Desire to escape or desire to dream?

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.

The above letter was sent by email to Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr in regard to the film 'Avatar'. At time of writing James Cameron's blockbuster is the second biggest movie of all time, closing fast on the box-office record set by Cameron's last movie 'Titanic' in 1997.

"This letter both moves and frightens me", says Burr. "What I hear between its lines
is that we’ve become so adept at building fantasy worlds that waking
life has become a burden – a gray limbo to which we resentfully return,
sharing it as we do with ugly headlines, unpleasant bosses, and all
those other people who, sadly, aren’t us. Why bother returning at all,
when the entertainment omniverse is at our fingertips 24/7? Why jack
out when the movies will be offering total immersion playing to all of
us individually, when 3-D will be arriving on the family TV within a
few years?

Avatar and Limbo. Reminds me of a blog post I wrote 3 years ago entitled "Life in Limbo – Iron Age to Information Age", where I contemplated the phenomenon of Iron Age Bog Bodies in Ireland and the connections I saw with the theme of Avatar and rapidly developing 3D technologies. Excerpts follow –

"[Bog bodies] Twenty-something victims physically tortured before death but also,
ghoulishly, subjected to the ultimate in metaphysical torment – their
bodies were tied down in the shallow water of the bog where they would
be preserved for all time in a state of limbo, neither in the land of the living nor of the dead but imprisoned between."

Fast forward a few millennia. Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as a futuristic policeman driven by guilt and the memory of his kidnapped son Sean to prevent similar crimes befalling other families. Cruise's character, John Anderton compulsively
plays back holographic home movies of Sean, in order to re-live happier
times. Ironically, re-living the pain of losing Sean as each movie comes
to an end. Tormenting himself.

Anderton didn't want to let go. His anger and guilt were
overlapping with sadness and loneliness. So he held onto Sean by
projecting his dreamlike hologram, or avatar, in mid-air and reliving the past. Over and over again.

3D technology will, as with digital
camcorders, large size screens and surround sound, trickle down to the
consumer market. And we'll be filming our home movies in High
Definition 3D. So how long will it be before we're producing holographic home
movies? Not long. Not long until we're recording, lifestreaming and
projecting phantom-like images of ourselves and our loved ones. Like
John Anderton reliving joyful moments with his son Sean. Like John
Anderton being tormented by a digital ghost.

'Avatar' is derived from a Hindu word referring to the incarnation, or bodily manifestation,
of a higher being onto planet Earth. As we move ever closer to the
capability of holographic home movie-making is there a danger that
vulnerable minds will freeze frame the grieving process by grasping at
the illusion of virtual reincarnation? Will we be possessed by avatars?
Will it be harder than ever to let go? Not accepting the death of a
loved one. Leaving them neither in the land of the living nor of the
dead, but imprisoned between?

In the Iron Age it was the dead who were sometimes left in limbo. In the information age it could well be the living.

That blog post concentrated on the negative side of computer-aided escapism but for me the positives far outweigh the negatives. Of course the movies have always been described as escapism. So why did the 20-year-old male's letter concern the Boston Globe columnist so much? Simply because he had put eloquently into words what escapism really is? The dictionary defines it as 'mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation,
as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant aspects of daily stress'.
Is there a difference between healthy and unhealthy escapism. Where's the cut-off point?

Isn't all art escapism? Music, painting, literature, cinema, dance. Activities
and objects
which express ideas of beauty and divert our attention by calling us to contemplate their deeper meaning.

Are meditation, prayer and religion not forms of escapism? Think of accounts given by those who have had near-death experiences

"I was very calm and began to move very slowly upwards and it was more and more beautiful into an infinity of light and peace, happiness, I knew I was going to heaven or somewhere very beautiful. I did not want to come back at this point as it was the most happy I had ever been in my life".

And consider how that compares with the letter to the Boston Globe –

"this one just has done something I can’t explain… makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful
place that I have seen… To take my normal, unsatisfying
life and transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much
that once I returned home… it brought tears to my eyes"

What makes the feelings expressed in the near-death experience something to celebrate but those in the letter something to admonish?

I'm no philosopher and won't get into a deep discussion about mind, body and soul. But it seems to me that our evolution as a species will come to a grinding halt if we limit our race to what the mind can achieve from the confines of the body. Ty Burr says –

get, what, 70 to 80 years on this planet at best? Why waste it on
another man’s pixels? Why not take off the glasses and have a look
around? It’s real 3-D out there and it’s amazing."

Yes it is, but it's even more amazing 'out there', beyond what we can see, beyond what we can yet envisage. And movies like Avatar stir the spirit to imagine, to explore, to dream. When we lose ourselves in alternative realities we do so not for the mind to escape, but for it to soar.

Your source of inspiration might be music or sculpture but for me it has always been science fiction. Movies like the aforementioned Minority Report galvanise human insight and vision around how technologies of the future can work. And drive innovation in convergence towards a realization of that future. Witness all the search results for "Minority Report -like" and how Microsoft's Project Natal has brought us, 8 years after the movie, to the brink of a gesture based computer interaction reality.

I'm sure the ground work for Project Natal  was laid down well before Tom Cruise became John Anderton but I've no doubt the movie spurred a great many engineers and developers to apply themselves to the disciplines from where the technology emerged. Would it be here now had those brilliant minds not 'escaped' the reality of what was possible in 2002?

When columnists like Mr. Burr get worried about young people expressing strong desires to live in fantasy worlds perhaps they should consider that yesterday's fantasy is today's reality. And that the desire to 'escape' is part of the reason it is so.

One Response to “Desire to escape or desire to dream?”

  1. Emmet Connolly Says:

    I think there’s a reason that a lot of geeky people (like most of us that hang out on the internet) are often into science fiction: it provides a ready-made framework for structured imaginative thinking. Just the premise of a lot of sci-fi (what if psychics could predict murders, what if there was a space elevator, etc.) is sometimes enough to gently send the mind ticking over, and as you quite rightly point out can result in real-life invention. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from imagination, your might say.
    It’s surprising to hear someone whose job it is to suspend disbelief and become immersed in a film, as I assume your film critic does on a daily basis, be so resistant to what’s really just imagination. Where does he think the ideas for his favourite films come from in the first place, but writers projecting themselves into imaginary scenarios? I read an observation recently, although I can’t remember where right now, that part of the reason that epic, mythical, world-building fiction (like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) is so appealing is that it actively *invites* the viewer to imagine themselves occupying that world. There’s room for the viewer to maneuver. There’s enough background detail sketched out to suggest a wider world beyond the frame of the screen, and like intriguing sci-fi premises, that makes the fiction a collaborative event. Art is nothing inside the head of the artist, it has to invite the viewer to participate in order to exist. Everyone who watches a film buys into this to a certain extent. Why is it perfectly normal to cry during a film, but not after? I suppose there’s a thick end of this particular wedge that might tend towards unhealthy obsession, but then again there are plenty of unfortunate folks who are not doing so great out there IRL either.
    Another favourite anecdote that comes to mind is from Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education. He tells the story of going into a class of kindergarten kids, and asking them how many of them are artists; a room full of hands go up. He then goes down the hall and puts the same question to a group of teenagers; as you would expect, one or two hands are sheepishly raised. What on earth did the adult teachers spend ten years telling these kids that knocked that unashamed creativity out of them?
    I’m personally still stuck on the moon landings. Who the hell had the balls to think we could ever, *ever* do that? I can’t fathom the nerve, and they had calculators and pencils. If there’s a linear relationship between technology and imaginative possibility, I don’t think we need to worry about aiming too high any time soon.
    I’ve enjoyed your last couple of posts James — keep it up.

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