Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti, in 3D


Haiti is routinely described as the "poorest country in the western hemisphere". This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

Peter Hallward


Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that's the wonder of cinema right there, that's the magic.

James Cameron





Other, smarter bloggers (to wit: k-punk , Qlipoth) have already commented on the dispiriting reaction by readers of The Guardian’s Comment is Free section to Peter Hallward’s important piece on Haiti. Their response to his argument - that in order to understand why the earthquake could have had such a disproportionate toll we must recognise the history of foreign intervention in the country, up to the present day - was one of predictable, well-rehearsed outrage: he was either scoring cheap political points on the back of immense suffering, or inciting division just when people need to unite in the name of swift and compassionate action. Here’s a taste:

NottingHillNonsense
An earthquake. Thousands of men, women and children maimed or dead.
Are you absolutely sure that this is a good time to be scoring political points?

BeautifulBurnout
We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Haitian politics when we know there are still enough people alive to give a shit. But now is not the time.

ngavc
I was going to send some American dollars to help, but now I understand that would be classified as "neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention".

MimpleSigned
You can't bring history into this. That was then, this is now. I stayed up half the night watching the news about this, and I'm not interested in what the US government of yesteryear did. I want to know what I can do to help now, even if it's a small and relatively insignificant contribution to a disaster fund.

Cue for me flashbacks of the Vajont dam, of last year’s earthquake and of innumerable other disasters in which nature is a co-conspirator at best: the first thing to do at such moments, we are told, is to forget the history and all traces of human involvement. As if that interfered with the solidarity, with doing in the moment of crisis and grief what needs to be done, instead of actually aiding that process. As if it was a breach of the decorum that must be observed.

In what might very well be an actual and distasteful such breach, I’ll confess that those comments overlapped in my mind with ones that were concurrently being aimed at negative reviews of the movie Avatar. Here’s a sample, from the reactions to Peter Calder’s otherwise unremarkable panning for The Herald:

Brad
Let go and enjoy for once. This movie is absolutely stunning in the total immersion that the audience feels, 3D or not. So the story isn't Lord Of The Rings. So what?

Oliver Hill
Movies are about entertainment, and this is certainly entertaining, hence why so many people are going back to watch it again and again.
Take some happy pills.

Jon E
This seems like a reviewer desperately trying to make himself more important than those who actually pay their hard earned dollars to see films and 1.2 billion dollars from them completely disagrees with Peter Calder. I guess the people have spoken while this reviewer has waffled on in self importance.

I think
Oh my gosh. It is a movie with amazing effects. I for one am glad that I went and saw it. I am no movie buff or critic but I just took it for what it was. If you spend the whole time critiquing the movie you are missing out on so much! Just enjoy it for what it is. So what if the storyline was unoriginal. Its just A movie! Not a presidential campaign! I for one dont know one person that has not gone to see it. I would say that alone is pretty successful!

The comparison may seem outrageous, but note what these two sets of comments have in common: the idea that analysis is inappropriate, criticism and a sense of time or history not befitting the moment. A large-scale human tragedy calls for immediate action; a spectacular movie calls for immediate enjoyment. In both instances, reflection is grossly inappropriate, even offensive; thus Hallward and Calder are not chastised for being wrong, but for speaking out of turn.

I guess this would also not be the time to reflect on information as spectacle and entertainment, a concept so naturalised and ingrained that raising it in the most innocuous of circumstances is bound to get you labelled as a Neil Postman wannabe, or worse. Let alone at this moment, when the circumstances are all but innocuous. So I probably ought to refrain from pointing out what everybody knows, namely, that Avatar is owned by a company called News Corporation, whose principal, one Rupert Murdoch, is a fanatical supporter of Western imperialism, both military and economic. Yet the film passes, at least amongst a significant proportion of the people who - unlike Calder’s detractors - chose to take it seriously, precisely for a critique of imperialism. Regardless of the merits of that argument, which is not my intention to discuss here, did James Cameron just a few hours ago, in accepting his Golden Globe for best director, really speak Na’vi? What kind of gesture was that? What does it mean to pay homage to the struggles of a people that does not exist, and to do so right now, at this moment in history, when it is bound to be preceded in the news bulletins by footage from Port au Prince?

Now this obviously is a coincidence, and the release of Avatar was never meant to overlap with the Haitian earthquake. But what if it dulls its reality? What if that appeal to fictional indigenous rights criminally distract us, by creating a warped space of reflection on plights that aren’t real? Perhaps Postman was wrong when he proposed that we’re amusing ourselves to death. Perhaps we’re amusing ourselves, and it’s killing somebody else.

