Revisiting the virtual courtyard

Longtime readers of this blog (and I take it on faith that there are one or two of you out there) will know that I am obsessed with the clumsy sublime, Laura Mulvey’s term for the accidental beauty of old-school special effects in classical Hollywood — studio tricks and machinations meant to pass unnoticed in their time, but which become visible and available for fresh appreciation as years go by and the state of the art evolves.

The same reader(s) will be familiar with my interest in virtual spaces and more specifically with the “pocket universes” of storyworlds and certain photographic experiments, such as the one featured in this post on the 2008 Republican National Convention. Well, now I’ve found a new toy to think with: this lovely virtualization of the courtyard in Rear Window (1954), digitally stitched together to recreate not just the large and elaborate studio set on which Alfred Hitchcock filmed the tale of L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart), whose immobilization by broken leg unlocks a visual mobility in which he scans through binoculars the social (and as it turns out, criminal) microcosm of the neighbors in his apartment complex. Here’s the video:

Within this composited space, part Holodeck, part advent calendar, the action of the movie unfolds with new seamlessness and unity, time’s passage marked by sunrises and sunsets, clouds rippling overhead, the moon rising on its nighttime trajectory as the small community bustles through an overlapping ballet of the quotidian. In the middle of it all, a harried husband builds to a murderous rage, disposes of a body, is investigated by Grace Kelly sneaking in from a fire escape.

One of Hitchcock’s undisputed masterpieces, Rear Window is also the go-to example in introductory film courses to illustrate voyeurism, scopophilia, and the cinematic apparatus — a raft of abstract yet efficacious concepts that come out of the “grand theory” tradition of film studies, themselves subject, perhaps, to their own form of clumsy sublimation. I wonder how we might update those ideas in an era of computational revisitation and transformation, in which the half-built, half-imagined territories of classical cinema can be unfolded into digital origami that simultaneously make them more “real” while rendering apparent their intricate artificiality, recoding cinema’s dreamspaces into simulacral form.

We Have Never Been Digital: CGI as the New “Clumsy Sublime”

In his essay “Before and After Right Now: Sequels in the Digital Era,” Nicholas Rombes gives an example of the troubling way that CGI has eroded our trust in visual reality. Citing the work of Lola Visual Effects to digitally “youthen” the lead actors in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, Rombes cites a line from the effects house’s website: “Our work has far-reaching implications from extending an actor’s career for one more sequel to overall success at the box of?ce. We allow actors and studios to create one more blockbuster sequel (with the actor’s fan base) by making the actor look as good (or better) than they did in their ?rst movie.” Rombes responds: “What is there to say about such a brash and unapologetic thing as this statement? The statement was not written by Aldous Huxley, nor was it a darkly funny dystopian story by George Saunders. This is a real, true, and sincere statement by a company that digitally alters the faces and bodies of the actors we see on the screen, a special effect so seamless, so natural that its very surrealism lies in the fact that it disguises itself as reality.”

Before we adjudicate Rombes’s claim, we might as a thought experiment try to imagine the position from which his assertion can be made – the nested conditionals that make such a response plausible in the first place. If a spectator encounters X-Men: The Last Stand without prior knowledge of any kind, including the likelihood that such a film will employ visual trickery; if he or she is unaware of the overarching careers, actual ages, and established physiognomies of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan; and perhaps most importantly if that viewer cannot spot digital airbrushing that even now, a scant six years later, looks like a heavy coat of pancake makeup and hair dye, then perhaps we can accept Rombes’s accusation of hubris on the part of the visual-effects house. On the other hand, how do we explain the larger incongruity in which Rombes premises his critique of the “seamless … natural” and thus presumably unnoticeable manipulation on a widely-available text, part of Lola’s self-marketing, that highlights its own accomplishment? In short, how can a digital effect be simultaneously a surreptitious lie in one register and a trumpeted achievement in another? Is this characterization not itself an example of misdirection, the impossible masquerading as the possible, a kind of rhetorical special effect?

The truth is that Rombes’s statement in all its dudgeon, from an otherwise astute observer of cinema in the age of digital technologies, suggests something of the problem faced by film and media studies in relation to contemporary special effects. We might describe it as a problem of blind spots, of failing to see what is right before our eyes. For it is both an irony and a pressing concern for theoretical analysis that special effects through their very visibility – a visibility achieved both in their immediate appearance, where they summon the powers of cleverly-wrought illusion to create convincing displays of fantasy, and in their public afterlife, where they replicate and spread through the circulatory flows of paratexts and replay culture – lull the critical gaze into selective inattention, foregrounding one set of questions while encouraging others to slip from view.

By hailing CGI and the digital mode of production it emblematizes as a decisive break with the practices that preceded it, Rombes acquiesces to the terms on which special effects have always – even in predigital times – offered themselves through From the starting point of what Sean Cubitt calls “the rhetoric of the unprecedented,” such scholarship can only unfold an analysis whose polarities, whether celebratory or condemnatory, mark but one axis of debate among the many opportunities special effects provide to reassess the changing nature of textuality, storytelling, authorship, genre, and performance in the contemporary mediascape. A far-ranging conversation, in other words, is shut down in favor of a single set of concerns, organized with suspicious tidiness around a (rather abstract) distinction between truth and falsehood. This distinction structures debates about special effects’ “spectacular” versus “invisible” qualities; their “success” or “failure” as illusions; their “indexicality” or lack of it; and their “naturalness” versus their “artificiality.” I mean to suggest not that such issues are irrelevant to the theorization of special effects, but that their ossification into a default academic discourse has created over time the impression that special effects are only about such matters as “seamless … disguise.”

Perniciously, by responding to CGI in this way, special-effects scholarship participates in the ongoing production of a larger episteme, “the digital,” along with its constitutive other, “the analog.” Although it is certainly true that the underlying technologies of special-effects design and manufacture, like those of the larger film, television, and video game industries in which such practices are embedded, have been comprehensively augmented and in many instances replaced outright by digital tools, the precise path and timing by which this occurred are nowhere near as clean or complete as the binary “analog/digital” makes them sound. In point of fact, CG effects, so often treated as proof-in-the-pudding of cinema’s digital makeover, not only borrowed their form from the practices and priorities of their analog ancestry, but preserve that past in a continued dependence on analog techniques that ride within their digital shell like chromosomal genetic structures. In a narrowly localized sense, digital effects may be the final product, but they emerge from, and feed in turn, complex mixtures of past and present technologies.

Our neglect of this hybridity and the counternarrative to digital succession it provides is fueled more than anything else by a refusal to engage with historical change – indeed, to engage with the very fact of history as a record of incremental and uneven development. Consider the way in which Rombes’s charge against CGI rehearses almost exactly the terms of Stephen Prince’s influential essay “True Lies: Perceptual Realism: Digital Images, and Film Theory.” “What is new and revolutionary about digital imaging,” Prince wrote, “is that it increases to an extraordinary degree a filmmaker’s control over the informational cues that establish perceptual realism. Unreal images have never before seemed so real.” (34) Prince’s claim about the “extraordinary” nature of digital effects was written in 1996 and refers to movies such as The Abyss (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), and Forrest Gump (1994), all of which featured CG effects alleged to be photorealistic to the point of undetectability. Rombes, writing in 2010, bases his claim about digital effects’ seduction of reality on the tricks in a film released in 1996. “What happens,” Rombes asks, “when we create a realism that outstrips the detail of reality itself, when we achieve and then go beyond a one-to-one correspondence with the real world?” (201) The answer, of course, is that one more special effect has been created from the technological capabilities and stylistic sensibilities of its time: capabilities and sensibilities that may appear transparent in the moment, but whose manufacture quickly becomes apparent as the imaging norm evolves. If digital effects are as subject to aging as any other sort of special effects, then concerns about the threat they pose to reality become empty alarms, destined to be viewed with amusement, if not ridicule, by future generations of film theorists.

The key to dissolving the impasse at which theories of digital visual effects find themselves lies in restoring to all special effects a temporality and interconnectedness to other layers of film and media culture. The first step lies in acknowledging that special effects are always undergoing change; the state of the art is a moving target. Laura Mulvey’s term for this process is the “clumsy sublime.” She refers to the use of process shots in classical Hollywood to rear-project footage behind actors – effects intended to pass unnoticed in their time, but which now leap out at us precisely in their clumsiness, their detectability.

The lesson we should take from this is not that some more lasting “breakthrough” in special effects waits around the corner, but that the very concept of the breakthrough is structured into state-of-the-art special effects as a lure for the imagination of spectators and theorists alike. The danger is not of realer-than-real digital effects, but our overconfidence in critically assessing objects that are predicated on misdirection and the promise of conquered frontiers – and our mistaken assumption that we as scholars see these processes more objectively or accurately than prior generations. In this sense, special-effects scholarship performs the very susceptibility of which it accuses contemporary audiences, accepting as fact the paradigm-shifting superiority of digital effects, rather than seeing that impression of superiority as itself a byproduct of special-effects discourse.

In this way, current scholarship imports a version of spectatorship from classical apparatus theory of the 1970s, along with a 70s-era conception of the extent and limit of the standard feature film text. Both are holdovers of an earlier period of theorizing the film text and its impact on the viewer, and are jarringly out of date when applied to contemporary media, in their cycles of replay and convergence which break texts apart and combine them in new ways, as well as to the audience, which navigates these swarming texts according to their own interests, their own “philias.” The use of obsolete models to describe special effects is all the more ironic for the appeals such models make to a transcendent “new.” The notion that the digital, as emblematized by CGI, represents a qualitative redrafting of cinema’s indexical contract with audiences, holds up only under the most restrictive possible picture of spectatorship: it imagines special effects as taking place in a singular, timeless instant of encounter with a viewer who has only two options, accepting the special effect as unmediated event or rejecting it as artifice. That special-effects theory from Andre Bazin and Christian Metz onward has allowed for bifurcated consciousness on the part of the viewer is, in the era of CGI, set aside for accounts of special effects that force them into a real/unreal binary. The digital effect and its implied spectator are trapped in a synchronic isolation from which it is impossible to imagine any other way to conceptualize the work of special effects outside the moment of their projection. Even accounts of special effects’ semiosis, like Dan North’s, that foreground their composite nature; their role in the genres of science fiction (Vivian Sobchack), the action blockbuster (Geoff King), or Aristotelian narrative (Shilo McClean), only scratch the surface of the complex objects special effects actually are.

What really changes in the clumsy sublime is not the special effect but our perception of it, an interpretation produced not through Stephen Prince’s perceptual cues, Scott Bukatman’s kinesthetic immersion in an artificial sublime, or Tom Gunning’s appeal of the attraction – though all three may indeed be factors in the first moment of seeing the effect – but by a more complex and longitudinal process involving conscious and unconscious comparisons to other, similar effects; repeated exposure to and scrutiny of special effects; behind-the-scenes breakdowns of how the effect was produced; and commentaries and reactions from fans. Within this matrix of evaluation, the visibility or invisibility, that is to say the “quality,” of special effects, is not a fixed attribute, but a blackboxed output of the viewer, the viewing situation, and the special effect’s enunciatory context in a langue of filmic manipulation.

According to the standard narrative, some special effects hide, while others are meant to be seen. Wire removal and other forms of “retouching” modify in subtle ways an image that is otherwise meant to pass as untampered recording of profilmic reality, events that actually occurred as they seem to onscreen. “Invisible” effects perform a double erasure, modifying images while keeping that modifying activity out of consciousness, like someone erasing their own footsteps with a broom as they walk through snow. So-called “visible” special effects, by contrast, are intended to be noticed as the production of exceptional technique, capitalizing on their own impossibility and our tacit knowledge that events on screen never took place in the way they appear to. The settings of future and fantasy worlds, objects, vehicles, and performers and their actions are common examples of visible special effects.

This much we have long agreed on; the distinction goes back at least as far as Metz, who in “Trucage and the Film” proposed a taxonomy of special effects broad enough to include wipes, fades, and other transitions as acts of optical trickery not ordinarily considered as such. Several things complicate the visible/invisible distinction, however. Special effects work is explored in publications and in home-video extras, dissected by fans, and employed in marketing appeals. These paratextual forces, which extend beyond the frame and the moment of viewing, tend inexorably to tip all effects work eventually into the category of “visible.” But the ongoing generation of a clumsy sublime reveals a more pervasive process at work: the passage of time, which steadily works to open a gap between a special effect’s intended and actual impact. Dating is key to dislodging reductive accounts of special effects’ operations. The clumsy sublime is a succinctly profound insight into the way that film trickery can shift over time to become visible in itself as a class of techniques to be evaluated and admired, opening up discussions about special effects beyond the binary of convincing/unconvincing that has hamstrung so many conversations about them.

If today’s digital special effects can age and become obsolete – and there is no reason to think they cannot – then this undermines the idea that there is some objective measure of their quality; “better” and “worse” become purely relational terms. It also raises the prospect that the digital itself is more an idea than an actual practice: a perception we hold – or a fantasy we share – about the capabilities of cinema and related entertainments. The old distinction that held during the analog era, between practical and optical effects, constituted a kind of digital avant la lettre; practical effects, performed live before the camera, were considered “real,” while optical effects, created in post-production, were “virtual.” The coming of CGI has remapped those categories, making binaries into bedfellows by collapsing practical and optical into one primitive catchall, the “analog,” defined against its contemporary other, the “digital.” Amid such lexical slippages and epistemic revisions, current scholarship is insufficiently reflexive about apprehending the special effect. We have been too quick to get caught up in and restate the terms – Philip Rosen calls it “the rhetoric of the forecast” – by which special effects discursively promote themselves. In studying illusion, we risk contributing to another, larger set of illusions about cinematic essence.

