The spectacles within doors,--birds and beasts

Of every nature, and strange plants convened

From every clime; and, next, those sights that ape

The absolute presence of reality,

Expressing, as in mirror, sea and land,

And what earth is, and what she has to show.

-William Wordsworth, from The Prelude, Book VII

Critics accuse it of promoting both tobacco and environmentalist agendas, of being racist, pro-American, and anti-American. In the same breath, those critics will trace each aspect of the story to another movie, usually Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, The Matrix, and Ferngully. It's clear the lion's share of the $230 million budget did not go to the script. These impassioned analyses are misguided; no solid message lurks beneath the surface of Avatar.

I saw Avatar in IMAX 3-D. An early scene converted me, persuaded me that this marked a turning point in the history of visual representation. Sam Worthington's character wakes up from his space nap and watches a few beads of perspiration float off his forehead. Here was a subtle and gentle replica of how the eyes see: the clear drops sharpen as they drift towards you while the background melts into soft focus. I say "eyes" on purpose. As Joshua Greer, president of the RealD company behind the technology told The New York Times, "It's evolution. We're born with two eyes-each eye sees its own slightly different view of the world...3-D film is about delivering a left film and a right film as discreetly and perfectly as possible to that left and right eyeball." Gone from 3-D are the gimmicky Frisbees thrown, guns pointed, explosions exploded in your face that don't worry you because they're convincing, but because you are going cross-eyed.

One of my most vivid early memories is watching Captain EO in "4-D" at Disneyland, in which Anjelica Huston as the Witch Queen crawls from her wire-webbed cocoon towards the audience. I had to put my hands over my eyes. I was four years old, and still remember the terror, the nightmares induced by those few seconds of film. Today, the effect would look lame, but the experience was a testament to the power of 3-D: invading the viewer's space, breaking down the comfortable buffer between us and the screen.

This is why people care about Avatar: it is spectacle that not only dazzles but demands. Far more offense has been committed by far smaller films. The telling of a trite story by an animated bard impresses more deeply in one's mind than an extraordinary one told dully. Avatar is the former type: the fantastic storytelling, not the muddled story, ensures that we will debate it for decades.

* * *

Avatar falls into a debate surrounding the fraught marriage of art and visual trickery, the ill-defined and ever-shifting line between "high" and "low" techniques. Putting aside Ancient painting, Filippo Brunelleschi started by stunning Florentines around 1425 with his invention of linear perspective. A plane became an illusionistic space, part of the watershed in European art wherein naturalism overtook the flat icons of the middle ages. But linear perspective is still a code, a compositional arrangement that cues the eye to see depth when none exists. Our mind, not our eyes, makes sense of images. This became the standard until Manet and the Impressionists willfully broke Brunelleschi's rules, looking to play with the eye's assumptions about depth and the solidity of forms.

But by this point, a new invention had for several decades been doing the real work of visual mimesis. Robert Barker stated in his goal in a 1793 patent application for the panorama to "perfect an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round; to produce which effect, the painter or drawer must fix his station, and delineate correctly and connectedly every object which presents itself to his view..."

Panoramas were wildly popular, both as travel replacements and replicas of local sites. One entered a space and was surrounded on all sides by a scientifically accurate drawing of a landscape, whether a street in Cairo or the view from the top of St. Paul's in London. These spaces inspired writings by luminaries like Charles Dickens and John Ruskin; Wordsworth recounts his experience seeing a panorama in London in this essay's epigraph.

Looking at nineteenth-century art, we think of Van Gogh before the panorama painter Mesdag. But in an 1881 letter to his brother, Van Gogh praised a seaside panorama by the latter: "that's a work for which one must have the utmost respect. It put me in mind of what B�_rger or Thor̩, I think, said about Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. That painting's only fault is not to have any faults." The mimetic tends to fare poorly in the history of art, to which we generally look not for visual verity but for an artist's conception.

The moving image rendered the still, labor-intensive panorama obsolete. In the twentieth century artists escaped into abstraction, as Clement Greenberg argued in "Avant-garde and Kitsch," "to imitate God by creating something valid solely on its own terms, in the way nature itself is valid, in the way a landscape-not its picture-is aesthetically valid; something given, increate, independent of meanings, similars or originals." As the cubists fractured and flattened down the 3-D experience and the Abstract Expressionists after them exploded it, filmmakers took up the helm of illusionistic experimentation. In a few decades they bounded to talkies and color and now 3-D-here to stay, this time.

It is now unthinkable for a serious artist to strive for mimesis. The illusionist-artist is hallowed but dead; optical illusionists today fall into the same tier as calendar or screensaver artists. We admire Escher's staircases, but not in the same way we admire Picasso.

By Greenberg's measure, Avatar is kitsch: derivative and mass-marketed. Because it is not difficult in a way catered to the "cultivated spectator" it is "destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide." E.H. Gombrich, art historian and author of the classroom staple Story of Art, echoed this judgment in gentler terms in the preface to the 2000 edition of Art and Illusion:

Very crudely then, the film may reduce our expenditure of mental energy, and it may be classed among the countless labour-saving devices with which technology has provided us, from the invention of the wheel to the pocket calculator.

Here we may also find the reason why moralists and aestheticians have so regularly opposed or resisted any step in the direction of illusion. Perhaps they are right; we should rather keep our mental energy in trim than let others do the work for us.

Gombrich is correct: Avatar offers a catered experience to the viewer, demanding little besides sitting and a bit of soreness on the bridge of the nose. Because each eye is delivered an image, it becomes impossible to miss visual cues as one might with a two-dimensional drawing. In 3-D film there is no blurring of lines between abstract and figurative, figure and ground, message and medium. "Serious art" shuts out the viewer, who must climb back in through intellect and studied judgment; Avatar thrusts a new world upon the viewer.

But Technicolor has not ruined our appreciation for color, nor linear perspective our fascination with depth perception. Films with more challenging stories, symbols, plots, and characters will follow Avatar-the film's success opens the gates to experimentation in narrative commensurate with its technology. It is not too much to suggest that each generation of artists beats on against the currents of mimesis, born back ceaselessly into already-obsolete technology.

By nature of its technological innovation, nothing in Avatar looks new. The most exotic plants seem to be derived from oceanography documentaries (in the decade between Titanic and Avatar James Cameron spent his time diving and filming underwater documentaries). The highlights of the Avatar's environmental design, the floating mountains of Pandora, collage pieces of familiar terrain. The blue Na'vi will likely join Jar-Jar Binks and the 1995 rendition of Caspar the Friendly Ghost in the graveyard of lame CGI characters. This early use of Performance Capture-the ability to translate subtle facial expressions to CGI-has a long way to go in imaginative rendering. As is, the Na'vi are little more than stiff and glossy-blue caricatures of the actors.

A huge budget tempers aesthetic enterprise. Greenberg's desire to see form and content united falls short here: avant-garde technology forces the rest of the movie to the rear. He predicted that art would have to retreat into itself to preserve itself from kitsch. But Avatar, arguably the most innovative filmic experiment in recent years, offers nothing but kitschy content-derivative and familiar.

$230 million does not go to a first-time artist breaking time-honored patterns, it goes to the established one with trademarks. You buy a Frank Gehry and you get flowing curves; you buy a Cameron and you get a derivative plot, top-notch special effects. Just as the building bears Gehry's name alone, Cameron received sole writing and directing credit for Avatar. The film's astronomical profits affirm the strength of this brand.

Executives also bet that Avatar would prove pirate-proof. One can watch a low quality version online, but that would completely miss the point. As recording and print industries fizzle, Avatar pulls in billions. Cameron pushed film into a bulwark of technology which illegal copying cannot breach. Avatar has already forced more theaters to carry 3-D capacity, and Cameron believes it will create a home market for the technology. Leave the low-fi to youtube-this demands glasses and a big screen. "Popular connoisseurship" sounds like a paradox, but Cameron is forcing it into reality, something only possible when a technology jumps forward in such a manner that we want to chase it.

As the walls of this technological bulwark become ever-higher, there is little room for the enterprising Renaissance man to change the history of representation with ruler and graphite. We have reached the inverse of Brunelleschi: huge investments push visual experimentation forward, and the artistry follows.

This covenant, through which the most spectacular films are often the least daring, troubles movie critics. A few months before Avatar, they unanimously panned Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Typical attacks echoed David Denby's New Yorker review, complaining that the machines "obey no rules that would make their combats a struggle of courage against limitation and therefore worth caring about." Film critics are still struggling to go beyond literary readings; if audiences wanted characters and plot, they would be at home with novels. They want massive, intricately-molded CGI creations hacking each other apart.

Despite the earnest pleas of critics, moviegoers gave the film the second-highest five-day opening ever. Critical and popular tastes clash, but Hollywood hears the latter.

The gap between Avatar and Transformers in narrative sophistication is not as great as critics and the Academy would have us believe (Transformers got a sole Oscar nod for Sound Mixing, Avatar picked up nine, including Best Picture). Every plot turn and character development in Avatar is as trite as those in Transformers. Michael Bay is cynical enough not to map out a coherent story or give it heart; he seems to relish in the impotence of his critics. Cameron does both, and critics buy it. The New York Times review reminds us warmly that Cameron is "an old-fashioned filmmaker at heart, and he wants us to get as lost in his fictional paradise as Jake eventually does." It's unclear what an "old-fashioned" filmmaker looks like, but the widely publicized images of the man with the headset sitting in front of a sea of controls and a green screen doesn't fit.

Critics reduce Bay to an Escher, but see Cameron as a Leonardo: while the former produces tricks, amusing and unserious, the latter uses those tricks to a compelling end. Even today, Louvre-goers and Dan Brown followers look at the Mona Lisa and fuss over this woman with a veil and half-smile and smoky mountains behind. But Margaret Livingstone, Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard, hypothesizes that we are attracted to the smile because of how peripheral vision blends Leonardo's sfumato around her mouth. She smiles when we focus on her eyes, and not at all when we focus on her mouth. This effect predicts the way Cameron used the camera in the space-sweat scene in Avatar, dictating the eye's focus. More than this, it foreshadows how the dialogue around Avatar would largely neglect the reason we care in the first place.

Avatar's central conceit provides the perfect metaphor for its own form-content relation. The spectacle of Avatar is a shiny, technologically groundbreaking, $230 million hand-grown body which its paraplegic plot inhabits. It's the same with Shia LaBoeuf, the gaping-mouthed lacuna grounding the swirl of CGI machinations of Transformers with whom we, particularly the young nerdy male viewer, are meant to identify. These characters let viewer assume their place in the midst of the action.

In The Matrix, the main character discovers that what we consider reality is actually an elaborate simulation made by machines: perhaps the most frightening vision yet of the danger of trusting vision over "enlightened" intellect. This divide, as critics pointed out, goes further back than Greenberg and Gombrich: under its cyberpunk shell, The Matrix retells Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Neo escapes this illusion into the grittier but 'realer' world outside his machine to free humankind from technological oppression.

With 3-D technology and view-encompassing screens, films like this acquire a meta-meaning. Avatar is another step in the pursuit of this gesamtkunstwerk: the all-art-work, the completely immersive experience. Cameron knows this: in one scene he gives us a first-person view of the avatar-control machine coming down over Worthington's eyes. And as we sit transfixed in our seats with glasses on as a projector throws images before us, it is easier than ever to forget that they are shadows. When Worthington's character "wakes up" at the end of the film, he doesn't escape his avatar shell but inhabits it permanently. It is hard to say which scenario, the borrowed splendor of Pandora or dark truth of The Matrix's real world, leads us to more alarming conclusions.

In Plato's metaphor, the "intelligible region" lies outside the cave, while we live in the "visible world"; the world outside consists of ideal Forms or truths, ours of derivatives. But with movies, technology jets forward as creative vision follows in its wake; every Form that filters vividly into our theater rings all too familiar. Technology continues on, and though some will hold fast to truths wrought from simpler shadows past, it becomes ever harder to tear our eyes from the more wondrous image before us.

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