Counting Down Galactica (4 of 4)

[This is the last of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the others, click here.]

I’d meant to write my final entry in the “Counting Down Galactica” series before the airing of the finale on Friday night; a power outage in my neighborhood prevented me from doing so. Hence everything I’m about to say is colored by having seen the two-hour-and-eleven-minute conclusion, and spoilers lie in wait.

On the topic of spoilers, I know of a few ambitious souls (hi, Suzanne!) who are holding the finale in reserve, planning to watch it next week. Let me note how sympathetic I am toward, and dubious about the chances of, their or anyone’s ability to navigate the days ahead without having the ending spoiled. I haven’t even dared to visit Facebook yet, for fear of destabilizing my own still-coalescing thoughts on the experience; similarly, I won’t go near the various blogs I read. When I got up this morning, I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to find myself smack-dab in the middle of a postmortem with Mary McDonnell. It was like coming out of hyperspace into an asteroid field, or — a more somber echo — waking on the morning of 9/11 to a puzzled voice on the radio saying, in perhaps our last moment of innocence, that pilot error seemed to be behind a plane’s freak collision with the World Trade Center.

Comparing BSG’s wrapup to the events of 9/11 might seem the nadir of taste, except that Galactica probably did more in its four seasons than any other media artifact besides 24 — I’m discounting Oliver Stone movies and the Sarah Silverman show — to process through pop culture the terrorist attacks and their corrosive aftereffects on American psychology and policy. It became, in fact, an easy truism about the show, to the point where I’d roll my eyes when yet another commentator assured me that BSG was about serious things like torture and human rights. But then I shouldn’t let cynicism blind me to the good that stories and metaphors can do; I myself publicly opined that the season-two Pegasus arc marked a “prolapse of the national myth,” a moment at which BSG “strode right over the line of allegory to hold up a mirror in which the United States could no longer misrecognize its practices of dehumanization and torture.” And who am I to argue with the United Nations, anyway?

But maybe the more fitting connection is local rather than global, for losing power yesterday reminded me how absolutely dependent the current state of my life is on technology: the uninterrupted flow of internet, television, radio. My wife and I were able to brew coffee by plugging the pot into one remaining active outlet, and our cell phones enabled us to maintain contact with the outside world (until their batteries died). After that, it was leave the house and brave the bright outdoors and actual, face-to-face conversation with other human beings.

I bring this up because, in its final hours, BSG plainly announced itself as concerned, more than anything else, with the relationship between nature and technology — between humans and their creations. In retrospect, this dialectic is so obvious that I’m embarrassed to admit it never quite came into focus for me when the series was running. Sure, the initiating incident was a sneak attack by Cylons, a race of human-built machines who got all uppity and sentient on us. (Or maybe it’s the case that the rebellious Cylons descended from some other, ancient caste of Cylons — I’m not entirely clear on this aspect of the mythology, and consider it the show’s failing for not explaining it more clearly. But more about that in a moment.) Even in that first, fateful moment of aggression, though, the lines between us and them were blurred; in “reimagining” the 1970s series that was its precursor, Ronald D. Moore’s smartest decision — apart from scuffing up the mise-en-scene — was to posit Cylons who look like us; who think, feel, and believe like us. As the series wore on, this relationship became ever more intimate, incestuous, and uncomfortable, so that finally it seemed neither species could imagine itself outside of the other. It was differance, supplement, and probably several other French words, operationalized in the tropes of science fiction.

A more detailed textual analysis than I have the patience to attempt here would likely find in “Daybreak” an eloquent mapping of these tense territories of interdependent meanings. One obvious starting point would be the opposition between Cavil’s Cylon colony, a spidery, Gigeresque encrustation perched in a maelstrom of toxic-looking space debris, and the plains of Africa, evoked so emphatically in the finale’s closing third hour that I began to wonder if the story’s logic could admit the existence of any sites on Earth (or pseudo-Earth, as the story cutely frames it) that aren’t sunny, hospitable, and friendly. In this blunt binary I finally saw BSG’s reactionary (one might say luddite) ethos emerge in full flower: a decision on the undecidable, a brake on the sliding of signifiers. For all the show’s interest in hybrids of every imaginable flavor, it did finally come down to a rejection of technology, signaled most starkly in Lee Adama’s call to “break the cycle” by not building more cities — and the sailing of Galactica and her fleet into the sun. Even as humans and Cylons decide to live together (and, it’s suggested in the coda, provide the seed from which contemporary civilization sprouted), it seems to me the metaphor has been settled in humanity’s favor.

That’s fine; at least the show had the courage to finally call heads or tails on its endless coin-flipping. Interesting, though, that the basic division over which the narrative obsessed was reflected formally in the series’ technical construction and audience reception. I refer here to a dialectic that emerged late in the show’s run, between visual effects and everything else — between space porn and character moments. Reading fan forums, I lost count of the number of times BSG was castigated by some for abandoning action sequences and space battles, only to be countered by another group tut-tutting along the lines of This show has never been about action; it’s about the people. For what it’s worth, I’m firmly in the first camp (as my post last week demonstrates): the best episodes of Galactica were those that featured lots of space-set action (the Hugo-winning pilot, “33”; “The Hand of God”; most of the first season, for that matter, and bright moments sprinkled throughout the rest of the series). Among the worst were those that confined themselves exclusively to character interaction, such as “Black Market,” “Unfinished Business,” and most of the latter half of season four.

It’s not that the show was ever poorly written, or the characters uninteresting. But it did seem for long stretches to develop an allergy to action, with the result a bifurcated structure that drove some fans crazy. Much like the pointless squabbles around Lost, whose flashback structure still provokes some to shout “filler episode!” where others cry “Character development!”, debate on the merits of BSG too often devolved into untenable assertions about the antithetical relationship between spectacle and narrative, with space-porn fans lampooned as short-attention-span stimulus junkies and character-development fans mocked as pretentious blowhards. Speaking as a stimulus junkie and pretentious blowhard, I feel safe in pointing out the obvious: it’s hard to pull off compelling science fiction characters without some expertly integrated shiny-things-go-boom, while spaceships and ‘splosions by themselves get you nowhere. You need, in short, both — which is why BSG’s industrial dimension neatly homologized its thematic concerns.

I’m relieved that last night’s conclusion managed to reconcile the show’s many competing elements, and that it did so stirringly, dramatically, and movingly. I expected nothing less than a solid sendoff from RDM, one-half of the writing team behind perhaps the greatest series finale ever, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s “All Good Things …” — but that’s not to say he couldn’t have screwed it up in the final instance. Indeed, if there is a worm in the apple, it’s my sneaking suspicion that the game was fixed: the four episodes leading up to “Daybreak” were a maddening mix of turgid soap opera and force-fed exposition, indulgent overacting and unearned emotion. It’s almost as though they wanted to lower our expectations, then stun us with a masterpiece.

