Fun with your new head

The title of this post is borrowed from a book of short stories by Thomas M. Disch, and it’s doubly appropriate in that an act of borrowing arguably lies at the heart of the latest 3D-printing novelty to catch my eye: a British company called Firebox will take pictures of your own head, turn them into a 3D-printed noggin, and stick it on a superhero body. As readers of this blog probably know, I’m intrigued by desktop-fabrication technologies less for their ability to coin unique inventions (the “rapid prototyping” side of their operations) and more for the interesting wrinkles they introduce to the production and circulation of licensed and branded objects — especially fantasy objects, which are referentially unreal but tightly circumscribed by designs associated with particular franchises. Superhero bodies are among the purest examples of such artifacts, offering immediately recognizable physiologies and costumes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman; all of which are among the bodies onto which you can slap your replacement head.

Aside from literalizing the dual-identity structure that has always offered us mild-mannered Clark Kents a means of climbing into Kryptonian god-suits, what I love about this is its neat encapsulation of the deeper ideological function of the 3D-printed fantasy object, giving people the opportunity not just to locate themselves amid an array of mass produced yet personally significant forms (as in, for example, a collection of action figures) but to materialize themselves within and as part of that array, through plastic avatars that also serve as a kind of cyborg expression of commercialized subjectivity. That Firebox (and, presumably, license-holder DC Comics) currently offer a controlled version of that hybridity is only, I think, a symptom of our prerevolutionary moment, poised at the brink of an explosion of such transmutations and transubstantiations, legal and illegal alike, though which the virtual and material objects of fantastic media will not just swap places but find freshly bizarre combinatorial forms.

Movie-a-Day April 2009-July 2011

Movie-a-day is almost as old as this blog itself; the second post I published here was a list of the films I’d watched over the course of June 2007. In retrospect, it’s perfectly fitting; what could better encapsulate blogging’s perversely personal yet public and professionally-tinged disclosures than obsessive catalogs of a media scholar’s viewing habits? Certainly the time I put in watching movies those first few summers after getting hired on the tenure track was intended to broaden my knowledge base and deepen my teaching — and if this gave me an excuse to settle comfortably into pleasant rituals of spectatorship, so much the better. But now, coming up on my fifth year of blogging, I see how movie-a-day has ruined me, for I no longer feel I’ve really watched something unless I’ve entered its title on the little documents I maintain here and there to track such trivia. (Currently I use a private PB Works wiki as my all-purpose ideaspace.)

The limbo this leads to — the realization of what a weightless experience film consumption really is — may be part of why I’ve periodically taken such long breaks from the blog, experimenting with oblivion as it were. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I recovered from what seemed a broken Google Doc a list of movies I watched from my most recent m.a.d. post to last summer. Those 170-some titles are below, with asterisks as usual marking the films that, for whatever reason, made the greatest impact on me. In its schematic way, these entries mark out a biography in filmgoing, charting between the lines the large and small events of two-and-a-quarter years in my life. There’s Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, which disabled my public voice in ways I still haven’t brought myself to fully explore, amid a sprinkling of paranoid thrillers and whackadoodle documentaries to prep for my Conspiracy class; elsewhere, the romantic comedies that are about the only cinema my wife and I agree on; in December 2009 my first (and so far only) three-day marathon of the Lord of the Rings extended editions, along with near back-to-back viewings of Avatar; a raft of movies from 2003 I worked through in order to write my chapter on that year for the Screen Decades series; a series of titles from spring 2011 I barely remember staring at as I gradually emerged from the numbness of losing our first child.

Perhaps the most significant movies on the list are the final two, from July 2011. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, an otherwise indefensible turd but the last thing I saw in a theater before we got the call from our adoption agency; and, a few days later, The Dark Crystal, which I watched on my iPad as I cradled a sleeping Zachary in my arms — making that strange and beautiful experiment in puppets and fantasy his first movie.

