Awaiting Avatar

Apparently Avatar, which opened on Friday at an immersive neural simulation pod near you, posits an intricate and very real connection between the natural world and its inhabitants: animus in action, the Gaia Hypothesis operationalized on a motion-capture stage. If this is so — if some oceanic metaconsciousness englobes and organizes our reality, from blood cells to weather cells — then perhaps it’s not surprising that nature has provided a perfect metaphor for the arrival of James Cameron’s new film in the form of a giant winter storm currently coloring radar maps white and pink over most of the eastern seaboard, and trapping me and my wife (quite happily) at home.

Avatar comes to mind because, like the blizzard, it’s been approaching for some time — on a scale of years and months rather than hours and minutes, admittedly — and I’ve been watching its looming build with identical avidity. I know Avatar’s going to be amazing, just as I knew this weekend’s storm was going to be a doozy (the expectation is 12-18 inches in the Philadelphia area, and out here in our modest suburb, the accumulation is already enough to make cars look as though they have fuzzy white duplicates of themselves balanced on their roofs). In both cases, of course, this foreknowledge is not as monolithic or automatic a thing as it might appear. The friendly meteorologists on the Weather Channel had to instruct me in the storm’s scale and implacability, teaching me my awe in advance; similarly, we all (and I’m referring here to the entire population of planet earth) have been well and thoroughly tutored in the pleasurable astonishment that awaits us when the lights go down and we don our 3D glasses to take in Cameron’s fable of Jake Sully’s time among the Na’vi.

If it isn’t clear yet, I haven’t seen Avatar. I’m waiting out the weekend crowds (and, it turns out, a giant blizzard) and plan to catch a matinee on Tuesday, along with a colleague and her son, through whose seven-year-old subjectivity I ruthlessly intend to focalize the experience. (I did something similar with my nephew, then nine, whom I took to see The Phantom Menace in 1999; turns out the prequels are much more watchable when you have an innocent beside you with no memory of what George Lucas and Star Wars used to be.) But I still feel I know just about everything there is to know about Avatar, and can name-drop its contents with confidence, thanks to the broth of prepublicity in which I’ve been marinating for the last several weeks.

All of that information, breathlessly assuring me that Avatar will be either complete crap (the /tv/ anons on 4chan) or something genuinely revolutionary (everyone else), partakes of a cultural practice spotlighted by my friend Jonathan Gray in his smart new book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. While we tend to speak of film and television in an always-already past tense (“Did you see it?” “What did you think?”), the truth is something very different. “Films and television programs often begin long before we actively seek them out,” Jon observes, going on to write about “the true beginnings of texts as coherent clusters of meaning, expectation, and engagement, and about the text’s first initial outposts, in particular trailers, posters, previews, and hype” (47). In this sense, we experience certain media texts a priori — or rather, we do everything but experience them, gorging on adumbration with only that tiny coup de grace, the film itself, arriving at the end to provide a point of capitation.

The last time I experienced anything as strong as Avatar‘s advance shockwave of publicity was with Paranormal Activity (and a couple of years ago before that with Cloverfield), but I am not naive enough to think such occurrences rare, particularly in blockbuster culture. If anything, the infrequency with which I really rev up before a big event film suggests that the well-coordinated onslaught is as much an intersubjective phenomenon as an industrial one; marketing can only go so far in setting the merry-go-round in motion, and each of us must individually make the choice to hop on the painted horse.

And having said that, I suppose I may not be as engaged with Avatar‘s prognosticatory mechanisms as I claim to be.  I’ve kept my head down, refusing to engage fully with the tableaux being laid out before me. As a fan of science-fiction film generally, and visual effects in particular, this seemed only wise; in the face of Avatar hype, the only choices appear to be total embrace or outright and hostile rejection. I want neither to bless nor curse the film before I see it. But it’s hard to stay neutral, especially when a film achieves such complete (if brief) popular saturation and friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion. (Note: I am very glad that friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion.)

So, a few closing thoughts on Avatar, offered in advance of seeing the thing. Think of them as open-ended clauses, half-told jokes awaiting a punchline; I’ll come back with a new post later this week.

  • Language games. One aspect of the film that’s drawn a great deal of attention is the invention of a complete Na’vi vocabulary and grammar. Interesting to me as an example of Cameron’s endless depth of invention — and desire for control — as well as an aggressive counter to the Klingon linguistics that arose more organically from Star Trek. Will fan cultures accrete around Avatar as hungrily as they did around that more slowly-building franchise, their consciousness organized (to misquote Lacan) by a language?
  • Start the revolution without me. We’ve been told repeatedly and insistently that Avatar is a game-changer, a paradigm shift in science-fiction storytelling. For me, the question this raises is not Is it or isn’t it? but rather, What is the role of the revolutionary in our SF movies, and in filmmaking more generally? How and why, in other words, is the “breakthrough” marketed to us as a kind of brand — most endemically, perhaps, in movies like Avatar that wear their technologies on their sleeve?
  • Multiple meanings of “Avatar.” The film’s story, as by now everyone knows, revolves around the engineering of alien bodies in which human subjectivities can ride, a kind of biological cosplay. But on another, artifactual level, avatarial bodies and mechanisms of emotional “transfer” underpin the entire production, which employs performance capture and CG acting at an unprecedented level. In what ways is Avatar a movie about itself, and how do its various messages about nature and technology interact with that supertext?

4 thoughts on “Awaiting Avatar

  1. The words “Shatner” and “Esperanto” are definitely not two words I expected to hear in the first comment to this post — kudos, Brian!

