Don’t play with that, or you’ll go blind

James Cameron’s 3-D movie Avatar gave me a four-hour headache. Probably the headache was caused by a combination of the 3-D effect, a seat near the front and at the far edge of the theater, the way the 3-D glasses skewed my plain old glasses beneath, and the dark in which I biked home afterward, my bike light having been stolen while I was in the theater. But I can’t help but also attribute the headache to the movie’s moral corruptness.

It’s a finished corruptness. The easiest way I can think of to describe it is by comparison with The Matrix, a movie which is merely disingenuous, and to some extent struggling with its disingenuousness. The moral lesson that The Matrix purports to offer is that the glossy magic of life inside a simulation distracts from painful truth. But the moral problem faced by the Matrix is that this lesson is betrayed by the fun that the movie has in playing inside the simulation. A viewer enjoys the scenes of jumping over buildings, and of freezing explosions and fistfights in midair and then rotoscoping through them. In fact, the viewer enjoys them much more than the scenes of what, within the conceit of the movie, is considered reality. There may be a brief yucky thrill to learning that in reality people are grown in pods so their energy can be harvested by robots, but as a matter of aesthetics, reality in The Matrix turns out to be drab and constricted by gravity and other laws of physics. The closing sequence, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) plugs back in to the matrix and runs a sort of special-effects victory lap, makes no sense, in terms of the moral victory he is supposed to have won. If he has really joined the blue-pill team, he ought to be sitting down to another bowl of bacterial gruel with his ragged, unshowered friends, and recommitting himself to the struggle. Instead he’s leaping around in a Prada suit. So the viewer departs from the movie with a slightly queasy feeling, a suspicion that visual pleasures aren’t to be trusted. That queasiness is the trace of the movie’s attenuated honesty.

And such queasiness and honesty are completely absent from Avatar. Some might protest: But what about Avatar’s anti-imperialism and anti-corporate attitudinizing? They’re red herrings, in my opinion, planted by Cameron with the cynical intention of distracting the viewer from the movie’s more serious ideological work: convincing you to love your simulation—convincing you to surrender your queasiness. The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned. All you need is a big heart, like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the movie’s war-veteran hero, and the luck of being given a chance to fall in love.

In Cameron’s movie, Sully joins a corporate mission to extract a valuable mineral from a distant planet, Pandora, whose ten-foot-tall blue-skinned aborigines, who call themselves the Na’vi, are uninterested in cooperating with their planet’s exploitation. In order to talk to the Na’vi, and win their hearts and minds, corporation-funded scientists have grown adult-size hybrid human-Na’vi bodies, which humans can remotely operate by lying down inside a pod—a coffin-shaped pod, not unlike the pod where Neo wakes up to discover he’s been soaking his whole life in soup. But whereas Neo jacks into a simulation, Sully jacks into to a new, improved nature, and Cameron musters the mythologies of Henry D. Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and James Lovelace in order to convince. Or anyway the mythologies of The Lorax and The Lion King. The Na’vi respect the balance of nature. They commune with a deist-ecological world-spirit.

Or so the movie would have you believe. Of course you don’t really believe it. You know objectively that you’re watching a series of highly skilled, highly labor-intensive computer simulations. But if you agree to suspend disbelief, then you agree to try to feel that Pandora is a second, improved nature, and that the Na’vi are “digital natives,” to repurpose in a literal way a phrase that depends on the same piece of ideological deception. For on Pandora, all the creatures have been equipped by a benevolent nature with USB ports in their ponytails. When Sully, inhabiting his Na’vi body, first discovers his, the curmudgeonly lead scientist played by Sigourney Weaver snaps at him, “Don’t play with that, you’ll go blind.” This is a little startling. The organ in question looks sort of like flower pistils wriggling out of the hairy end of a tail. But we gradually learn that it isn’t his reproductive organ, which for better or worse we never see. It’s for making “the bond” with various other species on Pandora. In order to ride a horse-like creature, for instance, Sully is instructed to first connect his ponytail-USB port to the horse’s. Same with various species of flying dragon. And if you want to connect to the Na’vi ancestors, you plug your ponytail into the willow-tree-esque tendrils of the Tree of Life. In other words, on Cameron’s Pandora, the animals cavort with one another much like the peripherals on his desk, plugging and playing at will, and the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.

