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'.