Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In which the Meridian briefly explores some alternate realities

Two fun couples: Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad (image found here); and
Zoe Saldaña and Sam Worthington in Avatar. Image found here.

It is a little strange to refer to the entities in the second picture by their actors' names. These figures, after all, never existed in this form in front of a camera; we see them in this form because of a computer: a combination of motion-capture and digital imaging of the sort first introduced to a mass audience via Andy Serkis' Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson thought of and promoted Serkis' performance in The Two Towers as Supporting-Actor-Oscar-worthy but, somewhere in the hours and hours of apparatus on that film's extended edition, he relates to the listener/viewer that he was rebuffed: Gollum is computer-generated, he was told. How much of what we see of Gollum is actually Serkis' work, and how much is the machine's work? These are legitimate questions to consider, a version of the dilemma of separating the dancer from the dance that Yeats could never have foreseen but the road for which, thanks to technology, we're already well down. In the commentary for The Fellowship of the Ring, Sean Bean notes that he knows for a fact that he was not physically present in his role as Boromir for the filming of the Fellowship's departure from Rivendell, yet there, in the film, "he" is. True, Boromir has no lines and doesn't do very much for the couple of seconds that he (or his image) is onscreen--he/it stands there, then glances down at the ground. But if I hadn't heard the commentary, I would have been none the wiser regarding what I was seeing. Still, I don't feel deceived, exactly: after all, Middle Earth is not my world, no more than is any space presented to an audience as fictive, no matter how closely it corresponds to my world. But it is strange, this brief, meta moment in which even the actor is reminded that while onscreen he is not himself but a character: an image, a representation of someone else.

In Avatar, we of course do see Worthington in his human incarnation in the film; for those (like me) who don't know what Saldaña looks like when not 10 feet tall and blue-skinned, here you go.

The art of acting is already, in its essence, the creating of an alternate reality that an audience experieinces vicariously. But we traditionally think of that art as a human activity--enhanced by props (broadly defined), of course, but whose final success is attributable at some level to a human agency. At what point, though, will the incorporation of technology so enhance that that activity ceases to remain identifiably a human one? Are there moments in Avatar where that point is passed? Of course, all the above assumes by omission that Alain Resnais' CGI-free Last Year at Marienbad is straight-up realism in which everything we see and hear is a kind of truth; but, as I'll get to a while later, this film is actually the far trickier of the two if the question we're thinking about is, "What is real in the world of the film?"

All this has come to mind in the days since the Sunday before last, when the Mrs. and I donned glasses and joined a few of the developed world's remaining laggards who had not yet seen Avatar so as to become one with the mass-culture cosmos, if only for a little while. THE reason to see this film is, well, to see it. It's visually stunning, and the 3-D technology is easy on the eyes (the aged among you will recall that watching older 3-D films would often lead to headaches). The story, though, is so skeletal as to allow this film to be about all kinds of things, as the Mrs. and I enumerated on our way out of the theater: A retelling of the exploitation of the Americas by Europe (or, alternately, of the destruction of Native Americans by white Americans); an allegory of environmentalism; a commentary on current, competing schools of thought regarding U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan; yet another in the very long continuum (at least in American literature) of "going native" stories. Lots of other people are saying such things about the film as well, so I don't claim for us any particular insightfulness. I'll modestly claim a bit of independent thinking for the following, though: Given my scholarly interests, I perked up early on when I learned that the Na'vi avatars Jake Sully (Worthington) and the others manipulate via their minds are products of the combination of human and Na'vi DNA--in other words, the avatars are somewhat analogous to people of mixed race, and those who have seen the film know that, just as is true of mixed-race characters in 19th- and early 20th-century American literature, neither the humans nor the Na'vi fully trust them, suspecting them of having conflicted loyalties at best.

But the thing that really started me thinking about posting on this film is something else that occurred to me as I thought about the film: that we can also read it as something of a meditation on virtual worlds such as Second Life--in particular, the potential that those worlds have for shaping the off-line lives of those who participate in them.

More on this, and on Last Year at Marienbad, below the fold.

The superficial connections between Second Life and the world of Avatar are obvious: the figures in Second Life are called avatars (or avis for short); male Second Life avatars are scaled to be 7' tall; the Na'vi (and the avatars) are 10'. But all of us have heard or read stories about participants in Second Life for whom the distinction between it and RL ("real life") become dangerously blurred, and it may be that Avatar is (or can be) understood as exploring this territory as well. As viewers of the film know, Sully is a paraplegic. Whatever his other motives for enlisting to be the stand-in to animate the avatar created for his now-deceased twin brother, surely the primary one is, or soon becomes, his virtual liberation from his wheelchair, which soon becomes as good for Sully as an actual liberation. Long before he actually encounters and grows to respect and then love the Na'vi (and I'm not spoiling anything--if you've read the list of allegories above, you could write this film yourself), he's already sucked into this world in a much more fundamental sense: he feels whole in this other, very different world as he has not felt in his own world for a very long time. Add to this the fact that, in the film, it's a risky proposition to abruptly end the sessions while the humans are manipulating their avatars, and the comparison with some people's deep engagement with Second Life seems pretty evident.

The film's point of view is never in question; those hoping for a little Kierkegaard-style moral wrestling to go along with their cool visuals will leave the multiplex disappointed. We will root for jakesully, as the Na'vi come to call him, so that by the time Sully goes all Dances with Wolves on us, those who work to oppose him have become intellectual/spiritual knuckle-draggers in our eyes. But it wouldn't be hard to rework what is here in such a way that we alternately root for Sully and clearly see what he gains through his virtual life with the Na'vi and yet also wonder with him what he loses by trading in his world on Earth for that virtual life. None of that is to imply that Avatar is bad, necessarily. I don't think it strives to be intellectually or emotionally ambitious; thus, it more than succeeds on its own terms. But in stark contrast to Pandora's world of such dazzling color, the black-and-white distinctions it makes among its agents are a little disappointing.