Why does the digital nativity bother me so much? I think the answer has something to do with the smug anti-corporate plot. In reality—in the reality outside the movie—the Na’vi, too, are a product of corporate America and are creatures of technology, not nature. Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, either. But Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology, and that the Na’vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it. That’s rank mystification, and one has to wonder about motive. I think there are aspects of being human that a movie like Avatar wants to collude with its viewers in denying—aspects of need and of unfixable brokenness. There are traces of this denial in the movie. We never see the Na’vi eating, for instance, except when the transcarnated Sully briefly samples a significantly pomegranate-like fruit. Yet they have high, sharp canines. Vampire-like canines. Indeed, Sully turns into a Na’vi after he lies down in his coffin-pod. Once he takes to his avatar, even his human body has to be coaxed to eat. Like a vampire’s, Sully’s cycles of waking and sleeping become deeply confused. In the unconscious of the movie, I would submit, all the Na’vi are avatars. That is, they are all digital representations of humans, lying elsewhere in coffin pods. And they are all vampires. They have preternatural force and speed, wake when others sleep, and feed on the life-force of mere humans—the humans lying in the pods, as a matter of fact. This, I think, is the strange lure of the movie: Wouldn’t you like to be the vampire of yourself? Wouldn’t you like to live in an alternate reality, at the cost of consuming yourself? Vampires have a culture, a community, feelings. They don’t have bodies, but they have superbodies. The only glitch is this residue offstage, rotting and half-buried, that you won’t ever be able separate from altogether—until, at last, you can.

Silence and Song

Childhood, an early short film by Terence Davies, tells the story of Robert Tucker in two phases: as a boy growing up in an unhappy family in Liverpool and as a young man who has just barely survived it. The best thing in the movie is a long scene on a bus. It begins as a flashback. Robert Tucker, as a young man, has just visited a doctor who has prescribed him medication for depression and has asked whether he’s developed any interest in girls yet. He hasn’t. He walks to a bus stop, where a couple of young women titter at his doleful looks, and before the bus comes, there is a flashback: Robert, as a boy, is boarding a double-decker bus with his mother.

“Can we sit inside?” the boy asks. This tells us something about the boy; he’s the sort who thinks it’s more of a treat to sit inside a double-decker than on top. The boy’s mother is played by a woman with attractive features but hollow eyes. The two sit down, he in a window seat, she in an aisle seat beside him so that she is closer to the camera, and the bus pulls away. They don’t say anything further; they don’t look at each other. She stares at the middle distance. He watches the streets of Liverpool pass by. The camera stays on them. Rows of workers’ housing roll past; a corner is turned; more rows of similar housing roll past. The camera still does not move. It begins to occur to the viewer that this is not a scene that sets up another scene, despite its apparent lack of event. After a long while, the mother quietly cries. The boy does not try to comfort her; the viewer senses that an “interaction” of any kind would be false. Mere presence is as much as the mother and the boy are able to give each other.

