The elongated skull at the feet of the world travelers in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors embodies the gaze. It marks the interruption of mastery amid the plenitude of the image.
For Jacques Lacan, the gaze is the point at which the spectator’s desire is caught within the image. It is an object that stains the visual field with the subject’s desire.
3D projection allows the spectator to plug into the world depicted on the screen in the way that the Na’vi plug into the beasts of Pandora.
Improvements in 3D technology make possible close-ups that disrupt the spectator’s immersion in the filmic world.
The close-up lifts the image out of space and time. It reveals the division of the world that the film depicts.
It is as if Jake dreams himself as his avatar, and the position of the dreamer is open to the encounter with trauma.
For review Stuart Klawans, Jake’s passivity indicates the limits of Cameron’s political imagination in Avatar.
Rather than showing the hero’s individual victory over the villain, Avatar concludes Neytiri rescuing him.
The humans return to Earth at the conclusion of Avatar, while Jake remains behind to give up his humanity.
The concluding close-up evinces Jake’s separation from the world of Pandora at the moment when he fully immerses himself in it.
The process of Jake becoming a Na’vi undermines the image of maternal wholeness that it suggests.
The end of Avatar shows the impotence of the Quaritch’s paternal authority, despite all the damage he inflicts.
When the beasts of Pandora attack, the incompleteness of nature itself becomes apparent.
The beauty of Pandora is inseparable from the violence that meets human aggression in the film.
Cameron’s films demand that we see the mother as a horrifying monster and a tender caregiver at the same time.
Avatar updates Freud’s idea that one must conceive the mother as sexualized by insisting that one also conceive nature as sexualized.
Jake experiences the joy and the terror of witnessing a sexualized nature. Eywa’s sexualization saves him and also destroys the image of natural wholeness.
The visual link that Avatar forges between plenitude and death or lack echoes the connection that Jacques Lacan identifies in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors when Lacan introduces his concept of the gaze.[open endnotes in new window] The painting provides an exemplary case of the gaze because it depicts two wealthy world travelers with the many riches they have accumulated, but it juxtaposes them with a distorted skull in the foreground that only becomes intelligible when one looks from above and the side. This skull announces the hidden truth of the viewing subject as well as that of the travelers themselves. Lacan notes,
The Ambassadors offers the viewer a world of plentitude—fine clothes, exotic instruments, globes, maps, tapestry, and books—on which to look and speculate. Viewers can identify themselves with the world travelers depicted in the painting, or they can imagine themselves surrounded by the riches of these men. But despite efforts of identification or imagination, the subject does not exist in the picture except through the depiction of its evanescence in the gaze.
The gaze marks the point where the subject is in the picture, not objectively as a representation, but as the distortion of the picture created by the subject’s desire. Every picture—and every film—is organized around a desire, and the vanishing point of this organizing desire is the gaze. According to Lacan,
Most films go to great lengths to obscure the gaze and thus to hide the manifestation of spectator desire from spectators themselves. When one encounters one’s own desire in the form of the gaze, the objectivity and solidity of the world collapses. It becomes apparent that the visual world exists not as an independent entity but only through the distortion of the subject’s desire. In Hegel’s terms, the gaze shows that the world in itself is for the subject.
In The Ambassadors, Holbein shows the gaze through the double valence of the skull in the middle of the painting. It is at once an incoherent blot and a skull, depending on the position from which one looks at it. In Avatar Cameron accomplishes the same doubling through his use of the cut linking the passivity of Jake in his pod to the plenitude of Pandora. Just as one can look at The Ambassadors without acknowledging the skull, one can watch Avatar without paying attention to the images of Jake immobilized. But to do so means missing true import of the painting and the film. Such a viewing will remain dissatisfying because it entails a scrupulous avoidance of the gaze, and it is the gaze that holds the key to our interest in anything that we see.
The gaze does not manifest itself only when viewing paintings or when attending the cinema. We can encounter the gaze at any time, but the structure of our daily life has a tendency to obscure its visibility. The barrier that daily life erects relative to the gaze is the active role that the subject adopts. Activity blocks the appearance of the gaze because it allows the subject to orient itself away from trauma. In the cinema, one can close one’s eyes, but as long as they remain open, one remains at the whim of the film’s depiction. The subject follows the images rather than actively directing them. The film dictates one’s look, and this constraint makes possible the encounter with the gaze. When the subject takes conscious charge of its own look, it avoids the gaze.
One of the chief effects of 3D technology might be the narrowing of the gap between everyday experience and the experience of the cinema. With this technology, the cinema loses its characteristic flatness that keeps spectators at a distance; now it surrounds them with the illusion of a whole world. In this sense, 3D technology enhances the danger that Jean-Louis Baudry identifies with the cinema in his classic essay “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” As Baudry sees it, the conditions of cinematographic production and exhibition obscure the discontinuity of the world and the experience of it. While discussing the actual structure of the typical film, he notes that
While traditional filmic projection effaces the gap between images, 3D technology threatens to efface the gap between the subject and the screen that the physical distance between the spectator and the flat screen sustains. Even if identification breaks down this distance, it always has the ability to make itself in the traditional projection situation in a way that the sense of wholeness created by 3D projection renders less possible.
