A Tree Falls in the Woods: Avatar as the First “Post-9/11” Film

When you’re not a professional film reviewer, when you don’t live in New York, when the only advance screenings you attend involve a doctor doing something untoward—when these things are true, trying to write about a new film can seem almost useless: The pros get all the good meat, and you’re left to dig around for scraps.

That’s why I usually write about films that have left the theaters, sometimes years or decades prior to my writing. It’s easier—and often much more fun—to try to make an old film important or interesting again, through a deeper kind of analysis, than it is to try to express the importance of a new film when each reviewer you read has beat you to every punch you can think to throw.

With James Cameron’s Avatar, though, which has just opened nationwide, two things are different.

First, on reading the reviews (Ebert, Denby, Stevens)—and especially on seeing the film—one gets the sense that this event simply matters too much for any writer to let it pass by.

Second, though the credentialed reviewers really do have a lot covered, the film fits so perfectly with a cultural development I’ve already written about that I cannot help myself.

In particular, we’ve all come to accept Cloverfield (2008) as a kind of slap-happy, thrill-ride retelling of the 9/11 story. In a piece on Knowing (2009), I identify that film as addressing 9/11 in a more serious and also a more distanced way, and asking spectators to do the same.

Put simply, Avatar is the last film in the series, the one that (finally!) takes up 9/11 without taking on 9/11.

Avatar‘s sprawling narrative and physical spaces center around a towering tree occupied by the Na’vi people you know so well from the trailer. When the human military destroys the tree two-thirds of the way through the film, it’s impossible not to think of 9/11.

Overtaken by flame, the tree plows to the ground, its disintegrating wooden frame rendered meticulously by the filmmakers. The collapse scatters the Na’vi through their woodsy, alien equivalent to the streets of lower Manhattan, as smoke fills the forest. Finally, when the white dust has settled, our protagonist trods through the forest in a daze, in a sequence closely resembling not only 9/11 but scenes from both Knowing and Cloverfield.

Any message in the film, though, anything you can say the film is “about,” reads as wholly environmentalist. Unlike the other two films in the trio, it really seems unrelated to 9/11 in every way except the visual. It’s on this basis that I want to claim that Avatar marks the end of our culture’s assimilation of the imagery that, it’s fair to say, has haunted us most over these last eight years.

In other words, I want to call Avatar the first “Post-9/11” film because it seems to me to be the first (popular) film to appropriate the imagery of 9/11 for “selfish” reasons—to support a storyline and a visual vocabulary unrelated to the original (recorded) event. In this sense, it’s the film I’ve been waiting for since Cloverfield—and maybe the film we’ve all been waiting for since 9/11.

URLs & Users

David Sklar’s claim that “people don’t care about URLs” (via Full Stop Interactive) seems like a wild overstatement, even taking “people” to mean “average” people.

At one point, he might have been right, but people who know what’s up with URLs have long been training others, through the kind of informal technical support so many of us give, to pay attention to them. I get a call from one of my parents from time to time saying, “This address looks funny. Should I trust this site?”

Internet literacy has grown to a point where people who might not have known how to open their browser a few years ago—I had a client like this in 2004—now understand that the thing with the blue line under it is called a link or hyperlink, and that some kind of code they can’t see tells their browser where to go when they click, and that “where to go” means, in a sense, “to what URL.”

(Besides, if you’re going to tweak URLs anyway, why not take “advanced” users into consideration?)

On the Value of Modernism: A Repost/Riposte for Jeanne-Claude

The piece below first appeared in April 2005 on One Blog Two Blog, a concept blog that featured Jay Fanelli and me each responding to a prompt in 600 words or less. The prompt for this piece was “Best 86ed Idea in 86 Years,” a response to the Red Sox first World Series win in—you guessed it—86 years.

At the end of the piece, I discuss “The Gates,” by Jeanne-Claude and Christo; I repost the piece today in honor of Jeanne-Claude, recently deceased.

You don’t see a lot of uninhabitable $8-million houses anymore. It’s also been a while since anybody went very far towards getting a 900-page stream-of-consciousness novel published (and it was no picnic the first time around).

Today, many of the artistic projects that constitute historical modernism inspire little more than discomfort, if they inspire at all. Understandably so: A perceived irrelevance of modern art, architecture, literature and music was a desirable effect for some of the great moderns, who took an elitist position in which the masses weren’t meant to grasp the deeper meaning of their works at all.

Modernism’s growing emphasis on individual freedom of expression after the Second World War led to an eventual unravelling and commercializing of the category, perhaps by way of noted celebrity stalker Andy Warhol. Such postmodern disarray certainly benefits me as I weigh the delicate balance between my pocketbook and my decorative tastes, but still I long for a time when artists challenged themselves instead of following any whimsical impulse that floated their way, as many seem to now. I’d rather live naked for a year in the Farnsworth House than walk through another masturbatory Venturi exhibit, for example, or hear another word about the “friendliness” or “exuberance” of the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been there, and I don’t mind telling you the “friendliness” costs at least $200 and comes with a circus of crab lice.

More to the point, the assumption that pastiche itself is an art form, though not entirely objectionable, belies a deeper cultural conviction that places the consumer at the center of all art. After all, what is the promise of Vegas if not to see Paris, Egypt, and Times Square for $79 round-trip, plus the cost of getting shitfaced and whatever you lose at the slots? The consumer-as-Id model does little but infantilize the public, stuffing a neon pacifier in our mouths as soon as we open them to object.

To be sure, there are also objections to be made to modernism’s severity and exclusivity, but if we can’t have a wholesale return to the artistic rigor of modernism, let’s at least find some middle ground, some artistic space that is both challenging and inclusive, that encourages not consumption but enjoyment. Let’s take pleasure in the art itself, not in how little (or how much) we paid to see it.

As a closing note, I’d like to offer one last, late defense of The Gates, Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s recent installation in Central Park. Like modern art, The Gates took a simple concept (tall, rectangular archways draped with bright orange fabric) and followed it to an extreme (7,608 of those gates along the 23 miles of walkway in Central Park).

The duo’s project, though, unlike high modernism or postmodernism, sought to challenge their audience without mystifying us, or, from the other side, to embrace the public without coddling us. “Here are these gates,” they seemed to say. “We don’t care what you think of them but We’re glad you think it.”

Reality TV and Parasocial Bonding

In a post at The Frontal Cortex on television’s ability to stave off loneliness, Jonah Lehrer writes:

I imagine we’re even more likely to form attachments to characters on reality TV shows, since the characters are purportedly “real.”

It’s a minor point in his post, but prompted a lengthy comment from me, which I repost here, slightly edited:

Against what was then a common thread in media studies, I’d argue that the real allure of reality TV is not voyeurism, as the old guard of the discipline would have had it, but parasocial relationships [which, as Lehrer notes, are “the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies”].

The problem with the voyeurism account is that it doesn’t require narrative to function; it can work even without sound (as in hidden camera footage on all the shows that feature a bunch of housemates).

However, every “docusoap” from The Real World forward has focused on narrative and conflict above all, with moments of voyeuristic appeal merely intruding before commercial breaks, or appearing only in order to heighten narrative tension. (“I can’t believe those two hooked up!”)

The parasocial model, though, does require narrative to function. We don’t get to know people without understanding how they make choices in tough situations; any writer of fiction or screenplay would tell you as much. So, the ways that reality shows construct narratives serve to heighten our knowledge of and attachment to certain “characters” or personae.

(And the narratives are heavily constructed, as indicated by industry terms like “frankenbiting”—faking sound bites out of a hodge-podge of shorter phrases.)

In short, from a paper I wrote addressing the topic:

Social actors in the shows are not (or not primarily) objects of a distant, pathological gaze emanating from the viewer, but instead are involved in a perceived friendship bond, one which on an experiential level contains moderated versions of the highs and lows of normal, two-sided social relationships.

The Opposite of Dense

Pick up that little section of lead pipe; feel it in your hand. It’s heavier than you might’ve thought, maybe? It’s dense, in other words, right? Right.

Now, pick up that chunk of pumice, about the same size. What do you call that, in comparison to the pipe? Light? True, it is lighter than the pipe, but it could be just as heavy, if only it were bigger. Airy? Maybe, but even in a vacuum it would feel like it had the same weight, most likely. Sparse? No: It’s not a forest in your hand, after all.

The question is, when we’re talking about material objects, what’s the opposite of dense?

The answer, at the moment, is less dense, unsatisfactory because of our habit of using paired descriptions for physical properties (heavy/light, soft/hard, wet/dry, and so on). Once upon a time, though, dense had an opposite. Until the mid-19th century, the word was rare.

In fact, the earliest meaning of rare in English was precisely this one. The OED notes the word’s meaning as “[o]pposed to dense,” and provides the following example (from around 1420), among others:

The londis fatte, or lene, or thicke, or rare.

I don’t know what a londis is, and I’m intrigued by thicke as a stand-in for dense (as in a thicket, perhaps). But mostly, I’m thrilled to find rare used in this way.

One can imagine how, in the less dense Britain of the 15th century, a word like rare could move from describing a single object (as in, for example, “this rare piece of pumice”) to describing a collective object (“this rare forest”) to describing the likelihood of encountering individual objects while wandering through the realm (“the rare African swallow”).

Still, I propose we resuscitate rare‘s original meaning. I’ve looked for such a word many times, and so have others. To inspire you, I close with more examples from the OED:

Cvcumber in this mone is sowen rare. [C. 1420]

The Assemblie was so rare that they were not exceeding the number of nineteen Commissioners. [1610]

A projectile would travel a far greater distance through a rare medium like air, than through a dense medium like water. [1862]

Who wouldn’t want a word that can as readily describe cvcumbers as Commissioners, projectiles as londises? The chance to improve our language by looking to antiquated usage is (forgive me) a rare one.