The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

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Hey Kathryn,

I’m so curious to hear what you thought of this movie!  I really enjoyed it.  Sure, it’s not the most profound movie of all time, but it did make me think and, most of all, it was crazy fun to watch!  What a feast for the eyes and imagination.  And how wonderful to find myself caring about a world, a creation, because it was compellingly beautiful, not simply because of dry ethics or logic.

Because that is what made me care – the beauty.  And not beauty in the sense of pretty or something trivial, but in the sense of a deep and powerful aesthetic lure.  These creatures were certainly stunning in their humanity – especially Sigourney Weaver’s avatar, perhaps because I know her facial features and affects with more accuracy than I know the other actors.  But it was the forest that got me – the mossy ground that glowed, the floating mountains, the trees with branches that continued forever, the lit up strands of the most sacred tree and, perhaps most of all, the sacred seeds that seemed to communicate divinity to those upon whom they alighted (and, with the 3D experience, there were moments where those sacred seeds seemed drawn into attempts to alight on me, drawing me ever more deeply into their own sacred world).

Of course, everyone is already commenting on the majesty of this film.  But it’s not just about beauty for beauty sake; what I love about its aesthetic is what it does to the viewer.  Its beauty turns the forest into a character in this film, revealing the interconnectedness of all life while simultaneously revealing the darkest impulses of humans to destroy that interconnection.  It was perhaps clearest to me when Jake Sully tried to swat one of the sacred seeds as it attempted to commune with him – his small act of violence demonstrated the simple irritation with which I too encounter bug-like creatures.  But it demonstrated something even more interesting than some primordial violence.  It demonstrated how the violence to which we as humans resort so easily is what destroys the promise of interconnection – with each other and with creation.

Now, this message of violence got a little heavy handed at times – this was the most anti-military film I’ve ever seen!  And so while I personally (and more importantly politically) have lots of problems with war-time policies in this country especially since 2001, I did struggle with how wretchedly almost every member of the military was portrayed.  Outside of Trudy, there was no such thing as a noble soldier, at least from Earth.  And that just seemed as unthinkingly liberal as some of the right-wing garbage that also ends up in war movies.  The simplistically bad (and stupid and oafish) way that all the soldiers from earth were represented was just a little too much for this peace-loving but veteran-respecting girl!

And of course, if we didn’t get that the whole movie was a metaphor for America’s forays into Iraq and Afghanistan, we had to have the army commander shout something about a ‘war on terror’ as they were going in to battle!  Yet despite this heavy handedness, there was something more interesting going on with the war themes too.  While invoking Iraq and Afghanistan, Avatar also invoked a colonial Africa for me, and thus pointed towards so much of the war-torn, naturally devastated post-colonial Africa.  (I mean really, didn’t it seem at times like a cross between The Matrix and the Lion King!).

And so it made the link for me between being on this side of colonialism with imperial pressures in the Middle East, and the other side of colonialism that we also know so well; continents ravaged by imperial powers unable to piece themselves back to what they were before foreign invasion.  Invoking Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Uganda all at once, Avatar made for a painful-to-watch destruction of Pandora, and a chilling warning of what tragedy might come in the Middle East that we haven’t even imagined yet because of our own meddling.  I found myself mourning Africa, the Middle East and Pandora – in all their colonial stages – all at once.

So I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the avatars themselves.  Of course, they invoked the brains-in-vats of The Matrix – but they took that image a step further; one that I think we’ll both like because it’s more bodily!  The Matrix was able to explore the possibilities of a body without limits because the characters ‘inside’ the matrix were plugged in solely by some neurological mechanism (meaning that when a character exited the matrix, so too did their body in the matrix…through the phone or whatever).  The avatars, however, have a much more bodily presence in Pandora.  Perhaps this is, in part, because the matrix is non-reality itself, whereas Pandora was so real as to be more real than the earth we know.  And so while the characters in Avatar have their brains plugged into their avatars, their avatars actually exist also. When Jake Sully pulls out of Jakesully, Jakesully’s body doesn’t disappear; it remains in Pandora immobilized.  In refusing to create Matrix-like bodies-without-limits that could consequently do amazing things, Avatar explored the possibilities of the body within limits; and the effect was, for me, much more beautiful and even more liberating.  It was, to put it simply, a much more compelling understanding of the mind/body connection (and even mind/body/spirit connection) than I’ve seen in other films.

Of course, it was also exhausting, and I had wished that the film could have delved into this aspect more.  There is a moment where Jake Sully outside of his avatar ponders which world is real – because, indeed, both are!  And his second life, or his avatar life has become a much more real, much more pleasurable, authentic life for him.  But you can also see the psychic toll that this takes on him needing to split consciousness between two identities or ways of being a self.  In his non-avatar body, he lets himself go – stops shaving, forgets to eat, doesn’t sleep – all because of the desire to get back to his avatar life.  It’s an interesting comment on the difficulty of leading two lives or multiple lives – something we all do between work, family, friendships etc…if not to the extent, of course, as Jake.

