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The Becoming-woman of Machine in Avatar

A Comparison With The Fist of the White Lotus

[Early concept art for Cameron's Avatar]

In following up this rhizome series on Cameron’s Avatar, which involves this series of posts:

1. Avatar: The Density of Being, 2. Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope, 3.Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, 4.Is the Medium the Message? Avatar’s Avatar, 5. Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar.

I want to pick up on the last Peking Opera/Hong Kong Action reference, and open up a comparison I’ve suggested, between Avatar and the Kung Fu classic Fist of the White Lotus (1980, originally title among others Clan of the White Lotus). In each the process of education involves an implicit feminization of the more masculine powers, something that may have bearing upon both philosophical vitalism and the general fears about left, liberal, Hollywood pantheism. In Fist of the White Lotus the hero Hong Wending, played by the incomparable Gordon Liu (Liu Jiahui, forget Tarantino’s souless homage the character and actor in Kill Bill 2) seeks revenge against an evil martial arts master who has murdered nearly all of the hero’s Shaolin brethren. To be sure one has to be rather thoroughly steeped in the Hong Kong aesthetic to appreciate how the seemingly stilted plots, characters and actions of this film transcend into graced expression and very significant matters (or correspond to perceived weaknesses in Avatar), but it is enough to see that gender is under transformation in the film.

To give a sense of the storyline, Pai Mei “white eyebrows”, the evil villain high priest, has achieved a nearly undefeatable level of martial arts that required a highly choreographed combined attack of two persons, an attack used to defeat his twin brother. With the hero now a sole survivor after a White Lotus Clan ambush, having lost his martial arts compatriot, he has no way to fight this arch enemy and avenge his close friend’s death. The movie consists in Gordion Lui trying to perfect new forms of attack, and repeated showdowns that fail. The principle unusual powers that Pai Mei possesses are the bizarre defensive capacity to withdraw his genitals back into his body to protect them, and the ability to become so weightless that the force of any blow thrown just floats him back as if he were made of paper. 

At one stage in the hero’s development he comes into the tutelage of the wife of his fallen comrade, whose child she has now born. He believes that if he learns her “woman’s style” he may be able to combine it with his aggressive Crane and Tiger and finally be able to get close enough to strike his opponent. But first he must learn women’s work, he is told. This is the sequence of his feminization (the whole film is posted in parts on Youtube):

As the plot goes, this woman’s style is not sufficient to defeat the great Pai Mei, but it is componented to the skills that in the end prove necessary. The character must go through a feminization in order to draw up the powers of the feminine into his eventual expression of righteous force. Many of the social fears over the liberal creep of pantheism are no doubt linked to deeply entrenched gender notions, bodily configurations, cultural identifications with what is appropriate. One can see this in the conflict between the two kinds of technology in Avatar, the masculine puppetry and instrumental expression, machines operating in a kind of robotic Kung Fu like Hong Kong Tiger or Crane Style, and the limpid, synthetic and lithe Pandoran DNA lightness, which involved a distinct feminization of Sully’s body (the lengthening of his features and limbs, the corsetting of his waist, a general feline framing of his person). Sully learns, and becomes a mutuality of gender expressions, recovering a brute, warlike masculinity on the other side of woman. The mushy, spiritual New Ageism that makes much of the American Right recoil goes in two powerful directions. There are the strong gender (and sexuality) political questions that can at times dominate social discussion (for instance the question of Gay Marriage which rears its head and subsides with great tidal force), but these are intimately linked I believe to questions of technological synthesis, the way in which we feel the world through our technologies in such a way that they engender us, and steer us away from a much more (symbolically) masculine instrumental relationship to our capacities. The entire Gaia feminization of the world which some protest, and which marks something of the vitalisms of contemporary philosophy, are questions of immersion, how deeply should our body sink into our capacities, and feel our way forward through what is modern. The contest between instrument and embodiment is an aesthetic contest between distance and speed, something mediated by affect and our control of affects (most regularly codified and regimented in the register of gender). In this sense, the battleground of gender, in politics, and the seemingly reactionary political entrenchment on the issue of sexual rights and actions is to be expected, and in fact, respected, as the entire social body seeking equilibrium amid vast change in capacity to feel and do.

