Saturday, April 03, 2010

Daniel Mendelsohn on Avatar (a review)

The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 25 March – 7 April, 2010, Vol. LVII, Number 5.

Daniel Mendelsohn: "The Wizard". The New York Review of Books, 25 March – 7 April, 2010, Vol. LVII, Number 5.

James Cameron's Avatar (US 2009), the all-time highest grossing film, has received largely disparaging reviews. Daniel Mendelsohn quotes amusing parodies circulating in the Internet where the Pocahontas trailer commentary has been switched with Avatar and vice versa. Mendelssohn, himself, takes a more complex stand. Summing up some of his points:

1. Behind Avatar is Cameron's favourite film, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

2. Ever since The Terminator, Cameron has been fascinated by the cyborg and biomechanical bodysuits. Performances in his films tend to be wooden, but machines are fascinating.

3. Like in The Wizard of Oz, there is in Avatar a visual contrast between the drab monotonous world of normality and the staggering colour and the ravishing light from beyond. Mendelsohn names Cameron's visual look, already familiar from The Abyss, "bioluminescence". Mendelsohn finds visual ravishment the principal experience of the movie, enhanced by the "surprisingly subtle use of 3-D technology".

4. Conversely to what many critics have claimed, "the others", the Na'vi people, are in fact technologically sophisticated. "By means of a pistil-tipped appendage" "they can commune not only with other creatures but with what constitutes a planet-wide" network. They "can upload and download memories" and information and "even communicate with the dead". "However 'primitive' they have seemed to some critics, the Na'vi – with their uniformly superb, sleekly blue-gleaming physiques, their weirdly infallible surefootedness, their organic connector cables, their ability to upload and download consciousness itself – are the ultimate expression of Cameron's career-long striving to make flesh mechanical."

5. The problem is "the movie's intellectually incoherent portrayal of its fictional heroes as both admirably precivilized and admirably hypercivilized, as atechnological and highly technologized." This "suggests something deeply unself-aware and disturbingly unresolved within Cameron himself."

6. Cameron has described Jake's awakening as an unconscious rewriting of The Wizard of Oz. But Dorothy finally wakes up in Kansas and realizes that "there's no place like home". By contrast, Avatar's "triumphant conclusion" "takes the form of a permanent abandonment" of our gray world. The virtual world is superior, reality is dispensable, you don't have to wake up, and there's no need to return home.

My remarks: I think Mendelsohn has caught some of Avatar's special qualities very well. Many critics have unjustly emphasized its stereotypical qualities only. I would add to Mendelsohn's assessment the central role of the strong woman – the amazon – a permanent feature in Cameron's films and certainly an essential factor to their extraordinary popularity. Women can identify with the fantasy as well as men, which is exceptional in today's blockbuster cinema.  I disagree with Mendelsohn about the visual achievement of Avatar. I find the 3-D very successful, too, but I was disappointed with the colour gamut: the Tree of Souls and other visions of Nature lack warmth. "The other world" has also the prevalent impression of a computer game, artificial reality, of something dead already, another Hades.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Did you know that James Cameron was inspired by Claude Monet?