Avatar’s Unfilmable Secret
Posted by Cameron McAllister on July 8, 2010
Avatar’s imagery is James Cameron’s attempt at pointing toward something that no budget in the world can furnish, and that no filmmaker, no matter how intrepid, could hope to capture within the scope of his or her lens. The kaleidoscopic frenzy filling each frame is little more than a signpost pointing toward something the sight of which would confound even the most inspired of poets. James Cameron has dedicated his career to the pursuit of sparing your imagination any labor. His films reveal such a sweeping panorama of extravagant imagery that any protest soon turns to praise. And it seems only fair to ask: who among us possesses the budget necessary to see our dreams reaching for us through the boundary of a theater screen? But Avatar is lavish even by Cameron’s Olympian standards. The 3-D medium seems to remove a final partition between the film and audience, ensuring the already striking imagery a higher level of dynamism. The formidable task of getting past Avatar’s visuals would thus seem a feat accomplishable by only the most arcane of ascetics. In spite of its sensory lambast, however, Avatar is most remarkable for what it chooses to conceal from the camera. For several years, Avatar was considered a cinematic impossibility, compelling Cameron to engineer a technology capable of keeping up with his imagination. For over ten years, Avatar became not so much a production as a hermitage housing a select few whose dedication would have approached the monastic were it not for the appeasement of secular profits. But the billions of dollars garnered nationwide by the film have done little to diminish the religious feeling that pervades it. There are several stock charges brought against films whose massive budgets preclude them from occupying a position of hip marginality, and whose universal box-office success signals a dearth of artistic integrity for those who languish under the delusion that art doesn’t cost money. Put simply, Avatar is too big to be taken seriously. Yet I will here beg the reader to allow me the rather tentative conceit of defending Avatar on artistic grounds despite the fact that it has currently exhausted all box-office records. First, let the detractors have their due. The plot is an obligatory rehearsal of themes so universal that Disney has all but dispensed with them since Pocahontas was released. An Edenic world of virginal purity is threatened by a group of greedy usurpers whose sense of value extends only as far as a quarterly budget statement. The world is inhabited and maintained by an elegant race of slender beings called the Na’vi, who seem to have borrowed their hue from Blue Man Group. Avatar’s script is so remarkably threadbare that very few lines are capable of elevating it above the merely incidental, and one has to wonder whether Cameron’s use of 3-D is an attempt to add dimensions where there truly are none. Another challenge is the trap Cameron has set for the critic. The planet is called Pandora. Said planet has a “tree of life.” The priceless mineral driving all of these company plunderers to such frenetic heights of environmental destruction is given the decidedly lackluster title of “unobtainium.” As enticing as it is to become entangled in this thicket, it is not my desire to take Cameron’s bait, so to speak. We do the man a disservice to dismiss Avatar as nothing more than another pagan detour, or as a vintage exercise in freelance politics, Hollywood style. Cameron’s aims are higher, and Avatar is a better film than that. In the end, I doubt that it much matters that Avatar is an aggregate of recycled Hollywood myths or pagan themes. Indeed, calling Avatar’s storyline unoriginal is a conceit that becomes comical when we apply it to any other creative field. Put simply, there are no new stories; the list of narratives at our disposal has, and always will be, a limited one. Any critic seeking to discredit James Joyce’s Ulysses on the basis of its debt to Homer would surely meet with little sympathy in the academy. Similarly, no one has ever derided Dante for his rather crude treatment of Virgil in the Inferno. Avatar’s lasting significance lies not in the ubiquity of its themes but in the way in which Cameron has chosen to represent them—namely, by keeping the most powerful force of the film concealed from the lens of his camera. This immense force upholding Cameron’s variegated world of visual wonders is remarkably adept at avoiding the camera. For a film as image-saturated as Avatar, this is a conspicuous omission on the director’s part. Yet, the only person privy to the wonders of Eywa, as this maternal force is known, is a woman on the threshold of death, who declares with a smile of serene resignation, “She’s real, Jake.” Real to a degree beyond the “fearful symmetry” of Pandora’s wild fauna; real to a degree beyond the iridescent heterogeneity of the planet’s lush vegetation; real beyond the rustic wonders of the Na’vi—and accessible only in privileged moments of prayerful supplication. Here is Avatar’s apex.
Glory Beyond Description
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once made the rather colossal claim that he had unassailably solved all philosophical problems. A measure of modesty entered into the equation, however, when he declared that the most significant portions of reality were beyond the grasp of language. The most important of truths have to be shown, not said. That is, delivering a formal lecture on the anatomy of kindness and charity will not accomplish a fraction of what a simple act of kindness can communicate in a manner of seconds. Consequently, language stands defenseless before divinity in Wittgenstein’s estimation. The only vessel capable of conveying such immensity must be analogical. Analogy, properly understood from a philosophical standpoint, concerns “the power of a single [statement] to refer to two different realities without being reduced to a single meaning or divided into two utterly different meanings.” (1) If we magnify the analogical argument underneath a theological lens, we see that for a divine being such as Eywa, essence and existence become inextricable; they are one and the same. (2) This means that the created order of Pandora is imbued with its maker’s impress, that Eywa pervades her creation, and that this creation obligingly points back toward its maker. But the creation is not the maker, nor the maker the creation; both remain distinct but are traversed by Eywa. This is why she is beyond the jurisdiction of Cameron’s lens. In order for the divine analogy to hold, it must not surrender its meaning too completely to either side of the equation. As Christians we acknowledge a similar paradox when we recognize that, as mortal beings, we nurture both a temporal and an eternal nature simultaneously. We know that our physical bodies are bound for the cemetery, but that our souls will live on in spite of our perished flesh. Maximus the Confessor famously remarked that man is perched precariously between the grave and eternity. I want to suggest that Avatar’s imagery is Cameron’s attempt at pointing toward something that no budget in the world can furnish, and that no filmmaker, no matter how intrepid, could hope to capture within the scope of his or her lens. Avatar is Cameron’s answer to Wittgenstein’s challenge to show rather than say. Yet, dazzling as it is, the kaleidoscopic frenzy filling each frame is little more than a signpost, a beacon at best, pointing toward something the sight of which would confound even the most inspired of poets. Perhaps I give Cameron too much credit, but I believe that his hope is to show divinity through the use of analogy, and Avatar’s unforgettable imagery betrays the film’s unfilmable secret. In a world of unfettered visuals where the most obscene acts of self-disclosure meet with the public’s unanimous approval and no defilement is too base for our cinematic consumption, I find it a comforting notion that Cameron concedes that there are still some things that are too sacred to be filmed. Where Avatar’s lens fails is where it succeeds the most admirably. Make no mistake, I am not here endorsing Cameron’s take on divinity. My theological convictions remain unabashedly orthodox. I simply wish to suggest that Avatar’s lasting significance subsists in the religious reality to which it points. Had we seen Eywa, we would have had another Clash of the Titans, a spectacle committed to nothing more than the tricks available within Cameron’s special-effects arsenal. What we have is a film dedicated to that which is sacred, and what may be seen as naivety by some, I see as a profound lack of cynicism on Cameron’s part. He recognizes his own inadequacy to capture the “unfilmable.” Psalm 8 is a revelation of a poet’s glorious inadequacy. A paradox presents itself here: that which is being described is beyond description, utterly eluding the economy of the psalmist’s grammar. His words remain inept before this Being who has made him “a little lower than God,” and who graciously chooses to “crown him with glory and majesty,” granting him the privilege of ruling over creation (verses 5-6). Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson says that the “strategy of the Psalmist is to close the infinite distance between God and humankind by confounding all notions of scale.” (3) Thus, the heavens themselves, surely the most ubiquitous scale of immensity, are made minute, little more than the work of God’s fingers (verse 3). Nevertheless, we recognize that no image can show us what the psalmist is speaking about, no burning bushes, no wheels bejeweled with eyes, and certainly no poem, not even this most glorious of all poems. But the psalmist can point and shine the light of his beacon toward God who created him. Likewise, might we proclaim with whatever tools or gifts we have at our disposal, “O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Thy name in all the earth.”
Cameron McAllister works with RZIM’s marketing and development team and is the son of Stuart McAllister.
(1) David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath:Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 173.
(3) Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought(New York: Picador, 1998), 240.