Face Off’s practical magic[ians]

With the finale of Face Off airing tonight, I wanted to quickly share my fondness for the Syfy series, which pits fledgling special-effects artists against each other in timed challenges to create fantastical make-ups. Now in its second season, the show is notable for the way it eschews (to the point of rarely acknowledging the existence of) digital effects, which within the industry increasingly augment and substitute for old-school prosthetics, blood and wound creation, and creature design. For many who grew up watching SF and fantasy film and television in what we now recognize as the analog era of special effects, there is an irreducible beauty to such practical magic, no matter how realistic or unrealistic such effects might currently appear; indeed, our celebration of the artistry involved arguably cannot flower outside the passage of time — and advances in technology — that render older special effects visible precisely as tricks, in turn demonstrating the bankruptcy and uselessness of standards for screen illusion that hinge solely on those illusions’ undetectability.

The deeper import of Face Off, running beneath its highly entertaining races to design, fabricate, apply, and paint prosthetic appliances, is that such processes preserve an individual, artisanal ethos that is vanishing from the contemporary effects industry; CGI takes more people, and more time, than the rigors of reality-show competitions allow, which is one reason why the digital era of visual effects has yet to produce an auteur on the level of Stan Winston, Dick Smith, or Ray Harryhausen. (Instead, that auteur function has reverted to the director, himself [so far always a “him”] a crossover between artist and technician a la James Cameron.)

The other thing I dig about Face Off is that it is one of the few reality competitions that don’t focus on beautiful people — what Brenda Weber calls the “afterbodies” of makeover TV — or on unbeautiful people as a problem in need of solving, as in The Biggest Loser. Instead, the contestants of Face Off, like the judges, are a wonderful miscellany of folks bearing the styles and decorations of subcultures who rarely receive air time except as oddities. The gender (and, between the lines, queer and transgender) identities are welcomely mixed, though so far pretty uniformly white. It’s an almost accidental showcase of diversity that makes perfect sense given the communities of fandom that populate Face Off: a group whose self-conscious display of difference is, itself, a celebration of the modified and colorful body, encased in its cleverly bizarre social prosthetics.

The new iPad

I’m neither an automatic Apple acolyte nor a naysayer, but the company and its technologies do go deep with me: my first computer, purchased back in 1980, was an Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, and between me and my wife, the household currently holds six or seven Apple devices, including multiple MacBooks and iPods. That I integrate these machines with a powerful PC that is my primary workstation and gaming platform does not dilute the importance of the role Apple has played in my life.

All that said, today’s announcement of the latest iPad strikes me as a letdown, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. A Retina display with four times the resolution of the current device is nothing to sneeze at, and I’m glad to see a better rear-facing camera. But the quantum leap in capability and, more importantly, a certain escalation of the brand are missing. I am the happy owner of an iPad 2, brought a year ago during a difficult time for Katie and me; March 2011 was a profoundly unhappy month, and I am not embarrassed to say that my iPad was one of the small comforts that got me through long nights at the hospital. Perhaps if I was going through something equivalently tragic now, I might again turn to a technological balm, but I doubt that the new iPad would do the trick. It’s a cautious, almost timid refinement of existing hardware, and I daresay that were Steve Jobs still around, Apple might have taken a bolder leap forward.

I was struck by one statement in the promotional video I watched: the assertion that in an ideal Apple-based technological experience, the mediating device disappears from consciousness, allowing you to concentrate on what you’re doing, rather than the thing you’re doing it with. True enough, I suppose — I’m not thinking about the keyboard on which I’m typing this blog entry, or the screen on which I’m reading my own words. But such analyses leave out the powerful effect of the brand that surrounds those moments of “flow.” The iPad, like so many Apple innovations, is a potent and almost magical object in terms of the self-identifications it provides, and in off-screen moments I am always highly conscious of being an iPad user. It’s a happy interpellation, one I accept enthusiastically, turning with eagerness toward the policeman’s call. It’s anything but a transparent experience, and the money I give Apple goes at least as much to support my own subjectification as to underwrite a particular set of technological and creative affordances. The new iPad lacks this aura, so for now, I’ll stick with what I have.

