Saturday, March 06, 2010

‘Welcome to the Jungle of the UnReal’: Thoughts on Avatar, the 00’s, and the Rise of the Blue Pill

(Note: This is a spoiler heavy piece. Not just of Avatar, but also of numerous other films. If you start to read a sentence with a film in it, be warned that you might know the ending of that film or at least it's big twist by the end of that same sentence. Also, though there are some real links in this ... I kinda played around with coloring text for certain effects, so if you find you can't get a link to work, in some cases that might be due to it having never been a link. It also means some jokes may be lost to people reading this as plain text from a source other than my blog.)

Every time I sit down to write about Avatar, I end up overwhelmed by the number of things to discuss. I find myself outlining essays in my head, sometimes even small books. It always turns into something too big, something I don’t have the time or energy for, and perhaps even something I just don’t have the desire to write. I saw it only few weeks after it came out, and I’m only now getting something on my blog about it.

You see, one of the most difficult things about Avatar for me is that it was a film I enjoyed immensely … and yet didn’t like. I’m at a loss for another clear example of this. I don’t mean that it was a guilty pleasure, a film I know “sucks” but enjoy anyway. I mean literally that I had fun watching it, I enjoyed the characters, the action scenes, the special effects, yet walked out unable to not complain, to not gripe and nitpick. It’s like being allergic to chocolate. It tastes delicious, until the reaction kicks in.

So what about the film do I dislike? Is it how the plot is heavily derivative? Is it that it’s, as I’ve heard so many say, ‘Dances With Wolves in Space’?

Actually … no. Though I agree that the basic narrative of colonialism that it is playing with has been played with to death – that I would rather see aspects of colonialism such as the effects of outsiders imposing artificial (usually profit motivated) boarders incongruous with the natural cultural divides which lead to ethnic and sectarian violence – I actually agree that the ‘in Space’ clause is more than a new coat of paint over the same old fence.

So is it the terrible writing? The poor dialogue perhaps? Again, I liked the cheesy characters and enjoyed the over-the-top quality of them. Ironically, as liberal as I am, I was more troubled by the preachy political commentary even more than my relatively conservative friends. Still, as loud as I vocally groaned at that ‘Na’vi are terrorist’ speech, this was again not really the problem per se.

What about the science? I’ll admit some of the science was hard to embrace. By that I mean the floating islands mainly, and for some reason I forgot about the gravity being lower on Pandora, which explained why the physics of people falling seemed off (10-foot cat people do not drop from that high up and not break bones … on Earth). Still, that’s pretty picky.

So what is my problem?

Avatar is in many ways a pop-cultural ideological bookend, one worth looking over in some length as we are now at the vantage point of a new decade, allowing us to go back and look at it. Avatar is a sort of cinematic conclusion to what Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek call the twentieth century’s “passion for the Real,” the desire to take things to the extreme, seeing the vulgar underbelly, breaking through even reality itself to see the inconceivable void that reality is constructed around to maintain order against. In film, it’s been many things, but most obviously it’s the desire to defy all taboos, to see with unrelenting totality. It is the strive for hyper authenticity in Saving Private Ryan, the exhaustive unflinching onslaught of The Passion of the Christ and the complementary extreme brutality of torture horror (Saw, Hostel, etc.) rising to the status of popular horror (leaving its underground obscurity to take over Hollywood, taking the place of low-gore teen slashers and PG-13 haunted house films). In television it is also the unrelenting proliferation of fully visible surgeries and autopsies in medical and crime dramas.

In addition to violence, the passion for the real has persisted in the extremes of sex. In the first chapter Zizek’s book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, he offers Oshima’s ‘Empire of the Senses’ (usually titled ‘The Realm of the Senses’ in the States) – a film about a sexual relationship that escalates into violence and self-destruction – as one example of this. More recent films of similar veins are Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which explores the futility and finitude of a relationship built around sex (and arguably materialism through the music that complements their escapades) as opposed to love, featuring graphic unsimulated sex by the actors, Breillat's Anatomy of Hell, where an unstable woman hires a gay male prostitute to stare at her naked exposed body and confront the cultural demonizing of the female sex, and most recently, Von Trier’s Anti-Christ, which seems to combine elements of all three in the form of a psychological horror movie (which rates as one of the very few I’ve had to stop watching).