I don’t know yet if “Daybreak” deserves that particular label, but we’ll see. In any case, there is something magical about so optimistic an ending to such a downbeat series. If the tortured soul of this generation’s Battlestar Galactica was indeed forged in the flames of 9/11 and the collective neurotic reaction spearheaded by the Bush administration, perhaps its happy ending reflects a national movement toward something better: the unexpected last-minute emergence, through parting clouds, of hope.

Counting Down Galactica (3 of 4)

[This is the third of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the other entries, click here.]

Popular guides to the practice of special and visual effects — from the battered library books I pored over as a kid to contemporary coffee-table tomes devoted to landmark films like Jurassic Park and FX houses like Industrial Light and Magic — tend to follow certain patterns in their introductory pages. After an obligatory paragraph or two on prehistoric cave paintings or optical toys of the eighteenth century, they launch into a tour of cinematic FX history, touching almost always on the following: the trick films of Georges Melies; Schoedsack and Cooper’s King Kong (1933); and the spaceships that appeared in Flash Gordon serials in 1936.

From there, the history usually shifts to one of the interchangeable silver-finned rockets from Destination Moon (1950), Rocketship X-M (1950), or It: The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), followed by either of the famous designs from Forbidden Planet, MGM’s 1956 experiment in big-budget, color SF film: the C57D cruiser or Robby the Robot.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with these choices; despite or because of their iconicity, they comprise a reliable index of the state of the art in their respective decades. (The Forbidden Planet saucer, of course, appears at the top of this very blog.) And I have no major objections to how these images are deployed in FX histories — apart, perhaps, from the predictable way they are used to set up a kind of rhetorical bank shot: tokens of outdated techniques, antique curiosities which by their laughable artifice set off the supposedly advanced methods, films, and artists belonging to whatever era the book happens to be published in. My point in recapitulating these recapitulations of visual-effects evolution is to note that spaceships like Flash Gordon‘s — with their jets of sparks that fall downward while smoke trails upward — really do mark what Vivian Sobchack has called one of the signature tropes of the genre: skyrockets in flight.

One can imagine an alternate history of science-fiction film focusing exclusively on spacecraft and the ways in which they have been set in motion. Such a history would range from the wire-mounted toys of Flash Gordon to the slow-moving majesties of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose relatively huge miniatures were photographed a frame at a time and coyly choreographed to Strauss. Such a history would note the development of traveling mattes, enabling the compositing of ships against starry backgrounds and looming planets; it would rightly hail Star Wars (1977) as the first film to bring together bluescreen-generated mattes and motion-control cinematography — computer-driven cameras whose every move can be repeated at any scale and duration — to crowd the screen with hectic swarms of swooping spaceships. And it would surely remark, with Star Wars, the emergence of the space battle as a larger semantic structure within the SF genre: in this case, battles staged and intercut according to templates borrowed from World War II movies. (Years before sampling invaded the landscape of popular music, George Lucas and ILM did it in film with a reference reel cut together from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Dam Busters, and 633 Squadron.)

The Star Wars series would go on to feature other, bigger sequences set in space; in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), a fleet of Star Destroyers chases the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid belt, a setpiece daringly placed early in the film (directly beside another wondrous clockwork of FX-driven action, the Rebels’ battle with stop-motion-animated Imperial Walkers on the icy plains of Hoth). But at a certain point, diminishing returns kicked in: Return of the Jedi (1983) gave us the most complex, crowded battle to date, throwing hundreds of ships into the orbital space of Endor, but the result — like the rest of the film — was a confusing mess. By the time of the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), the space battles of Star Wars had become as routinely busy and bland as a screensaver.

Some might blame CGI for this, suggesting that the impediments posed by working with physical FX processes functioned as productive obstructions for filmmakers’ imaginations in the 70s and 80s. It’s difficult to maintain this stance, though, in light of the space battles on Battlestar Galactica, which from the start have announced themselves as a leap forward in the visualization and staging of deep-space combat. I’ve been captivated by BSG’s battles since the 2004 miniseries, which begins with a shot apparently taken from a camera mounted to the side of a spaceship; attitude jets fire, turning the vessel to and fro, yet it remains stationary in the frame while stars whirl around it. Reminiscent of the pirouetting 3D spaces of first-person shooters, the image dramatically and even wittily alludes to the fact that, in motion control, the models hold still while the camera itself relativistically imparts movement.

Befitting its setting on a kind of interstellar aircraft carrier, BSG specializes in confrontations between giant “capital ships,” blasting away at each other with cannons while smaller fighter craft dart crazily into and out of dogfights. Situationally, such battles are not that different from the bloated space circus that opens Revenge of the Sith (2005). What makes them different is the camerawork: the battles are filmed as though by live hand, roaming uncertainly around the frame, zooming in to capture engagements and explosions a second after they happen. Here’s just one of the many clips living on YouTube — evidence that, amid the considerable fan devotion to the current show’s characters, mythology, and politics, a substantial contingent of hardware fans exists:

I’m intrigued by the emergence of this new aesthetic in space battles, and wonder about its genealogical influences. Clearly, what some critics decry as BSG’s “shakycam” — a cinematographic conceit that also marks the filming of its live action on interior sets — borrows from a documentary tradition associated with small, lightweight cameras and field coverage of the Vietnam War. The unsettled camerawork reflects the miasma of anxiety that characterizes BSG’s world and its inhabitants (and which lately has threatened to displace the more action-based elements of the story in favor of dreary melodrama). Grant McCracken points out that the shakycam came into its own as a distinctive house style in 1993 with NYPD Blue, whose “restless camera” has since colonized other shows, including Homicide, Friday Night Lights, and The Shield. Strikingly, though, shakycam has also percolated to sites beyond TV narrative, including scientific simulation, where it dovetails with the visual regime of CG FX. This 2004 animation from NASA, showing the planetfall of the Phoenix Mars Lander, contains a fascinating camera move at about 2:30. The probe, descending through the atmosphere, deploys a parachute and is immediately yanked out of frame; a second later, the camera pans back to reframe it — as though the “camera operator” has been caught by surprise.

