Sully’s vision of Pandora: a light at the end of the tunnel.

Bio-mechanical medicine and magic combine: attempting to transfuse Grace Augustine’s soul into her avatar body at the Tree of Souls.

Sully the avenger rides into battle on the flying serpent Toruk Macto.

After the momentary setback of losing his spaceship, Colonel Quaritch arrives on Pandora, ready for battle.

From the opening montage: Sully awakes. The close-up shot complicates the film’s theme of “seeing” reality by allowing viewers to see characters gazing, while making it unclear who controls the gaze or what they are reacting to.

An opening shot that develops the motif of bodies in boxes. After Sully’s admission that he has been wounded, the viewer must struggle to determine where he is at this point.

From a flashback: Sully gazes at the body of his twin brother in a coffin. This shot thwarts attempts to visually identify the nature of Sully’s injury by hiding signs of his wheelchair.

Sully’s twin brother, another body in a box that is linked to a predatory capitalist system. We learn that his brother was killed “for the paper in his wallet.”

Sully stares into the fire as his brother is cremated. Shots like this thwart attempts to read character visually: in what should be an extremely emotional moment, Sully’s expression remains blank.

Establishing ominous links between Sully’s dead brother and himself: Company men ask Sully to take his brother’s place, adding that his pay will be “very good.”

At the army base on Pandora: Juxtaposing Sully and his wheelchair with the million-dollar attack robots and bulldozers visually establishes the priorities of this futuristic war machine.

Sully meets Norm from the science crew. The angles here are lowered to Sully’s point of view, which works against ableist treatment of disabled characters in “classical” cinema.

Sully gazes at his avatar body.

Sully emerges from cryogenic sleep. The movement and light in this scene dispels the ominous effects of the dark and claustrophobic shots leading up to this moment.

Colonel Miles Quaritch is introduced. His safety lecture adds a grim twist to the film’s theme of “seeing.” He declares that everything on Pandora will “eat your eyes for jujubees.”

Establishing unsettling links between Quartich and Sully: the two men are literally on the same “level” here, both wounded men in the devices that allow them to function on Pandora.

In the hangar of the air base, Quaritch proposes Sully work as his spy among Grace Augustine’s scientists.

To seal the bargain between them, Quaritch offers the ultimate gift to Sully the Supercrip—getting his “real” legs back if he cooperates.

Sully the Supercrip disembarks on Pandora, declaring he will “pass any test…”

Sully inspects his avatar body more closely. This is another low-angle shot that establishes Sully’s importance. Here, his smile also allows viewers to “read” his character more easily.


The tracks of Sully’s tears:
disability in James Cameron’s Avatar

by Dana Fore

The body transcended:

Jake Sully’s disembodied voice ushers us into the world of Avatar, describing sudden consciousness in a VA hospital with a “big hole blown through the middle of [his] life.” His dreams of being “free” translate visually into a panoramic aerial sweep of an exotic jungle landscape, the camera drawing us down and into the alien world.

The body victimized:

Wounded after escaping a military prison, Grace Augustine lies on an altar at the Tree of Souls. Bathed in a teal-green luminescence, she lies in the fetal position alongside her avatar body. Glowing tendrils from the ground envelop the two figures, while a chorus of alien voices rises in prayer.

The body transformed:

Triumphant in the power of his new alien body, Sully sits astride a flying dragon whose wings blaze with patterns of blood-red, black, and fire-orange. Teeth clenched with rage, he wields an M60 machine gun like the sword of an avenging angel as he leads native troops against a flying armada of warships from Earth.

The body made monstrous:

Framed against a pillar of fire from the crashed spaceship behind him, Colonel Quaritch stands defiant on the soil of Pandora, safe inside the gigantic steel body of a battered attack robot. He clutches an oversized assault rifle, ready to annihilate his enemies.

Applying the theories of film critic and philosopher Gilles Deleuze to these and other images of the body in Avatar suggests the film promotes a view of disability that is unusually nuanced for a Hollywood blockbuster, and one which complicates the nature and direction of its escapist fantasies. Avatar’s gallery of disabled, vulnerable, and consistently un-readable bodies transforms the film into an unsettling commentary on war movies, if not on war itself.

