Wednesday 3 February 2010

How seriously should we take Avatar?

"Avatar" is on my list of all time favourite films. I don't think it's the greatest film ever made, and to be honest I wasn't very taken with the 3D effects. But you don't need 3D to be immersive.There's been a lot of stuff around in education recently about immersive worlds and what they can or can't do for education. The less reflective writing tends to assume that places like Second Life are unproblematically immersive and other environments are equally unproblematically not immersive. But SL isn't immersive if it doesn't engage you. You can be there, and your avatar can be stunning and you can be talking to and interacting with other people, but you can still be aware of the world outside the computer, and you can still be bored, and you can still be checking when the tutorial is going to end, and it is not being immersive in the slightest. By the same token a plain bog standard class in a plain bog standard classroom can be totally immersive if the teacher gets it right. People seem to forget that.

By the same token I found Avatar a totally immersive experience, and that was without the 3D specs on most of the time (because I found them uncomfortable). I thoroughly enjoyed it. I forgot the passing of time. I identified with the characters. I didn't want it to end, and I felt slightly bereft when it did, just like I always used to feel as a kid when I walked out of a cinema.

This is partly about fit between film and viewer. As a viewer, I am very happy to be entertained. I don't need to be thought-provoked in order to enjoy a film. I don't need a deep message. My ever shifting and ever expanding top one hundred contains a lot of films that would make other people wince. They're not in my top one hundred because I think they're great films, but because I like them. I think there are two reasons why I like Avatar. The first is the special effects. Everything works beautifully. Interestingly, the world of Pandora and the Na'vi works better than the rude mechanicals - the diggers, helicopters and firepower - which you might think would be easer to model. And the second reason is the story. Stories don't have to be big and complex in order to succeed In fact very often the simpler the better. And here we have two very simple stories interwoven - boy meets girl and culture clash. Boy meets girl is the simplest of all. Boy meets girl, boy conquers obstacles in the way, boy wins girl. Culture clash is marginally more complex but not much. Boy meets alien culture, boy is attracted by good side of alien culture, boy confronts bad side of own culture, boy and aliens unite to defeat bad side. And that's all there is to Avatar. The green message is there but it's part of the conflict that's there to make the story work, not because James Cameron had a message. So for me it's great entertainment and the right people win.

The question arises of how seriously to take the film. I have to say I don't take it very seriously, though in some circumstances people are right to take it more seriously (see below). James Cameron himself is quoted in the Telegraph: "It's about how "greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment," he said in a recent interview. "It's a way of looking back on ourselves from this other world."" But this should not necessarily be taken at face value. It is a press interview with a man who knows all about putting bums on seats. I don't believe he really takes the politics of the film all that seriously. And neither do I. It has a "green" message, but the message is there for plot functionality and because it resonates with the market demographic.

I'm now finding other people's reactions to the film very interesting, and wondering whether I need to re-evaluate simply because of the number of people it has upset. The first upset is, I think, badly founded, and based on a misinterpretation of what happens. Progressives are upset at the racist subtext that shows a "primitive" tribe needing a white man to save them. You could read it that way if you wanted to, but I don't see it. What I see is our hero Jake growing through his contact with the Na'vi in such a way that he becomes a different creature. The hero who returns to lead the Na'vi is a synthesis of the best of Jake with Na'vi beliefs and ways. So it's not about western capitalist superiority at all. If anything it's about its limitations. I had a similar dispute once with someone over Tootsie. It's surprising what a ding dong we got into over such a slight film. (It's not in my top one hundred; it would probably be in my top three or four hundred.) The story is difficult and currently out of work actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses up as a woman to land a short part in a soap, is surprisingly successful, so they extend his contract, leading to the dilemma of how to get out of it, which is eventually resolved. My friend thought it was deeply sexist because it showed a man being more successful as a woman than women could be. I thought it showed that becoming a woman made him learn about the female viewpoint, confront his own masculinity and anger, and emerge a better and stronger person. Hence again it was not "being a man" that made the difference. It was "learning about the opposite". So, although, quite a lot of people have picked up on this idea of Avatar being racist, i don't buy it.

I'm more impressed by the fact that Avatar has upset the American right, the Chinese Communist party, and the Vatican. Any film that can upset those three must have something going for it.

The American right don't like it because of fairly overt references to both the Vietnam and Iraq wars in the context of asking the audience "to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of" - John Podoretz, in the ABC News link above. OK, but if you're going to get upset about it, try being a little less imperialist when you do go to war in places like Iraq.

The Chinese don't like it because the theme of forced migration is too close to home for a regime that regularly shifts people off places it wants to dam up or build on. I don't know if the film has actually sparked protests, or just that they have moved pre-emptively to ban it. They've been quite clever though, taking it out of 2D cinemas while allowing it to remain in 3D. That way they can say they haven't actually banned it, just that it wasn't doing well in the 2D cinemas. I assume that there aren't that many 3D cinemas and they are located away from potential trouble spots. It's a very good illustration of the dance of power that the Communist party in China is constantly engaged in with its own people. While remaining quintessentially authoritarian, in fact downright repressive in outlook, it is realistic enough to know that it can't upset too many Chinese too often.

And finally the dear old Vatican. Some headlines say the Vatican hates Avatar. Here is what Osservatore Romano actually said: "It has a great deal of enchanting, stunning technology, but few genuine or human emotions.... Its significance is in its visual impact rather than in the story, and in its messages, despite the fact that they are hardly new... The plot descends into sentimentality... and "a rather facile anti-imperialist and antimilitarist parable which doesn't have the same bite as other more serious films." But it ended by saying the spectacle was worth the price of a cinema ticket. All that from the Telegraph. There's not much there that I would disagree with, apart from thinking myself that there's nothing wrong with going to see a film just in order to be entertained. At least they haven't ordered the flock to boycott the film with missionary zeal as they try to turn the world back the way they think it should be - medieval. So basically the Vatican isn't being as reactionary about Avatar as it is about many things.

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