Avalon Updated

[Originally published 26 August 2008; Updated 13 January 2009]

“Oshii Mamoru’s Avalon is one of the most sophisticated and visually achieved movies ever made about intersecting levels of reality.”

Tony Rayns

[Plot synopsis: Ash is one of the greatest players of the game Avalon, a virtual battle simulation that has attracted many devotees and addicts all trying to reach its highest levels. Ash works solo, with memories of the days when she was part of a team whose leader was lost in the game. Hearing rumours that there is a more advanced level of the game that can be attained with potentially deadly consequences, Ash decides to become part of a new team.]

I dithered for some time over whether or not to use Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon on a film studies course, on a week devoted to cyberculture and virtual embodiment. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Is it a beautiful, enigmatic and elusive masterpiece that I just didn’t connect with, or is it a stodgy, pretentious mess with little substantive to say about the way we interact with virtual spaces and lives. If you don’t recognise the name of its director, Mamoru Oshii, you’ve probably heard of the anime classics he lists on his c.v., most notably Ghost in the Shell (1995) and its extraordinary sequel, Innocence (2004), which must surely rank as one of the most sublimely beautiful bits of animation ever crafted: take any frame, blow it up and frame it. It looks perfect throughout. Animation encourages that kind of carefully composed precision in its imagery – if you have time and tools to make something look exactly how you want it, why not take control of every element and make sure it is composed exactly how you want it? Paint over it if it goes wrong. Avalon is Oshii’s fourth live-action feature, but the first to get any kind of international recognition or release. Shot in Poland with an all-Polish cast (Oshii likes Polish cinema, apparently, but seems to have modelled his environments on a gloomy, post-war Eastern European template gleaned from movies rather than any kind of futuristic Warsaw), it contains many elements that are far from “live”. Soaking almost everything (food seems to come out quite colourful) in sepia tones adds to the vintage look (though it could also be that the US DVD has altered the colour of the film) and shows Oshii exerting an animator’s control over his images. CGI is used quite sparingly, and is closely integrated with the themes of the film. If the tendency with digital effects is towards excess, to show off with grand scale what can be done with a few pixels and mouse clicks, Avalon seems to go in the opposite direction. Its every move is economical. Rather than creating a virtual world that is radically different from the filmic real world, Oshii makes them visually similar. In the virtual world of the game, characters who are killed disintegrate into a shattered two-dimensional oblivion like stained-glass pictures, and in several shots (see below) Oshii fractures the illusion of the simulation by inserting these succinct perspectival tricks into the 3D world to immediately mark it out for what it is – a Plato’s cave of flat data experienced as actual space.

In an interview with Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound, Oshii stated:

I wanted to create characters in the same way that I do in animation. I did a lot of digital work on Ash’s face during the post-production, which went on longer than the actual shoot. I felt free to alter expressions to give me exactly what I wanted to see on screen.

This is all very well, but it does give the film a certain coldness, probably not in the service of its themes of alienation and emotional disconnect (although it certainly contributes to that), but in order to get everything neatly composed. Whatever, the tidy compositions of nearly every shot, and the aesthetic similarity between Avalon and the external world of its gamers cumulatively facilitate the interpretation, which is there if you want it, that none of this is real, that everything we see is just layer after layer of fabrication with no externally real reference points. Oshii himself is vague on the subject, so make of it what you will – what is probably most important is that you cannot know for certain what is real, imagined or simulated when you watch this film. While The Matrix trilogy gives you a pretty strong sense of the divide between the solid and simulacrous environments in which each scene takes place, Avalon makes that division increasingly fuzzy and suspect. This is mostly because no sequences are privileged with cinematic techniques that might traditionally be associated with filmic realism – in that sense, I suppose, we’re back to an animation-style aesthetic again.

So, let’s assume that you’re familiar with ideas of virtual reality, and that old science fiction chestnut that said virtual reality turns out to be more seductive, sensual and downright exciting than the glum, organic place where your skin and bones are situated. Avalon retraces these generic tropes, but it doesn’t seem like an insider’s view of the addictive rush of playing at being a superhero in an alternative reality: I feel as certain that Oshii is not a gamer as I am that Woody Allen doesn’t know any East End crooks. I never got a sense of why these characters were so obsessed with a game that offers actual deathly danger as opposed to the fantasy of danger, which is surely the point of video games: we play them to avoid the incursions of unpleasant realities into our lives, not because we want to risk our necks every minute of our spare time. And, of course, with her lithe physique and classy mid-1960s Anna Karina style, Ash just doesn’t look like someone who spends most of her time jacked into a games console. This piqued my suspicion that Oshii doesn’t care about the actual impact of technology in society. He hasn’t researched patterns of behaviour amongst people who spend a lot of time on the internet, and he hasn’t extrapolated his future world from the current state of things simulacrous. He treats the concept of virtual reality as a philosophical metaphor, a means to question our own solipsistic interactions with the world around us.

I should add that I watched this on a Region 1 DVD, brought to me by the good people at Miramax. Now, it’s OK that they’ve produced their own English language version. It’s not even a problem that they’ve added a Blade Runner style voice-over to some of the quiet scenes to make it a bit easier to follow what’s going on. It’s not a problem, because I’ll be switching over to the original Polish language track and turning on the English subtitles. Thanks for including both versions, Miramax, but would it have been too much trouble to offer English subtitles that don’t include the voice-over narration sequences?! That way, I won’t have to have inaninities like “Is this what they call reality?” popping up on my screen every time there’s a gap in the dialogue. It may not be entirely Miramax’s fault also (but let’s blame them anyway) that despite being made almost three years earlier, it didn’t get a release until 2002, meaning that it seemed to trail like an imitative latecomer behind The Matrix, Dark City, Existensz in a chain of popular movies about manufactured realities usurping, er… real ones. This is unfortunate, because it’s certainly an interesting film that haunts you in a way that films you can’t quite figure out often do. It’s a goal-orientated quest narrative in which a tightly-clad heroine seeks to reach a plateau of gaming achievement through skilful, choreographed violence, and in that sense it is quite conventional. It lingers in the mind because of the unnerving doubt that that goal might just be a fleeting, futile or vapourous one: you’re never sure what is at stake, what can be won, and any victory could be an empty one. This is the masterstroke of the movie, because it calls into question the value of the virtual reality that it might otherwise privilege, but at the same time it undercuts (deliberately) the potential for thrilling spectacle that its generic identity may have promised. For that reason, and because films which leave us uncertain are the ones we need to discuss, Avalon deserves its place on the syllabus.


Update: 13 January 2009

I was going to just incorporate these updated comments into the main body of the text, but I didn’t want to gloss over my initial responses. What follows are a few additional thoughts from a second viewing of the film. I may repeat or expand upon what I wrote above, but I want these revisions to demonstrate how repeat viewings can assist in the comprehension of complex or obtuse film texts.

Broadly speaking, a second viewing of Avalon irons out some of my earlier objections. Freed from the weight of expectation and bad marketing, which had originally set me up for a live-action anime or an arthouse Matrix, I could keep track of the patterns and plotting much more easily. I wasn’t quite as enfuriated by the Miramax subtitles this time, though even I could tell that the English subs were not always accurate translations of the Polish dialogue: they are transcriptions of the English dub track, which has obviously been restructured to match words to lip movements. But the subtitles for the absent voice-over die out after the first few scenes have set the groundwork of the plot.

I’m no closer to a definitive explanation of what it’s all about, except to say with certainty that uncertainty is what it’s all about. The game-world of Avalon has replaced real-world experience with a quest for experience points, though there is no explanation of who controls the game, and why they want people to keep playing without actually winning. Avalon, like the Matrix, is a system that relies on stability and continuity: transgression and weakness are punished, but excessive power (represented by rising too high on the game’s levels) is threatening to the system, and will be snuffed out or snuffed out – or it will lead to corruption of the player and subsumption into the system. we watch players taking their game very seriously, but there’s no guarantee that it is leading anywhere. It gives the illusion of progress, but by the end we might suspect that the game exists only to select those who can be made to perform missions in the service of keeping the system secure and unchallenged. Avalon is also segregated from what viewers would see as historical chronology; this is achieved not through an anfamiliar futurity, but by the depiction of environments peppered with mementos of the real world (trams, food, pets, cigarettes, clothes) that seem out of step with a futuristic vision. It evokes neither the future nor the past, but a collapsed historical circuit with no receding past and no clear sense of future goals. This semi-real place, seemingly in thrall to an indistinct system of power and control, which players only think they have volunteered for, is a broad allegorical space that permits viewers to insert any countercultural or anti-authoritarian reading they might choose.