The camera move suggests to me a new kind of screen phenomenology, as distinct a microgenre in its way as bullet time and floating 3D titles. Call it a logic of action — a filmic package blending technique and style, mise-en-scene and cinematography, objects and space. The implication of the jittery camerawork is, of course, that we’re watching the event “live”; more importantly, though, we watch as though we are present on the scene. The style and its implications of spontaneity and “discovery” have been around for decades, yet now have infiltrated FX design, working at the the level of the virtual lens. It is, perhaps, the first true subjectification of the space battle, and the arrival of a new paradigm in the unique languages and codes of science-fiction media. Our FX, which simultaneously construct not just the objects of space combat but our roaming window upon them, have always been about impossible viewpoints (but then, so has narrative cinema itself, implanting us as perfect, invisible diegetic witnesses). The battles of BSG may mark the point — as we leave the stiff, immobile frames of Flash Gordon behind and move fully into digital depiction — where framing itself emerges as a subtle expressive tool in visual-effects methodology, shaping our perceptions and understandings in ways for which we do not yet possess a vocabulary.

[Next week, I’ll conclude with a discussion of the BSG finale, the first hour of which airs tonight.]

Counting Down Galactica (2 of 4)

[This is the second of four posts counting down the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. To see the other entries, click here.]

I suggested in last week’s Galactica post that viewing the conclusion of a series “live” — that is, at the juncture of its initial broadcast — is more like witnessing than watching: there is a ritualistic, communal aura to the process, a kind of terrible necessary togetherness. The point is simply to be present, sharing breath with other viewers (even if they exist only as an extrapolated throng beyond the darkened chamber of my living room). And present, of course, with the show itself as it spins its final variations on a theme, its last acts of parole from a lovingly-established langue. In this sense, being with a series as it draws to a close is something like hospice.

In the case of BSG, though, watching live has its drawbacks. Namely, the commercial breaks, inescapable symptom of advertiser-supported TV and part of its formal DNA (funny how impossible it is to imagine BSG or other good shows minus the structuring aporia and epiphany of teasers, acts, cliffhangers, and recaps imposed by a combo of serialization and the need to hawk Hummers and Taco Bell’s Fourthmeal). The DVR lets me skip easily enough past these brightly-lit, tone-deaf ruptures in Galactica‘s noir sensibility, but I have a harder time ignoring the SciFi Channel’s own promotional appeals to fandom: they’re selling off parts of the show, whether through online auctions of production materials or through items of dubious diegetic appropriateness such as the Battlestar Galactica Black Cylon Toaster.

I know, I know: as a professional nerd who divides his loyalties between Star Trek and Star Wars, the marketing of my own passions back to me should have long ago lost its power to scandalize. But there’s something uniquely crass about the avid dispatch with which the fantasy world of BSG is being carved up and sold for scrap. If we are indeed sitting with a friend who’s slipping away, these ads are like someone knocking on the window, asking how much we want for the furniture.

There’s a neat symmetry, though, to the idea of BSG (the show) coming apart at the seams and the way this mirrors the fragmentation of Galactica “herself” — that battered warship under the command of William Adama, cracks opening in her hull as a result of too many FTL jumps and near-fatal encounters with nuclear warheads and Basestar missile volleys. (In my next post, I’ll have more to say about my favorite part of the reimagined BSG, its awesome space battles.) More to the point, being indignant about someone making money off BSG ignores the truth at the heart of its franchising: it’s always been about the bucks, baby. Glen Larson conceived BSG back in the late 1970s as a televisual answer to that redefining juggernaut of science-fiction media, Star Wars, and in this sense the show has been cashing in from the very start.

The years between (what we would eventually come to know as) A New Hope in 1977 and The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 seemed like an eternity to me; during that period I went from being 11 to 14 years old, and in retrospect I didn’t know how good I had it. Teenage turbulence and Ronald Reagan hadn’t yet pounced on either my own body or the body politic; each year brought new releases of films (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien) that have since become load-bearing members of my imaginary; yet I was ever hungry for more. Battlestar Galactica premiered on September 17, 1978 on ABC, a network that had already demonstrated to this young viewer that it could do no wrong with Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man.

My excitement about the first BSG had little to do with its characters, who seemed like cookie-cutter TV types (I blame Lorne Greene’s Adama, who carried an overpowering intertextual odor of Bonanza everywhere he went; years later I would realize, with Firefly and Serenity, that I don’t like westerns in my science-fiction peanut butter, no matter how structurally compatible the two genres may be). BSG’s storyline was similarly uninspiring: I’ve never cared for Gilligan’s Island-style narratives in which a group of characters search desperately for home. Perhaps because the Colonials’ psychological and existential state approximated too closely my own preadolescent anxieties about school that led me to fetishize the comfort and familiarity of home, I preferred the manifest-destinied explorations of Star Trek. Better to boldly go than to run scared; better to launch a wagon train to the stars than to circle the wagons and pray for survival. (Ironic, then, that several series later, Voyager would fall into the same delayed-gratification trap of a constantly thwarted quest for earth.)

Instead, I was infatuated with BSG’s world and the props and visual effects that constituted it. The Battlestar, its “ragtag fleet,” the fighter-jet Vipers and manta-ray Cylon Raiders, all existed in three separate yet indivisible frameworks, like water in solid, liquid, and gaseous phases: there were the ships in their diegetic reality, composited against starry backgrounds and lit with rotoscoped laser beams; the detailed miniatures I knew had been built in some FX house’s model shop, affixed to neon pylons and photographed against blue screens by a motion-controlled camera that tracked, tilted, and panned while the ships themselves remained stationary; and finally, replicated in my own bedroom, plastic model kits glued together with Testor’s hallucination-inducing goo, smeared with paint from tiny square glass jars. My models possessed less detail than the studio versions but were enormously more powerful in their totemic aura: localized, three-dimensional concretizations of the vast immaterial universe that was in part BSG’s production design and in part the mental system those designs organized, my own (possibly glue-enhanced) hallucinations.

The appeal of BSG’s universe faded somewhat as the series went on, I suppose because the heavily-repeated FX shots began to be outweighed by the narrative’s predictable and uninspired plotting. My sense of wonder has always worked better in two-hour chunks than in the twenty-odd hourly helpings of a television season: I can watch Logan’s Run over and over in motion-picture form, but was never engaged by the serial incarnation that ran on CBS from 1977 to 1978. This hypothesis was proven for me in 1979, when BSG’s two-hour pilot was released theatrically. I went to see it several times in matinees at the Campus Theater in Ann Arbor, holding my arms (sunburned and peeling from a canoe trip on the Huron River) stiffly in front of me. Projected on a huge screen with all commercials excised, the opening hours of BSG — its primal scene of civilization and military order knocked permanently akimbo by sneak attack — regained the mythic resonance Glen Larson had always intended them to have, a resonance channeled from Pearl Harbor by way of Star Wars. By that time I’d learned from the invaluable resource Starlog that Ralph McQuarrie and John Dykstra, artists responsible for so much of Star Wars‘s texture and text, had worked on BSG, and that the pleasure I took from the series was in fact a complex echo (and, undeniably, a dilution) of a purer, prior signal. At 13, my first encounter with nostalgia, fittingly motivated by texts themselves obsessed with lost golden ages.

