Theo Jansen and Advanced “Avatar”

Caleb Crain, we learned yesterday, prefers movies that are true to nature, acoustic. He’s more interested in the Carny than the ride, while David Denby prefers the roller coaster, ignoring the Carny, and if he doesn’t have to leave the theatre for the ride, even better. Johnny Meah’s act wouldn’t make much of a movie for Denby. Yet it may not matter what the professional critics think because as their ranks dwindle thanks to the disappearance of newspapers we may find the neuroscientists filling the gap.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes from a neuroscience perspective and explains things like why we stop at red and go at green and why some of us slam the brakes at yellow while others hit the gas, suggests in his Avatar review that there might be something wrong with the prefrontal cortex that prefers the acoustic; for some reason, the brain responds negatively to the film drug. Not to worry, though, whatever your brain seems to prefer, for Jonah’s commenter number eleven, David Dobbs, also a scientist, rebuts Jonah’s scientific argument and calls Avatar “impoverished.” As it turns out, the neuroscientists, like the critics Crain and Denby, also find different values in the film and the brain.

I remember when the first Star Wars movie was released; I finally saw it a decade later. I’m sure there must be something wrong with my prefrontal cortex, judging from my taste in movies. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television technology has evolved from the little toads sitting front and center of the mid-twentieth century living room to screens that fill entire walls, and the best TV for one’s home fills all four walls, and the viewer literally interacts with the TV characters, becomes part of the show. Avatar encourages viewers to imagine a time when the film technology of Avatar seems as dated as the first Star Wars movie, and to imagine that that time is now – the fix must be for increased immersion, guaranteeing a string of sequels.

In the 1960’s, during the height of the psychedelic craze, someone asked Salvador Dali if he took drugs when he painted. No, he said. Why would I take the drug; I am the drug. And when the scare was that rockers were putting secret messages in their recordings, some of which could be understood by playing the record backwards, someone asked Alice Cooper if he spiked his records with secret messages. No, he said, I don’t know how to do that, but if I did, the message would be to buy more records.

If we are to be controlled by technology, what’s the point? We still have to contend with nature, our nature, the nature of others, and mother nature. Jonah, in his “review,” argues “why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.” Exactly, it’s consumerism about consuming, about being eaten alive by technology, and it’s yummy.

And what of acoustic technology? Is there anyone out there creating creatures more fantastic than those virtually real ones we see via 3D in Avatar? There is. Check out this video. It’s Dutch artist Theo Jansen with his creatures, and they are more fascinating than anything you will experience in Avatar because while they are virtually non-tech, they are real; they have become part of nature, and you don’t need special glasses to view them.


  1. Until I checked, you had me thinking that Jonah Lehrer had singled out the faultiness of my prefontal cortex by name! Alas no, but perhaps his theory does explain my headache. For the record, I loved Pixar’s “Up,” so I don’t think my trouble is with 3-D or the suspension of disbelief per se.

    1. Hey, Caleb. Thanks for comment. I loved Up, too, but notice Jonah “could have done without all the pantheistic moralism,” so his prefrontal cortex wasn’t entirely asleep either, but he still found Avatar “mesmerizing,” as did Denby. I didn’t see Jonah’s review until I had already posted yesterday on yours and Denby’s, where the exampled argument – opposing viewpoints – was just too good to pass on commenting. I agreed with your view because I wonder at what point the film becomes propaganda for itself, and its success will spawn schools of followers. And I agree the anti-corporation motif is a red herring, for who isn’t dependent on corporations, as bad as some might be?
      In class last night, one of the students came in talking about Avatar, and what a great movie it is. I couldn’t resist pulling up Denby’s review, and the class awed at his first paragraph. Then I pulled up your review, and they laughed out loud at your first paragraph, the Beckett-like bike trip to the movies, and then laughed at the hard hitting final comment, how it contrasted to Denby’s view; then we took a look at Jonah’s piece. All great stuff for discussing claims, reasons, and warrants – so I’m glad you posted your review.
      So what’s a good film? How about Schultze Gets the Blues, The Pope’s Toilet, The Visitor, or the Iranian film Men at Work.

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