What is revealed, then, by stepping out of our blind spot to survey special effects across the full range of their operations and lifespans? First, we see that special effects are profoundly composite in nature, marrying together elements from different times and spaces. But the full implications of this have not been examined. Individual frames are indeed composites of many separate elements, but viewed diachronically, special effects are also composited into the flow of the film – live-action intercut with special effects shots as well as special effects embedded within the frame. This dilutes our ability to quarantine special effects to particular moments; we can speak of “special-effects films” or “special-effects sequences,” but what percentage of the film or sequence consists of special effects, and in what combination? Consider how such concerns shape our labeling of a given movie as a “digital effects” film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Matrix (1999) each contained only a few minutes of shots in which CG elements played a part, while the rest of their special effects were produced by old-school techniques such as animatronics and prosthetics. Yet we do not call these movies “animatronics films” or “prosthetics films.” The sliding of the signified of the film under the signifier of the digital suggests that, when it comes to special effects, we follow a technicist variation of the “one-drop rule,” where the slightest collusion of computers is an excuse to treat the whole film a digital artifact.

What, then, is the actual “other” to indexicality posed by special effects, digital and analog alike? It is insufficient simply to label it the “nonindexical”; in slapping this equivalent of “here there be dragons” on the terra incognita at the edge of our map’s knowability, we have not answered the question but avoided it. The truth is that all special effects, even digital ones, are indexical to something; they can all, in a certain sense, be “sourced” to the real world and real historical moments. If nothing else, they are records of moments in the evolution of imaging, and because this evolution is driven not only by technology but by style, it is always changing without destination. (As Roland Barthes observes, the fashion system has no end.) Digital special effects record the expressions of historically specific configurations of software and hardware just as, in the past, analog special effects recorded physical arrangements of miniatures and paintings on glass. Nowadays, with all analog effects retroactively rendered “real” by the digital, even processes such as optical printing and traveling mattes have come to bear their own indexical authenticity, just as film grain and lens flares record specifics of optics and celluloid stock. But the indexical stamp of special effects goes deeper than their manufacture. Visible within them are design histories and influences, congealed into the object of the special effect and frozen there, but available for unpacking, comparison, fetishization, and emulation by audiences increasingly organized around the collective intelligence of fandom. Furthermore, because of the unique nature of special effects (that is, as “special” processes celebrated in themselves), materials can frequently be found which document the effect’s manufacture, and in many cases – preproduction art, maquettes, diagrams – themselves represent evolutionary stages of the special effect.

Every movie, by virtue of residing inside a rationalized industrial system, sits atop a monument of planning and paperwork. In films that are heavy on design and special effects, this paperwork takes on archival significance, becoming technical archeologies of manufacture. Our understanding of what a special effect is must begin by including these stages as part of its history – the creative and technological paths from which it emerged. We recognize that what we see on screen is only a surface trace of much larger underlying processes: the very phenomenon of making-of supposes there is always more to the (industrial) story.

Following this logic, we see that special effects, even digital ones, do not consist of merely the finished, final output on film, but a messy archive of materials: the separate elements used to film them and the design history recorded in documents such as concept art and animatics. Special effects leave paratextual trails like comets. It is only because of these trails that behind-the-scenes materials exist at all; it is what we look at when we go behind the scenes. Furthermore, we see that special effects, once “finished,” themselves become links in chains of textual and paratextual influence. It is not just that shots and scenes provide inspiration for can-you-top-this performances of newer effects, but that, in the amateur filmmaking environments of YouTube and “basementwood,” effects are copied, emulated, downgraded, upgraded, spun, and parodied – each action carrying the effect to a new location while rendering it, through replication, more pervasive in the mediascape. Special effects, like genre, cannot be copyrighted; they represent a domain of audiovisual replication that follows its own rules, both fast-moving and possessed of the film nerd/connoisseur’s long-tail memory. Special effects originate iconographies in which auras of authorship, collections of technical fact, artistic influences, teleologies of progress/obsolescence, franchise branding, and hyperdiegetic content coexist with the ostensible narrative in which the special effect is immediately framed. These additional histories blossom outward from our most celebrated and remembered special effects; in fact, it is the celebration and remembering that keeps the histories alive and developing.

All of this contributes to what Barbara Klinger has called the “textual diachronics” of a film’s afterlife: an afterlife which, given its proportional edge over the brief run of film exhibition, can more frankly be said to constitute its life. Special effects thus mark not the erasure of indexicality but a gold mine of knowledge for those who would study media evolution. Special effects carry information and behave in ways that go well beyond their enframement within individual stories, film properties, or even franchises. Special effects are remarkably complex objects in themselves: their engineering, their semiotic freight, their cultural appropriation, their media “travel,” their hyperdiegetic contribution.

