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:


HarryTuttle said...

So much written on a recent mediocre commercial sensation! I wish the true artfilms interested thinkers half as much...

How about the Darwinist/non-Darwinist allegories?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Cheers for the link! May I submit also Evan Calder Williams' er... mining allegory?

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks Harry - I understand your frustration! This blog hopefully covers all areas of cinema with no a priori "off-limits". Back to art (and cult) -cinema in the next week or two with a new video essay...

Technology permitting, off course. Yesterday this blog suffered some fairly catastrophic technical problems (still not completely resolved as I write) which resulted in half the above post being deleted...

Giovanni, many thanks for dropping by. I think you saw the curtailed version of the post as I had listed Evan's review, and referred to the "slash-and-burn extractive industries allegory" that was one of the top ten I had noticed in reviews.

By the way, I loved your "Postcolonialicious" piece ( and am very happy to have discovered your blog through researching for this post.

Sérgio Dias Branco said...

Avatar was for me a frustrating experience because of its lack of allegorical clarity/conviction - I agree with Heiser. I admire Cameron, but I think he's at his best as an action director - Terminator 2 is really a long, richly textured, chase sequence. I also think that the kind of technological fetichism that surrounded Avatar (arguably at odds with how Cameron promoted/talked about his previous work) is problematic because of the reactions it fosters. It's perhaps less productive to discuss what techonology allows and more fruitful to analyse what it's in service of, what it serves. That is why Coraline's 3D is more impressive - because it is more expressive.

Sérgio Dias Branco

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks a lot for your view, Sérgio - beautifully put, if I may say.

Adrian said...

Thanks, Catherine, for such a rich post -- it's a wonderful resource not only for those trying to understand Avatar (both what the film means and, more importantly, what its success means and what its reception tells us about all kinds of other issues) but for film allegory in general.

Allegories, as you and Sergio both point out, can be more or less successful, and it would be very valuable to have some audience reception studies to see how the various allegorical readings Avatar invites have actually been taken up by audiences. I find the religious discussions evoked by the film particularly interesting, since the film has seemingly hit a nerve with that. (I and others have blogged about them; see, for instance, the series of posts at Of course, it's hit a nerve with other things, too - racism, cultural difference, the anthropological theme (see the posts at, et al.

Thanks again.

Catherine Grant said...

Adrian, thanks so much for your thoughts and additional links - I will explore them and add to my list. Readers should also tak a look at your wonderful blog Immanence ( and at two posts in particular relation to the Avatar discussion above: 'Hell, nature, & justice in Haiti' (; and 'Avatar: Panthea v. the Capitalist War Machine' ( I'll very much be keeping an eye out for what you write from now on - great work.

Edwin said...

I think this post is great since it focuses –- so thoroughly! –– on the question of what allegory in itself is, rather than competing for a "definitive" reading –– so many of which are already aggregated here.

And I'm still quite surprised at how much I enjoyed seeing Avatar; not only because I unusually participated in the commotion of 'the world's no.1 film' (as it's now being advertised) at the IMAX past midnight, but also, because of the fact that such a broad audience had been genuinely roused by the allegorical mechanism, one way or another. We had just consumed the latest installment of Agit Prop in its mass art form, and were thankful for it –– ironically, in a sense, it gives me a little insight into how audiences of Soviet or Maoist Socialist Realist cinema had felt in their time!

HarryTuttle said...

It's not your fault, Catherine, if thinkers write more on this film than on others. Your post is a helpful compilation of course, as usual.

It wouldn't be as frustrating if Kiarostami's Shirin or Tsai's Visage also attracted such a wide range of experts for each to develop their own theory... Then we'd have a rich film culture going on.

With Cameron it seems like such a waste of reflection. Most of what I've read is largely extrapolated... cause the film itself is very basic.

Mass appeal will never fail to amaze...

Giovanni Tiso said...

It wouldn't be as frustrating if Kiarostami's Shirin or Tsai's Visage also attracted such a wide range of experts for each to develop their own theory... Then we'd have a rich film culture going on.

With Cameron it seems like such a waste of reflection. Most of what I've read is largely extrapolated... cause the film itself is very basic.

But then film is being discussed because it has been consumed by so many and also because it is so very basic, isn't it? And being a culprit myself, I'd have to say it's also one of those films that it's easy to write rasonably cleverly about, feeling like you're hovering helicopter-style above culture. Oh will you look at all those spectators, they look just like ants.

New Zealand film critic Philip Matthews (very good candidate for your blogroll, he said casually) has written about the nature of the chatter itself, citing Bordwell among others.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

You guys read into things a lot more deeply than I do. Interesting stuff!

Here's how I look at things, haha -

Maybe I should head back to class..........

Giovanni Tiso said...

The first comment under your post is one of the best things I've read about Avatar.

ioanpap said...

Thank you Katie for your reasourceful and thoughtprovoking comments on Avatar. I particularly liked the begining of your piece, where you characterize it as an "experience". As it happens usually with Cameron's work I appreciated Avatar for specific, less or non at all talked about reasons. They have to do with the consistent luck of prejudice he sees the world, allways chalenging the borders between man / woman, human / alien, technology / nature and most importantly self / other. Once again he seems to suggest that only through the other we are able to find our place in the world and grasp some of its truth.
Sergio, allthough I don't completely agree I found your ideas really intriguing (maybe will have the chance to discuss them further sometime) and it was nice to hear from you.

Ioanna Papageorgiou

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks to all for recent links and comments, and especially to Ioanna for her intelligent and intriguing thoughts. Great to hear from you, and I really look forward to reading more of your own, highly original and very well-informed research on James Cameron's films.