Sunday, 2 January 2011
The orbs of the Sun and the Moon are symbols of wholeness and of the purity (at the beginning) of all nature. They are all-seeing and always seen witnesses to the inherent goodness of a balanced natural order.
Circles and globes are a recurring visual motif in The Last Airbender.
When Aang, the latest incarnation of the Avatar, appears from beneath a sheet of ice, he is encased within a globe. He is found and freed by Katara.* Aang has come, with his unique ability to bend all four elements, to "bring balance" to a world imperilled by the Fire Nation's lust for power. This balance is symbolised by the ocean and moon (earth and sky) spirits who swim about their holy waters (as koi) in a circle, forming a yin/yang.
Captured by the Fire Nation Aang is set a test to ascertain whether he is indeed the Avatar; a puddle of water poured messily onto a table-top. Aang shifts it into a smooth circle. Even unconsciously the Avatar restores symmetry. That is his inheritance from his previous lives (a golden statue of the last incarnation, Avatar Roku, holds a circular emblem in his hands) and that of his companions - Katara is first seen bending water into a sphere, wearing her mother's round pendant around her neck.
Intermittently the camera itself will track in a circular motion. As Aang fights in an Earthbender village,the camera spins around him and his colleagues. This movement sharpens the sense both of being surrounded by threats and of being protected by an impregnable curve, much as Jesus drew a circle in the sand of the desert, a cocoon which no temptation could breach in The Last Temptation of Christ.
In a particularly gorgeous scene, an elegant prolonged take, Aang and Katara practise their moves as we slowly step around them. Encircled with blessings, they gather up the energies of their surroundings. Earlier Aang fights in a training circle, whose panels, which run along its edge, can be used to either keep out invaders, or isolate them within.
Globes and planets are evoked in many compositions that place Aang in the foreground, in extreme close-up, and Katara (also, on one occasion, Zuko and Iroh of the Fire Nation) in the background. Arranged in space in such a radical way, Aang's head resembles a Sun (or a planet) around which Katara's may revolve as a satellite. These are important people charged with earth-shattering powers and responsibilities, figures transcribed onto the map of space itself.
Lest we forget, the moon is itself a water-bender.
Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe owes her life to the Moon spirit. After it is killed by Commander Zhao ("We are the Gods!") she sacrifices herself to keep it alive (a suicide recalling one in Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff). It is not just the people who need to be in balance with each other, but all of nature, as one organism, with itself. She walks into the sacred waters in which the Moon spirit lives, an amniotic fluid into and out of which flows all life. Her hair had turned white when she was a baby and now, life leaking out of her, it turns black. This is a typically elegant touch, one of numerous intelligent departures from the animated TV series from whose first season the film is adapted.
Preparing for the Fire Nation's assault, Aang effortlessly suspended shimmering globules of water hurled at him by his tutor. This hints at the gravity of his destiny, one whose impact will be felt as if the universe itself had been brought under his command. The scales of justice are entrusted to him (below), just one kid, his own illuminated manuscript (bottom).
Aang replaces fear with awe (by summoning a giant wall from the ocean) and, rather than exile and destruction, he offers the enemy hope and friendship. He wants to convert, to "change hearts", not eliminate.
He is however, in some ways, unknowable, even to his closest allies. Although in these background/foreground shots Katara's voice whispers as if from the deep recesses of Aang's mind, the two do not face each other. The distance, physical and emotional, is palpable, the chasm yawning. Neither is clearly seen and never are they both in focus. Only at the end, once the battle is won, does Aang shift to face Katara and meet her in the middle ground. They have reached understanding on an equal footing. They had always trusted and cared for one another but she was not able or capable to share the burden of his mission in full.
The switched focus is a dialogue, the hug a silent and moving harmony.
By using circles and globes, the moon, the planets and the tides, The Last Airbender can say so much so economically, characteristic of the film's ability to convey broad brush ideas with finesse. It says an awful lot about their place in the universe, life, reconciliation, peace, love, about no-one being left behind and the strength they all hold in their hearts. Within the walls of the water tribe city, both water and fire people bow before Aang. "They want you to be their Avatar" says Katara. Their, not the. It is more than destiny and chance that could make him the Avatar (he has run away from his calling once before and already mourns the loss of a normal child's life) - it is will and the purity of a good heart.
The Last Airbender is an exciting and inspiring tale, one of the best films of the year.
*In the TV series on which the film is based he awakes in her arms, as if born of the belly of the earth to a human mother.
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 11:17