19 Oct 2013

(Popular) Films as Philosophy: A ‘Wittgensteinian’ View(er)

By Rupert Read.

There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in the question of whether films can function as philosophical works, in other words, can films ‘do’ philosophy? This interest, however, seems to sooner or later inevitably founder on the following dilemma: Either the philosophical work done by films is paraphrasable, in which case ultimately the films in question are merely pretty or striking vehicles for philosophising which precedes them; or the philosophical work done by films is not paraphrasable, in which case it seems mysterious/dubious/systemically-obscure.

However, this dilemma, while in its own terms quite correct, rests, I submit, on an unjustified presumption. The presumption is that philosophical ‘work’ has to be understood (if it is to be worthwhile) as issuing in theses/theories/opinions. But there is another possibility, a possibility explored at greatest length in Wittgenstein’s philosophy: that philosophical work at its best is ‘therapeutic’, in very roughly the psychological sense of that word. Namely: that philosophy need not – and in fact should not – issue in any controversial theses or opinions, any theories, at all. Rather, it should work with a person's own presumptions, exposing them to awareness, and thus empowering them to autonomously acknowledge, justify, overcome, or transform them. It is this possibility, that the members of the thinkingfilm collective aim to explore together over the coming months and years.

My own co-edited collection Film as Philosophy: Essays on Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell (Palgrave, 2005, with Jerry Goodenough), and especially Phil Hutchinson’s and my essay in that collection, endeavoured in a preliminary way to develop the idea sketched above. In the present piece, I want to enter a little further into it, and into the following associated question: Is there a way to understand how some of the greatest popular films work in ways that transcend any heresies of paraphrase, transcend film theories that would subject films to their diktat, and empower the viewer to understand how the films in question can enact 'therapeutic' work upon and with the viewer? A difficulty facing the efforts to understand films as philosophical works has been their (in most cases) consistently ‘dialogical’ nature, the way that they offer different voices, and not just (as most philosophical prose works do) one voice: but this is a strength of these film-as-philosophy works - once they are understood as 'therapeutic' works.

Take films such as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Children of Men, Ingma Bergman's Persona, or Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and The New World. Are these films simply disguised pieces of didacticism? Do they have a simple ‘message’, which they wrap in an emotive, elaborate, striking and pretty coating, to sugar the pill? (How could a film be a major philosophical/ethical/political work, unless it basically did this? But/or equally: how could a film be such a work if it did basically only this?)

I say not. I say that there are not only these alternatives: Instead, you (and I am speaking here primarily of film-makers; though also of film-critics) can offer up your thinking on film as an exploratory intervention designed to facilitate a 'therapeutic' process of thinking and feeling on the part of the viewer. The work - the philosophical work - is work that viewers have to do for themselves. Whatever the viewer can do for themselves, one should leave them to do for themselves…

And I submit, as the reader will have noted, that what I am suggesting is true of some of the most popular films of our time. These, and the reader's resistance to the outline case I wish to make for them here, will be my primary focus, in the present piece.

So: The Lord of the Rings film trilogy can if you wish (see below) be said to make a new philosophical ‘argument’, cutting across and beyond Descartes. But it doesn’t make this ‘argument’ in the abstract. It encourages you to experience it. In general terms: the film challenges you; you go into ‘dialogue’ with it. You go into therapy with it, much as this is the process of reading the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations with understanding.

Let me illustrate this point by setting out briefly how I ‘read’ the Lord of the Rings film trilogy:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, we see on the screen – we experience viscerally the point-of-view manifest in a pathological search for safety, for surety (most notably, we see this vividly in scenes in which one reaches for the Ring, for invisibility, for escape to a private realm that is one’s own, a realm where one can be lord and master). This desperate search for safety – for something that one can hold onto confidently – of Frodo et al results in one being ‘overpowered’ by an overwhelming dread at an ‘overwhelming’ watching, judging, heartless and destructive external agency. The search for safety results in one seemingly being confronted by absolute nemesis, with no expectation of being saved by a benevolent force – there is none as strong, or none that is willing, one is quickly convinced. That ‘God’ is onto me, and that ‘God’ is a malevolent demon; just that super-Cartesian possibility is, I am urging, lived out at the deep, dark heart of Lord of the Rings.

In fact, building on suggestions in my and Goodenough’s Film as Philosophy, and in my essay on The Lord of the Rings in my book Philosophy for Life (Contimuum, 2007), I would argue that Jackson’s analysis, building on and going beyond Tolkien’s, is far subtler and more psychologically-real than Descartes’s emotionless academic rendition of the mind ‘meditating’ upon the terrors of possible cosmic aloneness and the company one might surprisingly and regrettably find oneself keeping in that aloneness.

For Jackson, the God-awful malign demon is not a self-standing ontic thing. Rather, to be God-powerful, it needs something to complete it. It needs you, or more specifically, your fear and addictive desire and weakness. It needs your desire for power, that corrupts, that takes you from others; it needs your self-fulfilling fear of ‘it’; it needs your weakness, that would hand the power over to ‘it’ in a doomed bid to lessen the grip upon you of dread. The malicious demon (in Jackson/Tolkien) depends on you. He is not all-powerful, without the One Ring that is in your power. You are not nothing beside Him; you are just pitifully small and vulnerable in comparison, as you toss on the sea of fate. He will only become all-powerful if you try to become him, or alternatively simply give him the power he seeks.

Sauron and The Ring,  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

The rationale here, and it is a profound one, is this: If God/Satan/Sauron quite simply is all-powerful, then – paradoxically – your worries are significantly tempered. For there is then no quest, no chance of escape, nowhere to hide. One can give up worrying. The mind in search of absolute safety-certainty, the mind unused to not-worrying and unwilling to risk such a state, must then restlessly pass on from the assumption of one’s absolute abjection before God. If one is infinitely less than God, then one is to some extent relieved, even if God is malign: because at least there is then nothing more one can do. One can simply sit back, and wait to be annihilated or tortured etc., safe in the knowledge that there is no way out. Belief in an omnipotent God, even if the God has an Old Testament temper or much worse, is a means to the psychological security of not actually having to go on actively worrying and acting. The mind in search of absolute safety, the mind in search of any possible threats to it will quickly, restlessly, move on: the more worrying thought that comes to one next (a thought that is common in schizophreniform mental ‘disorder’, but that is never arrived at in Decartes’s meditations) is that perhaps one does still have a part to play, that one’s actions will be consequential, that what one does or thinks next could make things even worse. 

Paradoxically, there is something even worse than abjection before an all-powerful malevolent demon: namely, the threat of a less than all-powerful malevolent demon whose power and action depends on you, on what you do and think. The ceaseless, hungry, terrified motion of schizoid thought is right here: Jackson correctly identifies and powerfully depicts a potentially-self-fulfilling threat to thought and to one’s very sense of identity more profound than – and a logical extension of – that which Descartes set out for us. This then is literature/film as philosophy, with a vengeance: Jackson’s Tolkien has taken us somewhere philosophically new, somewhere undreamt of in Cartesian philosophy.

This then is the case for seeing The Lord of the Rings as a subtler and nastier moral threat than Descartes’s demon, and thus for seeing Jackson/Tolkien as offering a philosophical corrective to Descartes, filling in the gaps in his presentation of what it would actually mean to imagine a malign demon of infinite or (better) of great power. The really disturbing, the more deeply psychologically-challenging notion, the clear and distinct idea that can unworld one, is that ‘malignity’ is quite incomplete without us, without our existentially ongoing participation. The desire for the Ring is the desire to be the Lord of the Rings (and this explains the otherwise inexplicable title of the work: because Sauron is not even a real character in the story), to become invulnerable through being all-powerful; the desire to be shot of the Ring is the desire to already be abject before such an all-powerful Lord of the Rings; both are (pathological) efforts to escape from the ordinary lived human condition of ‘limited’ always-already-embodied existence, the worst fear of which is being confronted, not with a malign omnipotent demon, but with a malign demon who can only be completed by you.