Animal, Woman, Child: Vitalism and Technology

To give some context to what is as stake, here is a selection from Deleuze and Guattari’s a thousand plateaus which I juxtapose to the gender, technological and conscience transformations of Avatar’s Sully:

What is a girl, what is a group of girls? Proust at least has shown us once and for all that their individuation, collective or singular, proceeds not by subjectivity but by haecceity, pure haecceity. “Fugitive beings.” They are pure relations of speeds and slownesses, and nothing else. A girl is late on account of her speed: she did too many things, crossed too many spaces in relation to the relative time of the person waiting for her. Thus her apparent slowness is transformed into the breakneck speed of our waiting. (292)

The girl’s becoming is stolen first, in order to impose a history, or prehistory, upon her. The boy’s turn comes next, but it is by using the girl as an example, by pointing to the girl as the object of his desire, that an opposed organism, a dominant history is fabricated for him too. The girl is the first victim, but she must also serve as an example and a trap. That is why, conversely, the reconstruction of the body as a Body without Organs, the anorganism of the body, is inseparable from a becoming-woman, or the production of a molecular woman. Doubtless, the girl becomes a woman in the molar or organic sense. But conversely, becoming-woman or the molecular woman is the girl herself. The girl is certainly not defined by virginity; she is defined by a relation of movement and rest, speed and slowness, by a combination of atoms, an emission of particles: haecceity. She never ceases to roam upon a body without organs. She is an abstract line, or a line of flight. Thus girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere, between orders, acts, ages, sexes; they produce n molecular sexes on the line of flight in relation to the dualism machines they cross right through. (297-8)

Although all becomings are already molecular, including becoming woman, it must be said that all becomings begin with and pass through becoming-woman. It is the key to all the other becomings. When the man of war disguises himself as a woman, flees disguised as a girl, hides as a girl, it is not a shameful, transitory incident in his life. To hide, to camouflage oneself, is a warrior function, and the line of flight attracts the enemy, traverses something and puts what it traverses to flight; the warrior arises in the infinity of a line of flight. Although the femininity of the man of war is not accidental, it should not be thought of as structural, or regulated by a correspondence of relations. It is difficult to see how the correspondence between the two relations “man-war” and “woman-marriage” could entail an equivalence between the warrior and the girl as a woman who refuses to marry.61 It is just as difficult to see how the general bisexuality, or even homosexuality, of military societies could explain this phenomenon, which is no more imitative than it is structural, representing instead an essential anomie of the man of war. This phenomenon can only be understood in terms of becoming. We have seen how the man of war, by virtue of his furor and celerity, was swept up in irresistible becomings-animal. These are becomings that have as their necessary condition the becoming-woman of the warrior, or his alliance with the girl, his contagion with her. The man of war is inseparable from the Amazons. The union of the girl and the man of war does not produce animals, but simultaneously produces the becoming-woman of the latter and the becoming-animal of the former, in a single “block” in which the warrior in turn becomes animal by contagion with the girl at the same time as the girl becomes warrior by contagion with the animal. Everything ties together in an asymmetrical block of becoming, an instantaneous zigzag. It is in the vestiges of a double war machine— that of the Greeks, soon to be supplanted by the State, and that of the Amazons, soon to be dissolved—that Achilles and Penthesilea, the last man of war and the last queen of the girls, choose one another, Achilles in a becoming-woman, Penthesilea in a becoming-dog.

