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.