And all this, I am saying, has to be experienced to be believed. These are the kinds of thoughts that go on, even if through a glass darkly, in the intelligent viewer of these films. Only some account like this can, after all, explain their great success: because, in plot terms, The Lord of the Rings is of course a pitiful failure. See, for example this excellent Volksvagen advert’s take on the trilogy, and this offering from howitshouldhaveended.com , which makes the point just as well. It only makes sense as an essentially psychical quest. One that the viewer must engage in, for themselves…

And this, in essence, is how I would respond to a reader who said: “Haven’t you refuted yourself? How can you give ‘readings’ at all, and expect us to hear them as anything other than didactic dogmatism, if film-as-philosophy, after Wittgenstein, is essentially a matter of personal experience of the viewer?” My readings are invitations to a viewer to see the film in the kind of way I am laying out, or indeed to consider their having already seen it in such a way: i.e., in the latter case, suggestions as to why the film in question has the power that it has, if one has allowed it to have power (and has not resisted it, as people often resist popular films in particular, on prejudiced, weak grounds such as, ‘But this is mere entertainment, it can have no serious content’). The real work of the film is done on the viewer at the time, and afterward, and in successive viewings, and it is done dialectically and dialogically: the viewer is necessarily actively involved in the process and not merely lectured at (by me or by the director).

Thinking through matters such as this has been the goal of my work in film as philosophy since 2005, when my co-edited book of that name first appeared. The most notable development during that time in my own work, has been a greater effort, already somewhat-signposted in my Introduction to the book, but now somewhat delivered on, to include a treatment as philosophy of some of the most popular films in cinematic history. I am referring to films such as 2001: a Space OdysseyApocalypto, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of course (see above), and (most recently) Avatar. If it can be shown that even movies such as these function as philosophy, then the strength and importance of the ‘film as philosophy’ idea that my co-edited collection crystallised for the first time is/will be redoubled.

(The reader will have already noticed that I combine thinking about such huge blockbusters as these willy-nilly with ‘art-house’ classics. This I regard as a central finding of looking at films as philosophy: that the films which can be thus viewed successfully are diverse, and undercut the ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ culture divide. I will return to this point.)

Let me now then venture this: When one really understands films such as The Lord of the Rings (see the relevant chapter of my Philosophy for Life and my paper on Avatar in Radical Anthropology ), they don’t have generalised messages as such.

Take Avatar, as examined in my recent ThinkingFilm feature post, here. Its metaphors, I suggested there, are rich and open. They are not closed and simple. They involve the viewer in their development.

Avatar is a call to us all to re-enchant and to replenish and to restore the ecosystems of our fragile world. In this way, it is a quintessentially philosophical film: for it aims to cultivate in us the love of true wisdom.

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

So: these films that I am discussing are not mere disguised bits of propaganda. They essentially involve the viewer. They guide the viewer on a proposed ‘journey’ (a journey ‘mirroring’ the ‘hero’s journey’ of the protagonist(s)) – the journey is psychically individual, as well as partly collective. The specificities of each person’s journey will be different; and indeed, one may refuse altogether to take the journey (as many critics have done). Part of the way that I/we account for / give accounts of these films is inevitably autobiographical. I am allegorising my reading/viewing of these films. The ‘message’ that I speak of is thus the message for me; and everyone, each person, must in this way speak for themselves. This is not relativism; it is simply reality.

These films do not then make arguments in the ordinary philosophical sense of that word: they don’t yield premises and conclusions, etc.. As I’ve said, they rather offer (what Wittgenstein sometimes calls) therapy. This is philosophy not as theory nor as quasi-factive impersonal claim, but as a process that one must work through for oneself. It is different from the idea of philosophy to which we are accustomed; it sits ill with the idolatry of science which lies at the heart of our civilisation. So much the worse for that idolatry. It is idolatry of science and the taking of technology as a ‘neutral’ tool that has got us as a civilisation and as a species into the mess we are in. Avatar (and The Lord of the Rings, and Apocalypto) dramatises and extends the logic of this. Thus we should expect that a non-scientistic vein of philosophy, such as Wittgenstein offers, is what is appropriate to help us understand how to extricate ourselves from that mess.

Our expectation is not disappointed. These films are works, like Wittgenstein’s writing, designed to heal. But: healing, healing of one’s mind, one’s body-self, and of one’s world, is an art, not a science, and is through and through processual.

Take Children of Men: A new-born child presses a claim for care upon anyone and everyone, no matter what their filial relation or otherwise to it might be. This is the point made by this powerful film, about a dystopian future in which there are no children being born: the meaning of the film’s superficially odd title (based by the way on a line in the bible) is that any children born are children of all of us, of men as well as women.

The Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

The film charts the journey of its central protagonist from a situation of cynicism to a situation of total care for a new-born child that is ‘not his’. The film is thus a vivid and rich metaphor for the care we all must have for the future of humankind. The newborn baby in the film directly symbolises of course the whole of future humankind, the human adventure, the human project. All who come after us are the children of all women, and all men. That is what I think the title really means...

Thus: these films are not (unlike, say, video-games) escapist. They provide an illusion of escape. Actually, they return one: to oneself and to the world, to in fact our world-in-peril. Ready to know it (as if) for the first time…

The Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

This is what I see in these films. But again, I believe it is to a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, what many millions of others see too. I believe that I am tapping here into the reason for the vast popular success of (most of) these films. For that success can otherwise be somewhat hard to understand: As already noted, Lord of the Rings has multiple fairly obvious flaws, including a quite basic and fundamental plot flaw; Avatar can easily be seen as a predictable and just very shiny exercise in cheese, or as a predictable ‘anti-American’ rant. Many critics have responded to Avatar either from ‘the Left’ (with cynicism and a knowing superiority to such alleged sentimentalism, romanticism and superficiality, or even with silly allegations that the film is itself tacitly racist against indigenous peoples, against the disabled, etc.) or from ‘the Right’ (with anger against the attack within the film on cultural norms, on (American) militarism, etc.). It is the critics from ‘the Right’, who are if anything slightly closer to the truth, I think, despite themselves. Avatar is shocking, in the extent to which, when one experiences it closely, (when one experiences for instance that arrow transfixing and killing one’s American/military/racist/speciesist self (Col. Quaritch), so that the world can be saved, and so that in due course Jake can be fully reborn as a Na’vi) the journey it proposes and offers takes one far indeed from one’s comfort-zone. I think that the reason why the film has been found by so many millions to be emotionally compelling – as emotionally compelling as the Na’vi themselves are, in their general emotional healthiness and expressiveness – is the kind of line of understanding of the film that I am alluding to here. People find it compelling, because of the ‘journey’ it takes them on, because of the assumptions it puts into question, because of the way that it speaks to our condition as alienated from our planetary home and from each other. And this is why Avatar was banned in China; this is why it has inspired colourful protests against the apartheid wall in Palestine; why it is inspiring the activist work of the Radical Anthropology Group and so on.

The exact same is true of Lord of the Rings; the drastic plot-flaws and unbelievable nature of the narrative end up being pluses, not minuses. They are gentle tacit ‘alienation effects’ in roughly Brecht’s sense of that word. They enhance the experience of questing that the viewer vicariously has; the psychological journey that one is taken on, into oneself, into one’s courage and resources and faith in oneself, in others and in what Aragorn calls “this good Earth.”

Evaluating for character-development, plausibility, etc. in movies such as Apocalypto, Lord of the Rings and Avatar is a complete mistake. That is not the kinds of films they are. They don’t really have characters (in the sense that a classic novel does) at all. They are myths. They have heroes' journeys, etc., and, relatedly, they have transformative effects. They are revelatory, 'therapeutic' works. That is why I think them philosophical, in spite of their appearance. Or rather: Their appearance of being non-philosophical is the very thing that enables them to be truly philosophical...

True, some of the narrative-pleasure of Lord of the Rings and (especially) Avatar comes from following what can reasonably be described as character-development in complex plot-settings. In fact, utterly crucial to these films is the audience taking a vicarious transformational journey with the heroes: Jake’s persona by the end of the film is profoundly different from what it was at the start. I am not of course denying any of this; I am suggesting that this ‘character-development’ is not the kind of thing one finds in the world of the classic novel: it is not defined by its quiddities and specificities. On the contrary: It is defined by its universal resonance. What are developed are not so much characters as great mythic ciphers – ciphers, ultimately, for the persona of the viewer themselves.

Some films then precisely don’t have 'characters', and are all the stronger for that. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, it is crucial to realise that Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are all essentially the same 'character'. They are 3 versions of the same arc. That's not a criticism, it is an understanding.

Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

These films’ appearance fools one into thinking that they cannot be deep. And so they creep up on you, with an ecological depth and a cultural critique that literally astonishes. I am referring for instance to the way in which Apocalypto shocks one to the core at the end: one suddenly realises that the film is not about a bunch of human-sacrificing savages running a barbarian empire: it is about us. We have been watching a culture that we looked down upon as oppressive imperial eco-destructors: only to find with a shock of recognition that Barbarians are us. A complete process of rethinking is then necessarily undergone, and the film watched the second time around is completely different from the fast time.

