Monday, January 25, 2010


Having attacked last week the persistent claim that catastrophic events such as the earthquake in Haiti and mass-mediated spectacles such as the movie Avatar must be consumed in the same manner, that is to say in the absolute present-tense of pure emotional response, untainted by historical analysis or criticism, I need to account for the opposite viewpoint: that we should in fact view cinematic spectacles, no matter how superficially naïve they may appear, as engines of debate and vehicles of useful ideas about society. For isn’t it in fact what happened with Avatar? Alongside those who were thrilled by it in much the same way one enjoys an amusement park ride - an analogy convincingly put forward by Mark Fisher - perhaps just as many have ventured to discuss its place in the history of cinema and of ideas, or what it has to say about colonialism and race relations.

It seems to me that on this front too there has been a broad convergence on a couple of key points: firstly, that Avatar contains an environmental and anti-corporatist, anti-imperialist message; and secondly, that even to the extent that it might fail to articulate it in a satisfactory manner, the fact that the film is out there and that so many people are seeing it and talking about those issues has to be a good thing. Or a bad thing, if you’re a conservative: for the case for this alleged progressive message inside of Avatar has also been made with gleeful reference to the horrified reactions of right wing commentators, for whom the commercial success of the film (cue Stephen Colbert’s line that ‘the marketplace has spoken’) is the insult on top of the injury. Thus the LA Times:
As a host of critics have noted, the film offers a blatantly pro-environmental message; it portrays U.S. military contractors in a decidedly negative light; and it clearly evokes the can't-we-all-get along vibe of the 1960s counterculture. These are all messages guaranteed to alienate everyday moviegoers, so say the right-wing pundits -- and yet the film has been wholeheartedly embraced by audiences everywhere, from Mississippi to Manhattan.

Writing for Socialist Worker in what is to my mind the most optimistic take of all on Cameron’s message, Nagesh Rao has echoed these comments:
[T]here's no denying that millions of moviegoers around the world are flocking to a film that unflinchingly indicts imperialism and corporate greed, defends the right of the oppressed to fight back, and holds open the potential for solidarity between people on opposite sides of a conflict not of their choosing.
And further:
It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the bulldozers destroying the Na'vi forests are like the Israeli bulldozers in occupied Palestine, and that Jake's defiance of them is like the courageous stance of activists like Rachel Corrie.

Here is then the flipside of the situation I described last week: mass-mediated entertainment is no longer complicit in displacing and concealing actual news stories, or scrambling our sense of time and history, quite the opposite. Sure, if you read most major newspapers or watched most network news bulletins you could be excused to think - for instance - that the siege of Gaza has been over for several months, but the parable of the Na’vi will remind you of it, reactivate and focus your outrage.

I can hardly pretend not to think that this is in fact way too much of a stretch. Not because I don’t believe that cinema can do all of those things, send coded yet powerful messages that demand that lesser or greater injustices be reckoned with. Besides I’m a cultural critic by training, aren’t I, so that’s more or less my raison d’etre. But put in the terms chosen by Rao, it’s just all too simple, too wishful. ‘Like most sci-fi films, Avatar offers a withering critique of the world that we live in.’ Really? Is that what most sci-fi films do? Or has it become a common place, a reflex, that thing that is expected of sci-fi films?

In the comments to last week’s post Edmund and Qlipoth rightly excoriated Avatar for how integral it is to the logic of cultural appropriation and corporate greed that it is supposedly against. But even without plunging one’s critical scalpel quite so deeply, where it is more likely to inflict damage, and taking the film at face value, as a text that is more or less transparent in form and content, readings such as Rao’s ought to strike us as very problematic.