April 2009
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008)
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007) *
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) *
Anatomy of A Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

May 2009
Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
Subway (Luc Besson, 1985) *
I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978)
Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) *
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002) *
Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)
Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964)
The Last Man On Earth (Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, 1964)
The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raoul Ruiz, 1978) *
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)
Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, 2006)
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) *
Dr. Cyclops (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1940)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov, 1964)
Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009) *
Memories (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1995)
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004)
Fire and Ice (Ralph Bakshi, 1983)
The Earrings of Madame de … (Max Ophuls, 1953)

June 2009
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Up (Pete Docter, 2009) *
Missing (Costa Gavras, 1982)

July-August 2009
Bolt (Chris Williams and Byron Howard, 2008)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) *
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) *
Monsters Vs. Aliens (Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman, 2009)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) *
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009)
Superman: Doomsday (Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, and Brandon Vietti, 2007)
Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Noroi (Koji Shiraishi, 2005) *
Bruce Almighty (Tom Shadyac, 2003)
Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) *
The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009)
New in Town (Jonas Elmer, 2009)
Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)
Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009)

October 2009
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2009)
The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009) *
Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007) *
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) *
The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph, 2003)
G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers, 2009)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
The Clinton Chronicles (Patrick Matrisciana, 1994)
Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009)

November 2009
The Obama Deception (Alex Jones, 2009)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Day for Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973)
And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)
The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (Tony Scott, 2009)
La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, 2003)
Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)
The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic, 2009)
Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

December 2009
The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)
The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) *
Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008)
Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009)
Julie and Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) *
Love Actually (Roger Curtis, 2003)
Elf (Jon Favreau, 2003)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

January 2010
Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009)

May 2010
Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008)
Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)
Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973)
The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010)
Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008) *
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) *
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)
Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall, 2010)
AM 1200 (David Prior, 2008) *

June 2010
Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003)
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)
The Hills Have Eyes 2 (Martin Weisz, 2007)
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) *

July 2010
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010)
Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)
The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010)
Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
Date Night (Shawn Levy, 2010)
Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010)
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) *
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

August 2010
Dinner for Schmucks (Jay Roach, 2010)
The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
The Last House on the Left (Dennis Illiadis, 2009)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) *
10,000 BC (Roland Emmerich, 2008)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

September 2010
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)
Frontier(s) (Xavier Gens, 2007)
Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola, 2009)
Batman: Under the Red Hood (Brandon Vietti, 2010)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)

October 2010
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) *
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) *
How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, 2010)
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2006)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) *
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2010)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) *

November 2010
Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)
Megamind (Tom McGrath, 2010)
House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) *
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (John Newland, 1973) *

December 2010
Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010) *
The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005)
Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Back to the Future 2 (Robert Zemeckis, 1989)

January 2011
Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) *
127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

February 2011
Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010)
Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)
Equinox (Dennis Muren, 1970)
Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942)

March 2011
Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010)
The Next Three Days (Paul Haggis, 2010) *
Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

April 2011
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) *
Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010)
Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)
The Number 23 (Joel Schumacher, 2007)

May 2011
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) *
Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)
Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, 2000)
I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2010) *
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)

June 2011
Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011)
Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011) *
Frozen (Adam Green, 2010)
The Tunnel (Carlo Ledesma, 2011)
Super 8 (J. J. Abrams, 2011) *
Insidious (James Wan, 2011)
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011)

July 2011
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)
The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) *

Coming attraction

Wow, here’s a discovery: a Google doc I’d thought corrupted and unreadable (a case of acid rain in the computer’s cloud) yielded up its secrets when shared to and opened from another Google account. I retrieved a file recording my Movie-A-Day activities over the course of something like three years. Formatting the list, however, turns out to be a bit of a slog: a monotonous yet demandingly precise pointing-and-clicking which, at 12:30 a.m., exceeds the stamina depleted by a wakeful baby the night before. So I’ll simply leave this post as a preview of what’s to come: the return of a once-standard feature on this blog, a long-ass list of movies I’ve watched and some accompanying commentary. Look for it tomorrow.