The ways in which disabled bodies are presented to the audience suggest director James Cameron’s sensitivity to ableist stereotypes. These ancient conceptions of disability valorize the undamaged “able” body as a universal standard of “normality” and perfection, while simultaneously assuming “natural” links between disability and extremes of either good or evil behavior.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Although Avatar exploits disability clichés to evoke emotional responses from an audience, these stereotypes do not remain unchallenged. The disabled body eventually becomes what Deleuze calls a “crystalline” element in the plot. Roughly defined, this is a site through which unsettling or contradictory elements of narrative convention are multiplied in order to create unfamiliar tensions that suggest unexpected directions for stories to develop (Flaxman 33). Deleuze believes these tensions create the transformative power of “true” cinema, because they trigger new and (one assumes) potentially redemptive forms of thinking as an audience reacts to sounds and images in unconventional ways.

Since it would be impossible within the scope of this paper to give a comprehensive idea of Deleuzean film theory, my analysis will build upon the work of film historians Gregory Flaxman and Angelo Restivo, using their definitions of Deleuzean montage, “virtual doubling,” and narrative disruption. Flaxman notes that a Deleuzean reading of film assumes “classical” (read: Hollywood) cinema has made modern viewers acutely sensitive to mainstream film’s narrative conventions, to the extent that montage becomes an extraordinarily powerful storytelling tool. This means that only a small number of images need to be combined in order for the audience to intuit the film’s genre and its presumably natural or “organic” plot developments.

A concise example of this kind of plot foreshadowing appears in the introduction to The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. Summarizing basic concepts from Deleuze’s book Negotiations, Flaxman explains:

“Indeed, this is the meaning of Deleuze’s more limited sense of narrative, namely, a kind of montage that, having mounted recognizable images or situations, assumes the “normal” functioning of action. In My Darling Clementine, for instance, when a “drunk Indian” starts randomly shooting up Dodge City, Wyatt Earp acts to restore order once the action literally incurves around him: Earp is getting a shave when a bullet just misses his head (too close a shave, so to speak,) so that his response (disarming the man,) is presumed, anticipated, and never in doubt.“ (28)

“Time-images” stand in contrast to these “movement”-centered elements that condition audiences for predictable plots and passive reactions. According to Deleuze, “time-images” occur when characters find themselves in a situation

“however ordinary or extraordinary, that’s beyond any possible action, or to which [they] can’t react. It’s too powerful, or too painful, or too beautiful” (Negotiations 51.).

When characters on the screen are stunned into silence or inactivity, these images also disrupt the audience’s ability to predict the flow of the plot and thereby create mental “space” for new ideas to develop.

The value of “time-images” is their ability to promote new levels of reflection in the minds of viewers. In “Into the Breach: Between the Movement-Image and the Time-Image,” Angelo Restivo explains:

“This promise of the new is precisely the stake in the time-image. For, as Deleuze argues, it is time itself that inevitably throws the truth into crisis, so that the cinema of the time-image rejects a totalizing “view” of the world in favor of a radical openness toward the possible emergence of new thought, whether realized in terms of an image or a sound…” (173)

The idea of “radical openness” to new ideas is vital here. It confirms that for Deleuze, true cinema achieves its greatest power not when it successfully indoctrinates viewers with a specific ideology (which it has always been able to do) but when it allows viewers to realize that we exist in a world of competing ideologies that need to be examined closely. In Gregory Flaxman’s words,

“The cinema realizes its potential when it begins to falsify, to engage with ‘powers of the false’ and simulacra in order to reveal those categories as the purveyors of ‘ideological beliefs’” (“Introduction” 36).

In Avatar, a tremor of this new awareness occurs when Sully arrives at the military base on Pandora and disembarks from the spaceship. He rolls his wheelchair down the ramp, the last to emerge behind a line of sturdy, marching recruits. He says,

“They can fix a spinal [injury], if you’ve got the money. But not on vet benefits. Not in this economy”(Avatar 2009).