What seems odd is that while one branch of media studies is shifting inexorably toward models of complexity and diffusion, travel and convergence, multiplicity and contradiction, the study of special effects still grapples with its objects as ingredients of an older conception of film: the two-hour self-contained text. What additional and unsuspected functions lurk in the “excess” so commonly attributed to prolonged displays of special effects? Within the domains of franchise, transmedia storytelling, and intertextuality, the fragmentation of texts and their subsequent recontainment within large-scale franchise operations makes it all the more imperative to find patterns of cluster and travel in the new mediascape, along with newly precise understandings of the individuals/audiences who drive the flow and give it meaning.

To say that CG effects have become coextensive with filmmaking is not to dismiss contemporary film as digital simulacrum but to embrace both “digital effects” and “film” as intricate, multilayered, describable, theorizable processes. To insist on the big-screened, passively immersed experience of special effects as their defining mode of reception is to ignore all the ways in which small screens, replays, and paratextual encounters open out this aspect of film culture, both as diegetic and technological engagement. To insist that special effects are mere denizens of the finished film frame is to ignore all the other phases in which they exist. And to associate them only with the optical regime of the cinematic apparatus (expressed through the hypnotic undecidable of real/false, analog/digital) is to ignore the ways in which they spread to and among other media.

The argument I have outlined in this essay suggests a more comprehensive way of conceptualizing special effects in the digital era, seeing them not just as enhancements of a mystificatory apparatus but as active agents in a busy, brightly-lit, fully conscious mediascape. In this positivist approach, digital effects contribute to the stabilizing and growth of massive fantastic-media franchises and the generation of new texts (indeed, of the concept of “new” itself). In all of these respects, digital special effects go beyond the moment of the screen that has been their primary focus of study, to become something more than meets the eye.

William Cameron Menzies and the Clumsy Sublime

This is a paper I wrote for the SCMS 2011 Confererence, which took place last March in New Orleans. A family emergency prevented me from attending, so my colleague and good friend Chris Dumas — who organized our panel on Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942) — kindly gave the presentation in my absence. The essay’s full title, too long for this blog, is ” ‘Each of Us Live in Multiple Worlds’: William Cameron Menzies and In/Visible Production Design Between Classical and Digital Hollywood.”


1: A Not-So-Clumsy Sublime

As a student of special effects, the first time I saw Kings Row my attention was drawn inevitably to those points in the movie where artifice tips its hand: animated lightning bolts superimposed against a stormy sky; a miniature train passing between the camera and what appears to be rear-projected footage; and most of all the backdrops that pervade the film – painted cycloramas of rolling, pastoral hills, the roof lines of houses and mills, vast skies piled with billowing clouds.

Such moments, which are vital not just to establishing the town of Kings Row as narrative space but to mapping the idyllic and nightmarish polarities of Kings Row as cinematic experience, form an inextricable part of the film’s texture. In that they also mark interventions by studio trickery, they also document the operations of classical Hollywood during a key period in the development of its illusionistic powers, when emerging articulations among shooting script, art direction, and visualization technologies – choreographed by a new managerial category, the production designer – set the industry on a path that would lead, some seventy years later, to the immersive digital worlds of contemporary blockbuster franchises.

Writing about the use of rear-projection in classical Hollywood, Laura Mulvey has coined the term clumsy sublime to refer to that weird subset of screen imagery in which a cost-saving measure – in her example, filming actors against previously-captured footage – results in a burst of visual incongruity whose “artificiality and glaring implausibility” in relation to the shots that bracket it invites a different kind of scrutiny from the spectator.[1] There is an echo here of Tom Gunning’s famous formulation of the early-cinema “attraction,” which presents itself to appreciative viewers as a startling sensorial display,[2] but Mulvey’s point is that rear projection was rarely intended to be noticed in its time; it only “seems in hindsight like an aesthetic emblem of the bygone studio era.”[3] Like the attraction, the clumsy sublime destabilizes our ontological assumptions about how the image was made (indeed, its impact stems largely from our sudden awareness that the image was manufactured in the first place). But where Gunning argues that contemporary, spectacular special effects carry on the highly self-conscious work of what he calls the “tamed attraction,” the clumsy sublime suggests a more contingent and even contentious relationship to cinema’s techniques of trompe l’oeil, in which illusions originally meant as misdirective sleight-of-hand acquire with age their own aura of movie magic.

Looking at Kings Row as a special-effects film, then, invites us to redraw the borders between visible and invisible special effects – those meant to be noticed as spectacles in themselves and those meant to pass as seamless threads in the narrative fabric – and to consider the degree to which such an apparently obvious distinction, like those that once applied to practical versus optical effects, and which now separate analog from digital modes of production, flows not from some innate property of the artifact but from the cultural and industrial discourses that frame our understanding of film artifice itself.


2: William Cameron Menzies and the Visualization of Kings Row

As David Bordwell observes in his blog post “One Forceful, Impressive Idea,” William Cameron Menzies was a pivotal figure in the evolution of film design.[4] After rising to prominence as an art director during the 1920s, he coordinated key sequences of Gone with the Wind, where he originated the title of production designer. Menzies’s detailed breakdowns of each shot, in addition to demonstrating his particular expressionist tendencies (strong diagonals, stark lighting contrasts, forced-perspective settings, and dramatically high or low camera angles), embodied a newly integrative philosophy of composing for the frame. Just as Menzies was an interstitial figure in whom were subsumed those functions of the director and cinematographer having to do with conceiving shots and scenery in dialogue with each other, his sketches and drawings embedded within themselves multiple phases of film manufacture, designating, in addition to set design and actor blocking, “the camera’s viewpoint, the lens used, and any trick effects.”[5] In this way, the first mature storyboards blurred temporal and technological lines between practical and optical special effects, pre- and post-production, while Menzies himself complicated auteurist assumptions about cinematic authorship, leaving his distinctive signature on the movies in which he played the greatest role behind the scenes – in Bordwell’s description, “abduct[ing] these films from their named directors.”[6]

This seems to have been especially true of Sam Wood, whose three-year, five-film partnership with Menzies included Our Town (1940) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Kings Row, while neither as lyrical as the former nor as blunt as the latter, represents a more restrained and oblique application of Menzies’s skills, eschewing obvious flourishes in favor of a more controlled approach in which the most elaborate manipulations of time and space are snugly folded into the narrative fabric. Consider, for example, the opening moments: a horse-drawn wagon, silhouetted against a characteristically sky-dominated frame, crosses the prairie as the opening credits play. As the wagon crosses between the camera and a sign reading Kings Row, there is a cut, taking us from footage shot on location to a backlot setting. A rightward tracking shot continues the motion, bringing into view an elementary school from which children emerge, including young versions of protagonists Parris Mitchell, Drake McHugh, and Cassie Tower. The soundtrack’s singing voices hover somewhere between the diegetic and nondiegetic, paralleled by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score, evoking the happy play of children while foreshadowing the psychoanalytic themes of the rest of the film.

The efficient encapsulation of plot information, so typical of classical Hollywood narration, is here conveyed through what is essentially a virtual shot stitched together from “real” and “artificial” elements, prefiguring the digitally-assisted establishing shots now commonplace in cinema.

An even more complex assemblage occurs later in the film, as Parris departs to begin his studies abroad. From a long shot of Drake, Parris, and Randy Monaghan on the platform, we cut to a different angle on the same scene, the image degraded and grainy in a way that suggests second-generation footage. Echoing the earlier left-to-right motion of the wagon, a train sweeps into the frame, its miniature status given away by the lack of focus on the foreground element. As the train slides past, a carefully-timed wipe shifts us back to a medium closeup of Randy and Drake. A shot-reverse-shot series shows Parris waving goodbye as the train carries him around the bend, the painted backdrop of the mill in the distance.

Elegant for their era, both of these brief passages presumably passed unnoticed by their initial audience, but with the passage of time, their sleight-of-hand has become more evident, constituting new nodes of fascination in a film text that is also – like all movies, but especially those that depend on special effects – indexical evidence of its own manufacture.

Perhaps the most eloquent of Menzies’s contributions to Kings Row are the cycloramas that pepper the film, lending it a painterly, faintly uncanny air. This feeling is present in the town’s train yard as well as its flowery fields, framing the actors in front of them in a theatrical amber similar to that which Mulvey ascribes to rear projection:

Performances … tend to become self-conscious, vulnerable, transparent. The actors can seem almost immobilized, as if they are in a tableau vivant, paradoxically at the very moment in the film when there is a fictional high point of speed, mobility, or dramatic incident.[7]

But in Kings Row the effect of the painted backdrops is different: less of an interruption, more in synch with the story’s themes. The town of Kings Row is, after all, a kind of beautiful trap, nurturing its children only to imprison them like drawings in a storybook, and beneath the pastoral languor of its more innocent vistas run undercurrents of the poisonous, narcotic, or – to adopt the film’s medicinal metaphor for its sadistic counterforces – anesthetic.