The rites of transvestism or female impersonation in primitive societies in which a man becomes a woman are not explainable by a social organization that places the given relations in correspondence, or by a psychic organization that makes the woman desire to become a man just as the man desires to become a woman.62 Social structure and psychic identification leave too many special factors unaccounted for: the linkage, unleashing, and communication of the becomings triggered by the transvestite; the power (puissance) of the resultant becoming-animal; and above all the participation of these becomings in a specific war machine. The same applies for sexuality: it is badly explained by the binary organization of the sexes, and just as badly by a bisexual organization within each sex. Sexuality brings into play too great a diversity of conjugated becomings; these are like n sexes, an entire war machine through which love passes. This is not a return to those appalling metaphors of love and war, seduction and conquest, the battle of the sexes and the domestic squabble, or even the Strindberg-war: it is only after love is done with and sexuality has dried up that things appear this way. What counts is that love itself is a war machine endowed with strange and somewhat terrifying powers. Sexuality is the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings. Sexuality proceeds by way of the becoming-woman of the man and the becoming-animal of the human: an emission of particles. (299-300)

In a strong and distinct sense, every technological evolution requires a becoming-woman, a becoming-animal, a becoming-child, which necessarily must also involve distinct political reterritorialization of categories, a reaction, at the social-political level. Techologies are micro- molecular invasions of affect upon the body politic, one might say, and involve necessary immunological response.

Peking Opera and the Aesthetic Freedoms of Avatar

The Kung fu, Wuxia and Opera in Avatar

I was listening to a famous opera actress speak of her transition to film and her telling of how much control she had to bring her face and gestures under called to mind a connection between the operatic and Cameron’s film Avatar. As I argued in my post Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface, Avatar exhibited a new relationship between actorly expression and synthetic environment, facilitated by new, data-dense facial motion capture. The face became the plane of an artifice’s reality, taking advantage the power of the Hollywood close-up. The entire virtual world is in a sense sewn to the actor’s plane through the directorial affective synthesis of event, movement and volume. What occurrs is that cinema indeed went through a similar transformation in the genre of Hong Kong “kung fu” Action Film, which became an aesthetic expression of Peking Opera (a highly stylized, acrobatic and often melo-dramatic or mythological artform). In Kung Fu films of the 70s and 80s, the extreme physicality of Peking formal expression was married to the fantasy tradition of “chivalrous knight” wuxia literature from early in the century (the Shaw Brothers among others), then splitting into more gritty conflict themes, or the spatial expansions of famed “wire-fu”. Throughout strong moral and fantasy elements struggled in an invented space, imbued with spiritual messaging and social criticism. In a feature now almost lost to action cinema, one saw the character of a martial arts figure expressed in his or her fight style or capabilities, in world imbued with moral positioning. 

Many see all sorts of ethnic or sociological loom-work in Cameron’s Avatar, and perhaps this is much to be analyzed there, but in many ways it is an unfurling of the mythological, wuxia elements found in 70s and 80s that found their telling of personal development and realization from early films as diverse as the immortal death scene gangster classic The Boxer from Shantung to mytho-poetic gender questioning in The Fist of the White Lotus all the way to the CGI Tsui Hark remake of his own wire-fu fantasy icon, The Legend of Zu (to which I had already compared the film, among many others: Avatar: The Density of Being ).These are a vast array of an cinematic ouvre, and make perhaps the very best interpretative touchstone for both the seemingly simple-minded moral spritualism (much criticized), and the acute physical actor and environmental acrobatics. What seems likely is that while the wuxia and Peking purities began to lose much of their character force as the wire-fu transformations of space and human expression became more baroque and absurd, and budgets became bigger, the genuine transformation of Peking Opera’s masked formalism though the Hollywood close-up that Hong Kong action brought about, the way that it was able to stitch subjectivity back into the historically momentous and mythological scene and enable a person to conceive of the moral force of every angle and posture of their physical frame, has been reborn in Cameron’s technological re-invention of 3D and Capture. It can be argued that Hong Kong wire-fu with its elaborate in-space camera swing was the first 3D directorial interface of the kind that Cameron synthetically achieved in Avatar. In Cameron’s allegory, the simple, mythological and personal are woven through, but this time the acrobatics of the performer are embodied in the almost muscular transformations of space itself. Environment becomes the mutual expression of anatomy and technology. It is no longer spiritual and physical geniuses transcending the mundane world, but rather a realization that a world itself is intimately linked to both anatomy and character. What remains is of course the acolyte, studying to find the rudiments of graceful and powerful exposition, the same story of the warrior seeking to perfect or unlock a secret power, but here the metamorphosis is that of trying to enter into and fit both an anatomy and a world, a world full of capabilities beyond our common reconnoiter. A question of conscience.

