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Avatar




Avatar is an important film as Cinema has changed and 3D is here to stay. I didn’t follow the advance of 3D enough but with Avatar it has officially arrived and very soon almost all films will be 3D; like black and white, there will still be films done in 2D but rarely so. It is stunning to see (I can’t wait for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3D) and the same film in 2D would have had a very different effect.

To finish with the preliminaries, though I’m not a fan of James Cameron Avatar is a good movie and an important one to watch. A reading of what it’s about, why 3D is an integral part of it, and why THINQon actually is a more fitting place to talk about it than most:

Let’s start with the name – Avatar. Great name which already frames the movie well. Your avatar is your image online, and the movie is about our life in relation to that image, an image which increasingly takes over our own real-life image. One sits down in front of the computer, connects and takes on a new persona, and starts living a “second life.”  A life where he is the chosen one, the hero of the plot.

I would divide the film into 2 parts. In the first half I thought the film was like the films on Vietnam which were only possible to do much after it ended. The first half is where he is essentially playing a videogame, dropped off on an island to battle, a nerd sitting at home and playing the superhero with increased strength. Living a second life (a sort of virtual reality game, in case you don’t know it). But those days are long gone and the second half of the film understands that. Our relation to our avatar is much more than a videogame persona; it is who we are in the world.

The Marine general is part of the old (mechanical) world. He uses tools also, he has his mechanical avatar, but our hero’s avatar is more elaborate. No more a mere mechanical extension of us, it’s a 3D creation, and a much stronger merger (think of final scene), and the film 3D comes to represent that change. Note that the avatar theme is continuously part of the movie: he is a replacement to his brother, his avatar of him, the avatar connection with horses and flying monsters (with different significations), with the tree,  etc. constantly you go online to merge.

But what is this new world of Avatars online? It’s not a place for intellectuals and scientists (they were not accepted to the clan), only for “stupid” (as he is constantly called) warriors. They have their own strange language, though they do speak regular English, and are just backwards. Not a place for thought but just running around and sitting together and chanting in some crowd-trance scenes (the scenes of the crowd in the movie). This is a nice description of the stupidity of the online community, but it also comes with hope. Like our ancestors, the avatars culture will evolve. It is a culture in its childhood.

Before going into my last points, I’ll mention the film is also supposedly about the online community beating the big companies, allegories of Iraq maybe, etc. but all those I found completely uninteresting though some might differ.
 
The film is a very physical experience. Noting to a friend who came with me to the film that though physical I felt it a very different physical experience than say the film Wanted, post, and the effect of seeing Angelina Jolie, he described it as “It’s a physicality which doesn’t make you sweat.” I think this is a great description. Like playing video games, it’s a different kind of physicality. The sex scene in the movie is not real sex, it’s a different kind of physicality, but an important one at that.

Lastly, it seems fitting to me to post this on THINQon. The movie calls THINQon: Pandora (notice the similarity of the names). The new avatar is not some pseudonym as it used to be, but his avatar name is his name (Jake Sully). THINQon of course tries to be an evolution of the culture, allowing for long speech rather than the current barks (or tweets) - taking it to another level.
Films Discussed
Avatar [Theatrical Release]
Wanted (Single-Disc Widescreen Edition)

Arthur, thanks for a very nice and important post. I agree that while the movie is somewhat predictable in terms of plot, it is not to be missed. One sees in quite an astonishing way the whole future of cinema.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Despite, or perhaps because, of its general predictability, I’d like to add something else about the plot. What it lays bare (not, I think, intentionally) is a certain relation some men have to women as we stand at this yawning gulf you described between the technological and the virtual. Unlike the war symbolism, the ecological symbolism, and other fairly obvious points of engagement, the gender roles I am about to describe seem to me to be of a different order:  deep,  reflexive and beyond the director’s conscious control.

As a way in, let us ask: Who is the true object of Jack Sully’s love? Who is it that chooses him, whose anointing makes him into the savior and hero? First and foremost, it is Eywa (and her proxy, the tree of souls).  A distant second is Grace and I would argue that Neytiri is an even more distant third.  Neytiri is a strangely flat character, which is due to more than the generally circumscribed imagination of female power.  Battle prowess aside, she does not even get to play the Pocahontas role of saving Jack; she stands by flustered and breathless while the judgment is left to the clan’s mother, Eywa’s high priestess, who in a strangely intimate moment tastes a drop of Jack’s blood.  No, the interesting characters here – and the ones to whom Jack’s whole being is inexorably drawn – are the mothers, and particularly the mother-goddess Eywa who accepts him as her chosen son and savior of her people. She is what has been lost and who is almost pathologically longed for, all the way up to the final epic battle between the machines of Father Quaritch and the animals of Mother Eywa.  We might also mention the gratuitous umbilical-cord symbolism of the Omaticayas’ characteristic “merging” motion here -- particularly in Jack's conversation with the tree (in Arthur’s reading one notices the USB overtones).

It’s a movie which lays bare, in a certain way, the immense longing of certain men – wounded men, men who are only half themselves, who are utterly and completely aware of that woundedness – for wholeness and for an imagined, mystical completion which only the merging with the restored mother-figure can provide. What may sound banal or obvious on paper is quite astonishing in 3D on the big screen.  What makes it interesting is how much of a projection this is; how much of a fantasy; how immense the longing.  The desire has nothing to do with allowing women a place in the world nor, ultimately, with the initiation of a new era of feminine power. It is the desire of a child to be loved by another mother after his own home world has been destroyed; the immense almost impossible hope for a new beginning.  Of course, as Cavafy saw, if you destroy a place you love then everywhere else is afterwards always haunted.
very interesting discussion! I'm especially interested in two points, one by Arthur and one by Molly, the first point being the idea of a virtual MERGER replacing technological alienation, let's call it, the other being the intense fantasy scenario of a unification with some maternal whole. I can say immediately that I quite disliked Avatar, and that I really despise almost everything James Cameron stands for, and that I most definitely hope that we are not witnessing here the future of film (though, alas, it might be that we are). But going back to the two points, what immediately struck me as interesting in Avatar and as extremely timely is the strange relation between, on the one hand, an intense investment in (even a fetishization of ) more and more modern technologies and, on the other hand, a green, environmental dram of some kind of merger/unification with a pre-technological nature, a nature that has not been separated from its own naturalness. it is as if technology, at its most extreme and sophisticated, can allow the human to leave it behind, or to return to the edenic state before the birth of technology, become one with nature again. THis is obviously a completely incoherent attempt, but one that seems to more and more characterize our strange times. The human, or at least Western man, is in the period of his great mea culpa, ashamed of himself and what his history has done (I'm intentionally stressing the gender man, since obviously, it is a certain idea and ideal of masculinity that is being criticized), the slaughters, the conquests, the technological desire that seems to be at the source of all these, and he wants to get away from himself, to leave his guilty history behind (and even thus his humanly guilty body behind (as the end of Avatar makes clear) acquiring a completely new, non-westernly human nature, or perhaps a nature that is beyond the human, whatever these creatures on Pandora are. (Cameron has always had this vision of a humanity that self-destructs through technology - the terminator - but that also can be saved somehow through technology, or through something technology allows for - a return to the past, etc, the affect of his films can perhaps be described as technological apocalypse with the hope of infantile redemption). Man, then, to return to our theme, is guiltily trying to get away from himself and his own history (the recent investment of the guilty American left in black Obama as a redemptive figure is not very far from this logic) and redaem himself in some pure realm of nature, that is , of a realm before technological impurity (the interesting thing is that nature in Avatar seems itself to have at its disposal even more sophisticated technologies, such as the memory tree, but which are explained naturalistically/biologically). Thus, a technology that will lead beyond technology is that incoherent vision that guides the film, rather than a real thinking of what the relation is between man and technology, what has gone wrong with it, and in what way it can be transformed, without giving up on the fact that man IS a technological being, that is, a non-natural being, not a being behaving according to the constant rhythms of nature (though of course it might be that these constant rhythms of nature are another human fantasy, a fantasy originarily trying to protect man from facing his own technological nature. nature itself is most probably not natural either, in the sense of not being subjected to constant unchanging rhythms).

