Saturday, January 18, 2014

AVALON and the 31 Planes of Existence

     "Which is the greater challenge, which is the better game: Which would you choose, given a choice? The sort of game that you think you can win, but can't? Or, alternatively, one that seems to be impossible but isn't? Maintaining a precise, delicate balance somewhere in between, throughout every level of the game…That's what keeps it going. And it is all up to us." —"The Bishop"

     Oh no: Another film analysis. It seems that I specialize in metaphysical/spiritual symbolic science fiction movies filmed mainly in sepia monochrome, so there shouldn't be too many of them on this blog.
     The film in question this time is Avalon, a Japanese/Polish collaboration produced in 2001, directed by Mamoru Oshii (and not to be confused with a number of other films with the same name). I write about a Japanese/Polish science fiction movie on an ostensibly Buddhist blog for a number of reasons:
     ~I like to demonstrate that wisdom may be found in strange places—may be found literally anywhere in fact, and that Dharma applies to absolutely everything…
     ~I write this blog not only for the edification of the reader (or readers, if there is more than one), but also for my own enjoyment (and to help keep me out of trouble, more or less), and I really enjoy contemplating this movie…
     ~It's really a profound, excellent film in my opinion, very much worth seeing—I watched it two nights in a row, and could have watched it a third or even fourth night in a row with pleasure and interest…
     ~It is arguably a Buddhist movie, or at least a quasi-Buddhist one, arguably representing Buddhist metaphysics, as I'll try to argue before I'm finished.
     This film is not well known in the West. I don't know if it was ever shown in Cineplex movie theaters in the United States. I happened upon it practically by accident, finding it on a list of "cyberpunk" or "mind screw" movies (I don't remember exactly which, and both categories apply). 
     It is hard to say why I like it so much. It's certainly not because of outstandingly good acting. Part of it may be the soundtrack, which almost takes over the movie at one point toward the end. Another part of it is the protagonist's hair. I really like her hair.
     The film actually begins to approach Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Stalker, on which I've already written a commentary, published on this blog on 24 August 2013. Avalon shares a number of similarities with Stalker, and appears to be significantly influenced by it. Consider:
     ~Both are filmed mostly in sepia monochrome, with full color employed mainly to represent a higher level of reality.
     ~Both are parables in which nobody has a real name, only symbolic nicknames.
     ~Both are about an introverted yet courageous social misfit with a whitish streak/blotch in her/his hair.
     ~Both are centered on an alternative reality which is outlawed by a darkish, bleak, not very clean mainstream society and its government.
     ~Both feature a silent young girl who is shown in color even in otherwise monochrome scenes, suggesting that she has some kind of higher power, or access to a higher version of truth.
     ~Both are slowly paced, contemplative movies with relatively little physical action (despite Avalon's action-packed theatrical trailer).
     ~Both are about a quest to attain a higher, more real version of reality.
     ~Both have quite a lot of spiritual symbolism, superficially along European lines, more deeply along Asian ones.
     ~Both are set in Eastern Europe.
     ~Both feature a symbolic dog, in addition to the symbolic little girl.
     Unlike cult movies like Stalker, The Matrix, or Mulholland Drive, Avalon has had relatively little written about it in the literature of film analysis. That is one more reason why I'm writing this—to help fill a perceived gap. Furthermore, practically all of the commentary I have seen, such as it is, misses the Dharmic implications of the film. After all, the writer and the director are Japanese; and although Japan has swallowed Western materialism hook, line, and sinker, still there are deep Buddhist roots there, and Buddhist ideas and archetypes. People who comment on the movie keep assuming that there is some real world implied, and that the protagonist may be insane because she's no longer in it. But according to Buddhism all worlds are based on illusion, and we're all insane. It may be that a Western materialistic, "scientistic" point of view may be an insurmountable obstacle to understanding this movie. For that matter, it may be an insurmountable obstacle to understanding Reality. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
     The story follows the well-worn science fiction theme of people existing in a computer-generated virtual reality, à la The Matrix, Total Recall, or eXistenZ, although far exceeding the latter two mentioned, methinks, in artistic intelligence. In this case it's about a computer role-playing game called Avalon. But from the very beginning hints are offered to indicate that Avalon is more than just a computer game. Consider the words of the protagonist as she introduces herself (in the dubbed English version, at least): "I am called Ash. I have been playing Avalon for a long time...I know this game as well as anyone, but I couldn't tell you when or how it got started, or who controls it...or how it's supposed to end." Sounds rather like life in Samsara, doesn't it. The never-ending cycle of birth and death. Her next words make it even more clear: "Some people think it has no end; you could play forever and never see the last level. It seems pointless—a game without a goal—but there is a goal; to go beyond the game—to something more."

Małgorzata Foremniak as Ash

     Very quickly we start to see that the supposed "real world" appears hardly any more real than the virtual reality of the game. Both the game and the outside world are shown in sepia monochrome. When we first see Ash outside the game, she appears blurry and artificial. The clouds in the sky don't move. Some of the people on the sidewalks don't move either, appearing like lifeless background. Books contain blank pages, and computer keyboards have blank keys. And then there's Ash's dog, which mysteriously vanishes: first its visible form, then the sounds it makes.
     Even the still, lifeless people on the streets have living, moving dogs, and I suppose this means something. My guess is that dogs symbolize the physical body, and humans symbolize something higher, like the human spirit. Ash lives in a world that has vital, living bodies but moribund, undeveloped spirits. Her own spirit is abnormally alive, which is part of her problem. Too much vitality of spirit is part of many people's problem in this world. It causes them not to fit in. They cannot be satisfied with common superficiality.
     I hypothesize that Ash's basset hound represents her own body, perhaps not a very graceful or beautiful one—and its eventual disappearance the breaking of her last big attachment to the physical world. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself again.
     Anyway, dogs representing the physical body may help to explain why Ash feeds the best food to her dog, but hardly eats anything herself. All we see her eat in the story is what appears to be one crunchy dog snack from a box. Her dog eats plenty of human food though, cooked with loving care by its master. So I assume that food represents something more than mere dietary intake. Perhaps it stands for sensuality in general, or perhaps some more important or abstract form of worldly nutriment. I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean. Shortly after the dog disappears a former teammate of Ash, a guy who plays a thief (or scout) called Stunner, gorges himself also, with some rather disgusting closeups. It seems to imply that Stunner is a bit too crude and mundane, still very attached to the phenomenal world. Other members of the team or "party" she was in once had kitchenesque names: Chopper, Cuisinart, Masher.
     There are various connections between the game and the "real" world. For example, one can cash in experience points for real money—much as karma, the closest thing to experience points in Buddhist philosophy, is transferred from one existence to another. Also, a mysterious, very highly advanced cleric in the game, a "bishop," watches Ash through the same scope in and out of the game. So the boundary between Avalon and what is assumed to be reality is permeable at best. Possibly nonexistent.
     There is a rumor among advanced players that there is a top level called Special A, accessible only through a neutral character in the game who acts as a kind of portal. This character is a young girl called the Ghost, although she appears more of an angel or fairy than a ghost, more superhuman than subhuman. She appears in more vivid color than anyone else in the story, glowing even. From the Buddhist point of view she presumably would be called a deva, a deity.
     She appears only at the highest levels of the game, and only in the presence of a bishop with a rank of at least 12. (Ash herself is a level 11 warrior, just a few points away from leveling up. At her eleventh hour, so to speak.) Thus this highest level is accessible only via a mysterious spirit and an advanced cleric. More symbolism, obviously.
     Ash seeks information on this alleged highest level, and manages to come up with something about "nine sisters." In Arthurian legend these were nine fairy queens, sorceresses, and/or priestesses who guarded Avalon, a mysterious island serving as the abode of fallen heroes, including King Arthur. She is directed to level C66, where she meets with a group which call themselves Nine Sisters, but who try to rob her of her equipment. The almost 666 should have been a warning sign. Those seeking the highest truth are often thus led astray by impostors. Fortunately an unexpected irregularity in the game allows her time to reset and escape the trap. Sometimes the system comes to the aid of sincere seekers, seemingly by mere chance.
     The game seems to be ruled by clerics. Even the game master, a guide who appears only on a screen, wears a Christian-type clerical collar. At one point Ash asks him if he is a real person or only part of the game program, and he replies that there is no way she can be sure either way, so it doesn't matter. It may be significant that the game master tries to talk Ash out of trying to find Special A. He tells her that the existence of advanced players stabilizes the game. (This may be true of "real life" also.) If a very advanced player is lost, the game suffers. He doesn't want to lose her. At this point he seems to be the master of illusion, and rather like the Buddhist Mara not wishing his subjects to escape his realm.
     There is one idea in the story which may be a peculiarly Buddhist one. It appears that the most advanced players who master Level A, seek out the Ghost, and access Special A never come back; they are somehow lost in the game and become "Unreturned," with their physical bodies vegetating in a hospital ward that specializes in maintaining them. This danger of not returning is one big reason why the game is illegal. Ash learns that a former teammate (and also probably her former lover) Murphy, a high-level bishop in the game, sought out the Ghost and was lost to Special A, so she goes to the hospital to visit his vegetating body. She doesn't realize it, but the mysterious bishop she is seeking is there watching her—and so is the Ghost. Why do these advanced beings from the game choose to be at a hospital for the vegetating Unreturned? Possibly, just maybe, these non-returners could represent the Nonreturners (Anāgāmī) of the Buddhist ethical system: beings so advanced that they ascend to a high heaven and do not return to human form before attaining final liberation. Thus it may be that it is only from a worldly point of view that they seem like vegetables.
     Another possibly Buddhist symbol: Most of those who find the Ghost and Special A are advanced clerics, yet Ash is a warrior, and her ambition is to be the first to master the highest level and win the game. This may be suggestive of the fact that in the Buddha's time most highly advanced spiritual seekers were of the priestly Brahmin caste, yet the Buddha himself was a member of the warrior class. 
     Her name also, naturally, is symbolic. Although some commentators have stressed the meaning of ash as a tree or its hard wood, traditionally used in the making of strong weapons, or even being the tree Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology, the Tree of Life, the axis of the world, her name is most obviously derived from a silvery streak in the hair of her character in the game. Ashes traditionally represent death—so our protagonist has a streak of death in her hair. She is ready to leave this world behind.
     It is a common courtesy for film analyses or reviews to contain spoiler alerts, warning of information that a reader may choose not to read if he/she doesn't want to know how the movie ends. I'm not sure that a spoiler for this movie is even possible—one can watch the thing from start to finish and still not really know how it ends. Nevertheless, this is as a good a place as any for a spoiler alert. You may want to see the movie, if you haven't already, before reading any further.
     So the bishop/guru with the scope comes to her at her apartment on the same day that her dog magically disappears. She is still wet from being drenched in a (probably symbolic and baptismal) rainstorm. When she asks why he came, his reply in the English version is a biblical "Seek and ye shall find," although I've read that in the original Polish it is more like "If you wish for something hard enough, you get it." They set up a new team, for the purpose of locating the Ghost and accessing Special A. They are to assemble at Ruins D99, a level that sounds like the extremity of the world.
     Stunner, the thief who loves his food, is also on this team; but although he is full of information on how to locate the Ghost and employ her as a portal to Special A, his character is killed by a digital antagonist, and he himself is unable to go beyond. The bishop says that it was as he suspected: Only Ash proves able to access the highest level.
     She hunts down the Holy Spirit, so to speak, and accesses what the higher powers call not Special A, but Class Real. This level comes to be shown in full color. The bishop appears on a screen and informs her that her only mission is to eliminate an Unreturned remaining on that level in violation of the rules of the game. There are certain special limitations here: She starts practically at level 1, with almost nothing, just a dress and a pistol. She is not allowed to harm any neutral character in the level; to do so entails immediate failure of the mission. She is not allowed to reset the game—the only way out is to accomplish the mission. Thus it is more like "real life" than the lower levels of the game. If she succeeds, she is told that she may become one of the higher powers herself, one of the controllers of the game. She is directed to find her target at an opera entitled "Avalon", with a picture of a basset hound on the poster announcing it. 
     There are a few enigmas that come up at this level of the movie. Why does Class Real appear as a capitalistic free society rather than as a more repressive, communist-looking one like her normal world? Why does she start off only with a dress and a pistol, but as she moves toward the opera house she mysteriously gains shoes, a purse, and jewelry? One commentator I came across mentions a myth in which one enters the inner sanctum of a deity naked, and gradually acquires possessions as one returns to the outer world. I don't know. I also don't know for sure why a basset hound observes her from a car window, without her observing the observer. Are dogs more real than humans?
     Outside the opera house, in which a kind of angelic choir sings of Avalon, "the island of spirits, the heaven of shadows," she has her showdown with the target, her old lover, the level 12 archbishop Murphy. It is revealed that he had abandoned her, as well as everyone else, for the sake of moving on alone into Special A. He explains (with what strikes me as some particularly bad acting), "Reality is nothing but an obsession that takes hold of us!" Or, in a different translation, "The world is nothing more than what you believe! Isn't it!" He insists on staying there, adopting Class Real as his "real world." He thinks he has finally found the ultimate, or close enough to it to suit him. He also points out to her that the ashen, silvery streak in her hair, from which she gets her name in Avalon, has disappeared.
     Even "Class Real" is not real though, despite its full color and responsive, conscious characters. Even the highest, most realistic level, more realistic even than everyday life, is not ultimately real. Dead people simply disappear, like in the lower levels. And after she completes her mission with Murphy—her final major attachment—she walks into the opera house where moments before there was an applauding audience, but which is now suddenly empty. The only other being in the house is the Ghost, waiting for her. Ash walks toward her saying, in the English dubbed version, "Murphy was wrong about a lot of things, but there is one thing he may have been right about. Reality is what we choose to believe. As for who controls the game...I choose to believe it's me." Ash raises the pistol, the Ghost smiles at her, bowing her head…and…what happens? We never see what happens. Does she shoot the Ghost, as she apparently intends to do, apparently with the Ghost's consent? If so, will this cause her to complete the level or to lose it? Does the Ghost smile because she simply resets the game before Ash can pull the trigger? Who knows?
     Personally, I think the answers to these final questions may be totally irrelevant. Ash has mastered the game of Samsara. She has transcended it. Whether she has won or lost within the context of a mere game of illusion is no longer important. Did she lose? Did she win? Did she stay there? Did she leave? Did she get sent back to level 1, to the very beginning? Did she become a creator of the game itself? When you've succeeded in going beyond the game, it's all the same.

     Why couldn't the world that concerns us be a fiction? And if somebody asked, "But to be a fiction there surely belongs an author?"—couldn't one answer simply, "Why?" Doesn't this "belongs" perhaps belong to the fiction, too? —Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The primary source of cultish information on this film:

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