Consider in this connection the following remark from John Gray’s perceptive new book, The Silence of Animals (Penguin 2013, p.9): “[B]arbarism is not a primitive form of life, Conrad is intimating [in Heart of Darkness; the point is famously riffed on by Apocalypse Now, whose title, I suggest, points forward to that of Mel Gibson’s movie], but a pathological development of civilisation.” Barbarism is not what precedes civilisation: it is what happens as a civilisation becomes decadent, and/or after it collapses. The point is also explored in Michel Henri’s book, Barbarism, and in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (on which, if interested, see my 2011 review of Mulhall’s book on Coetzee, in MIND). But isn’t it wonderful to see it sprung on us in a novel and shocking way in a popular film?

Notice by the way the clear resemblance between these Mayan temples in Apocalypto and the border-wall (keeping out the ‘barbarian, monstrous’ south from the ‘home of the brave’) in the film Monsters - a wall that the protagonists see while standing amidst the overgrown ruins of an ancient Mayan temple. It’s not a coincidental one, in my view. Who are the monsters, who are the barbarians? This is the uncomfortable question thrust upon them by these films.

Apocalypto, dir. Mel Gibson (2006)

Some would nevertheless argue that popular Hollywood films with their action-sequences and loud soundtracks cannot be anything other than simplistic propagandistic ‘message’ films. I don't agree that an apparently-bombastic soundtrack is a sign of a film being a propagandistic film. I think those who say so have missed one of my central points about Lord of the Rings and Apocalypto (and Avatar): I think that these films work by pursuing what Cora Diamond (in relation to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) calls 'an indirect method'. They precisely to appear to be crude, by virtue of having bombastic soundtracks etc. . That is how they then secretly work their magic. Their surface crudity is the vehicle for them to be able to do something deeper. Precisely in encouraging one to think that they aren't deep, they carve out a space for depth. In the case of Lord of the Rings: a film about psychotic madness etc. precisely needs to appear to be a film that is about a real-life epic struggle. (See my piece on the film here for more on this point). In the case of Apocalypto: the ride of the long chase in the latter half of the film slows down the process in one of realising that the film is actually not about a high speed chase in the Amazon - it is about you (us), about our culture. We should note furthermore that Avatar was successful, whereas other 3-D films with more dramatic and 'bombastic' effects have failed. I am offering a reason(s) why.

In this article I have invoked broadly-Wittgensteinian themes to defend some major popular films against the criticisms usually crudely levelled at them. However, I hope that you the reader don't get from this the wrong impression: I am by no means arguing that only these films are any good! Nothing of the sort! I am a big fan for instance of Eisenstein. I think that Herzog's Grizzly Man is a deep ecologically-interested work; I am a huge fan of Herzog. I teach on these people, and on Bergman, Resnais, Von Trier, and Malick, etc.. I accept that often it is more obvious that what I am saying in this article is true of those film-makers than it is of Gibson, Jackson, Cameron, etc. . ‘Art-films’ often/generally are more essentially open to ‘interpretation’, demanding of ‘reading’ (Though the scare-quotes are advised: the terrible danger of such words is that it can once again sucker us into the heresy of paraphrase.)

What I dispute is only the crude 'high' vs. 'low' culture dichotomy and the concomitant very silly reductivist 'logic of commerce' point ('If it makes big money then it can't be any good!') that I believe sadly makes it impossible for many students/people from being able to say "I see you" to Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, Apocalypto. These films too, I am suggesting, necessarily involve the viewer, are not merely ‘morals’ wrapped in a shiny package. They too co-perform something; they too philosophise… The difference between them and the ‘art-films’ one is encouraged to look down one’s nose from is only one of degree, not of kind, I am saying.

A final substantive point: Avatar, like a number of other major philosophical films, places centrally in itself the metaphor of awakening from sleep, from dream. Now: Neither in a dream (unless it be a shared dream - think Inception!) nor in spectatorship (which has been the traditional model of philosophy (See for instance John Dewey's critique of this in The Quest for Certainty, Minton Balch and Company, 1929) - and of film-viewing (is this partly why philosophy and film have been so well-suited to each other? That both have usually been thought of as an essentially armchair activities? If so, this I think reflects badly on both)) does one encounter real others. One doesn't encounter anything more than the kind of thing that the killer Dollarhyde dreams of, in Michael Mann’s superb 1986 movie Manhunter: oneself, glorious, reflected back at one, instead of the eyes of another. This postulation of the other only as a device to mirror the alleged glory of the self is a nightmare of egoism/solipsism:

Manhunter, dir. Michael Mann (1986)

How can it be avoided? Simple: by taking the risk, the leap of faith, necessary in actually encountering others. In meeting real, other people. This is how film can be therapeutic/transformative: by engaging one in a personal encounter which is also a shared encounter (This is one reason why, once more, it is important that we still generally see films in cinemas); by vicariously and then really throwing one into the world. This is the 'point'/task, I claim, of many of the films that I have here praised. And we can see it clearly also in Blade Runner and Inception (and Wings of Desire) and more through a glass darkly in Memento (and Manhunter). Look for it clearly (though not without great difficulty) also in Hiroshima Mon Amour, and even in Last Year at Marienbad. Other films, besides those mentioned above, which in my view clearly have this engaging therapeutic intent include Monsters (on which see Phil Hutchinson’s masterful thinkingfilm piece), District 9, Never Let Me Go, Melancholia, Collateral, 2001, and the films of Terrence Malick. Films of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture both.

These films that I have mentioned here in this piece, indiscriminately popular and ‘art house’ works, are those that I think offer the best opportunity for broadly Wittgensteinian thinking on film. Some of them, I (along with thinkingfilmcollective colleagues) will be writing on more in the next few years. These are exciting times, for thinking film as philosophy…


[N.B. A longer version of this article will be appearing in a special issue of the Al-Mukhatabat philosophy journal. So comments to help improve it are especially welcome! Thanks to various colleagues for comments already, including especially Peter Kramer and Vincent Gaine, and to Ruth Makoff for editorial assistance.]

14 Oct 2013

Saved By the Kill: The Hunter

By Tom Greaves

The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)


Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter portrays an existential awakening, an awakening that involves the main protagonist in the discovery of a new sense of what it means to be a hunter. He begins as a contemporary bounty hunter, hired by a pharmaceutical company, trying to track down a creature thought long extinct, the Tasmanian Tiger. They want DNA samples. Significantly, the historical record tells us that the Tasmanian Tiger’s extinction was brought about in part by bounties offered by companies such as the Van Diemen’s Land Company and the Tasmanian government. By the end of the film we are shown a man who has come to respect and love his quarry, and in the process also come to a new understanding of his capacity to care for other people. What is surprising and interesting about The Hunter is that the culmination of this awakening comes in the very act of killing the last tiger, and thus bringing the species finally to complete extinction.

Willem Dafoe as 'Martin David' in The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)
At first this might seem like a familiar excuse for politically naïve macho posturing. Hunters are those who really care for the wild, who really live in the wild, who get to know wild creatures, ultimately in the very act of killing them. They have a hard, adult, masculine understanding of the necessities of life and death. Here we are shown a sequence of events superficially similar to that kind of myth, which reveals very different possibilities.

There at two crucial things that the film can show us that its source novel can at best suggest.[1] The first is Tasmania and the second is the tiger. A brief opening sequence in the confines of a Parisian airport hotel room sets up a stark contrast with what follows in Tasmania, where the land and environment seep into every shot. Not only in the form of breath-taking picturesque vistas, but more intimately, in the form of single trees and sheltering spaces, changing weather and habitats. The hunter finally ends up bivouacking in the tiger’s cave, next to the pelts of wallabies he has killed, a scene echoing and contrasting with the confines of that hotel room.    

Above all the film shows us the tiger. It shows us the tiger in its haunting non-presence. The success of the film hinges on the fact that it finds a way to show a creature that is extinct, in the very way that it exists now in our contemporary world as extinct. When I say the tiger haunts the film, I mean that in the most literal sense. The tiger hardly appears in the film itself, it is hardly glimpsed, just as would be the case if there still were still tigers to be glimpsed. The two glimpses we are given bookend the film, two overpowering visions of the tiger that bring it into the open, whilst at the same time keeping it hidden, withdrawn and sheltered in its true way of being. The first glimpse comes with the opening credits, in the form of the black and white archive footage of the last tiger to die in captivity, footage shot in 1932 in Hobart zoo by David Fleay. It paces its cage with its peculiar stiff gait and opens its unusually wide gaping jaws. 

