I loved Avatar. Sure, I chuckled at the schmaltzy dialogue and found the neon color scheme a little garish and could have done without all the pantheistic moralism…But the movie was still mesmerizing. For 150 minutes, I vanished into the screen, utterly absorbed in the stereoscopic world unfolding before me. I was lost in Pandora, transfixed by a perfectly predictable melodrama.
The modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued that art should be evaluated on its adherence to the “specificity of the medium”. Painting, for instance, is defined by its abstract flatness, which meant that artists should no longer try to pretend that what they convey is real. While centuries of “realist” artists tried to escape the flatness with elaborate technical tricks, Greenberg argued that the flatness wasn’t an obstacle or hurdle: it was merely an essential element of painting. This led Greenberg to become an advocate for people like Jackson Pollock, who celebrated the 2-D un-reality of their art form.
The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I’ve referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar – and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph – is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.
First, a little neuroscience. Consider this experiment, led by Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach at Hebrew University. The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie (“The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”) and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, the scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is “Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision”.) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on. Here’s the nut graf from the paper:
This strong intersubject correlation shows that, despite the completely free viewing of dynamical, complex scenes, individual brains “tick together” in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment.
But it’s also worth pointing out which brain areas didn’t “tick together” in the movie theater. The most notable of these “non-synchronous” regions is the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness. (It carries a hefty computational burden.) Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we’re engaged in intense “sensorimotor processing” – and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses – we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such “inactivation” allows us to lose ourself in the movie:
Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ”losing yourself in the act” receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.
What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we’re inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.*) And for a mind that’s so relentlessly self-aware, I’d argue that 100 minutes of self-forgetting (as indicated by a quieting of the prefrontal cortex) is a pretty nice cognitive vacation. And Avatar, through a variety of technical mechanisms – from the astonishing special effects to the straightforward story to the use of 3-D imagery – manages to induce those “synchronized spatiotemporal patterns” to an unprecedented degree. That is what the movies are all about, and that is what Avatar delivers.
*And just because I’ve already gone off the deep end of pretentiousness, I thought I though should mention the parable that Avatar made me think of. I found the quote via Borges, but it’s from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi:
Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi