Avatar (n): Manifestation in human form; incarnation.

Like many people this holiday season, I went to see James Cameron’s film Avatar. I even went to see it at midnight the week before Christmas, after a long evening in DC at Cheryl’s Gone (which featured Sally Keith, Karen Anderson, Casey Smith, and musician Maureen Andary, and was AMAZING!) Afterwards we went to have drinks with Sally and friends at Nellie’s, and then I ran into traffic and turned myself around in DC (big surprise), and I STILL managed to make it back to Fairfax for the film. Although the reading was wonderful, I’d had a bit of a tough day personally (lots of things going on and logistical nightmares trying to plan for holiday traveling, etc. etc. I won’t bore you with details) and had definitely reached many different limits… so even though most of myself was recommending I just go home and sleep it off, I was feeling as though seeing a beautiful Cameron film with good friends might just do the trick to release it all.

So there I was, exhausted, 3D glasses on, ready to be thrilled… and thrilled I was, visually… and in the escapist sense.

As a reader and writer, I always enjoy being gifted other worlds to occupy for a time. My poems, for now, are so deeply rooted in this world, but I so often appreciate reading texts and experiencing films that offer a world unto themselves where we are offered a language that operates on its own unique system, and which offers a slightly different spin on things. I enjoy being taught how to experience the world I’m offered, how to live inside it, how to feel free from the constraints of my own world’s limitations. Inevitably, if done well, I emerge more aware of the world I understand as my own. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Don Delillo, or poetry by William Blake… we witness our world anew because of what these writers offer as an alternative, even if it’s only turned around only slightly from the reality we recognize as our own. The revised world order is either an offering of what we might subscribe to, or what we should be weary of (most often the latter).

Utopias and dystopias as offered through the exaggerated realms of fantasy and science fiction are often presented as warnings… take Gulliver’s Travels and the plight of colonialism, Orwell’s 1984 with Big Brother, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, or films like Metropolis, and Blade Runner where technological advances threaten our very humanity… I could go on with numerous other beloved examples.

While visually stunning, Avatar falls short of the great science fiction or fantasy texts in that we’re offered a world we’re not trusted to inhabit because it is pure artifice… our world is not at all recognizable in Pandora, exept perhaps a previous version we will never be able to revert to. We’re offered “natives” whose spiritual connection with the earth requires a more “primitive” lifestyle of sleeping in tree limbs and wearing sparse clothing. The biggest question I’ve been turning around in my mind since the film is why the “natives” had to be shown as the “noble savage”? Why not offer us a society which is technologically advanced AND environmentally conscious and connected? As Ross Douthat offers in his op-ed in the New York Times, “Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago. /But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.”

Lately, with the threat of global warming and depletion of our world’s resources, the sci fi and fantasy texts which refer to environmental concerns are particularly resonant. The resurgence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson’s treatment of them in their film counterparts are apt examples. Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films do not hit us over the head with the ruling philosophy that our treatment of each other and our natural world is destructive. We are trusted to come to this conclusion without (extreme) cheesy dialogue or didactic platitudes… the preference is always to be visually stimulated as an audience member, but also to be trusted to make inferences and arrive at conclusions through contemplation of what we are offered. I, personally, do not want the complete package where we enter a viewing experience and exit with the prime lesson stamped securely on our foreheads, the end.

The staying power of Avatar is in the visual spectacle, which is something I’ll happily admire in and of itself. Cameron did so completely imagine Pandora, and it’s a pleasure to escape to and inhabit and be visually stimulated for a time… but the visceral pleasure of this is fleeting. What residue is meant to linger in Cameron’s film is instead slippage, and doesn’t stick. I was hopeful Cameron might offer a sense of the avatar separate from the digital alter egos the digital age has inspired, a more human self we could imagine ourselves into… but, alas, Cameron’s alternative is reversion, not revision, and is thus (sadly) impossible outside of the digital realm.

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3 thoughts on “Avatar (n): Manifestation in human form; incarnation.

  1. “While visually stunning, Avatar falls short of the great science fiction or fantasy texts in that we’re offered a world we’re not trusted to inhabit because it is pure artifice… our world is not at all recognizable in Pandora.”

    An interesting gripe. Most people I’ve read maintain that Pandora’s environment/populace is TOO earth-like (http://io9.com/5434368/the-case-for-aliens-who-are-truly-alien).

    What interests me is that while Cameron’s film was cheesy and didactic, I ultimately didn’t groan at his forehead stamping. Sure, I may have rolled my eyes a little, but it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as say, Attack of the Clones… why? Did Cameron do it better than most? Was the dialogue better? Was the romance more believable?

    While I do think there are some technical things he did that made the PC stuff more palatable (pacing, musical score, the actors’ performances), I wonder if the biggest thing is that the PC mantra of the film is now officially an old-school trope. Cameron’s preaching PC messages to a generation that grew up on the same messages–there’s absolutely nothing new here, beyond an evolution in visuals. Cameron handled his cliches with a certain sense of deftness, but for me, it was ho-hum, hollywood business as usual–it failed to engage my interest or roil up my worldview in anyway.

    That is the very definition of a missed opportunity.

    District 9 is a good example, I’d maintain, of a film that takes some well-used tropes and adds just enough twist to them to actually Say Something every now and then—and to keep me on the edge of my seat a bit more often.

    Then again, the original Star Wars was a similar conglomeration of stories and cliches…maybe Avatar IS the new Star Wars. (If it is, it certainly isn’t the same quantum leap that SW was for its time). I can only hope that Cameron has an Empire Strikes Back waiting in the wings…

  2. You’ve inspired me to go see Avatar! I’ve heard that it is indeed a visual eye-fest, as you’ve written here, though not the most sophisticated plot in the world. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing it (hopefully this evening), and will write back to chat some more. Thanks for a great post!

  3. Josh –

    As you know, because you were with me, I did thoroughly enjoy myself watching this film. I’ll point to the next line in my post after the one you refer to… “our world is not at all recognizable in Pandora, except perhaps a previous version we will never be able to revert to.” (maybe I added this edit after you read it through the first time, I did make minor edits about 5 min later…). Certainly we resemble our Pandora counterparts, that’s for sure… and we see plants and horse-like things… etc. but again, our previous selves/ancestors/”natives” are familiar, not our current selves.

    As I’ve sat with the film in my head a bit longer, I start to wonder at its staying power… Maybe you’re right, this could be the new Star Wars… but my guess is it’s more likely the new Titanic… a visual powerhouse, but then what?

    Perhaps, like you say, “hollywood business as usual–it failed to engage… or roil up my worldview in anyway,” but I think it projects to have that deeper intention and maybe that’s why this side of the film bugs me. Star Wars is pure fun rooted in some philosophy, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously in the end. Avatar, it seems to me, TRIES to take itself seriously, but in the midst of so many other great films that achieve it deftly, lacks any luster other than the “ooh, shiny!” kind, and stops short at cliche.

    Thanks the comment!

    p.s. I have yet to see District 9 – I’ve been meaning to… I’ll get on that. I will say that Wall-E contained a pretty stark message that wasn’t too subtle but I thought well-handled and enjoyable. But here again, there was virtually no dialogue in the first hour of the film – we’re left to our own (well-capable) devices.

Say.Things.

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