Like they taught us in high school, first and foremost there is the question of point of view. Annalee Newitz has covered it in an excellent review entitled When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?, showing the extent in which the film is a white man’s fantasy about colonialism and race, ‘about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege’. Besides the obvious and regularly trotted out comparison to Dances with Wolves (indeed, why not Pocahontas?), Newitz usefully contrasts Avatar to District 9, whose white protagonist goes through a far more unsettling transformation into the Other than Jake Sully. Wickus remains an anti-hero until the bitter end, joining in the struggle of the victimised aliens just so he can go back to being white, and that fundamental and never resolved problem of how to narrate the alien experience is one of the enduring strengths of the film even when it seeks refuge into the trite sci-fi action formula in order to bring about its resolution.

By contrast, its complete lack of nuance speaks to the other, obvious issue with Avatar: it is a very stupid film. Its characters are stubbornly two-dimensional (irony intended), either good or bad, and Jake alone is allowed to briefly transition from one state to the other. The natives are good, because they are unsullied, they are innocent, they live by traditional values and know their place in the order of things. The bad guys are cartoonishly evil, and likewise without depth. In equal part greedy and sadistic, they need to be asked to please not kill the children, which they really don’t mind doing if it means getting their hands on the precious ore of Pandora more expeditely. Hell, they might even throw in the killing for free. Which is why, in the end, Avatar is against imperialism in the same way that Tom and Jerry is against cats. It is a caricature of what critical cinema could and ought to be and indeed has been and is, if altogether too infrequently.

Never mind Dances with Wolves: Avatar ought by rights to be compared to Soldier Blue. If you want rape and pillage, a taste of genocide, and you insist that it must be told from a white perspective, then at least let us have it. Show us what it is like to maim and kill this alien scum, to dispose of them as the barbarity of a military machine sees fit. Show us the dead children. With all the technical splendour of its three-dimensional CGI, indeed because of it, Avatar cannot go there, if it even meant to. And whatever useful frisson there might be in a battle scene where the US marine corps are the bad guys (indeed, not unlike in Soldier Blue), they are still played by people, whereas the good guys are simply not there: they are computed, inserted in the afterthought of post-production, unreal. China Mieville has written briefly but eloquently (h/t: Dougal) about the aesthetics of CGI, which he describes as a ‘mannerist absurdity’.
It is straightforwardly untrue that CGI “looks real.” Are we yet at the point in history where we can all agree we could totally see the digital seams whenever Gollum walked onscreen? Can we stop pretending that the Na’vi and rendered landscapes of Pandora in “Avatar” don’t immediately stand out from the real physical actors, moving as they do with the unpleasant, jarring, parabolic precision of all CGI?

CGI may have been supposed to “look real” once, but not for a long time — quite the opposite, it draws attention to itself. It’s become crucial that CGI is visible, so the audience can obediently coo at it.

And so is that standard-issue sci-fi withering critique of the world we live in made so visible in Avatar, so that not so much left-leaning types, but anybody who’s not a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative can obediently coo at it.

But there’s something that bothers me still: why has nobody - at least nobody I came across - questioned the role of the human scientists stationed on Pandora? Here’s Rao again:
[Dr.] Grace [Augustine] is no military lackey, and her team's meticulous attention to the scientific project, as well as their moral and ethical sensibilities drive them to oppose Col. Quaritch and their corporate sponsor, in the form of Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). The film's insistence that the aims of social science can't be reconciled with those of imperialism stands in stark contrast to the complicity of academics currently involved in the Human Terrain System program.

Granted, Augustine and her team do break rank with the evil twins and put their lives on the line for the Na’vi. But what of their involvement until that point? Wasn’t the Avatar project aimed from the beginning at infiltrating the Na’vi in order to gain their trust? And in order to do what, if not convince them to give up the unobtanium? We are supposed to believe that Augustine’s intention was that of studying the Na’vi and their ecosystem, as if that was even an innocent activity, let alone when it is carried out from within a military-corporate apparatus. Then there is the small matter of breeding the avatars themselves, which is genetic experimentation carried out on an alien race without their consent. But hey, Augustine gave them schools, right? And what does that remind you of?