On the surface, this is throwaway dialogue that exposes vulnerability in this hard-bitten Marine and increases audience sympathy for him. Yet using a voice-over creates thematically significant ambiguities that blur the lines between past and present, creating what Deleuze calls “crystalline” effects.

Because this scene occurs between a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards establishing Sully’s background and the course of his journey to Pandora, his voice’s point of origin is ambiguous. The dialogue can represent his thoughts at the time he arrives or his recollections about his journey from a point in the future which the audience has yet to see, or both. In “Into the Breach,” Angelo Restivo argues that structural incongruities of this sort “[contaminate]…the boundary between the outer and the inner”—in this case, the “outer” world in which viewers live, and the “inner” world of the film’s creation, and the “inner” world of the viewers’ memories (182). When this happens, “virtual doubling” can occur. Viewers’ minds may move beyond the symbolic correspondences that filmmakers try to reinforce to create unexpected associations between the content of the film and elements outside of the movie, including viewers’ own experiences (176).

“Doubled” narrative emerges from the scene above because Sully’s linking of his financial problems and his physical condition acknowledges—and then works against—a real-world “medical model” of disability. This model oversimplifies the nature of difficulties in disabled people’s lives by ascribing those difficulties to personal weaknesses, without considering larger social factors like wealth, class, race or gender.[2] Sully’s observation also intrudes into the viewer’s own historical moment by reminding the audience of similarities between his own problems and the predicaments of those on “vet benefits” in “this economy” of the 21st century.

By explicitly identifying links between its paraplegic hero and a flawed capitalist system, the film also creates a “time-image” montage that reverses the “action-image” set-up commonly found in “classic” Hollywood films about wounded veterans. Well-known examples such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950) both start at the point the wounded protagonists have been sent home after fighting. The plots rarely entertain a possibility that any of them might return to serve in the military. And in each of these films, capitalism is introduced as a system that facilitates the successful re-integration of the characters into society—usually by providing them with the funds needed to establish stable careers and home lives, especially by buying the prosthetics necessary for functioning “normally” outside of a hospital setting.

The film continues to use disability as a conduit for unsettling ideas as it develops its central motifs of “seeing” reality and “waking up.” Any notion of “true” vision is destabilized from the beginning of the film during Sully’s first voice-over. After telling us about waking up in a VA hospital and giving us a brief glimpse of his dreams of being “free,” he declares, “Sooner or later...you always have to wake up.” The screen goes black. Then, we see an extreme close up of Sully’s eye, roving frantically in dim light. The shot expands to head and shoulders, and we see Sully lying down (paralyzed?) in an unfamiliar, claustrophobic enclosure.

For viewers following an ableist cultural script, these scenes seem to confirm disability’s isolating power over social ties and personality. The audience is teased with the idea that this unknown, wounded narrator is delusional, implying severely disabled people are never “free” and must realize this when they “wake up” and face the awful truth. The shift from complete darkness to Sully struggling in his coffin-like enclosure reinforces the idea that severe disability is a kind of living death. This nihilistic idea is dispelled, however, when we learn that Sully is actually waking up in a cryogenic sleep chamber—not ending his life but beginning a new phase of it.

Thus Avatar develops the first major element in its disability narrative by setting the stage for a tale of Sully as “Supercrip.” According to media analyst Jack A. Nelson, the "Supercrip" is one of seven major disability stereotypes that persist in the modern world. The Supercrip is

“someone likable facing the trauma of disability, who through great courage, stamina, and determination either succeeds in triumphing or succumbs heroically. . .  [These] heroes’ actions are inspirational—and often superhuman”(6).

However, in Avatar less clichéd notions run parallel to the stereotypes, thanks to camera angles that thwart the expectations of an ableist gaze. Film historian and disability activist Martin F. Norden notes that most portrayals of disability in film before the 1970s were “isolationist.” That is, through the use of specific cinematographic techniques designed to elicit stock responses of shock or pity from an able-bodied audience, mainstream film reinforced the notion of a “physical or symbolic separation between disabled characters and the rest of society” (1).