Then there’s the more sociological Real. For all of the controversy of sexual content in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, it is perhaps most fascinating for how it shows the domestic Real: a husband using the bathroom sink (shaving/brushing, I forget at the moment) while his wife is using the toilet. But more than this subtle intrusion of the camera into the taboo private space, the film explores the fantasy of the darker secret underbelly of our world (the place of the insects as depicted in Lynch’s Blue Velvet), for as Eyes Wide Shut progresses, Tom Cruise’s character believes that he has not only ventured into a secret orgy uninvited, but into a conspiratorial society so nefarious that it will commit murder to keep itself secret, only to learn by the end of the film that he’s gotten carried away. He takes a joke to scare him off too far; they really are just a secret orgy sex club. His fantasy however is one of the definitive fantasies of the Real, even if in one of its most subdued forms. It is more commonly seen, as Zizek points out in the same chapter, in works like Peter Wier's The Truman Show, and Philip K. Dick’s novel The Time Out of Joint. It is the solipsist fantasy that the world around us, our reality as a reality, is a façade, at best hiding something darker, and at worst purely artificial. Which of course brings us to the definitive example of the late Nineteen Nineties, the film that Zizek’s book title is a quote from: the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix. In the film, our reality is a computer simulation to keep us complacent but that people slowly feel out of place in and break out from to reveal how they are being controlled by machines (an under appreciated predecessor to this is of courseAlex Proyas's Dark City, where nearly the same event occurs with aliens).

While Zizek and Badiou are addressing the whole century, I am looking at The Matrix as the preceding bookend with Avatar. Along with Fincher’s Fight Club, it is an apex of the ‘Gen-X’ desire for something more than the mundane, a generation frequently looking back to its symbolic numerical inverse: the Nineteen-sixties, with its revolutions occurring on virtually every level of society (civil rights, feminism, science, music and the other arts, anti-war movements, domestic relations etc.) and wanting that amazing glorified experience for their own adolescence. After all, instead of the gritty exposure to the horrors of war that was Vietnam, we had the media sanitized night vision videogame that was the depicted Gulf War. (I distinctly recall staying up after Johnny Carson and seeing the Desert Storm lightshow and thinking how much it resembled the Martian war games I was playing from five-inch floppies on our old IBM PC.) Sure, there were feminist issues, and gay rights battles to be fought. Environmentalism is never a cause that runs out of urgency. There were the L.A. Riots, which was no small matter, but for the majority of white (let’s be honest) East Coast suburbia, I think its safe to say that the counter culture—a substantial percentage of—was suffering a little bit from ‘rebel without a cause’ syndrome, reading, listening to, and watching (thanks to the movie adaptation and soundtrack of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) Hunter S. Thompson’s “wave speech” and embracing flannel shirts. The media charged battles became more about having more (more sex, drugs, violent content, etc.) than having the right to have at all. The Nineties generation often gets labeled the nihilistic, anarchic generation, and that’s exactly what Fight Club and The Matrix appealed to, the desire for things the crumble, for life to feel more urgent and for issues to have more immediacy, for there to be, as Tom Waits put it, “a world going on, underground.”