How this flaming turd could have escaped the attention of the critics of imperialism out there, I shall never understand. I can only wonder if it has something to do with another split in the film’s reception, between the people who thought it looked fantastic, and those who didn’t. I’m firmly in the camp of meh, but I can’t for the life of me see stereograms either, so you could easily put it down to a deficit of perception, or a matter of taste. By which I mean that there is nothing ideological about the 3D itself.

Or is there? I’ve been grappling all week with the Chinese government’s decision to ban the film, except for the 3D screenings. What if they have a point, and it’s not about making the film too expensive for those for whom the concept of “forced relocation” may have special significance, but rather about the aesthetics itself? Perhaps those censors understand that a better, more precise control of the simulation allows meanings to be better domesticated. And perhaps so too Dr. Augustine, with her obsession to take samples, catalogue and describe, her meticulous attention to the scientific project, was the true villain after all.

Those who might be interested in following the Socialist Worker debate following Nagesh Rao's piece can read Shaun Joseph's A look at Avatar's Achilles' heel and Leela Yellesetty's Avatar is a great starting point.

On the postcolonial theme, some comments by Rawiri Taonui on the depiction of the Na'vi.

I must link to Greg Egan's review, if only for the use of the phrase "your inner exobiologist".

Annalee Newitz, again, on the subject of Avatar's realism, and Evan Calder Williams, expounding beautifully on 'total wet fecundity, illimitable hybrid biopower, interspecies interpenetration, an absence of agriculture or organized production, and trees that have developed an information network for which Google would happily displace many millions of animist, lithe, bare-assed tribes'.

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:

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?

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.

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".

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:

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.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Rare Opportunity to Individualise your Lifetime

Two days after Christmas, Justine and I packed the children into the car and made our way to the Waikato to be with her family, as is our custom. We generally take the 500 km-journey easy enough, with an overnight stay at a motel en route, but we agree that at some future time it would be nice to properly inch our way up, stopping at every landmark, war memorial and heritage museum.

Not that the towns along the way - few and far between - possess terribly obvious charms. North of Wellington and along the coastal route is lifestyle block-country, with the occasional area zoned for executive family living at its best, then as one veers inland towards Levin and then proceeds north through to Waiouru, Taumarunui and into the Waikato, it’s middle-New Zealand all the way: unassuming, down-to-earth, occasionally cheeky but for the most part studiously inconspicuous. Little towns on the state highway with a rigid quota of one quirk each: Foxton with its windmill, Ohakune with the carrot, Taihape with the gumboot, Bulls with its puns: the motel where we stayed was Hospit-a-Bull, the pub is Soci-a-Bull, and the whole place claims to be Unforgett-a-Bull. I do wonder what it would be like to live in a town plastered with jokes that are worth a quick chuckle at best (with one exception - in August they hold a Wear-a-Bull Arts event that must be worth a look), but for the most part these departures from the script are in good fun, modest and utterly non-threatening attempts by the local communities to make a little more of an impression. If I had to object to anything, it would be the appalling decision by Otorohanga to market itself as Kiwiana Capital of New Zealand, which cheapens a town with its fair share of history and attractions, turning it into some sort of municipal empty signifier. But who knows, perhaps it proved to be a smart investment and the proceeds are reinvested in social services.

We have never made it as far north as Kawakawa, hopefully one day we will so we can check out the pubilc toilets designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. We did however visit Hundertwasser House in Vienna, back in 94 or 95, and it made quite an impression: those curvaceous spaces, the sense of moving in a built environment that looked to have grown organically, as if out of urban/architectural compost. A little more prosaically, I remember thinking: where would you buy your furniture? And if you could even push them against a corner - of which there are none - what would your Ikea or Lundia bookshelves look like in that alien yet so wonderfully human space? The best part of course was that Hundertwasser had donated the designs to the city, with the understanding that they must be built as public housing. And the bester part still, that they could be built cheaply, and in a manner that encouraged the workers to take a creative stake in the finished work. On which subject Hundertwasser had this to say:
The work must be able to grow irregularly and organically, according to the judgment, sense of proportions and feelings of the “worker”, who is then no longer a “worker”, but a free person.
Although the walls are lumpy, the ceramic bands irregular, the floors wavy like the ground in the forest, the tiles laid any old odd way, the edges unequally rounded off, the work progresses more rapidly because identifying with one’s work works greater miracles than rational discipline. […] That is the new liberation of the workers. That is freedom of labour.

