Tuesday, March 16, 2010

AVATAR..."HISTORICAL TACTILITY"

TIME-LANGUAGE-MEMORY-DREAM

AVATAR resonates with chords of the human condition, keying especially to those that are warping into dissonance against the assertions of the “information age.” Resonate is perhaps too gentle a term for a film that strikes like bludgeon. What constitutes the conceptual chorus is a cross-section; a manifold discussion of history-as-memory; in confluence with time, compounded by language, abstracted by technology.

Thought is a torrent, a flurry, within which we try our best to grab hold of a “still point;” a grounding of understanding and preception. How do we manage to find clarity enough to see into the spinning chaos around us? Or better still, how do we see the degree to which we are a part of that very chaos, how we fit into its sprawl and shifting constellations, and how we reconcile that relationship via the mirrored chaos we contain within our own minds… which can seem even greater?

TIME

The thing about time is, it’s illusory. It's a word. We hear it said, “live in the present,” or “there’s no time like the present,” but what that means, once time is conceptually deconstructed, seems anomalous at best. I’m tempted to suggest that there isn’t even a “present.” Time, or the continuous experience that we call time, is completely fluid and incorporates past-present-future into its movement. Perhaps we’ll call this the “dynamic present.” What makes the dynamic present terminologically “time” is the graft of category and increments placed upon the experience of something ceaseless, consuming, and yet intangible. The same occurs of our reaction to open space and to infinity. As a modern society, which has constructed its experience of life as that of separations, borders, and enclosures, we draw distinctions no matter how concretely, abstractly, or subjectively motivated. We decide what’s within a space and without, where lines exist and where they don’t, where is here and where is there, where is far and near, or too far and too near. Pluto, once considered the absolute boundary of our solar system, was superceded by the discovery of the even further oriented Khyber Belt, and thereafter, massive celestial bodies, dwarf planets even larger than Pluto, in vast orbits around our same sun, have been discovered farther still. Once known, they become part of our celestial composite. This is a prime evidence of how our sense of proportion, distance, boundary, etc, is malleable, constantly subject to change and discovery… and, in a sense arbitrary. I am not suggesting that human structuralism concerning time (and space) isn’t helpful, because it absolutely is. Nothing in this world (the one which man has devised for himself; agriculture, architecture, industry, technology) would happen if we didn't have some concept of temporality, of relativism, of limitation, of causality… to balance our warping sense of potential and ambition.

The lesson here is to maintain a deconstruction of time in one’s mind… mind being where time is in fact most innately deconstructed. We supercede time… or rather the false linearity of time that is enforced through custom… by remembrance, by daydreaming, by working out a problem in our head, by making a connection between disparate experiences, by thinking of something that is anything but what is in front of us. Multiplicity, superimposition, and transposition of thought, is THE primordial gesture. The first place we ever dwell, before sight, before words, before learning, is our own mind, interiorly. We absorb language. We are not born with it. What we ARE born with is an instinctual ability to abstract and a desire to structuralize our existence… the breeding ground FOR language.

Because dynamic non-linearity (as in thought and dreams) is instinctual, arguably our most basic sentient action, it seems we should never be satisfied in accepting things; situations, circumstances, people, conflicts, simply as they “appear to be.” If fact, to do so seems like a contradiction of our own nature… and yet that very form of complacency occurs almost systemically in modern American society. In this respect, we can derive a great deal of instruction from an artistic movement like Cubism, which is nearly cinematic in its attempts to cluster multiple perspectives into simultaneity; such as a chair shown from above, to the right, and from slightly to the left looking up. This is how we should all strive to see the world, our problems, everything.

And of course, Cinema; the moving image, would be the ultimate expression of this ideal.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci (THE LAST EMPEROR), in discussion of his 2003 film THE DREAMERS, touches upon the complexity in building a temporal-yet-physical (and therefore emotional) relationship between characters, actors, and the audience, in their experience of a film (as being the unique venue for this very phenomenon)

“In cinema you are allowed to conjugate only one tense, the present. Because when you shoot, you are contemporary to what you shoot and to whom you are shooting. This prevalence of the present is something we cannot forget or ignore. Even if you shoot a character in ancient Rome dressed up like Julius Cesar, the people in the theater are contemporary to Julius Cesar. This is really a privilege of cinema. The three kids who are acting the part of three kids from ’68 [The Dreamers], they, in their bodies and experiences carry the present.”

What this means, is that in watching any film, AVATAR included (and maybe especially) we are rendered contemporary to the world it realizes, reacting to it with emotions we would lend to any personal tactile experience. We become contemporary to the war on Pandora, to Jake Sully, and to the Na’vi. We are contemporary to a future-tense that also incisively reflects our own “present-tense.” In this thought-centered subversion of time; we receive a renewed capacity of sight concerning our contexts as affected by the weight of our individuated experiences. We see as if from within AND from without. Because of its advance in IMAX 3D projection, AVATAR is a bridge unmatched. It convinces by the depth and perfection of its visualization and the distillation of its themes, that the viewer indeed EXPERIENCES rather than WATCHES.

Through their forging of touch-based transient neural bonds called Tsahaylu, with other organisms and exteriorized, organic, collective memory sources, the Na’vi (indigenous peoples of the fictional planet Pandora in AVATAR) create a perspectival assembly, and through this instilled physiological capacity, are able to see, experience, utilize, and participate in the whole of their planetary ecosystem, which distinctly includes themselves. The Na’vi, have the ability to create site-specific pockets of a ‘unified present’ when forming a Tsahaylu; two bodies, two histories, two synchronous movements of past to future, two differently limited models of life expanded in the circularity of a symbiosis.


A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

As staggeringly complex as the human capacity for memory is, and indeed the insanity of its intricacy, we tend to forget things… quickly…and frequently… and, not just small things… big things. We move on. What’s happening “now” is all. Thus, we survive the moment. As though holding fast to the illusory calm at the eye of a storm, we are fixated on ‘the present,’ while living in anxious, if not defensive, anticipation of the future, and so easily relinquishing the past.

Perhaps the ultimate question… How do we make history tactile?… so tactile, in fact, that we never forget its lessons? How do we ingrain a perception of history as an experiential continuum that is a consummate body of past-present-future, moving in concert? If we could find a means to hold our histories fully, inter-disciplinarily, would we be at greater ease rather than conflict in the world? What if we could experience time in the same manner as light, distance, form…? From this new precipice of optical tactility enabled by 3D cinema, expressed in its height by AVATAR, one wonders, is film the answer?

On the very issue of history (specifically North American history), many critics have censured Cameron’s narrative as being merely another reflex of “white guilt,” concerning American Colonialism of the 17th-19th centuries (as in the lineage of films like ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ ‘Dances With Wolves,’ and even ‘The Last Samurai.’). An aspect of that specific history is evident (though not singularly) in AVATAR, as it projects a cautionary scenario of that history’s unfortunate repetition…

This issue should be considered. The inescapable fact is that the United States of America was, by no exaggeration of these terms; beaten, raped, intimidated, indoctrinated, slaughtered and stolen out of the hands of its indigenous populations (termed Native Americans), who’s surviving populations were then relegated to squalid pockets of the country, and had their cultures and languages all but eradicated from their possession. Oral histories were destroyed, ancestral lands paved over, resources purloined and exhausted. Let’s face it, it wasn’t called “The Trail of Tears” for irony. Frankly, I don't think that this history, nor its tragically foundational significance, should EVER be forgotten or deemphasized. It is the seed for every privilege afforded American society from that point of transgression onward, and yet all we tend to remember is “I cannot tell a lie!,” and “Four score…”

What was enacted upon the Native American people must be reconciled by each American citizen, and must be framed in every full imaging of the United States by its people, and in its larger successes. That doesn't mean we should let ourselves be crippled by the guilt of something that cannot be undone, that wasn't condoned by our action or inaction. What it does prompt is a fuller understanding of the US’s contextual spectrum. It should be an ingrained component of the American identity, in order to instill the will to “make good,” to achieve, to show that this purloined land will be known for great things in the smallest and grandest ways. The fact that racial and ideological prejudices are, to this day, virulently prevalent in the US and around the world, suggests that we need something as striking, emphatic, empathetic, and simply confrontational of these enduring realities as AVATAR to exist and to sweep the entire planet with its craze. I don't know what the effect will be if any. The narrative straddled by AVATAR’s bevy of unique specificities renders a salient similitude to Colonists’ early conquests and usurpations of Native American tribes and lands, as well as to the recent practices of the US government in the Middle East and proxy conflicts during the Cold War, and is built into something potently experiential. Audiences wrench and contemplatively emote. They are seeing the film over and over again. An effect is taking hold, but perhaps, for the time being, we’re too close to the center.