Another interesting incoherence of the Cameronian (finally fascistic - for fascism is this relation between technological fetishism and a dream of a pure, "natural" humanity) vision, is his quite insane relation to masculinity (to the question psychoanalysis named that of the phallus). On the one hand, Cameron sees man, or Western Masculinity as a problem, being as it is at the heart of the destruction to pure Mother nature, but on the other he dreams of a new manliness which is not at all different from the old western one, just more extreme. The film is finally the narrativization of an initiation rite into masculinity - both explicitly in the world of the Navi's - where the main figure finally becomes a man within the tribe - and implicitly in the world of the white men, where the weak, obviously castrated soldier (no legs!) can finally become a leader, a real man, through his technologically prosthetic image (again, the strangeness of the idea that it is the technological prosthesis that will make a real, natural man, out of the hero). Not only that, the hero becomes even more man then the natural men of the tribe, thus the guilty white man who dreams of going beyond himself and his guilty history of conquests by going native, actually proves that he wants nothing more than to continue his conquests by other, disguised, means, for he is the real man of the tribe now, and becomes its leader. the white man can finally only envision its redemption by being a conquering hero, not by liberating himself from the fantasy of the conquering hero. The same paradoxical craziness characterizes the lust for killing displayed in the film. the technological white people are ruthless killers, destroying the innocent natives, yet while the redeemed white man leads the natives, an extraordinary lust for killing of the white men is displayed, no less horrifying then the one characterizing the white men (one could think Cameron is on to some sophisticated critique or deconstruction of the myth of the innocent native, but it does not seem to be the case in my eyes at least, there is no hint of anything but identification with the slaughtering of the evil white men by the "innocent" natives.) there is in general a deranged relation to killing in the movie where there seems to be as if a good, natural killing (when the woman for example, kills mercilessly the animals, but then whispers to their spirit, as if her killing act was finally a pure part of nature).

In brief, Cameron is NOT an artist, but a techno-craftsman geek seeking to gain his masculinity (to become King of the world in his "memorable" phrase) through a redemption by his own techno powers that then try to hide themselves as a return to nature, and it is precisely the fact that he and his films understands nothing about art - that has always been related to the technological being of men, for art is the coming of the non-natural new - that constructs his complete misrelation between technology and a new humanity.
To get a few trivial points out of the way -- I mentioned Hindu mythology a lot in the Watchmen thread ... here it is again.   The origin of the word "avatar" is Sanskrit, and it refers to the human form of a god.  The original avatars were Rama and Krishna, both of whom had blue skin, like Dr. Manhattan and like the Na'vi.

Another parallel I noticed is with Frank Herbert's book Dune ... the similarities are quite striking.  (I won't go into detail so I don't have to provide a spoiler alert for Dune ... but if you've read it, think about it.)

Molly - if I follow your train of thought, I might go further than you do.  Jack's love for Neytiri is yet another instance of "mother longing."  We have to ask why he is so quick to choose her as his mate.  Is it just because she taught him everything he knows about the Na'vis' culture?  (As a mother would do.)  On the other hand, this line of reasoning would seem to invalidate all matriarchal cultures, as well as all worship of female deities.  If we criticize Jake for taking a worshipful attitude toward Eywa, it's not clear what form of goddess worship we would find acceptable.  (If God is "our father", how could a Goddess not be "our mother"?) Neytiri does rescue Jake on their first meeting, but (unfortunately perhaps) never after he becomes a warrior.  However, Jake's male rival Tsu'tey is far more useless.  I think the more general problem is that Jake outshines all of the Na'vi, as Chosen Ones tend to do.

Dave - I would agree that the values you were hoping for are not present in the movie.  Being a conquering hero is good.  Killing (when performed in self defense, or against an animal that you will eat) is fine.  The paralyzed Jake becomes a Real Man not by an act of will (coming to terms with the reality of his disability), but by a magical technological solution (entering an avatar.)  Technology, of a sort, is possessed by both the humans and the Na'vi (with Arthur's USB hair.)  Conquest of the tribe is great, as long as you do it by riding Toruk.

The difference between the humans and the Na'vi lies not in their relative propensity for violence, but in the humans' vast imagination and greed.  The humans would destroy a whole tribe of Na'vi just to get at a vein of "unobtanium."  They would grow Avatars in vats and create an English language school, with no other purpose than the lure the Na'vi into a false sense of security.  Cameron clearly values the Na'vis' political simplicity. 

But perhaps you will say that this value, too, exists only to help the audience experience a power fantasy without having to feel guilty ... (with the movies' characters playing the roles of avatars?)
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