Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Avatar: some meditations

Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron, 2009.

This isn't that kind of review. I'm not interested in writing that kind of review, here or ever. I am not going to spend time picking apart the technical details and elements of the movie, or presenting myself as some sort of film critic. I'm going to spend my time focusing on the mythopoetic and archetypal aspects of the plot, the context, and the characters of the film. On the mythopoetic level—all other debates about its merits aside—this film succeeds very well indeed.


Criticisms have been made that it's not all that original a story. (Remember, originality is the Modernist golden calf, to be worshipped and honored before all others.) There are in fact many similarities to existing story types. John Smith meets Pocahontas and is educated in the ways of survival in the New World. Aliens vs. natives; natives vs. invaders. The US Cavalry vs. the Comanches or Apaches (cavalry films are a particular subset of the Western genre, with unique tropes). Giant heartless corporate greed vs. compassionate independence, which prevails against all odds. The alienated or wounded war veteran, formerly an outsider, who becomes an insider among those he is supposed to be oppressing. The mere soldier becomes a spirited Warrior. Echoes of Vietnam, echoes of the Middle East conflicts. The hero's journey to come of age, to come into his own adult sense of responsibility and power. And of course the love story: the deep encounter with Other. Disaffected, alienated soldier, sick of and sickened by his own militaristic culture, meets the natives, and "goes native." (Perhaps Dances With Takara might be a fitting title.)

Why does the film resonate with so many other stories? Because each point of resonance is a mythic or archetypal turn. The film is built on archetypes, not on conventional dialogue or character or plot. It's a human story, but it's not a human-centric story. (Except of course that all stories are human stories, if not human-centric. As poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, "The universe is made up not of atoms, but of stories.")

We can talk all we want about the technical or purely filmic aspects of the movie; we can decide which succeed and which might have been done better, or differently. I have some thoughts on those points, which I may not get to here. But the issue of originality is a bit disingenuous. Other famous and influential films have been equally based on older stories, older myths, to no harm, and in many ways to their virtue. It doesn't matter: sometimes hte oldest stories are still the best. The point isn't that it's the most original script ever written, but how well it was executed on film. And this particular version of these mythic stories is very well-executed indeed.

Those who insist that this isn't an original enough script are looking to find fault. While on one level they might be right, they're also completely wrong. Movies, like novels, are myths: the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The stories told in Avatar are myths.

There are worldwide myths (Greek, Hindu, etc.) in which "avatar" is the word used to describe a god embodied in human flesh: the divine spirit enters the body. This myth in two senses comes literally true in this movie: through the Avatar technology, which is neurologic telefractoring into another (cloned or genetically manipulated) body; and the moment in the plot when the Hero attains the pinnacle of the natives' achievements, by bonding with the most wild and powerful and dangerous of the planet's flying beasts. (Whose name translates as "Last Shadow," meaning the last shadow you see crossing over you, before you are taken. In other, older myths, what has sometimes been called a Deathbird.) The hero is both an avatar, and becomes a divine avatar; his journey of self-discovery, of empowerment, is a journey also of becoming divinely blessed. In the case of Pandora's sentient ecosystem, Eywa, quite literally.

The archetypal stories and situations of Avatar are numerous. To my mind they're the reason for the film: more of a reason than the ostensible plot, which is admittedly thin at points, the characters (some of whom admittedly are not very 3D), or the somewhat predictable chain of events. Predictability is no sin, by the way, unless you worship at the altar of originality. Children want to hear the same stories told to them over and over again in part because they are predictable. I saw many plot turns coming a long time before they actually arrived; but that didn't bother me, as they were the necessary enacting of the archetypes and myths in operation. The pleasure of the retelling of the old stories is in the details surrounding the predictable, though, in the precise workings out of each archetype, in the little character moments and throwaway lines that flesh out the people in the story who are acting out the archetypes.