“I think of myself as just a perfectly decent person, just because I’m friendly to most of the people I happen to meet everyday. I mean, I really think of myself quite smugly. I just think of myself as a perfectly nice guy, so long as I think of the world as consisting of just the small circle of people that I know as friends, or the few people that we know in this little world of our hobbies; the theater, or whatever it is. …But I mean let's face it, there's a whole enormous world out there that I just don't ever think about. I certainly don't take responsibility for how I've lived in THAT world. If I were actually to confront the fact that I'm sharing this stage with a starving person in Africa somewhere, well, I wouldn't feel so great about myself. So now, actually, I just blot all those people right out of my perception. So of course, OF COURSE I'm ignoring a whole section of the real world. But frankly, when I write a play, in a way one of the things… I'm trying to do, is I'm trying to bring myself up against some little bits of reality. And I'm trying to share that with an audience. I really do think the theater can do something very important. I do think the theater can help bring people in contact with reality.” (My Dinner With Andre, 1981)

I wonder though, if AVATAR’s arguable component of “white guilt,” laced with a retroactive sympathy, teaches us renewed senses of plurality, receptivity, acceptance, and humility (as film can engender like no other artistic medium), and cautions us not to repeat actions of judgment or greedily entitled conquest… is it not ultimately constructive, whether or not its effect is measurable beyond a dollar sign?

More to the point, the emergence of a nearly formalized topical genre of cinema deriving from realms of, lets say, “Colonial guilt,” categorized as “Noble Savage” and “Magic Negro” tales, seems to be evidence of a persisting American identity crisis; a seeded remorse for a history that stings as unacceptable, a desire to rewrite that history which cannot be changed, but also to rise above it, and to warn against its repetition. It is ironic that these films often also contain, to varying degrees, what could be described as an “imperialism via assimilation,” where a white man enters into and is accepted by an indigenous culture and bests their own ways in order to save them from his own peoples’ encroachment. It's a contradiction that only makes for more complex discussion. Is it productive or counterproductive to create films like this?

What it comes down to is that each generation needs it’s own reminder, and its own medium of “assisted exposure to reality.” The generations of the 20th century have been dependent upon art: theater, film, music, to carry this responsibility.

“Information travels faster in the modern age.” (Death Cab for Cutie)

The internet has taken a substantial flicker from that torch. Children that are now 13 years old, just old enough to see AVATAR, though growing up with the internet and wikipedia, have likely never seen a film like Dances With Wolves, or even Terence Mallick’s The New World (2005). At best they’ve seen Pocahontas, which is a frightening prospect.

Institutional schooling presents the young mind with an onslaught of essentially distant facts and figures, timelines and textbooks, all laced with obligation, jotted down in proper outline format. The internet presents a not too dissimilar proclivity in terms coldness and transience. Neither venue impresses history deeply enough, especially not in this age of, forgive the oxymoron, unmitigated distraction. Pieces of information slip in and out of our minds. What’s required for permanence is a sense-memory. From this dilemma, Art rises as the most penetrative medium with which to express and instill histories (it is also the most enduring, because almost all of what we know about cultures before and after the advent of writing, is by their art). Art contains an affecting subjectivity. It retains the presence of histories (private and public) of processes, of ideas, of emotions, and of contexts, in its mortar. Books are particularly fantastic because they illicit a response of creativity in the reader’s imagination. We read, and somehow we see. We invent, colliding the finitude of words with the infinitude of imagination (which itself enabled the invention of words and there organization into the book which you may be reading), as though our mind had hands to pummel clay, and the consequence of this collaboration is that we can recall these images long after the last page of the book is turned, despite having never occurred empirically before our eyes. Rather, it was behind our eyes.

In its active imagining, Cinema, descendent of photography, takes to the fore of tactility, but it doesn't do ALL the work for us. In watching a film, we are still required to make sense of its parts, and are subject to the power of its emotions and convolutions. The evidence lies in how a film like, say, Ken Burns’ documentary epic THE WAR (2007), made for PBS can be so remarkably affecting, despite how much we already know about WWII (easily one of the most well documented periods of American/world history). In its combination of textural media, archival footage, photography, and firsthand accounts, and at the cross-section of its expansiveness and radical intimacy, this sprawling episodic film builds itself into a dynamic re-visitable account (the commodity of dvd is the key here, in terms of historical tactility. Not only does a single viewing instill a sense-memory, but the fact that it can be revisited, each time allowing the viewer to bring their ever-growing individuated perspectives into the experience, creates an enduring historical tactility. At least, it is a step in the right direction). In film-watching, our mind draws the lines together and blurs them where necessary, in order to reconcile the combination of still images, moving images, movement applied to still images, stillness applied to moving images, archival and new materials, diegetic sound and composed sound, emotionality and banality, the vagueness between truth, honesty, and fact.

The lessons of history should not, and are not, however, relegated to the documentary discipline, nor concerned only with the “larger events” of public history, but encompass histories so personal and so microscopic, we actually NEED film and theater and art to capture them for posterity. Fiction and fantasy have a visceral penetrative potential, within whose sweep can be instilled the very same lessons as specific histories, now enlivened within the freedom of imagination, tapping into our creative dream centers and expanding into modes of universality.

But, again the question stands;

How do we make history tactile?

Perhaps history is tactile when a Jewish person wears a Kippah and prays in Hebrew, or a Japanese woman prepares tea in Kimono, or when a young student walks through the Vietnam War Memorial in DC, runs their hands across the names and sees their own reflection behind the etch. History is tactile when a son takes over the family’s fifth generation business, or when a third-generation Japanese-American girl learns to speak the language of her ethnic origin (see chapter Worlds Within Words).

In Southwest China, the Long-Horn Miao people enact a beautiful and unique tradition of memory bulding. “On special occasions and during festivals, the women construct an elaborate headpiece utilizing the clan's namesake long horn. These horns are first fixed to the women's real hair, then a highly structured decorative bun of linen, wool and ancestral hair are wrapped in a figure eight around the horn. The hair is then secured to the horn by a geometric white ribbon.” The meaning of this adornment it to create a tactile lineal bond, a history threaded by hair. The bearers feel a strong sensual connection to their ancestors, their culture. AVATAR boasts a significant reflection (if not reference) of this practice in how the Na’vi possess long cerebral appendages braided into their black hair,
which allow for them to create Tsayhaylu (neural bonds) with other organisms and organic memory centers, and exchange a circularity of history and feeling between those parties.

But for human beings, there is still a gap to bridge, a source to be manifested between actions of physicality / materiality, and the subjective meanings they render.

…And then came the internet; a fluid, ever expanding universe of information and interactive interconnectivity unto itself, that stands outside of temporal and spatial concern; a universe that has woven itself irreparably into the fabric of modern existence and survival in every sphere. Economies and social networks would, by degrees, incur collapse where it to disappear.

The nature of the Internet bears a binary consequence. On one hand, the success of the Internet is the inclusiveness and intuitiveness of its forum, the infinite breadth of its stores, and the rapidity by which content can be found, shared, updated, adapted, and exchanged by even the most rudimentarily adept. On the inverse, there is a danger; which supposes that the very same immediacy of information, alongside the standards of brevity reinforced by internet mediums like youtube (the shorter the video the more likely one is willing to watch), ever increasing bandwidths/ download speeds, and the growing multiplicity of contemporaneous sources and points of view used to corroborate information (or misinformation), will render in the ease of their acquisition, the reduction of our minds to a likewise hair’s width attention span, an un-desire for tactility (even an ineptitude), creating ever changing standards of temporality; as in, what feels like a long time is becoming shorter and shorter. Because information is only a keystroke or domain name away, we tend to hold that information only as long as is necessary in order to copy and paste, or expel it into a different forum; a report, a conversation, an email, etc. And afterwards we forget. So we have to “look it up again.” Here, ubiquity and “immediacy” seem to create a ruling standard of transience, rather than a tactile interface for dynamic retained history.

