About That There Avatar Movie

Posted by on March 6th, 2010 at 1:57 AM

Some disappointment was expressed that I posted on Avatar (which Price Waterhouse might be anointing with a Best Picture Oscar e’en as we speak) with no more to say than a one line joke.  If I did have something to say about it, it would be what Caleb Crain had to say.

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3 Responses to “About That There Avatar Movie”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Thanks for linking to the Crain review, which was very interesting. He’s such a gifted writer. His essay overlaps with my own sense of the movie, which can be found here: http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/avatar-and-the-way-we-live-now/

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    Crain’s comparison of the Na’vi with vampires is clever and amusing, yet his piece is mostly B.S. I’ll return to flail away at it later (“it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it”), but first…

    As it turns out, Jeet, your essay is vastly superior (even in its title) and much better thought-out. No sinister witticisms like comparing Sully’s pod to a coffin, but your last paragraph is a concise, incisive comment on the paradox of the movie, and how it reflects reality.

    (Did Cameron have in mind a “Second Life”-type computer game equivalent while making “Avatar”? Surely it would be huge. I’ve never been interested in them m’self, but inhabiting Pandora as a Na’vi would be exceedingly tempting.)

    Ah, the irony that today’s youths satisfy their craving for adventure and challenges in about the safest method one could.

    For Pete’s sake, needlepoint is more dangerous than computer gaming!

  3. Mike Hunter says:

    (From Caleb Crain’s essay)
    James Cameron’s 3-D movie Avatar gave me a four-hour headache. Probably the headache was caused by a combination of the 3-D effect, a seat near the front and at the far edge of the theater, the way the 3-D glasses skewed my plain old glasses beneath…

    Ya think? (BTW, my own glasses handled the 3-D pair on top with no problem…)

    Might as well say, “this movie was incomprehensible and emotionally uninvolving. Probably the cause was that I sat in the farthest row back, turned half-facing the door, with glare from people constantly coming and going hitting my eyes; sandwiched between two couples with crying babies. But I can’t help but also attribute…”

    …the headache to the movie’s moral corruptness.

    Whereas Rex Reed pumped up his own movie reviews by having them either be “the worst movie of all time” or a towering masterpiece, here we have (dub in creepy sound effect)… MORAL CORRUPTNESS!

    …It’s a finished corruptness. The easiest way I can think of to describe it is by comparison with The Matrix, a movie which is merely disingenuous, and to some extent struggling with its disingenuousness. The moral lesson that The Matrix purports to offer is that the glossy magic of life inside a simulation distracts from painful truth. But the moral problem faced by The Matrix is that this lesson is betrayed by the fun that the movie has in playing inside the simulation. A viewer enjoys the scenes of jumping over buildings, and of freezing explosions and fistfights in midair and then rotoscoping through them. In fact, the viewer enjoys them much more than the scenes of what, within the conceit of the movie, is considered reality…

    Um. So, The Matrix shows that life inside a simulation is like “glossy magic [compared to] painful truth.” And, the movie is “disingenious” because viewers find scenes set within its “glossy magic” world more enjoyable than the “painful truth” part?

    Naturally, what’s left out here – disingeniously – is that there’s much of life within the Matrix, such as Neo’s claustrophobic, cluttered nerd-lair of an apartment, or his everyday job, which are blah. Indeed, Agent Smith, lambasting the captured Morpheus, tells how previous Matrixes had been a paradise, which humans rejected; preferring a dreary world like that of modern industrial civilization.

    Moreover, adding to Crain’s disingeniousness, there are plenty of thrilling adventures in the movie which occur in non-Matrix reality.

    …If he has really joined the blue-pill team, he ought to be sitting down to another bowl of bacterial gruel with his ragged, unshowered friends, and recommitting himself to the struggle. Instead he’s leaping around in a Prada suit. So the viewer departs from the movie with a slightly queasy feeling, a suspicion that visual pleasures aren’t to be trusted.

    (????) I’d be curious how many viewers actually left the movie with the “slightly queasy feeling” Crain applies with omniscient assurance. And, as with any Philip K. Dick-type “can we really trust what we think is reality”-type tale, what was felt was more likely to be an enjoyable frisson.

    That queasiness is the trace of the movie’s attenuated honesty. And such queasiness and honesty are completely absent from Avatar. Some might protest: But what about Avatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion, planted by Cameron with the cynical intention of distracting the viewer from the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness. The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned.

    A steaming bucketload of… disingeniousness. The world of Pandora and its inhabitants might have been created for the movie by computer FX; yet, within the movie, it’s every bit as real as the grimy, industrial-grey base the colonials inhabit.

    Where, pray tell, in that militaristic/industrial compound, is there the slightest trace of “our own…realm of nature”? Is Cameron being deceptive by showing that nature – even an alien version; even one filled with fearsome predators – is more appealing than a crowded, mechanized, armored compound?

    And in that future world, nature on Earth has been destroyed; we’re told the humans “killed their mother,” inhabit a “dying world.”

