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.

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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)