No matter: in those hours of BSG’s reencounter I discovered a truth about stories and special effects: they can be recycled, revisited, and reinvented without harm. Whether in the replaying of videotapes and DVDs, the sequelization of movies, the serial sinewaves of TV narrative, or the radial expansions of transmedia, there is always more to be had — more to be discovered, judged, dismissed or cherished. It’s what gives me hope that our current Battlestar Galactica will not be the last; that what has happened before will (always) happen again.

[Next week’s post will turn to Zoic, the visual-effects house responsible for much of Galactica‘s signature visualization and logics of action.]

Counting Down Galactica (1 of 4)

One advantage to serialized narrative of the type I’ve been discussing with my class on TV & New Media this term is the way such stories occasionally align with the flocking of audiences to make a kind of collective reading ritual: conjoined at the internets, we witness each new installment together, previewing, receiving, discussing, digesting in happy cacophony. I remember the thrill of discovering this phenomenon back in the 90s with The X-Files, my first experience with “appointment television,” finding in the nascent USENET newsgroups next day more conversation, concentration, and conspiracy than I could handle. Till then, my pleasures had been too cultishly isolated (Red Dwarf, Mystery Science Theater 3000) or too relegated to reruns and the dislocated arrhythmia of syndication (the original Star Trek and its rebirth — in retrospect, a brilliant piece of franchise engineering — in Next Generation) to coalesce socially.

Nowadays, of course, fannish modes of attentiveness have become the rule rather than the exception, and Battlestar Galactica (followed closely by Lost) is perhaps the most mainstream subcultural artifact going. BSG is winding down, its four-season run drawing to a finish three episodes from tonight’s, and I’ve decided to mark the occasion with my own serial contribution: a set of four blog posts, one each Friday, to count down the end of the series. (I’ve written previously about BSG, and readers hungry for background might wish to check out my Flow essay.)

Even as I invoke the idea of some solid ending, it sounds hollow: for in confronting Galactica in its true multiplicity, one has to acknowledge that BSG has achieved critical mass for franchise immortality, its storyworld spinning off into extensions via TV, film, videogames, and on and on. A new series, Caprica, will be airing soon, along with a telefilm, The Plan, which together shift us into a period of history preceding the events of the current series. Prequelization — that odd retrograde movement into primal scenery — is the first symptom that a property has hit its transmedia singularity, backing and filling the fractal nooks and crannies of its narrative terrain. Let’s be honest, though. It won’t really be about narrative anymore, but instead a kind of rhizomatic self-historicization, an ongoing enterprise of mapping diegetic spacetime in all directions at once. On the textual side, it’s about generating more stories; on the industrial and commercial axis, it’s about maximizing profit returns, strip-mining the concept down to its bedrock. We saw what happened when George Lucas did this to Star Wars; let’s hope BSG doesn’t disappear quite so frictionlessly up its own asshole.

All that said, BSG has had a great run, arguably among the finest science-fiction TV series ever, up there with the best sustained stretches of Trek and Doctor Who. It’s mature, dark, intelligent, twisty, devoted to its own premise, and brilliantly cast and filmed. It’s wrapping up this particular incarnation long before series senility sets in — that creeping cancer that overwhelmed The X-Files around season seven and seems to long ago have sapped The Simpsons of its essence — and there is a genuine sense of drama, of something at stake, as the final episodes tick away.

Beyond these generalizations, though, and my eagerness to remain glued to my ringside seat, I don’t have much desire to review the show. Another aspect of serial narrative is that, while it’s unfurling in the realtime of broadcast, it’s like a train rushing by: each episode blurs past, delivering its individual punch, but the ultimate destination (and meaning/quality of the journey) is impossible to discern. There will be time for that, all the time in the world, when the series has concluded and we begin our long scholarship using DVD box sets and the Battlestar Wiki, canonizing favorite characters, arcs, and episodes, remixing our vids and building our model kits. The show will live on, that is, in our vernacular study and reverence of it, and if the franchise does go sour, at least we’ll always have Adama as singularly embodied by Edward James Olmos from 2004-2009. In these “countdown” posts, I’ll focus instead on more global aspects of BSG, from its place in science-fiction history to the aesthetics of its visual effects.

The image at the top of this post is from Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for the 1970s series that launched Galactica (both ship and franchise) on its starlost voyage. In next week’s post, I’ll speak more about that incarnation of BSG and my own encounter with it in the shadows of that larger inspiration — from which Galactica gleefully cannibalized — Star Wars.

Quick Thoughts on the Oscars

Last night’s Academy Awards ceremony was more enjoyable than I expected, though it’s always this way: each year I watch with a kind of low-level awe, impressed not only by the show’s general lack of suckiness but by how the pageantry, with its weird mix of cheesy spectacle and syrupy sentimentality, manages to distill that specific tincture of pleasure that is the movies’ signature structure of feeling. Mind you, I’m not talking about the cinematic medium’s larger essence (its extremes of Godardian play and Tarkovskian tedium) but its particular, peculiar manifestation via the churning industrial engine of Hollywood, so helplessly eager to please and entertain that it puts us in the position of that poor guy in Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983) — the one hooked up to an orgasm machine that nearly lands him in a coma.

Next day, the script is always the same: I listen to NPR and read the Times and discover that, in fact, the show was a big, boring disappointment, full of the same old lame old. (Here too the ceremony replicates the experience of filmgoing, the light of day too often revealing the seams and strings that ruin the previous night’s magic.) So before I proceed to my necessary disillusionment, that temporary discharge of cynicism by which I prepare the poles of my pleasure centers for their next jolt, a few points of interest I noticed in the 81st Awards:

1. Popularity and its discontents. At several points during the broadcast — Hugh Jackman’s great opening number, Will Smith’s comments following the action-movie montage — we were reminded that the movies everyone went to see (Iron Man, The Dark Knight) were not necessarily the ones that received critical accolades and, by definition, Academy attention. In fact, an allergically inverse relation seems to apply: the more popular a film is, the less likely it is to receive any kind of respect, save for its technical components. That’s why crowdpleasers are so often relegated to categories like Editing, Sound Mixing, and, of course, Visual Effects. (The one place where popular, profitable movies are granted the privilege of existing as feature-length artworks, rather than Frankensteinian assemblages of FX proficiency, is in the category of Animated Feature, where Bolt, WALL-E, and Kung-Fu Panda are rightly celebrated as marvels.) Last night, the Academy got called on its strange standards, with Jackman asking why Dark Knight hadn’t been nominated and Smith dryly remarking that action movies actually have audiences. Only he called them “fans” — and this year, it seems, fans are realizing that they are audiences, perhaps the only real audiences, and they’re rising up to demand equal representation at the spotlit top of the cultural hierarchy.

