“[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
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):
- A rainforest destruction allegory (e.g. Morningmayan, ‘Pandora Lives in Us – The Allegory of Avatar’ YouTube video essay)
- A more general, “slash-and-burn extractive industries”/Neo-colonialist allegory (e.g. Neely, ‘Avatar: an allegory of the West?‘; ‘Calder Williams, ‘Mining the Unobtainable’)
- An even broader Gaia-hypothesis allegory (e.g. Rundkvist, ‘Avatar and the Gaia Hypothesis‘; North, ‘Gaia and Dolls: James Cameron’s Avatar’)
- An allegory of the genocide and continued oppression of indigenous peoples (A) in the Americas by European/’post-European’ colonialism (e.g. Monbiot, ‘The Holocaust We Will Not See’; Andrew Patrick Nelson, ‘Cowboys and avatars’,) and (B) in Africa under the multinational slave trade (e.g. Free Republic comments thread)
- A White Messiah allegory (Huang, ‘Avatar Review’; Brooks, ‘The Messiah Complex’; Newitz, ‘When will white people stop making movies like “Avatar”?’. But also see Bill the Lizard, ‘What Does Avatar Tell Us About Masculinity and Disability?‘ for the opposite view)
- A Postcolonial allegory (Tiso, ‘Postcolonialicious’)
- An Iraq War/War on Terror allegory (Hoyle, ‘War on Terror backdrop to James Cameron’s Avatar’; Lafleur, ‘Avatar: A Critical Assessment’; Nolte, ‘ …Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy’; Fisher, ‘They killed their mother: Avatar as ideological symptom’,)
- A more general American foreign-policy allegory (e.g. Sconce, ‘Avatard’, Gardiner, ‘Avatar: the most expensive piece’…‘; Nolte, ‘ …Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy’)
- An allegory of the cinema (e.g. Sconce, ‘Avatard’)
- A related allegory to the latter: of cultural understanding through total immersion (e.g. Cohen, ‘Next-Generation 3-D Medium of ‘Avatar’ Underscores Its Message‘)
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:
- Bill the Lizard, ‘What Does Avatar Tell Us About Masculinity and Disability?‘, Open Salon,December 23, 2009
- David Brooks, ‘The Messiah Complex’, New York Times, January 8, 2010
- Evan Calder Williams, ‘Mining the Unobtainable’, Socialism and/or Barbarism,January 24, 2010
- Adam Cohen, ‘Next-Generation 3-D Medium of ‘Avatar’ Underscores Its Message’, New York Times, December 25, 2009
- Ross Douthat, ‘Heaven and Nature’, New York Times, December 21, 2009
- Gregg Egan, ‘Avatar Review’, GreggEgan.net, December 20, 2009
- Thomas Eddlem, ‘Avatar: A Visually Stunning and Perfect Historical Allegory’ The new American, December 21, 2009
- Blake Eskin, David Denby and Richard Brody, ‘Review of Avatar’, New Yorker: Out Loud, January 4, 2010, Podcast (Mp3)
- Mark Fisher, ‘They killed their mother: Avatar as ideological symptom’, k-punk, January 6, 2010
- Nile Gardiner, ‘Avatar: the most expensive piece of anti-American propaganda ever made’, The Telegraph, December 25, 2009
- Jörg Heiser, ‘Extraterrestrial Irish Pub Type’, Editor’s Blog, Frieze Magazine, January 26, 2010
- Ben Hoyle, ‘War on Terror backdrop to James Cameron’s Avatar’, The Australian, December 11, 2009
- Huang Zhangjin (黄章晋) – Avatar review cited by Andy Yee, ‘China: Bloggers’ Reviews of Avatar’ Global Voices Online, January 11, 2010
- Dave Itzkoff, ‘You Saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass Those Glasses!‘, New York Times,January 20, 2010
- Boris Johnson, ‘Stop pining for life on Pandora and come back to planet Earth’, The Telegraph, January 25, 2010
- Shaun Joseph, ‘A look at Avatar’s Achilles’ heel’, SocialistWorker.org, January 12, 2010
- Daniel Kasman, ‘Avatarcraft’, The Auteurs: Notebook, January 17, 2010
- Scott Eric Kaufman, ‘Intentions be damned, Avatar is racist (as is praying for and/or to “JaMarcus Manning”)’, Acephalous, December 20, 2009
- Roz Kaveney, ‘Avatar’, Strange Horizons, January 6, 2010
- Glenn Kenny, ‘James Cameron’s “Avatar”‘, The Auteurs: Notebook, December 11, 2009
- Steve Lafleur, ‘Avatar: A Critical Assessment’, Lafleur’s Film Blog, December, 2009
- China Miéville,’Why the Na’vi Are Making Me Blue’, Speakeasy, January 13, 2010
- George Monbiot, ‘The Holocaust we will not see’, The Guardian, January 11, 2010
- Nicholas Neely, ‘Avatar: an allegory of the West?’, The Goat Blog, January 12, 2010
- Andrew Patrick Nelson, ‘Cowboys and avatars’, AP at the Movies, January 3, 2010
- Annalee Newitz, ‘When will white people stop making movies like “Avatar”?’, IO9, December 18, 2009
- Annalee Newitz, ‘Is Avatar Too Realistic For Its Own Good’, IO9, January 21, 2010
- John Nolte, ‘ REVIEW: Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ Is a Big, Dull, America-Hating, PC Revenge Fantasy’, Andrew Breibart Presents Big Hollywood, December 11, 2009
- Dan North, ‘Gaia and Dolls: James Cameron’s Avatar’, Spectacular Attractions, December 23, 2009
- Dan North, ”Digesting Avatar’, Spectacular Attractions, January 6, 2010
- Jo Piazza, ‘Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues’, CNN Entertainment, January 11, 2010
- John Podhoretz, ‘Avatarocious’, WeeklyStandard.com, December 28, 2009