Two Vectors of Avatar’s Cinematic Achievement: Affect and Space Interface

There were two primary technological achievements that guided the transmutive possibilities that mark out what made James Cameron’s Avatar special innovations organized around aesthetic problems, and here I just want to sketch them out to give greater depth to my other thoughts about the film: Avatar: The Density of Being,  Avatarship and the New Man: Reading Ideology, Technology and Hope. Each of these two indicate the very dimensionality of human aesthetic avatarship – the ability, or path to reading worth through inhabited subjectivity – or at least suggest a landscape for future digital and so-called “virtual world” aesthetically culled interactions.

The first of these was the problem of the Uncanny Valley, the way in which approximations of human beings, if too proximate, create a disturbing sense of alienness such that one cannot (or should not) identify with the portrayed subject. (I thoroughly reject a Fruedian or even Lacanian reading of the Uncanny, for both its essentially optical and repressive analogies, but certainly the effect of the Uncanny Valley is an epistemically important one.) The problem that Cameron faced was that no matter how much tweaking was done to motion capture, the actorly performance, the emotionality, one might want to say its reality, was lost within this valley. The Pandorans were both too human, and not human enough. In short I would say this reality involves a kind of temporal and physionomic threshold of reflection, the way in which internal events (taken to be subjective and expressed facially) within certain thresholds of timing and intensity, can be read as expressing both the states of being, as well as their causal relationships to a shared and external world. The reality of this causal interface is one in which something like the musicality of the actor (emphasizing both the structure and expression) allows internal events to enforce the reality of external ones, confirming the appropriateness of our own internal events-experiences, the three of them forming a data-rich, self-supporting resonance. The overcoming of the uncanny valley in faces was achieved by the actors wearing small cameras which hovered over their facial expressions, along with painstaking, algorithmic conversion of that capture into the avatar’s digital “rig” (a framework of facial representations). A feedback loop of Cameron’s aesthetic approval and technique adjustment fine-tuned the effect such that actorly experiences and expressions found their proper topological space within a virtual and artistic world.

The second problem answered was that of Cameron’s own directorial powers, the ability to author directions to actors in the realtime context of the imaginary enviroment itself. This was achieved through a lens-less “swing camera” which in low-resolution allowed Cameron to drift through the volume (virtual environment) in such a way that his vision and actor performance was granted a threshold of interface which surely imbued communications between them with a specific vital co-expression. The result was that the actor’s spontaneous expression driven by character was melded through the director to an unseen environment, in real time.  The actor could express and m0ve with a certain watery autonomy, and her or his director could side by side focus the actor’s attention to this or that, viewing the sythesized result. Intersubjective triangulation  attained a kind of spatial freedom never before in human expression, we might risk,  a ring of Gyges vector of invisible yet corporeal cohesion holding together the creative agents. It was as if Van Gogh could enter his painting and talk to his paints (which is something artists “do” in one way or other all the same). An odd product of this technology of performance and capture was that the actors no longer had to act TO the camera (or even the space), but rather could lock onto the narrative itself, almost with stage purity, freed from even makeup and costume (this freedom is not entirely new, but it is linked to a new communicative assemblage). The volume in a sense, came to be enveloped around them, directed in real time, back upon the narratological thread which inhabited the actors, through the intersubjective creativity of the director. In this manner, narrative and characterization acquire a near novelistic isolation, appearing at the surface of the actor’s affective skin and muscular terminus, forming a layer, sewn back into a wider fantastic perspective come out of the technological and auteur armature, through which the actor is guided. A final remarkable aspect of this artistic process is that the director, after a performance, can then move back through the volume and performance and rephotograph it, in the real time of the performance itself, allowing the performance and volume to dictate to the camera in unanticipated catalysis with the director’s experience of both the space and the emotion. And this synthesis becomes that of the audience member as well, threading the affect and space interface into its final product, aesthetic avatarship proper.