There is so much more to be said – about bodies and the amazing connections between them in this film.  I loved that the Na’vi plugged into other creatures – their ‘horses’, as well as their sacred tree – in such an organic way (surely a critique of our own forms of ‘plugging in’!).  And I found myself jealous that just as easily as they could plug into another creature, they could also plug into communion with their divinity (imagine if our prayers were that easily uploadable!).  Now, it’s true that I can tire of such simplistic images of an indigenous culture’s relation to the divine (come on with some of the gravest errors of early colonialism!).  Do all the Na’vi believe so easily in their God in such an unquestioning way (really, they were ready to go with the resurrection rituals and no one was like, ‘um, do you really think this is going to work?!’)?  And if they did all believe in such an unquestioning uncritical way, would that really be a good thing?  But despite that simplicity, the interconnection of their own lives that made such an image of the sacred possible undermined my frustration with it.

Oof, I’ve gone on too long!  I hope you get to see it soon and chip in to the chat!

ox,
Natalie

Ps: note the comparison on the Sigorney Weaver avatar – truly amazing!

Dear N,

Thanks to the monster snow storm that rocked the east coast, I was stuck in NYC a day later than planned and was able to while away a snowy evening watching this alternative environment, in all its stunning glory. Like you, what amazed me most of all was the beauty of this other world – the vibrancy of its colors, the luminous light, the depth and intensity of the shadows. What went so right with evolution on that planet that they were given such a saturated palate to begin with?!

As you point out, so much of this beauty resides in the natural world’s interconnectedness. Long before we are told that all of Pandora’s life systems are connected through a complex roots system, we can feel the pulsating energy that brings the eco-system to life: in the plants that respond to touch and movement (by opening and shutting, by lighting up), in the symbiosis between plant and animals (the beautiful red pod plants forming a natural shield for the triceratops-esque creatures), and the floating tree seeds who are drawn to Na’vi/human energy.

This interconnectedness reaches its peak in the bond the Na’vi are able to form with just about every kind of animal or plant through the nerve-like endings in their braids. The parallel between this form of plugging in and the form of virtual plugging in accomplished in the avatar program was fascinating to me. We have two models of what it might mean to feel the sensations of another body – to co-exist in the muscles, blood, bones, and nerves of another body. I agree with you completely: there is something much more complex going on with this avatar model than with other virtual reality paradigms. The exhilaration Jake feels when he first inhabits his avatar’s body is so powerful precisely because the body he is used to inhabiting faces so many limitations. I liked that this movie did not pretend that embodiment is always experienced as a wonderful thing – the body’s limits are painful and frustrating. The fantasy of being freed from the constraints of one’s body is powerful, and not, I think, always detrimental. But I did love that the freedom Jake experiences is not disembodied freedom, but a new connection with a new body – his freedom is not purely mental, it comes through a new mind/body/soul/self created in his merger with his avatar (though I did wonder how the neurons of that avatar were repressed such that it could never have a life of its own with out Jake’s neurological investment).

The sheer, childlike joy he experienced as he re-explores life with legs was distinctly echoed for me when he first bonded with is horse and again with his flying creature. As soon as I realized what that braid was for, I wanted one. More than I wanted an avatar, I wanted that sensation: to be able to feel the bodily reactions of another creature and to merge consciousness with it! It stretches all our assumptions about bodily borders, while still insisting that they matter and that their permutation is only possible because the two creatures exist separately and are able to form this physical link.

It is the physicality – the literalness – of the bond that most intrigued me. Like you, I couldn’t help but see resonances with colonialism, even more so than with current politics. The Na’vi are an amalgamation of many Western stereotypes about a purer, more natural people, preyed upon (or civilized by, depending on who tells the tale) a technocratic, crass, materialist, disenchanted West. Even the spirituality of the Na’vi gestures to many non-Western religious forms, idealized for its less-hierarchical, more natural, interconnected view of the universe. But as Sigorney Weaver’s character says, when she is trying to save Home Tree, this interconnection is measurable, definable, biological – in other words, it does not have to be taken on faith alone, it is not merely a belief/practice system. These people have braids that literally, physically connect them to a physical root system that is “real” by Western, scientific standards. I have to admit, I loved the idea and wished it were true in our world – but I wondered what it said about where we are in terms of our own general lack of belief as a culture that your average movie goer (forget your critically theory-trained academic) just won’t buy a straight-forward spirituality tale. That would be too naive, too primitive, too hard to swallow. But if it is “real” – that is, if it is scientific and physical – it is just plain cool. It also kind of gets us off the hook in our own world: after all, we don’t have braids that bond us to the physical world, so to act like everything is connected would take, well, belief in something we just can’t see, or measure, or be sure is real.