I was again struck by the significance of food. Since the film is mostly a hyper-controlled, sepia world of pristine images, and thus rather distancing, the treatment of food as the last remaining point of sensuous contact with real-world experience leaps off the screen. The only scene where Ash really cracks some smiles or works up an enthusiastic sweat is when she prepares dinner for her dog. The camera throws us a series of extreme close-ups of delicious food. The rice sticks to her fingers, the meat glows red. It’s the closest we get to any eroticism in this non-contact world of virtual interaction. But when Ash watches Stunner eat, her disgust at the sight of someone else’s sensuality is conveyed in gross, lip-smacking detail. Yuck. There may be nothing more to this than a memorial to touch and sensation, but the apples may be a subtle link to the apples that supposedly grew on the Isle of Avalon in Arthurian legend (the name itself may come from the Celtic word for apple): Bishop points out when he enters Ash’s apartment that she is one of the few who can afford the luxuries of “real” food. Is that higher plane of reality, the access to food and haptic indulgence really what she wants to achieve by rising through the game to “Class Real”?

Other questions go unanswered:

  • If players of Avalon get paid for their achievements in the game, who is paying them, and how have they benefitted from people playing?
  • If the game is illegal, who is policing it? We never see anyone punished for playing.
  • Is Class Real what we, the viewers, experience as our real world?
  • Is the whole thing Ash’s hallucination, induced by an earlier trauma?
  • Most importantly, where did the dog go?

After a second viewing, I’m converted. This is a beautiful, haunting film, not just because of any stubborn refusal to play at obviousness, but because of the way it infuses virtual reality with a sense of numbing aimlessness once it loses sight of the vivid reference points of reality for its users to come home to, and once they have none of the joy that comes from the disparities between a simulation and the sensual, enfleshed real that makes it legible as a spectacular fabrication.

[See more images from the film at my Flickr page, or in the slideshow below:]

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Hayles has quite an elaborate argument about how code mediates between human action and the intelligent machines that surround us and augment so many of our daily activities (like writing this blog, which I’m doing using a keyboard that communicates electronically with my laptop through codes which I don’t understand, but which I can see represented in a graphic format (words, boxes, windows, icons) that I do understand). She uses Avalon as one of her illustrative texts, and her interpretation of events is mostly in line with what I wrote above before reading it, though she expresses it far more eloquently:

Surrounded by code, immersed in code [Ash] experiences simulation as if it were life, investing in it all her emotional energy, and lives life as if it were a pale imitation of the virtual reality war game.

Hayles draws some nice parallels, the significance of which I hadn’t picked up on in my review: Ash vomiting after a traumatic flashback in the game is a “symmetrical inversion” of the sequence where she watches Stunner eat, and the meal she prepares for her dog is a food-based compensation for this, continuing the food motif and connecting it explicitly to that hound. The dog also reappears on the posters that lead Ash to the concert hall in Class Real, “underscoring his function as a signifier of the real.” Murphy and Ash have their confrontation while he sits on a World War I cannon, echoing the game which they used to share, but also cemented those iconographic links between Class Real and other levels of the game (or levels of reality, as we might interpret them).

While the final scene in Class Real seems to be leading the spectator to assume that Ash is now in the realest of worlds we know (i.e. the one in which we ourselves live and move and watch movies), especially when Murphy bleeds and suffers when shot:

At the next moment, however, this normalising interpretation is subverted, for at his death his body does not simply become inert but rather dissolves into the concentric rings used to signify the game death of advanced players. The double signifiers of his bleeding body and its disintegration into code create an unresolvable ambiguity about whether this world is a simulation or reality. Somehow it is both at once, and death functions simultaneously as the ultimate trauma and as a disjunction separating one round of game play from another. […] The conundrums of the final moments are unresolvable as long as we cling to the belief that the world of simulation, the world generated and maintained by code, is separate from the real world in which we live.


