“The Avatar Blues” -or- “Caution: 3D CGI can lead to suicidal thoughts”

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Our erstwhile reader, Kit, has recently brought to my attention an article on CNN (Dot) Com about how Avatar is adversely affecting some people psychologically, and has requested that I stop making fun of obsessive Trekies as a result. Well, obviously *That* ain’t gonna’ happen , but he does make a very valid point about how obsessive genre fans aren’t a Trek-only phenomenon.

In some cases, it can be dangerously obsessive. The first such case I ever heard of an SF-related suicide was a Midwestern kid in 1979. He was so distraught about the cancellation of Battlestar Galactica that he killed himself. This has been blown off by fans and ‘danes for a generation now as stupid, crazy, ‘taking things too far’, and so on. I think that’s being too dismissive, though. First of all, a kid *killed himself* because of a TV show, and I don’t think you can ever really just say “Well, he was nuts, that doesn’t count.” Clearly it does. You can’t just ignore the pain and suffering that caused his family by saying “He was mentally ill.” Sure he was, but that doesn’t negate the results, it doesn’t change the level of pain that he was feeling. I think it’s disingenuous to praise ‘crazy’ when it’s someone like Patton or MacArthur and it suits our needs, and dismiss it when it’s embarrassing. I mean, hell, we’re all genre fans, right? Most of us aren’t wrapped too tightly to begin with.

And yet this CNN article http://edition.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/inde... discusses just this sort of obsession in a broader scale. In essence, it tells of how viewers experience depression after leaving the film, and being forced to experience the humdrum workaday realities of life. It also mentions feelings of ‘disgust’ towards humanity, in large part because of the actions depicted in the movie. Let me repeat that for emphasis: “Disgust for humanity based on a movie.”

Case in point: >>>"Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible," has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. <<<

>>>That's all I have been doing as of late, searching the Internet for more info about 'Avatar.' I guess that helps. It's so hard I can't force myself to think that it's just a movie, and to get over it, that living like the Na'vi will never happen. I think I need a rebound movie," Elequin posted.<<<


>>>RELATED TOPICS James Cameron Movie Reviews Entertainment "Ever since I went to see 'Avatar' I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na'vi made me want to be one of them. I can't stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it," Mike posted. "I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in 'Avatar.' "<<<

And this one is particularly telling:

>>>"One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality," Hill said.<<<

Now, obviously, all of these people would seem candidates for some form of mental illness or another, but we can’t just blow it off as a statistical anomaly. I mean, you didn’t get thousands of people contemplating suicide and/or ecoterrorism from Star Wars or Blade Runner, now did you? I think there’s several mitigating factors here that are perhaps contributing to it.

1) The film is more immersive than most other SF films. The CGI is extremely detailed, and the depth of field is extremely great. The CGI extends to a very distant horizon, and - I’m told - a good deal beyond it, just to increase the sense of veracity. Is this a reason to kill oneself? Of course not - I mean, no one kills themselves over Roger Dean album covers, right? - but it is deeper and more complex than most people are used to seeing. Also, the 3D is very good, very well done, and it blurs the line between film and viewer in ways that *most* people aren’t ready for, thus making the deep, dark, fake world seem deeper and darker and realer still.

In “Videodrome,” the “Cathode Ray Mission” hypothesized that on a primitive level, our brains can’t tell the difference between TV and reality. This is a learned behavior, and it seems to make sense. We’ve all heard stories about people seeing movies for the first time in the 1890s running from the theater in terror because they thought they were about to be hit by a train. Small children don’t understand the difference between cartoons and reality, and are extremely impressionable - and unexpectedly violent on occasion - as a result. The ability to distinguish between real-world fact and video-world fiction is one we train ourselves to make as we get older, and there’s some circumstantial evidence that suggests every time the video technology improves radically, you get an upswing of people who have to re-learn the distinction.

The most famous case is when Gilligan’s Island went to color in the second season, the state department started getting letters from people who thought it was real, and requested the government to assist these poor castaways. No, really.

Avatar has seriously raised the bar on SF visuals, and I think that’s causing some people to have to re-learn the distinction between reality and fantasy. Undoubtedly their senses are overwhelmed, and their primitive reptile hindbrains don’t know quite what to make of it, how to cope.

2) The movie is *intended* to make a strong emotional impact. Back when “Saving Private Ryan” came out, you had hundreds of Normandy vets who were having flahsbacks, many of them for the first time in fifty years. It was a bit too real for them, a quantum level above “The Longest Day.” Suddenly they were in the middle of the most terrifying day in their lives, and most of them weren’t ready for that.

Likewise, Avatar is deliberately jingoistic about its environmental message, and its contempt for humanity, a species that’s sinned against nature and has to be punished. This is the kind of thing that probably wouldn’t have had as much impact forty years ago, or even twenty years ago, as it does today.

The Green movement is very strong and it has largely supplanted traditional religion in pop culture ( http://www.crichton-official.com/speech-environmentalismaseligion.html ). As such it generates the kinds of strong revival meeting feelings that religion does, including - but not limited to - a sense of disgust with our species, and a kind of dread/longing for the final eschatelon that’ll punish the wicked, reward the just, and end this quite-literally God damned world once and for all.

3) This movie is a huge crossover success, meaning it’s being seen by millions of people who don’t ordinarily watch SF. A lot of these people are pretentious types who decry SF as being “Kid’s stuff” and “Trash,” but insist that this film is somehow “Important” and atypical of things SF films normally do.

Obviously, they’re full of crap, and don’t grasp that SF tackles important social questions all the time. In fact, that’s sort of the genre’s day job, with space battles and scantily-clad green-skinned alien sex-slaves being more of a nighttime hobby than anything else, but still it makes me wonder: How many of these people have never seen an SF film before?

Seriously: if you like the genre - any genre - then you’ve developed a kind of coping mechanism for it. If you’ve grown up liking westerns, then you might be a bit shocked by A Fistfull of Dollars, or Little Big Man, or Dances With Wolves, but you have a context to fit them into. Yeah, they’re odd divergences from the norm, but they are *just* westerns, after all. Likewise, if you watch a lot of SF, then you’ve got a sort of context to fit your reactions of this film into - this part is a bit like this, that part is a bit like that, this part here I’ve seen before in thus-and-such film, and so on. I suspect that these overloading suicide-daydreaming folks are people with little-or-no exposure to the genre, and hence they lack our glorious geek coping mechanism.

So that’s my take on it all. What do you think? Sound off below!