***

Yet the entertainment machine also makes a point of reminding you of your place in society, for after all we are connected, 'all human beings to each other'. Earlier today for instance I was pinged on Facebook by one of those applications I don’t even use. It said this:



I clicked on it. It took me to a page in the middle of which floated this pop-up window.




I grabbed a screenshot and attended to some other business. A few minutes later, I went back to that browser tab and the pop-up had changed into this.




Now on the one hand, I suppose that there is nothing wrong with coming up with new and creative means of donating to the relief effort, quite the opposite. But I can’t get past that cascade of associations: the Haitian Relief Flamingo transmogrifies into the Fennec Fox, demanding your attention; these games are addictive and must be played; to play is to work; entertainment is a serious business; and conversely, Haitians need warm homes, but then so do wandering virtual foxes, and why would you even bother to find that demeaning? Think rather of the convenience: you can do your caring for other humans in the midst of your ordinary activities, without breaking stride. So maybe too donating to causes will become an addictive compulsion.

These mystifying associations are actually the norm, aren’t they? In this post Live Aid-era, you can be a responsible and compassionate global citizen at the same time as you consume entertainment. You simply must enjoy yourself, and critical thinking gets in the way of that.

***

In a recent conversation between Peter Jackson and James Cameron recorded by Slate, Cameron spoke of the courage it takes to make a film like Avatar, at the same time as Jackson observed - perhaps wryly, although it’s hard to say - that big budget films don’t even need to be good anymore. And he’s right, blockbusters these days are always financially successful, no matter how derivative or poorly constructed. Case in point: it’s hard to find somebody who’ll admit to having liked 2012, but it has already grossed $165 million in the United States alone and is going to handsomely repay its investors.

But hey, I saw it, and with every intention of enjoying it un-ironically, so I can hardly complain, right? I made my donation, and more than doubled it to see Avatar in 3D. Echoing that last Herald commenter above, I may well know more people who have seen the film than people who haven’t. Besides, I’m a consumer of information just like everybody else, of serious, sometimes cataclysmic front page news that bleeds into entertainment news and back again, a phenomenon made even more pronounced by the design of Web pages and aggregators and by the nature of hypertext if, like me, you get most of your news online.

In that environment, it is quite natural that James Cameron should accept an award in the name of a people that is indigenous only to his head, and that it should be greeted at best with a collective smirk or shrug or guffaw, since after all it was done in the spirit and logic of the times, while actual political statements of demonstrable historical urgency, like Peter Hallward’s, attract offense and derision. And this same spirit and logic will dictate that an immense human tragedy that weighs on the shoulders of the international community should be consumed as an act of God, outside of history, in the same present tense as entertainment, asking of us only that we fill that void with as many random quick fire donations - think of the convenience of texting for relief - as we can fit in the course of our normal activities and in the time allotted for caring for such things.

There is only one thing worse than white liberal guilt, and it’s white liberal guiltlessness, demanding that history not be ‘brought into it’, that memory be erased. We must fight that. And, yes, give, and give discriminately.



12 comments:

Samuel said...

Wow. Thank you.

stephen said...

Last night I saw a friend of mine and mentioned that Hannah and I had a good time at Orana Park over the holidays. "I don't believe in zoos" she said, and went on to explain -- she's a vegan and an animal rights supporter, yadda yadda. I confess I felt slightly miffed at having the fun sucked out of my story, especially since I only brought it up as part of "what did you do in your holidays" small talk.

On the other hand, if you have firm ethical beliefs, sometimes you have to act on them, even if it annoys other people, and I respect that.

I have a feeling that one of the prices we pay for our fairly tolerant, reasonably strife-free society is precisely this unwillingness to discuss things at a level beyond "I liked it -- it sucked". To go further is to encourage differences that are more than merely matters of taste, and we don't do that in this country. "There's a time and a place", but those times and places seem few and far between.

wv: ingicist, a practitioner of ingicity.

Giovanni said...

"There's a time and a place", but those times and places seem few and far between.

New Zealanders aren't a very argumentative lot, to my occasional frustration, but I think it goes more broadly than that, and not just here. It may be part of the backlash against feminism, cultural criticism and the Left in general, but it seems that we (bold brush stroke, I know, us in the West) have gone to a pathological extreme, from not wanting to read too much into things to insisting that nothing at all be read into things. 2012 goes out of its way to discourage serious readings, but Avatar doesn't, it aspires I think to coherence and conveying big ideas. Yet many will insist that it be consumed solely as entertainment, and take strong exception if you don't.