A shift in method

Some years ago, at lunch with an esteemed senior colleague from the English Department, I complained that blogging had split me into two kinds of writer, like the good and evil Captain Kirk (above) created by transporter malfunction in TOS Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within.” The bad writer summoned into existence by the blog was awesomely verbose and driven by the craven need to flaunt his cleverness; the good writer was more modest in his claims and diligent in his methods of researching and composing projects. But he was also, like good Kirk, something of a weakling, his lack of confidence inversely proportional to the excessive force of personality his diabolical twin radiated. During the first several years of this blog I found it easy to sit down and compose brief, grand essays and pronouncements; but I couldn’t get a major research project or a publishing venture off the ground.

I’ve learned a few things about writing, and about myself, since then. I return to this blog with the need for a thought-space somewhere between the ephemeral public bursts of tweets and status updates and the glacial excavation and terraforming of printed academic publishing: the fast and slow time of the mediascapes at whose intersection I find my home. I return to this blog with a renewed sense of its potential for experimentation and evolution, and a new concept of myself as not needing to prove my intellect at every turn. I want, in short, to blog like a normal person — to speak honestly and without needless ostentation about this world and this life.

Night terrors

Z’s cough turns out to be just that — a cough — but while daylight, a trip to the pediatrician, and the purchase of a cool-mist humidifier have brought calm to our roiling first-time-parent worries, the strange noise that started it all continues to echo in my mental hearing: in the amber nightlit nursery, as my hands moved as deftly as a surgeon’s, tucking Z into a new diaper like a pickpocket in reverse, he emitted a rising squawk that registered as a more primal distress — not just discomfort but existential dread.

Of course I’m reading too much into it. (That seems to be what first-time parenting is all about.) Z’s weird noise, I see now, reactivated some part of my brain that’s been dormant for decades, a nerve cable buried deep in my cerebellum stretching back to my own childhood, when I lay awake many nights gripped in fears that were the residue of too much scary TV, too many horror movies, and one too many skims through the best — which is to say, the most extreme and upsetting — parts of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

These materials were my prepubescent pornography, an irresistible lure of the forbidden and transgressive that was fun enough to consume by day, but with sundown turned toxic, a kind of slow acid bath for my imagination. Probably because I was raised as a Catholic, it was the devil stories that got to me the worst: The Omen, The Devil’s Rain, Beyond the Door. I envisioned myself being possessed by a demon, and would play out in my head dialogues between God and Satan about whether my nine-year-old soul was worth the trouble of fighting over.

These fears may be in Z’s future, though I expect my wife and I will be more careful about leaving copies of The Exorcist lying around. (The youngest of five, I inherited all manner of cultural detritus, including the Batman comics with which I learned to read.) For now, I’m relieved to know the tickle is in his throat, and not in his mind.

A new book

I will confess to a sin of moral failing, in this case covetousness, on encountering Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art, a 2002 collection from Greenwood Press, edited by Gary Westfahl, George Slusser, and Kathleen Church Plummer. I should be delighted, and am, by this smart if slender volume on what Slusser in his Introduction calls the “iconology” of SF and fantasy art. It is an area in which I have a building interest, still inchoate but energized by an intuition bordering on zealotry that this tradition of illustration is part of a larger set of visualization practices that do double duty as artwork and as particularly actionable and productive scripts circulating among industrial and fan cultures. Here’s how I rather breathlessly summarized my current thinking in an email to a new professional acquaintance:

I’m coming off a long period of writing about special effects and fantastic-media franchises, along with ongoing pedagogical and scholarly interests in animation and videogames, and so I’m investigating SF and fantasy illustration in relation to media production, e.g. preproduction art and world design in movies, television, and gaming, as well as their function for fans whose investments and activities center less on narrative and character, and more on hardware, technology, terrain, physics, xenobiology, and so on: the content, both given and implied, of fictional universes. Traditions of SF illustration multiply intersect professional and fannish spheres of action (spheres which themselves overlap and diffuse into each other) as a kind of “build code” for branded industrial unrealities whose iteration over time establish highly specific iconographic conventions.

It’s a sprawling concept, one I’m just starting to shape and focus. As context, I’m currently writing a book on material forms of media fictions: object and artifacts produced and circulated around fantastic-media franchises, e.g. superhero statues and collectibles, spaceship and monster model kits, fantasy-wargaming miniatures, and prop replicas and costumes. One chapter looks at reference materials (maps, blueprints, encyclopedias, timelines, concordances) as a textual borderland between officially-authored serialized fantastic media properties and hardware-oriented fan activity; the documents function both as entrypoints to the fictional experience and as fuel for ongoing negotiations over canonicity, and often result in the replication of established objects and coining of new ones at both the official and grassroots production level. Thinking through these histories, Star Trek’s in particular, and relating them to emerging technologies of 3D printing and personal fabrication, led me to build code, which is now the governing figure of the SF illustration project.

