Like many people this holiday season, I went to see James Cameron’s film Avatar. I even went to see it at midnight the week before Christmas, after a long evening in DC at Cheryl’s Gone (which featured Sally Keith, Karen Anderson, Casey Smith, and musician Maureen Andary, and was AMAZING!) Afterwards we went to have drinks with Sally and friends at Nellie’s, and then I ran into traffic and turned myself around in DC (big surprise), and I STILL managed to make it back to Fairfax for the film. Although the reading was wonderful, I’d had a bit of a tough day personally (lots of things going on and logistical nightmares trying to plan for holiday traveling, etc. etc. I won’t bore you with details) and had definitely reached many different limits… so even though most of myself was recommending I just go home and sleep it off, I was feeling as though seeing a beautiful Cameron film with good friends might just do the trick to release it all.
So there I was, exhausted, 3D glasses on, ready to be thrilled… and thrilled I was, visually… and in the escapist sense.
As a reader and writer, I always enjoy being gifted other worlds to occupy for a time. My poems, for now, are so deeply rooted in this world, but I so often appreciate reading texts and experiencing films that offer a world unto themselves where we are offered a language that operates on its own unique system, and which offers a slightly different spin on things. I enjoy being taught how to experience the world I’m offered, how to live inside it, how to feel free from the constraints of my own world’s limitations. Inevitably, if done well, I emerge more aware of the world I understand as my own. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Orwell, Don Delillo, or poetry by William Blake… we witness our world anew because of what these writers offer as an alternative, even if it’s only turned around only slightly from the reality we recognize as our own. The revised world order is either an offering of what we might subscribe to, or what we should be weary of (most often the latter).
Utopias and dystopias as offered through the exaggerated realms of fantasy and science fiction are often presented as warnings… take Gulliver’s Travels and the plight of colonialism, Orwell’s 1984 with Big Brother, Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein, or films like Metropolis, and Blade Runner where technological advances threaten our very humanity… I could go on with numerous other beloved examples.
While visually stunning, Avatar falls short of the great science fiction or fantasy texts in that we’re offered a world we’re not trusted to inhabit because it is pure artifice… our world is not at all recognizable in Pandora, exept perhaps a previous version we will never be able to revert to. We’re offered “natives” whose spiritual connection with the earth requires a more “primitive” lifestyle of sleeping in tree limbs and wearing sparse clothing. The biggest question I’ve been turning around in my mind since the film is why the “natives” had to be shown as the “noble savage”? Why not offer us a society which is technologically advanced AND environmentally conscious and connected? As Ross Douthat offers in his op-ed in the New York Times, “Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago. /But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.”
Lately, with the threat of global warming and depletion of our world’s resources, the sci fi and fantasy texts which refer to environmental concerns are particularly resonant. The resurgence of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson’s treatment of them in their film counterparts are apt examples. Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films do not hit us over the head with the ruling philosophy that our treatment of each other and our natural world is destructive. We are trusted to come to this conclusion without (extreme) cheesy dialogue or didactic platitudes… the preference is always to be visually stimulated as an audience member, but also to be trusted to make inferences and arrive at conclusions through contemplation of what we are offered. I, personally, do not want the complete package where we enter a viewing experience and exit with the prime lesson stamped securely on our foreheads, the end.
The staying power of Avatar is in the visual spectacle, which is something I’ll happily admire in and of itself. Cameron did so completely imagine Pandora, and it’s a pleasure to escape to and inhabit and be visually stimulated for a time… but the visceral pleasure of this is fleeting. What residue is meant to linger in Cameron’s film is instead slippage, and doesn’t stick. I was hopeful Cameron might offer a sense of the avatar separate from the digital alter egos the digital age has inspired, a more human self we could imagine ourselves into… but, alas, Cameron’s alternative is reversion, not revision, and is thus (sadly) impossible outside of the digital realm.
There have been several instances lately that have returned me to childhood. For some reason during our camping excursion I started interrupting all otherwise pleasant camp songs with “Mahna Mahna!” from that classic sketch/song, originally premiering on the Ed Sullivan Show, and then on the premier of The Muppet Show… in 1969. I had yet to be born, but the Muppets were still such a constant in my childhood… partially as passed down after my older brother grew up with the Muppets. To this day, my brother and I get “Mahna Mahna!” stuck in our heads for weeks at a time, interrupting any moment of silence with the key phrase of the song… and it’s every bit as funny as it was the first time. I am guilty of posting these videos on Facebook but have been thanked by many friends for bringing the song into their heads in the midsts of midterms and just our adult lives in general.
In addition, my cousin is about to have a baby, and for her baby shower I purchased some of the classic books from childhood to send to her (since I was unable to make the shower itself, being that it was in Maine and I am in D.C…. Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Clifford the Big Red Dog have been sitting on my coffee table ready for me to send them to her… but I almost don’t want to part with them (or want to immediately go out and purchase them again, for myself). Goodnight Moon is especially nostalgia-inducing… the images are so burned in my memory. I must have made my mother read it to me hundreds of times, and I probably read it on my own when I was able at least a hundred times more. These books are what instilled in me a love of story, and a love for the particulars… Goodnight light, And the red balloon, Goodnight bears, Goodnight chairs…
Then of course there is the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, put together by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers. I found myself smiling foolishly through all of the fun parts, and my heart breaking a little in the sadder moments…. I was very much reminded not that I was a Wild Thing as a child myself, but of the activities which were most soothing and completing for my little kid soul… making igloos in snow banks, playing that the floor was lava and we couldn’t touch it, the building of forts and playing with any number of stuffed animals, already building stories for them in my imagination… fortunately my brother was (sometimes) more than happy to play these games with me and I did not spiral into total wildness… but I can see and feel the residuals of this experience in my tendencies now (since seeing the film I have had this extreme desire to run around and crash into things, and very playfully jumped around a lot on my last hiking excursion… which, not surprisingly, made the day a whole lot of fun).
These artifacts from my very young self have conjured in me a renewed sense of awe in my every day life. It’s not quite nostalgia, and not quite sentimentality, just a good reminder to keep my eyes as wide open and laughter as available as those days so long ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in relation to my continued experience with Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect whose prose works are the source material for the collection of poems I am writing. I am working, at the moment, with his autobiographical passages. It even turns out he took some “tours” in some of the places I’ve lived in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire. It turns out we had a similar childhood – while we certainly read a lot, we both consider our significant education to have come from the ability to wander and our time out of doors. There is something comforting to know my source material has the same “source material” I did, despite that none of the things I am now referring to existed at the moment… so much else still translates across childhoods… whatever else teaches us to build things and laugh a lot, to notice… I wonder if all of us who maintain a sense of awe for leaf and breeze in our adult lives came from this kind of “education”.
Nature has always been the one thing that can return me to that feeling I remember so clearly as a mark of my childhood. Certainly the idea of parks and recreation is a way, of sorts, to make sure this experience is available to everyone throughout their lives. A park is a place set aside for play, for wandering, for sheer experience of the day in absense of life’s other stresses. Olmsted truly believed a park could counter any negative psychological or physiological effects of a city… the stresses of our otherwise well-occupied lives. Parks are places that can open us up to “a pleasurable wakefulness of the mind” as Olmsted put it. That pleasurable wakefulness has returned to me lately, through these artifacts and through Olmsted, and I could not be more grateful for it.