Giovanni said...

(I am not as confident that anything has changed when it comes to discussing colonialism and assorted foreign adventures and interventions - that might simply never have been possible. It certainly wasn't back home twenty years ago when the subject of Somalia came up in the way that it did.)

llew said...

That's awesome giovanni. Haven't seen Avatar yet, but I am looking forward to it & everyone (critics, yadda yadda) said the same things (script, story, aliens etc etc) about Star Wars.

Come to think of it though, no-one mentioned "message" and Star Wars in the same sentence.

Giovanni said...

Edmund has posted a couple of comments chez Facebook, and I'm reposting them here with his kind permimssion - they might come in handy next week when I hopefully get to write about Avatar itself.

"I've just started reading Patrick Evans's enjoyably curmudgeonly "The Long Forgetting." "Avatar" seems to be the reductio ad absurdum of what Evans calls the "postcolonial exotic" -- that sense in which the "ethnic" is appropriated as entertainment for the dominant culture, so that "'we' can watch 'them' as they experience 'our' spirituality for us" (185).

Only, with "Avatar," it's taken to a whole new level. These aren't the idealized Native Americans or Maori of the postcolonial exotic -- these are entirely virtual, high-tech, constructed indigenes.

Which I guess is a clumsier way of making the same point you do with Facebook's flamingoes and foxes, and how creepily interchangeable they are with starving Haitians "who need our help."

(And further, after some inconsequential yapping of mine.)

"I can see why Left critics might see "Avatar" as a sign that a postcolonial perspective has finally found its way to the mainstream. But, to me, praising it for that reason seems misconceived. Like a hardcore UFO buff being really excited by the X Files movie because it means that, finally, the alien conspiracy is being taken seriously!

It's just a case of beliefs being appropriated, not on their own terms, but as yet more raw material for the culture industry. The components change nothing -- they're invisible. What's really important -- what everyone *sees* -- is the mould, the fabrication, the final product. Just another big-screen spectacle."

Qlipoth said...

that's a great post

this point

"It's just a case of beliefs being appropriated, not on their own terms, but as yet more raw material for the culture industry. "

is really important, because it's not just that Murdoch personally favours imperialism; he is dispensable, any shareholders including other ltd companies would be the same. The actual enterprise of Avatar is imperialism. Not a metaphor for, or relic of, or merely product of, but the process of capitalist imperialism itself. Avatar exploits and expropriates; it is a means of transferring human life as alienated labour from wage workers (and slaves) to the owners of the intellectual property.

What would imperialist capitalists prefer to do with antiimperialist critiques than use them as the raw stuff in the manufacture of sophisticated or vitiated critiques as entertainment commodities and sell them for profit? Just like what capitalists want to do with human hunger, they want to do with human need for justice and liberty; just what they do with human creative culinary imagination and skill they want to do with human political perspicacity and critical capacity. Instead of producing the antiimperialist feelings and thoughts and analyses at home with your friends, you are producing them in relation to this commodity, for the corporation as productive labour, while consuming the commodity which valorises the labour already in it and indeed produces more surplus value from the attention labour involved in consumption which accrues to the capital assets that are the licences.

that bit about we are amusing ourselves and it’s killing others is brilliantly said and crucial. Because yes, the people most negatively affected by Avatar never see it. The mainstream practise of evaluating movies considers only the humanity that has seen the movie is concerned with it or affected by it; we don't think so foolishly about Starbucks, that only the customers are affected by the enterprise. We know the most harm is done to people who will never buy a cup of coffee there. The least important thing politically about Chiquita is how the bananas taste.

Those most grievously harmed by Avatar don't get the pleasure its consumers get but are sacrificed to that pleasure. They only get exploited in the process of production of it. So what it looks like or "says" is not very important. It happens that this film (not uniquely) also exploits the suffering of the victims of imperialism for its particular affective and storytelling qualities. There has to be real imperialism in the world for the cartoon of imperialism to work as a tale with emotional attractions and sense, with relevance etc.. That is one way the suffering of the colonised and imperialised is used, but the exploitation of the imperial periphery is not confined to this spiritual or symbolic violence and symbolic exploitation. For Avatar to exist there have to be capitalist imperialist paramilitaries in Congo. For the product, the glasses and the dvds and the packaging and the devices for playing, to be cheap enough to be worth making, there have to be sweatshops with people making less than two dollars a day. The wealth that is Avatar doesn't come from nowhere, by magic, like a dream, as hollywood and fans like to imagine. Billions in profit is an awful lot of surplus labour.