Archival footage of the Tasmanian Tiger (1932)

The second and final glimpse comes towards the end of the film, when the tiger discovers the hunter in its cave, its form framed in the entrance. This face-to-face is followed by a short chase, where the creature is almost lost in the distance and the snow, and then with just a breath of hesitation, the hunter shoots it.

This scene is perhaps the most judicious and sparing use of CGI every yet produced in cinema. To say the image is life-like would not capture its real quality. That quality gathers something of a living wild creature together with a dream-like apparition and an archetypal totem for a species.

The Tasmanian Tiger at the end of The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)

The two glimpses taken together show us the presence of the tiger in today’s world. It is an archival memory, not long gone, so close to us that it is still animated in the filmed footage of 80 years ago. But the tiger’s trace marks out a trail beyond that time. Tigers are widely believed to have survived in the wild for some decades after that last captive creature died of exposure, having been locked out of its sheltered sleeping area. No sightings were confirmed, but many were reported, whilst calls were heard and traces were found on various expeditions. The general consensus is that the tiger is now extinct, but many ‘believers’ still hunt for it in the wild. If, as seems likely, it died out some time in the sixties or seventies, then the last tiger died unseen in the wild. We thus have the archival memory of the tiger, but we also have lingering traces of the wild tigers and the hope and/or belief in their continued existence. It is this lingering trace, together with one possibility of its final extermination, that we glimpse in the imaginatively generated images towards the end of the film.

There are various ways that one might attempt to decipher the allusions and analogies that come into view in these scenes between hunting and filming. The archive film from the zoo has captured and trapped the living tiger, giving it a lingering animation beyond real living, so that it is available for viewing, in this case by the hunter viewing his quarry. The camera frames and attempts to ensnare its quarry. And of course there are the direct visual and linguistic parallels between both the equipment of filming and hunting and the camera shots and gunshots. Such allusions can be more or less facile or illuminating. What keeps them interesting in the The Hunter is that they are more or less pervasive and ubiquitous, so that the open sense of what it means to be a hunter is at one and the same time the open sense of what it means to be a filmmaker. Neither is played off against the other, nor does one play the role of giving a substantial sense to the other. 

The tiger, as individual and as species, is saved by a solitary and unseen act of killing, in which it is consigned to oblivion. The task that the film sets itself is to show us that in some circumstances, perhaps all too frequently, there is truth in what Lucy, the hunter’s host who is grieving and recovering from debilitating depression, suggests: ‘It’s better off extinct. If it’s alive people will always want to find it and hunt it down.’ The hunter of this film is the one who saves the tiger from the fate of being unendingly hunted, perhaps by those would bring it back through cloning, use it to develop very helpful medicines, or to stare in wonder at its beauty and rarity from the eco-tourist trail. If we have lost all sense that the members of a species are sent to us as gifts, and may in certain circumstances embody the whole dignity of the species in themselves, if there is no room in the world for the sheltered and concealed places from which those individuals are sent to us, then it is the hunter’s duty to release them from the unending ravages of the hunt.[2]

Alone and unaccompanied, the hunter cremates the tiger and scatters its ashes from a cliff-top over the forest. This hidden gesture, aiming at nothing but the recovery an animal’s dignity, might be fruitfully compared to the more urbane secret dog cremations carried out by David Lurie in J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace.[3]

The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)

The sceptic will ask from whose point of view the tiger is better off extinct. ‘Certainly not from the tiger’s!’, it might be joked. Nor is it better for those who love the tiger and desperately cling on to the ‘belief’ that it is still out there to be rediscovered. Is it then somehow supposed to be ‘better off extinct’ from some God’s eye view that takes into account neither the point of view of the tiger nor of the people who hunt it, remember it and imagine it? The film reminds us that these are not the only options and it recovers for us the point of view that we all begin by participating in and helping to shape, the point of view of ecological communities, as part of which human beings shared and failed to share the world with tigers for thousands of years.

It is salutary and disturbing to discover that before Europeans arrived in Australia tigers had already been close to extinction on the mainland for a long time and their disappearance there is likely to have been due at least in part to competition with Aboriginal hunters. [4] The greatest challenge of the film is to ask us to imagine a case in which these events had not been imagined, in which this hunt had not be shown to us, and in which the tiger remains nothing for us, as itself a case in which the tiger’s life would be revered.

Again, one might be concerned that the ‘secret’ saving power of the hunter’s kill could only have its intended effect if it were somehow preserved and shown to a wider audience, as in effect the film itself does for this imagined scenario. Once the hunter returns to town he makes a single phone call to his employers, telling them ‘What you want is gone forever.’ We get the sense that it will go no further, at least, that the affair will be supressed once they finally satisfy themselves that this is indeed the case. In the case of the tiger, only if the end comes unnoticed is there a chance of what seems wholly impossible, a catastrophic redemption in extinction.

[1] Julia Leigh, The Hunter (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
[2] For an illuminating account of the way that many hunting societies conceive of the species ‘Guardian’ as a person that can sometimes be embodied in individuals, whilst most individuals do not have personhood in their own right see, Timothy Ingold, ‘Hunting, sacrifice and the domestication of animals’, in The Appropriation of Nature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986). The status of the Tasmanian Tiger in such a scheme would have been highly ambiguous, since it is was not hunted for sustenance.
[3] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 1999)
[4] Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

11 Oct 2013

Avatar: A transformed cinema; a transformation of self, (and then) a transformation of world.

By Rupert Read

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

Avatar is the most successful film of all time, judging by the box office. Its sequels, now scheduled to start appearing in 2016, will no doubt be the most eagerly-awaited sequels of all time. How thrilling, that a contemporary film with such a radical ‘message’ (see my paper, The Call of Avatar, for this), should be so fantastically successful. This alone would be enough to make the titular topic of the present piece important.

For this is an essay about Avatar, cinema and ecology. Let us start – fittingly, given our ecologistic topic -- with the world of Avatar, and then proceed to its connection what might be termed the ecology of the film itself. That is: its medium and its conditions of possibility for being the extraordinary success it has already been.


Pandora: a dreamed-up world of miraculous beauty and wonder. Avatar: so well-suited for being the first great 3-D film, because one needs to enter into this world as deeply as possible. The point about the film being 3D, is that it is as if you are really there. This is crucial for the success of the film’s meaning and ‘message’. One has, I shall claim, to feel this world just as if it is real.[i] Because it kind-of is. It is our world, through 3D glasses darkly. Or again: it is our world, through a glass (through a screen) brightly. This film plays with one’s sense of reality. You have to come to feel it as real. Not, as I shall discuss below, as like a video-game. But as opening to us the reality of our world. As opening us to our love for it, and for us. As enabling us to see it, and one another, face-to-face...

There were numerous reports of people being depressed after seeing Avatar, because reality isn’t as beautiful as the world they had been (are) inhabiting. But what is causing most of those people to be depressed? Is it the contrast between reality per se and Pandora (which would suggest mere depressive escapism), or is it the contrast between Earth as we are living it and Pandora (which would be my suggestion)? In other words, whether they know it or not, I submit that in all likelihood what is depressing these people is that we have despoiled our Earth, and this despoliation we show no real sign as yet of abating. The world we inhabit is often ugly, because we have made it so. In other words: these people are being depressed by the very thing which Avatar wants to render focal, and to change. Depression is one possible – and natural - reaction to what we have done to our world, and to ourselves; but a healthier reaction is to turn that depression into anger and into the will to change things. This can be achieved by the transformation of depression into an ecological consciousness (cf. the ecopsychological work of Mary-Jayne Rust et al).

Compare for instance this account, due to a colleague of Rust’s, Chris Johnstone: “Anna, a young woman who cried for an hour after watching [Avatar], told me about her experience: “The feeling I had was one of mourning: mourning our loss, as a species, of our connection to the basic sustenance of life… Avatar has contributed to a growing ecological consideration within me; I am finding it increasingly difficult to assume the position of a lack of personal responsibility by the ‘burying-my-head-in-the-sand’ method.”” [ii] This is the kind of life-affirming response to Avatar that especially appeals to me.