2. Mashups and remixes. Others, I’m sure, will have much to say about Slumdog Millionaire‘s sweep of the major awards and what this indicates about the globalization of Hollywood. The mingling of film traditions and industries seems to me an epiphenomenal manifestation of a more atomistic and pervasive transformation, over the last few years, into remix culture: we live in the era of mashup and migration, a mixing and matching that produced the wonderful, boundary-crossing hybrid of Slumdog (a media artifact, let us note, that is as much about television and film’s mutual remediation as it is about Bollywood and Hollywood). This was apparent at a formal level in the composition of the Awards’ Best Original Song performances, which garishly and excitingly wrapped the melodies of “Down to Earth,” “O Saya,” and “Jai Ho” around each other.

3. The Curious Case of Brad Pitt. Although he didn’t win, Pitt’s nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role marks the continuing erosion of prejudices against — and concomitant trend toward full acceptance of — what I have elsewhere termed blended performance: the creation of dramatic characters through special and visual effects. More precisely, blended performance involves acting that depends vitally on visual machination: think Christopher Reeve in Superman, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings (and for that matter, Serkis as the big ape in King Kong). Each of these characters came alive not simply through their anchoring in particular bodies, faces, voices, and dramatic chops, but the augmentation of those traits with VFX methods, from bluescreen traveling mattes to motion capture and animation. I’m not saying there’s a strict dividing line here between “real” and “altered” performance; every star turn is a spectacular technology in its own right. But good acting is also a category that prizes authenticity; we do not want to be reminded that we are being tricked. Blended performances don’t often get Oscar attention, but when they do, there’s a historical bias toward special (on-camera) effects versus postproduction contributions: John Hurt received a Best Actor nomination for The Elephant Man (1980), a film he spent buried in pounds of prosthetic devices. In Benjamin Button, of course, Pitt wore plenty of makeup; but a large portion of his performance came about through an intricate choreography of matchmoving and CG modeling. As digital phenomenologies become the inescapable norm, we’ll see more and more legitimacy accorded to blended performance, a trend that will dovetail, I expect, with the threshold moment at which a CG animated film gets nominated for best live-action feature. Don’t laugh: many thought it would happen with WALL-E, and it’s in the taxonomies of AMPAS that such profound distinctions about the ontologies of cinema and technology get hammered out.

Visible Evidence

From the Department of Incongruous Juxtapositions, this pair of items: on the right, the photograph of Rihanna following her beating by Chris Brown; on the left, the supposed image of Atlantis culled from Google Earth.

Let me immediately make clear that I am in no way calling into question the fact of Rihanna’s assault or equating its visual trace — its documentary and moral significance — with the seeming signs of ancient civilization read into a tracework of lines on the ocean floor. The former is evidence of a vicious crime, brutal as any forensic artifact; the latter a fanciful projection, like the crisscrossing canals that generations of hopeful astronomers imagined onto the surface of Mars.

If there is a connection between these images, it is not in their ontological status, which is as clean an opposition as one could hope for, but in their epistemological status: the way they localize larger dialectics of belief and uncertainty, demonstrating the power of freely circulating images to focus, lenslike, the structures of “knowledge” with which our culture navigates by day and sings itself to sleep at night.

In LA a legal investigation rages over who leaked the photo of Rihanna, while across the nation a million splinter investigations twease out the rights and wrongs of TMZ’s going public with it. Does one person’s privacy outweigh the galvanizing, possibly progressive impact of the crime photo’s appearance? Does the fight against domestic and gendered violence become that much more energized with each media screen to which Rihanna’s battered face travels? What happens now to Rihanna, who (as my wife points out) faces the Hobson’s choice of disavowing what has happened and going on with her career in the doomed fashion of Whitney Houston, or speaking out and risking the simultaneous celebration and stigmatization we attach to celebrities whose real lives ground the glitter of their fame? If nothing else, Rihanna has been forcefully resignified in the public eye; whatever position she now adopts relative to the assault will bring judgment upon her — perhaps the most unfair outcome of all.

Meanwhile, the purported image of Atlantis manifests a familiar way of seeing and knowing the unseeable and unknowable. It joins, that is, a long list of media artifacts poised at the edge of the possible, tantalizing with their promise of rendering in understandable terms the tidal forces of our unruly cultural imaginary: snapshots of the Loch Ness Monster, plaster castings of Bigfoot’s big footprints, grainy images of UFOs glimpsed over backyard treelines, Abraham Zapruder’s flickering footage of JFK’s execution, blown-up photos of the jets hitting the World Trade Centers (bearing circles and arrows to indicate why the wrongly-shaped fuselages disprove the “official story”). From creatures to conspiracies, it’s a real-world game of Where’s Waldo, based on fanatically close readings of evidence produced through scientific means that pervert science’s very tenets. Fictions like Lost provide sanitized, playful versions of the same Pynchonean vertigo: the spiraling, paranoid sense that nothing is as it seems — a point ironically proved with recourse to cameras as objective witnesses. In the case of Google’s Atlantis, that “camera” happens to be a virtual construct, an extrapolated map of the ocean floor. The submerged city itself, Google says, is an artifact of compositing and compression: the lossy posing as the lofty, a high-tech updating of lens flares, cosmic rays, and weather balloons too distant for the lens to resolve into their true natures.

In both cases, something submerged has been brought to light, touching off new rounds of old debates about what really happened, what’s really out there. With depressing speed, internet message boards filled with derisive reactions to Rihanna’s photo. “She looks better that way”; “That’s what happens when a woman won’t shut her mouth”; and perhaps most disheartening, “It’s not that bad.” A chorus of voices singing a ragged melody of sexism, racism, and simple hard-heartedness. Let’s hope we have the collective sense to respond correctly to these two images, separating tragic fact from escapist fiction.

