25 December 2009

Further Thoughts on Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)

Some further reviews and commentaries on Avatar:
Nick Mamatas (a silly rant, interesting for the level and bile of its silliness)
'Avatar' and the War of Genres (Gerry Canavan)
When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"? (Annalee Newitz @ io9)
The Blue Future of Video Games (Stephen Totilo @ Kotaku)
Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist (SEK @ Acephalous)
John Scalzi on the most memorable SF films of 2009
The Wertzone
SF Signal (Scott Shaffer)
Locus (Gary Westfahl)
Speculative Horizons

     I wrote in my other post on Avatar that Art functions to challenge and potentially change how we see our world and ourselves, relating this idea to what I think constitutes the central theme of the film: to see differently, to perceive in a new way.

     One clear sign that a work of Art has succeeded in this function can be found in the multiplicity of readings, arguments, critiques, reactions, and emotions generated by the film. With Avatar, the variety and even vehemence of readings of the film are proving most important in this respect. If anything, the film is at least inspiring discussion and debate -- not just about whether it's awesome or sucks, but for its politics and sociocultural meanings.

     More specifically, I suggest that a significant part of the film's success resides in its openness to multiple, various interpretations . . . as well as in the way it exposes, or reflects back, the reductiveness or overdetermination or oversimplification of some of those interpretations. Put in a slightly different way, Avatar, I think, is quickly becoming an excellent example of how people will see in a work of Art what they want, need, desire to see, thereby closing themselves off from, blinding themselves to, or outright distrusting the wider, more universal meanings at play in the film. In other words, Avatar appears to be generating both insightful commentary and misprisions (i.e., willfull misreadings).

     A common critique of Avatar claims that the story is clichéd, conventional, too simple, unoriginal, boring, vapid, and so on. The standard question goes, "With all the investment in technology and making the film look great, why couldn't Cameron develop a better, more intelligent story?" By extension, the critique of the story involves charges that the script is poor, the dialogue being awkward and overly obvious and "cringe worthy."

     On one hand, such a critique assumes (and discounts) that Cameron did not make careful, purposeful choices regarding the plot, characters, setting, and key incidents; on the other hand, such a critique also reveals an inattentiveness to the role of the dialogue in the film, which is to establish and forward plot, character, setting, and incident.

     Regarding the story, which is the part of Avatar drawing the most discussion and debate in terms of the film's themes and meanings, I wrote before that I see Cameron as clearly aiming for the mythical and archetypal with this film. So, yes, in its foundations, Avatar's story is one that we have seen before, one that we know: it is not "new." However, the mythical and archetypal remain relevant precisely because they are open and flexible enough to be reapplied and refashioned -- to be renewed -- continuously and with reference to the contemporary historical and sociocultural context.

     Thus, Avatar is not merely "Dances With Wolves (or Pocahontas) in space" and so yet another entry in the tradition of stories that assuage "white man's guilt" about colonialism and race by having a privileged white man "go native" and become the leader/saviour of the oppressed, racial Other (such as Native Americans or Africans). This is the sort of reading given by Annalee Newitz. Moreover, Avatar, as supposedly such a story of "white man's guilt," is not materially, straightforwardly "racist," as argued by SEK.

     I do not deny that Avatar in many ways invites and permits such interpretations. Yet I also think the film is more nuanced.

     In particular, a crucial fact of the film's narrative structure is that Jake Sully (re)tells his story at some point after the events we see in the film have occurred. The time of the telling is quite separate from the time of the action. Avatar's narrative functions as a remembering, as a recollection, as a narrativizing of a specific series of experiences, from Jake's perspective -- a perspective that is effectively a Na'vi perspective, a hybrid Na'vi/human perspective, when considering that Jake gives up his human body for his Na'vi "avatar," but also his human culture for the Na'vi culture, his human homeworld for Pandora, his human way of seeing for the Na'vi way of seeing. Jake does not merely "go native" to understand the Other: he becomes the Other, completely.