I didn't watch the film in 3D. (Yes, I know, I missed out, dude.) I never got to the theatre during it's 3D release, largely because I was on the road at the time, and no theatrical-release films had my attention, for several weeks. I never watched the film in theatrical release at all, to be honest. I was traveling. I was making my own art at the time, on a creative roadtrip. (Isn't it interesting how judgmental some people can get when you don't keep up with the latest cultural trend or tickle of the moment, as though you were missing out on all of life by missing out on what's the newest popular entertainment? One wonders at times if that isn't overcompensation for a deep, unacknowledged sense of the hollowness and soullessness of such pursuits and trends.)

And anyway I'm not sold on even the newest 3D technology. I'm still not sure that it isn't just another fad, another gimmick, experiencing a wave of popularity that won't endure past the "gee whiz!" period into a genuinely artistic period. (Not that there have no good 3D films made recently; Coraline was sublime.) I am turned off by the cheap tricks that a lot of films use. I tend to like to wait for a new technology to be used to make art, not just used to show off.

I'm told that Avatar uses it's 3D conservatively: as though you were looking through a window onto a world. There are no intrusions that break the fourth wall into the movie theater's space over the heads of the crowd in front of you; my least favorite gimmick of 3D, to be blunt. The choice in Avatar was to create depth of field, not make the audience gasp in their seats with a cheap trick. Knowing the filmmakers involved, I accept the probability of this being true.


I tend to be a quiet fan of James Cameron films. I tend to like most of what he does, most of the time. The first time I saw Terminator, I felt changed, if only for an evening, the way a great film is supposed to get under your skin and change you. (Cameron has always worked with grand archetypes in his stories.) I came out of the movie theatre with my friend, unable to talk—about anything, not just the film—which happens to me after the most moving times watching a film. I let myself get immersed in the film, and the shift back to the "real world" can take some time, when the film is particularly immersive or overwhelming or life-changing. (My DInner WIth André shut me up for a whole week, more or less.) I came out of the movie theater, after watching Terminator, at night: down the street was an idle road construction site, lit surreally by the sodium and mercury vapor streetlights, with a few big diggers and tractors parked next to the broken road and the revealed dirt beneath: a miniature post-apocalyptic sketch of dread. I kept my eye on the digging machines, afraid they might come to dangerous life, and attack, like the technology is the movie. I skirted around them and stayed on the other side of the street. My friend laughed in sympathy, but that's how much the film got under my skin, that first time.

I never watched Titanic, and I doubt I ever will. In some ways it says a great deal about our culture that Cameron's most popularly conventional love story film has been his most commercially successful. (The stories we like to tell ourselves about ourselves are not always life-changing, but re-affirm the status quo.) I have no doubt it's a very well-made film. Yet I find myself uninterested in Titanic, the popular movie, and far more interested in Cameron's documentary work, alongside Dr. Robert Ballard, in discovering and filming the actual Titanic wreck in the deep waters of the cold North Atlantic. The side-films, the documentaries, the preparation work, the undersea filming that Cameron did for the actual discovery of the lost ship—all these are more compelling to me than the love-story movie. I'm just not conventionally sentimental or nostalgic, I guess.

I think Cameron's masterpiece is probably The Abyss. In its own way, as deeply an innovative a film as has ever been made, both in terms of the undersea setting and filming, and of the encounter with the alien Other. (Are all Cameron's films about the encounter with the Other? A case could be made for that, even for Titanic, which is also a story critiquing social-class stratigraphy.)

Strange Days, which Cameron wrote but did not direct, is an interesting little film, that I think often gets overlooked. It exemplifies what Cameron films often do: blend genres. Strange Days is a film about the apocalypse in both its positive and negative connotations, and it's also a murder mystery. Terminator is the modern (postmodern) Frankenstein, while also being a meditation on love and death and impermanence.