I don’t mean to sound like I disliked this fantasy. If anything, I appreciate the frankness with which James Cameron and his writers took the pulse of spirituality in our still heavily Christian country. And the parallels between this form of natural linkage and the virtual linkage of the avatars was fascinating. Maybe we don’t have braids, but perhaps our own technology can and will be able to do this work. Maybe we can make the network that will connect us all together, giving us new hope for a new kind of embodiment.

There is more to say and I didn’t even respond to all your excellent points. I went expecting just to be entertained – and I really was entertained! – and I left with a lot to think about. And that makes a pretty exhilarating movie experience itself!

can’t wait for Sherlock Holmes next week!
xoxo,

K


Don’t forget to join us for our Lost Season 5 marathon, starting December 28th, running until the season premiere on February 2nd.

Written by themothchase

December 21, 2009 at 11:08 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I haven’t seen the picture yet. Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune summarized the movie like this:

    “Cameron’s self-indulgent epic is not a terrible movie, but there is much to be desired. The script is filled with plot holes, and the message in its simplicity is quite stupid. Too much time is devoted to exploring the world of Pandora instead of the characters, and in the end, the audience can appreciate the visuals, and not care about anything else. ”

    Do you feel the three of you saw the same movie or is are the above opinions compatible with hers in some way?

    Eldritch

    December 22, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    • I think it would depend on what you mean by “care about anything else.” If this is actually supposed to *be* a political movie, making a coherent point about our historical and/or contemporary world that moves our sentiments to clear action, then I would probably agree with Ryan – there is not enough there to get the job done and in that sense, it is just a pretty diversion. I think I expected a pretty diversion and was moved by just how much closer to sublime the beauty was than “pretty” or “a visual treat” and I was intrigued by the diagnosis the movie offered, perhaps unwittingly, of what we might think of the spiritual/physical/technological relationships that confusingly govern our common life. I would not say that it is a “message movie” or a great movie of our time – though I suppose, depending on what you mean by great, it might qualify for its sheer advancement in movie-making technique – but for a fun, entertainment blockbuster, I found it full of material for reflection, in ways I probably hadn’t expected.
      –Kathryn

      themothchase

      December 23, 2009 at 8:16 am

  2. “I wanted that sensation: to be able to feel the bodily reactions of another creature and to merge consciousness with it! It stretches all our assumptions about bodily borders, while still insisting that they matter and that their permutation is only possible because the two creatures exist separately and are able to form this physical link.”

    Yes – although I’ve described my own experience as a “longing”, one that Avatar unearthed and made painfully clear to me. The kind of connection – the bond – is something that, while I don’t think is impossible in our day and age, I think is extremely difficult to form.

    I have to admit – I wanted to be Na’vi. I wanted to experience the communion and perfect harmony with nature, with community, and with a lover that I saw in the film (whether it was there or others saw it or not.)

    Stephan

    December 23, 2009 at 10:05 pm

  3. Loved this movie. You’re right, the forest was a main character, actually the best character in the movie. The plot is somewhat simplisistic and reminiscent of old Star trek plots and has been done several times before, i.e. really socially ignorant race trampling on beautiful evolved race that respects nature and life, to the extent they apologize when they kill a living thing, but what an amazing sensory experience.

    Chantal

    December 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm

  4. Ladies – I have yet to see the movie, but I am curious what you think of this analysis:

    http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar

    Honeyfizz

    December 30, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    • Thanks, Honeyfizz, for the link. I read this article and even commented on it a couple weeks ago. I think the movie was ripe for this kind of post-colonial reading and I agree that there is something problematic about the repetition of the old scenario of discovery, assimilation, and eventual leadership of the “native” people by the outside Westerner/white man. What intrigued me, however, about this movie was the way spirituality/technology seemed to be the more important pairing/dichotomy/relationship than native/outsider or white/person-of-color. That is not to say that the racial elements weren’t there, but to suggest that the Western fantasy has morphed slightly to include the possibility of technology making up for spiritual lacking, but only if you already assume that there is a “real, observable, scientific” basis to the native spirituality to begin with. Thanks for the comment. What did you think of the io9 article?

      themothchase

      December 31, 2009 at 9:58 am

      • I wanted to respond to this…’cuz I finally ended up seeing the movie last night and I have to say I completely agree with the io9 article and was explaining the same dance and tune to the friends I saw it with as we were exiting.

        Even if take the spirituality/technology paradigm as the more important pairing, it *still* boils down a native/outsider dichotomy? How do we understand the Na’vi? Oh, they can make connections–their world is all connected–you know, like our Internet–they have a world which connects them–we have machines, but they do the same things…

        The problem is that this alien race, which was totally stunning visually was totally vapid otherwise (I mean vapid from the point of the writing) — the writing was so lazy and so bland and this _alien_ race so like ours that it–as you say–made the movie totally ripe for such a post-colonial reading.

