Wednesday 27 January 2010

Seeing through Avatar: Film Allegory 101

Links updated February 17

Two wounded men: an image of some of Avatar's polysemic screen layers...
"[F]or an allegory to be effective, there must remain some sense that it is actually an allegory" Jeffrey Sconce, Ludic Despair, January 3, 2010
"I'm analogizing race and species here because Cameron's space fable encourages me to do so with all the subtlety of a fry pan upside my head" Scott Eric Kaufman, Acephalous, December 20, 2009
Like/unlike (delete as appropriate) rather a lot of other spectators, Film Studies For Free's author very much enjoyed her recent absorbing encounter with James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar in 3D.

In fact, her immersion in the story-world of this film served to remind her -- in this, the age of more permanent film 'possession' (DVDs, downloads) -- that what we have always been purchasing with our cinema ticket, especially as regards a first-time film viewing, is a one-off and unrepeatable experience

Just as in the good old days of old-fashioned cinematic spectatorship, Avatar really has created the space for a thrilling, phenomenological ride. Thanks for the sense-memories, Mr Cameron

As for Avatar's plot, however, it is not so much absolutely fabulous as overwhelmingly fabular... Indeed, coming away from the cinema, it's very easy to understand the utter fascination, bordering on obsession, in reviews and discussions of Avatar, with the notion of the 'messages', 'allusions', 'analogies', 'parallels', and, especially, 'allegories' seemingly conveyed by Cameron's film. 

Here's a list, in a nice Na'vi blue, of ten of the 'allegories' most frequently detected by the reviews, together with direct links to an example or two (note: many more, online, allegory-reading reviews are listed further down the post): 
The reviews are frequently (if by no means always) characterized by a sense that the above allegories are 'inherent' and obvious. Evidently, such critical moves obviate the need for much, if any, detailed discussion as to how we read, or do not read, particular allegories in particular films.

This is absolutely fine, of course, for journalistic, or, indeed, any "instant impression" reviews, based as they invariably are on just one viewing of the film. Taking on complex questions, such as how Avatar's subtexts might have found their expression through their particular "patterns of metaphorical substitution" (Jeff Smith, p. 1 [pdf]), is not their usual purpose - Jeffrey Sconce's hilarious demolition of some of these fabular processes in his own rapid response to the film notwithstanding ('Before racing the hare, the tortoise does not stop to opine, “By participating in this unlikely contest, I hope to teach you some important lessons about hubris, determination, complacency and the work ethic."').

But, being an earnestly scholarly blog, Film Studies For Free is not happy with any dearth of understanding on this earth. So, as heroic Jake Sully might also say, it's 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more', as FSFF humbly proffers the following notes on film allegory, together with a handy and extensive listing of online and openly accessible resources on Avatar and allegory, and also of (generally) more scholarly ones on allegory in film.

The evidence base for allegorical interpretation?
"Allegory -- from the Greek, allos, "other" and agoreuein, "to speak in public" -- figuratively unites two orders, one of which is shown and the other of which is kept out of view, establishing relationships of resemblance between them such that the reader or spectator may construe meaning over and above the literal. Allegory stages the relationship between personal and political, private and public, which is often central to the production of political meaning in art." Joanna Page, Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 182
Film allegory paradoxically requires spectators to take up a particular vantage point from which a story "kept out of view" (to use Page's words) can clearly be seen. As Ismail Xavier writes in Allegories of Underdevelopment, in the case of allegory, it's a particular 'narrative texture [that] places the spectator in [this] analytical posture' (FSFF's emphasis).

This 'texture' -- including repeated or repetitious story-elements, such as, sometimes, seemingly gratuitous features of characterization, dialogue (e.g. "shock and awe"), etc. -- eventually provokes in the spectator the question "why are you telling me that when you are supposed to be (necessarily and literally) telling me this (direct) story?"

The salience of the elements and their patterning, together with their hermeneutic journey from 'unnecessary' to 'necessary', are essential in the triggering of "our operations of decoding". This latter phrase comes from cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. In his many discussions of allegory, Jameson makes clear that allegorical reading is a kind of pattern recognition, involving our imaginative capacities.

