Letter from London

Letter from London: Avatarnation!

Paul Gauguin, "Pandora" (1892)

What was it like before the internet was invented? Can you remember? Where did all that pent-up aggression go before you were able to express your rage with the world via the medium of the comments thread underneath a video of a cat falling into a pond? Were we all walking around corking a volcano of white-hot fury, clenching and unclenching our fists, unable even to lol or rofl to let off much-needed steam? And what about all those knee and cushion and peanut butter fetishists, trapped in loveless marriages, unable to voice their darkest passions in the anonymity of the chatroom?

The triumphant rise of the lonely voice of boiling frustration and melancholy has transformed the way we interact with culture these days, which brings us on to Avatar, James Cameron’s big, loud, colourful, enjoyable, silly 3D film about magical blue cat-men who live in a neon jungle planet. In it, a soldier in a wheelchair gets to hop and skip with the big blue aliens via a lookalike avatar while his ‘real’ body is passive and immobile, in a brilliant bit of self-reference that has made the film wildly successful among its passive and immobile audiences, perhaps disturbingly so. CNN quotes a blogger named Mike, whose comments on one of many discussion forums for the film characterize what appears to be a widespread phenomenon:

Ever since I went to see Avatar I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora [the neon jungle planet] and all the Na’vi [the magical blue cat-men] made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it. I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora.

Another poster, who wisely opts for a psedonym (“Eltu”), comments:

When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.

Evidently for Mike and “Eltu,” the experience of seeing the film unlocked a more profound psychological disquiet that would be insensitive to diagnose. But haven’t we all had similar, if less dramatic, reactions when reaching the end credits of a film we’ve invested in emotionally (for me, it’s Tremors every time)? Who wasn’t depressed when they realized R2D2 wasn’t real? Or elated that the Ewoks weren’t? That’s the nature of art’s power to move (that it’s ephemeral) and the reaction evidence of the possession of a soul. And it might be suggested that the presence of a forum to voice their despair led these writers to exaggerate their angst in a perfect illustration of Godwin’s Law (thanks, Joel). However, the reactions and the extraordinary popularity of the film as cultural phenomenon (buoyed by the proliferation of self-styled “Avatards,” obsessive fans that paint their heads blue and see the film again and again, in alarming echo of Tobias Funke) speaks to a human delight in illusion that’s been a staple of art and its reception for hundreds of years.

Still from James Cameron's "Avatar"

You watch Avatar in a pair of Roy Orbison specs and spend the next couple of hours clutching at imaginary flecks of ash and petals that distract pretty effectively from the creaky script and headshop spirituality. Only the resolutely non-participative curmudgeon, though, could fail to be swept up in the meticulous prettiness and vertiginous vistas of Cameron’s stonerrific vision. That immersive realism resurrects some of the great leaps forward in bedazzling illusion in cultural history: the debut of linear perspective in Masaccio’s Tronity – sorry, Trinity (it’s that web of zooming lines); Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, with its bandit firing a pistol directly at the camera; the perhaps apocryphal story of audience members scattering panic-stricken out of the cinema at the approaching train in the Lumière brothers’ 1895 The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station (which is surely crying out for a remake; the ball’s in your court, Hollywood!).

The arrival of cinema dovetailed with painting dismantling its own illusory apparatus: the shutting down of the circus. Avatar does what painting used to do before modernism popped all the balloons. And the fervor around the film – which looks to be the highest-grossing film of “all time” (not many 17th century films have made the list, sadly) – and the frequency of perhaps exaggerated but certainly earnest fanatics like Mike and “Eltu” – suggests that the public hunger for spectacular illusion has never been more insatiable.

Despite being relatively geriatric by cinematic standards, computer-generated imagery such as that used in Avatar has rarely been effectively tied to above-competent storytelling, the Lord of the Rings films notwithstanding. It still feels in the nascent stage, bedazzled by its own bedazzlement — stale, flat and profitable. Avatar relies on “noble savage” cliches so moth-eaten you feel Paul Gauguin would chuckle along, rubbing his thighs approvingly. Mere illusion isn’t enough to lift Avatar beyond spectacle and into something properly resonant. In Air Guitar, Dave Hickey discusses pictorial illusion in terms that recall poor old “Eltu,” tapping away in his bedroom:

…pictorial illusion only has power as illusion. It is only interesting as an excerpted, ideological re-creation of what is lost, past, or only imaginable. Modelling and perspectival rendering do for an image what tense structure and negative constructions do for an utterance…[they] make it possible for us to lie, to imagine, to propose the problematic in a persuasive way. [italics mine]

What might contemporary art gain from this? Might we see the persistence of pictorial illusion in the cultural mainstream as opportunity to broaden the language of visual art and reconnect it with an audience that often fails to engage with it? And can we expect Cremaster 3D any time soon? Big, blue, scaly alien fingers crossed.

