I caught Avatar over winter break, and liked it a lot more than I expected to. I went a bit grudgingly, out of a sense of quasi-duty, to see where state-of-the-art digital technology was pitched. There’s no doubt that at the level of writing, the thing is toweringly dopey. It has the grandiose incoherence you can only get when you marry warmed-over Joseph Campbellisms to 21st-century mass media technology. When bronze-age myth meets the pixilated age of representation, bombast is the only way to efficiently move your mind past noticing that nothing makes a lick of sense (the best, and funniest, takedown of the script’s discontinuities is here).
And yet the thing won me over. It was like spending a couple hours in a $250 million lava lamp. Except for the night scenes, illuminated with neon bioluminescence, which were detours into a $250 million black light painting. Looking at the trailer, I thought the aesthetic was kitschy and downright ugly. Watching the movie itself, I was pushed through tacky into a kind of rapture. I was reminded of the pulp scifi artwork of Hannes Bok, which at first glance radiates unintended camp, but retains an integrity of weirdness that’s admirable and ultimately (to me anyway) beautiful.
I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say I found Avatar’s gyroscopic insects and dust motes as exciting as the predatory hexapods and crimson dragons (at one point, someone in my row at the theater playfully tried to bat away a cloud of gnats that was hovering a few inches from his 3-D goggles). The movie is a compelling act of creative hubris: there’s something self-consciously godlike about creating such a convincing, entire world from scratch, down to every little art-designed alien fern.
It’s at once impressive and off-putting. I had a conversation in my animation class last semester about what Avatar seemed to represent, once the trailer was rolled out on the internet. I told my students that my initial sense of distaste toward the trailer might mark me as a grumpy old guy; I was curious if they’d find my skepticism toward the film rooted in something genuine, of if I was just being mentally sclerotic.
Avatar brings some cultural tendencies to a climax: the realization of fantasy with a visual authority that places the fantasy on par with the real world. It’s a cultural arc that was kicked off in earnest with Star Wars. Star Wars hit me at a very impressionable age. I was 8 years old when it came out, and it’s fair to say I was obsessed with it. I played with Star Wars toys, read Star Wars comic books, had Star Wars bedsheets on my bed (for several years, that was the zone of my dreaming — enwrapped in the cast of Star Wars, ranged statically like a blockbuster Mount Rushmore, Han Solo with a lazer bolt perpetually frozen in emergence from his gun, like a jagged icicle that would never melt).
Part of the reason it captured my imagination so strongly was that its visual authority was unique at the time. This was no saturday morning space show with rockets hanging from strings. It was just one movie, the sole place where the spaceships and aliens didn’t seem resolutely fake. In contrast, all the other movies and TV shows that invoked that impossibility and fantasy were completely unconvincing.
By way of comparison, I showed the students in my class a clip from Isis, a live-action Filmation superhero show of the same era. It was a favorite show of my wife’s when she was young. A couple years ago, out of curiosity, we dug up some Isis clips on youtube, and were amazed at how shoddy, and especially how aggressively boring, it was. In one scene, Isis is chasing some joyriding teenagers, and the overdubbed squealing of tires is the only thing that indicates the chase is occurring at something faster than second gear.
(Coincidentally, according to Wikipedia, the actress who played Isis, Joanna Cameron, is a distant relative of James Cameron)
I’m not advocating for any of these 70s kid-focused shows with any misplaced nostalgia. They were crummy. Criminally insulting, even. The writers were working from the assumption that children were dolts, imbeciles. Isis was packaged as a companion show to Shazam (the two heroes sometimes joined forces in cross-over episodes); Shazam was so stupid, it remains in my memory chiefly because it was the first thing I saw that actually destroyed my ordinary childish suspension of disbelief.
In one episode, Shazam had to break into a cave whose entrance was being blocked by giant boulders (maybe he had some friends who were trapped in the cave — I don’t remember). For some reason, he couldn’t just punch or kick the boulders out of the way. Instead, he rubbed the sand at his feet until it liquefied. The he polished the liquefied sand into a giant, smooth glass lens, hoisted it above his head, and used the lens to focus the sun’s rays into a laser — which, trained on the boulders, made them explode. I turned to my mother, who was also in the room, and said flatly to her: “He can’t do that.” I was willing to provisionally believe that people could fly, or be turned into mythological superheroes at the crash of a thunderbolt — but this, this was taking things too far.