The newly released DVD of Avatar is no-frills. It's just the movie, with a commentary track. There is no second DVD of special features, making-of documentaries, and so forth. And the DVD release is not the 3D version of the film. One wonders if there will be an extended director's cut released later. Cameron has done that before: The Abyss was a full half hour longer in extended release, and that actually made it a much better film. Perhaps a similar version of Avatar will someday be released, with special features, and the option to view it in 3D at home. Maybe even a digital copy of the 2D version, for your portable player; those have become very popular lately. The gods forbid we should not be able to go one moment, or to one location, where we could not be somehow entertained.

If I were to wish for an extended cut of Avatar, what I would want would be: more of the small character moments that flesh out the film; some more on the science behind the film (is that flux vortex which creates the region of floating mountains a geomagnetic or gravitational/tidal or even more exotic phenomenon?), including some more on the biology of Pandora; and more scenes of Jake learning to go native. That part of the film I would have liked to see a lot more of, at least another ten minutes or so of film-time. The process of learning to live in a foreign culture is always interesting for me—having done so myself a number of times. It would also have been interesting to see more of jake's video logs, in which he begins to question himself, and lose his former sense of self, the process during which he becomes made anew; this process of losing the self to gain the self is another deeply mythic part of the hero's journey. It's sketched out in the film, but my own peculiar constellation of interests made me want more.


Entertainment is not art. It's the dead detritus of art congealed by marketing and the economy of scale to maximize profits for some at the expense of everybody else. Art is life: entertainment is death.

I don't think Avatar has pretensions towards being High Art rather than entertainment. Yet it is artfully done, and at times is so breathtakingly beautiful that it approaches the threshold of art, even toes over it. The night scenes in the planetary jungle, with many colors of bioluminescence, some of them activated only by touch, are particularly lovely. The sheer profligacy and variety of species and elements at times overwhelm the foreground action, and I lose track of the love story because I'm watching the background. The realization of the world, the power of the details, are what give it believability and resonance. It is truly a Paradise: an Eden, an unspoiled place in which all beings live in relative harmony.

It is at night, in the film, that the message becomes most obvious that everything on this planet is connected by the neural bonding fibers: the entire ecosystem is sentient. Eywa is Gaea writ large. One short speech even makes the comparison between the living Eywa, the soul of Pandora, and the Gaea spirit of Earth, which humans in their manic exploitation have perhaps succeeded in murdering. The ecological message is rather blunt, then; yet within the action's context, I don't feel preached at, just strongly reminded that maybe, just maybe, it isn't too late for Gaea after all.


Yes, there's a bit of exoticism in the film—the encounter with the Other—which I have to say has been emphasized in the way the film's been marketed. Merchandising makes the producers of any film a lot of money, especially in science fiction. So there are lots of Navi trinkets and action figures available. Did Dances With Wolves get so much exotic marketing? Not much, because the producers intended to be respectful of the First Nations depicted in the film. The Avatar merchandising is more akin to Star Wars style merchandising, even while the film's marketing posters and graphics echo Dances With Wolves: the Other who is ourselves, we who appear to be so different but whose hearts are one.

Exoticism and colonialism go hand in hand: the dominating colonial forces are always in conflict with the Other, in part because they project onto the other all their own dark, repressed traits. Hence the natives get called "savages" or "primitives." They are technologically inferior to the colonizing paramilitary forces, certainly; on the other hand, the more complex the toy, the easier it is to break. Technological civilization has often been seen as the dominator, colonial force; and it has often been successfully resisted by the natives. There are echoes of the unhealthy US Cavalry incursions into First Nations geographical and conceptual space presented in the last act of Dances With Wolves. Again, these are mythic echoes, not literal quotes or references.

One plot-point the movie leaves open, at the end, when we see the lines of humans being force-marched into the space shuttle to be evacuated—or to be exiled from Paradise—is the tendency of large corporations, when the natives win a battle, to return later with overwhelming force. The British Empire was built very much by the British East India Tea Company, ruthless in their suppression of local uprisings that interfered with their profits.