For Jameson, political and historical facts and realities external to films find themselves
inscribed within the internal intrinsic experience of the film in what Sartre in a suggestive and too-little known concept in his Psychology of Imagination calls the analogon: that structural nexus in our reading or viewing experience, in our operations of decoding or aesthetic reception, which can then do double duty and stand as the substitute and the representative within the aesthetic object of a phenomenon on the outside which cannot in the very nature of things be 'rendered' directly. [Fredric Jameson, 'Class and Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture: Dog Day Afternoon as a Political Film', College English, Vol. 38, No. 8, Mass Culture, Political Consciousness and English Studies (Apr., 1977), pp. 843-859, p. 858(pdf) (hyperlinks added by FSFF)]
Allegorical recognition works best when a film's patterns of allusiveness (Jameson's 'structural nexus') offer ‘clear configurations for the essential pieces of its game'; when there's a 'graphic isolation of the [allegorical] elements put into relation’, as Xavier again puts it (p. 20): 'The greater the pedagogic impulse of the allegory, the more unmistakable is [the signalling]' (Xavier, p. 16).
This is probably why Avatar, with what many critics of the film have noted are its 'cardboard cutout' characters and at times 'clunky dialogue', has provoked so much discussion about its allegoricalness: the excessive signalling of its 'other stories' is, indeed, completely unmistakable. 
But that doesn't explain the proliferation of these stories, or why there is complete lack of agreement on what the film's 'principal allegory' is, other than Avatar's own Unobtainium, perhaps.
As Joanna Page continues in her theoretical exploration of allegory, it
marks a gap between representation and referent, the essential otherness of two planes of signification that is precisely the quality that permits them to be aligned in the production of meaning. Reflexivity, on the other hand, enacts a conflation of the two and a collapse of possible distinctions between them. Joanna Page, Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Cinema (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 182, 189
A polysemic text par excellence, as befits one designed to draw in the largest possible global audience, Avatar literally cannot afford to convey only one allegory, to provide only two vantage-points for its stories, because it is a reflexive film -- not an especially complex one, but a reflexive one nonetheless.

As such, it chooses to conflate and collapse many of the distinctions between its literal stories and its 'hidden' ones. In other words, nothing much is really hidden, everything is seen through: indeed, Avatar veritably lets it all hang out. 

In one of the best critical assessments of Cameron's film so far, Jörg Heiser writes
Avatar is an amalgam, as if in a strange dream, of many of these kinds of allusions and associations, and you can look at it being very clever[ly] calculated to capture the widest possible audience globally, playing many cards at once; but by way of the very same strategy, it also could be seen as capturing the widest possible 3-D panorama shot of collective anxieties about the future (ecology, war, loss of social love and security etc.). And in the same contradictory way, it is this all-encompassing ambition that is interesting about it, but also what is off-putting." Jörg Heiser, Editor's Blog, Frieze Magazine, January 26, 2010

On Avatar and Allegory: 
On Film Allegory:

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Tune in to Antenna

[Film Studies For Free will be sorry to say goodbye to Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker/Spider-Man...]

Film Studies For Free wanted to let its readers know about Antenna, a very stimulating blog from graduate students and faculty in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Here's what this relatively new site says about itself:
Antenna is a collectively authored media and cultural studies blog committed to timely yet careful analysis of texts, news, and events from across the popular culture spectrum. The site regularly responds to new works and developments in television, film, music, gaming, digital video, the Internet, print, and the media industries.

Antenna is intended to address a broad public inside and outside the university walls. Within those walls, though, it further intends to bridge the gap between scholarly journals, which remain the paradigm for scholarly discourse but too often lack the ability to reply to issues and events in media with any immediacy, and single-author media scholar blogs, which support swift commentary but are limited in their reliance upon the effort and perspectives of individuals. Coordinated by a group of writers who draw on a variety of approaches and methodologies, Antenna, therefore, exists as a means to analyze media news and texts, both as they happen and from multiple perspectives.

Antenna is currently operated and edited by graduate students and faculty in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Although, while in its current stage, the content published on the site is written largely by members of that program, Antenna is currently in the process of expanding our author team, and we hope eventually to include contributions and comments from a diverse collection of writers.
Antenna’s goal is to create a forum in which readers and contributors participate in active, open, and thoughtful debate about media and culture.

Antenna is designed to respond quickly to events, and thus rather than be published on a set, periodic schedule, Antenna updates its content continually. Because Antenna is interested in timely responses, we encourage short entries. Extensive presentation of evidence is not required, though supplementary links are encouraged.
With its extremely lively house style, and wide-ranging topics, FSFF thinks Antenna has a great future ahead of it. For examples of some good film-related posts, it recommends you check out the following to start with:  
You can also follow Antenna's updates on Twitter.