'Beneath the Trees of Voices' in Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

Speaking of “our connection to the basic sustenance of life”… what of the planet that is Eywa’s body, the Na’vi’s mother? Why is it called ‘Pandora’? Because Avatar offers us hope. In the original myth of Pandora, its opening just seems initially to release poison and awfulness;[iii] but there is this gorgeous, vital silver-lining that then comes to light. Pandora’s discovery brings with it a real hope. Pandora features a host of ‘natural evils’ as part of its nature; and moreover it unleashes the worst in humanity in terms of grabbing at its ‘natural resources’;[iv] and (as I will discuss further below) on the level of military realism, crucially, Avatar promises defeat in one’s efforts to stop the machine, the juggernaut of industrial-growthist destruction; but hope too comes out, from the roots of the planet. The hope is vested, ultimately, in the viewer. The hope is that, with the wisdom of what we have learnt from this film, we can find a route to stopping the juggernaut before it is too late, before this planet is wrecked. We can prevent the opening plot-device of Avatar – that the home of human civilisation is a deeply unjust place, that Earth is dying, that its ecosystems have been terminally wrecked – from becoming true. Avatar aims in this sense to be a self-defeating prophecy. It is a warning, we might say, from the future. From a possible future that we must work to ensure does not become actual.

The hope unleashed by the opening of Pandora’s box is vested in you. This is true of the original Greek tale, too, of course – hope is personified, at the bottom of the box; but hope is only actually real if it is individually and socially real. The hope offered by Pandora, by Avatar, is that you can be part of fighting, struggling, intelligently and non-violently, and successfully, to save us from the future gestured at in Avatar. This hope is slim. It rests on faith, faith beyond any realistic hope. Faith in ourselves and each other and our place, hope in this good Earth, hope even when – in fact, especially when [v] – all reasons for such hope have run out. The kind of faith that Nicolai Hartmann had in mind when, writing on love of the future ones, of our descendants and of posterity, he wrote: “The venture is great. Only a deep and mighty faith, permeating a person’s whole being, is equal to it. It is a faith of a unique kind, different from trust between man (sic.) and man, a faith which reaches out to the whole of things and can do no other than stake all it has.”  (P.308 of “Love of the remote”, in Partridge (ed.) Responsibilities to future generations.) (I return to this point in connection with the great philosophers of faith and hope, in the concluding sections of this paper, below.)

Landscape of 'Pandora' in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

This film aims to overcome hopelessness, the kind of giving-up on humanity found in so many of the criticisms that critics have made of the film. So the film needs and (so) aims, first, to understand such hopelessness (i.e. to understand why hopelessness and cynicism are so attractive). It is not surprising then if a major reaction to the film is incomprehension of and more-or-less politically-motivated (which, I have suggested, is also psychologically-motivated, as a defence mechanism) resistance to it. Films such as this one invite you to dare to hope, and explore just why the invitation is so hard to accept – which can be particularly intolerable to someone who is tacitly determined to resist the invitation, out of a depressive certitude that they will not be able to cope with the likelihood of failure, if they dare to hope.

For the film’s is a very challenging invitation to accept, especially when there is so little hope. But it is precisely then that we need such daring invitations, in order to start to make possible what to the cool rational mind seems absurd to even contemplate. Avatar invites one to take the risk of hoping, of not giving up all faith in us and in life. Such that most of the resistance to it is in my view simply disguised hopelessness… Those scorning this film are those exactly most in need of its ‘therapy’. The resistance to Avatar is exactly what Avatar is about… If the film hadn’t provoked the kind of negative reactions that it has, in fact, one could be pretty confident that it wasn’t as great and as needful a film as it is…

This is exactly the kind of thing that Freud was thinking of when he spoke of the resistance to psychoanalysis as an inevitable feature of the rise of psychoanalysis, and exactly what Wittgenstein meant when he said that philosophical problems are ultimately problems of the will, not of the intellect. What we as a species need is not to become even cleverer; what we need is to want enough to get well, to sort ourselves out. We need to want enough – we need to will – the saving of our common future. We need to treat our own inclinations to resist a film like this not as intuitions to build on but as inclinations that themselves require philosophical/therapeutic treatment.

In what follows, I shall seek to fill out and justify these claims.

Avatar as self-reflexive cinema, its ideal viewer as self-reflexive, too
Avatar: The very title of the film is a metaphor for experiential identification. It can be usefully heard as alluding to playing video-games / computer-games, etc.[vi], as well as to the Hindu/Sanskrit sense of “avatar” as “god on Earth” or “God’ representative on Earth” (Think of Eywa’s ‘choosing’ Jake, soon after Neytiri meets him). The key point in Avatar (and again this is how the film being 3-D is important) is of course that the Na’vi people are REAL, are people [vii]… One’s avatar is engaged in a real-life life-or-death struggle, with the ‘hostile’ planet of Pandora – and, ultimately, with the American colonisers, etc. . And engaged in a struggle for recognition, in the sense of recognising (really seeing) and being recognised.[viii]

Neytirir and Jake, Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

Here is how my thinkingfilm colleague Vincent Gaine puts the matter:[ix]
“While the avatar body is a form of augmentation, Avatar itself is riddled with these [with prosthetics], particularly visual augmentation, as Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisii) and Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) primarily view Pandora on screens and through visual filters and barriers. The film places Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), in his avatar body, directly within the forest of Pandora rather than in command of it. Many shots present Jake as dwarfed by the jungle that both he and viewer can marvel at rather than control.[x] Visual augmentation is also unreliable: when a remote controlled viewer has its camera destroyed, its pilot proclaims in complete helplessness: “I’m blind”. The instruments of the military personnel will not work in the Floating Mountains, and Jake comments that the soldiers must “fire line of sight” – use their eyes rather than devices.”

Of course, nestled within this quote is the paradox that it is only Jake’s ‘dropping’ into a body that makes all of this possible. The crucial opposition in the film, in the end, is between ‘dropping’ into something, whether a mechanical prosthetic or an avatar, and changing one’s lived consciousness. It is in the end only the latter that can actually yield enlightenment. 

Jake inhabiting his 'new body' in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (209)

As Joshua Clover sees, in calling the argument of the film “that what we might call “vertical jacking” (as Jake into his vat-grown avatar and, by extension, a terminal operator into a Predator drone in Afghanistan, or you into Second Life) is bad, as it takes the fundamental form of domination: one extending its will into another. Conversely, “horizontal jacking” (with its at least purported sharing of wills) is just fine, indeed, it’s “natural”, even if conducted via technological means. And it is in fact a necessity in the face of unnatural domination, providing an alter-globalization.” [xi]

Jake and his 'vat-grown avatar' in Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)

This is why the story has to end with Jake’s enlightenment being completed not by remaining a drop-in, a dreamwalker, but fully one of ‘them’ – and with his eyes looking out at us inviting us to take a similar transformative journey.

Really seeing, and really being seen, as a dance of mutual acknowledgement and true vision. Arriving at the possibility of sharing, collectivising of will. That is the challenge of the avatar – the challenge is to recognise these ‘others’ as real, to come truly to acknowledge them, as different and as the same.[xii] But it is of course your task too, as the viewer. For what is the process of ‘becoming’ one’s avatar like? Is it like playing an intense prolonged character-based computer-game? Possibly; but isn’t it even more like watching a film? E.g. a film such as Avatar (or Bladerunner)? In a cinema, especially a 3-D cinema, one’s active involvement requires a kind of bodily passivity reminiscent of what is involved in going into one of those virtual-reality ‘coffins’ that the humans with avatars have, in Avatar. Not so much the kind of frenetic physical activity involved in a Wii or a computer-game. This is of course why our marine protagonist can have an avatar, even though he is paraplegic. While he ‘is’ in is avatar body, his own body is as immobile as ours is while we watch this film.

One might then suggest, I think, that Avatar is itself a metaphor for watching films, and especially for watching films like Avatar… Unless you are involved, and that means being a participant in the social practice of acknowledging or otherwise, then you are radically missing the point. But you also need to acknowledge the limits on what you can do ‘from the other side of the screen’. The ultimate implication of this film (and of films like it) then surely is that your actual life must be affected. Seeing is not enough. It is only a prequel to doing different. 

This film asks us to think about our own prone position in the cinema. It invites us to become unprone. To complete the film, and negate its hypothetical dystopian future in which the people of Earth have “killed their mother”, by leaving a prone position decisively behind, and becoming enlightened eco-warriors. With (y)our eyes truly open. 

·                The trees are a global network, sustaining life and consciousness 
·                We can link our consciousness with other language-using creatures and with other non-language-using animals (with or without the internet!)
·                Eywa is Gaia
·                The atmosphere is potentially lethal for us
·                The real wealth of the world is not in its shiny minerals, but in its life. (Recall Ruskin’s great words: “There is no wealth but life”.)
·                The nature of the world, in sum, is stunningly beautiful, and we can attune ourselves to it.

You have to change your life.

And: What does our jarhead hero do, what is one crucial activity that he engages in as he makes his personal transformation, his gradual staccato conversion to being on the side of the righteous, his going native? He makes a film… his video diary. From a fairly early stage in the film that we see, Avatar, the narrative is mostly (from) the film that he is himself making. One might think of this as a metonym for the (experience of making, or of really seeing the) film, Avatar… A film that records his (one’s) reluctant and surprising transformation into an eco-warrior… A film like Avatar… This is what James Cameron has done. So now: what are you going to do? This film about (making, and really seeing) films is a call for you to do something of a similar order. To take the kinds of actions that really seeing our world, really thinking and feeling and visualising our children to the seventh generation, will require.

The film’s protagonist, the one ‘chosen’ by Eywa, has to be an American, one of us, because unless we change (the world), then the future will be grim. For we, and not the world’s indigenous peoples
, are the ones who need to change our ways, to learn to see… (I am assuming that most TF readers are the members of Western ‘liberal capitalist’ societies, those of us with an ‘inner American’.)

Avatar’s invitation to you: to go beyond violence

Avatar powerfully motivates a (temporary) hatred of those American soldiers who continue to obey orders that are ecocidal and genocidal.[xiii] This will of course have been one of the things that got the goat of the right-wing American critics of the film. It is remarkable just how completely, in the massive final battle, one is just desperately willing the Na’vi to succeed in beating/killing/slaughtering their colonialist attackers: i.e. the ‘Western’ Earthlings: i.e. us. We are used to films in which we beat off alien attacks on Earth; that paradigm is inverted in Avatar, as the aliens try to beat off an attack from us; and Jake, one’s ‘avatar’ in the film, gradually, painfully comes full-heartedly to adopt their point of view rather than ‘ours’. Part of the therapeutic work of the film is to motivate and enable this striking and surprising (to most of the film’s intended audience) desire. And it connects with the point-of-view shot through which (in 3-D, recall), one sees the hatred on Neytiri’s face as she unlooses upon one the arrow that kills one’s Quaritch-self.[xiv] But, this is only a moment in the experience of the film; one does not end here. For when one has seen the film, one knows that the violent rebellion of the Na’vi, just and dignified though it was, and without alternative, failed

Neytiri's arrow in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
The deus ex machina that secures success and a happy ending is a deus ex Eywa, or a deus ex gaia; in short, a deus ex deus… But we know that a God is not going to save us. We have to do it ourselves. We have to find a way that works. We are going to have to persuade a helluva lot of people of this way; for the enemy, in consumer society, is us. Again: We are the ones devastating this planet, devastating the future. The call is to all of us, and a lot of us are going to have to answer it and respond intelligently and organise accordingly and persuade others to go with us on the journey to sustainability, if it is to succeed.

Avatar is in the end not a pro-violence film. It is not calling for violent ecological civil war. If you take the military on ‘head on’, you will likely lose. You need to use your head. You need in this sense to proceed head-first. Not only to rely on your heart. This point undercuts the criticism of the film sometimes made alleging that it is overly emotional or sentimental.

The therapeutic transformation that Avatar midwifes

Avatar begins with a closed set of eyes, those of our avatar in the film. It suggests that our eyes are closed. It ends with those same eyes, transformed into the eyes of a being who can now appreciate their embeddedness in the world and among others, the eyes of eco-sight, opening. It suggests that our eyes are now open. If we have really seen Avatar (“I see you”), it opens our eyes. It has opened our eyes.[xv] The film is one gigantic movement of a pair of eyes opening, and seeing as if for the first time. Your eyes.

Through the eyes of our hero being gradually opened, we come to experience this. But one must emphasise the word “gradually”. Just as in another important recent work of ‘therapeutic’, ‘transformative’ film-making, District 9, the process of therapeutic healing, the curing of our hero’s insanity - his failure to acknowledge, to understand - comes painfully slowly, reluctantly, surprisingly. So slowly that it almost comes altogether too late. It certainly comes too late to save Home Tree. And indeed the movie that our jarhead makes comes to be used against the person he is gradually becoming, as evidence.

This gradualness is important. It gives one as a viewer time. Time to make the journey oneself, and to wish that he were making it quicker, to manage sometimes to get ahead of him. As Wittgenstein held: in philosophy, a slow cure is all-important. Therapeutic works of film need to proceed in the same way. To really take your audience with you, they have to become more than your aud-ience. They mustn’t merely hear what you say: they have to really see. For themselves. They (we) too have to say, as Jake does half-way through his slow transformation: “I don’t know who I am any more”. They (we) have to go through, to work through, the therapeutic transition that the film invites them (us) into. This great work (on oneself) [xvi] cannot be rushed. (And thus the long running-time of Avatar can I think be justified. In film, in life, in philosophy, as Wittgenstein would have it: a slow cure is sometimes all important…)

I suggested above why our hero is a kind of everyman, exactly the kind of person who needs to take an avatarian journey, if our world is to be healed, saved. Now to give some further specifics: he is a middle-American. He has been betrayed by his country, by large corporations, deprived of decent medical care. He is healed by (as Nietzsche would put it: “Become who you are”) becoming himself, in love and care, in nature. Through coming to live as his avatar does; ultimately, through coming to be his avatar. Catching up with the being that walked ahead of him. 

This vision of becoming is set against the closest counterparts to the avatars in the film, their ‘other’: the giant robotic warrior suits that are used by humans without avatars to range out onto the surface of Pandora in. In the final confrontation between Colonel Quarritch on the one hand and Jake and Neytiri (and the animal on which she is riding) on the other, avatar (and Na’vi) are ranged against one of these industrial fighters. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. The avatar brings one into closer-than-close contact with the planet, with nature. One lives it. Whereas these suits seal oneself off from it and set one over against it. This is the opposition: the possibility for transformation and a possible finding of a harmony with an (unsentimentalised, red in tooth and claw[xvii]) nature, on the one hand, and military-industrial othering from nature, on the other. Avatars/people/animals - versus machines.

This othering, this distance from nature and from reality, contrasts strikingly with the achievements of Grace’s (Sigourney Weaver’s) anthropologists. (This connects also with the very clear echoes of Apocalypse Now in this film: Most notably, the way in which the military’s fleet of helicopters resemble flying insects but also resemble the Wagnerian helicopters of that film, and in the way in which the incendiaries remind one of what befell Vietnam, as famously depicted by Coppola.[xviii] Avatar encourages us, rightly, to want the American side to lose the war in Vietnam. That’s not ‘anti-American’; it’s anti-imperialist, and pro-human.)  Particularly striking about the robot-warrior-suits is that they don’t have any heads. The head, the intelligence, needs to be supplied by a human. Sadly, such intelligence is mostly lacking, in the colonisers that we meet on Pandora.

When the villain of the piece, the Marine Colonel Quaritch, is finally killed, it is by our hero’s lover, Neytiri. She transfixes him with two arrows. As the second hits him, we see it, in 3-D, in a point-of-view shot from his point of view. In other words: we experience his dying with him. The kind of American that he represents and that exists in most or all of us has to die. You have to die and be reborn. The film’s ‘message’ at moments like this, the therapeutic (healing) journey that it takes one on, is profound and deeply-challenging: You have to die, and be born again.

Marine Colonel Quaritch's death in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
The film confirms this more than once. Take the story at the start. Jake’s twin brother – a doppelganger for our hero and protagonist himself – is senselessly killed, we learn, at the start, on an Earth that has literally lost its sense(s). A powerful point of view shot places us for a little while inside his coffin (The coffin stands proxy for the body-chambers that will later transform humans such as Jake temporarily into avatars). We hear Jake’s words: “One life ends. Another begins.” Indeed; to be born again, first you have to (be willing to) die. (As Jake says, as he does his final video-log, and goes off to become a Na’vi forever: “It’s my birthday, after all”… Echoing his earlier remark (that of course echoes traditional ‘rites of passage’ ideas and practices that unfortunately we have become somewhat remote from today) that “The Na’vi say that every person is born twice. The second time, is when you earn your place among the people forever.”)

Even Quarritch confirms it, by offering an enlightenment narrative – of progress and of waking up – that points in the opposite direction. He asks Jake, in a powerful question emphasising how it is not easy for the viewer to make the transformation that the film asks for, how it feels “to betray your own race”, and goes on: “You think you’re one of them: Time to wake up”; and then starts to smash up the building in which Jake’s human form is almost prone, from which he is ‘dream-walking’, thus underlying once more the perilousness of an incomplete transformation, the danger of having (merely) an avatar, and so of not being fully (t)here. (Jake will only become safe from such an assault when he becomes fully Na’vi, as he does at the film’s end.)

