- I See You: The Shifting Paradigms of James Cameron’s Avatar by Ellen Grabiner
As of this writing, Avatar (Cameron US/UK 2009) is the highest-grossing movie of all time in theatre and at-home media sales, topping writer-director James Cameron’s own Titanic (US 1997) without a major star or familiar story. Despite widespread critical pans based on its narrative, Ellen Grabiner claims, ‘one would be hard pressed to find anyone who has seen Cameron’s technological breakthrough in 3-D and who claims not to have enjoyed the sheer visual delight of the thing’ (1). She delves into aesthetic theories and image history, along with the basics concerning the complex technology employed in making the film, to deconstruct Cameron’s conception and its effects in terms of visual experience. One argument developed positions the optical dazzle of Avatar, exemplified by the hyper-foliated setting and exotic inhabitants of the moon, Pandora, as more closely linked to humanistic content in the movie than has been critically explored. More fundamentally for Grabiner, Avatar encompasses a successful shift, on both sides of the proverbial camera, from ‘the prevalent visual paradigm … a “power-over”, reifying gaze in favor of a more holistic, embodied approach to the practice of looking’, one ‘that melds together the seer and the seen’ (2). Its essence is expressed in the greeting of Pandora’s humanoid, blue-skinned Na’vi, ‘I see you’ – which means something like, ‘I am looking into you’, actively, in tandem with my sensory perception. The book provides the considered, scholarly treatment that, as it convinces, [End Page 133] Avatar deserves, and is generally useful vis-à-vis visual studies in its breadth of interdisciplinary references and analogies.1
Chapter 1, ‘Did You See That?’, broaches the entrenched problematisation of ‘visual pleasure’ in Western culture, which can underlie a tendency to dismiss accessible artfulness such as that in Avatar as mere ‘eye candy’. In fact, according to Grabiner, a suspension of disbelief is required as much to engage with its unique visuality as with its sf plot and creatures. The bit of dialogue appropriated for the chapter title is snapped by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the bad-guy head of the exploitive mining expedition on Pandora, to an underling, who then misidentifies a screen image as an unmediated glimpse of empirical reality. The subtext that Grabiner teases out, to which she returns intermittently, is cautionary with regard to total submergence in mechanised technology, associated with ‘power-over’ seeing and a reified, Cartesian worldview. Cameron’s visual alternative is physical, spatial and dynamic, as Grabiner explains, drawing mainly on ideas from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger. His vision is realised not only through stereoscopic 3-D digital shooting, but through an emphasis on protagonist Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) heightened sensitivity to his Na’vi avatar body as much as to the eye-popping Pandoran environment. Here, the visual clearly integrates with content inhered in Jake’s wheelchair-bound human existence.
Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the relationship of technology to art, intertwined at their root in the Greek techne, but bifurcated in the scientific era. Since then, Grabiner notes, technology has elicited dichotomous reactions between wholesale embrace and resistance, particularly when it comes to art. A rudimentary example is the fate of linear perspective and mechanical craft in Western painting, obliterated in modern art. Unlike many popular representations of technology’s apocalyptic triumph over nature, ‘in Avatar we find technology actually residing in nature, and the natural embedded in the technology in a way that schmears the discrete edges’ (48), as in the womb-like incubation of the lab-generated avatars. On a more prosaic level, Grabiner points out that when Cameron wrote the story in 1995 the technology just was not up to his visual imagination. Only a decade later did he feel he could proceed with the breach of animation and cinema he was after, seamlessly [End Page 134] blending live action with animatronics and motion capture-enhanced CGI (which allows for...