There are a number of parallels between Childhood and Davies’s later, full-length film The Long Day Closes. Both seem to be autobiographical. Both portray a boy who says “thank you” to school authorities when they whip him across the palm, who is awkward in the school swimming pool, who is set upon by bullies, and who will, we understand, grow up to be gay. Even the layout of the family home in both movies is the same. But The Long Day Closes is a warmer film—a film so full of love, in fact, that it’s almost painful to watch—and there are important differences. It’s in color, for one thing, and it has a sense of humor, for another, complete with Dickensian minor characters such as a plethoric, henpecked husband who does flawless impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In the later movie, the parallel to the Childhood bus scene takes place at home. The hero, a young boy named Bud, is sitting beside his mother. Their faces are lit by a fire, not visible. She sings a song while looking into it. As with many of the songs in the movie, the gender of its persona conflicts with that of the singer, and so the mother explains, when she finishes, that it was her father’s song—he used to sing it to her when she was a girl. She begins to cry as she explains this, and the boy, though he seems to be listening intently, continues to stare straight ahead into the fire, almost as if he doesn’t notice her grief. There is no need for him to notice it, we sense; he is at one with her; he feels her sorrow as if it were his own, because the song and her touch have communicated it to him, and have also communicated the strength and the beauty that he will need in order to bear it. In Childhood nothing was in the place of song. Literally nothing: it was through silence and the absence of touch that Robert’s mother communicated to him.

Silence and song are not so different. The matter of both is time; neither is intelligible unless you can hear rhythm. In watching Childhood the viewer has the sense that what was communicated was so sad, so heartbreaking that it could do violence to Robert. It hurt him as a boy, and it might kill him as a young adult, in the form of a depression he can’t understand. What’s shared is just as sad in The Long Day Closes. Perhaps it’s even sadder. The trouble in Childhood, after all, seems to be that love is sometimes met by cruelty, and the trouble in The Long Day Closes is that those we love, and who love us, will in time die. But Bud is able to bear the greater grief in The Long Day Closes because his mother’s sorrow comes to him as part of the company she offers. It is a further sweetness. And so Bud does not grow up to be a fragile or a brittle man. He grows up to be the maker of the film The Long Day Closes, whose presence is so palpable in the film that he should perhaps be thought of as a character in it.

Almost every detail in the movie reminds the viewer that he is watching a movie not life. The rain—and there is a lot of rain—is always movie rain. When at Christmastime the camera pans slowly away from a family tableau into the darkness down the street, the darkness is streaked with not real snow but movie snow, meteoric and fanciful. When Bud daydreams in class of a ship in a storm, and we see the ship, it is patently a model ship, photographed in close-up. None of this artifice lessens the movie. It is a kind of understatement. It is part of the director’s way of speaking: It was like this, but of course all I can show you is a movie.

He communicates to us not with spectacle, that is, but the way his mother communicated to him, through silence and song. The silence has become famous. There is a long scene in The Long Day Closes when the camera rests on a carpet while sunlight shifts there. When I first saw the movie, in 1993, this scene frightened me. I remember worrying whether the friends beside me would grow impatient. They had brought me to the movie, but I was falling in love with it, and the scene made me worry that I would need to protect the movie from them. It made me feel how attached I was to it. It made me realize that I didn’t mind sitting with it for a long time while nothing appeared to happen. The scene is a little like staring out the bus window while your mother is crying beside you and you are trying to allow her her privacy. And it is a little like noticing how beautiful even the most trivial and casual thing is, once love has attached you to the world it is a part of. To some it will seem like poverty, and to others, like enormous wealth.

Sun shifting on a carpet: light moving on a screen. When the camera at last rises from the carpet, it goes to Bud, kneeling in the sill of a window so that he can stare through it, the lace curtain draped over him like some kind of ritual vestment. It is largely by looking through windows that Bud turns life into a movie that he is watching. Sometimes the window is open and the sun is shining, as when he watches a shirtless bricklayer, who winks and embarrasses him. (In Childhood and its two sequels, Robert’s sexuality was sometimes a heavy-handed matter, and its punishments were sometimes melodramatic. In The Long Day Closes, in contrast, the workman’s wink is the only direct acknowledgment.) Sometimes rain is streaming down the window’s glass, softening the light, rendering it more complex, as if the glass had come alive. Rain also destroys, however. In geology class, Bud learns about erosion, and from David Lean’s Miss Havisham, whose words come to Bud after a friend betrays him by going to the movies with another boy, he learns that decay is the fate of those who can’t find love. In the very first scene of the movie, for that matter, we see under rain the ruins of the world we are about to enter. It existed in time only, not in eternity. It existed in silence and in song. Bud’s mother sang about the loss of her father to him, but Bud will have no children to whom he can sing the loss of his mother and the world he shared with her. Instead there is just a movie, radiating outward like the flashlight that Bud shines into the sky one night, after being told in school that such a light will go on forever, and which Bud turns, finally, into the lens of the camera, canceling it.