With September 11th, we all pretty much got what we thought we wanted. The Aughts was a time of a strong anti-war movement, seemingly more passionate civil-rights issues (gay-rights, immigration) and essentially the kind of political and social antagonisms that the Sixties had glorified through the music and films that remained of them. The only problem was, it all came with the actual price of itself: the death and loss of the Sixties unglorified. Perhaps one of the best symbols of this experience was the conclusion of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, where the sexually decadent upper-middle-class students have their suicide attempt disrupted by a brick smashing through the window as the Sixty-eight French riots reach their street and crash into their world. Like Neo, having taken the red pill and awakened from the matrix, staring at the destroyed cityscape, we were welcomed “to the desert of the Real.” And as Zizek and many others pointed out, the millions of us not running in the streets of New York reacted very much in the same way as we did to the images of the Gulf War, comparing it a video game, to narrative media. We assimilated back into a familiar text the intrinsic event that ruptured our insular realities, referring to the experience again and again as ‘cinematic.’

The ‘passion for the Real’ wasn’t completely stifled at this point – this was the actual moment when popular torture horror came to rise, when television shows got really gory – but what followed in cinema was again this fixation with assimilating the intrinsic into narrative order. We became saturated in prequels, ‘origin films.’ The great monsters from the Seventies to Nineties needed to be explained away. We needed to know Hannibal Lector’s childhood misfortunes with the Nazis and the economic conditions of Leatherface’s family that made both men into cannibals. Perhaps most significant was the Rob Zombie's Halloween remake, which took Michael Myers, a figure whose horror was that he was a force of pure inexplicable evil (even credited as “The Shape” in the John Carpenter original) and explained away his upbringing and harsh family conditions. Monsters were no longer allowed to be monsters. Much as we had done with the red scare in the 50s, Hollywood needed to assert the kind of authoritative institution that diagnosed Norman Bates in Psycho and Cody Jarrett in White Heat, and even hunted down the queen ants in Them!, only, instead of displaying a competent institution, Hollywood needed nothing but the power of narrative.

(And on a side note, it wasn’t just villains, but heroes! Batman Begins, as well as nearly every other superhero movie of the decade has began at the very beginning of the heroes emergence and devoted its first film to explaining why they are the super beings they are. In this regard one the greatest villains of the Aughts was the Heath Ledger Joker from The Dark Knight, whom repeatedly tells victims his origin story, “You want to know how I got these scars?” only to tell a totally different story to the next person, refusing to be anything but—as the films score emphasizes with his theme music—a one-note character. He is evil without depth, and ironically as such is unfathomable.)

The End of the Passion

Where with most decades there is a sense of spillover from one period to another, that what people mean by the Sixties is really the Mid-sixties, or how punk music is seen as a Seventies phenomenon when its main phase is more that of the Late-seventies to Mid-eighties for example, the Aughts were a neatly framed decade, cut off from the Nineties by both the Bush administration and September 11th and then largely felt to be concluded (as in the sense of a chapter with many things continuing on in the next under different conditions) with Obama’s inauguration. In some ways the cut feels too neat, as if the same act of imposing narrative on the intrinsic event that kick-started the Aughts had spread down through the entire decade. I voted for Obama, and yet even I was taken back by the sheer scale of the spectacle that was his inauguration. While under any number of contexts I understand people’s sense of jubilation (I wasn’t exactly depressed myself), there was something of a sense of absolute enthusiasm and optimism—that ‘everything was going to be fine now’ about the whole event that I couldn’t help but be a little disturbed by. It was as if, the symbol was enough. Even Obama himself cautioned everyone not to get too excited, but it was only after a few months of things not magically changing (I honestly think some people thought the economy was going to instantly be fixed the moment he took office) that reality sunk in and we could turn on the television without being bombarded by ads for commemorative plates.

On some level, I can’t help but see the event as one of the first indications of a serious popular change, at least in the consumerist counter culture from the ‘passion the Real’ to a kind of passion of the UnReal. I don’t mean to sound like a conservative. (I am after all talking about a term used by two of the most radical leftist intellectuals alive.) It’s genuinely not a criticism of Obama that I am trying to articulate, but one of that desire for him to do the miraculous, to be more and do more than an idealist president in a politically divisive country with a massive debt to deal with can be expected to do. I’m critical of the desire for Obama to allow us to stop worrying about the future, to stop being critical, and above all to allow us to say, “everything is going to be okay.” I fully sympathize with the desire; we’ve had eight years of color-coded fear assaulted upon us by the Bush administration, let alone the actual terrorists. It can hardly be blamed of anyone.

