19 01 2010

cicadas exists; chicory, chromium
citrus trees; cicadas exist;
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cerebellum

Avatar is visually beautiful–Cameron was right to brag. And how the movie forces us to see is similar, Carol Kaesuk Yoon points out, to how biologists often perceive. The sense of the marvelous in the biological world.

I am often caught up short because my sense of wonder is out of tune with people around me–as when I see a nuthatch and point it out to the people with me and one says, “it’s a bird” as if to be excited about a bird is inane. It doesn’t matter, I suppose, if this person doesn’t share my excitement, the nuthatch doesn’t care. But it is lonelymaking. It makes me feel slightly insane.

What you gave me is nonstop wonder

My passion: to go further

Yoon suggests that Avatar may be what we currently need to awaken our vision of the beauty of the biological world–but this suggestion makes me both skeptical and sad. If one outfall from the movie Avatar is a dissatisfaction at the “real world” because it does not “live up” to the beauty of the world of Pandora (as reported here by CNN), doesn’t that mean Avatar has made the problem worse? It is like the problem with nature documentaries; while they can be educational they also undervalue the moments of apparent emptiness and slowness in “natural spaces.” Sometimes the nonhuman animals in the woods where we hike are not visible–often they are not–if we are incapable of feeling their presence when they are not engaged in exciting and visual behavior then we have lost our connection to them. And often the plants do not talk to us, although we now know they talk to each other–and on this planet (even though in Avatar the mother tree’s communication was suggested to be unheard of on earth).

The quail have their own agenda–but isn’t this what is wonderful?

It angers me that viewers walk out remembering the movie’s beauty, much of which is based on real organisms on earth such as Christmas tree worms Spirobranchus giganteus, remaining completely unaware that the utter gorgeousness that is here and worth protecting. Certainly, it is more obvious in places like the rainforest, which is thick with color and life, or on a reef. But it is also right in our backyard, or in the trees behind a parking lot or even in the cracks of a sidewalk–truly.

When I was running yesterday I saw an orb-weaving spider weaving her web. She was moving slowly and carefully and it was dark. She was suspended near the stairs I take up from a residential street near the lake to another residential street higher up. Behind her was the lake and the lights and the 520 bridge illumined. Does this description help you understand why I couldn’t move for several minutes? It doesn’t does it? She was both vulnerable and utterly master of her act of creation. And it was so quiet and a bit dark.

She was not far at all from me–but I felt something stronger than I felt during Avatar.

Nothing strange…I cannot
Tell you how strange

Apart from the pronounced experiential deficit that the Avatar highlights there is the deeply problematic issue of the animal others in the film.

names exist, names like narwhal
nettle, names like carnation, tawny owl

While the blue Na’avi are presented as animal others, to some extent–that is lip service. They are not primate cousins–they are humans (albeit indigenous-humans) and treated as such in the film (David Brooks, surprisingly, did a nice job addressing this issue here).

like the narwhal’s name for Arctic seas
the nettles’ names for fever, like carnations’

The other apparent vertebrates in the film are the “animals.” And although the film pretends a sort of veneration and respect (e.g. thank you for letting me eat you) the Na’avi plug into and meld with these creatures in order to, as Neytiri tells Jake, “tell them what to do.” From being intriguing imaginative creations, with physical and behavioral features that might echo those of nonhuman animals around us, these animal others become vehicles–machines. All the potentiality is lost the moment Neytiri plugs in. And the whole “message” of the movie about interconnectedness and all that, becomes just a message about how people can be served by the world around them.

the nightjar’s
names for feathers, the nightingale’s names for being

But perhaps I should try tear myself apart from my pessimism and irritability. Perhaps I should be optimistic. Perhaps the millions of viewers will be inspired by Avatar to re-evaluate their relationship to others (human and nonhuman). Perhaps.

But I think the better way may have already been lost, the safe and healthy and well-fed child experiencing the beautiful orb-weaving spider for herself. There are reasons this doesn’t happen (eg. see Richard Louv’s work) .  And rather than complain I should go do something about it.

quotes are from Inger Christensen and Robinson Jeffers