March 15, 2010

In Defense of the Avatar. ~Marshall Williamson

The full-on assault of Avatar at the 2010 Academy Awards and in the media astonished me. The absolute blind-siding of James Cameron’s brilliant film by the Academy was completely unexpected. The ultimate slap in the face happened at the end of the Oscars ceremony when a comedian quipped: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards show was so long that Avatar had now taken place in the past. To me, this was a lame, oblique, and caustic attempt at humor.

A look at the facts: Avatar has earned over $28 million every day since its release in mid-December (in London)—not bad for a strip of celluloid in a can. And, just to throw in a little mathematical breakdown, that’s 2.6 billion divided by 90 days. Ms. Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has earned 21 million, gross—not even a day’s earnings of Avatar.

I haven’t seen Kathryn Bigelow’s film. Per my personal ethics, I am not interested in celebrating war and its proponents. The Chinese say in the I Ching, the Confucian Classic of Change, that when a culture makes a show of its weapons and celebrates war, it is in decline. I do feel we need to be practical about having a very toned and ready and capable defense system (both personally and collectively). But this aggressive, fascist policy of expansionist militancy has simply gone too far since America invaded Baghdad in an act of unprovoked violence in March of 2003. I’m afraid that the general lack of personal tone and physical readiness among the populace at large has resulted in a wild celebration of the indomitable military capability of our armed forces.

I had the chance to see Avatar on the 20th of January this year (2010) at a Hyperplex Cinema in Denver via 3-D IMAX with a couple of friends from Boulder. The film is brilliant. There was one minor distraction: the supplier of the 3-D glasses had cut corners on the molding and the edges of the frames were not rounded for human nose bridge comfort. The glasses were digging into this exact feature of mine halfway through the film. Besides this discomfort and the perpetual previews before the film, I loved the production, the subtle 3-D effects (tree leaves and flower petals sometimes drifting out over the audience), the sweep of the story (from high tech military to deep and fascinating tribal experience), and the thrill of the entire story’s conflict and resolution. It was heartening to see the luminous trees (a familiar detail from my days with the tribal adivasis in India—ahh, their lightning bug trees at night in the dense humidity) and so many genuine details from tribal life.

I did some research on the patent given for an avatar and the technical process whereby a human is linked with the CGI computers as in the film. The special effects that Cameron and company (a cast and crew of some 2,000 people) used in the film were developed according to the process described in the patent. Cameron has always excelled in his application of current technologies to effects in film. He has also excelled in his development of scripts that make use of these technologies.

James Cameron has also always excelled as an artist who can see past the mere technical aspect of the hardware and software involved. He changes the technological aspect into an artistic statement, incorporating the various metaphors of the technologies into the stories of his films. You see this firsthand in the Terminator series. It does remain a mystery to me that this series would launch Republican Arnold Schwartzenegger into his current political role! What  a strange fallout from Cameron’s artwork.

Jake, the lead character in Avatar, actually experiences the transmigration into a real avatar (in the Hindu and Buddhist sense) at the end of the story. This detail was extremely satisfying. It embodies the hope that people are seeking when flocking to this film.

I have to say though, that the implosion of the mercenary war machine is an equally satisfying detail. The machine is one used by the mining corporation that is trying to destroy a beautiful landscape and its people on a distant planet.

Alas, this tribal stuff and the triumph over the greedy and well-greased war machine was too much for most people in the official circles of censors and self-appointed arbitrators of opinion. The people of America and of the world, of course, have made their voice heard already by the sheer scale of their financial investment in this story. It’s all about the turning away from a global celebration of violent aggression and protracted war.

Celebrating the beauty and nobility of our tribal roots has been a virtue in The New World since the founding of America. The founding documents include Rousseau’s The Social Contract and the celebration of the noble savage. But the actions of the European Americans against the myriad tribes of North America was, and continues to be, an onslaught of shocking deceit and destruction. The dominance, suppression, and purveyance of opinion of everyone from the Massachusett to the Inuit people has been the standard operating policy of our government since well before the United States’ official founding.

Historically, Thomas Jefferson wanted to keep the new nation more European in its scale and scope, but the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the country in one stroke. The sudden expansion created a sensibility of high and headiness that the nation has never come down from (even though we fawn over the European sensibility of sensitivity and integrity so desperately). It has been new weapons, disease and greed, all used against natives of the land from the start. But these first peoples’ awe-inspiring harmony with the Earth, including forests, rivers and fauna, has been a way of life that they continue to value and practice. I’m very impressed with the fact that the original tribes of North America have managed to fund over 80% of the building of the Native American Museum on the Mall in Washington DC through their own gaming revenues. They making a comeback, slowly, and they are finding a way to integrate with European-American culture in a way they were denied from 1620 onward.

I marvel at how overconfident the European Americans are in our notion that we will rule forever. We have taken steps in the raw criminality of the two terms of the previous executive branch of our government toward our own serious and plummeting demise. It’s so clear that the desperate state of our economy, our continued military presence in poor countries (that we should have been out of years ago), and the reduced state of our population’s health and integrity is enough to signal the fact that we are at a serious turning point.

As the empire struck back at the avatar in the 2010 Academy Awards, I wanted to set some ideas out in black and white to try and see these glaring points more clearly. I don’t worry, really. The fact that the people have already (and continue to) cast their vote for the reemergence of our deeper tribal sensibilities is enough for me. We mustn’t lose this sense of our origins while we strive toward our ongoing destinies. The folderol of the film academy and its minions was a let down in these 2010 ceremonies. For the millions who have seen and support the entire thesis and brilliance of Avatar, the awards must have looked like an inch-deep charade and mirage of a small minority trying to fool themselves and others into believing the pretense of their own fantasy.

Imagination is a wonderful thing, until it strays too far from the true flow of the real energy of a time and its power in our lives. If imagination serves as a clear window into our deeper sensibilities it can serve a very high purpose. But if imagination simply holds up a mirror to its own pretense, instead of holding a mirror on life itself, then that self idolization becomes an empty, bankrupt enterprise and a dark, dead end.

I hope that as artists and as the beneficiaries of art culture (especially in contemporary film) that we can see beyond our own mirrors. I hope that we can see through the images that we create of ourselves. And, unlike Narcissus, that we can see beyond the surface of our rippling reflection.

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