The end of the film is happy. Because this is your birthday. This is the chance, this is the moment for you to die (or to already have died) and to be born again. Jake becomes his avatar. We can’t make such a transition, ourselves, physically. But we can – mentally, spiritually, and in terms of what we choose to do. This is the epochal transformation that Avatar aims to midwife.

Avatar as a work of therapeutic art: beyond propaganda and ‘message’

In my view, when one really understands films like Avatar, they don’t have generalised messages as such.[xix] Films such as this are not disguised bits of propaganda. They essentially involve the viewer. They guide the viewer on a proposed ‘journey’ – but the journey is psychically individual, as well as partly collective (I think it is important that we see these films in cinemas). The specificities of each person’s journey will be different; and indeed, one may refuse altogether to take the journey (as many critics have done). Part of my account of such films is inevitably autobiographical. I am allegorising my reading/viewing of these films. The ‘message’ that I speak of is in this film thus the message for me; and everyone, each person, must in this way speak for themselves. There is a call to honesty here.

These films do not make arguments. They rather offer (what Wittgenstein calls) therapy. This is philosophy not as theory nor as quasi-factive impersonal claim, but as a process that one must work through for oneself. A process of thinking, and feeling (and then acting). It is different from the idea of philosophy to which we are accustomed; it sits ill with the idolatry of science which lies at the heart of our civilisation.[xx] So much the worse for that idolatry. It is idolatry of science and the taking of technology as a ‘neutral’ tool that has got us into the mess we are in. Avatar dramatises and extends the logic of this. Thus we should expect that a non-scientistic vein of philosophy, such as Wittgenstein offers, is what is appropriate to help us understand how to extricate ourselves from that mess. Our expectation is not disappointed. These films are works, like Wittgenstein’s writing, designed to heal. But healing, healing of one’s mind, one’s body-self, and of one’s world, is an art, not a science, and is through and through processual.

Thus films such as Avatar [xxi]are not (unlike video-games) escapist. They provide an illusion of escape. Actually, they return one to oneself and to the world. Ready to know it for the first time.

This is what I see in these films. These thinking-films. But I believe it is to a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, what many millions of others see too. I believe that I am tapping here into the reasons for the vast popular success of these films. Avatar can easily be seen as a predictable and just very shiny exercise in cheese, or as a predictable ‘anti-American’ rant. Many critics have responded to Avatar either from ‘the Left’ (with cynicism and a knowing superiority to such alleged sentimentalism, romanticism and superficiality, or even with allegations that the film is itself tacitly racist against indigenous peoples, against the disabled, etc. as discussed above) or from ‘the Right’ (with anger against the attack within the film on cultural norms, on American militarism, etc.). It is the critics from ‘the Right’ who are if anything closer to the truth, I think, despite themselves. As I set out above, the film is shocking, in the extent to which, when one experiences it closely, – when one experiences for instance that arrow transfixing and killing one’s American / military / racist / speciesist self, so that the world can be saved, and so that in due course Jake can be fully reborn as a Na’vi – the journey it proposes and offers takes one far indeed from one’s comfort-zone.

Jake's transformation from human to Na'vi in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

And all this is of course why Avatar is a film (or film-series) that might just save the world... The struggle to save human civilisation from decisively rupturing and destroying its life-support is a struggle to change the minds and the practices of millions - billions - of people. How can one reach such numbers? Well, for starters: how about through the most successful film(s) ever? Through a film(s) that issues a call, that midwifes a change in conscience and in consciousness? A film that requires an emotional, a thoughtful and a practical response, and that suggests that, outside of a fairy tale, there is a route that needs to be found and (with will) can be found to ensure that the future that it depicts for Earth does not come to be?

This is the philosophy we need for the 21st century. The groundwork for it was created by Pascal and (better) by Kierkegaard and (best) by William James (and, as already intimated, by Wittgenstein). If we look to reason and to the facts to give us hope, then our hope will die. We need to reason and we need science and we need to stay in touch with the facts; but above and before and beyond all that we need to trust, to have faith, to believe even when reason says that there is no reasonable hope, no reasonable doubt about the fate that lies in store for us. In Pascal’s terms:[xxii] if we do not wager, if we do not try to act as if there is a chance that we can save ourselves, if we refuse to take the risk of holding out hope that we may be able to save ourselves, then certainly we will fail to save ourselves. In Kierkegaard’s terms (from Fear and Trembling): faith, when there is little or no hope, can work miracles. It can create what is otherwise humanly impossible. In James’s terms: we have the right (the ‘will’) to believe some things – such as to have confidence in our own goodness, in humanity having the capacity to achieve balance and ecological sanity - even without evidence;[xxiii] and, without the will so to believe, we will in such cases lose our only chance to achieve the fruits of such belief. In Wittgenstein’s terms: this philosophy is a therapy for our individual and cultural illness, dis-ease: rather than some new theory, we need to change our way of life, so that the problems which form this illness that we are trying here to treat no longer arise.

We need then, despite everything, to have faith, to hold out hope, to care, to cure.

If you find yourself resisting what I am saying in this paper, it may be because what I am saying is wrong, or silly, or whatever; or it may be because you are not quite ready to embrace these teachings and make them your own. Those cynics who look down on or dismiss Avatar, or indeed accuse it of being reactionary or racist (and in doing so, simply mirror those foolish and dogmatic critics who accuse it of being ‘anti-American’), are as I have said simply engaging in more of the same of what is present and overcome in Avatar: the attractions of the tendency to retreat. To give up hope. The very temptations analysed by Avatar provide the main reason why so many are unprepared to embrace them, and prefer instead to back away from them; to stand aloof from - ‘above’ - them.

Avatar ‘literalises’ – it shows - what is metaphorically true of our world:

Furthermore: The tree of souls is a metaphor for and visualises for us that imagination, dreaming, needn’t be privatised. It can be collective. This is why Avatar should if possible be watched in the cinema. This is why too it can be inspiring for instance to look at the huge trail of positivity that you can find on the #Avatar hashtag on Twitter. I think that something unusual is happening with Avatar. It has achieved already a level of inspiration that is most unusual for a movie. It is actually, it would seem, inspiring a more ecological consciousness among a large semi-collectivity of people.[xxiv]

The call of the film is a call to re-enchant and to replenish and to restore the ecosystems of our fragile world. The only world we’ve got. What we have to do first is to say (and mean it) “I see you” to others, and to the world. As Jay Michaelson puts it:
“In the Na’Vi cosmology, what’s really happening is the Eywa in me is connecting with the Eywa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, “I see you”, a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing. (“Avatar” is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word’s two meanings, of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth). As the Na’Vi explain in the film, though, “I see you” doesn’t mean ordinary seeing – it, like Namaste, really means “the God in me sees the God in you.”” [xxv]

As Norm teaches Jake, of what the true meaning of “I see you” is: “I see you, I see into you, I see who you really are.” The story of the film is the story of Jake struggling with this,[xxvi] and eventually, after terrible setbacks, learning to realise it. The story of the film as a transformative therapeutic encounter is the story of you struggling with this, and learning to realise it.

How do we get to the point of being able to do this, to truly say “I see you” to everything and everyone? Well, first-off, as I’ve already implied: By really seeing this film. By as it were saying “I see you” to Avatar

As pointed out above, Gaia is not going to ride to the rescue. In our world, we have to do this ourselves. We have to succeed on behalf of Gaia. We are unlikely to do so by taking up arms. We need heroism, but even more we need the ordinary virtues of dignity, care, steadfastness. We need to gird ourselves for a long struggle. All of this is there, implicit, in AvatarAvatar tells us that if we attack the machine head on, we’ll lose. It wisely counsels a more intelligent, less direct approach – though just as radical. Its ‘message’ for us is implicitly one of non-violent revolution. It is a call to transformation of self and of world.

The argument that I have made in this essay, I believe, requires some courage. It requires some courage for you to enter into it and accept it, and make it your own, and not to condescend or even express contempt, as many reviewers of Avatar have. Along the lines laid out above (from Kierkegaard and James and Wittgenstein), I’m taking a risk in saying this, and you are taking a risk if you believe it. It is ‘safer’ to remain on the barren heights of cleverness and intellectual superiority, to mock the pretensions of a massive and popular commercial enterprise such as the making of a film like this. It is particularly tempting to look down on a popular film, to ‘prove’ yourself superior to it – because then you are by implication ‘superior’ to the tens or hundreds of millions who love it…

But I think that the risk of opening yourself to Avatar and to hope is well worth taking. The sterility and (in the end) systematic unsafety of the alternative – of trusting to business as usual, hoping only for techno-fixes, staying in denial and distancing oneself from nature - is something that we know, in our hearts, in our souls, in our bones. We know it when we dare to feel the Earth beneath our feet (just as we experience Jake doing when his avatar runs for the first time). Avatar teaches and expresses a love of the physical, and of the biological. A willingness to embrace our animal nature, and to love life. And a determination to enable future people to do the same.