    Crain’s smug argument reeks of the easy moralizing – by folks whose lives just happen to be quite comfy – against “escapism.” Rich white folks, raised in loving families, tut-tut in bewilderment about those slum kids who would want to “escape reality with drugs.”

    …But whereas Neo jacks into a simulation, Sully jacks into to a new, improved nature…

    To trash Avatar for “moral corruptness,” Crain describes Pandora as an “improved nature.” So, what’s the actual “nature” which he maintains we are being given a phony, glittery alternative to? The cruddy base? The polluted, dying Earth? There’s no nature there, unless Crain is of the modern attitude which considers a mall to be as much “nature” as a waterfall.

    The Na’vi respect the balance of nature. They commune with a deist-ecological world-spirit.

    Or so the movie would have you believe. Of course you don’t really believe it. You know objectively that you’re watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na’vi are “digital natives,” to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception….

    Of course, we also know objectively that we’re watching the highly-skilled product of actors, set and prop builders, costume designers. Same as in any other non-documentary movie.

    So, where’s Crain’s condemnation of Casablanca, West Side Story, The Three Musketeers, and so forth, as “ideological deception” via celluloid? Selling us a false “nature,” an alternative reality filled with good-looking Good Guys, sinister villains, romance, derring-do, and satisfying endings?

    …In order to ride a horse-like creature, for instance, Sully is instructed to first connect his ponytail-USB port to the horse’s…Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.

    Dunno if anyone’s coined the phrase before, but this section sure makes Crain sound like a “techno-retard.” Who, when shown communion with nature, its animals, a greater Spirit, the possibility that our deeper Self can survive our flesh, can only blithely relate them to USB ports, Google Docs, and Facebook.

    No wonder he’s so contemptuous of the flora and fauna of Pandora being offered up as a phony escape, maintaining Sully should instead embrace the mechanized metal-and-plastic sterility of the compound. Because some can’t truly see nature; can only think in asinine, ephemeral analogies such as Google Docs; who, when shown an ecstatic tribal ritual, can only think of…Facebook.

    No wonder Crain rips Cameron’s movie for its “smug anti-corporate plot”; Crain is such a logo-plastered child of corporate society (though of course he surely sees himself as individualistic and proudly independent) that its gadgets and creations are “nature” to him.

    …In reality—in the reality outside the movie—the Na’vi, too, are a product of corporate America and are creatures of technology, not nature….

    Whoa! Whatta mind-bender! And in what way does this distinguish them from, say, Native Americans in non-documentary movies? Costumed, artfully lit and made up, handed lines? In English? Crain might say, the Na’vi are created digitally; but the main parts were played by flesh-and-blood actors whose other selves were no more than computer-age equivalents of make-up and prosthetics; where what we see and respond to might now be pixels, while in old film classics were patterns formed on photosensitive strips of plastic.

    Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology…

    Hogwash. One is reminded of how, to right-wingers, those who oppose polluting the environment, clear-cutting of forests, covering fields with concrete, are decried as “Luddites” who would turn us back to the Stone Age. And who hate capitalism, too!

    What these “tree huggers” are opposed to is a destructive, heedless, ecologically-destructive use of technology.

    And, as with Avatar, these people share the awareness of how technological, Western society has used the disproportionate, amoral power its machines and weapons gave it, to oppress, crush, steal from and slaughter native peoples who lived far more harmoniously with nature.

    …and that the Na’vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it. That’s rank mystification, and one has to wonder about motive.

    Crain’s argument is sheer bullshitification, and one has to wonder about motive. That he’s but another child – in more ways than one – of industrial society, smugly unaware of what lies beyond its physical and mental parameters, and peeved when anyone finds fault with it (surely his toys are the best!) is what comes to mind.

    I think there are aspects of being human that a movie like Avatar wants to collude with its viewers in denying—aspects of need and of unfixable brokenness. There are traces of this denial in the movie. We never see the Na’vi eating, for instance, except when the transcarnated Sully briefly samples a significantly pomegranate-like fruit. Yet they have high, sharp canines. Vampire-like canines. Indeed, Sully turns into a Na’vi after he lies down in his coffin-pod. Once he takes to his avatar, even his human body has to be coaxed to eat. Like a vampire’s, Sully’s cycles of waking and sleeping become deeply confused. In the unconscious of the movie, I would submit, all the Na’vi are avatars. That is, they are all digital representations of humans, lying elsewhere in coffin pods. And they are all vampires. They have preternatural force and speed, wake when others sleep, and feed on the life-force of mere humans—the humans lying in the pods, as a matter of fact. This, I think, is the strange lure of the movie: Wouldn’t you like to be the vampire of yourself? Wouldn’t you like to live in an alternate reality, at the cost of consuming yourself? Vampires have a culture, a community, feelings. They don’t have bodies, but they have superbodies. The only glitch is this residue offstage, rotting and half-buried, that you won’t ever be able separate from altogether—until, at last, you can.

    Hah! Amusing and darkly witty; a deliciously twisted perception. A shame about all the writing that came before this part, though…