Friday, February 12, 2010

Avatar Ethics and Belief in THIS World

I am generally not a fan of big budget Hollywood films, but since Avatar was hyped as the most expensive film made to date, a box office record breaker, and reported to make excellent use of new 3D technologies, I figured it would be one to see in the theater. I was actually pleasantly surprised by my initial response. The science fiction – I am the SFRA web director after all – and fight to save nature did appeal me, so I suppose it isn’t that big of a surprise that I enjoyed the viewing experience on a basic level. I must also say that I was impressed by the new 3D technology, which was used in a somewhat more natural fashion than films such as Coraline. Gut reactions aside, however, I find responses to the film perhaps most interesting of all.

From an ecosophical perspective, we could say that a film is ‘good’ or ‘ethical’ if it inspires positive ecological change – change to the environmental, social, or mental ecologies. Films are well suited to this task, because they reach large audiences – especially films like Avatar. Out of all the most wide-reaching films, Avatar is perhaps a bit unique, because despite all of its problems (When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar) it has inspired positive change to mental ecologies. These newly reorganized subjectivities – or, if not really reorganized, at least invigorated – have in turn spawned more messages regarding positive ecological change. For example, Adam Hintz’s video, which proclaims: “[Avatar] is more than just another Matrix or Star Wars. It’s a movie with a message.” Hintz speaks here mostly of ‘destroying indigenous peoples and species’, but the message is environmental or easily relatable to the environment. Perhaps even more pertinent is this blog post from dGenerate Films that shows how evictees of urban development in China have likened themselves to the N’avi in Avatar. These articles, perhaps more the latter, show close correlation with real world events, and Avatar translates into a message of resistance. Of course, we already knew bad things like this were happening, but why is it that this Hollywood blockbuster facilitates the entry of these issues into the media/web 2.0?

Could it be that Avatar inspires a ‘belief in this world’ as Deleuze might say? I recently attended a talk given by David (DN) Rodowick, where his project was to show that the ultimate ethical act of Deleuze’s work in his books on cinema was to show how certain films inspire a belief in the world and our powers to positively change it. I believe this is true and a particular faculty of minor cinemas, but Avatar is certainly not a minor cinema. I don’t mean to say that so called ‘major cinemas’ cannot do this as well, but we do run into a problem here: the ability of many major cinemas to enchant and make us forget about ‘our’ world. In fact, Avatar has created something like a belief in another world for many, as the phenomenon the ‘Avatar blues’ shows. One victim of the ‘Avatar blues’ recounts: “I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don’t have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.” Contrary to what you might think with a topic (belief in this world) attributed to the time-image (and its sensory-motor break), belief actually inspires action, whereas this ‘longing for another world’ creates depression and inertia.

It becomes difficult to understand Avatar ecosophically with these two perspectives in mind – that of those who have turned to Avatar to make connections with this world, and that of those who now long for something imaginary. What exactly inspires the filmgoer to move in either direction?

It seems interesting that the former responses refer to the overall fabula, while the latter seem to respond to the technology involved in creating Pandora. They see Pandora as a beautiful, colorful world through their 3D glasses, and the enhanced images completely outstrip reality for them. This certainly is the ‘major’ method of Hollywood. Therefore, while some find redeeming qualities in Avatar, most are captivated by the filmmaking – the major mode of Hollywood – that creates spectacle.

In the end, it seems to me to be the ‘formal features’ of the film that are detrimental to the filmgoer’s ethical experience of Avatar. Filmgoers are all different, of course, and some will be receptive to its redemptive elements. But cinema technology is a tool of mass communication, so it seems important to look at the large scale effects rather than to focus on exceptions (at least, in this case). Often, formal features are seen as sites of innovation in cinema, and I may previously have thought of them as sites for ethical encounters with cinema. Avatar, however, makes the point that it is just as important to look at the detrimental effects of formal features in emerging cinemas as current ideological underpinnings such as continuity editing are taken to a whole new level.


  1. I wish I could link to the full interview from the print magazine, but I found Cameron's view of the film particularly interesting. A snippet:

  2. What you're saying seems to be comparable to the debate over virtual reality programs and computer games. How do they affect a person's mind and behavior? Should education incorporate more computer-oriented techniques? Is entering a "world" like World at Warcraft better, worse, or just different from doing something like reading a novel (where I think it can be argued that people can be impacted by reading fiction). In terms of "Avatar", or any movie really, I think people can be affected both directly and subconsciously by it. Learning always seems to involve two parts--direct learning (how to do something, for example) and learning a student may not be aware of that affects their behavior later (the way a teacher treats a student, for example).