    In response to Bob’s skillfully-worded “pretext,” I will offer a few thoughts on “Avatar”‘s production, without any spoilers!

    I’ve seen the 2D version of “Avatar” — which was interesting in its own way, as I checked out a notation on Cameron’s differentiation on aspect ratios right before I left for the theater. He apparently directly oversaw two different prints for this film — the 2D is in something like 2:35 (Scope) and the IMAX 3D is closer to 1:78 (heightened). There were indeed brief moments within the film where certain characters’ heads popped off the top of the screen, or an angle didn’t work quite right for widescreen, but overall it worked swimmingly, and I’m impressed that Cameron even went to these lengths to at least *attempt* to give both 3D and 2D viewerships as best of a visual experience as he could, in the technology available.

    I’ll keep my preliminary thoughts about the film to myself, as I don’t want to waste too much space, and indeed I’m still pondering many aspects (no pun intended)!

    Regarding your three points, though:

    — My initial assertion (though I know it’s early!) is that I’m not quite sure the language of the Na’vi will have nearly the same cultural impact as Trek’s Klingon has had. Though I suppose I should give it four decades, or so (and the possibility that Cameron might deliver more “Avatar” films in the future, which, if successful, may indeed expand the franchise’s cultural impact)!

    — Someone else on another messageboard pointed out that “Avatar” is indeed a “game-changer” for people in the industry itself, and particularly for those who work in visual effects — and they will see it as such. For the general public, however, it may not register in those terms whatsoever — possibly due to some points I make below.

    — I like the idea that Cameron pursued a story which references its own production in many ways, however, I am less enthused with how the rest of the narrative plays out on-screen, and (in my opinion) the rather disappointing lack of much substance, subtext, or general attention to the subtleties of human emotions (Though the one exception is Zoe Saldana’s performance, which I felt was truly transcendental in multiple ways).

    Could it be that Cameron might have felt that he needed to relate a simple, recognizable narrative so that he could concentrate on pushing the technology forward, and giving audiences a fully-immersive experience, so much so that they don’t even recognize — or forget — that nearly everything they are watching in the film is manufactured by computers?

    If he’s done that, you could argue that he’s done his “job,” done what he probably set out to do.

    It’s a double-edged sword, in a way. If you forget it’s there (i.e. technology), than does it influence your opinion? Yet, if you concentrate solely on the film’s (arguably) only partially-hewed characterizations and narrative, “Avatar” veers into very few new or interesting areas of discussion.

    Though ultimately, I would have to say that the game *has* changed with this film, because at this moment, it is making me consider very precisely how I want to group and refer to numerous words in this blog comment, like “characterization.”

    Looking forward to seeing what you think, Bob (call me, if you have a moment!)

  2. Michael, thanks so much for these thoughts and observations! Cogent as always, and I appreciate the nimble way you sidestep spoilers while providing interesting material about the film’s production and narrative.

    I’ll certainly bear your words in mind when I watch the film, and limit the degree to which I discuss it in advance of that (in other words: my continuing to discuss a movie I haven’t yet seen comes dangerously close to talking out of my ass). But based on what I’ve read, both on Cameron’s end and in the critical arena, I agree with your sense that the story is conventional in inverse proportion to the technical wizardry that went into it. I felt much the same about Titanic (a film I rather liked — at least more so than its predecessor True Lies): simple story, complex execution. In their pairing of advanced technology and simplistic narrative, Cameron’s recent films make me think of FPS games like Doom and Quake: breakthroughs in desktop VR, built around point-and-shoot dynamics. Perhaps, as you suggest, our first forays into new levels of media immersion need to be eased by nuts-and-bolts storytelling, with more sophisticated deployments of technology to follow?

    P.S. I did get your message yesterday — we were outside dealing with the snow — and will call you back soon.

  3. Bob, this bit stood out–I like it!–“marketing can only go so far in setting the merry-go-round in motion, and each of us must individually make the choice to hop on the painted horse.”

    But enough about your work, let’s talk about Cameron–

    As a generally un-studied fan of sci-fi, forgive me if this is obvious, but thinking back over the Cameron titles that I know of, (Terminator, Titanic, Abyss, Aliens) seems like what he does (so well!) is,

    1) tell a fairly simple, straightforward story: often, a chase.

    2) give us well developed/acted characters

    3) give us a fast-pace of events

    4) give a well-thought-out context or ‘world’ or concept–this being where he pours on the special effects, as in a cool version of time-travel that limits the assassin robot to a human form, or the believable mining world of Aliens (not t mention, its corporate milieu) etc. etc.

    All of which is to say, Cameron’s not about plot. He’s about telling stories well: the stories are pretty simple, the telling of them is masterful.

    Seems like that’s both ageless and eternal (I can imagine Cameron as a bearded itinerant story-teller, his face lit by a hearthfire, wowing a medieval or ancient audience), as well as particularly ‘of’ th present–the first (lame!) example: a good powerpoint isn’t just about the info and ideas presented, but about the images, lay-out, etc. And Bob, maybe that somehow relates to the ‘walls’ your conspiracy class did? And more generally, good [high school] teaching now isn’t about in-depth knowledge [never hurts, but…] it’s about being able to reach students at a variety of levels of ability and background knowledge. Is it a revelation to say that the packaging and presentation of the story is now the measure of its quality? I’m always getting a flash of insight into what everyone’s been taking for granted for some time, maybe this is more of the same.

    Anyway–thanks Bob and I’ll be interested in your post-viewing thoughts too.

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