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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Avatar Rooted in Cameron’s Childhood Experiences in the Canadian Woods

Posted by Bill Benzon on 02/18/10 at 09:47 PM

Cameron talks to Charlie Rose:

Cameron had to fight the studios to play the environmental and spiritual so prominently in Avatar.


I’m sure it’s because I’m writing about Theodore Roosevelt and Tarzan, but in watching that little clip, nothing struck me so much as the fact that he claims a kind of *personal* provenance over themes which have been rancid cliches for a century. Not that he’s necessarily being disingenuous, of course, but it seems remarkably amnesiac for him to trace back to his personal childhood themes that were central to the appeal of the most important American public figure of the turn of the century and the most popular and influential pop culture franchise of the 20th (arguably, but I would argue it).

Plus, the idea that the studios wanted him to downplay environmental messages in the film seems bizarre to me; especially in movies like WAll-E, “environmental” themes of exactly that type seem to be becoming their own kind of pop film cliche.

By on 02/19/10 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Aaron, I look at this a bit differently.

By the time I actually saw the film I’d read 3 or 4 versions of the LIR (late imperial romance) reading. And had no trouble seeing that in the film. But I also saw the gorgeous imagery, which reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky), though I glossed it as high-tech eye-candy (but in the back of my mind I was also picking up resonance from 60s psychedelia).

And then Michael Bérubé pointed out the disability theme, which I initially had thought was entirely subordinate to the LIR theme and thus of no significance. But Bérubé didn’t buy that, though he didn’t say much on the matter (private email). And then I found that Salon piece which I linked and which generated a discussion that collapsed into a pissing match about the role of the Scotts in British imperialism. Meanwhile, Keith Oatley (of OnFiction) had sent me a review of the film that concentrated on our ability to empathize with Sully and (through him) with the Na’vi while simply ignoring the LIR reading—and Oatley is pretty sophisticated about fiction.

So the Valve discussions of Avatar began to engender a bit of low-grade disgust in me. While I’m not inclined to mount a full-scale defense of the movie (if only because I’m in the middle of one of life’s ugly tasks, moving), I’m bothered by an unwillingness to event attempt to consider alternatives to the LIR reading, by the casual assumption that that reading trumps all other readings.

When I began in this business, deconstruction was just getting traction and the instability of meaning was a significant and challenging concept. Now it’s a cliché that has little analytic force. The meanings discovered in readings are now, for all practical, purposes, treated as though they are actually there in the text, and not the product of an interaction between a text and a specific set of meaning-engending practices. Thus the LIR is assumed to be THE meaning of the film.

This seems rather Borgian to me: resistence is futile. The game has been lost.

I didn’t grow up in Canada. But I spent a lot of time in the woods as a child, and it was a magical place. Some of that magic was there in that film, no doubt about it. Why dismiss it? Why assume you are superior to it?

Plus, the idea that the studios wanted him to downplay environmental messages in the film seems bizarre to me; especially in movies like WAll-E, “environmental” themes of exactly that type seem to be becoming their own kind of pop film cliche.

Do you think all studios are alike? Do you think Cameron was lying, or if not that, spinning things a bit?

By Bill Benzon on 02/19/10 at 08:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, come on.  This is ridiculous.  Let’s not pretend that the Late Imperial Romance was the only, or the main, objection to this film.  And Bill’s insistance that there’s something about this film worth discussing, if only this lame monologic critics would back off, is disingenuous.

My main problems with the film: it was poorly edited.  It was too long.  The length of the plot was not earned.  The visuals were boring.  While it might be great *how* those visuals were achieved, they couldn’t compete with the best of the visual images out there.  The dialogue was tedious.  The adventure sequences were predictable.  The themes were incoherent.  The characters were an insult to even the stupidest among us.  The conflicts were silly. 

Which is to say, not a single element of film artistry was present. 

I could enjoy a Nazi film, if it were great.  The politics of this film were not its problem.  It was a suck-ass movie.

By on 02/20/10 at 01:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m very much with Aaron on this.  Here are couple of quotes from my article on Avatar, Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas:

“[Cameron] was a taut, visually inventive storyteller once.  But all his films after The Abyss increasingly resemble the Hindenburg: bloated, self-indulgent, lacking originality and subtlety in all but F/X.  The latest iteration, Avatar, is the culmination of these traits and a poster boy of the industry’s tendency to let CGI spectacle be the sole concern.”

“It’s bad enough that films since the maturation of F/X have been aimed at 15-year-old boys.  Far worse is the fact that the most lavish Hollywood films have been made by their directors’ 15-year-old inner boys – tightly conjoined with plans for lunch boxes and video games whose complexity far exceeds that of the films.”

By Athena Andreadis on 02/20/10 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As long as these conversations continue to jump haphazardly between the content of the film and the craft of the film, they will continue to not get anywhere.

