Can a movie about a utopian society cause us to question the meaning of life? Sure. But to the extent that we contemplate suicide? Wow.
That, apparently, is the power of "Avatar," the film that allows viewers to experience the world of Pandora almost as if they were there, but not quite.
And that seems to be the problem.
An article on CNN.com states: "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. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.
‘I wasn't depressed myself. In fact the movie made me happy,' Baghdassarian said. ‘But I can understand why it made people depressed. The movie was so beautiful and it showed something we don't have here on Earth. I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world and that caused them to be depressed.'"
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen "Avatar." I have difficult conversations with friends, family, and colleagues about how there's distance between the places where our lives as they are and where we might like them to be. I've seen a number of movies that made me ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life. (I'm thinking "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Life is Beautiful," "Pay It Forward.")
I recently saw "Revolutionary Road," knowing nothing about it other than that it was Oscar-nominated. There are scenes in the film (I promise I won't spoil it) that are, to say the least, upsetting. I do wish I'd known about them before seeing it - though I don't know if knowing would have stopped me from being curious. I avoided seeing "Precious" because I thought it might tip me over the edge for my ration of hearing about tragedy, abuse, and pain - even though the movie is supposed to be a story of resilience.
As I've thought about "Avatar blues," a couple questions come to mind:
Should people who are vulnerable to depression see a movie that has contributed to depression in others?
What is it about our lives that makes Pandora - a completely unattainable world - so appealing?
Life is very hard, very complicated. I know that at times I have used movies as a means of escape. But even when trying to "escape," I've left the theatre sad and scared, or motivated and inspired. The power of art to make us think is undeniable. But, this situation feels different.
"Avatar" presents a completely different world, whereas the other films I've mentioned present one side, interpretation, possibility, or aspect of our world. Experiencing a real-seeming alternate world, as one does when watching "Avatar," may just be more than some can handle, perhaps particularly in this moment when the real world may be leaving a bit to be desired.
Two things happened to me during a break I took from writing this post. First, I heard Jaron Lanier on the radio. He's the author of "You Are Not a Gadget" and one of the inventors of "virtual reality." Lanier is quoted in an LA Times article saying that his idea for virtual reality was "something that would take the extreme possibilities of internal experience and bring them into a realm where they're shared with people instead of being sources of isolation."
The other thing that happened was that I got a cup of tea. This tea that I like has little sayings stapled onto the ends of the tea bag strings. Today, I got this one: "The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment."
The purpose of life is not to enjoy every moment. My life, for one, has been just as much about the moments that were decidedly un-enjoyable as it has been about the joyful ones. Also, virtual worlds, in whatever form they may take, are just that - virtual. And, as Lanier says, they are meant to be experienced with others.
That said, connecting or re-connecting with the good parts of our real world - the people and activities we enjoy - may be a partial antidote to "Avatar blues." That, and maintaining realistic expectations for what's possible in this world, while being open to and working toward improvements.
Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved