By Rupert Read
|Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)|
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)|
|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.
|Neytirir and Jake, Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)|
“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.”
|Jake inhabiting his 'new body' in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (209)|
|Jake and his 'vat-grown avatar' in Avatar, dir James Cameron (2009)|
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
|Neytiri's arrow in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)|
The therapeutic transformation that Avatar midwifes
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.
|Marine Colonel Quaritch's death in Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)|
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’
|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.
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.]