By tomemos on 02/20/10 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve got a 1975 calendar with art by one Jesse Allen. I showed it to a friend of mine. He said, without any prompting, “Avatar.” Here’s Allen’s website:


By Bill Benzon on 02/20/10 at 01:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Tomemos, let me do a soundbite here:  Avatar fails dismally in both style and content, from the over-hyped F/X to the stale clichés.  So it doesn’t really matter where the discussion goes.

By Athena Andreadis on 02/20/10 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Athena, if it doesn’t matter where the discussion goes, why on earth are you taking part in it?  If I thought a movie was being over-valued and over-discussed, I certainly wouldn’t feed the flame every chance I got.  Luther, we’ve heard you express your hatred of the movie many, many times now.  Two months is a long time to keep attacking something that you think is beneath contempt, don’t you think?  If you think the movie isn’t worth talking about, prove it by not talking about it.

Let me give a parallel case.  Aaron’s post about Inglourious Basterds was a compelling and convincing piece of criticism, and brought up points in the film that I had not considered.  In his post, he called Basterds “Tarantino’s best film.” Now, while I basically liked the movie—some of it is just terrific—it’s also my least favorite of his films.  Parts of it strike me as unforgivably flabby, and it continues a disturbing trend of his in which characters are allowed to just talk and talk without advancing the plot or revealing anything interesting.  But would there have been any point in my weighing in to say, “There’s no way it’s his best movie—that scene in the bar was terrible!” No; it would have been orthogonal to the actual points of the post, and if it led anywhere it would have led to pointless “in my opinion” carping.  You can convince someone that your reading is correct, but how often can you convince someone that your opinion is correct?

Am I saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”?  Of course not.  There are discussions in which editing, dialogue, etc. are relevant; Avatar was raved about by critics, and the early discussions here were partly about that.  Athena’s critique of the film (that she linked to above) was perfectly relevant when people were trying to decide whether to see it or not.  Similarly, Aaron’s comment here is to the point—he is unconvinced by Cameron’s narrative and points out objections to it.  But I just don’t see what is to be gained at this stage by dismissing the content of the post in order to say, yet again, that the film is badly edited and the plot is like a video game.

By tomemos on 02/20/10 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos, I’d just point you back to what I actually wrote above.  It was directed at Bill and his assertion that our hangup with the film is rooted in a tired critique of the late imperial romance.  My reply is that that is simply one many problems with the film.

I’m happy to let *Avatar* fall into oblivion. But I won’t have people’s problems with the film be misrepresented.

By on 02/20/10 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More to the point, why is an interview with no other content appear as an article on The Valve?  Does that fall under the definition of discussion?

By Athena Andreadis on 02/20/10 at 08:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Following up the point made by tomemos, that discussion of the craft and discussion of the content should be kept distinct. Yes. However, they have a unique relationship in the case of big-budget movies.

Bearing in mind that Cameron has a chip on his shoulder and invariably frames his interactions with the studios in antagonistic terms, I do accept his claim that he had to fight the studio representatives. Mass commercial products like this, financed with money belonging to people who are not artists, are under constant pressure for structural reasons: don’t imply the environmental image so strongly or you will lose our conservative Republican audience, don’t emphasize the spiritual aspect so strongly or you will lose ... ah, the same audience ... anyway, for obvious structural reasons, the “studios” must regard any multivalency in the finished product as an opportunity to offend people and lose money. If they fronted the money on the basis of a simple pitch, like “action and graphics”, then any content which is additional to that pitch seems like a risk.

The operative question here is “compared to what”? If we are comparing “Avatar” qua blockbuster action movie to a right-wing Mel Gibson revenge movie, which I think is the most appropriate comparison—especially for the intended audience—then hell’s bells, it’s almost absurdly liberal! So I instinctively feel the LIR reading is ridiculous, though formally justifiable.

I suppose I could have said this all before but it wasn’t so clear until I saw the linked clip.

(Now I feel that I must reply to a pointed observation that Joseph Kugelmass made early on: that many defenders of “Avatar” implicitly believe it’s “A Film That’s Good For Somebody Else”—not so here: I’m part of the audience for heroic blockbuster movies or their relative approximations. I don’t drink much soda but when I do, I want Pepsi Natural and not some kind of corn syrup. And Jim Cameron basically told them he was going to use cane sugar even though it would cost more money.)

By on 02/20/10 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And if we want to have a discussion about the bio-triggers in blockbusters in general, including Avatar, that’s fine, too: Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

By Athena Andreadis on 02/20/10 at 10:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’ve got a 1975 calendar with art by one Jesse Allen. I showed it to a friend of mine. He said, without any prompting, “Avatar.””

Jesse Allan? Ha! You’re clearly not old enough to have been a “Yes” fan. Anyone here familiar with the work of Roger Dean...?

By StevenAugustine on 03/01/10 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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