I saw James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ over Christmas. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, injecting new possibilities for the creation of wholly artificial, wholly convincing dramatic worlds into cinema. In that, it reminded me of Masaccio’s masterpiece ‘The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St John and Two Donors’, in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church:
Masaccio’s work was the first painting to build on Brunelleschi’s understanding of the mathematics of perspective. It demonstrated new possibilities for the two dimensional representation of three dimensional space, creating an image that attempted to directly map, rather than indirectly represent, an imagined space. In that, much like Cameron’s film, it was at once radical, and revolutionary; in fact, it’s generally regarded as one of the key catalysts that triggered the Renaissance.
However, ‘The Holy Trinity’ was also a very conservative work. It was commissioned by the very wealthy Domenico Di Lenzi, who kneels at bottom left. He is dressed as a Gonfalonier of Justice, the titular head of the Florentine republic. His wife kneels opposite him; the tomb beneath them is a family tomb.
The surging structure of the image – leading the eye up from the tomb and its skeleton, past Domenico and his wife, and towards the Trinity, makes it clear that the way to Christ is through the pillars of Florentine society; its powerful families, its civic functionaries. Earthly political, judicial and financial structures are the first step on the way to divine structures. To question one is – by implication – to question the other. Wealth and power are divine properties, automatically deserved by those who hold them.
Much comment has been made on the supposedly subversive properties of ‘Avatar’. James Cameron’s film has been read as being deeply anti-corporate. Certainly, its narrative – proceeding in crude, black and white terms – shows those beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘bad’, and those not beholden to or representing the corporate world as ‘good’.
However, when viewed from an economic and technical point of view, it becomes clear that ‘Avatar’ is in fact a ferocious corporate rearguard action, responding to the democratisation of film making and distribution that digital technology enables.
Budgetted at $500,000,000, it is an artefact whose cost is so huge that it – and others like it – can only be commissioned by corporate interests. Technically speaking, its central achievement – the 3D experience – can only be fully experienced in large or IMAX venues. Again, these are exclusively owned and operated by corporate interests.
‘Avatar’ masquerades as a radical critique of corporate power. Technically, it in fact reinforces that corporate power, attempting to reclaim peak cinematic experience (and, by implication, corporate resistance) as something that can only happen as a result of corporate mediation. In that, it is directly equivalent to Masaccio’s masterpiece which – for all its technical brilliance – preaches that the only way to enlightenment is through the state and its pillars. Both works are – in the final analysis – propaganda, surprisingly equivalent in their aims and achievements.