Monday 25 January 2010

On Avatar & Boss-zilla: a new issue of FlowTV

Film Studies For Free brings you glad tidings of the new issue of ever wonderful online journal Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture. In this latest offering there are some great film related items: Charles R. Acland on Avatar and the media language of revolutionary change; and Hannah Hamad on the film and media popularity of female characters as terrorizing figures. Links to all articles are given below:

Sunday 24 January 2010

The Chris Marker Issue of IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE

Image from Owls at Noon (Chris Marker, 2005)

Film Studies For Free can barely contain its excitement as it rushes you news of the latest IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE (Vol. 11, No. 4, 2010) - a special issue devoted to philosophically informed discussion of the work of Chris Marker.

The names of the esteemed contributors to the issue (Christa Blümlinger, Sarah Cooper, Matthias De Groof, Sylvain Dreyer, Sarah French, Adrian Martin, Susana S. Martins, and editor Peter Kravanja) provide a very clear guarantee to the reader of the extremely high quality of the work on offer here. So, there's nothing more to say, other than: enjoy! Direct links to their essays are given below, but be sure to visit the IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE website for some remaining (non-Marker-related) articles in this wonderful issue.
  • 'The Imaginary in the Documentary Image: Chris Marker's Level Five', Christa Blümlinger AbstractPDF
  • 'Montage, Militancy, Metaphysics: Chris Marker and André Bazin', Sarah Cooper Abstract PDF
  • 'Statues Also Die - But Their Death is not the Final Word', Matthias De Groof Abstract PDF
  • Autour de 1968, en France et ailleurs : Le Fond de l'air était rouge', Sylvain Dreyer Abstract PDF
  • '“If they don’t see happiness in the picture at least they’ll see the black”: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and the Lyotardian Sublime', Sarah French Abstract PDF
  • 'Crossing Chris: Some Markerian Affinities', Adrian Martin Abstract PDF
  • 'Petit Cinéma of the World or the Mysteries of Chris Marker', Susana S. Martins Abstract PDF

Saturday 23 January 2010

Good night, sweet lady, good night: R.I.P. Jean Simmons (January 31, 1929-January 22, 2010)

Film Studies For Free today celebrates the career of the great British actress Jean Simmons who sadly died yesterday at the age of 80 (the BBC's excellent obituary is here; David Hudson's memorial posting is here).

After standing out in such early roles as the young Estella in David Lean's version of Great Expectations (1946), Kanchi in Black Narcissus (1947), and Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), she successfully made the move to Hollywood and acted in some of the most brilliant films of the next decade, including Angel Face (1952), directed by Otto PremingerThe Actress (1953), The Robe (1953), The Egyptian (1954), Guys and Dolls (1955), The Big Country (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), (directed by her second husband, Richard Brooks), and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). She continued to appear in interesting film roles until just a few years ago, including her brilliantly voicing of Grandma Sophie in the anglophone version of Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004).

Below, in memory of this supremely talented and highly versatile actress, FSFF has embedded the film trailer heralding one of her greatest performances: Sister Sharon Falconer in Richard Brooks's Elmer Gantry, alongside Burt Lancaster in the title role. And below the video are FSFF's customary links to online and freely accessible scholarly and critical studies of some of the many films she starred in across her career.

Friday 22 January 2010

Brilliant online film and media studies resources from Critical Commons

Digital Humanities and the case for Critical Commons: "Yet another Downfall detournement with Bruno Ganz holding the line against digital scholarship and fair use." (posted at ironmanx28 channel at YouTube for Critical Commons)

This great video made the rather easily amused Film Studies For Free laugh uncontrollably... But, then, in the case of this blog it was very much preaching to the converted. Thanks a lot to Corey Doctorow at Boing Boing for drawing it to our attention.

Film Studies For Free has also ecstatically been exploring the Critical Commons website promoted by the video:

Critical Commons is a non-profit advocacy coalition that supports the use of media for teaching, learning and creativity, providing resources, information and tools for scholars, students, educators and creators. Critical Commons provides information about current copyright law and its alternatives in order to facilitate the writing and dissemination of best practices and fair use guidelines for scholarly and creative communities. Critical Commons also functions as a showcase for innovative forms of electronic scholarship and creative production that are transformative, culturally enriching and both legally and ethically defensible. At the heart of Critical Commons is an online tool for viewing, tagging, sharing, annotating and curating media within the guidelines established by a given community. Our goal is to build open, informed communities around media-based teaching, learning and creativity, both inside and outside of formal educational environments.