If we keep pitching the scale so heavily towards “dichotomous” computer-based processes that are essentially abstract (complex workings behind a screen, or in the nebulous arena of cyberspace), and away from body-mind-environment-energy engaging practices that have arguably clearer causalities and components, degeneration will occur. In short, why go to Portugal when you can create and be satisfied in a nuanced, remote, facsimile experience through information mediums; watch travel clips on youtube, consult wikipedia for culture/history, spy vacation pictures on a Flickr page, Skype with someone in Lisbon, etc. It raises the question; has the digitized subversion of geographic and lingual borders begun to subvert its own better intention; that of encouraging the individual to reach and to seek without credence to walls and to distance? Are we forgetting how to make “the big reach” because we’ve learned how to double-click, or because “distance” has been vitiated in the abstract by .com? I tend to think ‘not yet,’ seeing a great deal of evidence to the contrary within my own social network of contemporaries eager to spread wings and ideas. But these are people, like myself, who ENCOUNTERED the internet, rather than having grown up with it as a staple component of life. People of this former generation still have an objectivity, and an outside-looking-in capacity. We’ve witnessed the growth of the Internet from well before youtube and google, and therefore it appears to us like parts, rather than a fluid aspect. I can’t answer for the latter generation, experiencing cyberspace as a literal existential self-extension, but I fear that the concern and caution I’m outlining is viable (maybe especially so), if only in its infancy

AVATAR takes this phenomenon to a sort of cyclical conclusion. The apex of technology which offers humans the capacity to transcend the finitude of their singular bodies, in order to pilot, via cerebral inhabitation, exteriorized biological vessels (Avatars), is a descendent of the internet’s seed (its striving for dynamic interactive immediacy of information and facsimile experience via composite media; text, video, image, design, sound, art). While the Internet still holds fast to a dichotomy (between the limitation of the physical world and the seeming infinite possibility of cyberspace, or our mystification in the unseen processes that exist between touching a keyboard and manifesting an occupied character space in a document), Avatar’s bridge the gap. They require an act of unmitigated immersion; a becoming, rather than a using; as in the way we would USE a pen to write, or USE a car to drive, but don't cohabitate the same form as the pen or car. We don't BECOME pen or car. We remain differentiated, dichotomous. But Sully BECOMES his Avatar, syncs with its physiology and it with his, and his entire identity is thrown into flux.

In this same way, the Na’vi have a tactile access to their histories, and can therefore heed its lessons fully. Their sensitivity to the endurance and continuance of life (in all stages), their lack of disconnection between physiology and spirituality (which is itself physiological / ecological for them), and an awareness of the pervading symbiosis of which they are a part (based on an empirical condition of their biology), enables something unique and life sustaining. In the same way a vaccine teaches the body’s immune system to recognize specific foreign agents and coordinately dispatch them; in effect uploading a software patch, the Na’vi can emulate receptivity of information and incorporate that information into their source consciousness Eywa for access by other Na’vi. Lessons learned are proliferated and integrated into the system (Eywa). What works is practiced, and what does not work; ie what is contrary to the “balance of life,” is not practiced. The Na’vi have no need for leaps in invention or innovation, or a desire to start down the slippery slope of a technological set that enforces separation, categorization, and polarized social compartmentalization. Their identity is one of plurality, in which personhood is a manifold aspect of all life, therefore dominion, excess, and anything that disrupts the homeostasis of life, is not a venerable standard.

This is where the depth of their common expression of greeting is most evident. When they say “ ‘I see you,’ it’s not just ‘I’m seeing you in front of me.’ It’s ‘I see INTO you,’ ‘I know you.” The direct line that each Na’vi shares to Eywa, the source (the hard drive if you will), is their connection to one another. A shared tactile history creates a bond of unparalleled intimacy. It is akin the bonds we gain in shared experience, in shared suffering, but amplified by its empirical expression and continuance.


WORLDS WITHIN WORDS

“…The purpose of this is to find out how to preserve the light… life, culture… how to keep things living. I keep thinking that what we need is a new language. A language of the heart… Some kind of language between people that is a new kind of poetry… the poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is. And I think that in order to create that language you're going to have to learn how you can go through a looking glass, into another kind of perception, where you have that sense of being united to all things. And suddenly you understand everything.” (My Dinner with Andre, 1981)

One of the significances of language is that it is a tool of culture building and cultural retention. The way we speak, the formation of our lingual syntax and morphology, is largely the basis for our formulation of thought. Put simply, we think and speak with our words, and the manner in which we do this; differing from place to place, culture to culture, era to era, informs upon our attitudinal and ideological aspects.

The colloquial arena, however, is where truly exciting things are enacted upon language. It is there that the rules of words are bent and broken, where, in the act of breaking, new and vital meaning is manifested. Spontaneous invention occurs. We can call this event ‘phenomenological poetry.’ It is as inevitable as the invention of language itself. I wonder then, if our common tongue, with its influence upon our modes of thought and conception, were formed in a manner of poetics so as to express the living and relational facility of all objects (animate and non-), would our histories be less marked by war? This thought occurred to me after seeing AVATAR, and was compounded by the serendipitous occasion of listening to the songs of Mariee Sioux, who expresses in a singular fashion, the “living facility” which I had arrived upon. Mariee Sioux sings of “building cabins of redwood heart,” or of “A place where love is like a perfectly quilled arrow, made from bones of pure willow,” of bundles of muscles, of “branch-arms,”… she refers to her mother as “…my vein braider,” and across a whole topography of such language, she creates something potently elemental, infused with urgent-yet-calm emotion. Hearing a song by Mariee Sioux is like pressing your ear to the knot of a tree to hear the secret it holds in its concavity, feeling the bark on your cheek, the smell of pine and earth in your lungs, the tack of sap on your fingertips, and the wet carpet of leaves and needles breaking beneath the balls of your feet. How would this sensuousness, if applied pervadingly to the spoken language, reframe our actions, affect our decisions, reconstitute our sensitivities? It is clear that we need texture and poetry and experience to burnish words into our memory. We need them ingrained in a sense memory, or made into senses themselves.

The following is an exerpt from the song “Bravitzlana Rubikalva” by Mariee Sioux which speaks of a made-up country (the song’s namesake) and expresses how a kind of poetic facility of its physiology allows for conditions not unlike the Na’vi’s Tsahaylu. Sioux wonders-by-example… if we speak in the manner of touching, perhaps we might speak and think and act, consequently, with more… feeling. And from this sensitivity, enable a dynamic scope of understanding.

“bravitzlana rubakalva, our very own country
bravitzlana rubakalva
oh, there, we have see-through bellies
where we can, where we can
where we can watch all the miracles happening
and we can watch our organs clapping
and we can, and we can
and we can watch our bread dissolving
and we can watch our cells dividing
and we can see our babies floating
and we can watch them form from nothing
sit back and just watch them form from nothing
we can, and we can, we can watch our blood a-rushing
rushing past the walls of our canyons
and we can watch each other's muscles dancing
as we lay in each other's arms…”

The point being, when we can SEE with our eyes, and experience a constant presence of history (the dynamic present), our humanity asserts itself. The Na’vi have this unified sight. Mariee Sioux sings of it.

FRAGILE MEMORY

Fred Madison: “I like to remember things my own way.
Ed: “What do you mean by that?”
Fred Madison: “…How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
(Lost Highway, 1997)

Memory, but most of all its relational phenomenon of dreams, may be the only true tactile history, the most visceral history. Dreams are a piecemeal composite of individuated experiences and spaces, derived from memory that distorts naturally through filters of subjectivity, mood, distraction, time, etc. But make no mistake, the distortion of memory within thought and dreams and across time is native to our physiology, if not the most primordial act. Within that distortion is a truth.

“Artists use lies to tell the truth.”
Does that make dreaming the first art?
Is art therefore inevitable?

Art (as in painting, photography, theater, music, sculpture) brings us very close to a state of tactile history (particularly for the artist who knows each component of their works’ fruition), inciting emotional reaction from our sensitivity to abstraction, our perceptivity of the residues of presence and feeling that we often derive from objects, and our instinctual flurry of connection building that spider-webs spherically from every encounter. But each of these static artistic mediums, aforementioned, contains a point of separation; the artwork is a fixed and finite object which we encircle, pass by, observe as a singularity, in venues designated for “art.” Differently, dreams take us “all the way.” They are the original Brechtian stroke; they first create a space, a distance, and from that we find the capacity to merge with, or verge against the course of things, to observe as actor, character, and audience. As historical representations go, facts, figures, dates, and charts are, in effect FAR more abstract than dreams and art, by virtue of their strict formulation, their attempt at simplicity and linearity, of identifiable causality and consequence, which are qualities that have little to do with the workings of thought. The term “stream of consciousness” applies to all thought, a racing churning medium, tossing objects into the chaos of its current, breaking its banks in its winding, never ceasing, “rapidly raging.”

Cinema brings us right into the rapids of this stream, because it operates as the mind does, breaks the rules that the mind does, thrives on the same framework, tendencies, malleability, and non-linearity of dreams and thought. Additionally, film unfolds WITH time (while subverting it), rather than standing still in seeming opposition to it. Cinema is able to respire; it breathes out and we breathe it in. This match to our cognitive capacities, aside from the necessary contradiction of being a dream-by-intentionality (whereas dreams of sleep [save for the practice of lucid dreaming] are void of direct intentionality), is how we are able, as an audience, to enter a film so fully. Its “abstractions” (of time, space, character, psychology, tone), which aren’t abstractions at all, make sense to us intimately. Just like Jake Sully is able to “patch into” his Avatar because it is grown from a component of his own genomic material (taken from his twin brother), so too we immerse into films because of their relationship to our basic processes of cognition (which is how we necessarily experience life). And for their span, we live inside of films, garnering emotive /stress/ and even physical reactivity, just as Sully inhabits his secondary Na’vi body and incurs the effect all of its sensitivities. Here we encounter another aspect of AVATAR’s ‘form suiting its content,’ whereby cinema is the perfect medium for Cameron’s conceptual expression.

AVATAR exploits the capacity of dreams as far as it can be taken. Recall that it is only in a dream state, the point where the mind is “let go,” that the Avatars in Cameron’s film may be accessed by their human “drivers.” The Na’vi even refer to the active Avatar bodies as “Dream-Walkers,” which turns out to be an astute and literal interpretation. “Just relax and let your mind go blank,” is the almost singular instruction offered Jake Sully before his first day of Avatar training. In his act of falling into a dream, Jake Sully awakens. A profound irony later solidified when he says, after weeks of Avatar immersion, “Everything is backwards now, like out there [on Pandora with the Na’vi] is the true world, and in here [his wheelchair, with humans] is the dream.”

Human beings pilot Avatars every time that they dream, inhabiting memory bodies, holding mutating forms and sometimes non-forms, jumping from first to third-person orientation and every gradation in between. We deconstruct and collide spaces like drunken cosmic architects. We create entire worlds from scratch, inhabit them, and follow no-laws, and we do so as a basic function of our sentience.

The technology of Avatars is predicated on this, possibly the most fundamental “haphazard action” of sentient life; dreams, which are THE evidence of the inevitability of abstraction, art, and invention. The collision of thought and dreams and memory allows us to invent, to build language, to solve problems with that utterly unique and creative deconstruction made possible by our minds, buoyed by our discernment between action and intentionality, and our seeking to understand all that we sense with dynamism. In the world of Cameron’s film, dreaming allows for the use of Avatars as much as it facilitated the invention of the technology itself.

In the cross-section of thought and physicality, we necessarily learn to strike the balance between the infinitude of interiority and the finitude of exteriority. After all, we are subject to the conditions of having a body… and yet we say, “anything is possible.”

PARTS AS A WHOLE

Mutating this dynamic awareness further, I’m reminded, as an artist, of the physicality and structuralism of the printmaking medium; particularly screen-printing. You begin with an image, a conception, a template of the finished product… and then you destroy it. You deconstruct it color-field by color-field. And from this deconstruction, you enable the reconstruction... color-field by color-field (and variation by variation, thereof). After all is said and done, the artist gains an extremely complex and abstracted intimacy with this image, a sense memory of all its processes, knowing all of its parts as parts, and as a whole. The Na’vi, in their accumulation of Tsahaylu (transient neural bonds), gain a perspective from many other nodes within the Pandoran ecosystem… again, perceiving and tapping into a shared tactile history, seeing their own broader orientation via experience and via counterpoint.

So where do we go from here? How do we attain a pervading standard of interconnectivity and social plurality? How do we make history tactile as in the way of dreams? Avatar doesn't really answer these questions (unless its very existence is the answer), so much as present them, as well as a projection of our attitudinal future. Cameron’s film realizes an idealism in the Na’vi so as to highlight the contrary state of our own existence, while also showing us an inevitable point of conflict. Can ways be unlearned? Can the course of things be changed? Is our break from nature wholly irrevocable? More and more questions. Important questions.

Cinema, and the advent of the 3D experience, seems to be a kind of answer to historical tactility… or a leap towards it. For our time, AVATAR has set off an unprecedented wildfire of reactivity, positive and negative. All of which converge upon its undeniable significance. It is the highest grossing, most attended film (in its initial release) of all time, and continues to best that record. There is something curious in this phenomenon, something well beyond novelty, something we are taking quite seriously whether we admit it or not.

*to r from a

Saturday, February 13, 2010

AVATAR


EXPLODING THE FOURTH WALL

What many reviewers seem quick to either sidestep or to de-emphasize, in favor of rather banal and obvious criticisms (some valid, some controvertible, non of which should act as a point of absolutism), is that AVATAR serves as a nodal point from which branch a number of the most pressing philosophical and existential dilemmas concerning our age. Its relevance is potent, even in its more peripheral elements of critique ( healthcare, military in use by corporations, preemptive war). AVATAR “presents and opportunity that is both timely and unique;” unique in its experience, its absolute demolition of the fourth wall, congruous with an emergence from the uncanny-valley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley). Some people seem unable to reconcile the notion of an “un-original premise,” in favor of constructive ideational discussion, despite the arguable reality that AVATAR’s very premise; so basic in its elements, so clear in its conflicts and characterizations, and so brazen in its borrowing, facilitates the inverse dynamism and potency of its reception and reactions. Whether the causality of my reaction is subtly distinguished between “the film is about these ideas,” “the film made me think of these ideas” or “I saw the film, and I thought of these ideas” is irrelevant, because constructively, the result is uniform (and after a second viewing I air on the side of the film definitively containing these ideas). So, in that interest, the following response to Cameron’s film (IMAX 3D) is that of concepts (BESIDES “imperialism through assimilation” and free-market capitalism. I’m simply not versed enough to discuss those issues incisively. I do briefly attest that its lesson of acceptance and cautionary representation of racism [especially compounded by economic ambition] is apparently still vehemently necessary in an age like today. "This is how its done," Jake Sully exclaims in disgust, "when you're are sitting on sh*t they want... make them the enemy so you're justified in taking it from them.")

Chiefly among AVATAR’s preoccupations is an exploration of the ever-expanding point of interface between technology and human identity; technologically enabled extensions of existentiality like the internet. Even now we are daily enveloped by this phenomenon. Whether we’re talking about gamers ensconced in the fantasical worlds of Everquest or World of Warcraft, or the networking / “whats on my mind” practices of Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, IM, Skype, and even cell-phone Texting which have become fully integrated social commodities encompassing all social spheres (each garnering their own dynamics, dialects, if not languages, etc) we’re talking about Avatars; vehicles for the extension of experience, acquisition, and identity. All of these abstracted venues create a platform for expression, expansion, and proliferation of ideas, information, criticism, etc. They vitiate the incapacities rendered by the spatio-temporal world. Users can contact hundreds of people all at once with a keystroke, join a forum and have conversations with people two feet away or two continents, buy a t-shirt from Japan or sell one to a person in France, download a program that teaches Portuguese or comment on someone’s Photography blog, write an essay while researching sources online while chatting to a friend while consulting a thesaurus widget and following the video link sent to you via email. Paradoxically, in their current states, these technologies, while seeming comparatively immediate (rightly so, in their vast degrees of access that operate outside of time and space) and which facilitate an exchange of internality and externality (Facebook status / Twitter function / stream of consciousness searches) enforce a dichotomy; a kind of attitudinal schism between limited physical existence and the abstraction of limitlessness in cyberspace; where we clearly understand the threshold of a computer screen and the sensation of a keyboard. There exists a growing perceptible bleed though, a blur of lines, though subjective, radiating from the center of a gaining world standard of intangible world connectivity. I recall when Jake Sully, after weeks of using an avatar says, I recall when Jake Sully, after weeks of using an avatar says, “The days are starting to blur together,”…“Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.” Unprecedented degrees of social organization of found-cultures, facsimile experience, and freedom of selective identity is here aided by the ironic underscore of distanced anonymity and/or malleability of self-presentation inherent in the internet medium. While many people protest to be most honest in the information and feelings they expel into cyberspace, (as I myself often do), much like the phenomenon of “honesty with strangers,” it cannot be denied how distance and time, though vitiated by the internet, are also an inherent component of its utilization. The very things it supercedes, are the very thing that enables its success.


In my “review” I suggested that the viewer “necessarily experiences” AVATAR “rather than watches,” but considering the strength of its emo-socio-cultural angles, ‘immersion’ is more fitting language. We immerse, enabled by an apex of visual technology, just as protagonist Jake Sully immerses into his Avatar and subsequently the Na’vi ways, by an apex of technology. Where there is essentially no point of disconnect for Sully between his cerebro-existential self and the accumulating sensory encounters of his Avatar, which transcends his own physical form with a seamless bond, there is as scant a disconnect as there has ever been in cinema between the audience and the film. By virtue of the honed and pervading 3D aspect, which affects the AVATAR’s entire spatial characteristic, we are likened to Sully; crippled, if you will, by our affixation to our seats and to good public custom (he to a wheelchair, to the access chamber of his Avatar, to concepts of loyalty and militarism), but we able to have a startlingly immediate sensory/emotive encounter. AVATAR’s form is perfectly and emphatically fitted to its function, not in the least arbitrary.

There’s a certain paradox, if not irony to Jake Sully’s situation. An “apex of technology” is necessary for him to integrate with the Na’vi’s world, but the world he arrives at is one void of technology, and that’s precisely why he is so drawn to it. The Na’vi are so substantially connected to their world in a way that human beings, because of their technology, no longer are. But this is further paralleled in the fact that audience, immersed in the movie because of the advanced technology it uses, are themselves drawn by that product of technology back to a primordial connection to nature, and empathizing deeply with it.

The Na’vi carry this concept farther via their own immersion into nature. A number of reviewers seem to mistakenly attribute their harmony with nature as a mere or simplistic “nature worship.” To the contrary it’s not ideological or theological, or at least not according to strict associations of those terms; not because the Na’vi aren’t spiritual, but because the basis of their “beliefs” are empirical and biologically evident, as opposed to being “matters of faith.” Remember that it is the humans, in fact, who apply the language of “Deity” when explaining Eywa to Sully, whom the Na’vi themselves refer to as “great mother.” Theirs is distinctly a term of kinship, familial not dogmatic, to a center, a source, a keeper of memory. Eywa not only retains a brain-like physiological functionality for the entire ecosystem (discussed further in the latter section of this response), but expresses an analogy to the human digital technology of “storing memory.” When the Na’vi die, they are brought to a kind of ecological access port, where the “information and histories” perceived and expressed in organic terms as essences and voices, are reincorporated into Eywa as bio-electric energy, able to be accessed when the Na’vi connect to receptors (fiber optic-like willow tendrils) that grow from “The Tree of Souls.”

The Na’vi instinctually exist without the weight of dualism, neither between themselves and the environment, nor themselves and other creatures, nor themselves their history and their “afterlife.” The Na’vi don’t aim to control or reshape nature to suit new modalities with any sense of entitlement or dominion. Rather they are innately, and very literally, a component of its composite, a node of its dynamnic inter/intra-functionality. They understand their place, and see how that understanding preserves the balance which sustains life. This doesn't mean that Na’vi are “perfect;” void of conflicts, making no mistakes, suffering no moments of pride. It simply means that their sensitivities are attuned to a larger tangible context that informs their behavior and expression of life.

--------------------------------

The other “big issue” that AVATAR elucidates by example is whether the field of industry and technology can be developed into a state of continuity with nature, not simply an effort of environmentally friendly innovation (which is a sensible, fantastic, and necessary goal in its own right), but symbiotic, whereby both organics and mechanics are extensions of the same processes and energies, who’s interests are in striking and maintaining a balance, and such that the means towards that balance are an instilled capacity of that interface. AVATAR wonders, if not states, that we may be doomed to proliferate the historical trends of man voraciously seeking mastery over nature, the elements, the laws of physics, (and of course himself), enacting epic scales of consumption and waste along the way. Man razes the playing field in his act of rapacious technological advancement. resetting or eradicating conditions to specification, stemming invention from the terms established thereafter. You know how the song goes… “they paved paradise, put up a parking lot. Ooooh, bop bop bop bop!” Man has manifested an entire illusory universe of information that can be accessed, manipulated, landscaped, demolished, re-raised, and adapted with seemingly infinite potentiality and without pain of irreparable damage, and yet he chooses continually to devour fossil fuels, erect shoddy housing in vast excess over any stretch of available land, and essentially manifest the most colossal dilemmas of modern existence upon himself. etc.

Man’s advent of technology is combative against the terms of natural selection. Having decisively removed himself from nature, and taken the reigns of his evolution, man strives for an exemption from its laws and conditions. Medical advances are extending human life-spans to record lengths; however, the ripple effect is that populations increase exponentially, as do rates of mass consumption and waste, rates of illnesses related to industry and the communicability of disease, rapid depletion of resources, scarcity of space, stronger polarization of economic castes, spikes in cost of living, etc. These are extant an calculable causalities, not a doomsayer’s projections. In a not-so far-flung effort, science is even investigating possible augmentations of the very chromosomal components that cause us to biologically age, in effect seeking to retard the process, perhaps indefinitely. Coupling again with medicine’s advancement, people would live longer with the most increased capacity to stave off or fight illness and degeneration.


The Na’vi differ greatly. They don't regard natural death as a negative ideal, or as something to be avoided. Only unnecessary death, or unnatural death is mourned as an occasion of “sadness” and of “wrong.” Because they are so necessarily attuned to the state of nature of which they are an integral part, the Na’vi don't feel as substantially disconnected from the “after” stage of their lives as humans do (with their stigmas, dogmas, that enforce the dichotomy of life and death, life and afterlife, etc). Death isn’t an act of finality or removal for them, but rather the fullest degree of systemic integration. Again, their “spirit” is absorbed into Eywa and expressed as information. This partly ideological seed is why Na’vi don't suffer from over population and its subsequent problems.

With the Na’vi, their “technological set” is organic. It isn’t, as with the human beings, about isolating and protecting the self, about encasement, about singularity, about emphasizing distinction from inside and outside. I’m referring mostly to the military technologies in AVATAR, which actually find analogy with those of the Na’vi.

-The robotic “A.M.P Suits” used in mounted ground attacks and load lifting are analogous to the established concept of Avatars. The A.M.P is a vessel from which to attain increased physical force, “allowing a human operator to amplify his every move in the safety of a tank-like machine,” literally by wearing it.

-The propellered “Scorpion” vehicles are analogous, of course, to the winged Banshee (Ikran) ridden by the Na’vi, not only in their flight capacity but in proportion and their almost animalistic design.

Both of these cross-sections establish the manner in which man’s technology (that of force and domination) enforces a strict disconnect between the product and the practitioner, and between the practitioner and the environment. The Na’vi engage their “technology,” not as a domination but as a becoming, with no disconnect. They access their “technology,” completing a circuit between themselves and another organism. The result is inverse; an expansion where far more that physical power is attained. Harmony and circularity become the paramount ideal, not mastery in the base sense. There is a curious analogy in the fact that the Na’vi “plug in” so to speak, to other organisms, but more accurately, they create a site-specific symbiosis.

