The image of the wheelchair is placed against that of the artificial avatar – both are ‘wheelchairs’ of a sort, meaning that questions of what makes a body ‘real’ become more subtle and destabilized than they initially appear.

Now much like the two ‘bodies’ comment on each other’s reality, so the film sets up an antinomy between the utilitarian, sterile laboratory of Jake’s team (a tiny room) and the hallucinating outdoor scenarios of the Navi. The principle is the same – both comment on each other, questioning each other’s value, use and nature. The film points out their interdependence, and it’s particularly interesting to see the ‘middle ground’ that it sets up in the other human bases (those of the military bad guys at the excavation point). These are sort of a neutral zone, possessing qualities of the virtual and of the real at the same time. Though they belong to the ‘laboratory’ side in terms of aesthetics, they are absorbed in the narrative and seem to become a part of the same virtuality. It should be noted that the human laboratory doubles up to become the closed motion-capture rooms where the film itself was shot – again, the story borders on the meta-textual, as any discussion of virtuality executed through CGI will inevitably do. The statement ‘real life has become a dream, the dream real life’ applies to Jake as he enters the avatar, but also to Cameron as he projects this amazing world in the cinemas (more on this later).

The lab....

...and the space exposed.

I really need to see this film again – I only saw it once and more than a month ago now. But what struck me is that the film makes it a point of couching all of its own stories and myths in an explicitly virtual canvas. Even the Navi are fundamentally virtual creatures, from the neuron attachments in their ‘tails’ which are basically USB keys to their connection with the biological ‘internet’ of the trees and planet. So it is ironic that the threat posed by the humans is that, by destroying their tree, they are destroying the foundation of their virtuality – the basis of its own opposite ideology, that of loving nature. Now the film’s capacity to question – albeit in an often partial and rudimentary fashion, I’m not contesting that – the meaning of nature, artificiality and reality in contemporary culture (while showing how these concepts depend upon each other) is its greatest merit. The film’s final image, that of the virtual men chasing out the real men, is rather frightening as a prophetic metaphor. Still, I believe there is an underlying circular statement in the film – a certain sense that a cyclical view of history (the recurrence of the Western man versus American Indian trope, for instance) reflects itself in a cyclical relationship between representation and its subject matter (myth of nature coming from a virtual matrix, and vice versa).

I realise that, at best, this is more of a suggestive speculation for now than any kind of textual demonstration. As I said, I’d really have to see this film again (preferably stoned) to pick up on its subtlest nuances. What I thought was especially interesting and subtle was another dimension possessed by the film – Avatar as the most autobiographic of James Cameron’s films, and the figure of Jake Sully as a re-narration of Cameron’s ‘epic’ quest to narrate stuff. Two things pop to mind immediately.

1. The film has received much criticism for its ‘banality,’ and one example of this is the presence of space marines – a rather dated trope. But what people forget is that space marines, in cinema, were popularised by Cameron himself – Aliens practically defined the figure, and it’s unbelievable just how successful and pervasive their imagery has become (check out this cut-scene within the video-game Halo – it’s practically a remake, and this was made in 2001!). Avatar goes to great lengths to make the cliché of the ‘space marine’ a negative one, even getting to the point of re-staging the ending of Aliens but inverting the original ethical and aesthetical register (the monsters have become the good guys, the good guys have become the monsters). The ‘clichéd’ representation of the marines is in reality an incredibly assertive act of revisionism – one which is particularly notable because Cameron is doing it with his own work (much like Jake is ‘betraying’ his own kind). After Avatar, representing a space marine will necessarily mean making a statement, taking a position, endorsing an ideology (with or against Cameron’s film). The figure of the marine will never be ‘neutral’ again. Never. The space marine is dead, and the alien who killed him has assumed his shape.

2. The second obvious source of interest, in terms of Avatar’s relation to Cameron himself, is the paratextual quality of the film (more so than the metatextual qualities, I would say). The film tells a story, but at the same time it is a story – the (hi)story of cinematography itself. For all of its megalomania, Avatar is in fact as distant from vanity as you can imagine. It does not intend to ‘last forever.’ It doesn’t want to be a milestone – if not as a milestone of transience, that is. Its interest is ancestral, primary, archeological even – it goes back to the old function of cinema as emotional catharsis by purely technical means; to a time when going to a rollercoaster and then to the movies to see the miracle of moving images was fundamentally the same thing (much like, say, the novel in its ancestral form used to be similar in nature to the transient entertainment of social gossip). Aaron Sagers, still from Popmatters, puts it in these words:

When color came to cinema in the early 20th century, or when silent film gave way to talkies in the ‘20s, I was a few decades shy of making my entrance. Nor was I alive for the golden era of 3-D films in the ‘50s. I also barely made it in time to catch the beginning of the blockbuster film era in the late ’70s. But I’m clearly here for the beginning of the next movement of film, and it is Avatar. It’s too bad I didn’t get that a little earlier[…] Avatar has surprised me more than any other movie in a while. It reminded me that the size of a movie is far greater than the screen it’s shown on, and it provided a well-deserved slap to not underestimate the audience’s willingness to embrace a new kind of cinema.

What’s really interesting is how self-aware the film is of being itself a greater story than that which it tells. The change that is going on in cinemas has a certain epic nature which the film itself tries to reflect, lifting up a mirror to the bespectacled audience with the opening eye at the beginning. This kind of ambition is not strictly cinematographic and therefore cannot be evaluated according to our usual standards. You cannot use it to say that the film is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Like Star Wars before it, Avatar has a dimension which goes well beyond the superficial quality of the text as a narrative. Its history will be more than its story, and for this reason it is a story that makes history. Since you cannot respond to something like this by ordinary critical standards (for criticism is already part of the film’s history), it is only fair that Avatar should have been defeated on the arena of the Oscars.

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