Avatar

After several weeks of following the Avatar (IMDB) press, I finally got a chance to see the film itself, in 3-D, last night at a local megaplex.  I’ve been fascinated by the degree to which the film has simultaneously become a means for fantasizing about the reinvention of cinematic language, for reintroducing the concept of the cinematic auteur, and for digging out political allegories of one kind or another.  Many others seem to be watching box office numbers with the breathless hope that Avatar will supplant Titanic as the highest-grossing film (domestically and world-wide) of all-time. In a media environment typically characterized by niche cultures, it is an improbably mass-culture event, one that seems to demand that we engage with it on some level.

By coincidence, I’ve been reading Jonathan Gray’s intriguing new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and one of Jonathan’s primary arguments is that when we go to see a movie or watch a TV show, we are engaging in “speculative consumption.”  We have no idea whether the movie will be good or the TV show will be worth our time.  Once it’s over, we can’t get our time or money back, so all entertainment texts depend on “paratexts” that help us figure out what to watch or help us to position ourselves–politically, socially, aesthetically–in relationship to the movie or TV show in question.  In essence, for a movie like Avatar, we aren’t just consuming the movie itself, we are consuming the hype about the movie.  Part of the pleasure of seeing the movie is sharing the experience with a larger crowd, of being part of a larger public that is, potentially at least, able to witness something new: the dawning of a new cinematic language, the realization of cinema’s quest for full spectatorial immersion, the allegorical expression of our political condition in late capitalism.

One of the aspects of this phenomenon that I’ve always found fascinating is the seemingly spontaneous impulse to applaud as the closing credits roll.  This form of approbation makes sense when the director, screenwriter, and actors are present at the screening, but I’ve always found it odd when none of the people involved in the making of the film are in attendance.  But perhaps instead of cheering the creative work of the director and stars, the applause is meant to celebrate the shared experience of watching collectively, the genuinely felt enthusiasm for discovering something new together.  Avatar, theoretically at least, takes film the medium’s promise of offering novelty, excitement, immersion, and meaning to new heights.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I was utterly captivated by the visual spectacle offered up in the film.  Much more impressively than Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (which I liked at the time, but now find pretty awful in retrospect), Avatar uses 3-D to create a densely-layered depth-of-field, one that was often filled with a flurry of activity and detailed compositions.  My appreciation of the 3-D was actually stronger in many of the scenes that depicted only human characters rather than the alien planet, Pandora, but the immense detail with which the planet was depicted was impressive and helped to underscore Cameron’s desire to create a fully immersive experience (this includes, of course, Cameron’s widely-documented decision to hire a linguist to create a believable new language for the Na’vi people).

But despite all of these attempts to create an immersive experience, I found myself resisting Avatar in a number of places, but especially at the level of plot.  The film itself is about immersion and becoming-other.  Self-proclaimed jarhead Jake Sully is commissioned, through the magic of science fantasy, to project himself into the body of a Na’vi.  His body is placed into a tank that allows him to control the body of another being. Initially the paraplegic soldier struggles to control this new body, but given a new opportunity to move, physically, Jake quickly embraces this new self, even as his human body deteriorates when he spends more and more time as a Na’vi, gradually identifying with the natives and against the rapacious military-backed capitalists who seek to mine the planet’s precious metal, unobtanium.

Like Jeffrey Sconce, I had a difficult time taking this overt political allegory terribly seriously.  It’s hard to watch a film destined to gross nearly $2 billion in box office alone and take seriously the critique of capitalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism embedded in the narrative.  References to “pre-emptive attacks” and natives equipped with bows and arrows couldn’t be any more transparent (read: condescending) if they tried.  In its most basic expression, the film is a “tedious lecture” on the excesses of capitalism.  Even the “circle of life” in The Lion King movies seems loaded with more ambiguity than the conflict between humans and Na’vi.  But as Sconce himself hastens to add, that’s not what the film is actually about at all, op-ed columnists to the contrary.