Notes on blueprint culture 1

My conversation today with an interesting young man — a Swarthmore student — about Mass Effect 3, a topic on which I’m preparing a future post, reminds me that blueprint culture arises not just around the “metatexts” and “hyperdiegeses” of literary, television, and film franchises’ fictional worlds, but those of video games as well. In fact, mapping and schematizing activities subtend any number of fictional media worlds, including those associated with comic books and fantasy wargaming (the latter a particularly interesting case in that its maps frequently function as actual spatial matrices of player engagement, its tables of character attributes actionable scripts for determining the turn-by-turn progressive generation of narrative and battle; in this sense, perhaps, fantasy wargames constitute a purer ur-form of referential play whose hallmarks, applied to more authorially-locked territories of noninteractive media, are unavoidably adulterated by a secondary, paratextual distance).

What makes a fictional world particularly amenable to blueprinting and referential treatment? (Note for further investigation the close lexical kinship between reference and reverence.) Looking at the invented universes that spring most quickly to mind as examples — Star Trek and Star Wars — I would argue for a list of attributes that includes the following:

  • belonging to the genre of science fiction, esp. “hard” SF, and some forms of fantasy
  • primarily visual in their base form (e.g. movies and television)
  • marked by distinctive design motifs that are also proprietary in nature, marking off one intellectual property from another
  • serial in nature and consisting of multiple instances (i.e. single, standalone films rarely have blueprint cultures associated with them; similarly one-off TV episodes, rare entities within that medium in any case); see “transmediated” below
  • as a consequence, containing large amounts of detail rendered still vaster and more extensive within the blueprinting practice
  • strong on continuity, often an outgrowth of limited numbers of repeatedly-visited settings
  • active or once-active fan bases (here an archeological/tautological factor: the very study of blueprint culture is premised on the availability of an archive constitued through blueprinting practices, themselves inherently textually generative; the wave of fan activity, once passed, leaves documentation in its trail like a waste product, or less pejoratively, something like a coral reef)
  • frequently the locus of officially-authored blueprinting as well, via tie-in texts
  • transmediated, or implemented across multiple media platforms, its very proliferation in part a function of blueprint materials that stabilize the fictional universe as an IP, organizing its extension and seeking to maintain coherence (an action whose continuousness suggests an equally relentless counterforce that threatens to decohere and scatter the storyworld’s textual instances)

On Blueprint Culture

As promised in my last post, I am undertaking a new essay project, one whose first draft I will write in public on this blog. I haven’t yet committed to a deadline, but my hope is to pull this together rather quickly, writing in small daily chunks — let’s say as a ballpark estimate the end of the month. I face some challenges here: with classes ending in two weeks, it’s the height of a busy semester (and I’m at my most burned out), and revisions on our essays for the BFI special effects anthology need to go out by April 15. But as JFK said of going to the moon, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The essay in question is a long-simmering project involving blueprint culture, something I’ve only recent started to blog about but which has been on my mind since summer 2005, when I wrote the earliest version of my Star Trek chapter for the dissertation at Indiana University. Since then, my conception of the project has broadened past Roddenberry’s franchise to embrace a larger set of fan and professional practices devoted to mapping, drafting, indexing, and historicizing the storyworlds of fantastic media, from film and television franchises to literary and video game universes. In tomorrow’s post, I will condense my current thinking about blueprint culture and sketch out the argument I plan to make, before moving on to identify subtopics and amass resources.

Six weeks

Having sung the praises of Fridays and gloomed about Sundays, am I set on turning Mondays into self-reflexive meditations on method? Evidently so, at least until the spring semester ends and time opens up a little. Tonight I (gently) chastised my wife for skipping her picture-a-day project on Facebook,* but as usual when it comes to judging others, in truth I am just projecting my own anxiety — in this case, an almost superstitious dread of disrupting a chain of daily posts now six weeks long and counting. Keeping it up has meant sacrificing a number of things I once held dear: cherished notins of myself as a brilliant writer, lingeringly slow-cooked prose, a certain dignity and distance in my choice of topics. Laudable goals all, but maybe too a little hollow and egocentric, and often unconducive to productivity. Instead, I’m discovering the hard comfort of routine, the discipline of a writing practice, along with a new kind of notch to cut into the wall.

