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Cause and Effect

I don’t know if I’m gnawing at The Master (2012) or if The Master is gnawing at me. This movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth, is aggressively entrancing. Bewitching, even. A movie to turn sideways and shake, in case anything falls out. It zigzags through the years following World War II, as a new faith (“The Cause”) blossoms out of American scar tissue. Its leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is a patriarchal walrus with a low, rumbling voice. An expert con man, he peddles a mix of mind games and pseudoscience as a spiritual cure-all, camouflaging it under a veneer of academic authority. But even as Dodd’s congregation swells, he’s perturbed by a single lingering problem: a drunken veteran named Freddie Quell.

Freddie’s played by Joaquin Phoenix, and he’s perhaps the most startling creation I’ve seen onscreen this year. Shattered by the war and thirsting for rotgut, he roams from town to town, biding time as a photographer and migrant worker before he stumbles onto the Cause’s yacht. There, he’s quickly hooked by their methods—especially “informal processing,” a type of interview/hypnosis—and by Dodd himself, who calls him “naughty boy” when he misbehaves. But unlike the Cause’s other men, all pliable and genteel, Freddie is too wild. He’s lewd and self-destructive, traits that drive him out of the Cause. But he craves a surrogate family, which drives him back in. And so on.

Snarling, sneering, slurring his speech, Phoenix drills Freddie’s feral behavior into your brain through close-up after close-up. I’m half-surprised he never slashes his face across the camera like a knife. He’s a little bit Brando, a little bit rabid dog, supplementing Jonny Greenwood’s percussive soundtrack with his own rattling, raging, and drinking. (Always drinking.) He makes for a striking contrast with Hoffman’s authoritative Dodd, the two of them similar only in intensity. Between them lies Amy Adams as Dodd’s pregnant wife, the kind of role that typically means she’s colorless and supportive, but here signifies a woman who (for all her seeming sweetness) outdoes even her husband’s loyalty to the Cause.

The Master’s love story, however, is clearly between Freddie and Dodd. Theirs is a romance of violence, of shifting control and obedience, engendered by mutual fascination and nourished by their attempts to pull apart. Freddie is Dodd’s project (son? follower? lover?), toxic and impossible to reconstruct, a post-traumatic beast caged in by Jack Fisk’s meticulous 1950s interiors. The arc of their relationship plays out on an epic stage, against sun-streaked oceans and deserts, through dares and torments, with an increasingly fuzzy chronology. “When we’re in love,” preaches Dodd, “we experience pleasure and extreme pain.” Beguiling, often agitating, The Master charts these ins and outs across its vast audiovisual panorama, seizing me tighter and tighter with each new shot.

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My gripe with Avatar fandom

Fandom, at times, can be a little frightening. I like to think about the psychological effects of mass media and the Internet; I spent part of last night reading about “online disinhibition effect” – a consequence of virtual anonymity that we’ve all observed, whether we’ve seen flamewars or trolls or insulting posts in online forums. Today I’ve been reading into the sometimes terrifying world of the newly-born Avatar fandom.

Now, fandom isn’t always negative; as I wrote about Trekkies, sometimes fans can band together to create bold, new works out of the preexisting substance of the franchise. Ashley and I both wrote mediocre fanfiction when we were younger (her about Harry Potter, myself about Digimon), and it helped us start writing. However, I have some issues with the massive Avatar following that’s sprung up online.

Now, I grant that this is an enormously popular, successful, profitable movie. Not an especially good one, as I noted in my review, but somewhat imaginative and extremely well-loved. But I feel like the explosive interest in Avatar, which includes multiple wikis, forums, blogs, etc., reveals additional problems with the movie: namely, it’s contrived in order to create a huge base of fans, so that maybe Avatars 2 and 3 can join the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time, too.

I mean, the movie’s purpose is to launch a franchise, to sell peripheral merchandise, to spread Avatar brand awareness through lunch boxes and stickers and whatever else you can cram into middle school lockers. It’s a fucking blockbuster – that was its mission, which is now very well accomplished. Yet intriguingly, and disturbingly, some people see it as a worthy cultural object to base their life around.

