Bright Lights Film Journal

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”: Avatar’s Psychedelic Fantasy

“What entertains us may be shaping us.”

“James Cameron’s Avatar has collected a smattering of controversy. Some of the hue and cry has involved matters of political allegory and theological implication, as pundits have divined that this globally popular blockbuster may represent a veiled ideological attack on America, capitalism, humanity, monotheism or all of the above.”
— A.O. Scott, “This Article Is Not Yet Rated,” nytimes.com/2010/01/24

“Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes . . .
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers
That grow so incredibly high.”
— “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” The Beatles

“I create my own reality,” she says when he says something about something being real and having to be faced. She’s a new character on a TV show called Mercy; she’s the free-wheeling, every-time-she-shows-up-something-goes-wrong twentysomething sister of a doc in Mercy hospital who has served a couple of tours in Iraq (read “real world”). She’s a character who’s becoming legion in TV and film and easily found on Facebook, a personal reality-creating “social” venue. A great deal that’s not packaged in the “I” falls by the wayside because of this “I create my own reality” attitude but “entertainments” — think of the film Avatar for instance — are more instantly disposable than taxes, cancer, and gravity. If it doesn’t amuse us personally, it doesn’t exist. We all choose to see what we want to see. We all can be as creative as the director, James Cameron, because an interactive experience is what any art is all about. It gives the viewer a chance to, well, create his or her own reality.

But what if the world is not awaiting our creative efforts? What if a lot of stuff goes on without, or regardless of, our consideration? What if our particular eyeball lens focusing is mostly directed by what other people, living and dead, have said, done, created? What if we live within mediating stories of us and world of both present and historical fabrication? It seems to me then that the entertainments of popular culture by virtue of their story-making powers have a creative role in shaping the “I” that believes it’s creating the movie as well as the “I” that won’t take the movie seriously. What entertains us then may be shaping us.

I could preface anything I’ve ever said about film and culture in this way, but it’s especially apt when talking about Avatar because it is so allied to a computerized fantastical video game, so outrageously removed from “hard reality” and yet so incestuously entangled in “the world is anything I make of it” hype that it’s a throwaway for the “entertainment only” crowd and nurture for the “paint your own reality” crowd. But if we stay with the film and neither dismiss it nor reinvent it, what hold does it have on us, if any?

It comes to me that the “technogimmickry” is like the packaging of a dream, a cover that enables what cannot be said to be said or, in this case, visualized. You want to say that capitalism is no more than greed in search of “Unobtanium,” that the human race has to totally empty itself of everything that has made it what it is, that we have no privileged place on the Earth but must be one with it, that we Americans are the terrorists we seek to find elsewhere, that we cannot see others because we are lost in our own selfhoods. Of course, “you” do not want to say this, or, only those not at the Tea Party want to say this. And that is James Cameron’s plight. How to say all that in a present real-world context and not have it all swallowed up in the intense divisiveness that surrounds such polemical declarations?

Every film that has tried to delve into, for instance, the dark weirdness of everything done since 9/11 has become entangled in the cross-wiring of the tale itself. The simple strokes of pen and camera that Cameron makes — “we will fight terror with terror, so let’s launch a pre-emptive strike”; “your head is too filled; it needs to be emptied”; and so on — indicate that he can express a raw, primitive yearning but not complicated ideas. But if one brushes aside the contentious muddling of every word and every event that hits the headlines, made possible by our truly dexterous agents of spin, there is a kind of “Emperor Without Clothes” scene clearly visible in the U.S. today. So I think Cameron’s critique, which appropriately remains on a “Me Tarzan, you Jane” level, is no more profound than, but as significant as, the boy of the fable who announces the Emperor’s nakedness.

Because there is a belatedness to Cameron’s attempt at some critical gesture in this film, his significant thought comes across as more comical than significant. What have we got in the way of congenital defects in our American Exceptionalism? Throw’em in. A Salon critic mocks them all deservedly: “We must be one with Nature.” “We face a corporatization of military power.” “Let’s be fair to the Indians.” “Let’s keep our ponytails plugged into the Life Force.”1 Indians on ponies with bows and arrows — call them the Na’vi and the ponies are weird looking — vanquish the sophisticated attack machines of gung-ho Marines.

Sounds like box cutters against stealth bombers. The Primitive, whether red or blue, is noble and we’re not. Ten-foot-high blue people living in a psychedelic world face no energy, toxicity, global warming, water shortage problems —they’ve taken the right path, the one that plugs them into a planetary ch’i. We humans, however, are sent back to our failing planet, taking our greed, violence, blindness, and “science” with us. The Aliens are better than us. This attack is very much like the jejeune and silly, scattered and fractured, intense but shallow, the eternally inchoate, prefatory emotional and raw countercultural clamor of the ’60s. A primogenial simple gesture of pointing a finger at what was clearly visible but not seen. A wrong turn made from the path of American progress Newt Gingrich protested, summing up that countercultural gesture. And yet we suddenly saw much that we hadn’t seen before, everything from a Free Speech movement to environmental concerns to women’s right to civil rights to an unraveling of the materialistic fabric of the American Dream.

I would say the Tea Party Nation now occupies that preludial post, making a very elemental yawp at their Emperor — President Obama — and announcing his nakedness in spite of his easeful confidence and declamatory style. Whether their rude beginnings bear fruit, as did the ’60s countercultural movement or the ’80s Reaganite counter-counterculture movement, is now unknowable. But what is clear is that Avatar points to nothing we have not seen before, or more fatally, no fire that has not already been stolen and extinguished by the Tea Partiers, who have lit a far different fire of their own.

What riddles and troubles the American mass psyche are not the unworked gestures toward radical meaning or revolutionary attack that have nevertheless made Avatar itself a target. Monotheists object to the pantheism; Tea Party patriots object to the anti-Americanism; corporations object to being given the villain’s part; capitalists object to being cast as predatory; anti-smokers object to Sigourney Weaver chain smoking; scientists object to their science being jettisoned by forest people; and homo sapien sapiens object to being cast as the worst virus to invade any planet. What I find foreboding is the premise of Avatar: we will one day have the cybertechnogimmickry to lay ourselves aside and enter a tall, lithe body, meet “a girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” and “follow her down to a bridge by a fountain.” Is it not ironic that Cameron points us toward a more attuned and attached way of being in the natural world, of basking in its natural beauties without seeking to exploit or transform, a kind of beckoning back to Walden Pond, while at the same time taking us on a magical mystery tour that leads us into a virtualized cyberspace that leaves the “off-line” world behind?

Those who “create their own reality” will soon have a much easier time of it when virtual reality programs are on sale at Best Buy and Wal-Mart. “Picture yourself in a boat on a river.” But never on a polluted river that may need a grassroots environmental movement to clean up. Those who don’t want or don’t find any meaning in entertainments can spend endless hours in a virtualized reality looking for “the girl with the sun in her eyes.” The scariest part of Avatar is not in the script but in what the computer has put before our eyes. It’s Cameron’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but it is a preview, a trailer, for a technology that will make us all directors, all capable of withdrawing into a cyberspace zone of private creation where we all picture ourselves as we want to be and picture the world as we want it to be. And the natural world that Cameron wants us to return to? Unattended, like Detroit and Flint, the Bronx and New Orleans. A very scary movie in the end.

  1. Stephanie Zacharek, “Avatar: Dances with Aliens.” Salon, Dec. 18, 2009. []