But the improvement in 3D photography that enables Cameron to make Avatar actually serves to undermine the wholeness of the 3D world. Cameron himself helped to develop advanced stereoscopic cameras that would permit him to film effective close-ups in 3D, which was not possible with earlier 3D technology. Until this technology was viable, Cameron refused to begin making the film. The exigency of the close-up in the 3D film derives from the association between the close-up and the gaze. When a film cuts from a long shot to a close-up, it punctures a hole in the filmic world and identifies this hole with the spectator’s desire.
The great theorist of the close-up, Béla Balázs, points out that the close-up does not simply isolate an object within the world in which it exists. Instead, it actually creates the illusion that the object no longer exists in the world at all. As he puts it in his Theory of Film (1952),
The close-up testifies to the incompletion of the filmic world, to a hole within the whole. By lifting an object out of its world, the close-up indicates the irreducibility of an object to the visual world. As the phenomenon of the close-up implicitly communicates, the object that animates our desire cannot be mapped onto the space of its world. It is part of this world without belonging to it. By uniting the close-up with 3D photography, Cameron highlights the dividedness of the world he depicts, despite its apparent fullness.
Earlier 3D technology that did not make use of stereoscopic cameras did not create the fullness of the filmic world that appears in Avatar. This fullness breaks down the barrier between the cinema and life, which impacts negatively the capacity of film to present the gaze. But at the same time, the earlier technology limited the ability of filmmakers to shoot close-ups, and the close-up separates the cinema from life insofar as it separates the object from its world and thereby serves as a vehicle for the gaze. Just as technology seems to eliminate the gaze as a cinematic possibility, that same technology gives birth to new forms of its emergence.
The key to the potential radicality of the cinema lies not in the flatness of the screen but in the passivity of the spectator. At first glance, the spectator’s passivity presents an obvious danger. If one is passive, one allows events to happen to oneself and even submits to injury without struggle. This is why no one uses the adjective “passive” as a term of approbation. In contrast, we esteem activity and the ability to assert oneself, even if at times it goes too far. But the passivity that inheres in cinematic spectatorship is, as many film theorists have pointed out, akin to the passivity of the dreamer. In each case, passivity allows for an encounter that would otherwise be impossible. The passivity of the spectator and the dreamer functions as a barrier to our usual avoidance of an encounter with trauma, an avoidance that proliferates in everyday waking life. Being an active subject is a way of not knowing the trauma that undergirds our subjectivity and that manifests itself in the form of the gaze, and it is only when we give in to certain forms of passivity—as in the dream and in the cinema—that we acquaint ourselves with this trauma.
In this sense, there is a vast difference between a film and a video game. The video game permits an active participation that the cinema completely precludes. Janet Murray, an early theorist of video games and virtual reality, notices the fundamental difference between video games and all forms of storytelling, inclusive of cinema. She points out,
Murray prefers the video game to the straightforward narrative of the cinema because it enables some degree of mastery, even if it is only the mastery of manipulating one’s thumbs. The conflict between the video game and the cinema actually manifests itself within Avatar at the film’s conclusion.
For those who dismiss Avatar as a film that marries dazzling special effects with a hackneyed story, the concluding fight between Quaritch and Jake appears to provide the ultimate confirmation of their thesis concerning the film. The final struggle between Jake and Quaritch has all the trappings of Hollywood’s ideological denouement, in which the socioeconomic dimension of the antagonism falls out and a physical struggle ensues where the psychology of the villain takes center stage. Up to this point in the film, Quaritch has been pursuing the interests of the corporation looking to mine the planet, but when he fights Jake, he abandons any concern beyond the fight itself. His individual homicidal psychosis trumps the villainy of the structural evil and allows the spectator to personalize evil. When he fights with Jake, the imperial dimension of the soldiers’ presence on Pandora disappears. Socioeconomic exploitation transforms into a question of physical strength and fighting ability, and the film even shows the very capable Neytiri trapped and able only to watch the fight. The male hero’s physical defeat of the villain promises to solve the problem of imperial exploitation and to restore a complementary sexual relation. With the concluding fight, Cameron appears to present a political account only to turn away from it.
Slavoj Zizek notices this pattern as one of the primary ways in which Hollywood uses violence ideologically. Pointing to the fight between Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) and Dr. Charles Nichols (Jerome Crabbé) at the end of The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993), Zizek sees physical filmic violence as functioning in order to hide an awkward critique of capitalism. When Kimble confronts Nichols at a medical conference about the forged results of his medical research for a pharmaceutical company, Nichols physically attacks Kimble and transforms from a intellectual researcher into a cartoon-like villain. The fight between Kimble and Nichols has no antecedent and represents a radical narrative divergence. As Zizek points out,
Though the climactic scene from The Fugitive is representative, it is far from the most egregious incidence of this thoroughly ideological phenomenon.
