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Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
In order to protect the good and punish the wicked,
In order to make a firm foundation for righteousness,
I come into being age after age.
Bhagavad Gita

Eighteen years in the making, $230 million in production costs, and another 100 million and some in advertising, naturally you’ve already heard about and likely seen James Cameron’s Avatar.  We’d assume the basic plot-line is now well known, but we’ll do a quickie summary:

A natural paradise, in the form of planet Pandora, is being exploited by an American corporate goliath for a substance called Unobtainium.   This involves massive mining, and, as the natives are restless and resentful, so there’s a force of marines to protect American business and its rights to whatever is in the national interest.   This being the future, “our” guys are guided by scientists who send out spies in the form of avatars, simulacra of the local beings, who are 10 feet tall, blue, breathe the not-for-humans atmosphere of Pandora, and otherwise act and look like a cross-mix of Native American Indians and those folks over in their namesake, real Indians.  One of the spies, an ex-marine sent in lieu of his dead brother, is our character to identify with – Sully by name.  Naturally there’s a girl, and so there’s falling in love, and the spy turns against his masters, and a great battle takes place between the corporate jar-heads and the locals.  Initially it looks like no contest, what with America’s armed might in the form of transformer robots, humongous flying platforms, helicopters, massive guns and bombs and idiot boys to utilize them, while the natives have only bows and poison tipped arrows, horse-like critters, and flying pet pterodactyls to ride, and a supportive audience rooting for them.  When things get really tough, Gaia lets loose all of Mother Nature and sends the corporate baddies and their mercenaries packing.  Unobtanium is staying put on Pandora, and of course the guy gets the girl and lives happily ever after.

Hyper jar-head commander

Yes, this is a tired old story BUT it is wrapped in a spectacular new bit of technological sheathing, a really dazzling 3D and CGI (computer generated imagery) combo, and some trippy set of minds orchestrating it.  The opening passage – as long in itself as many films – plops the spectator down in a wondrous other world, one of luxuriant foliage, natural beauty to leave the earth to shame, gravitational holes with giant floating mountains, and, not to fudge on things and make a Disneyesque fantasyland, ferocious wild animals out to kill.  All this is done in exquisite detail, not only attentive to the smallest visual surface, but to the unity of the whole picture and its tonality.  Time seems to slow, and we are treated to a sensibility like a child’s, each small thing itself a marvel and wonder.  Cameron takes his and our time in setting the scene, and indeed we’re drawn in.  Setting his pieces on the chess board the characters are delineated in identifiable forms just as the landscape is made not too alien (the basic form appears to be California Redwood forests and Yosemite).  And then, in keeping with the fundamental enterprise at hand, the conflict is revved up with a snotty corporate master-of-the-universe sort and his caricature jar-head Marine commandant (or we wish these were caricatures, but they are damningly all too like the real thing), and we’re off to the inevitable war.  The film morphs into a young boy’s wet transformer GI Joe dream.  Bang bang boom boom.  And for an hour plus the battle rages with improbability stacked on improbability, until by a virtual miracle, America is sent chastened back to wherever we came from.   Taken altogether, the film is a schizophrenic mess, brutally ruptured in parts – the idyllic paradise of its beginning shattered by hell on wheels (and wing).  Along the way Cameron hews the politically correct lines of California Hollywood liberalism, savaging the military and corporate mentality and many a crude Americanism, while tree-hugging Pandora for all its worth.

At the film’s conclusion, Sully, having led the locals to victory (patronizing, no?) is taken into the Pandoran pantheon, his eyes popping open having made the transition from jar-head avatar to having really gone native and become one with Pandora (another old colonialist story).

Beneath the visual splendor of Cameron’s doped-up techies’ work, this film sits with gaping contradictions tearing it apart.  Aside from the predictable clichés of boy-meets-girl, cowboys and Indians (except this is revisionist, so the Indians get to win), and the slew of stereotypes harnessed to “tell the story,” the story itself and the means of its presentation – the extravagant and lavish computerized techniques and the 3D – are themselves the pure product of corporate organization.   Cameron is required to tell his story in this manner, and his imagined subversions (the corporate guys and the marines are the baddies; the Indians win!) are themselves carefully orchestrated lines, fully supported by the corporations which made and marketed this film, who know only too well that such story-telling is itself emasculated, empty and without threat.  And better yet, in tune with the post-Obama zeitgeist of the moment, will clean up at the box office.  Bingo !

What is interesting in this film is to note that the technical means employed, which are indeed – as is much of the technology of our time -amazing,  are, in our culture, necessarily used for trivial and stupid purposes: beneath the PR, the “story-telling,” the faux-revisionism, it’s to make money.  And everything follows from that starting point.

Now imagine what real wonder might come if a genuine artist were able to use such technology?  Not to mimic centuries old Renaissance perspective (in motion! in 3D!), but to make a visual coherent spatial world that did not conform to a 500 year old system of seeing?  To orchestrate something which dealt in something more meaningful than cops ‘n robbers and dumbed down good/bad guys?  Imagine!

And keep on imagining because in this culture, it will never happen.

[Little side note:  Cameron’s use of heavy-signifier names: Pandora, as in ‘s Box; Sully, as in sullied by being in the Marines; Unobtanium, well too obvious to comment on; Eywa=Yahweh; has all the delicacy of Jarmusch’s namings in Deadman.][Here’s a right-wing take on the film.]

[And, for a more optimistic look at the state of cinema – or maybe it is optimistic – see this.]

One Comment

  1. “Now imagine what real wonder might come if a genuine artist were able to use such technology? Not to mimic centuries old Renaissance perspective (in motion! in 3D!), but to make a visual coherent spatial world that did not conform to a 500 year old system of seeing?”
    I remember talking to someone who said they were trying to get 3d camera technology into Universities. I thought it was an incredibly dumb thing to do, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened.
    While personally I hope the 3d gimmick goes away soon (it seems it could be happening already) if it stays around costs will eventually get low enough to be within an affordable range. Still, if it’s going against a 500 year old system of seeing you’ll still have the usual distribution problems to worry about.

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