Avatar disrupts ableist voyeurism by “handling” Sully in ways that maximize audience identification while working against the isolating imagery discussed by Norden. For instance, when Sully appears in his wheelchair, the camera alternates between close-ups of his face and medium shots of him moving in the lab or around the base. The close-ups establish both Sully’s individuality and his masculinity by making his gaze central to the scene. In the words of E. Ann Kaplan, “to own and activate the gaze” in film “is to be in the masculine position” (130). If controlling the gaze does count as a performance of masculinity, then this cinematography also undermines the stereotype of the disabled man “feminized” by his wound (Davidson 47-8). The medium shots also underscore Sully’s power and agency by allowing viewers to see the speed at which he moves and works. And these scenes are typically shot from his level, and not from the level of the able-bodied characters looking down—a common way of presenting disabled characters that visually implies their inferiority (Norden 249).

The film further undermines the conventions of isolationist cinema by refusing to pander to an ableist gaze that wants to “stare” at Sully’s disability. According to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson,

“Staring at disability choreographs a visual relation between a spectator and a spectacle. A more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning...staring registers the perception of difference and gives meaning to impairment by marking it as aberrant” (56-57).

What Garland-Thompson says about photography can be extended to film: it

“[enables] the social ritual of staring in an alternate form” (57).

In addition, as Norden explains, cinema typically accomplishes this kind of ableist objectification through frequent close-ups of disabled characters’ wounds, prostheses, or deformities, or by having these elements continually mentioned by others characters (246-7; 292).

To undermine the voyeuristic stare, the camera never shows Sully’s atrophied legs close up or in full light. Instead, we see only glimpses of them in medium or long shots, as he moves to or from the isolation chamber that allows him to “drive” his Na’vi body. Similarly, viewers are never allowed to see Sully’s injury or his wheelchair in the opening scenes after he admits to being in a veterans’ hospital. Thus, viewers can only guess at the extent to which Sully is disabled. The only prosthetic device given consistent visual attention is the cybernetic isolation chamber. Since this device covers the entire body (and creates primarily mental effects), ableist viewers are denied visual cues for stereotypical responses.

The second major player in the film’s disability narrative is Colonel Quaritch. Marked by a trio of thick scars on the side of his head, Quaritch is also a wounded veteran, but any lasting effects of his injury are internalized. Quaritch is introduced as a by-the-book military leader who bears his scars like badges of honor. When he declares to Sully that he “kinda likes” his scars and refuses cosmetic surgery to be made “pretty again,” he seems the very soul of old-school military stoicism. By the end of the film his sense of honor and discipline has been warped in the service of an increasingly xenophobic and malevolent intelligence.

We see this transformation, for instance, when Sully and his human allies escape the army base in a stolen helicopter. In his zeal to gun down the enemies who have betrayed him, Quartich kicks open a hermetically sealed door, putting himself and everyone around him at risk by allowing Pandora’s poisonous atmosphere to flood the control room. And rather than abandon his headquarters in the face of a planet-wide rebellion by the Na’vi, he convinces his troops to embark on a genocidal campaign to destroy the natives, sounding ever-more like a twentieth-century fascist as he exhorts his troops to “blow a crater” in the natives’ “racial memory.”

A “Supercrip” of a different sort, Quartich is the shadow that haunts any positive stereotype. He becomes a prime example of a disabled character defined by Martin Norden as an “Obsessive Avenger.” This figure is an

“egomaniacal sort, almost always an adult male, who does not rest until he has had his revenge on those he holds responsible for his disablement and/or violating his moral code in some way” (Norden 52).

His character reinforces cultural fears of a totalizing flaw—the idea that any deformity or disability, no matter how minor, has the potential to unbalance and overwhelm all the positive aspects of a person’s character, transforming sufferers into bitter, self-centered people or dangerous monsters (Siebers 44-5; Norden 52).

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