FSFF can most highly recommend Critical Commons not only as an immensely important campaigning organisation --one very much after its own heart -- but also as a veritable cornucopia of online, Open Access, film and media studies resources. Just check out the brilliant lecture material from its site linked to below.

FSFF readers MUST explore the rest of this magnificent and worthy organisation's offerings tout de suite! Or else, FSFF won't be laughing any more... Nein, es wird nicht lachen...

  • Deleuze and Cinema by Kara Keeling The following selection of film clips from films discussed by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze were compiled in the Fall of 2009 by the participants in Professor Kara Keeling's Critical Studies graduate seminar on Deleuze and Culture at the University of Southern California.
  • Documentary Epistemology by Steve Anderson This lecture considers questions of epistemology in relation to documentary media, using the construction/reconstruction of historical events as a case-study
  • Database Narrative by Steve Anderson This lecture outlines some basic properties of database narratives, referring to the debate between Lev Manovich and Marsha Kinder on the nature of selection and combination in narrative.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Support Film Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa

A solidary image from Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)

As its regular readers know, Film Studies For Free normally dwells in the sunny realm of the eternally positive and does not generally rush to the barricades over just any unpleasantness (see here, however, for an earlier, important exception).

Today, though, it wishes briefly to suspend that normal service in order to state publicly, and strongly, its support for the continued existence of the programmes of the Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa, USA, which have recently come under threat.

Here is part of a statement from Professor Corey Creekmur, Head of Film Studies at Iowa, posted at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies website:
An ad hoc entity called the Provost's Task Force on Graduate Education and Selective Excellence has just recommended the elimination of the PhD program in Film Studies at the University of Iowa, along with the MA and PhD programs in Comparative Literature. It has also recommended that the MFA in Film and Video Production be moved to a newly proposed Division of Communications (with Journalism and Communication Studies), and that the MFA in Translation be moved to a newly proposed Division of World Languages and Cultures (with the foreign languages). These undesirable and illogical moves would in effect dismember the current Department of Cinema and Comparative Literature. Ours are not the only programs under threat, but ours is the only department that would be obliterated if the committee’s recommendations were to be followed.
[...] Clearly, the impressive legacy and ongoing vitality of the Film Studies program at Iowa were ignored in this decision.  We are enormously proud of the accomplishments of our graduates, who have been crucial to the development and continued growth of Film Studies as a scholarly discipline in North America and beyond. Our current students promise to continue that legacy into the future. Former Iowa students are among the most productive scholars and influential teachers in the field, and while we do our best to continually inform the administration of this fact, we would now greatly appreciate your helping us to clearly and forcefully articulate the importance of the excellence of our programs to those who will be deciding on the future of our programs.
(Corey's full statement is linked to here)
Although this blog is called Film Studies For Free (in celebration of online film studies and of Open Access dissemination of publicly-funded film research), it knows that the best, most original, and most sustainedly high quality Film Studies scholarship takes place precisely in excellent university departments, led by brilliant faculty members who are engaged in research-led teaching.

This is clearly the case of the Iowa department: its Film Studies scholars -- of the undoubted caliber of, inter aliaRick Altman, Kathleen Newman, Corey Creekmur, Lauren Rabinovitz, Paula Amad, Nataša Durovicová, Astrid Oesmann, Steven Ungar, and Sasha Waters Freyer -- have, between them, helped to nurture and shape generations of great, new, film scholars. Now, FSFF humbly believes, they deserve support.

Once FSFF readers have read about the decision in more detail, they might like to consider sending their own short statements of support for the department to Corey Creekmur, as head of Iowa Film Studies, via this email address. You can also join a Facebook group set up to campaign for the Cinema and Comparative Literature programs here.

Film Studies For Free urges its readers, then, to take the time to support Corey's call, and it wishes the very best of luck to all in this department in their campaign against the decision. These are, very probably, going to be extremely testing times, everywhere in the world, for those engaged in university Film Studies teaching and research: it is, thus, more important than ever to stand together.