So Pandora remains a threatened Paradise, not a permanent one. A subtle nuance of the film is that there are no permanent Paradises: the Hometree is destroyed, a sacred site where the natives can connect with their ancestors via bonding with the ecosystem's neuro-fibers is also destroyed. An entire tribe is made homeless. We can only live in the moment, with the ones we have right now, today.


I have no grand conclusive statements to make. no quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down recommendations (with all their subtle echoes of Nero's gladitorial coliseum). I leave other viewers to decide for themselves how well they enjoy the film. For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the DVD, and expect to watch it again soon, picking up more subtle details that I missed the first time through.

James Cameron continues to make films I want to watch. As I said above, a case could be made for all of his films being mythic encounters with the Other—both the Other out there, the truly Other, and the Other we find within ourselves. The question as to which Other, the inner or the outer, is the more alien, lies at the heart of Cameron's films, as it does here in Avatar.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve just watched Avatar. Like you I’ve only seen it in 2D and on a small screen and that was fine. My overall feeling is that it was long. It’s longness weighed me down. It was long because there was a lot of pretty stuff and it takes time to show pretty stuff. The pretty stuff didn’t excite me. I’m getting to the stage where I want story and if the pretty stuff isn’t contributing to the story then I’d rather they cut it. The only time I got remotely excited during the whole thing was during the final hand fight which reminded me of the fight between the alien queen and Ripley in the loader during Aliens.

That the film is based on archetypes I knew before I read your piece. There really aren’t that many stories to tell and most of them have been diluted to Sitcom Plot No.-whatever. The simple fact is that people go to the theatre all the time to see plays where they know exactly how things play out and can recite the lines along with the actors. No one is worried about seeing the same-ol’-same-ol’ if it’s done well and this film did it well enough.

It didn’t excite me though or even move me especially. I was always aware that I was watching a film and I never got caught up in the thing. To be fair I wasn’t especially looking forward to seeing the film. I’ve known for years that it was coming and I should have been breathless but so often the hype kills a film: cases in point, Tim Burton’s first Batman film and A.I., both of which disappointed me but neither of which was an awful film.

Throwing money at a project is all fine and good but the basis of great cinema is great storytelling. Take the lasts incarnation of Star Trek, again, one can pick holes in it but I sat on the edge of my seat throughout it. That one I did make the effort to go the pictures to see. That is why The Terminator was such a damn fine film and why Aliens (a sequel for God’s sake) was voted the nation’s favourite film in some poll the BBC ran a few years back – they got the stories right first. Not that Avatar didn’t have a story but it was a pretty by-the-numbers affair.

I have seen Titanic by the way. Can’t remember a damn thing about it hardly. Not a patch on Apollo 13. And that’s the point. How did Ron Howard manage to make a film about a space disaster that everyone knows the ending such a fine film?

I agree that there’s every chance we will see the soldiers come back bigger and badder than this time. The film made too much money for that not to happen and I’m already hearing the buzz about it in my science fiction magazine. I will not be in a rush to see it. Part of the reason I watched this one was to see Sigourney Weaver and she was much better in Snow Cake.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Those are all some very valid points, of course, although as I said critiquing the film as a film wasn't on my agenda. And still isn't. I enjoyed watching the film very much, and I got caught up in it, even knowing how the archetypes would inevitably play out. So, as you say, even though the ending and many plot points were predictable, like your playgoers I don't worry about seeing the same old same old if it's done well— and I think this time it was done well.

I had the same experience with the Star Trek movie; I saw it in the theatre, and even though I had some serious problems with continuity and other details, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and so the movie succeeded as a movie because it WAS done well.

And I agree about Terminator and Aliens.

As for a sequel, I don't know. I know there are always fans who talk that up; but Cameron doesn't really do sequels. He does create franchises, though, or revitalize them, so that other directors might come along later and do a sequel. Hollywood likes sequels because the make money, usually; but artistically, I really hope this movie does NOT have a sequel.

6:36 PM  

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