Still of a scary fish from "Jaws 3D"

  1. Bungy says:

    Ah! Thank-you for the references to Gauguin and the “noble savage” trope. The allegory in _Avatar_ is so obvious it might have been called _Dances with Ewah_. Both of the comments you share seem to echo that 19th Century and early 20th Century Romantic angst over the lost beauty of nature and the kinder, simpler people who (mythically!) lived there.

    Starkly absent in _Avatar_ are visual representations of the ecological horror (or so the voice-overs tell us) that Earth has become. And that seems a very interesting choice for a film so caught up in technologies of visual illusion. Cameron will represent Eden, will show its near destruction with the collapse of a WTC-sized tree, but won’t show Sodom and Gehmorrah ready for the hail of fire. To fill in that lacuna, we are perhaps asked to look no further than outside the theatre door.

    But seriously, an emotional catharsis at the end of _Tremors_? Is that empathy for the demise of the graboids, or some parasocial Kevin Bacon fixation?

  2. Mark Ryan says:

    I saw Avatar. Great movie, fun story and a break from the sometimes grim reality of life as some of us out here may find it today. I really liked it — for what it is. A movie. Not a substitute for reality.

    Art — and all the arts — offer mankind a chance to explore and question as well as create and bend the limits of the technologies of our respective media, whether it is painting, prints, dance, sculpture or cinema (of any kind). it is where the visual interface between the real and the mythological take place and the interpretation of the fantastic is held. Good for James Cameron, because he is raking in a hell of a lot of dough from this film because he did what every artist since time began has done, from the first painting on the cave wall to today: He took risks. Only in his case, they were very complex, expensive and critically debated risks. He is in the definitive minority in that he gets (at least we think he might get to) to enjoy the fruits of his risk-taking while he is alive.

    Moreover, Cameron took these risks patiently, waiting for time when the story he wanted to tell could be told in the way he felt that it should. How is this different from a painter waiting to create a masterpiece until he or she feels their technique and materials are up to the task? How is it any different from a actor dancer or singer who takes on an amazingly difficult role, not because they want to but because they feel that they can finally do it justice?

    At the crux of this debate is not so much the technology. If it were, then we would still be stuck in the interminable “fuzzy-sticks & pigment versus digital versus photography versus…whatever” arguments that seem to create a hellish resistance for artists. What really matters to any artist is the story and how they tell it…and how they choose to tell it.

    Contemporary art can gain from this by getting back to basics: telling stories and having the guts to take risks in telling those stories, instead of focusing so much on technique and media, instead of creating a riddle or a statement. Life as we have it now is full of declarative statements that mean mostly…nothing. What we have a dearth of are stories, that inspire, move and cause us to ask questions. Contemporary art can also gain and grow by developing a situational awareness and empathy for our world instead of treating it as something to be objectified, rendered or even scorned at times.

    Finally, I think that artists in the global sense need to remember that creating any bit of art carries the risk that someone might not like it, and that together, perhaps we need to tell the critics and marketing whizzos out there to get stuffed create and share these things without fear. We need to acting like “artists” and actually be artists.

    If we stifle dreaming, we stifle creativity. If we stifle creativity, we sign off on our own demise.

  3. Ben Street says:

    Hi Bungy – yes, it’s kind of fascinating that despite the technological trickery (and, NB, I was thoroughly entertained throughout, batting the air like a kitten with a cobweb), the narrative plays to ideas that would have been familiar several hundred years ago.

    I can’t talk about ‘Tremors’, I’m afraid – I’m tearing up already.

  4. Ben Street says:

    Hi Mark – thanks for this. You’re absolutely right : focusing on ‘technique and media’ rather than telling stories that ’cause us to ask questions’ is a sticking-point for art in general and an essential function of it (which it always has been).

    Risks in cinema are taken not in technology but in narrative, and I’m not sure Cameron did that. I realise that spending a month making a stream look real might have its satisfactions, but the wow is not enough on its own. What’s good about it is that it ushers in new potential ways of telling stories, and in that sense can be compared to the rise of perspective in painting, or naturalism in classical sculpture, or the development of printmaking, or the bandit firing the gun at the shrieking audience. I’d love to see what (say) Charlie Kaufman would do with it.


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  6. Nettrice says:

    Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky characterized film as “emotional reality”, which allows the viewers to experience a “second reality”. Cinema is intended for direct sense and emotional perception…gives the director power over the feelings of the audience. Tarkovsky thought that film, for a period of time, allow the audience to believe in an artificial reality created by technology.

    So here I am reading your text, Ben Street, and thinking about Tarkovsky and early filmmakers like Eisenstein who advanced a trend toward extending the illusion of film beyond the visual to include other senses…the medium of film advanced beyond two-dimensional screen projection in order to intensify it’s suggestive effect on the audience.

    With James Cameron’s Avatar/Avatar 3D I see a artistic and historical continuum, no?

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