the asphalters who worked on Hundertwasserhaus

I cannot confirm whether any of this proved relevant to the workers themselves, whose opinions aren’t recorded in the books I looked at. Knowing very little of the debates in which he participated - always outspokenly and sometimes stark nakedly - or indeed very much at all about architectural history, I can only look longingly at the designs and be fascinated by some of his ideas. Like the Window Rights (1958), a peculiar tenancy clause advocated by Hundertwasser and amounting almost to a duty to practise street art:
The dweller must have the right to lean out of his window and reshape everything as far as his arm can reach on the wall outside just as it suits him, so that from far away, from the street, everybody can see.

I find some of his seemingly less radical designs, such as the remodelling of the Rosenthal Porcelain Factory in Selb, Germany (1980-1982), equally fascinating, with their trees growing on the roof and out of windows and the mosaics spreading on the façade like mould, as if the building was in the process of being reclaimed by nature in a World Without Us-type scenario.

I find much to like in this imagery, and I hope and trust that away from the state highway, were the path gets a little less trodden and the citizens a little friskier, dwellings carved in the undulating hills such as the ones he imagined are sprouting or have sprouted already. The land and the national psyche seem fertile enough, which surely must be part of what attracted Hundertwasser to these shores in the first place, on a boat of his own construction. And yet he hardly took the place by storm, seeing as the only design of his that came to fruition locally - if you don’t count the magnificent Koru Flag - are those public toilets, which he also donated. He even put forward a design for Te Papa. I wonder if it is available somewhere.

Meanwhile, back at our place, this house is going up next door.

Solid if a little draughty

It’s just a 3D grid of treated timber at this stage, but you could clad it with your eyes closed, couldn’t you? And you could just as easily move in, and quickly find a place for all your stuff. Granted, that’s hardly the way to individualise your lifetime, but then you could switch on the Living Channel, or turn to a magazine, you know, for inspiration.

Better homes than yours, from The Springfield Files

There are literally dozens of these, and the domestic ones, like NZ House & Garden ('Inspiring Home Life'), are somewhat less abhorrent than their British and American counterparts, but no less prone to parading those inexcusable antiseptic lounges you’ve seen a million times before

or food that has a look rather than a taste.

The overarching philosophy is one of holistic brainlessness: feeling good by looking good by feeling good, at one with your picture-perfect and relentlessly sunny house. The holistic approach allows the magazines to diversify and hawk more stuff, including other magazines (I believe Martha Stewart Weddings may be where the world ends) and everyone is happy, I suppose.

A Clockwork Orange: The wallpaper design made him do it.

There is a horror too in that affluent conformity, where people aren’t pictured at all or if they are it’s as accessories, streamlined and modular, interchangeable: a lithe jeans-clad teenager here, a tanned bespectacled greying athletic father there. They’re like the human figures who are never pictured in the posh section of the glossy real estate magazines, but are nonetheless evoked at each turn: the professional couple, the executive family living unit, the lifestyle-seekers. Upwardly mobile, dynamic, ready to individualise themselves.

If those are the only choices, give me the drab yet comforting sameness of the small towns of the central North Island any day: at least they have people in them, and they seem to belong. Just add a few more wacky toilets.

The two quotations are from pp. 294 and 119 respectively of Angelika Muthesius's Hundertwasser Architecture: For a More Human Architecture in Harmony With Nature(Cologne: Taschen, 1999).

An interesting article on Hundertwasser's posthumous fortunes in the Far North

Hundertwasser's underwhelming Guardian obituary.