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10 thoughts on “Avalon Updated

  1. Dan: I share your ambivalence toward Avalon. I too found it a mix of the inspired and the trite, equal parts impressive and exasperating. Maybe it’s snide of me, but I chalked the film’s failure up to yet another case of “visually magnificent but dramatically impaired” — like The Matrix sequels, a string of wonderful FX glued together by pretentious, obvious dialogue/plotting and boxed-in performances. A projection of my own spectatorial shortcomings, reading across the various cultural divides? Or the fault of a director whose ideas sing in the medium of anime but wither in the harsh sunlight of live action?

    Like you, too, I thought about using Avalon to teach a unit on media convergence. I’ve opted for Paprika instead, a film which, ironically, stays truer to the concept and affect of reality/simulation implosion by refusing to present an “outside” to the nonindexical.

  2. Thanks, Bob. I’m glad I’m not alone. I suppose I have to add it to that long list of films that I admire but don’t actually “feel”. Looking at interviews with Oshii, he seems quite a withdrawn character who isn’t really upset about a retreat into private worlds of simulated gratification – I suspect not having to deal with real people would appeal to him. He loves dogs, though. A lot. That bassett hound, which resurfaces in Ghost in the Shell 2, is used, I think, to represent all that is natural and organic and worth hanging onto in the world. That’s a lot of weight to hang onto a saggy-faced, giant-eared canine.

    I’ll take a look at Paprika, too, thanks for the tip.

  3. I’ve just found your blog and have been enjoying reading through your posts very much!

    Similarly I liked Avalon but wasn’t entirely sure at first what it brought to a layered/artificial reality genre. On further viewings though I’ve started to feel that it is about people needing a purpose to their lives – a goal to strive for, even if it is a deadly one. I suppose there is kind of a religious idea there of needing to know there is something ‘more’ beyond what we can see and feel, and whether we can fully trust our senses to reveal rather than limit our understanding.

    This is something which is also present in the Ghost In The Shell films with questions about how much of your body and mind you can replace before you lose an indefinable aspect of humanity, whether such replacement enhances abilities or divorces a person from sensations and therefore empathy for others in a fundamental sense.

    While in Dark City and The Matrix there’s a certain ascendance to messiah status and a fulfilling of a prophesied ‘mission’, it is telling that in Avalon there are just further levels of reality with better, more highly rendered graphics and more ‘realistic’ deaths. The fulfilling of a goal leads to emptiness and a more fundamental wish for a final escape. Compared to eXistenZ’s shifting identities, the characters in Avalon retain their sense of identity but lose an understanding of their place and purpose in their world.

    From the simple ‘kill or be killed’ combat simulations in the game within Avalon we get the main world of the film – a bleak environment but a society with clear rules of living. From that we get the move into the ‘real’ world with the final scenes where choice of action is limitless and therefore more frightening in the sense of having to take even more control over your own destiny than in the previous environments. In that sense using a Polish setting could not just be about having a love of Polish cinema (though that is a bonus!) but maybe also a comment on the jarring transitions from a country fighting for its survivial, through communist occupation into a new capitalist free for all environment? The advantages and disadvantages of the various modes of reality along with associated nostalgia for lost situations that really weren’t that great, but were more understandable.

    The more I think about Avalon, the more I feel it is the masterpiece of the recent virtual reality genre – the closest film I feel it would bear comparison to would be the Fassbinder film World On A Wire or its American remake (similarly from the late 90s. There must have been something in the ether of the time!) The Thirteenth Floor. Though I think Avalon even surpasses these films.

    I wrote a little about Paprika on the Criterion Forum http://www.criterionforum.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5508&start=25

    I was technically impressed and thought the film had some good ideas (especially in the development it showed building on Satoshi Kon’s earlier films about shifting identities such as Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress), but still found the film flawed in some ways.

  4. Thanks, Colin – I’m glad you like what you’ve found. I’ve been on WordPress for just over a month now, and just settling in, so spread the word!

    Avalon has grown on me, but it needs another viewing to really get a hold on me. I like your observation of the Messiah complex that occurs in a lot of the VR films, as if the technology will offer complete transcendence of physical limits, and maybe it’s because the world can be programmed that you get lots of stories of pre-destination.

    Even more than the Ghost in the Shell films, the TV series, Stand Alone Complex concerns, literally, the policing of the border between human and cyborg. I’m very bad with plot, and it has a lot of plot, but there’s loads of self-conscious philosophising. The first season climaxes not with a giant-robot destructathon, but with a conversation about Fredric Jameson in a library. And it features, like Avalon, a heroine whose hard veneer almost never cracks.

    I loved Paprika, but I got hold of it too late to impose it on my students. I’m sure discussion would get held up by the mad ending, but it’s a really interesting film about dreaming and fantasy, and would work well with Brainstorm, which I’ve also given them.

    How do I get hold of World on a Wire? I’ve heard a lot about it, but I’m not sure where to find it.

  5. “I like your observation of the Messiah complex that occurs in a lot of the VR films, as if the technology will offer complete transcendence of physical limits, and maybe it’s because the world can be programmed that you get lots of stories of pre-destination.”

    I agree – I also find interesting that what also arises in these films is that the things that have to be present to signify that this world is a creation or fake to us (the glitches in The Matrix; the restrictions and boundaries to the world that you can’t go past in the Fassbinder and 13th Floor as well as Dark City; the generic clothes, environments and people in game loops in eXistenZ) are elements that excite the viewer as much as the main character on a first viewing but are also the things that show just how limited a world created from one consciousness is – whether that consciousness is machine, alien or the greatest game developer in the world! There is no chance for that world to grow because it is only the creation of one mind, bounded by the limitations of imagination of a singular brain – one of the things I did like about Paprika was that it felt like one of the more successful ‘Internet’ films in the sense that the dream world (for the lack of a better term) that gets created is added to in surprising ways by each consciousness that connects to it. The creations of this world being exponentially greater than anything just one consciousness could have imagined.

    There is the paradox in the VR films that without those glitches and limitations that make the main character and the audience aware that they are in a virtual space they might as well just be in the real world. That you need the glitch to arouse suspicions and desire for knowledge, but finding out the truth is rather an anti-climax – the quest is over, so what do we do now? We look for signs that our new reality is fake too, in a continual search for the unattainable ultimate truth and knowledge. There is that push and pull between wanting desperately to know and understand and yet knowing that the search for truth is the point where we feel most alive – the striving, not the attaining. In this sense even a film like Mulholland Drive could be thought of as a VR film, with the characters search for an answer being the exciting adventure plot which drives the film and the two main characters into an intense relationship. The final section when the fantasy collapses into bleak reality makes us long for the mystery to have remained unresolved and to be back in the fantasy world.

    This might be a controversial idea but it seems that in these films the ‘messiah complex’ is reversed from its function in reality. In reality people use an unprovable, faith based God figure to give their lives some meaning and purpose beyond the day to day grind and promise they will be taken to an idea of Heaven whose iconography has been constructed over the ages as a kind of reward for completion of their duties in the ‘game of life’. In this genre of films people start out in a kind of Heaven, a fully created world tailored to their needs, and have to fight to find out the truth of the ‘real world’ that they have been removed from, which is that their created world is a construction used to passify the populace while those that built the place use their energy/money/labour/etc for their own ends.

    I also like the way the Ring series plays out in the books by Koji Suzuki. (Spoilers if you don’t want to know how the books play out!) The sequel to Ring, Spiral, proposes that the videotape is a kind of virus – you can pass on the curse but contact with the tape still destroys and converts you eventually. This is developed even further in the final book Loop where the world of the previous films is revealed as an enormous virtual reality program created in order to figure out how a deadly virus spread – the ‘patient zero’ of an epidemic. By the time of Loop the whole virtual world we have lived in as ‘reality’ during the previous instalments has been decimated by Masako and her curse, turning everyone into copies of her. The scientists are able to walk around in the world by taking over bodies (shades of the Fassbinder and 13th Floor) of the ‘units’ inside the program, and they use this to experience a number of significant moments from the previous books from the perspectives of various characters.

    In that context Masako and the cursed videotape are the glitch in the perfect replication of a world that take over the entire system much as a cancerous growth destroys its host.

    Unfortunately the poor reception to the film of Spiral (Rasen) made at the same time as Nakata’s Ring film inspired the film series to go down a very different road from the novels.

    I’m afraid I don’t really know how to get hold of the whole of World On A Wire – I’ve seen it once and have a tape of half of the first episode, but it desperately needs a good DVD release. I remember really loving Brainstorm when I was younger but I haven’t seen it in years. Your post on the film inspired a serious nostalgia trip here!

    I agree on the Ghost In The Shell series – I was very impressed by the way it provided a different take on the films with material that seems on the surface to be more audience friendly and less philosophical but eventually proves to be just as complex and unafraid to tackle difficult themes as their inspirations. Any series which features allusions to Godard and Wings of Desire ranks highly with me! I also thought the ‘recap’ episode from the first season “Chat! Chat! Chat!” is one of the best representations of the Internet, chatrooms and chatroom behaviour that I’ve yet seen in either film or television, maybe with All About Lily Chou-Chou coming a close second.

  6. “Chat! Chat! Chat!”: I remember that episode now! It was amazing, especially with the sneaking suspicion that the prime suspect was listening or participating, but you could never know for sure… I loved Lily Chou-Chou, too.

    If we expand the VR category to include Mulholland Drive, we open the door to countless other movies. Celine et Julie vont en Bateau comes to mind as one example that predates VR and can’t really be understood as a ‘response’ to the technology. You’d then cascade the definition down to all kinds of films about artificial, fantasy worlds; Candide, Narnia, Alice in Wonderland (The Matrix was prescient on that one!) etc. This is not necessarily a problem, and it would be great to situate VR within a much longer cultural continuum – I just worry about the taxonomist’s burden…

    Your Messiah complex is not too controversial! This is an open forum. I think that a lot of movies, with their in-built faith in fate, destiny and the “power of believing” (key components of almost every narrative, it seems) are invariably contributing to an encultured investment in such things. Not sure if I made that clear. But I agree on your reality reversal theory.

    Thanks again for your comments and recommendations.

  7. Dan: I read your essay with much interest. I am DoP who shot Avalon with Mamoru Oshii. I am very pleased that despite long time from premiere in Cannes 2001 our movie is still a subject of serious academic considerations. Mamoru’s idea was to use bizarre Polish dialogs in Avalon to obstruct communication with the audience, to immerse the viewers in difficult to distinguish mixture or real/unreal and virtual world. Oddly enough in Poland people understanding “human” Polish did not feel any “strangeness” of Avalon. As J. Hoberman says in his revue of Avalon in Village Voice 12.30.04 “Among other thing Avalon may be the first movie that uses contemporary Poland as a special effect “. But in Warsaw contemporary Poland is not SFX.

    • Hi, Grzegorz. It’s a pleasure to hear from you. I like Avalon more and more each time I see it. It’s still mysterious, and what I thought might have been coldness seems now like a deliberate detachment form reality, an unsettling quality in a film, but one which is very compelling.

      I’m not sure what Hoberman means by saying Poland was used as a “special effect”. It’s a very potent setting, and it’s often augmented with visual effects in the film; perhaps it refers to the way that, in the final scenes where Ash goes on a mission in the higher level of the game, the visual aesthetic changes to one where it seems to be unmanipulated shooting in modern Warsaw. Were you given specific instructions on how to shoot the different levels of reality? For viewers, its supposed to be impossible to tell whether any of the scenes are set in the “real world”, but I wonder if it was ever explained to you which was which so that you could shoot it accordingly.

  8. Pingback: New Look, Old Posts. « Spectacular Attractions

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