Instead, I think Sconce is essentially right to argue that Avatar is actually about “the warring production paradigms the film so conveniently spatializes within its diegesis.”  In other words, the film stages a conflict between photographic and digital realism, one that is mapped onto the conflict between the human and Na’vi worlds.  It’s no accident that one character describes the entrance to Pandora in words that echo film’s introduction of color: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”  The old, decaying medium of film has been replaced, supplanted by the potential of digital perfectionism.  And I think that’s where Sconce’s review is especially insightful in noting that the promise of digital tools, much like the promise of motion pictures in the 19th century, can never be completely fulfilled.  Realist  immersion is not something to be achieved technologically.  Instead, it is contingent on historical protocols and social expectations.

That being said, I don’t think the answer to this moment of recognition has to be wry commentary or biting disappointment.  Instead, it’s worth asking why this fantasy of complete immersion is so intoxicating and why this particular allegory seems ready to inspire so much public applause, whether in a multiplex in Cary, North Carolina, or across the globe.

16 Comments »

  1. Kfir Pravda Said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Great article. They should have either cut away 60 minutes of the film, or invest 10% of the CGI budget in writing a decent story.

  2. clitha mason Said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Thank you for the article, I had been waiting for an article that addressed some of the areas that you touched on- before I decided if I could wait for Netflix. I realize that if I do wait for Netflix, I might loose something in translation because of the visual spectacle though.

  3. Chuck Said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    Thanks, y’all. The film is overly long and the politics reductive. I’ve been thinking all day about the applause I heard at the end of the film, in part based on a Twitter comment or two. I still think it’s a response to the technological mastery more than the politics, but I’m also resistant to the press that insists “you HAVE to see it on the big screen, OMG!”

  4. Dylan Said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    I saw Avatar twice and I have been surprised at two things:

    1) The prolonged plot deficiency discussions.
    2) That the plot has taken some people out of the film.

    I found the plot to be lacking, but not distracting. There was just enough of it to keep things slightly interesting while the real start of the film, the visuals, were allowed to shine. It seems like it’s one of those tail wagging the dog situations where, because of the ongoing plot discussions, now people CAN’T ignore it while watching.

    To me, it’s one of the better popcorn flicks ever made.

  5. Chuck Said,

    January 17, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    I’m probably overstating the degree to which I found the plot “deficient.” I probably should have been clearer that I find the concept of an “original” plot a somewhat dubious concept. All films refer to earlier movies, TV shows, novels, poems, stories, and myths, some more transparently than others. And I don’t know if I was “taken out of the film” so much as my experience of watching it was shaped by the texts (or paratexts) I had read and seen prior to seeing Avatar. The film’s desire for narrative, representational, and political transparency is interesting to me, even if it seemed a bit obvious in places.

  6. Elokuvallisia huomioita maailmalta 16.01.2010 – 18.01.2010 // Kuva Said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    [...] In essence, for a movie like Avatar, we aren’t just consuming the movie itself, we are consumi… – One of the aspects of this phenomenon that I’ve always found fascinating is the seemingly spontaneous impulse to applaud as the closing credits roll. This form of approbation makes sense when the director, screenwriter, and actors are present at the screening, but I’ve always found it odd when none of the people involved in the making of the film are in attendance. But perhaps instead of cheering the creative work of the director and stars, the applause is meant to celebrate the shared experience of watching collectively, the genuinely felt enthusiasm for discovering something new together. [...]

  7. Ramón Calderón Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:03 am

    I also found kind of weird that people applaud at the end of the film. I agree with Chuck, I think it’s a response to the technological mastery, no doubt. Most people don’t even notice these political connotations in the movie. I’ve talked about the movie with many friends who have already seen it; none of them were aware of this political stuff (even when they were directly asked about it). They all applauded, though.

  8. Jonathan Gray Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    A nuanced response to Avatar, Chuck? You realize that’s not allowed, right? ;-)
    Seriously, it’s so refreshing to see. Thanks

    As for the applause, I wonder if that’s international since American audiences seem poised to applaud all the time and thus perhaps too many different things can be read into it. I used to wonder why everyone stands at the end of the most mediocre plays on Broadway, for instance, but I think they were affirming that their $80 nosebleed tix were worth it, so by the same logic, maybe all those IMAX 3D viewers who shelled out $15 instead of $7, and who waited in line forever to get good seats need to affirm it was worth it?

