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Avatar Blues

2012 March 28
by scubitt

(My first post on ecomediastudies – and thanks to Stephen for setting it up – the ending of a paper submitted to a special issue of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal devoted to Cameron’s movie: if I was re-writing, there would have to be some reflection on the relation between ecoptopia and the descent into the Mariana Trench)

Love is irreducibly melded with any vision of utopia, but here that utopian union is tinged with the sense of separation, in terms of both the human-avatar relation (Jake’s non-identity as Na’vi avatar and consequent absence from the scene of his own lovemaking) and the terminal separation of death. These separations are consistently coloured, in the tonality of the image and the orchestral colours of the soundtrack, with the warmth of nostalgia for a future that has yet to happen. This is perhaps the most conflicted region of the film’s utopian possibilities: love’s utopia is, it seems, always in the past.
This is too often the case with ecotopias more generally: once there was wilderness, and once we lived in harmony with nature, but now no more, whether the voice lamenting is that of Heidegger lamenting the enframing of the world or that of deep ecologists yearning for return. Avatar plays out this orientation towards the past as an ending, told in voiceover by one who has already lived it, like a film noir. This is perhaps the moment of greatest betrayal: to have raised the spectre of utopia, not only as wish-fulfilment but as the not-yet outcome of a still evolving condition, the situation of network societies and their potential, and to have placed it not in the unknowable future but in the already-over. Avatar’s saving grace is that the aporias of animation interrupt this totalizing orientation. The non-identity of the image in gaps between layers, incomplete transformations, and even narrative contradictions between the human and the animated prise open little chinks of light, possibilities of being otherwise. ‘Avatar blues’ is a symptom not of the failure of cinema but the failure of reality, of the social, and of the rift between the social and our land, between tools and knowledge. There is the grievous realization that the paradise on the church wall is only paint, but there is too the realization that the paint on the wall is a foreshadowing of something other and better, and the animation of this paradise is both as paper-thin and as rich.

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