But wait, what the hell does all this have to do with big blue cat people in space? Am I trying to imply that, despite all the other escapist films of the decade (and lets not forget the damn Zombies with all their films of cathartic release, providing us unhuman humans we can massively kill and mutilate without moral conflict), Avatar is somehow special (perhaps because it’s in really fancy 3D?) in how it marks our desire to be escapist and not engage in the political system’s realities?

No … and yes.

Avatar is more than just pure escapism. The ironic twist of films like The Matrix was that they always offered escapism with an anti-escapist message. They were fantasies of the Real to indulge our ‘passion for the Real.’ Avatar on the other hand, despite its showy revolution resisting the evil corporate colonial empire, in no way seeks to indulge any sense of the ‘passion for the Real’ whatsoever. Instead of indulging an audience of Neos, it seems better fit for an audience of Cyphers – Cypher being the double-crossing member of the human resistance against the machines who, having like the others also taken the red pill and seen the “desert of the Real,” asks Neo with rhetoric cynicism “why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

Like Neo, Jake Sully of Avatar has a key moment where he awakes in another world that changes his perceptions of virtually everything, but unlike Neo, his is a ‘jungle of the UnReal.’ He does not awake to discover the weakness of his own flesh, long atrophied from a life as a digital avatar in the matrix, where he was capable of superhuman powers limited only by the illusion of limits (“There is no spoon”). He is instead a crippled man who leaves the limitations of his flesh to embrace a giant, superhuman avatar of a Na’vi – which is, in terrible appropriateness, blue.

When I said above that I felt that the film was more than ‘Dances With Wolves in Space’, that it was more than a new coat of paint on an old fence, I meant that the derivative nature of these two elements is not being considered by most critics for exactly what the function of each element is and are together. In using the Dances With Wolves formula and following it to a nearly monotonous tee, Cameron is breaking away from the narrative formula of ‘passion of the Real’ films. There is no grand reveal in Avatar. There is no formal artificial world, with a curtain we are not supposed to look behind and then somebody does. There is no Fight Club, Sixth Sense, Matrix plot twist (don’t forget, people seeing the film for the first time did not know what the ‘matrix’ of The Matrix was). Reality is never warped. Even with the evocative spectacle of the great tree falling down, everything is mapped out for us in advance, depriving us of an intrinsic event. We almost always know what’s going to happen next.

Then there is the paint, the blue paint which is the ‘in Space’ part. What is largely seen as Avatar’s original concept is how the alien world is completely connected – not in the Disney's The Lion King “circle of life,” Pocahontas “paint with all the colors of the wind” sense, but as a complete biological network—network as in, literally, Pandora is a massive organic computer network (and yes, when the animal reinforcements come at the end to fight beside the Na’vi, it is the equivalent result of the tree sending out a massive Twitter event) and everything has a USB Port. (The closest we get to a twist is this general ecological discovery, but it’s so drawn out and paced that there is never a sense of something big being revealed, even when it technically is in Sigourney Weaver’s big speech.)