  9. Chuck Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I may be wrong, but I believe Ramon is based in Spain and has witnessed theaters spontaneously applauding, so it *could* be at least somewhat international in scope. I think the applause is partially, at least, a “familiar” way of “letting off steam” after all of the stimulation–emotional, visceral, visual, etc–produced by the film, much like we “spontaneously” applaud after a touchdown in a football game. The applause was relatively brief, especially compared to an overpriced Broadway show, suggesting that maybe liveness is a factor, but you may be right that it’s partially performative, a way for the spectator to convince himself or herself that their investment–in time and money–was worth it. Interesting thoughts.

    I’m also rethinking the degree to which I closed down the overt political reading of the film. I’m not convinced that Cameron’s green-lite message is what is inspiring the praise for the film at all, but I don’t think we can separate it out as neatly as I have.

  10. Ramón Calderón Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    You’re right Chuck, I live in Spain. And a friend of mine who is currently studying in Germany told me that people applauded there too. So I guess applauding Avatar is an international behavior.

    I like Jonathan’s theory but I’d also point to the fact that many people are easily influenced, and there has been a lot of hype around this movie. So maybe with their applauses they’re not only saying “it was worth to line up for so long and pay that extra money” but also “I loved the movie, like everybody else, I’ve been able to appreciate it, I’m not an idiot”. This sounds crazy when you’ve got your own judgment but sadly a lot of people don’t have it.

    Sorry, it’s difficult for me to express all these things in English… Hope you got my point!

  11. Chuck Said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Yes, I think I get your point: it’s partially a phenomenon produced by peer influence. One or two people clap, and others join in. Interesting that it appears to be fairly international in scope.

  12. Sonya Said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    The applause issue is interesting. I think in some cases people forget or conflate or never considered the purpose of applause (praise to individuals there to here it v. a physical expression of approbation perhaps more related to audience unity). It reminds me of when I told students that when I was growing up, we did not clap in church after soloists performed, b/c both soloist and congregation were there to praise God and such obvious praise of a person was considered therefore inappropriate, even if it didn’t lead to that person’s potential commission of the sin of vanity/pride. Similarly, I have been told that it is not appropriate to clap after the singing of the national anthem to praise the performer, b/c reverence ought to be reserved for another entity. Maybe as a global society we’re moving away from a still sort of reverence towards louder forms of physical expression? I do wonder if that is therefore related to paratextual hype over the film’s 3D/physical immersion plot and form? Certainly very interesting for those interesting in material rhetoric. I have to admit, I hate wearing 3D glasses, so I haven’t seen it yet. Can’t bear the idea of wearing them for 3 hours.

  13. Chuck Said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    Good points. I’m not sure that the applause is a fully conscious act where the people who cheer are conscious of *why* they are doing it. I think you’re right to introduce some of these situational comparisons, and that, to some extent, people are applauding (or responding to) the immersive experience.

    You could always see the 2D version of the film. But it would still take three hours…

  14. dawuor Said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    The Avatar……I like the observations you make here. One thing I realised about the film and I stand to be corrected is that it also carries with it a theme of Racism and Environmental degradation. That the people who were destroying the environment by cutting trees for the sake of developments and all the other reasons they may have got were stopped by the group that was considered uncivilised and technologically undeveloped.

  15. Chuck Said,

    January 23, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    There is a very strong environmental message in the film, and it’s tied to the problems with unchecked corporate power, suggesting that if corporations aren’t regulated or checked, they will often destroy or damage an environment in order to profit.

    The racism storyline is a complicated one. Many have complained that the film is racist itself for its “white messiah” plot, in which a white hero has to come in and rescue the natives (who are visually aligned with blacks and Native Americans). Others complain that the Na’vi resemble ethnic stereotypes.

    But there is a more “positive” reading like the one you offer, especially when you consider that it seems to criticize the Native American genocide in the 19th Century. These themes have led to the ways in which the film has become so hotly debated in newspaper editorials. Interesting stuff….

  16. The Chutry Experiment » Something Blu Said,

    September 15, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    [...] caps emphasis Kenny’s).  A similar hype has accompanied both 3-D film, especially during the relentless promotion of Avatar, and 3-D television.  That hype, especially the predictions that 3-D projection would [...]

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