I wrote this to Kate Page-Lippsmeyer, a PhD student in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California, to whom Henry Jenkins was kind enough to introduce me based on our mutual interest in SF/F illustration and shared sense that it is a surprisingly underinvestigated topic. Unearthly Visions, which Kate helpfully put me onto, both proves and disproves the latter premise, as a lone beacon, a vanguard.

Or maybe I am just scratching the surface of a world of scholarship of which I’ve been shamefully oblivious; maybe I have tripped over a node in a robust network and am about to be pulled into a hundred conversations, a thousand citations. Loner that I am — and it’s a bad professional habit I am trying to break — I want to be both the lone astronaut on an endless unbothered voyage, and the wandering traveler welcomed by a friendly solar system.

Why I’m sitting out the Oscars

1. I have a cold.

2. I want to watch Bob’s Burgers instead.

3. I have a seven-month-old son. Zach came into our lives last July, putting an end to my theatrical moviegoing for a long time. The last film I saw, the day before we got the call about the adoption, was Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, and in retrospect I’m glad it was this and not something good that marked the close of this particular chapter in my life — like getting food poisoning the day before going on a diet. Since then, my media tastes have confined themselves to brief engagements of casual gaming on the iPad and half-hour television series like Arrested Development. I simply haven’t seen most of the nominated films, and after sitting through Billy Crystal’s opening monologue/medley and missing most of the jokes, I realized what a festival of intertextuality the Oscars are. When I’m properly prepared for it, as in most years past, the ceremony is a fusillade of allusions and inside jokes (though the oxymoronic nature of an “inside joke” told to a mass audience is not lost on me). This year, though, the horizon of my attention has contracted, the protocols of Hollywood pageantry becoming nearly illegible, a broadcast from an alien world. Maybe next year.

Boy story

Nostalgia time: I’ve spent the last few days in my home town of Ann Arbor, where the streets of my old neighborhood and the spaces of my parents’ house have about them a strangely denuded look — less the cratered remains of a bombed-out city than the blankly spartan truth of a theater stage once the sets have been struck and the house lights turned on. My visits here as an adult are riddled with little eruptions of personal history, the hot magma of memory oozing orangely through cracks in the sidewalks.

This morning I was driving my parents to breakfast, and the topic came up of a boy who used to live across the street from us. Ricky Clark (a pseudonym) was a little older than me, and in the mid- to late-seventies we were friends. Not a close, confide-in-each-other friendship, but a friendship based around our mutual appreciation of comic books and horror movies; Ricky had a ton of the former, arranged in neat stacks in his cool basement bedroom, and we stayed up late to watch the latter on late-night creature features, also in his basement.

Mostly, our friendship was a kind of partnership and collaboration in building cool things and pulling off stunts. We made Super 8 movies together, glued together model kits, launched model rockets and chased down their windblown nose cones adangle from red-and-white-checked plastic parachutes. We camped out in a tent in Ricky’s back yard to watch a lunar eclipse (his mom brought hamburgers out to us at the unprecedentedly late hour of 10 p.m.) and on August nights stayed up to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

I think our parents appreciated and approved of our friendship, because each of us supplied something that was missing in the other. I was a chubby, loquacious nerd who would rather stay inside reading than play outside. I was the intellectual, neurotically charming counterpart to Ricky, a compact blond kid with a toughness about him that had nothing to do with beating other kids up and everything to do with surviving dirtbike wipeouts and falls from his own roof.

For our most elaborate joint ventures invariably centered on risk and danger. Ricky built a go-cart powered by a lawnmower engine, and the perpetual smell of gasoline in his garage bay was a giddy miasma of peril and possibility. We raced the cart down the longest, steepest street in our neighborhood and filmed it using the slow-motion button on my dad’s movie camera. We launched bottle rockets from our own hands, our pink and unprotected fingers clutching the wooden stabilizing rod until a hissing shock of sparks carried the rocket away on its whistling trajectory, ending with a bang. We doused model kits in gasoline and ignited them on camera, squirting gas from a spray bottle to lift the flames into clouds of glowing glitter. We poured substances from one test tube to another, mapping the phase space of the chemistry set for colorful, smelly, or pyrotechnic reactions. Once we applied horror-movie makeup and tried to scare our mothers by pretending we’d been in gruesome, face-shredding bike accidents.

