Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

08 February 2010

Avatar, The Life

I find these three-dimensional, IMAX movie theaters to be horrifying.  Richard Wagner would have loved them, though. You might remember, he's the guy whose operas about German mythology and supremacy ended up being a major influence for Hitler.  Also his idea of the gesamtkunstwerk.  This means, literally, "total art work."  He wanted his operas to be total, embracing, devouring -- using the combined arts so completely that the viewer lost all sense of identity to the art itself.   This is a really alluring and scary concept.

I'm an artist, it's true.  And you'd think I'd want to have that much power over my audience.  But that doesn't interest me.  What good does it do us to rob our viewers of their minds and their identity?  It's one thing if the viewers have a pretty good sense of themselves to begin with, but it's another if your viewers enter the event with misconceptions or unstable identities.  And most of the people I've met these days (as in every age) really don't have very stable identities.  Today, in particular, people seem so influenced by what they see on television, in films, on movies.  It's as if they've confused that screen they spend so much time in front of as a mirror.

This all gets to the ethics of reproductive art.  Plato was concerned about this stuff, too.  But don't think I knew him.  I'm not that old!  But I did know Wagner; I sang in the chorus of an early performance of The Ring Cycle.  Great music, that's the truth.  The music alone can rob your identity; singing it demands that you give up your soul to it.  (In fact, that's true of nearly every good opera.)  It's easy to get swept up into the power of Wagner's music; I was, when I first sang it.  But then, when it was over, I felt a really sick feeling in my gut, like I had just been used to spew a message that I didn't fully understand.

I don't know if Hitler understood it, but he used his interpretation of that message, and the method of delivering it, when he performed his dirty deeds.  I don't really want to talk about that right now; just thinking about Hitler and his crimes makes me cry for days.  You would think after four centuries on the planet I wouldn't be so sentimental, and I'm generally not.  But there are some crimes that are so hideous, so horribly sad, that they still tear at my soul.  Indeed, they remind me that I still have a heart, and a soul.

Wagner came n where near realizing gesamtkunstwerk.  The other day, though, I snuck into the back of a 3-D Imax movie theatre, and experienced something that did.  It was called Avatar.

Avatar, The Movie
Avatar fulfills all the requirements of a gesamtkunstwerk, and the end result would have made Wagner incontinent with happiness.  It uses every art form, empowered by modern technology, to transport the minds of its audience to another place completely.

I sat in the theatre and occasionally looked around me, at the popcorn on the floor, the hands clenching overpriced drinks, the bodies propped in various positions, trying to negotiate chairs they shared with layers of winter wear.  Faces tilted upward and bespeckled with cheap plastic glasses, those lenses became the portal through which the minds were transported away from fleshy presence.  And I thought to myself, I'm surrounded by avatars, and they don't even know it.

They've been transported, to a  place of beauty and mystery and blueness.  A place where human-like creatures can communicate with their environment through an umbilical cord of hair. A place where the corporal and spiritual essence of the planet has a conscience that is more powerful than the combined forces of the beings that populate its surface.  A place where trees are like limbs sprouting from the core of the planet, capable of sharing with us the knowledge so essential to the earth-mother body from which we all came, and to which we will return.

In Avatar, Pandora is a planet on which all life forms are actually offshoots of the planet, it would seem.  The planet has its essence, which is total and timeless; when life on its surface is created, each different life form seems to embody some aspect of the total essence at the core of Pandora. 

Avatar, The Life

It's really funny now how some people who have seen this film want to go back to Pandora.  I read something today about a group in Florida that wants to create a Pandora community.  They don't want to imitate it, they want to be it. 

What's the big deal, people?  Can't you see, we're there already?  And, quite frankly, we are already in our avatars.  That's precisely what our bodies are - the vessels we've chosen to occupy while we live out our time on this physical domain.  Our bodies themselves are the machines we imagined while we slept in that space between the etherial muck of timelessness and creation, and the timebound travail of earthly embodiment.

It is quite wonderful how, in the movie, the main characters go to sleep, and in their sleep, escape to their other bodies.  In this sense, those other bodies, those large feline-like blue bodies that live in a realm oh, so, sea-like, are the dream bodies of these characters.  This could indeed cause some of the audience members to decide that they prefer to sleep permanently (I just read a story about how some viewers of Avatar have contemplated suicide!)

As long as we think that the material realm we currently occupy is the Real, well, then, the world of the avatars appears to be a dream space.  But what if we flip that dynamic - what if we assume that our dream world, that world of shared symbols and hopes and fears, constitutes the most Real place, and this world we occupy is a dreaming place?

I'm not the first to suggest such a reversal.  But if you will imagine this with me, you may see how our physical bodies can be perceived as our avatars, our vessels designed solely for interacting and acting on this physical plane.  And if you'll believe that, then perhaps you can take the next step with me, which is to believe that then the world of Avatar is always already here.  Why has it pleased so many people?  It's because, in some respects, it speaks directly to a shared vision and dream of a perfect world.  Of the Garden of Eden perhaps - that unspoiled world that we lost when we dared to think that we could act as individual gods.  That is actually what happened when a man nibbled on a forbidden piece of fruit.

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