It is relatively easy for academics and critics to feel secure, at the moment, in the citadels of the mind. But it won’t stay easy. It is time to come down into the green fields and forests and jungles of physicality, of play, of imagination, of daring to dream. Of daring to hope.

Daring to hope that we may yet have the courage to save ourselves. To share a common will to prevent ecocide, and to achieve the glorious potential of life.

[Thanks to numerous colleagues and friends, especially Vincent Gaine and Ruth Makoff, for help with this piece.]

[i] I mean the word “feel” emotionally/metaphorically, here. 3-D isn’t yet virtual reality. But in Avatar, seeing literally is believing, and you are asked to feel what you see and what you believe. So the metaphor is not an empty one. Seeing is believing within the film’s diegesis, and therefore the viewer’s vicarious position in relation to the characters is more pronounced than is usual even in ‘realistic’ films.
[ii] P.25 of “The Avatar effect”, in Permaculture Magazine 64 (2010), pp.25-6.        
[iii] Think once more of how the atmosphere is apparently poison to humans; and how Pandora brings the worst out of human nature at first – see below. (For the original myth, see e.g. Pandora’s box)
[iv] The use of scare-quotes is advised: the very concept of ‘natural resources’ is a piece of unspeak that aims to make the exploitation of the world easier. As Heidegger has pointed out, treating the world as a ‘standing-reserve’ for the use of humankind is a deadly error. A ‘saving power’ needs to arise to counter this. Which is why Jay Michaelson puts the pantheistic (or perhaps panentheistic) cosmology of the Na’vi forth, as an alternative to such a way of thinking: “The sky god tells us that we humans are masters of the Earth; thus, we, like the humans in Avatar treat Earth as a resource to be exploited.” (See his “The meaning of Avatar: everything is God”, in the Huffington Post, 22 Dec. 2009.)
[v]   As Kierkegaard makes very clear: Faith is necessary, and faith is most truly faith, when it is absurd. As in the Warsaw ghetto uprising; or in the last moments at Helm’s Deep. See also below.
[vi] Cameron has said that the choice of title predates the widespread use of the term ‘avatar’ in the computer games context. He has said that while the film was in the making so long, the title was decided early on in that process. So at that time he certainly was not aware of the computer-game use of the term. However, even if that's all true (which it presumably is), then the choice to KEEP the title over the decade the film has been in preparation, as this term 'avatar' has come into general circulation with this meaning that I refer to above, is suggestive. Cameron (and the distributors etc.) must have considered the question as to whether this title would attract people, put them off, be misleading, etc. . So I think it remains true to say that the film consciously messes with the computer-games use of the term ‘avatar’. The point is that the two uses look very similar, but that one is missing the whole point of the film, if one stops at that (superficial) similarity. Avatar has a meaning for the real world that one is required to work for and experience, in a way that is just not so in most computer/video-games, which tend to be essentially escapist (Though there is no inevitability that they must be so, and hopefully that will change, in the future.).
[vii]  In this way, Avatar is closely-connected with some of the other great philosophical films of the modern day, such as BladeRunnerFightClubMementoDistrict 9.(See on these my next piece for TF…)
[viii] Think of unmanned drones flying over Iraq, Afghanistan; how easy is it for the ‘pilots’ in Las Vegas or wherever to acknowledge the humanity of those that they are ‘zapping’? Isn’t this in fact one of the main points of modern warfare/genocides – to try to distance the perpetrators from the reality of their actions? …Avatar is interested in the cowardliness and alienating possibilities inherent in killing at a distance.
[ix] In an impressive forthcoming paper entitled “Look at the shiny shiny!: Narrative deficiencies and visual pleasures in Avatar”. Compare also my discussion below of the confrontation of machine vs. avatar/Na’vi.
[x]  Even the final visual of the entire film, as the credits roll, is a point of view shot of flying through the sky of Pandora, and descending into the canopy of the forest. This is in so many powerful ways a biophilic and deep-ecological film. It almost seems to suggest, with this final visual, that we have to become the rainforest, to identify with it.
[xi] P.6 of his “The struggle for space”, op.cit. .
[xii] In this connection, the task of the protagonist in Avatar is identical to Deckard’s, in BladeRunner – see Mulhall’s writing thereon.
[xiii] In this respect once more it rhymes with the similarly ‘boom-boom’ climax of a similarly deep transformative and therapeutic film, District 9. It is shocking to find how much one wants the protagonist in that film to kill the South African soldiers. But I think that the deus ex aiwa that alone gives success, in Avatar, takes Avatar a stage further than District 9 into realising that there is no military solution to problems such as these. We have, rather, truly to win ‘hearts and minds’. In part, through films such as these… Additionally, District 9 differs crucially from Avatar in that the former ends with our protagonist, Wikus, still desperately wanting to become human again, while the latter ends, contrariwise, with our protagonist completing the transformation away from being human. Both have opened to truly seeing the other: thus by the end of District 9 the ‘prawns’ have become persons to us. But the transition away from human-centrism is far more complete in Avatar.
[xiv] This movement is similar to the central, brilliant conceit of Justin Leiber’s novel, Beyond Rejection: that the way to start to feel truly at home in a body not one’s own is to learn to hate one’s current body and way of living and what it stood for.
[xv] I'm reminded of Wittgenstein's great remark about FALLING asleep being like doing philosophy. You can't FORCE it. Going into one of the 'coffins' in Avatar is (obviously) like falling asleep. So is watching the film (similarly to The Matrix) - you have to _live_ the dream... Actively, but without forcing the experience in a way that destroys it. (Compare also the delicate balance in lucid dreams between staying lucid and waking up.)
[xvi] Here I am thinking of Thomas Berry’s concept of ‘the great work’; and of Wittgenstein’s remark that work in philosophy, like work in architecture, is really work on oneself.
[xvii] There are no fluffy bunnies on Pandora, and no Aslans (for Aslan is little more than a human (to be precise: a Jesus) in lion’s clothing; whereas the animals in Avatar remain animals). As Quarritch sees it: “If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R and R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies or squats in the mud wants to kill you.” This is classic nature-hatred; what it gets right is that, without a ‘social model’ of how to live in and cope with a natural world, without a willingness to listen to it and adapt to it, as the Na’vi have, it cannot but seem hostile.
[xviii] There are also explicit tip-offs in the film, most notably the large helicopter being called Valkyrie1b.
[xix] This is one reason why organs like the Daily Mail, which unsurprisingly attacks and mocks Avatar, cannot understand it, and seeks to do so only though crude simplification.
[xx] Justification of this claim that we have an idolatry of science and technology, and that seeing technology as ‘neutral’ is dangerous, can be found in Heidegger’s The question concerning technology, and in my own work on the philosophy of science. This is of course not to rail pointlessly against all technology: there remains a vast role for science and technology in making our lives better, in preventing disaster (think of climate science), and indeed in making films like Avatar…  But a healthy, non-scientistic relationship with science and technology, giving up the fantasy of inevitable ‘progress’, is some way from where we currently are. (For clues towards it, one valuable text is Joel Kovel’s The enemy of nature.)
[xxi] Another film(s) I would mention in this connection is the Lord of the Rings trilogy – see my account thereof in my Philosophy for life (Continuum, 2007).
[xxii] Especially as riffed on by Chomsky: see e.g. p.355 of an interview, collected in D. Barsamian (ed.) Chronicles of Dissent, Stirling, Scotland: AK Press (1992).
[xxiii] This is not to say that there is no such evidence (historical, neurological, evolutionary, etc.) of fundamental human goodness – there is a huge amount of it! Rather, it is to say that such evidence is always ‘imponderable’, never decisive, often countered or undercut. Something more is needed, to undergird our collective action and self-confidence. It is also to say that, even if there were no such evidence, then such faith would still remain our only hope of salvation, our only way not to ensure self-destruction through fatalism, inaction, pessimism, and consequent self-destructive behaviour. Finally, it is to reiterate that we can make things possible that seem impossible, that we can create our own future. That the results of the miracles and ‘fairy-tales’ that Avatar depicts can be made real, given enough human willpower, determination, love, and faith.
[xxiv] In this connection, I look forward to the results of the Avatar Audience Research project.
[xxvi] Compare for instance his early remark, “I sure hope this tree-hugging stuff isn’t on the final.”