     The film's script very carefully establishes the conditions for this transformation. Selfridge and Quaritch comprise the economic and military marriage of current First World corporate, free-market capitalism, exemplified by America and George W. Bush's 8-year presidency. As Thomas Homer-Dixon explains in The Upside Down (2008), the driving ideology of corporate, free-market capitalism is growth: i.e., growth is necessary; growth will and can continue ad infinitum; growth means that we perpetually desire and must have more (of everything). The damage and outdatedness of this ideology are apparent today, for instance, in the ever-widening gap between rich and poor or the increasingly volatile state of the environment, interrelated developments that influenced events such as 9/11 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In Avatar, Selfridge and Quaritch can see only what will forward their need for growth: acceptable "quarterly statements," and "more or less" humane measures to appropriate (by sheer force) the materials that will generate the wealth so pleasing to creditors and investors. They embody, therefore, colonialism in its modern form; they constitute Cameron's argument that corporate, free-market capitalism's hunger for growth will continue to define humanity in the future, repeating the same mistakes as now . . . just on a vastly larger scale (reinforced by the immensity of the bulldozers and dump trucks used on Pandora, which Jake experiences immediately upon arriving).

     If anything, Avatar puts the viewer (say, Western generally and American specifically) in the uncomfortable position of applauding the defeat, death, and dismissal of Selfridge and Quaritch -- of the cultural, social, economic ideology that defines, creates, and underpins the viewer's way of life, which is itself based upon the need for growth at the expense of all else. To humans (and so us, the viewers), the Na'vi are not only Other as aliens; they are Other for their sociocultural (even economic) ideology, or perspective, which is based upon the interconnectedness of all life on Pandora, an interconnectedness reinforced by the physical, biological, electrochemical, and psychical means by which the Na'vi interact with and "see" their world. Theirs is an ideology utterly opposite to ours, and so uncomfortably exposes the hubris, violence, and lack of compassion endemic to how we (as Selfridge-and-Quaritch) maintain growth.

     Jake's complete transformation into a Na'vi, then, encompasses much more than an unthinking repetition of "white man's guilt." He goes from a distinctly unprivileged white male (ex-Marine, mercenary, disabled, lacking the economic and political means to get the operation that would let him walk again) to a Na'vi who resists and subverts the exploitative, hypercapitalist, anti-environmentalist machine(s) of human colonialism and growth. This is about humanity's guilt, for what it does to Others and to itself. Avatar explicitly rejects humanity; hope, it suggests, rests only in the sort of radical, fundamental change that Jake undergoes.

     So, to charge Avatar with being "racist" is a severely reductive reading of the film. Partly, such a charge suggests a certain level of intention in the film: i.e., whether in making a white male the hero or in modelling the Na'vi on various indigenous human cultures (say, Native Americans most obviously), Avatar is "racist" by reinforcing dominant/subordinate racial hierarchies and dichotomies of essential difference(s), by constructing the Other through the default and inherent "white" gaze.

     For instance, as SEK writes on Acephalous (linked above):
[Avatar's] fundamental narrative logic is racist: it transposes the cultural politics of Westerns (in which the Native Americans are animists who belong to a more primitive race) onto an interplanetary conflict and then assuages the white guilt that accompanies acts of racial and cultural genocide by having a white man save the noble savages (who are also racists). . . . The humans are to be resisted not because they are economic imperialists (though they are) and not because they glory in militaristic combat (though they do) but because they are different. They do not belong to the planet and therefore there is no possibility for peaceful coexistence. The only way humans can be accepted is for them to forsake their humanity and become Na'vi. (Think literal assimilation.)
The assumptions in this claim are intriguing for how they misprision the film, revealing the investments of the critique as much as they do anything concretely wrong about Avatar. One could counter, for instance, that the film's "fundamental narrative logic" is anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, and environmentalist, in that this is the story's clear political platform. One could also propose that the Na'vi do not stand strictly and only for animistic Native Americans, but represent all indigenous peoples with lifestyles, cultures, beliefs in contrast to and conflict with hyperindustrialized, colonialist peoples. One could further observe that far from assuaging "white guilt," Avatar seeks to problematize this very concept by reminding viewers that humans are the "aliens" on Pandora; that the ideology of Selfridge-and-Quaritch is exposed as bankrupt of empathy and no different in the future than in the past or the present; that Jake fails and stumbles as much as he succeeds, requiring Neytiri to save and rescue him repeatedly. Moreover, claiming that the Na'vi are racist because they see humans only as different willfully misreads the evidence in the film, which puts the unwillingness for cultural exchange and mutual understanding quite firmly on the shoulders of Selfridge-and-Quaritch, while the Na'vi have the wisdom to try once more to teach a human their ways as a path to fruitful diplomacy.

