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?
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 Pluto, once considered the absolute boundary of our solar system, was superceded by the discovery of the even further oriented Khyber Belt, and thereafter, massive celestial bodies, dwarf planets even larger than Pluto, in vast orbits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
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.
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.
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