The AVATAR technological set, that of its bio-existential linking of Sully to a Na’vi body, is on par with what the Na’vi practice as a basic function of their lives.

The ecology of Pandora is manifest thusly, with a systemic capacity for dynamic linking, not unlike a software suite. Because we come to understand, in an accumulation of scientific investigations, that Pandora is a kind of planetary organism, one that communicates and connects its parts bio-electrically, and makes possible this communication through exteriorized cerebral appendages. These necessarily exist for the disparate parts of its [Pandora’s] whole to collaborate and strike the balance of life, a homeostasis. Neytiri says, “Our great mother Eywa does not take sides, Jake; only protects the balance of life.” The mind of AVATAR, simply but forcefully, posits a model of that intercommunicative ideal, unfortunately having no notion of steps that might be taken towards its realization.

Inside of this system, the Na’vi essentially have no need for leaps of invention or any exceptional desire to amend their orientation of “evolution” because of how perceptive they are of its success and their presence within it as nodes, or appendages rather than

Contrary to the Human’s predominating dominion over their technology; machines designed for specialized tasks to be used in specific unchanging ways, in order for the Na’vi to access and utilize their own “technology,” that is to say the act of coupling with other organisms, they must meet that occasion of want or necessity on its own extant terms, at their own possible peril.

(**technology for specific purposes vs. technology that is infinitely adaptable—changing the system it’s integrated into**)

[upon Sully meeting the task of choosing his Ikran.]
Neytiri: Now you must choose your Ikran (flying creature). This you must feel inside.
If he also chooses you, move quick like I showed you. You will have one chance Jake.
Sully: How will I know if he chooses me?
Neytiri: He will try to kill you.
Sully: Outstanding.

In this physical contest, each party is of equal value and the result is dictated by conditions rather than their vitiation. AVATAR therefore isn’t a film about the rejection of technology. It embraces the necessity of its technologies, within the film and which allowed the film to be made. Ironically or paradoxically, it is the very existence and reach of technology that achieves the capability and opportunity of its superceding; the ability of Sully to transition from one self to another; physically crippled marine to virile Na’vi, to accumulate experiential knowledge via a mobile two-way bio-existential channel, to master a new physicality and to actualize a new morality, and then to shake off the yolk, to break from the chrysalis of his transcendence’s enablement through through his intergration into the Na’vi technological set.

(Special thanks to Ben Dench and Mike Cifone for the aid of great conversation)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

AVATAR

An Intrigue in Success and in Failure

As an experience, it is singular and frankly amazing. As a sheer creative/technical effort and advancement to the visual potential of cinema, it's an olympic gold medal long-jump. As an ethnography, it is rich and fascinating (though it has the potential to be so much more). As an ecological survey it is staggering. As a story, it is erupting with unique specificities, and emotes powerfully though broadly. As a premise… well, its been done before. To reduce things crudely, AVATAR is an interplanetary version of The Last Samurai via Pocahontas, with a twist of the She’s All That’s “You mean I was just a bet!?” thrown in the mix. But truthfully, there is so much contained within the universe of AVATAR, a film that you necessarily experience rather than watch, that if you summarily dismiss it at any single point of criticism (viable and crucial to the whole as they may be), you are in neglect of a bounty of intriguing captivating moments and heights.

The best complement to AVATAR is that it begs questions, many important questions. Questions more immediate and important now, in this information age of astounding global connectivity and learning, than ever before. Questions I ceaselessly pose to myself, and fervently seek to answer in the way I open myself to all experiences and ideas. As I watched AVATAR, these questions bubbled to the surface and molded into the tactility of its manifestation. While it hasn’t the aptitude to truly and deeply explore and answer these inquiries, AVATAR none the less stands, as best it can for what it was made to be, as an example, a full-blooded scenario, and allows if not inspires us to think more deeply in its stead.

It asks... what is cultural identity? If cultural identity is learned through accumulation, can it be learned after the fact? Is culture fluid, or fixed? Are we born into our home, or do we find it? What is home? Is culture a matter of choice, and when does it become so? Is language culture? Can culture exist without language? Is culture only quantifiable in relativity? At what point does imitation become embodiment, or deceit transform into honesty? At what point does fa├žade seep deeper into the tissue and simply… become? AVATAR explores a now classic scenario of “going native;” in this case a kind of elective Stockholm Syndrome, where “seeing how the other half lives” is a platform for self-criticism and learned humanism. And because of the films groundbreaking optical tactility and subsequent inclusiveness, this message effects deeply, perhaps deeply enough to actually affect a generation so swamped in the ubiquity of information and art, that nothing upon nothing shocks them.

One of the most admirable material qualities of AVATAR, a film whose fully realized sense of place and space is its presiding facility, is how seamlessly the technology of the humans is incorporated into the fabric of its orientation and usage, meaning that it is shown and therefore understood mostly diegetically, seeming to be as natural a part of its environment as a Plasma TV and a two-section couch is to the modern American living-room. There is a relationship between all the technologies that makes them seem contemporaneous as a whole, if not familial, and strikes a perfect blend between material and digital, abstract and mechanical. Unfortunately, this treatment of diegesis is not afforded to the same degree to Na’vi, where, as a result of the central plot device of an outsider “learning the ways,” higher instances of exposition are employed. Thankfully though, even those are expressed minimalistically, and much is allowed to be shown and enjoyed without words (A proclivity that, had it been applied much more liberally and as a general rule, would have engendered a great sense of earned and imaginative learning from the audience about Na'vi culture. Cameron should have watched Malick's THE NEW WORLD).

AVATAR’s other cause for accolade is its development of the strong and beautiful spoken Na’vi language, which contains its own uniquely crafted morphology, vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Because the Na’vi people are so attuned to nature and its processes, the spoken language incorporates a great deal of gesture and movement in its expression. It has a clear relationship, as does most components of the Na’vi, to Native American lingustic, aesthetic, and spiritual culture.

What endeared me the most about the Na’vi language is its greeting, “I see you,” whose implication is that of a deeper sensibility of knowing, awareness, and feeling of another person. Its not just “I see you” its “I see into you.” It reminded me of the Mayan greeting “In’Lakesh,” and its response, “Ala’kin.” Roughly “In’Lakesh” means “We are different faces of each another” or more concisely, “I am another you.” “Ala’kin” is the confirmation “it is so.” Implicit here is the notion of each person being an expression of the same life and energy, a communion despite differentiation. In short, we are all one.

In Maori culture, a common greeting is for each party, with eyes closed, to place their noses to the other and take a deep breath, as if inhaling a sense of that person, both bodies taking in air and living simultaneously. This gesture is borrowed by the Na’vi and assimilates perfectly into their gestural vocabulary. But more than all that, what the functionality of these lingual flourishes touches upon the facility of language to inform upon attitudes, how its nature can affect if not determine the way thoughts are conceived, communicated, and how people relate to one another. It finds evidence in languages where words like “mine,” or “lie,” don't exist, and how within these cultures, often tribal, concepts of deceit or possession or singular self-preservation have no place. Does language form culture, or the other way around?

My main, and apparently common, quarrel with AVATAR, beyond its use of a wholly unoriginal plot premise and dramatic character arcs (get over it, AVATAR didn't invent “unoriginality”), is the fact that it posits a white man (crippled in fact) as becoming a better Na’vi than any Na’vi could be; learning their ways, leading them into battle as a warrior king, uniting their clans, communing with their deity, mating with the Chief’s daughter, etc.

This presents a bifurcated issue.

In one sense AVATAR creates a positive ideal; that not just in the sharing, but in the combination of our efforts, minds, hearts, ideologies, and convictions we can achieve great things. That in the collaboration of disperate selves and attitudes lay the greatest power.

Inversely, AVATAR employs a kind of subversion of cultural sanctity; almost an imperialism through assimilation; a reversal of imperialism through indoctrination and conversion.