        Incidentally, Lawrence of Arabia is the paradigm for all of these movies and I’m surprised the io9 article author didn’t mention that (even invoking Dune which is explicitly based on LoA).

        uglychord

        January 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

  5. Nathalie and Kathryn,

    Thanks for your careful attention to this movie, which intrigued me for its story as well as its special effects⎯indeed, the two can hardly be separated. Just a couple notes in addition:

    1) Natalie, you say, “This was the most antimilitary movie I’ve ever seen!” But what the movie depicts is not the armed forces serving a particular country but mercenaries hired by a corporation; Sully says this at the beginning. Corporations engaged in extraction of oil, diamonds, and gold often hire mercenaries to conduct military operations for them⎯in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, the Congo, Papua New Guinea⎯ this is happening right now, specifically against indigenous peoples, in Sudan and the Amazon. As one viewer wrote in response to the movie, “Being male, mid-50s, a Vet, and Native American, I enjoyed the razzle dazzle AND the storyline and I felt IT ALL inside. When you haven’t lived something, it becomes lame, political, anti this, anti that. But for those that thought it lame or boring, HEY. . . I would LOVE to change the same old storyline in real life, put my gun down and say we won, then perhaps this world would have just a little of what Cameron gave us with Avatar.”

    2) Kathryn, you say, regarding the Na’vi’s “interconnected view of the universe,” that “this interconnection is measurable, definable, biological⎯in other words, it does not have to be taken on faith alone, it is not merely a belief/practice system. These people have braids that literally, physically connect them to a physical root system that is ‘real’ by Western, scientific standards. I have to admit, I loved the idea and wished it were true in our world.” But it is true in our world! Although one reviewer of Avatar actually spoke of the interconnectedness of nature as “a dubious, mystical-sounding idea,” any biologist would see it just as fact. For example, Avatar’s imagining of a neural-like underground network of communication between trees is based on something real on Earth: mycorrhizal networks, in which filaments of fungi fuse with the roots of multiple green plants, transmitting not only goods⎯ sugar from green plants to fungi; water, mineral nutrients, antibiotics, and specific antifungals from fungi to green plants (cooperative fungi heal green plants that acquire bacterial and parasitic fungal infections)⎯but also chemical messages, “requests” for specific amounts of these substances at specific times. Other, non-chlorophyll-producing plants, like orchids, and “helper bacteria” that stimulate mycorrhizal formation act as additional partners. Also there is research on trees giving each other sugars through underground networks, so that, for instance, a tree that is more shaded benefits from the photosynthesis of another tree, even across species. (I think many views of nature commonly dismissed as “romantic” should be taken more seriously as factual. For example, the common aboriginal idea on Earth, also found among the Navi in Avatar, that all living things are our relatives is literally true in a Darwinian sense. Even Wordsworth’s “How exquisitely nature to the mind of man is fitted” is just true: the human mind evolved with and in response to the nature around it, so of course it is exquisitely fitted to it.)

    3) Natalie⎯You speak of the Navi’s “plugging into communion with their deity”: well, actually, with their ancestors. Avatar’s notion of the Tree of Souls is a fine metaphor for the way the riches of an aboriginal people’s cultural memory are embedded in the land itself. David Abram in his book on animism (The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World) describes how tribal stories among many indigenous peoples include explicit references to the locations where actions happen. That way, whenever a person passes by a landmark that the story references, he remembers the story. Stories are often told to convey values, so a person who is told a particular story as a form of rebuke for her conduct will remember that rebuke on seeing the landmark. One Apache man who returned to his home territory from the city spoke of how in the city he was losing his knowledge of how to live because he wasn’t surrounded by the landscape that would remind him. Destroying an aboriginal people’s ecosystem or driving them off their land amounts to “blasting a crater in their racial memory,” as the colonel in Avatar says about his plan to decimate the Navi resistance by destroying the Tree of Souls.

    4) Nathalie: as for “plug-in” to other creatures, I see this as a metaphor for what E. O. Wilson, in “Biophilia,” called “the naturalist’s trance,” a state of intimate attention to the natural world that of course in hunter-gatherers was highly adaptive. If you want to see a great example of the kind of intimate relationship that is possible with horses in our world as the result of a naturalist trance, check out the book “The Man Who Listens to Horses” for an account of someone who, by closely observing the body language of wild horses, learned to use himself the body language of a lead mare in a herd to “break” young horses quickly and easily, without any violence.

    catmagnet

    January 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm

  6. Hi ,

    Here’s my analysis, set to music. Geat blog!

    thanks,
    Jeff

    Jeff

    January 22, 2010 at 11:31 pm


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