- Andrew Price, ‘Does Avatar’s Political Agenda Matter?’, GOOD Blog, January 16, 2010
- Bob Rehak, ‘Watching Avatar’, Graphic Engine, December 30, 2009
- Richard Roeper, ‘‘Avatar’ is no ‘Star Wars’ — or leftist allegory‘, Chicago Sun-Times, January 7, 2010
- Martin Rundkvist, ‘Avatar and the Gaia Hypothesis’, Aardvarchaeology, January 16, 2010
- Jeffrey Sconce, ‘Avatard’, Ludic Despair, January 3, 2010
- Mayank Shekhar, ‘D’ya really need this review?’, Hindustan Times, December 18, 2009
- Giovanni Tiso, ‘Postcolonialicious’, Bat, Bean, Beam, January 25, 2010
- Chuck Tryon, ‘Avatar’, The Chutry Experiment, January 17, 2010
- Jeffrey Weiss, ‘Politics and Religion on Pandora: Why ‘Avatar’ is Crummy Allegory’, Politics Daily, December 21, 2009
- Armond White, ‘Blue In the Face: James Cameron delivers dumb escapism with his expensive special effects in “Avatar”‘, New York Press, December 15, 2009
- Evan Calder Williams, ‘Mining the Unobtainable’, Socialism and/or Barbarism,January 24, 2010
- Andy Yee, ‘China: Bloggers’ Reviews of Avatar’ Global Voices Online, January 11, 2010
- Leela Yellesetty, ‘Avatar is a great starting point’, SocialistWorker.org, January 15, 2010
- Steven Zeitchik, ”Avatar’: Red-state politics + blue aliens = box-office green’, January 5, 2010
- Stephanie Baric, ‘Yugoslav War Cinema: Shooting A Nation Which No Longer Exists’, MA Thesis, Concordia University Montreal, Quebec, Canada, August 2001
- Felicity Collins, ‘History, Myth and Allegory in Australian Cinema’, Trames, 2008, 12(62/57), 3, 276–286
- Felicity Collins, ‘Historical fiction and the allegorical truth of colonial violence in The Proposition‘, Cultural Studies Review, March 2008
- Felicity Collins, ‘Michelle Langford, Allegorical Images: Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter, Bristol: Intellect Books, 2006′, Screening the Past, Issue 23, 2008
- Sérgio Dias Branco,“Dead Inside: Allegory and Subjectivity in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction“, originally published in Renegade Visions: Films and Filmmakers that Defy Popular Cinema, ed. Matthew Edwards. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010
- Catherine Grant, ‘Questions of national and transnational film aesthetics, ethics, and politics in Costa Gavras’s Missing (1982)’, Paper at Study day on ‘The National/Transnational in Hispanic and Latin American Film and the Telenovela’ , Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, November 17, 2007
- Catherine Grant, ‘Still Moving Images: Photographs of the Disappeared in Film about the “Dirty War” in Argentina’, in: Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative, eds. Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), pp. 63-86
- Catherine Grant, ‘Giving up Ghosts: Eliseo Subiela’s Hombre mirando al sudeste and No te mueras sin decirme a dónde vas’, Changing Reels: Latin American Cinema against the Odds, ed. Rob Rix and Roberto Rodríguez-Saona (Leeds: Leeds Iberian Papers – Trinity and All Saints/University of Leeds, 1997), pp. 89-120
- Mike Ingham, ‘History in the Making: Allegory, history, fiction and Chow Yun-fat in the 1980s Hong Kong films Hong Kong 1941 (Dir. Po Chieh-leong) and Love in a Fallen City (Dir. Ann Hui)’, Screening the Past, Issue 24, 2009
- 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
- Michelle Langford, ‘Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema by Negar Mottahedeh’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 52, 2009
- Ryan Lizardi, ‘Repelling the Invasion of the “Other”: Post-Apocalyptic Alien Shooter Videogames Addressing Contemporary Cultural Attitudes’, Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture. 2009; 3 (2), p. 295-308
- Bernhard Malkmus and Ian Cooper, ‘Introduction: “The Third” and Modernity’, in Third Agents: Secret Protagonists of the Modern Imagination, Edited by Ian Cooper, Ekkehard Knörer and Bernhard Malkmus (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008)
- Lúcia Nagib,’Reframing Utopia: Contemporary Brazilian Cinema at the Turn of the Century’, P: Portuguese Cultural Studies 0 Winter 2006
- M.A. Ouellette, ‘I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This’: Pedagogy & Allegory in ‘Post 9/11’ Video Games. Game Studies 8.1, 2008
- Daniel Serravalle de Sá, ‘State of Horror: the Films of José Mojica Marins and the Brazilian Dictatorship’, Tropical Gothi: Latin American Gothic Manifestations, March 9, 2009
- Jeff Smith, ‘Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Christian?: The Strange History of The Robe As Political Allegory’, Film Studies, Issue 7, Winter 2005
- Øyvind Vågnes, ‘Inside the Zapruder Museum’,‘Show/Tell: Relationships between Text, Narrative and Image’ Working Papers on Design 2 (2007)
- Maurizio Viano, ‘Life is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, and Holocaust Laughter’, Jewish Social Studies 5.3 (1999) 47-66
- Ester Võsu, Ene Kõresaar, Kristin Kuutma, ‘Mediation of Memory: Towards Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Current Memory Studies – Preface to the special issue of Trames’, Trames, 2008, 12(62/57), 3, 243–263