     The result? Jake's final, full transformation into a Na'vi undermines even the categories necessary to a reading of Avatar as racist, for he physically, biologically, culturally becomes the Other. He rejects the human reliance upon (racial) binary opposites that justify colonial exploitation -- the precise binary opposites that inform and make possible SEK's critique. (Jake's transformation thus echoes that of Ogden in Ursula K. Le Guin's "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," though Avatar goes a step further in the "surrender" to the Other by making it biologically permanent.)

    Avatar's story, therefore, invites viewers to (mis)read it in reductive, overdetermined ways that reflect their own investments and needs because of its seemingly clichéd, unoriginal surface. This apparent conventionality may constitute the film's most subversive aspect: if all we see is a clichéd, unoriginal surface, we close ourselves off from engaging with the purpose and intelligence of the story's mythical/archetypal register as, ultimately, the most effective means by which to address a broad range of audiences about the consequences of contemporary corporate, colonialist, free-market capitalism for the environment specifically. Our way into caring about those consequences moves through characters that fulfill unambiguous roles (i.e., heroes vs. villains; victims vs. oppressors), that by their actions and relationships connect us to the individual, local, and emotional stakes of the film's central conflict.

     The vehemence with which many are rejecting such emotional stakes by attacking the story belies, I think, a kind of cynicism about the power of the mythical/archetypal to represent our current historical and sociocultural context. I am seeing a jadedness about the force of the film's stunning, intense, bursting, exhilarating beauty, which is the key to the viewer's investment in the story. (The two are not really separate or mutually exclusive, as is often made the case in commentaries.) I am sensing a distrust of the wonder that beauty induces, a need to resist it by dismantling the story and discounting the complexity of the characters. I am witnessing far too often an outright dismissal of the film based on incomplete evidence and/or the negative opinions of others.*

     Yet all of that returns me to a suggestion I made at the beginning of this post: Avatar is generating discussion, positive and negative, which Art that is culturally relevant on a wide (or mass) scale should do. In this respect, it demonstrates science fiction's ability to take old, familiar forms and give them new life.

     Adam Roberts writes in The History of Science Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), "SF is better defined as 'technology fiction' provided we take 'technology' not as a synonym for 'gadgetry' but . . . as a mode of 'enframing' the world, a manifestation of a fundamentally philosophical outlook" (18). SF thus gives new life to old, familiar forms by "'enframing'" (i.e., seeing, perceiving, giving meaning to) them in the technoscientific terms of the modern world.

     With Avatar, this technoscientific enframing operates on several levels at once: film as a distinctly modern Art created by and reliant upon technology, here especially with the development of the 3D and CGI technology needed to make the film that Cameron envisioned; Selfridge-and-Quaritch asserting dominance over Pandora and the Na'vi by means of the superior technology of their machines, machines (from computers to guns to spaceships to breather masks, and so forth) without which they could not secure and perpetuate their hyperindustrialist, hypercapitalist ideology; Jake's experience of Pandora and the Na'vi relies upon and is mediated by the technoscience that makes "avatars" possible, to the point where he eventually starts to question what constitutes his true reality -- his life in his human body or his life in his Na'vi body/avatar.

     From here, we might ask what role technoscience has played and currently plays in supporting colonialism, capitalism, and anti-environmentalism. We might ask to what extent our beliefs in the rightness or necessity of our need for growth are mediated by, enframed by, our attachments to technoscience as proving our fitness to dominate Others (culturally, socially, economically, politically). These questions then lead potentially to a third: might Avatar, as a massive blockbuster costing some $300 million to make and taking full advantage of the technologies of film, be also a subversive commentary from the inside (so to speak) on our attachments to technoscience as the means by which we establish "progress" -- at the expense of our moral and spiritual (and environmental/ecological) health?