Last summer, on another of my visits, Mom called me outside to meet someone, a trim middle-aged man with a friendly smile and a brisk handshake. Irritated, I had no idea who he was. But of course it was Ricky Clark (now “Rick”), grown up like me, our experimental past buried under thirty-odd years of time.

Looking back on our friendship, I see that Ricky and I comprised two polarities of boy culture: the rough-and-tumble daredevil and the creative daydreamer. He built gadgets in his garage while I sketched in my notebook, and when, occasionally, our goals aligned, the results were vital and naive, stupid and clever at the same time. I’m glad we knew each other.

Redshirts, blueshirts

Really enjoying Ina Rae Hark’s BFI TV Classics book on Star Trek. To write it, she watched 700 hours of cumulative Trek, and it shows in her comprehensive and confident discussion of the original series alongside the many spinoffs it spawned. Hark writes as an aca-fan, and her desire to analyze Trek as Trek results in passage after passage of original insights that balance critical readings with a respect for the show’s internal logic:

One choice made by the producers was to divide the specialities represented into three broad categorizations, denoted by the colors of their tunics. The captain, helmsman and navigator wore gold. It denoted command officers, those who directed the course of the ship and deployed its assets, such as phasers, photon torpedoes and tractor beams. Blue was the color of the science specialists, including the medical staff. Although Spock served as both the ship’s science officer and its first officer, his primary allegiance to enquiry and research was indicated by the face that his tunic was blue and not gold. If the blues gathered and analyzed data for the golds to base command decisions upon, everything that allowed the ship to do what it was commanded to do fell to the hands-on crew in red, who kept the engines and ship’s systems humming, enabled communications, performed secretarial duties and provided security. (These duties would be grouped under the rubric of ‘operations’ in TNG and the colors for command and operations would be reversed in the twenty-fourth century spinoffs.) (11)

Her dissection of the tropes that spanned the original series’ seventy-nine episodes, such as the insistent carnality of its vision of embodied subjectivity and corresponding distrust of the purified, decorporealized superintellect — a binary we currently apprehend through narratives of the singularity and transhuman consciousness — blows dust off an old franchise, leaving me eager to rewatch episodes. I’m halfway through her section on The Next Generation and enjoying myself.

Category confusion

Picture it: three men on a plane, ranged unluckily in the same row of seats: a chance adjacency we each interpreted as punishment by the fates. To my right in the window seat, a college student slouching in sweatpants, about the same size as me (6 foot three, two hundred and twenty-ish pounds) but with a dense muscularity, a neutron-star version of my slack and dissipated forty-five-year-old self. To my left, a rotund gentleman my age or a little older. As I maneuvered past him to take my place in the middle seat, he said with a combination of apology and accomplishment, “I lost 100 pounds, now I’m working on the next 100.”

I rarely find myself in the goldilocks zone, but there I was, sandwiched between a smaller and a larger version of myself. All of us wedging shoulders uncomfortably for the two-hour flight from Atlanta to Detroit.

But more interesting than the cramps I courteously self-inflicted holding myself in a polite pretzel, a pacifying topographic adaptation to the shape envelopes of my flanking neighbors, was the way for the first time I was tricked by new media. An iPad picked the pocket of my imaginary.

To the left, big neighbor read his big novel, a heavy brick of paper. To the right, college student played his PSP. I in the middle read The Passage, by Justin Cronin, on my iPad. A bell gonged, the pilot said we were on approach to DTW, the flight attendant told us to turn off our electronic devices. The PSP got put away, The print novel didn’t. And my iPad? It stayed open throughout the landing; it wasn’t until we touched down that I realized, with a guilty start, that I had forgotten it was an electronic device at all.

Ebooks and ereading are not natural to me: they have felt unpleasantly frictionless and inherently duplicitous in their mimicry of an ontologically distinct media experience. But today something changed; the contents of my mind shifted during travel, and I accepted the iPad into that group of personal technologies I pay the high compliment of naturalizing by forgetting they are technologies in the first place.