Digital Dogsbodies

It’s funny — and perhaps, in the contagious-episteme fashion of Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filing patents for the telephone on the very same date, a bit creepy — that Dan North of Spectacular Attractions should write on the topic of dog movies while I was preparing my own post about Space Buddies. This Disney film, which pornlike skipped theaters to go straight to DVD and Blu-Ray, is one of a spate of dog-centered films that have become a crowdpleasing filmic staple of late. Dan poses the question, “What is it about today that people need so many dog movies?” and goes on to speculate that we’re collectively drowning our sorrows at the world’s ugliness with a massive infusion of cute: puppyism as cultural anodyne.

Maybe so. It seems to me, though, that another dynamic is in operation here — and with all due respect to my follow scholar of visual effects, Dan may be letting the grumbly echoes of the Frankfurt School distract him from a fascinating nexus of technology, economics, and codes of expressive aesthetics driving the current crop of cinematic canines. Simply put, dogs make excellent cyberstars.

Think about it. Nowadays we’re used to high-profile turns by hybrids of human and digital performance: Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s goldplated mother in Beowulf, Brad Pitt as the wizened baby in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Hmm, it only now strikes me that this intertextual madonna-and-child are married in real life; perhaps the nuclear family is giving way to the mo-capped one?) Such top-billed performances are based on elaborate rendering pipelines, to be sure, but their celebrity/notoriety is at least as much about the uniquely sexy and identifiable star personae attached to these magic mannequins: a higher order of compositing, a discursive special effect. It takes a ton of processing power to paint the sutured stars onto the screen, and an equivalent amount of marketing and promotion — those other, Foucauldian technologies — to situate them as a specific case of the more general Steady March Toward Viable Synthespianism. Which means, in terms of labor and capital, they’re bloody expensive. Mountains of data are moved in service of the smallest details of realism, and even then, nobody can get the eyes right.

But what of the humble cur and the scaled-down VFX needed to sell its blended performance? The five puppy stars of Space Buddies are real, indexically photographed dogs with digitally-retouched jaw movements and eyebrow expressions; child voice actors supply the final, intangible, irreplaceable proof of character and personality. (To hell with subsurface skin scatter and other appeals to our pathetically seducible eyes; the real threshold of completely virtual performance remains believable speech synthesis.) The canine cast of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, while built on similar principles, are ontologically closer to the army of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded’s burly brawl — U-Capped fur wrapped over 3D doll armatures and arrayed in Busby-Berkeleyish mass ornament. They are, in short, digital dogsbodies, and as we wring our hands over the resurrection of Fred Astaire in vacuum-cleaner ads and debate whether Ben Burtt’s sound design in Wall-E adds up to a best-actor Oscar, our screens are slowly filling with animals’ special-effects-driven stardom. How strange that we’re not treating them as the landmarks they are — despite their immense profitability, popularity, and paradoxical common-placeness. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only cuddly!

I don’t mean to sound alarmist — though writing about the digital’s supposed incursion into the real always seems to bring out the edge in my voice. In truth, the whole thing seems rather wonderful to me, not just because I really dug Space Buddies, but because the dogsbody has been around a long time, selling audiences on the dramatic “realism” of talking animals. From Pluto to Astro, Scooby Doo to Rowlf, Lady and the Tramp to K-9, Dynomutt, and Gromit, dogs have always been animated beyond their biological station by technologies of the screen; we accept them as narrative players far more easily than we do more elaborate and singular constructions of the monstrous and exotic. The latest digital tools for imparting expression to dogs’ mouths and muzzles were developed, of all places, in pet-food ads: clumsy stepping stones that now look as dated as poor LBJ’s posthumous lipsynching in Forrest Gump.

These days it’s the rare dog (or cat, bear, and fish) onscreen whose face hasn’t been partially augmented with virtual prosthetics. Ultimately, this is less about technological capability than the legal and monetary bottom line: unlike human actors, animal actors can’t go ballistic on the lighting guy, or write cumbersome provisions into their contracts to copyright their “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction. Our showbiz beasts exist near the bottom of the labor pool: just below that other mass of bodies slowly being fed into the meat-grinder of digitization, stuntpeople, and just above the nameless hoardes of Orcs jam-packing the horizon shots of Lord of the Rings. I think it was Jean Baudrillard, in The System of Objects, who observed that pets hold a unique status, poised perfectly between people and things. It’s a quality they happen to share with FX bodies, and for this reason I expect we’ll see menageries in the multiplex for years to come.

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Sometimes the metaphor is so perfect it seems the gods of discourse and simulation must have conspired to produce it. The video clip now spreading across the internet — in the Huffington Post‘s words, “like wildfire” — not only visualizes the earth’s destruction by asteroid, but the global proliferation of the clip itself, a CG cartoon leaping from one link to another in a contagious collective imagining of apocalypse:

The video has apparently been in existence at least since 2005, when (according to my quick-and-dirty sleuthing) it aired as a segment on the Discovery Channel series Miracle Planet. Only recently — perhaps after being contextually unmoored by the swapping of its narration for a Pink Floyd soundtrack — has it “gone viral,” scorching the graphical territories that have grown around our planet like a second skin since the dual foundings in the 1960s of the internet (nee ARPAnet) and the computer-graphics movement whose granddaddy was Ivan Sutherland. The reasons for the asteroid clip’s sudden popularity are, I suspect, both too mundane and profound ever to explain to anyone’s satisfaction: on one level, it’s about the idle clicking of links and impulsive forwarding of attachments that has become the unconscious microlabor of millions who believe ourselves to be playing as we work (when, in fact, we are working as we play); on another level, it’s about 9/11, The Dark Knight, and conflict in the Middle East. Tipping points, for all their blunt undeniability, remain enigmatic things at heart. Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) spilled water off the back of his hand to illustrate nonlinearity and strange attractors; I submit to you “Chocolate Rain,” Twilight, and now a video, running time just under five minutes, that renders in lush but elegant terms the immolation of our homeworld.

I’m not about to get all moralistic on you and suggest there’s something unhealthy about this spectacle, or the way we’re passing it eagerly from platform to platform like a digital hot potato. It is, in a word, supercool, especially when the continents start peeling up like the waxy bacon grease to which I applied my spatula after an indulgent Christmas breakfast last week. In its languid, extended takes it recalls the Spider-Man sequence that Dan North and I recently kicked around, and in its scalar play — a square inch or two of screen display windowing outward onto the collision of planetary bodies — it’s like a peepshow of the gods, the perverse cosmos literally getting its rocks off, caressing earth and stone together like Ben Wa balls. The clip is mercifully blind to the suffering of life on the ground (or for that matter in the air and sea); its only intimations of pain are displaced, oddly, onto architecture, with Big Ben and the Parthenon in flames.