     Am I asking too much of the film with such questions? I do not think so. They do show, I hope, that Avatar can bear steadily more layered approaches and critiques, particularly because it is open and flexible enough to accommodate a variety of readings (positive, ambivalent, and negative). Moreover, I hope they show that any reading of the film should push past just its surface and into the underlying implications of the medium, the story, the characters, the setting, and so forth.**

     Those characters and that setting represent the audience's most tangible ways into both the wonder and possible meanings of Avatar. Here is where Jake Sully as the stranger in a strange land proves key: his total lack of experience of Pandora and the Na'vi is also ours; his introduction to, understanding of, and love for Pandora and the Na'vi is also ours; his constant enthusiasm for and will to explore Pandora leads us from surprise to surprise, breathtaking spectacle to breathtaking spectacle, and into a new and alien perspective. Sam Worthington, I think, manages the two sides of Jake expertly: Jake-as-human is quiet, calm, determined, uncomplicated; Jake-as-Na'vi is exuberant, passionate, committed, willfull (consider the scene when Jake is "driving" his Na'vi avatar for the first time and catches and then bites gleefully into a Pandoran fruit: wide-eyed excitement; juice covering his mouth and chin; the laughter of freedom). Here is where Neytiri as Jake's and the audience's teacher about Pandora provides the alien's point of view, asking Jake and us to "see" Pandora as the Na'vi do, to touch and smell and taste and move through Pandora like the Na'vi. Zoë Saldana, I think, gives the film's best performance in this role: by turns strong and athletic, tender and vulnerable, angry and compassionate, curious and knowing, dangerous and loving; wholly invested in Pandora as Neytiri's world and the Na'vi as Neytiri's people; utterly convincing and believable.

     Worthington and Saldana; Cameron's construction and presentation of Pandora: they are pitch-perfect, and need to be in order to encourage the audience to become invested in the archetypal story and the film's visual beauty. The nature of that investment ultimately reveals much about the viewer, in terms of what meanings are seen (or not seen) in the film. This is not to say that everyone must or should like Avatar; certainly, such an expectation would be unreasonable and unrealizable. Yet one trend in some reactions to Avatar so far demonstrates how criticism can make claims based on incomplete evidence or inaccuracies or surface readings, thereby influencing the judgements of others who have not seen the film but feel capable of pronouncing upon its quality, story, or politics. To close, see these two examples:

(1) Nick Mamatas's review and especially its comments section, to which I was directed by Antick Musings (look there for "Nick Mamatas Sums Up Avatar," and the summary judgement that Avatar is a "lousy" movie);

(2) stuff white people do (where the blogger decides not to see the film because of Annalee Newitz's io9 article, linked at the top of this post).

* NOTE: I wonder if the source of such jadedness and distrust might be a modern discomfort with allegory. Avatar definitely suggests we approach it as allegory: from "unobtainium" to a scientist named "Grace" to the main character "Jake Sully" to the clear opposition of Selfridge-and-Quaritch vs. Pandora/the Na'vi. Allegory has traditionally functioned as a metaphorical mode of sociocultural critique (i.e., Spenser's Faerie Queene or Orwell's Animal Farm), and in this respect Avatar's world and the two sides of the conflict can easily fulfill a variety of corresponding referents. While on one hand Avatar prompts viewers to immerse themselves in the sense-of-wonder that is Pandora, on the other hand it asks viewers to relate its story and Pandora to their current historical and sociocultural context.

** NOTE: For an excellent, insightful critique of the film, see Gerry Canavan's post, 'Avatar' and the War of Genres. His conclusion that Avatar plays out the opposition between SF and fantasy, between disaster and hope, leaving us with the former as we exit the theatre into "Colonel Quaritch's world," is the sort of critically astute analysis that the film can bear.

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