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Avatar, revisited

2010 August 25
tags: ,
by ahageman

James Cameron’s Avatar is making a return to the cinemas soon with 9 minutes of extra footage for the kind of double-dip that’s in the black, not the red. This repetition encouraged me to repeat my own ecocritical reflections on the film, this time to move outside of the borders of the narrative, its production, and its place within Anglo-America reception of Hollywood, expanding the scope of media ecologies within which the film circulates. If we can pull back from the “Dances with Smurfs”—white man saves the indigenous people from themselves and the bad-white-men critique as well as from the concern over fetishization of the virtual/3D world as the place to love and protect instead of the “real” world, new perspectives come into view. But let me be clear, the above are valid, crucial concerns; the point here is not to discard them, but to pull back, zoom out, for a view of other ecocritically relevant vectors that intersect in Avatar.

Specifically, let us consider the film’s performance in the People’s Republic of China, the 2nd largest economy on earth—a leader in green tech development but also in carbon emissions. Avatar enjoyed mass popularity, mass box office revenues, in China. This is unsurprising in the cultural context given the history of James Cameron’s Titanic. Then President Jiang Zemin publicly promoted that film, encouraging the people to see it—that at a time when China’s import of Hollywood films was under a strict and limited quota. From the official Beijing reception, Titanic was a great film because it articulated unflinchingly and without subtlety the levels of class separation (Jack below deck and Rose above), the impossibility of the classes ending up together, and the massive catastrophe of capitalism’s approach to domination of nature through technology. Titanic as communist propaganda! So, China was primed for the latest James Cameron narrative film. And the Chinese reception is instructive for seeing a film outside of the Anglo-American framework of disavowing our enjoyment of Hollywood through cynicism that replicates the attitudes it is meant to repudiate.

The popularity of Avatar in China was met, however, with mixed reception by Beijing. Quite possibly, the narrative of forceful liberation of indigenous populations from themselves was a little too allegorically familiar. As a result, the 2D version of the film was reduced, limiting the population who could watch the film to those able to pay the higher 3D ticket prices. In fact, the allegorical force of the Na’vi is apparent through the various cosprotests (costume protests, as in cosplay) that deployed Cameron’s story for real world struggles: Palestine, London

The primary point here is that eco-media and ecocritique are no less susceptible to being inscribed and practiced within frameworks such as the nation-state even though the media ecologies within which they function, like global climate change, sprawl across all sorts of boundaries and are unevenly distributed.

One Response leave one →
  1. srust permalink*
    August 25, 2010

    Very thoughtful. I’m wondering what you think of the relationship between ecocriticism and media ecology – which borrow from ecology for different ends. For example,only rarely have I sensed an “environmental” (ie the impacts of material production) aspect in writings on media ecology. What I’m wondering if whether you think media ecology has outgrown its usefulness as a term if it can only be applied to the “ecological” relationships between different media technologies or if you think it could be adapted to encompass a wider perspective given how entrenched media ecology has become in academics (with its own schools of thought, conferences, association ect). In other words should ecomedia critics continue to use the term media ecology as it is currently practiced, attempt to green the term’s meaning, or encourage that it be abandoned because of its inherent anthropocentrism vs. ecocentrism?

    Here, for example is a definition of media ecology provided by the Media Ecology Association at the beginning of their website’s explanation of the term.

    from “Understanding MEA,” Lance Strate, IN MEDIAS RES, 1 (1), Fall 1999.

    “It is the study of media environments, the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs.

    Media ecology is the Toronto School, and the New York School. It is technological determinism, hard and soft, and technological evolution. It is media logic, medium theory, mediology.

    It is McLuhan Studies, orality–literacy studies, American cultural studies. It is grammar and rhetoric, semiotics and systems theory, the history and the philosophy of technology.

    It is the postindustrial and the postmodern, and the preliterate and prehistoric.”

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