What is sure is that these new capacities: actor freed from camera and costume, director freed to create volume and actor counterpoint, the intersubjectivity of the communications between the two resewing narrative (and character) to volume in a different way, and lastly the emotional richness of a facialized register (a plane on which it all can cohere and appear to emanate), create a synthesis beyond thresholds previously conceived, wrenching out a powerful redistribution of what can be done with the twins: affect and space.

The above produced out of information found at Popular Mechanics: How James Cameron’s Innovative New 3D Tech Created Avatar

[click on either for larger image]

Here in diagram and example are the two registers of space and affect which Cameron’s techique worked to free from each other, an aesthetic freedom of camera/eye selection which both can coordinate performance amid the fantastic environment (volume), and also select out a framing of that performance with temporal autonomy. The actor is given relative narrative freedom from staging, the director becomes inter-subjective toggle, and the facialized plane grounds the emotional and volume real.

Avatar: The Density of Being

Let’s just say that I am recovering. It is a carefully sculpted onslaught, discretely spaced with only a few flaws, but an onslaught nonetheless. And I am recovering. It’s Pocahontas meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly meets Alien meets Coming Home meets Dragonheart meets Dersu Uzala  meets Brainstorms meets Total Recall meets The Legend of Zu meets Tron meets Dances with Wolves meets Final Fantasy IV meets Logan’s Run, all of this meeting Ecological Crisis ideology meets Indigenous nostalgia meets Disney ethnic cliché and New Age ascension, and all of that sum colliding with the categorical mytho-aesthetic effect of the first Star Wars and possibly 2001. The storylines and plot topologies proliferate at animation-cell frame rates so synthesized, so graced, they are no longer borrowings, but rather operate like flipped gateways for infusions that simply cannot be qualified, nor controled. The movie downloads the viewer with such ferocity and such poetic space the film bends back cinema upon itself, and introduces its content – the question of Avatarship – into the very experience, pulling out from technological increase and its inherent relatability the buried question of sensitivity, connection and projected identification, in short, the implied organic mutuality in everything our machines have brought us. Cameron and his magicians in such a threshold defying 3D invade our bodies and throw out our affects into the arms and sinews of operators which defy all of our repeated attempts to take map of where we are. This past movie recognition, this ethnic familiarity – are the Pandorans African Maasai, elegant Native American Indians, Thai-Myanmar Pa Dong Karen, naked Amazon natives, or even cats – inundates and torques the viewer in a transport that is more than pleasured, more than reflective. It is free…free in only the sense that aesthetic renewal can be free. One is tossed outward amid the equally familiar ideological landscapes of ecological nightmare (however this reads for you), and you are vividly aware of its artifice. But in that practical synthetics the technological nervature examines you and opens you out across the help even to your well-honed intellectual compass. You rifle through cartographies, all of them familiar, all of them critically engaged, but grid on grid, none of them suffice. The imagined-to-be trite self-discovery of the main character’s authentic warrior thymotic spirit (that template) sheds all of is scales amid an interaction with image and physical movement that perhaps only equals the dislocations and alien projections of scuba or spacewalk. If anything else is communicated here, technology is sense, and sense is technology, within the scope of global concern. Nevermind that every Na’vi looks the connotations of every supermodel distortion of mundane biology. Nevermind that videogame freedoms populate with every stigma of ideological absorption. Nevermind that mythologies fragment into flattened space confrontations. The whole thing escalates far beyond its means, revealing how Ideals throw us forwards, how when technologies and techniques are sufficient, they compel the spirit into new-born orbits of extreme decay and apogee, flights that must have been there in the thousands of memory verses when one of Homer’s avatars was repeating the invented history of the Greeks with muscular hexemeter and rhythm in the residue glow of camp-fires.

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