Last Year at Marienbad (which, thanks to a gift card from my daughters, I now own) is just the opposite: a black-and-white film that, for the right viewer, will be every bit as compelling as the film whose mood it so strongly reminded me of as I watched it last night, Hitchcock's Vertigo. Imagine a less plot-driven but still-more-detail-obsessed (and French) version of that film, and you'd be pretty close to this.

The trailer is below; if you like it the least little bit, you might possibly like all 96 minutes of this sort of thing:

(Further nudges: here's the Wikipedia entry; and here is Roger Ebert's brief but thoughtful meditation on the film; and here is something I wrote on the occasion of the death of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay. One last nudge--probably away from the film: a friend of mine told me that after he saw it a first time at a theater he learned that the projectionist had mixed up some of the reels, so he went back to see it again. He said it didn't make any difference.)

Whereas Avatar's scaffold of a plot gives that film a palimpsest-like quality such that it could be "about" any number of things, Last Year is only about itself . . . which, depending on your tastes, will either fascinate or frustrate you. As the trailer makes clear, the film expects us to be active participants in determining what--if anything--really did happen that previous year between the man and the woman. If, that is, they even met to begin with. The thing is, we can never know for sure: we can know only what we see and are told, but close watchers of the film will note that the man's descriptions of their meetings and images that accompany his descriptions often contradict each other; often, images we see in quick succession will contradict each other as well. When the woman finally seems to admit that they had indeed met, is that in fact the truth, or is she feeling so hounded by the man that she surrenders in hopes of ending his hounding? We cannot know for sure.

I think one thing we can say for certain about Last Year is that while watching it, we find ourselves inside the greatest virtual-reality machine of all: a version of one person's memory of something. The man's memory of his encounter with the woman is, for him, every bit as seductive as some people's experience with/in Second Life is for them. Yet it's important to recall that our recollection of the past and our perception of the present are reality, so far as we can be certain of such a thing. Individual memories can be seductive, but memory itself--specifically, our need to be able to rely on it--is a necessity and not a luxury. So far as we can tell, the man in Last Year really did have an encounter with the woman; his frequent request of her to "try to remember" is evocative of Scottie's request of Madeleine (and, for that matter, of Midge's request of Scottie) to "try" to recall a past that seems to elude their ability to recall it. But the key phrase there is "so far as we can tell." Whether or not he in fact did--or, for that matter, believes he did--are, for us, unknowable.

It's that final unknowableness that makes the world of Last Year a far stranger place than that of Avatar. Odd, isn't it, how CGI-generated worlds have more metaphysical certainty to them than room upon room upon room of people in evening dress.


R. Sherman said...

Geeze. When you come back to the "blogiverse," you come back with a vengeance. You really need to give us some warning or at least ease yourself (and us, your devoted readers) back into it; like maybe posting an Avatar review focusing on gratuitous nudity or something.

< / tongue-in-cheek >

The "what is real" problem, exists in so many different contexts and has existed for a long time. It's not as though humans couldn't/wouldn't flee the "here" in favor of some mind-fabricated world where all was perfect, whether that's a Hollywood serial from the thirties or Disneyworld.

For me, that's not necessarily a problem. More problematic is the trend to move into "worlds" created by others, such that our on minds atrophy when it comes to dreams/aspirations. Instead, though we may have different characters in some on-line community like Second Life or World of Warfare, each of those characters exists within a specific set of parameters created by someone else. There is no escaping those boundaries, a hurdle we don't face if our own minds are doing the creating.

Just a few disjointed thoughts. Happy New Year to you, Mrs. Meridian and your family.


dejavaboom said...

I have a couple of light-weight posts on Avatar, myself, but I found yours very, very engaging when I discovered it today. It's always inspiring to read your thoughts.

I watch Avatar for the eye candy, but I also dwell on the namesake, the avatars of our virtual worlds...I can't say I'd want to be 10 ft tall and blue, but I do experiment with my Second Life avatar quite often. I'd like to read some heavy-duty study on the choices we make in avatar development...

Anyway, it's great to read your blog again.

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for commenting on this post.

What's odd to me about Second Life (full disclosure: The Mrs. for a time was pretty heavily involved in building stuff there) is that, apart from the avis' physical quirks (which, as Deja notes, can be manipulated in various ways), that space and what one can do in/with it are pretty ordinary: you can go shopping/dancing/cruising for sexual partners there, just like in real life! It's like "centers" in a pre-school, but for adults. But whereas "centers" play allows children to act out their versions of adult roles, people's behavior in SL doesn't prepare people for real life--in fact, in extreme instances, it removes people from real life. For them, it becomes Substitute Life. And though the makers of SL work hard to create the illusion of an autonomous space within which a member can do anything s/he desires, it's hard for me to get past the fact that all those images exist in a bunch of servers in California, subject to the whims of those who own them.

I'm not blind to the strong appeal SL holds for those of us who enjoy fantasizing that we are not who we are--which is, just about, all of us. That said, though--and I could be wrong about this--does not SL argue implicitly that remaking one's own life in this world is so difficult as to not waste one's time trying? That, therefore, one should just go on being miserable in this world and, in SL, go on wid yo fantasized bad-ass self?