This is where a film like DANCES WITH WOLVES, which AVATAR has been both properly and improperly compared to, succeeds fantastically; because in spite of his affection for and investment in the Sioux Indians, his exploration of their customs, language, and daily life, Union Soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) doesn't become a Sioux Indian, doesn’t assimilate beyond a point of no return, doesn’t assume an infallible measure of acceptance (though he might hope for it), doesn’t lead the Sioux proudly into battle (The chief refuses to allow hip to assist in a war party against invading Pawnee, and later, in fact it is THEY [the Sioux] that mount an attack to save HIM from Union Army imprisonment)… and in the end the cultural divide sorrowfully asserts itself. Dunbar attests that his presence with the Sioux could only be transient, and that the oncoming storm of subjugation would separate them with inevitability. As a testament to the tact and sensitivity of his portrayal of the Sioux and the film’s enduring popularity, Kevin Costner was adopted as an honorary member of the Sioux Nation, an interesting if not ironic phenomenon in context with this discussion of cultural identity.

My other quarrel is that AVATAR, which takes place in a somewhat distant future, purports to carry such archaic and simplistic attitudes of race and personhood, and renders such standardized caricatures for its antagonists (even some of its principal cast) to inhabit. AVATAR infers that the human race is in a dire situation of survival, but inferred is all. No weight is given to that basic desperation to “find a new homeworld,” and ALL weight is given to the propensities of economic voracity, indiscriminant shows of military force, professional arrogance, etc. The scientists are sympathetic, inquisitive, and ultimately weak, the soldiers are complete goons, and “the company” is a heartless profit-seeking beast. Are these archetypes COMPLETELY out of line? No. Are they reflections of historical and extant attitudinal realities? Yes. Does racism and prejudice still virulently exist today, as in places like Uganda in which anti-homosexuality legislation is in place to criminalize homosexuality as punishable-by-death? Yes. Will racism always exist? Probably. Does it make for interesting complex drama, rife with engaging and natural ambiguity, to create a story about as “Good Guy, Bad Guy” as you possibly can? No. But does AVATAR, alongside clear inadequacy, create an utterly sweeping, broadly appreciable experience with clear lines of conflict, obvious cautionary intentionality, and a valuable lesson of understanding and collaborative existence? A resounding Yes.


Pluses and minuses considered, AVATAR wins. It is wholly interesting in its successes and failures, in its emphasis and miss-emphasis, in the ideas it delves into, the questions it raises whether it knows it or not, the enveloping experience it provides, the emotional catharsis it revels in (though tinged with more than just a little bit of “white guilt”), and the dynamism of its physicality, its surface, and its dance.

OTHER FILMS TO WATCH
These following films are virtual master-classes in where AVATAR either miss-emphasizes, treats its subjects too simplistically, or avoids opportunities for irony and ambiguity. They posit varied outcomes, degrees, and motivations of cultural integration and exchange.

THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (Budd Boetticher, 1951)
THE NEW WORLD (Terrence Malick, 2005)
HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMEN (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

TOP 11 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE DECADE

(not in order of preference)

This was a near-impossible task, selecting only ten films from a decade of immeasurable cinematic prolificity and creativity… so I decided to pick 11. My goal, not to chose an absolute top 11, but simply to create a culturally diverse and challenging swath of dynamic films from the past decade, films that have struck me deeply and sustained their effect over time and multiple viewings, if not enriching over the span.

1. KABEI: OUR MOTHER (Yoji Yamada, Japan 2008)

For 133 min I was a member of the Nogami family. I laughed, smiled, worried, and cried with them. I inhabited the rooms of their house, I ate dinner at their table. I was wholly taken into their lives. This film is as sensitive a transposition as I’ve ever known in cinema. Maybe I just saw it when I was most receptive.

KABEI tells the story of the Nogami family in the years leading up to and during WWII. After Shigeru, the patriarch, is imprisoned for the “incendiary” content of his writing, Kabei (the children’s pet name for his wife, their mother) must carry the family (two daughters) on her own. Toru, a former student of Shigeru’s pays respects to his sensei and becomes a devoted helpful friend to the Nogami’s, developing a deep but secretive affection for Kabei… and her for him. A complex range of Japanese attitudes, in conflict and acquiescence to custom and policy, builds a grand portrait of wartime humanity.

Yoji Yamada is a man of considerable acclaim in Japan, having directed the 36 installments of the Tora-san film series, and most recently reached international acclaim for his Samurai Trilogy (Including the Oscar nominated Twilight Samurai). If there were a living director that one could call intrinsically Japanese; meaning that they can tell a story in the way only a Japanese person could tell it (despite the ubiquity of cross cultural information rendered by the 20th century), it is Yoji Yamada… but perhaps only because his subjects are Japanese. Perhaps his prevailing sensitivity, hints of sentimentality, gentle maturity, and observance of the everyday (all of which bring Ozu to mind) could benefit most any cultural context. After all, where does one culture begin and the other end if culture, like time, is fluid?

2. BABEL (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu , Mexico 2006)
**BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES OF THE DECADE!** (Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza)

A sprawling, razing, profound, and accomplished film. Innaritu crafts an arresting proof by contradiction; by exploring the realities of emotional distance through a structural fragmentation, with narrative threads scattered across four continents, BABEL reveals the spontaneous but inevitable weave of causality and sheer humanity that connects us. BABEL reaches a new height in all aspects of cinema, most important and timely being the global scale of its exploration. BABEL is powerful and humbling enough even to dissolve the celebrity of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette. (One of the best scores of the decade.)

3. THREE TIMES (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan 2005)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Millenium Mambo,) is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and yet despite being the most salient of the Taiwanese New Cinema directors to emerge in the mid 1980’s is almost entirely relegated to the festival circuit in the US (save for Flight of the Red Balloon). THREE TIMES explores three pairs of lovers (played by the same principal actors Shu Qi and Chang Chen) in three different time periods of Taiwanese 20th Century history (1966, 1911, 2005). Each couple incurs obstacles toward intimacy; ranging from practical circumstance, social constraint, and the aching indecision of modern freedoms (emotional, professional). But rather than a mere structural decision, THREE TIMES utilizes the nature and conditions of each “time” to inform pragmatically, attitudinally, and aesthetically upon its character’ wills, actions, and facilities of communication. Like all of his works, THREE TIMES moves with a clean breathlessness, a remarkable continuity and elliptical capturing of each moment that allows one to enter completely into its space and time. It is ravishing to behold when you surrender to its patience. And across all three vignettes, Hou evinces a spanning portrait of Taiwan, as if a kind of summation of the generations he has heretofore visited in his catalogue, if not a virtual abstract of his retroactive thesis.

4. TALK TO HER………………….(Pedro Almodovar, Spain 2002)

Almodovar at his absolute height! Full and unforgettable characters, an affecting complex moral scenario, abounding with tones of melodrama, gentleness, urgency, vitality, desperation. Critic Peter Travers said “Almodovar doesn’t just make movies. Almodovar IS the movies.” If Almodovar had only “Talk To Her” to his credit, I’d still be inclined to agree.

5. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN……….(Ang Lee, USA 2005)

Lee elicits great sympathy through this story rather than simplistic pity, an oft’ confused discrepancy. Sympathy is earned through nuance, authenticity, honesty, and complexity, whereas pity manipulates through broad, forceful strokes that lack in enriching ambiguity. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) are, in the most helpless and human way, sparking a friction against their context, their time and place, their upbringing. Both of them are equally products of their environments, by degrees wanting to fulfill the tenets of what they understand as being a normal American life and to accept the limits of their potential (Ennis more than Jack). But both of them is charged by a desire (a desire that is only able to reveal itself to them after the isolation and utterly basic existence on Brokeback has worn down their conditioning) that conflicts with their upbringing and especially with the social progress of 1960’s small-town southern US. What makes this story so notable, besides the near primordial and tactile manner in which Lee explores what is truly an existential dilemma, besides the formal excellence of its execution, is that the practical and damaging consequences of Jack and Ennis’ decisions; their increasing waywardness in regards to their families, the damage Ennis does to Jack through his prevailing fear and confliction of learned and intrinsic values regarding their love, and the literal danger they bear in expressing that love in a repressive conservative social arena, are a constant element, a predominating topic in their dialogues and behaviors. Lee creates characters subject to expectation that are fully culpable for their inadequacies, their failures, their anxieties, and broken promises. Because of this complexity, not one stroke of this film speaks “woe is me.”

BROKEBACK calls from the recesses of the “pure self,” the immediate and visceral self, which verges against our means, circumstances, and loyalties always. This vergence rises between the intrinsic and the learned, the inborn and the imposed, the internal (desire) and the exteriorized architectures of society (morals, values, trends, economy, etc). It is in this ultimately primal struggle that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is wholly universal. This basic struggle is highlighted, and given a renewed significance by virtue of being a mainstream product involving a homosexual relationship. That slight but impactful irregularity calls attention once again to extremely important and relatable aspects of the human condition.

6. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, USA 2002)

Speaking mostly of the relationships shared between Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Mulholland Drive, David Lynch is a weaver of dreams. He understands their modes, their spontaneity, their density of details, and their refracted qualities of space, time, and superimposition, like no other artistic mind. Lynch has also chosen the greatest medium possible through which to explore these anxious, passionate, and frustrated subconscious realms, which he can emulate in an absolutely singular fashion. They are remarkably full experiences, and they can remain just that, an experience, but their bevy of details, layers, and interlaced instruction are far too much to neglect. Whether you want to or not, your mind will draw lines in the constellation he has scattered between frame one and frame last. Mulholland Dr. was my first Lynchian experience. I had no idea what I was getting into, and afterwards… had no idea what I had gotten into. I saw it again the next day, and every subsequent time it’s played at the County Theater. It is absorbed into me. I consider my relationship to this film, and how it enlivens my mind to this day, my greatest cinematic love affair. (Another standout score!)

7. SPARROW…………………….(Johnny To, Hong Kong 2008)

Veteran Hong Kong action auteur Johnny To (Election, Triad Election) creates a vibrant love letter to a rapidly changing Hong Kong, to fraternal loyalty, and unabashedly to the vivacious Hollywood films of the 1950’s and 60’s. Sparrow traces a small gang of master pickpockets who eke out their living in an old quarter of Hong Kong. Their unity, however, is disrupted when a mysterious woman enters into their lives and manipulatively threads them into her own dilemma.


SPARROW, with its bright endearing center, is as close as you can get to a musical without singing, and boasts a cleanly specific, choreographed vision (as is typical with the director). Johnny To has crafted a film that rejoices in the fact that it is a film. SPARROW revels in its movements, framings, and moods, which owe as much to Charlie Chaplin as they do The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The final pickpocket showdown (slow motion, in the rain, at night… with umbrellas!)…MAGIC! (This film also boasts a light, fluttering, energetic score!)

8. SAMARITAN GIRL……………...(Kim Ki Duk, South Korea 2004)
**BEST FILMMAKER OF THE DECADE!**

“Hoping to save enough money to travel through “Europe, teenagers Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) and Jae-young (Min-jeong Seo) enter into a risky trade: Jae-young becomes a prostitute, and Yeo-jin manages their business. After Jae-young is killed, Yeo-jin assumes the role of sex worker to keep their clients happy. But Yeo-jin's father (Eol Lee) discovers his daughter's secret, setting off a chain of events that bring father and daughter to a crossroads.”

Kim Ki Duk has made his name as an uninhibited architect of coarse emotional unravellings, and I recommend any and all of his films for the depths they tap into. Kim is a keen observer of small yet resonant gestures, is spare on words and yet says volumes. His films become universal this way. As inclement and tumultuous as they may seem, they contain undeniable familiarity of feeling and of desire. Kim has a unique understanding of the friction caused when emotion penetrates into the physical realm, when what we want is outside of our reach or understanding, and what it means when words are too obcsure to explain our desires. Actions speak louder than words. SAMARITAN GIRL is perhaps the most challenging and wrenching of his portraits, and stands as the perfect rubric for his utterly singular idiolect. (Kim won best director at the Berlin International Film Festival for this film)

9. THE NEW WORLD …………….Terence Malick (USA 2005)
**BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY OF THE DECADE** (Shared with ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’).

THE NEW WORLD is a story written on the truth of a dream, one that leaves the trace of soil and breath upon the acres of our skin, that wets with its rains, soaks into the heart, and then warms with the beat of its rays, saying "I will find joy in all I see." Never has a film so entered into me as though through my fingertips or my lungs, so subverted my orientation as though a transposition by its wholeness and grace and movement. I am transformed by the wistful yet rejoicing remembrance, the poem of textures, of senses, of thoughts, and of conflicts that is THE NEW WORLD! And lets face it, any time Emmanuel Lubezki touches a camera he should be handed an Oscar.

10. LOVE EXPOSURE……………Sion Sono (Japan 2009)
**BEST FILM + SCREENPLAY OF THE DECADE!!!**

“Having grown up in a devout Christian family, Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) has always been a well-behaved kid. After his mother dies, his priest father is seduced by a woman who breaks his heart, causing him to torment Yu by forcing him to confess his sins on a daily basis. Of course, being a fairly normal kid, Yu has no legitimate sins to confess. To appease his increasingly demanding father, Yu is determined to become a true sinner, eventually training to become an expert at sneak upskirt photography. Pornography being the one sin no priest can overlook, Yu gets the attention he s been so desperately seeking from his dad. One day while hanging out with his fellow sinner pals but dressed like Sasori as punishment for being on the losing end of a bet Yu meets a beautiful girl named Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima). Their first meeting is a glorious one, beginning with an all-out street brawl and ending with a kiss. There are only two problems: she thinks he s a woman and a devious cult leader named Aya (Sakura Ando) is carefully manipulating both of their lives.”

Little can be said of this film before it is seen. It is a singular, varied and unmitigatedly hilarious experience. And even after seeing it, words seem to fall radically short; though "revelatory" "ambitious" "epic" spring to mind first. LOVE EXPOSURE is a cinematic experience imbued with such vibrancy, complexity, spasticity, absurdity, honesty, and observance; that one cant help but feel revived of life afterward. Though writer / director Shion Sono (Suicide Club) builds so many ideas, threads, and tones, what resonates deepest is its feelings; heartfelt, ironically innocent (considering some of its rather coarse specific content), and utterly full! What stands tallest is Sono’s exploration of how externalized perceptions and unknowing misconceptions inform upon our individual processes of identity building. In a world that is now staggeringly connected, and where information is so ubiquitous it requires actual effort to be avoided, Sono’s curiosity seems most relevant.

Though lasting 4 hours, each frame is brimming with a vital energy that defies its duration, and is somehow able to remain startlingly intimate in defiance of its grandeur. As was said at the introduction of this film on its NY premier... "it’s the shortest 4 hour film I've ever seen." It goes by in a flash!

11. THE WAR (Ken Burns, 2007)

Though made for television and episodic in design, THE WAR is most certainly a film. Enormous in scope, thorough but captivating in its historical detail, an unfathomable feat of editing, garnering a fair and fantastic range of perspectives (unafraid to highlight the US’s own missteps and poor wartime practices, alongside the strides of progress and generosity).

THE WAR is historical yet radically personal. While a documentary of mostly archival materials, it feels more tactile, visceral, if not elemental, to me than even a film like Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps that is a quality earned through its combination of mediums, modes of storytelling, and the textural artistic processes involved in drawing a vast narrative with existing and new materials; the amalgam of which feels potently direct, and is given ample space to accumulate its affect across a 15hour feature. THE WAR also strikes me as a technical milestone for editing and sound design.

HONORABLE MENTION:

-Hayao Miyazaki.. all of them
-Wes Anderson… all of them
-Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola 2003)
-Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino 2009)
-Brick (Rian Johnson 2005)
-Atonement (Joe Wright 2007)
-21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2003)
-Assassination of Jesse James (Andrew Dominik 2007)
-The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach 2006),
-Lust Caution (Ang Lee, 2007),
-Autumn Ball (Veiko Ounpuu 2007, Estonia),
-A Bittersweet Life (Kim Ji-woon 2006, South Korea),
-3-Iron (Kim Ki-Duk, 2005 South Korea),
-The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003),
-CHE (Steven Sodorbourg 2008, USA),

FAVORITE DISCOVERIES OF THE DECADE:

-BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951, Budd Boetticher) Director's Cut, restored to its full 124min length

-EROS PLUS MASSACRE (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969) Shown in NY and Boston in 2008

-THE EXILES (1961, Kent MacKenzie) Rediscovered and restored within the past two years.