I recently saw Avatar, the 3D film by James Cameron, who last did Titanic over a decade ago. I am probably the only person in America who never saw Titanic, but not because I heard anything bad about it. I just don’t enjoy tragedies, probably because I find the real world depressing enough. But Avatar is different (though Cameron is still going for the pithy one-word titles). No sad ending here.
Avatar is a wonderful in the true sense of the word because more than ever before, it immerses us with wonder in a new world. The experience was like my first viewing of Star Wars in 1977, another wonder for its time. Cameron’s masterpiece combines amazingly realistic computer animation, 3D projection, science fiction, a morality play, a war, and of course, a love story. I was especially impressed with the awe inspiring scale and detail of Avatar’s forest world. 3D viewing adds a third dimension, but Avatar’s imaginary world adds yet another dimension of the vertical, with immense trees, branch-bound paths, and floating mountains.
The simple plot includes moral editorial on environmentalism and colonialism, with earth folk, and specifically a large avaricious corporation, wearing the black hat. There is nothing wrong with art that makes a strong moral statement, even if it is not the statement I would choose. That is the prerogative of the artist. Starkly dividing good from evil probably helps immerse us in Avatar’s world by alienating us from our own. So I am not criticizing the artist here.
The point I’ll make is that we viewers must exercise care, since morality plays, even if good art, can influence us in not-so-good ways. Stories with a moral are fiction. When we internalize a fictional morality without some reality checking, I think we are more prone to real world evil. So read on for my moralizing on the possibly morale consequences of morality fiction. Also, for any who are interested, I’ll end with a short summary of cinematic 3D technology.
Art and Persuasion
I’m not sure whether Cameron is advancing his own opinion on environmentalism or just an opinion intended to resonate with his audience. My guess is it is a little of each.
That the film’s morality is not quite mine is not a problem. It’s part of what makes it a work of genius. A successful author once commented that he really enjoyed Robert Heinlien’s Starship Troopers even though Heinlien’s militaristic novel champions conservative ideas he abhorred. Part of Heinlein’s genius was to make even conservative preaching enjoyable. I think Avatar succeeds similarly with with a liberal agenda. That is part of what can make art great.
The potential danger lies with us, the viewers or readers, for I think such moral lessons can be associated with evil real world consequences. By constructing an appealing story about our world (or a world much like ours in Avatar’s case), the artist can tempt us into maladaptive belief systems that oversimplify reality.
Religious beliefs need not be about traditional religions. By my definition, human “religion” is about more than just God. Religious beliefs are any strong opinions we cannot rationally prove, ideas we take on faith, and can involve any subject. Uncritical acceptance of a morality play like Avatar (or anything else, including articles like this one) can be the source of “religion” in my view. And as history shows, religion can be the source of death and destruction.
Evil Corporate America
Avatar is about a greedy and ultimately evil attempt to pillage an ecosystem, taking advantage of benign native people sophisticated in their understanding of nature though lacking in technology.
I think it is facile and possibly destructive to religiously believe that large corporations are evil. I’ve never managed to build any kind of large organization myself and I’ve hardly ever even worked at one. I don’t even invest much in them. But I certainly buy from them. It seems to me that without big business, our world could not support a fraction of the billions alive today. If you suddenly made all big business disappear, many billions of people would perish. Even if you just nationalized them, preserving their facilities and technology, I would bet that world population would still shrink, though it would take longer.
Large corporations usually happen when new ideas succeed in the market. Like big government, big business tends to be centralized and inefficient and is often overtaken by newer ideas and events. But while they last, large businesses exist because they advance technologies and methods that improve our lives and allow ever greater populations to survive on Earth. Sure they and their employees can do wrong, even intentional wrong at times. But to believe that most big businesses exist because they are unfair and manipulative is to believe a fairy tale. Such a beliefs seem to help us simplify and understand our world, but in a warped and possibly destructive way.
Conflict can lead to hate, but I think unreasoned convictions are more often the culprit. Hate, and especially religiously inspired hate, is the source of most avoidable evil. So it scares me when I see signs of a new religious-style hatred of business, big or small. Sure business can do evil, but history shows that governments and wars can be much worse. Outside of Hollywood, I don’t believe even the most powerful corporations intentionally kill people. It requires war to get rid of a bad government, while the demise of a bad business is usually much quicker and less destructive. When you think about it, “business” is a better non-violent way for people and ideas to compete, a benevolent modern replacement for nationalism and war.
Ecology and Unintended Consequences
Another insidious thing about Cameron’s morality play is that its belief system might have unintended consequences that would even shock most liberals. Liberals despise colonialism, mostly forgetting that they are all themselves decedents of colonists. I agree that subjugating indigenous peoples is amoral (though as an aside, I have trouble seeing the Jewish Zionism as anything like colonialism). Avatar obviously takes a strong anti-colonial stance, with evil invaders from Earth attempting to subjugate what looks a lot like a rain forest and almost human natives.
The problem is that there are no rain forests in New York or Hollywood. They exist in places like Brazil. If the ecological “save the rain forest” morality promoted by Avatar eventually influences public policy, it is might not be greedy corporations that suffer. Instead it might be developing nations like Brazil.
We North Americans have already grown wealthy cutting down our own forests, so who are we to tell others they cannot do the same in the tropics? To me, it is a kind of colonial imperialism to even try to stop human encroachment in our world’s rain forests. So I find the film’s morality questionable, at least in our real world. Yes, we must all share our planet. But rain forests are not really our business here in the US and they are not really big business. We must step back and let those who live there husband their own resources as best they can, because it is mostly their business. By dramatizing corporations raping rain forests in fiction, we might just end up with policies that harm some of the world’s poor. For me, that’s the kind of ironic problem that can result from religious zeal.
Ecology Here at Home
Northern New England, and especially my own New Hampshire, was largely deforested by farming and logging over one hundred years ago. In the 19th century something like 70% of my state was barren of trees. Now its the reverse, and forests again cover over 70% of the land. Due to a variety of mostly non-altruistic factors, we’ve mostly allowed our forests to regrow. We live in what may be the most densely forested of any populous area in the world. Though it is not really my doing, I’m proud of that.
But am I a conservationist or just a conservative? Being conservative means that I really do like to conserve most things. For decades, I’ve been worried that we will eventually run out of oil, though it turned out I was wrong about how soon that might happen. So I’ve long favored smaller cars and packaging with less plastic. I also try to conserve all sorts of life when I can and even rescue helpless earthworms trapped on roads or driveways after a big rain. On the other hand, I live in a very large house (because housing is inexpensive in New Hampshire), and we keep it comfortably heated and air conditioned year round. I enjoy hiking and climbing in our nearby forests, but I also enjoy snow skiing in developed areas hacked out of those same forests. Plus, I am probably responsible for the death of more than my fair share of cattle (though maybe as I have argued elsewhere, the killed lettuces I consume might be the greater crime against mother nature). I conserve things by inclination, but I don’t think most conservationists would have me.
Conservation versus Conservatism
Obviously, there is a difference between being conservative and being a true conservationist. As I’ve argued, conservation can become a sort of unreasoned religious zealotry that I think can be insidious. Any religion can convert the best intentions into conflict and destruction.
My ultimate goal is to show that while liberal and conservative ideals contrast over a wide spectrum, one difference may be the key to their separate moralities. I think the fundamental difference between a conservative and a conservationist is that the conservative tends to mind his own business, while the business of a conservationist is to influence others. Sure, conservationists are good people who don’t damage the environment unnecessarily. But so are conservatives. What defines conservationists is their belief that they know what is best for our environment and their demands that we all follow their beliefs. As I hope to make clear in the next two articles here and here, this difference seems to apply to a broad range of issues and not just ecology. I will argue that this difference is important in understanding why liberal idealism can be harmful.
For those who are interested, I’ll end with a discussion of 3D technology. I lead a sheltered existence and had never seen a 3D film outside of Disney World. I knew that 3D projection works by presenting the images of two laterally separated cameras. Having written my own 3D rendering software in the 90’s, I also knew that 3D computer animation lends itself to 3D viewing. Computer 3D animation (what the movie industry calls CG for Computer Graphics to distinguish it from hand-drawn animations) consists of building computer models of each person and object. Fundamentally, each model is a bunch of three dimensional coordinates (X, Y and Z) defining points on the exterior surface, with color and surface texture being additional information that may vary over the surface. Making the model is the hard part, since I believe it is still largely a human endeavor, requiring skilled artists that are essentially drawing on their computers in three dimensions. Though they may also sculpt physical models and then scan the surface of the sculpture into 3D coordinates, using devices that are analogous to the scanners you may use, but which can scan points in three rather than two dimensions. Film CG, unlike most scientific graphs I programmed, has a fourth dimension, which is time. Animators must also define how the objects move through a virtual scene as time progresses.
More recently, “performance capture” technology used in parts of Lord of the Rings and animated films like Polar Express, has allowed for increasingly realistic humans to appear in CG animations. Actors record a scene with special sensors that capture their movements and expressions in three dimensions. Then these movements and expressions are used to animate the 3D models that may look quite different. That is how Avatar manages to have realistic extra terrestrials on a massive scale.
Through an amazingly simple system of matrix algebra and trigonometry, computer software “renders” these 3D models into 2D images as seen by a virtual camera, using animator-programmed movements of the modeled objects to churn out 24 frames for each second of film. Some of this rendering technology was invented by John Warnock, who also founded Adobe, the arch competitor for my FxFoto software (though they are so much bigger, they may not have even noticed my software). Once you have constructed a 3D model of some scene, it is almost trivial to render it from any point of view. The “camera” is just a set of coordinates and a line of sight vector, numbers that you just shift a little to the right to get your second view to be shown to the other eye. So it makes sense that a largely animated work like Avatar should appear in 3D.
I knew all of this before I saw Avatar. What I did not know was how the new crop of 3D movies presented the two views in theaters. This technology is called stereoscopic, since two images are projected, one for each eye. Decades ago, they often used colored glasses and tinted each each image red or cyan so it was seen better though one lens. That was called anaglyph 3D and it’s the easy way, since the film can be distributed and projected just like a normal movie. All you need is the colored glasses. I never saw one of those old style “3D” movies either, though I imagine they were not very satisfactory since they could not cleanly separate the two camera images and since you were literally viewing the scene through rose colored glasses.
What I find amazing in our world of modern technology and marketing is how often marketers refuse to tell us much about the technology. It’s as if they assume we cannot understand even important details (like the resolution of a phone display - they often just give the screen size in inches, not at all the same thing). My guess is that it is usually the marketers themselves who don’t understand the technology and who cannot explain what they do not know. In a perfect world, the people who build our technology would market it too. My companies have always done it that way, but I guess I am the exception and possibly that is one reason Adobe is so much bigger than any of the firms I’ve founded.
Anyway, I had never been able to determine whether modern 3D films use the old colored-lens approach or use the more difficult polarized-lens approach I saw at Disney Epcot. There your glasses were polarized much as sunglasses often are. But unlike sunglasses, the left and right polarizations are orthogonal, one polarized vertically and the other horizontal. Next time you see a 3D movie, grab your date’s glasses (with her permission of course, political correctness at all costs is my motto), and rotate them in front of your own. As you rotate through 90 degrees, the view goes from visible to dark, visible when the polarizations are aligned and dark when they are not (since light polarized in any direction is blocked by one of the two stacked lenses). It turns out that modern 3D in films like Avatar uses the superior polarized light approach, which allows much better image separation so the third dimension is much move vivid.
That we are seeing a resurgence of 3D film is probably because theaters are beginning to switch to digital projection technology, which can be quite expensive, and are opting for the new 3D versions while they are at it. Though I still know nothing about the projection technology, polarization probably means special equipment that really is projecting two separate images onto the screen. My guess is 3D projectors are entirely digital, more like a modern TV than real film, but the marketers are not talking about it.
I have heard that 3D television is coming, which will be great since movies like Avatar are spectacular in 3D (not that there are many works of that caliber). As usual there were no technical details, but hopefully they are not just talking about TV with old-style colored glasses. Film really is succeeding at immersing us in ever more vivid representations of fictional worlds. Too bad that the industry is next in line to be destroyed by digital piracy, a steam roller that we seem powerless to stop. It appears that virtually all creative effort will go mostly uncompensated in the not too distant future. See Digital Media and Capitalism for more on this.