Implied life on Mars


Twenty-one hours ago, the space probe Phoenix landed on Mars, and NASA has already released some images. Looking at them, somewhat blearily, this morning, I felt almost frightened. This is what I would see if I were stranded on Mars, I realized, and the realization had uncanny force. Red dirt and rubble for miles and miles. I couldn’t figure out why the photos were so powerful. I’d looked at lots of pictures from the Mars Pathfinder and its sidekick, the Sojourner Rover. How come they had never hit me in the pit of my stomach?

Later in the day the answer came to me: the Phoenix photo (left) had been taken from a camera roughly as high off the ground as my eyes are. That was my subjective and retrospective impression, anyway, and double-checking just now, it seems to be the case. The Phoenix’s Surface Stereo Imager, which took this picture, sits on a mast that puts it “two meters above the ground, roughly the height of a tall person,” according to the NASA website. The mast for the Mars Pathfinder’s Imager, by contrast, only hoisted it about a meter off the ground. And the Rover snuffled along with a turtle’s-eye view. If I were a toddler, maybe the Pathfinder’s pictures would have a stronger effect on me, but as it is, the Phoenix is more likely to get under my skin.

This insight came to me on the subway, where I had idly noticed a grade-school-age girl watching an animated movie on her I-Pod while her parents, on either side of her, read a paper edition of the New York Times. Her tiny screen kept flickering, as the movie jump-cut from one viewing angle to another. I think that’s what made me realize that it was the viewing angle of the space probe that brought its picture home to me. The flickering also made me think of a 1929 movie I had tried to watch last week, a Maurice Chevalier vehicle called Love Parade, a crashing bore that I gave up on after an hour. The one thing I had liked about it was how primitive its cutting was: the camera was for the most part just planted in front of the actors, who sang and danced before it in takes that lasted minute upon leisurely minute. The implied viewer, after all, was a theatergoer, accustomed to sitting in his seat for hours. Who (I next wondered) is the implied viewer of a modern movie, with all its cuts and jumps? The viewpoint assembled from the multiple camera angles moves much faster than any of the actors—faster, in fact, than any single human being could move—so fast that the implied viewer of a contemporary movie can’t be an individual at all. It has to be a crowd, which is in more than one place at a time. You watch a modern movie as if your self were a group of people. No doubt film theorists figured this out long ago, but it was news to me, and a bit disturbing. Suddenly solitude on Mars seemed almost homey.

Late Victorian Beauties, in Previews


My friend Katie Koskenmaki has directed a trailer for Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, a Gothic boarding-school mystery novel for young adults. It’s part of the Book Standard‘s Teen Book Video Awards. After you’ve admired the puffy white dresses, the porcelain complexions, the sense of foreboding, and the amber glimpse of beefcake, vote for Katie here.

Mass-Observation in San Francisco

If you live in or around San Francisco, you’ll soon have a chance to see Rebecca Baron’s 2005 documentary about the Mass-Observation movement, How Little We Know of Our Neighbours, which I mentioned in an earlier post. It’s playing on Friday, Sept. 22, at Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia St. (at 21st) as part of the Madcat Women’s International Film Festival.

Meanwhile, a blogger named Didactique has posted photographs of the Crystal Palace in flames and of Edward the Abdicator. And Drunken Volcano has condensed my Mass-Observation article, and all the other articles in the Sept. 11 issue, into a haiku. He seems to perform this poetic function every week; does Emily Gordon know?