What the clip brings to mind most powerfully, though, is a similar exercise in worldshaping now more than 25 years old: the Project Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982). That brilliant, franchise-saving movie revolved around an experimental device called Genesis, a high-tech MacGuffin that motivated the piratical faceoff between Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh (is my geek showing?) as well as some beautiful matte paintings, a cloud-tank nebula, and a thrilling countdown sequence scored by James Horner before his compositions became simulacra of themselves.

But all of the Genesis device’s visual and auditory puzzle-pieces would not have cohered as potently in my imagination if not for the way it is introduced early in the film, by a short CG sequence showing the effect that Genesis would have on a lifeless planet:

Several things tie the Genesis sequence to the asteroid-strike video: formally, each begins by tracking inward on a celestial body and ends with a pullback to show the world turning serenely in space; the midsection consists of a sweeping orbital arc, dipping down to the level of mountains, forests, and oceans before lifting back into the stratosphere. Most importantly, each details the utter transformation of a planet, albeit in opposite directions: Genesis brings, in the words of Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), “life from lifelessness,” while the Discovery Channel’s asteroid inverts the dream of creation, showing its necessary, extinguishing counterpole. The difference between them reflects, perhaps, a shift in how we imagine the possibilities of technology through science fiction: Star Trek‘s utopian vision has given way to the more shadowed and conspiratorial nihilism of Battlestar Galactica (a series that begins in the fires of nuclear armageddon).

But there is also a story here of computer graphics and how they have, for all their evolution, stayed much the same in their aesthetics and predilections. The Genesis sequence was a groundbreaking piece of work from the nascent CGI department at Industrial Light and Magic — a proof-of-concept exercise in ray tracing and fractal modeling by artists and equipment that would soon spin off into Pixar. ILM founder George Lucas, obsessed with extending his authorial control through the development of digital production tools like SoundDroid and EditDroid (forerunner of Avid and nonlinear editing systems), let the future juggernaut slip through his fingers, only later realizing the degree to which CGI would revolutionize filmmaking by merging the elastic, constructive capabilities of animation with the textured realism of live-action. In Pixar’s most recent work — the acclaimed Wall-E, whose glories I’ve been revisiting on my Blu-Ray player — one can see the same hunger to take worlds apart in favor of building new ones, an awareness of how closely, in the world of visual-effects engineering, creation and destruction intertwine. Like other films that have captured my attention on the blog this year — I Am Legend, Planet of the ApesWall-E serves up apocalypse as spectacle, a tradition that continues (proudly, perversely) with the asteroid video.

Happy new year to all, and best wishes for 2009!

Getting Granular with Setpieces

Dan North has published an excellent analysis of the Sandman birth sequence in Spider-Man 3, using this three-minute shot as springboard for a characteristically deft dissection of visual-effects aesthetics and the relationship between CG and live-action filmmaking. His concluding point, that CGI builds on rather than supplants indexical sensibilities — logically extending the cinematographic vocabulary rather than coining utterly alien neologisms — is one that is too often lost in discussions that stress digital technology’s alleged alterity to traditional filmic practices. I’d noticed the Sandman sequence too; in fact, it was paratextually telegraphed to me long before I saw the movie itself, in reviews like this from the New York Times:

… And when [The Sandman] rises from a bed of sand after a “particle atomizer” scrambles his molecules, his newly granulated form shifts and spills apart, then lurches into human form with a heaviness that recalls Boris Karloff staggering into the world as Frankenstein’s monster. There’s poetry in this metamorphosis, not just technological bravura, a glimpse into the glory and agony of transformation.

I don’t have anything to add to Dan’s exegesis (though if I were being picky, I might take issue with his suggestion that the Sandman sequence simply could not have been realized without computer-generated effects; while it’s true that this particular rendering, with its chaotic yet structured swarms of sand-grains, would have taxed the abilities of “stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation,” the fact is that there are infinitely many ways of designing and staging dramatic events onscreen, and in the hands of a different creative imagination than Sam Raimi and his previz team, the Sandman’s birth might have been realized in much more allusive, poetic, and suggestive ways, substituting panache for pixels; indeed, for all the sequence’s correctly lauded technical artistry and narrative concision, there is something ploddingly literal at its heart, a blunt sense of investigation that smacks of pornography, surveillance-camera footage, and NASA animations — all forms, incidentally, that share the Spider-Man scene’s unflinching long take).

But my attention was caught by this line of Dan’s:

This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle — it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er … it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.

I’ve long been interested in the concept of the setpiece, that strange cinematic subunit that hovers somewhere between shot, scene, and sequence, hesitating among the registers of cinematography, editing, and narrative, partaking of all while being confinable to none. Setpieces can be an unbroken single shot from the relatively brief (the Sandman’s birth or the opening to Welles’s Touch of Evil) to the extravagantly extended (the thirteen-minute tracking shot with which Steadicam fetishist Brian DePalma kicks off Snake Eyes). But we’re perhaps most familiar with the setpiece as constituted through the beats of action movies: hailstorms of tightly edited velocity and collision like the car chases in Bullitt or, more humorously, Foul Play; the fight scenes and song-and-dance numbers that act as structuring agents and generic determinants of martial-arts movies and musicals respectively; certain “procedural” stretches of heist, caper, and espionage films, like the silent CIA break-in of Mission Impossible (smartly profiled in a recent Aspect Ratio post). Setpieces often occur at the start of movies or near the end as a climactic sequence, but just as frequently erupt throughout the film’s running time like beads on a string; Raiders of the Lost Ark is a gaudy yet elegant necklace of such baubles, including one of my favorites, the “basket chase” set in Cairo. Usually wordless, setpieces tend to feature their own distinctive editing rhythms, musical tracks, and can-you-top-this series of gags and physical (now digital) stunts.

Setpieces are, in this sense, like mini-movies embedded within bigger movies, and biological metaphor might be the best way to describe their temporal and reproductive scalability. Like atavistic structures within the human body, setpieces seem to preserve long-ago aesthetics of early cinema: their logic of action and escalation recalls Edison kinetoscopes and Keystone Cops chases, while more hushed and contemplative setpieces (like the Sandman birth) have about them something of the arresting stillness and visual splendor of the actualite. Or to get all DNAish on you, setpieces are not unlike the selfish genes of which Richard Dawkins writes: traveling within the hosts of larger filmic bodies, vying for advantage in the cultural marketplace, it is actually the self-interested proliferation of setpieces that drives the replication — and evolution — of certain genres. The aforementioned martial-arts movies and musicals, certainly; but also the spy movie, the war and horror film, racing movies, and the many vivid flavors of gross-out comedy. The latest innovation in setpiece genetics may be the blockbuster transmedia franchise, which effectively “brands” certain sequences and delivers them in reliable (and proprietary) form to audiences: think of the lightsaber duels in any given phenotypic expression of Star Wars, from film to comic to videogame.