Giovanni said...

Thank you Qlipoth. Between Edmund and yourself, you’ve more or less written my next post, I’ll have to get up on the table and do some tap next week.

it's not just that Murdoch personally favours imperialism; he is dispensable, any shareholders including other ltd companies would be the same.

Certainly, and is there another art in which the means of production determine meanings as much as they do in cinema in general, and Hollywood in particular? But when the company in question happens to go by the wonderfully Orwellian name of News Corporation, and its principal is one of the major supporters and enablers of, among many other things, the war in Iraq, it makes it that much harder to do what some progressives are attempting to do, which is wrench some of those meanings back - an activity I am ordinarily very much in favour of.

The actual enterprise of Avatar is imperialism... what it looks like or "says" is not very important

The fact that it is also overtly a fantasy about imperialism is not entirely immaterial, but yes, I agree with you.

For Avatar to exist there have to be capitalist imperialist paramilitaries in Congo. For the product, the glasses and the dvds and the packaging and the devices for playing, to be cheap enough to be worth making, there have to be sweatshops with people making less than two dollars a day.

A crucial point. Look out for Jackson gliding over it in the Slate ‘interview’ (a polite name for what that conversation is) when he points out that the budget of CGI-based blockbusters - which they all are - is absorbed by the workforce, those highly skilled animators and programmers, and that transferring those operations from places like New Zealand to Eastern Europe or China would mean turning them into sweatshops.

the people most negatively affected by Avatar never see it.

You would have heard that in China the film has been banned outside of 3D cinemas, where it costs a prohibitive amount of money to watch it. Jack Elder said it best on Public Address - not so much quashing dissent, as overpricing it. But it intersects with what you’re saying here.

Giovanni said...

@llew
Come to think of it though, no-one mentioned "message" and Star Wars in the same sentence.

Hostility to the message goes all the way back of course, even further than Jack Warner, but Star Wars is an interesting example, as well as the film that supposedly elevated B movies to the status of not only legitimate but in fact primary contenders to the highest honours of cinema. Which suggests that back then you simply wouldn’t be looking for meanings in films of that genre, or in written sci-fi for that matter. This is arguably no longer the case, but what I neglected to say in the post is that those critics of the critics may in fact be right - the only correct, sane, sensible response to Avatar might well be enjoying it at the point of sale.

Dan North said...

This is superb - one of the most thought-provoking pieces I've read on either Haiti or Avatar. If I was standing in Port au Prince slowing down the delivery of aid in order to make people think about the historical backdrop to the disaster, then it would be fair to say that it was neither the time nor the place for such intervention. But those who can only get out of the way and observe/reflect need to keep their stance a critical one at all times. It certainly can't make things worse.

At the other extreme, though, is someone like Pat Robertson, who immediately stepped in to say that Haiti has been cursed by its pact with the devil for centuries. This brand of idiocy needs to be tackled head on by people who've kept their critical wits about them.

For many people, Avatar seems to have provided a comforting fantasy world to retreat to, one where geo-political and imperial dramas are played out in synthetic environments, where invaders can be repelled in an afternoon and corruption and self-interest readily identified. It's not surprising that its adherents don't want to hear noise from outside the immersive bubble it hopes to create.

Giovanni said...

For many people, Avatar seems to have provided a comforting fantasy world to retreat to, one where geo-political and imperial dramas are played out in synthetic environments, where invaders can be repelled in an afternoon and corruption and self-interest readily identified. It's not surprising that its adherents don't want to hear noise from outside the immersive bubble it hopes to create.

Very interesting point. Having belonged to more socialist reading groups than I can readily count on all my fingers and toes, I'm not against immersive bubbles per se... nor synthetic imaginings (I'm thinking Erik Davis here). We need to roleplay our politics, imagine possible worlds, so I want cinema, videogames and what not to help with that. My gripe with Avatar is that as a fantasy it is impoverished and reactionary, therefore sterile by definition.

harvestbird said...

Lazarus Voodoo, buried under blocks, pushed upward: the stone gave way above his palms. He sprang backward into the light, out of the pit, into the place, into the arms of Mary and Martha and Yeshua.

He never told what it was like down there. After a while, this didn't matter; there were enough stories of that kind anyway, the dark, the heat.

ShareThis