The cyber punk genre has of course been dealing with humans wiring their brains to the internet since at least William Gibson’s Neuromancer, with the Ghost in the Shell franchise being a notable bridge between that groundbreaking work and The Matrix, which of course is also working with this idea, but in all of these works we see again and again the tension between man and machine. At best there is a unsettlingly nihilistic indifference to the issue, seen often in Gibson’s work, but more commonly, like in Ghost in the Shell, we see an existential anxiety brought on by digitalization of the soul. In The Matrix there is even a moral prerogative to liberate the unconsciously enslaved people from their artificial lives as in mecha utero sleeping batteries for the machines’ super-generators. When Cronenburg explored the further softening (‘soft’ being rather in the William S. Burroughsian sense of the word) of the machine with the in utero nature or our reclined electronic modern lifestyle in his film EXistenZ (probably the closest thing to a cinematic predecessor to Avatar’s bio-net), a film where VR gamming involves organic controls that look like something out of an anti-stem-cell research activist’s worse nightmare, we see his sexualized matrix end with a crisis of realities. Where Major from Ghost in the Shell questions if her digitalization has made her no longer human, the players in EXistenZ become too close to the illusionary world so that by the end they are never certain when or if they are really out of the game. In Avatar, there is nothing like this (though it is food-for-thought when regarding the reports of post-Avatar depression of late), because there is no machine, no cold metal or biomechanical intermediary to call artificial; there is only the ‘great tree’ (another evocation of Disney’s Pocahontas), which in a fashion not unlike Pinocchio’s blue fairy, makes the Na’vi disguised puppet avatar controlled by Jake Sully into, “a real boy!”—I mean Na’vi—at the film’s end.

This is what troubles me about Avatar. There is no literal illusionary world like the matrix, but in place of one there is … a CGI created, completely illusionary 3D heightened world that’s purported to be real. The tangible actor becomes digital entity in a much more literal sense as Na’vi than as Neo (who was still physically shown and played by his actor, Keanu Reeves, when in his matrix avatar form “Mr. Anderson”). With everything being excused as biological, the film offers an example of how our present day existence, as beings that spend hours upon the web, semi-anonymous, living through avatars in simulated worlds, semi-omnipotent, feeding off an endless flow of information, could in fact be displaying perfectly ‘natural’ behavior in a ‘natural’ world (every WoW player’s dream come true to get their parents off their back!). There is of course no real-life example of such behavior, but that’s the point: Avatar provides us with one, that is what Avatar sells. It even goes a step further, when showing Jake’s real body weakening as he spends more and more time in his avatar, he in one scene suggests that the human world seems less and less real compared to that of the Na’vi. Suddenly the terrible dialogue of the human antagonists and the incomprehensibly heavy-handed preachy political babble of all the humans seems less the work of a sloppy screenwriter (I don’t mean to sound an apologist, but … and as hammy as Titanic might be … James Cameron has had a hell of a track record to be producing lines this bad by accident). There is a seemly deliberate effort not only to make cyberspace natural but meatspace (to use Gibson’s classic term for being outside the matrix) seem unnatural. That is what Avatar threatens, appealing in a much more direct and subversive way to the masses desire for ‘the symbol to be enough’ by saying the symbol IS enough.

The success of Avatar, its record-breaking, phenomenal success, is in many ways a sign to me that we are more and more prone to taking the blue pill. I think the success of The Dark Night and Watchmen were oddly foreshadowing – both films ending with the moral that, sometimes to keep order, to do the right thing and save the day, the masses need a massive lie (respectively, that Harvey Dent was a good and incorruptible man – Gothem’s “White Knight,” and that there is a super ominous force out there—Dr. Manhattan, or the original graphic novel’s giant alien squid—that has wiped out millions, and that all nations must put aside their differences—i.e., the Cold War—to save the human race from), a fiction to live by. But in both films’ cases their lies were morally problematic, costly, and strikingly cynical in a manner seemingly intended to be labeled as cynical (with the later, the film ends with promise that the lie will even be disclosed). Thus, we can see these not so much as films simply promoting lies, but as films wading in the murky waters of what Zizek proposes as a "third pill." With Avatar, there is no moral dilemma. It was for me a rather belated afterthought when I realized the hero might have potentially betrayed the human race—our very species—in some big real way by preventing the evil corporation from mining unobtainium. It has no examination of itself to suggest such a direction as Zizek insists we need in a post 'passion of the Real'. The film hardly even suggests that there is a red pill to be considered. It just sucks you into its spectacle, saying, ‘welcome, to the jungle of the UnReal.’

I don’t like that.

Otherwise it was pretty fun.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home