Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Avatar: Humane, More or Less

James Cameron's Avatar resembles, in its structure and function, a porno movie. But, just as Baise Moi does not resemble pornography because of the sex (no porn director who wished to continue working in the industry would film sex as badly as Mlles Despentes and Trinh Thi have managed), Avatar isn't like porn because most of the cast spend most of their time wearing slightly less than their underwear. After all, like many a fine cock tease, there is always a stray frond to cover a nipple when need be. No, Avatar can be compared to pornography more in the way everything revolves around, and is so relentlessly subjugated to, a limited number of 'money shots' scattered throughout the picture (floating mountains, flying dragons, and so forth). The acting is frequently poor, camera moves occasionally awkward, dialogue a mesh of cliches ("There's no such thing as an ex-marine," &c.), and the backstory is dispensed with immediately and perfunctorily in voice-over, so we can get as quickly as possible on to the familiar old story of the occupying soldier who, when he goes to sleep, fantasizes about erotic adventures with the native women.

In the phantasy space of the Na'vi's home, it is not just our hero who inhabits a computer-generated 'avatar' but just as much the music. Scenes around the space station generally follow a kind of standard, post-Hans Zimmer general MIDI neo-classicism. Once Jake dons the blue face of his Na'vi avatar, however, the magic of digital sequencing transforms the operatic western European motifs - a letter writer to Private Eye pointed out the similarities to Prokofiev's War and Peace, one could equally cite Rachmaninov's 1st Symphony and Wagner's Ring cycle, as hinted at by the army helicopters using the call sign, "Valkyrie" - into the kind of diaphonous worldbeat familiar from Barclaycard adverts (YouTube has even put one of those old Barclaycard ads in the 'Related Videos' if you look up the music clip from Avatar).

James Horner, thanks to previous Cameron collaboration Titanic, one of the most commercially successful composers of the 20th century, is somewhat notorious for his 'borrowings'. Alex Ross notes a sprig of Schostakovitch in Aliens, a soupcon of Schumann in Willow, and readers of Film Score Monthly have been known to sneer at his inability to mask such plagiarism. With Titanic, despite no Irish connections in the story, Horner's usual classical riffs were supplemented by Clannad in order to add a sort of all-purpose gloss of rootsiness. Similarly, in Avatar, Horner seems to apply the same tactic as linguist Paul Frommer did in creating the Na'vi language: a general sense of exoticism without resembling any specific language. So, Horner augments his synbrass with vocalese and 'ethnic' percussion to give a general impression of exotic orientalism Les Baxter or Martin Denny.

Zizek is right to call the film out for racism, "The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them." He claims, "In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man's fantasy." Few scenes in recent cinematic history can be as insulting as the one in which all the coloured people bow down before the heroic white man in 'blue face' - with the possible exception of the one almost immediately afterwards in which the death of one white woman causes a ceremonial grief amongst the Na'vi far outweighing that displayed for the several hundred of their own people just massacred. The skewed logic of equivalence noted by Judith Butler in her latest book, Frames of War, is here internalised even by the victims.

The film's true ideological core, however, is not revealed until we see the destruction of the great tree ("hometree") in which the Na'vi had made their home. In the shots of this vast arboreal tower coming crashing down, and equally in their ash-coated aftermath, the visual reference is clearly footage of the collapse of the World Trade Centre on September the 11th. In James Cameron's mind, the Na'vi are not supposed to represent the victims of American imperialism, but the Americans themselves, their post-9/11 phantasy representation of themselves as rootsy beleagured pioneers, beset by unknowably powerful and blindly hostile forces on all sides. Note, Cameron's insistence in interviews that the film is not "unAmerican" but reflects the fact "that we are living through war." Despite its superficial protest, the film directly supports the very phantasy which sustains and justifies US imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and so forth.

Their exists, then, a cruel irony behind the recent protest by Palestinians on the West Bank who 'blued up' in order to highlight the resonance between their plight and that of Cameron's Na'vi. For, as should be clear from certain references to Israel scattered throughout the film - a Na'vi who is said to be the best singer shares her name, Ninet, with a popular Israeli singer, and "Ey'wa", the deity of the Na'vi resembles a verlan pronunciation of Yahweh, while "Na'vi" itself is a Hebrew word meaning 'prophet' - should leave us with no illusions as to who Cameron sees as the innocent victims in that particular conflict. When Stephen Lang's bloodthirsty colonel promises to "fight terror with terror" it is not Bush and Cheney that he should remind us of, but videos of Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, insisting on the terroristic nature of American military intervention.

This is not, however, in the slightest to disparage a heartfelt political demonstration that caught the eye of the international media and was, at least in the eyes of its organisers, considered a success. So broadly and internationally popular a spectacle can scarcely resist containing some slight latent utopian promise, some hidden potential for the detournement of its ultimately conservative agenda. What is striking about the testimony of one of the Bil'in protest's organisers, Mohammed Khatib, is the way the use of Avatar's iconography seems to have resulted in the prior fictionalisation of the action itself, "At first they were surprised," He says, laughing of the onlooking Israeli soldiers."But then they began shooting and we felt like it was a scene from the movie again, except it was real, and it was taking place in the village."