For most of its running time, Ironman (Jon Favreau, 2008) mounts a critique of the military industrial complex through the depiction of an U.S. company arming the enemy. The status of the film’s hero Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as himself an arms manufacturer complicates this critique and threatens to include the spectator in the film’s indictment. But the absurd fight that breaks out at the end of Ironman enables the film to change its trajectory and exculpate Stark (and the spectator). The film concludes with a physical confrontation between Stark and his business partner Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who ends up being solely responsible for the nefarious arms trading. Even more significantly than in The Fugitive, the concluding fight nullifies the film’s critical edge by removing any guilt from the hero. Though more like the case of The Fugitive than that of Ironman, the final violence in Avatar does seem to fit nicely into Zizek’s analysis. Here, the socioeconomic struggle devolves into a personal one, and through this devolution, physical violence eviscerates the political critique. But as with the misleading image of the great mother of Pandora that predominates throughout most of Avatar, the physical violence of this scene in Cameron’s film belies its initial indication.
The fight between Jake and Quaritch is not just a fight between two different individuals (one heroic and one villainous) but one between two different modes of subjectivity that correspond, respectively, to the video game player (or virtual reality participant) and the film spectator. While Jake is in his avatar (and thus passively lying in his tube), Quaritch enters into a large prosthetic machine that he operates through the movements of his arms and legs. Their fight is thus radically asymmetrical: Quartich actually moves his body, and Jake uses only his mind to move his avatar. Jake’s disability further highlights the asymmetry. This is a struggle between activity and passivity that identifies heroism with the former rather than the latter. Jake’s association with passivity not only refigures traditional heroism but also complicates the politics of the film.
In his response to the film, The Nation reviewer Stuart Klawans takes the film to task for its reduction of the spectator to passivity, which he links to the depictions of Jake in the tube. It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the reviewer for a leftist journal rejects the encomium to passivity announced in Avatar. For most leftists, the passivity of the populace—the willingness to allow figures of authority to dictate the terms on which social life will be conducted—represents the fundamental political problem not just of our time but of all time. The project of the Left entails not so much convincing people to adopt a critical analysis of society but to become active participants in society. Activity is akin to politicization.
Herein consists the chief danger of Avatar, as diagnosed by Klawans. Like Wesley Morris, Klawans generally approves of the film and even labels it a success. But he nonetheless contends,
Though Jake is active as a Na’vi, there is no physical movement on his part that prompts this activity. The causality is strictly mental. In this sense, he provides a direct parallel for the filmic spectator: both are immobile and identifying psychically rather than physically with the other world.
Jake’s passivity is an objective correlative for the spectator’s bodily lack of awareness. According to Klawans,
In the end, for Klawans, Avatar remains a film and fails to approximate a video game, and this is the index of its political failure. But if the film fails to create an active spectator, it succeeds in sustaining a passive one, and the passivity of the filmic spectator is central to the possibility of the cinema. It is the passivity of Jake and the spectator that allow the gaze to appear in Avatar, and the encounter with the gaze makes clear the division that besets all illusions of completeness. It is only through this encounter or its homologue that the subject can fight against the most intransigent illusion of contemporary ideology—that of maternal or natural plenitude.
For the challenge that it erects to maternal plenitude, the moment at which Cameron ends the film is pivotal. After showing Jake victorious over Quaritch thanks to the intercession of Neytiri’s arrows, the film depicts the humans heading back to Earth and then Jake undergoing a conversion process that will render him fully a Na’vi. He will become his avatar. The ritual that accompanies this process occurs at the Tree of Souls, and it concludes with a close-up of the face of Jake’s avatar. As the conversion ends, the avatar’s eyes open, and almost instantaneously the film ends with a cut to black. Here, Cameron refuses to show the spectator any image of completion.
Even when Jake becomes a Na’vi, the film reveals only his face in close-up, which emphasizes his separation from the world at the very moment of his deepest connection to it. If Cameron had extended the already considerable running time of the film in order to show Jake as a full-fledged Na’vi, he would have fallen back into the image of maternal wholeness that the film flirts with but finally undermines. The final shot of Jake’s eyes opening punctuates the division of the natural world and highlights the politicization of the great mother. Even when he becomes a Na’vi, Jake continues to confront incompletion at the moment of completion.
Like many contemporary filmmakers, Cameron shows the impotence of the figure of paternal authority. For all his gesticulations and epithets, Quaritch ends up perishing at the hands of Jake and Neytiri. His type authority holds no sway in the filmic future or in the contemporary world. The far greater danger is Eywa, the great mother, a maternal authority assuring us that our world is complete and balanced. There are few filmmakers working today who take on this figure of authority. But just as he does in his earlier films, Cameron explores the incompleteness of the mother in Avatar and thereby challenges the most intransigent pillar of current ideology.
In Cameron’s films, the mother is not an asexual site of comfort but a ravenous monster full of enjoyment. She is a horrific alien at the same time as she is a warm caregiver. Sustaining this divided image of the mother represents the key to the subject’s freedom. In another context, Freud identifies the recognition of the mother’s sexuality or her division with sexual freedom. He notes,
In Avatar, Cameron takes Freud’s idea one step further, a step made necessary by the new ideological formulations of maternity that have cropped up in the contemporary world. Rather than simply coming to terms with the idea of incest with the mother, freedom now demands coming to terms with a sexualized nature.