Which is all to say I have no real affection for the crap of yesteryear. Though I do have a certain gratitude for its flimsiness, and its somnambulant pace. It cleared space for my child’s imagination to inhabit other, better imaginings in the interstices of its slowed-down time. Of course, reading books, you have free play to imagine as you will. But on TV, the slowness and incompetence encouraged you to re-imagine what you were actually seeing even as you were seeing it. Even the pace of the editing was slower, allowing you to stay a step or two ahead of what was going on; in contrast, the rapid-fire editing of today seems designed to keep you from digesting images — your only choice is to react to them.
The result of all this was an unintended but profound dynamic: as an 8-year old, my imagination could do better. It could do better than 99% of movies and all of TV. Which made the imagination seem like powerful force. More powerful than a multimillion dollar industry devoted to dazzling the eye and captivating the brain.
I distinctly remember a dream I had, either in late elementary school or early Junior High, in which I saw a dragon in flight. There was nothing particularly dramatic about the dream — I wasn’t being chased by the dragon, or riding the dragon — in fact, the dragon was at a considerable distance, high up in the sky, glimpsed through an open latticework of tree branches (I was walking down some woodland path). It had the sinuous, unhurried grace of a relaxed swimmer, luxuriating in her element.
When I woke, I stayed in bed with my eyes closed, savoring the dream, letting its details imprint themselves on my now-conscious mind, so I wouldn’t lose the vision to the mundane obliterating machinations of the morning. The vision was precious because it seemed so real. At the time, there were no movies where a dragon could be seen gliding through the sky, with the casual vividness of an actual living thing. At best, a living dragon could be suggested with the eerie clarity of stop-motion models, or through two-dimensional animated drawings. My mind was the only place where such a thing could be found.
I was reminded of that dream while watching Avatar, during a scene where about twenty dragons simultaneously occupied the frame, strewn from foreground to background, each one expertly articulated by talented animators. I had to laugh. What hope would I have as an eight year old, next to that? What impulse to savor a dream-scrap, if I could just get my hands on a DVD and scan to a scene a dozen times more elaborate?
Over the course of my adolescence and adulthood, there has been a dramatic shift in the alignment between the childhood imagination and mass visual culture. Avatar currently exists in an elite class of representation, but it sits at the apex of widely disseminated technologies of depiction and animation. A chief cultural difference between my childhood self and the children of today is that access to realistic fantasy (if not “photorealistic fantasy,” then at least “persuasive fantasy”) is now a pervasive condition, not an exceptional one.
As soon as they’re old enough to be propped in front of a screen, kids now see vast quantities of programming designed by teams of professionals, art-directed from top pixel to bottom — there’s scant room for their own imaginations to make improvements. It amounts to a professionalization of the fantastic.
And, perhaps, it casts “imagining” as a fundamentally passive act. Which seems tied to the sense of helplessness and depression some people felt after watching Avatar (at least according to an immediately notorious CNN article that starts out: “James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle ‘Avatar’ may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora”). The imaginative world exists outside them — it’s not something they can conjure themselves.
(It should be noted that a group of Palestinian protesters took the opposite tack, dressing up as Na’vi before being pelted with tear gas containers. Of course, there’s no way for them to conjure the paradisiacal world of Pandora, they can only conjure its inhabitants, who perforce look out of place amidst the scrub grass and barbed wire: they can only take up the mantle of the Na’vi as exiles.)
So I have to wonder if this is the end result of our technologies of fantasy: to generate spectacle that overpowers the spectator, turning the spectator into a sort of recieving robot for all the images that precede him. The imagination of the spectator (especially the child spectator) is at the mercy of what has come before. Of course, when images spring from the “interior,” or the subconscious, you could argue that those images are no less unwilled. But it still seems like a radical restructuring of the imaginative enterprise: an exteriorization of the dream life. Dream becomes a collective and purchased experience, as opposed to an interior, subjective, and individual one.
The wellspring of images is localized as something socially ratified and funded, versus something more distributed and mysterious. It’s roughly the distinction between an opiate and a dream (and for the record, when I suggested these sorts of distinctions to my students, they didn’t think I was just wallowing in old-fogeyisms).
All the same, I don’t want to get apocalyptic about it, and start keening over the imminent demise of the imagination. It might rather be a realignment of the primary imaginative task: not to individually bring worlds into being, but to take the pieces of a world engineered by other people and to wander through it at our own pace. Not to construct, but to explore.
It’s an approach that’s deeply embedded in the postmodern condition, but the roots go deeper than that. In a way, that’s what happens when we wander a city, isn’t it? Who has time to build a world from scratch? Virtuality will produce its own flaneurs.
For now, it’s James Cameron’s world, and we’re living in it. I’m curious to see what sorts of habitations will be built there by future interlopers, squatters, vandals and utopians.