Essay 3: To See the Monster. How Avatar Offers a Way Forward.
i. Ways to See Power
It would appear at first initially a backwards movement, at least dramatically, to begin with an essay discussing being the monster and conclude with an essay that merely discusses seeing it. But such is not the case: seeing and recognizing the monster has been an undercurrent all through identifying and fearing it (and we’ve already discussed how being and fearing the monster can occur without seeing it); and so, in some sense, it’s what we’ve been building to all along. After all, it’s only once we see the monster that we can truly learn from it.
One of the perspectives on the monster most rich with tension and meaning when considering Avatar’s imagery is that of the monster as both a saving force and a destructive one. Consider the following images, from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and ATLA (ATLA, 1.20) respectively—
It’s important to note here that, unlike in the original Godzilla film and many others, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla features Godzilla as a hero. The kaiju creature that once served as an avenging angel against humanity’s nuclear transgressions has come now to protect the people of Japan against destruction. Of course, this protection is not wholly peaceable—it’s enacted through Godzilla’s own destructive power: Godzilla has to fight and defeat its mechanical counterpart in order to save humanity.
Similarly, in this episode of Avatar, the Avatar State—whose destructive, anger-fueled potential was made clear in earlier episodes—is being used by Aang in order to save the Northern Water Tribe (and all humanity), and this salvation is at least partially enacted through destruction. Aang destroys Fire Nation tanks and ships in order to win this battle; the monster’s potential for both great good and great evil—and perhaps both at once—are on full display.
This tension is well-represented in the two stills above. In both scenes, Godzilla and the Ocean Spirit, respectively, have just arrived to do battle; and in both, they are small figures, occupying very little of the frame. These monsters are large, destructive forces, and yet the camera frames them so that they appear small. But no—that’s not quite right. The camera frames them so that they are part of the landscape that they intend to save. They do not dominate it; they are one with it (note also how Godzilla’s color matches the color of the island forest, and how the Ocean Spirit’s blue pervades the ice on both sides and the city below).
In fact the scene from Avatar goes a step further, by including human figures in the foreground—note how in this framing, the humans appear to be the same size as the Ocean Spirit. The fact that the Avatar is both spirit and human is perfectly captured in this one shot; the Ocean Spirit looms over the city, and at the same time appears only as large as any human. By a careful choice of frame, Avatar lets us see both the monster that feels far from us and the monster that we empathize with simultaneously.
This is the same tension that exists, for example, in Frankenstein’s creature. In one scene in Mary Shelley’s famous novel (Ch. 16), a young girl almost drowns, and the creature saves her; the description of the incident is as follows: “I rushed from my hiding-place and with extreme labour, from the force of the current, saved her and dragged her to shore.” The creature’s superhuman strength has already been discussed earlier in the novel, and so here we see clearly an example of the monstrous—of unnatural strength and speed, capable of overcoming a powerful river current—being used in order to save. Of course, the other characters of the novel do not see both sides of this monstrous potential and power the way that we do; only shortly afterwards, the creature recounts how a man “aimed a gun…at my body and fired.” This man, in short, saw only destruction and horror in the figure of the monster.
The monster’s struggle between destructive and emancipatory potential, and the former’s enabling the latter, is not relegated to just one episode of Avatar, nor is it relegated to just the character of the Avatar. Let’s compare the following scene from The Host—
with this scene from Avatar (ATLA, 2.15)—
As is clear from the scattered mess lying around the monster’s feet in the still from The Host, the monster in that film is a chaotic force. It is also, like the Spirit Bear (which we’ll discuss later; see also the Spirit Bestiary), a symbol and physical embodiment of ecological disaster, as the monster is the result of chemicals having been dumped into a river. So this monster isn’t merely acting out physical destruction; it’s extending the destruction that humans have already wrought on the planet.
Now, in the scene from Avatar, a number of creatures have been released from the zoo. Here, the monstrous is again a chaotic force—these creatures chase after villagers, they tear through the city—and yet their monstrosity is more nuanced than that. These strange creatures are merely looking for a home, and the audience is made to empathize with their plight. So, while the two shots above may appear similar, Avatar ultimately takes the setup in a very different direction. While the monster in The Host acts out wanton destruction until it is stopped, the creatures in Avatar are ultimately able to use their strength and speed and “monstrousness” to escape the walled city of Ba Sing Se—it is in because they charge towards those walls that the walls are opened—and to make a better home for themselves. The “saving” potential of the monster does not always have to save others. It can also save itself.
This is perhaps the more positive side of a coin whose other side is the statement that opens Horkheimer and Adorno’s “The Concept of Enlightenment”: “Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear…Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” That which was meant to save has been (mis)used and abused for destruction; instead of the monster using its monstrousness for good as in these Avatar examples, Horkheimer and Adorno observed that the seemingly good and progressive was used to further the monstrous and fascistic during WWII. And so, paradoxically, as we begin to see and understand the figure of the monster better, it becomes more ambiguous; part of what it means to be a monster appears to lie within this ambiguousness, this potential for extremes of good and evil. Once again, Cohen’s thesis on category crisis appears to haunt our analysis.
ii. Ways to See Closeness
Next we’ll look at some sequences from Avatar that demonstrate our complex and changing relationship with the monstrous. While I posited in my first essay that much of Avatar’s imagery helps us to understand the monstrous within us, I want to demonstrate in this next analysis that that is not to say that the concept of the “monstrous within us” is fixed or that our relationship to it is constant.
Observe the following sequence (ATLA, 1.7) in which Aang confronts the Spirit Bear Hei Bai—
Note that, when the sequence begins, the framing is such that Aang is tiny compared to Hei Bai. The relative vastness of the unknown, the monstrous, and the misunderstood is well-represented in the framing. It’s well-represented in imaginings of the monstrous throughout history as well: take, for instance, this short and representative passage from the Kojiki, describing the deities who emerge from another, “Her Augustness the Female-Who-Invites”—“in her head dwelt the Great Thunder…in her belly dwelt the Black Thunder…altogether eight Thunder-Deities had been born and dwelt there” (42). The immensity of the monstrous is well-illustrated in those sentences and in the frame above as well.
But the show is not content to leave us there. It proceeds to literally and figuratively bring us closer to the “other,” through its camerawork. Note what happens when Aang and the Spirit Bear talk and bond—
We get the above close-up. Hei Bai is still clearly larger than Aang, and yet the closer framing cuts much of Hei Bai’s body out, so that this spirit no longer appears so menacingly vast. The two characters have come closer to seeing each other as equal figures in the spirit world. This framing also makes it appear that Aang is closer to Hei Bai, just as the audience has been brought closer to both. That is, our (and Aang’s) deeper empathy for the monster is reflected in the camera’s tighter frame; we don’t exist merely at a static distance from, or in a static relationship to, the monster. We can become closer to it. We can take steps forward.
And this is not the only time that we see this in Avatar. Consider the following sequence, in which Aang has a conversation with a Lion Turtle (ATLA, 3.19). The sequence consists of a series of alternating shots of each of these two characters. In particular, we keep returning to a shot of the Lion Turtle’s face, with Aang in the foreground with his back to the audience. However, every time we return to that shot, the “camera” is closer than it was before—
Again, with each return to this shot, we’re brought closer and closer to both the Lion Turtle and to Aang. Not only are the spirit world and human worlds brought together, but the audience’s real life is brought closer to those fictional worlds as well—and thus those worlds are made perhaps not so fictional after all. This is one way to understand Cohen’s seventh thesis, when he said that “the monster stands at the threshold…of becoming” (Cohen 52). As these shots demonstrate, the monster is always becoming, and the process of becoming is never over; our relationship to—and understanding of—the monster is in constant and fluid motion.
iii. Ways to See Movement…
This constantly changing state of “monstrous being” is also relevant to a scene from Legend of Korra in which Korra, nearly drowned, enters the Avatar State. Here’s a shot of that scene (LOK, 2.5)—
And for comparison, here are a few similar shots of “drowning scenes” from films. From Sunset Boulevard—
From The Piano—
And even from Ratatouille—
(This last may appear to be an odd choice, but I would argue that in terms of peoples’ attitudes towards them, the rat occupies a strange space between the “cute” housepet mouse and the “monstrous” pest, which makes it a particularly appropriate figure for this analysis).
What all three of those film scenes make clear is that throughout film and animation, we see the underwater often used as a life-or-death battleground, particularly when the camera moves underwater with the subject. In Sunset Boulevard, the man has died; in The Piano, Ada is drowning but ultimately decides to live; and in Ratatouille, Remy must hide from the humans in a sink, and so he risks death underwater in order to live.
