Friday, January 22, 2010

Avatar, Animation, and the Losses of Compensation

Avatar is a disturbing film, but most of its peculiar disturbance goes unmentioned in complaints about its imperialism and primitivism (imperialist and primitivist as it is). Rather than compensating the viewer through its rendition of natural beauty, or failing to, the film disturbs by staging the problems of aesthetic compensation. The urban legends about teenagers depressed at having to return from the film to the world and about the man whose heart gave out at the sight of its wonders lie closer to the point. Avatar features a protagonist, Jake, who is asked to invest in the film’s world given that he has lost a leg and lost his brother; like Ishmael, he has no living earthly attachment to hold him back, not even a plant (“There’s nothing green there”). As everyone agrees, what follows, the middle of the film, is the compelling part, in which Jake immerses himself in the ordinary activities of the new planet and its gorgeous species. Here, every sensory experience that the viewer ought to experience as discovery of the new, we experience as Jake might, as also referencing and substituting for everything that once enjoyed living on Earth, but does no longer. This is moving because just as the images of beauty open us up like eyes dilating to take in more, the realization, carried as the underside of restoration, hits us of the heretofore unfocused magnitude of the loss itself. If you’ve never wept for Tasmanian tigers, South African quaggas, golden toads, Great Auks, the twenty-one extinct frogs of Sri Lanka, etc., etc., etc., you may want to now; and if you haven’t thought about what it would be like to inhabit an environment in which literally everything one sees is alive, hence radiant with unpredictability and potential relation, then welcome to—animation (whose ideological trompes-l’oeil Paul de Man explored through lyric poetry). Avatar becomes idealist and ideological when it suggests that Jake can decant his mental contents into the body of his differently speciated avatar, but allegorically perhaps the hint is that for homo sapiens there is no redemption as homo sapiens. Homo sapiens would have to survive long enough to become something better—which seems barely possible evolutionarily given the current rate of self-destruction—or not at all. What is open to Jake and the future overman is closed to the audience either way. Jake gets a new natural world; all the audience gets, like the drones in the military-industrial headquarters who know color and light only from the digital images on their work screens, is Avatar. Cameron may be idealist and egocentric enough to believe that his art really is a second nature, but the form and economy of his work suggest otherwise. When Jake devours a Pandora fruit, cackling with infantile delight, it may be because he’s never known what it’s like to eat a fresh fruit. We’re at the point where a spray of really wild grapes dressing a plate of pumpkin is worth almost as much as a strand of pearls, and an animated film that simulates a glimpse of what "nature" might mean is worth $1,689,630,947 (so far). If that makes you feel like crying in itself, it may be not only because of the lost opportunities it represents but because of the irrecoverable losses whose dimensions it begins to measure.

above: Tasmanian tigers; below: quagga. Thanks to Michelle Cho for conversation.

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