Through two lovely blogs, Geekologie and Ramblings of a Film Snob, I’ve recently learned about the worst of the worst amongst Avatar fans: those who get depressed because “the dream of Pandora [is] intangible,” as a CNN article informs me. Against my better judgment, I visited a forum called Naviblue.com, and glanced over some of the more egregious topics:

Coping with Avatar/Pandora Withdrawals
Why are people claiming that Avatar has a racist message
If your Avatar were to die…
What do you think avatar hidden message is
Real Life Na’vi Tribe (NOT on the Internet!)

Now, I know this is just par for the course in the age of the Internet. If there is some phenomenon – especially within the realm of fiction-world-based sci-fi – somebody’s going to obsess over it. There have always been nerds. What were alchemists but a kind of proto-nerd? But I think that the CNN story linked to above isn’t just pointless hysteria along the lines of “Video games and Marilyn Manson make our kids violent” stories of the past; I think it’s symptomatic of something greater, which possibly connects to online disinhibition effect.

I’ve expressed before an interest in child psychology – how children are sometimes incapable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, and how they process media differently. I wonder if these reactions to Avatar have to do with this kind of childlike perception. Hell, when I was 11-12, I desperately wanted the Harry Potter world to be real. I actually mused about how I’d be able to cast spells in heaven. You know why? I was a stupid 12-year-old, that’s why.

However, Live Journal user tireanavi, who writes “We Are Na’vi [Na’vi Reborn],” doesn’t look 12. Glancing hesitantly through their entries, it betrays a slightly frightening level of devotion to Avatar, as well as a connection to “Otherkin” culture, which I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I have to wonder, are they being serious when they ask, “do you have any memories of your life on Pandora? How clear are they, how detailed?” It reminds me in a way of Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” and the total disconnect from reality that Chick perceives in D&D users.

Now, I’m not just a “hater.” I have a genuine interest in exploring what’s psychologically behind these actions and claims. At a certain point, fandom does start entering into cult territory; I’m reminded of the stories of violence against Twilight haters (granted, that’s from a virulently anti-Twilight website). You’re an unhappy or desperate person, you find something to latch onto, and you defend it against any who object to it. The quality of the cultural object doesn’t matter: it’s yours, and you need it. Scary? Yes, I’d say so. I think of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, searching for any purpose, or of this very dark Onion article about desperate fandom.

I’m not really able to draw any conclusive answers here about the hows and whys, but I do think that the mentality being fostered in Avatar fans who dream of living on Pandora or being a Na’vi – even to the extreme of, to quote a forum user named Mike, “contemplat[ing] suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora” – is on the verge of cultlike. And I don’t think that’s a total coincidence. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, Avatar is basically prefabricated fan material. It’s designed to acquire fans; its universe isn’t all that organic or lived-in, but it does have a sufficient number of tiny details for fans to obsess over.

I think a great example is the Na’vi language. I’m not saying a lot of work didn’t go into it. But I think back to before Avatar was released, when a news story about artificial languages discussed Na’vi, saying it’d be the new Klingon, which is notorious for being spoken fluently by diehard Trekkies. And sure enough, Avatar fans are talking and writing in Na’vi; I suspect that this is done so that 1) they can equate themselves with film’s blue, in-tune-with-nature noble savages and 2) they can have a way of speaking that normal, uninitiated folks don’t use. Having a special vernacular is common amongst most fandoms (“muggle”?); Cameron, whose already swollen ego must be close to imploding, just accelerated the process.

So my central complaint is that with Avatar, the following just feels so built-in. While talking to Ashley recently, I compared it to the political practice of “astroturfing” – i.e., artificial grassroots. It’s barely been in theaters a month and already people think they’re reincarnated Na’vi, really? Maybe Cameron tapped into a big 21st century zeitgeist. Maybe it has something to do with growing up with Internet access. Or maybe Avatar isn’t so much a movie as it is a giant, well-oiled fan-acquiring machine.

In any case, now I think I really want to stop talking about goddamn Avatar, but I just wanted to express why it really bugged me. Because this “I saw Avatar and now I’m depressed” story isn’t at all a completely isolated, wacky, extreme case. Our generation is all about losing ourselves in unreality. A few years ago it was Second Life. Or World of Warcraft. And by and large, I don’t believe these types of attractions are good. I believe that works of art can and should improve our real lives, not act as substitutes. That’s what aggravated me about Avatar. And now I want to get back to works of art and my real life.

I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora

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