But this life-and-death interplay is taken a step further in LoK, because Korra is literally both human and spirit; she is both life and death. And her being the Avatar allows her not only to occupy this in-between space, but for the audience to see how her relationship to each of these categories is in flux. Hence, we can see Korra take on a bodily position nearly identical to the one in the shot from Sunset Boulevard, and yet, with her eyes glowing from her having just entered the Avatar State, we can see how she rejects the death that that bodily position suggests. She moves closer towards the state of being alive. And it’s in that movement that the monster exists: it is, again, in that constant state of “becoming” that we discussed at the end of the last section. We can relate this to a passage from Timothy Beale’s Religion and Its Monsters: “Monsters…are paradoxical personifications of otherness within sameness…they represent the outside that has gotten inside” (Beale 4). Close, but perhaps the truth is closer to this: they represent the outside that is getting inside, and vice versa.
The fluidity of the monster’s relationship with the human is also well-represented by the next comparison. Consider first this wide-angle shot from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—
And compare it to this scene from LoK (LoK, 3.5)—
What would you say is the greatest difference between these two shots? There are many reasonable answers to this question, but the one that I’d like to focus on is the addition of those two columns in the foreground in the LoK scene. In fact it’s more than that—the whole lower fifth of the frame is obstructed. Even though these two frames may initially appear to be the same size, the Korra one is essentially tighter, and, one might say, more claustrophobic—ironic, given that it’s the one that takes place outdoors. But this extra frame-within-a-frame in the Korra scene does real work: it places the humans in the Korra scene squarely inside the spiritual temple space; at the same time, a spiritual power is inside of them. The shot acts as a nesting doll of the spiritual and the human, and therefore of the potentially monstrous and the human as well. This framing suggests that all these things are not so much on either side of some dividing line as they are things that slide into and through and around each other, things that frame each other, and things that give each other some necessary and all-too-often-overlooked context. Here, as we approach the end of our analysis, we see yet again Cohen’s categorical crisis: the strict boundaries between categories break down and become sites of constant traversal. Again, the movement between all these states is at the heart of being the monster.
iv. …And Ways to Move Forward
Mark Fisher, in “The Weird and the Eerie,” stated: “…the weird and the eerie [are] modes of perception…” (Fisher, 9) Accordingly, we close with an analysis of a shot in Legend of Korra that plays directly on modes of perception, and which carries the weight of several decades of television and film that preceded it.
The 1960’s Batman television series that starred Adam West was famous for its method of taking a shot and rotating it 90 degrees, such that this—
was turned into this—
Years later, in the Christopher Nolan movie Inception, the technology became much more elaborate, but the intended effect was much the same—
The filmmakers sought to trick the viewer into believing that what is actually the ground, is a wall. But now compare that to this fascinating shot from LoK (LoK, 2.12)—
Here, again, the shot is rotated so that the ground takes on the position of a wall. But this time, it’s not done with the intention of tricking the audience into believing that gravity is being defied in some way; the audience is fully aware that this is merely the camera taking on an unusual angle. In fact, we see the shot rotate to achieve this angle. So then the question is—why?
For a couple reasons, I would argue: first, while gravity may not be literally being defied as in Batman or Inception, the power of the monstrous is metaphorically turning the peace and balance of the world upside down (or at least 90 degrees). Second—and almost conversely—it puts Korra on an even level with the monster she’s facing. Were this scene right-side-up, the monster would be above Korra in the frame, and it would have the dominating power. This way, the monster’s power is still conveyed in the way it occupies the majority of the frame, and yet it’s in some sense on an even level with Korra, both in terms of power and in the consideration of the fact that Korra, as the Avatar, is both human and spirit.
Rephrasing that last point: Korra, being the mediator of the human and spirit worlds, is the ultimate representation of how neither of these worlds is “above” or “below” the other; they act in equal tandem. And so, even as she fights a spirit, she does so in a framing that emphasizes that equality. But—again—the framing did not start out that way. The “camera” had to rotate to this position; Korra had to fight, and must continue fighting, to achieve this place of balance between the monstrous and the human. And so, perhaps, must we all. We’ve established now that our relationship with the monstrous is constantly changing; to see that, and to be aware of it, allows us to make these constant and necessary re-evaluations consciously. And it’s in that—in the constant, conscious search—that we find the way forward.
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Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2012-2014.
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