That said, I’m also feeling the need to start working these daily posts into something longer and more substantive — an actual, paper publication — so that will be the next horizon. It won’t happen without a deadline and some goalposts, so over the next several days I will begin mapping out an experiment in scholarship, an essay to be drafted, as it were, in public. I approach this with some trepidation but also excitement: as with the act of teaching, through which my body has evolved a new organ for converting anxiety to energy, writing this blog is helping to wear down the last vestiges of resistance to taking risks.

* She intends to post two pictures tomorrow.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Once again, thanks to my TV & New Media course, it is time to watch Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005), and once again I am reminded what a beautifully intimate experience it is. On the manifest level of its narrative, the film details the crusade of Edward R. Murrow and the See It Now news team to take Senator Joseph McCarthy to task for his many transgressions against democracy, and it’s gripping stuff: but on the latent level of its mise-en-scene, the movie is all about the television studios, elevators, lobbies, and offices at CBS — pristine spaces rendered in crisp black-and-white cinematography (actually the result of shooting grayscale sets in color, then digitally timing them to a sublime monochrome) and redolent of technological and cultural power as only the broadcast TV era could embody it. In its period evocation it’s Mad Men played straight, and unlike the AMC series, the total lack of exterior shots gives the whole thing the hermetic feel of a holodeck simulation.

When I first saw the film, the U.S. was gritting its teeth through George W. Bush’s second term, and its messages about the abuse of governmental power and patriotic ideology were impossible to read as anything other than statements about our post-9/11 world. Seven years later, the connotative corset has loosened, and exciting resonances with the passionately essayistic journalism of Rachel Maddow and the breathless pace of blogging and spreadable media (an electrical feeling of liveness and deadline I experience, if only in a small way, in my new daily posting regimen) tie Murrow’s moment to our own, inviting us to see the “old” in new media, and vice versa. I’m looking forward to discussing it with my students!

Good Friday, Bad Sunday

It’s Easter weekend, according to the plastic eggs dangling from tree branches in our neighbor’s yard, and I am once again experiencing the odd non-sensation of my own long-lapsed Catholicism. I would like to say it’s something I still struggle with — indeed, struggling with things seemed to be the ur-lesson of most of the scriptural teachings to which I was exposed — but the truth is that I left the church as soon as I was doctrinally allowed to, following my Confirmation, and never looked back. Always suspicious of the soap-smelling classrooms of my Sunday school and grumblingly resistant to any commitment of a weekend morning (I remember complaining to my parents that I only got two mornings a week to sleep in, which made them laugh, and not in a nice way), I hit my breaking point when one of our teachers gently explained to me that no animals, including cats, could make it to the afterlife, since they had no souls. Maybe true and maybe not, but in any case, not a faith that fits or suits me.

Instead, I’ve spent most of my life engaging in the secular ritual of weekends, playing out my small personal drama fifty-two times a year, kicking off with the joyous arrival of Friday, bookended by the grim letdown of Sunday. At heart I will always be wired for weekends and summer vacations, patterns of leisure stamped into me by the school calendar, continued now in my career as a college professor. In the microcosm of the weekend, on Fridays I am young and just getting out of school; on Sundays, old, an adult preparing for the work of the coming week. Death and resurrection, not of the body but of the spirit.

Fridays lately have the added significance of being “family days,” devoted to Zach and Katie. You’d think that my role as a husband and father would mark the apogee of grown-up-ness, but in practice these days are about much more straightforward pleasures: putting aside schoolwork to experience the easy companionship of my wife’s love, the eternal and unflawed presentness of Z’s babyhood. Fridays remind me what my mind and heart used to be like before they got all kinked up and complicated, and I am as grateful for their simplicity as I am awed by their profundity.

The zen of model kits

I speak often and with great satisfaction of my Man Cave, our house’s finished basement where my nerdish technophilia is allowed free reign. My PC tower and its domino-line backdrop of external hard drives; my big, flat TV atop its nest of audio components and cables; a small museum of video-game consoles; and the nonelectronic pleasures of my John D. MacDonald paperbacks (inherited from my father, who freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia in the 1950s used detective and spy fiction to hone his English-language skills), white cardboard longboxes of unexamined comics which with every passing year come more to resemble stacked sarcophagi, a dusty Millennium Falcon playset packed with Star Wars action figures in various stages of dismemberment (the latter a gift from my brother in law).