On an industrial level, of course, setpieces also signal constellations of labor that we can recognize as distinct from (while inescapably articulated to) the films’ ostensible authors. One historical instance of this is the work of Slavko Vorkapich, renowned for the montages he contributed to other peoples’ movies — so distinctive in his talents that to “Vorkapich” something became a term of art in Hollywood. Walt Disney was a master when it came to channeling and rebranding the work of individual artists under his own overweening “vision”; more recently we have the magpie-like appropriations of George Lucas, who was only in a managerial sense the creator of the Death Star battle that ends the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope. This complexly composited and edited sequence (itself largely responsible for bringing setpieces into being as an element of fannish discourse) was far more genuinely the accomplishment of John Dykstra and his crew at Industrial Light and Magic, not to mention editors Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas. Further down the line — to really ramify the author function out of existence — the battle’s parentage can be traced to the cinematographers and editors who assembled the World War II movies — Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Dam Busters, etc. — from which Lucas culled his reference footage, a 16mm reel that Dykstra and ILM used as a template for the transcription of Mustangs and Messerschmitts into X-Wings and TIE Fighters.

Thirty years after the first Star Wars, sequences in blockbuster films are routinely farmed out to visual effects houses, increasing the likelihood that subunits of the movie will manifest their own individuating marks of style, dependent on the particular aesthetic tendencies and technological proficiencies of the company in question. (Storyboards and animatics, as well as on-the-fly oversight of FX shots in pipeline, help to minimize the levels of difference here, smoothing over mismatches in order to fit the outsourced chunks of content together into a singularly authored text — hinting at new ways in which the hoary concepts of “compositing” and “continuity” might be redeployed as a form of meta-industrial critique.) In the case of Spider-Man 3, no fewer than eight FX houses were involved (BUF, Evil Eye Pictures, Furious FX, Gentle Giant Studios, Giant Killer Robots, Halon Entertainment, Tweak Films, and X1fx) in addition to Sony Pictures Imageworks, which produced the Sandman shot.

When we look at a particular setpiece, then, we also pinpoint a curious node in the network of production: a juncture at which the multiplicity of labor required to generate blockbuster-scale entertainment must negotiate with our sense of a unified, unique product / author / vision. Perhaps this is simply an accidental echo of the collective-yet-singular aura that has always attended the serial existence of superheroes; what is Spider-Man but a single artwork scripted, drawn, acted, and realized onscreen by decades of named and nameless creators? But before all of this, we confront a basic heterogeneity that textures film experience: our understanding, at once obvious and profound, that some parts of movies stand out as better or worse or more in need of exploration than others. Spider-Man 3, as Dan acknowledges, is not a great film; but that does not mean it cannot contain great moments. In sifting for and scrutinizing such gems, I wonder if academics like us aren’t performing a strategic if unconscious role — one shared by the increasingly contiguous subcultures of journalists, critics, and fans — our dissective blogging facilitating a trees-over-forest approach to film analysis, a “setpiece-ification” that reflects the odd granularity of contemporary blockbuster media.


It’s still Jessica Yellin and you look like Jessica Yellin and we know you are Jessica Yellin. I think a lot of people are nervous out there. All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram.

— Wolf Blitzer, CNN

I woke this morning feeling distinctly unreal — a result of staying up late to catch every second of election coverage (though the champagne and cocktails with which I and my wife celebrated Obama’s amazing win undoubtedly played a part). But even after I checked the web to assure myself that, indeed, the outcome was not a nighttime dream but a daylight reality, I couldn’t shake the odd sense of being a projection of light myself, much like the “holograms” employed by CNN as part of their news coverage (Here’s the YouTube video, for as long as it might last):

I’ve written before on the spectacular plenitude of high-definition TV cross-saturated with intensive political commentary, an almost subjectivity-annihilating information flow on the visual, auditory, and ideological registers. In the case of CNN’s new trick in the toolbox, my first reaction was to giggle; the projection of reporter Jessica Yellin into the same conversational space as Wolf Blitzer was like a weird halftime show put on by engineering students as a graduation goof. But the cable news channel seemed to mean it, by God, and I have little doubt that we’ll see more such holographic play in coverage to come, as the technology becomes cheaper and its functionality streamlined into a single switch thrown on some hidden mixing board — shades of Walter Benjamin’s observation in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about striking a match.

Leaving aside the joking references to Star Wars (whose luminously be-scanlined projection of Princess Leia served, in 1977, to fold my preadolescent crush on Carrie Fisher into parallel fetishes with science-fiction technology and the visual-effects methods used to create them), last night’s “breakthrough” transmission of Yellin from Chicago to New York contains a subtle and disturbing undertone that should not be lost on feminist critics or theorists of simulation. This 2008 version of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you” employed as its audiovisual payload a woman’s body. It was, in this sense, just the latest retelling of the sad old story in which the female form is always-already rendered a simulacrum in the visual circuits of male desire. Yellin’s hologram, positioned in compliant stasis at the twinned focus of Blitzer’s crinkly, interrogative gaze and a floating camera that constantly reframed her phantasmic form, echoed the bodies of many a CG doll before it: those poor gynoids, from SIGGRAPH’s early Marilyn Monrobot to Shrek‘s Princess Fiona and Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, whose high-rez objectification marks the triumphal convergence of representational technology and phallic hegemony.

But beyond the obvious (and necessary) Mulveyan critique exists another interesting point. The news hologram, achieved by cybernetically tying together the behavior of two sets of cameras separated by hundreds of miles, is a remarkable example of realtime visual effects: the instantaneous compositing of spaces and bodies that once would have taken weeks or months to percolate through the production pipeline of even the best FX house. That in this case we don’t call it a visual effect, but a “news graphic” or the like, speaks more to the discursive baffles that generate such distinctions than to any genuine ontological difference. (A similar principle applies to the term “hologram”; what we’re really seeing is a sophisticated variant of chroma key, that venerable greenscreen technology by which TV forecasters are pasted onto weather maps. In this case, it’s been augmented by hyperfast, on-the-fly match-moving.) Special and visual effects are only recognized as such in narrative film and television — never in news and commercials, though that is where visual-effects R&D burns most brightly.

As to my own hologrammatic status, I assume it will fade as the magic of this political moment sinks in. An ambiguous tradeoff: one kind of reality becoming wonderfully solid, while another — the continuing complicity between gendered power and communication / imaging technology — recedes from consciousness.