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Is Avatar Addictive?

I read an interesting article on Avatar over at CNN last week, which basically suggested that some audience members were feeling a deep depression on returning home from the cinema. Since my dislike of the film appears to a very minority view (a borderline fringe view, to be completely honest), I will assume it has nothing to do with the poor storytelling of the movie. Instead, they seem to depressed at the prospect of leaving Pandora, having been so immersed in the 3D world that James Cameron had created.

Did the end of Avatar leave you feeling blue?

In fairness, the article itself makes me feel more than a bit uneasy. Take, for example, the very scientific method they used to survey film-goers:

On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “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.

Yes, they visited a fan forum. Specifically a thread in a fan forum about being depressed after watching Avatar. That’s like claiming that Superman Returns makes people think they can fly because I found a random post on a Superman fanboard about the ability to fly. I imagine that the thread consulted by CNN includes maybe a few dozen depressed fans (as I imagine more than half of posts were mocking, insincere or argumentative and most threads on most forums feature the same contributors over and over and over again), out of millions who have seen the film. Of course, CNN tracks down a few via email for some cringe-inducing quotes like:

“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.

Seriously, it’s not news that there are a few people out there who take their fandom a bit too seriously. I’m pretty sure I could find one guy who lives his life dressed like Don Carleone and carries cotton wool buds in his mouth, but that doesn’t mean that The Godfather caused fans to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality.

My distaste for this form of journalism aside, this new spread like a meme through the internet, leading to observations like this one from CinemaBlend, using the movie’s supposedly addictive properties as an-only-half-joking reason for its continued box office dominance:

A report from CNN last week noted that there a lot of people in the world experiencing depression on account of Avatar. Apparently the movie’s digital world of Pandora is so addicting that people are being psychologically traumatized, even experiencing thoughts of suicide, when they have to leave the theater and return to their lives in the real world. Cameron hasn’t created a masterpiece, he’s carved out the cinematic equivalent of crystal meth.

In fairness, the Boston Globe ran it’s own piece based off an email they received from a fan particularly affected by the presentation of Pandora:

I am a 20-year-old male, who lives a normal life in this normal world. But after seeing so many movies that have awed me, this one just has done something I can’t explain. The non-realistic nature of it makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful place that I have seen in the film. To take my normal, unsatisfying life and transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much that once I returned home from the theater it brought tears to my eyes . . . Hopefully one day we will have technology to go into such a world of beauty and amazement.

Okay, so we’re convinced that there aren’t entire legions of individuals suffering from this post-Avatar malaise. Still, it’s fascinating – even if it isn’t as widespread as the perception would suggest. I pondered a few months back if we were reaching a stage where technology couldn’t advance much further, and maybe we really don’t have that much further to go. Maybe cinema can be truly emersive – which, in fairness, was exactly what James Cameron was going for, so good for him. 

Or maybe there have always been obsessives who have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. There’s a fascinating story down near the bottom of the Globe concerning Sir Alec Guinness and a young Star Wars fan:

For some reason, I’m reminded of the anecdote about Sir Alec Guinness in the years following “Star Wars,’’ when he encountered a young boy who claimed to have seen the movie dozens of times and worshiped at the very feet of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sir Alec leaned down to the boy and said, “You must promise me one thing.’’ “Yes? Yes?’’ “Promise me you will never, ever watch that movie again.’’

While part of that feel mean (he’s a kid!), it raises some interesting notions about those perhaps a little obsessed with pop culture and how it seems popular to view those a little, shall we say, over-engaged with popular culture as having something wrong with them.

It seems more than a little rich coming from a film blogger or film journalist – someone who makes eeing films an obsession in their spare time. I’ve never understood why that sort of obsessive behaviour is acceptable for one facet of life, but not for another. The image of the sports-obsessed jock comes to mind, able to rhyme off statistics about nay number of local teams, walking around in the clothes of their favourite team (is that any different from Star Trek nerds wandering around in those uniforms – save maybe the jersey is more fashionable)?

The difference, the Globe suggests, is that the obsessive fannish behaviour is one steeped in isolation – it isn’t a group activity:

Our entertainment wonderworlds are a diversion for some, a hugely profitable industry for others, and for many an addictive replacement for actually living one’s life. What’s depressing is how masturbatory and lonely so many of these experiences are, playing for our sole amazement while keeping other humans at bay. (And, no, online gaming doesn’t count; it just re-factors other humans as a wild-card element of the fantasy.)

I can’t help but see this as a slight exaggeration – I remember the argument that used to be made that cinema-going was an inherently collective experience. By that logic then, Avatar could never really be a ‘masturbatory and lonely’ experience, since it has to be experienced as part of a group – much like you could argue that sport spectating cannot be lonely as it takes place in a stadium. And, even outside of the experience which can’t be duplicated in isolation, sure we should be welcoming the emergence of geek culture? Popular conventions and Harry Potter parties make it less likely that those obsessing over nerdy culture do so alone.

I’m not writing this as a excessively nerdy obsessive myself – though I would hope that I am familiar with various facets of our popular culture, I’ve never gone to a convention, I don’t have a pair of Spock ears and I don’t speak Klingon – just as someone fascinated by how sensationalist media coverage of these people can be, even seemingly mean-spirited. Yes, I think that people on the Avatar boards who are depressed about the fact that Pandora doesn’t exist should probably talk to someone, but I feel the same way about people who go into a depression when their team don’t make the qualifiers (that’s a sporting term, right, I sound like I know what I am talking about?). I’m not going to make the patronising point that we all sometimes get overly emotionally invested in stuff – hell, I was disappointed coming out of Avatar, having seen James Cameron’s earlier work – because there are limits to what is reasonable, but I do think that those kind of invested-to-a-harmful degree individuals are a huge minority and are present in just about anything. Hell, if you looked hard enough, you’d probably find somebody invested to such a dramatic degree in tea bags.

Being honest, my philosophy has always been live and let live. As long as you aren’t harming anybody, go about your business – what concern is it of mine? If you feel a little sad about something, well who am I to judge – life is full of experiences designed to make us feel. On the otherhand, if you really feel depressed, you should talk to somebody. And that has nothing to do with what you’re depressed about.

Part of me thinks this is somewhat typical of the sensationalism of modern media – which is on one hand more than willing indulge geekdom with news and scoops about projects that are popular, but on the other hand more than ready to exaggerate some sort of minute facet of that culture for gratuitous headlines. Maybe that’s the real fascinating aspect of this story.

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