As this inventory suggests, the contents of the Man Cave embody not just arrested development but a certain ongoing regression: a march in reverse through the stages and artifacts of the enthusiasms that made me what I am today. For that reason, it’s fitting that I have opened a new wing whose title might be “Boy Cave”: a model-kit-building station in a side workroom where the heating-oil tank and cat-litter box vie with paint thinner and acrylic glue for the prize of most fascinatingly noxious scent.

Currently on the workbench is Polar Lights’s Robby the Robot, a kit I’ve been dabbling with for more than a year, but which a few nights ago I decided to buckle down and finish. (Pictured above, the 1/12-scale figure is still missing an ornamental arrangement of gyroscopes on top of its head, and over that a clear dome that seals its brain circuitry in place.) Model kits based on science fiction and fantasy have become a central preoccupation in my scholarship, and I guess in some ways I have returned to kit-building in order to (re)gain firsthand experience of this strange subculture of artifactual play and constructivist leisure — its material investments as well as its surrounding discursive community (see, for example, the reviews and build-guides here, here, and here).

But I’m also realizing a simple and zenlike truth, which is that to build a kit you must build it; it won’t finish itself. And the difference between dreaming and doing, which has so often constituted an agonizing contrapunto to my publishing life, is like the difference between the unassembled plastic parts still on their sprue and the built, painted, finalized thing: a matter of making. If I can fit the pieces of Robby together in stray minutes (and it turns out that the rhythms of model-kit assembly fit nicely into the scattered but semipredictable intervals of parenting), what else might I accomplish, simply by opting to complete — rather than just contemplate — the process?

Hugo

Count me among those few unfortunates who didn’t “get” Hugo. Not that I failed to see what Martin Scorsese’s opulent adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel was trying to accomplish; but for me the movie’s attempt to channel and amplify a certain magic succeeded merely in bringing it leadenly to earth, burying a fragile tapestry of early-cinema memories beneath a giant cathedral (or in this case, a train station) of digital visual effects and overly literal storytelling. Some of my disaffection was likely due to viewing situation: I watched it flat and small, at home on my (HD)TV, rather than big and deep, and the lack of 3D glasses or IMAX overwhelm surely contributed to the lackluster experience. Yet I resist this bullying-by-format, and find it at odds with what Scorsese, through his marvelous machinery, appeared to be promoting: the idea that “movie magic” can blossom on the squarest of screens, the grainiest and most monochromatic of film stocks, not even needing synchronized sound to work its wonders on an audience.

I watched Hugo for a class I am co-teaching this term on the varieties of realism and “reality” deployed across multiple media, starting with early cinema’s dazzling blend of spectacularized “actuality” and suddenly plentiful illusion. Often reduced to a binary opposition between the work of Louis and Auguste Lumiere on the one hand and Georges Melies on the other, the era was more like the first femtoseconds following the Big Bang, in which cinema’s principal forces had not yet unfolded themselves from the superheated plasma of possibility. Hugo tries to take us back to that primordial celluloid soup, or more precisely to a fantasized moment — itself still hauntingly young — when the medium of film began to be aware of its own past, that is, to recognize itself as a medium and not, as one Louis Lumiere quote would have it, “an invention without a future.” Through an overwrought relay of intermediaries that includes a young boy and girl, a nascent cinema scholar, a dead father, a semifunctional automaton, and a devoted wife, that past is resurrected in the form of Melies himself, cunningly impersonated by Ben Kingsley, and it is the old magician’s backstory, dominating the final third of the film, that jolted both me and my students back to full, charmed attention.

I suppose there is something smart and reflexive about the way Hugo buries its lead, staging the delights of scholarly and aesthetic discovery through a turgid narrative that only slowly unveils its embedded wonders. But for me, too much of the movie felt like a windup toy, a rusty clockwork, a train with a coal-burning engine in dire need of stoking.