Oppositions between innocence and corruption, the sublime and the malign, that shape the film’s darker turns (Cassie’s madness, Dr. Tower’s murder-suicide, the double castration of Drake’s bankruptcy and amputation) are most evident in the shifting portrayal of its most important site, the fence line running along the Mitchell property – a space of transition whose markings of studio artifice reinforce, rather than dilute, its metamorphic extremes.

3. Building Better Screen Worlds, Then and Now

The productions for which William Cameron Menzies is perhaps most remembered are his two forays into science fiction: Things to Come (1936) and Invaders from Mars (1953), whose (admittedly very different) deployments of SF iconography enabled him to indulge his penchant for striking visual invention. His industrial legacy bears out this genetic pairing of strong, centrally-organized production design and the genres of science fiction and fantasy, whose storyworlds tend to be built from the ground up, and whose product differentiation in terms of franchise potential require the creation of distinct brand identities, recognizable by consumers and defensible by the intellectual-property law that polices a minimum necessary distance between, say, the stylistic universes of Star Wars and Star Trek, or between Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. The tools available to Menzies in crafting his worlds can be traced to the Special Effects Department at Warner Brothers, where artist-technicians such as Hans Koenekamp, Byron Haskin, and the effects supervisor for Kings Row, Robert Burks, worked on countless films from the 1920s to the 1960s.[8] Their glass shots and matte paintings – as well as their practical effects work such as the creation of wind, lightning, and other environmental effects – have their contemporary counterpart in the digital set extensions and CGI elements whose near-ubiquity says less about the inventiveness of our current screen wizardry than about its vastly increased speed and efficiency.

The classical and analog roots of digital modes of production remain relatively unexcavated in modern special-effects scholarship, whose coherence as a subdiscipline of film and media studies began with the advent of computers as all-purpose filmmaking tools and fixture of the popular imagination in the late 1990s. But as CGI performs one type of spectacular labor though its monsters, explosions, and spaceships while distracting us from its more quotidian augmentations of mise-en-scène, critical film theory stands to benefit from considering the present era’s counterintuitive linkages to the golden age of Hollywood, which foregrounded smooth verisimilitude through an equally intricate web of technological trickery.

The clumsy sublime, product of a time-based calculus of spectatorship and a shifting state of the art, is an important tool in this critique, in part because it enables new readings of familiar film texts. Seen through the lenses of technology and style that special-effects history provides, a film like Kings Row seems less like a dated artifact than a predictor of the present. For just as its narrative, set at the end of the 19th century and dawn of the 20th, stages on a manifest level the birth of psychoanalysis, its production stages in latent terms the emergence of a filmic apparatus for the production of expressive screen worlds.

[1] Laura Mulvey, “A Clumsy Sublime,” Film Quarterly 60.3 (2007).

[2] Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative (Ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: BFI, 1990), 56-62.

[3] Mulvey, “A Clumsy Sublime.” Emphasis added.

[4] David Bordwell, “One Forceful, Impressive Idea,” (accessed March 1, 2011).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mulvey, “A Clumsy Sublime.”

[8] Peter Cook, “Warner Bros. Presents … A Salute to the Versatility and Ingenuity of Stage 5: Warner’s Golden Era Effects Department,” (accessed February 25, 2011).


Tron: Legacy

This review is dedicated to my friends David Surman and Will Brooker.

Part One: We Have Never Been Digital


If Avatar was in fact the “gamechanger” its prosyletizers claimed, then it’s fitting that the first film to surpass it is itself about games, gamers, and gaming. Arriving in theaters nearly a year to the day after Cameron’s florid epic, Tron: Legacy delivers on the promise of an expanded blockbuster cinema while paradoxically returning it to its origins.

Those origins, of course, date back to 1982, when the first Tron — brainchild of Steven Lisberger, who more and more appears to be the Harper Lee of pop SF, responsible for a single inspired act of creation whose continued cultural resonance probably doomed any hope of a career — showed us what CGI was really about. I refer not to the actual computer-generated content in that film, whose 96-minute running time contains only 15-20 minutes of CG animation (the majority of the footage was achieved through live-action plates shot in high contrast, heavily rotoscoped, and backlit to insert glowing circuit paths into the environment and costumes), but instead to the discursive aura of the digital frontier it emits: another sexy, if equally illusory, glow. Tron was the first narrative feature film to serve up “the digital” as a governing design aesthetic as well as a marketing gimmick. Sold as high-tech entertainment event, audiences accepted Lisberger’s folly as precisely that: a time capsule from the future, coming attraction as main event. Tron taught us, in short, to mistake a hodgepodge of experiment and tradition as a more sweeping change in cinematic ontology, a spell we remain under to this day.

But the state of the art has always been a makeshift pact between industry and audience, a happy trance of “I know, but even so …” For all that it hinges on a powerful impression of newness, the self-applied declaration of vanguard status is, ironically, old hat in filmmaking, especially when it comes to the periodic eruptions of epic spectacle that punctuate cinema’s more-of-the-same equilibrium. The mutations of style and technology that mark film’s evolutionary leaps are impossible to miss, given how insistently they are promoted: go to YouTube and look at any given Cecil B. DeMille trailer if you don’t believe me. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen!” may be an irresistible hook (at least to advertisers), but it’s rarely true, if only because trailers, commercials, and other advance paratexts ensure we’ve looked at, or at least heard about, the breakthrough long before we purchase our tickets.

In the case of past breakthroughs, the situation becomes even more vexed. What do you do with a film like Tron, which certainly was cutting-edge at the time of its release, but which, over the intervening twenty-eight years, has taken on an altogether different veneer? I was 16 when I first saw it, and have frequently shown its most famous setpiece — the lightcycle chase — in courses I teach on animation and videogames. As a teenager, I found the film dreadfully inert and obvious, and rewatching it to prepare for Tron: Legacy,  I braced myself for a similarly graceless experience. What I found instead was that a magical transformation had occurred. Sure, the storytelling was as clumsy as before, with exposition that somehow managed to be both overwritten and underexplained, and performances that were probably half-decent before an editor diced them them into novocained amateurism. The visuals, however, had aged into something rather beautiful.

Not the CG scenes — I’d looked at those often enough to stay in touch with their primitive retrogame charm. I’m referring to the live-action scenes, or rather, the suturing of live action and animation that stands in for computer space whenever the camera moves close enough to resolve human features. In these shots, the faces of Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Sark (David Warner), and the film’s other digital denizens are ovals of flickering black-and-white grain, their moving lips and darting eyes hauntingly human amid the neon cartoonage.

Peering through their windows of backlit animation, Tron‘s closeups resemble those in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc — inspiration for early film theorist Béla Balázs’s lyrical musings on “The Face of Man” — but are closer in spirit to the winking magicians of George Méliès’s trick films, embedded in their phantasmagoria of painted backdrops, double exposures, and superimpositions. Like Lisberger, who would intercut shots of human-scaled action with tanks, lightcycles, and staple-shaped “Recognizers,” Méliès alternated his stagebound performers with vistas of pure artifice, such as animated artwork of trains leaving their tracks to shoot into space. Although Tom Gunning argues convincingly that the early cinema of attractions operated by a distinctive logic in which audiences sought not the closed verisimilar storyworlds of classical Hollywood but the heightened, knowing presentation of magical illusions, narrative frameworks are the sauce that makes the taste of spectacle come alive. Our most successful special effects have always been the ones that — in an act of bistable perception — do double duty as story.

In 1982, the buzzed-about newcomer in our fantasy neighborhoods was CGI, and at least one film that year — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — featured a couple of minutes of computer animation that worked precisely because they were set off from the rest of the movie, as special documentary interlude. Other genre entries in that banner year for SF, like John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing and Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch of E.T. and Poltergeist (the latter as producer and crypto-director), were content to push the limits of traditional effects methods: matte paintings, creature animatronics, gross-out makeup, even a touch of stop-motion animation. Blade Runner‘s effects were so masterfully smoggy that we didn’t know what to make of them — or of the movie, for that matter — but we seemed to agree that they too were old school, no matter how many microprocessors may have played their own crypto-role in the production.

“Old school,” however, is another deceptively relative term, and back then we still thought of special effects as dividing neatly into categories of the practical/profilmic (which really took place in front of the camera) and optical/postproduction (which were inserted later through various forms of manipulation). That all special effects — and all cinematic “truths” — are at heart manipulation was largely ignored; even further from consciousness was the notion that soon we would redefine every “predigital” effect, optical or otherwise, as possessing an indexical authenticity that digital effects, well, don’t. (When, in 1998, George Lucas replaced some of the special-effects shots in his original Star Wars trilogy with CG do-overs, the outrage of many fans suggested that even the “fakest” products of 70’s-era filmmaking had become, like the Velveteen Rabbit, cherished realities over time.)

Tron was our first real inkling that a “new school” was around the corner — a school whose presence and implications became more visible with every much-publicized advance in digital imaging. Ron Cobb’s pristine spaceships in The Last Starfighter (1984); the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); the watery pseudopod in The Abyss (1989); each in its own way raised the bar, until one day — somewhere around the time of Independence Day (1996), according to Michele Pierson — it simply stopped mattering whether a given special effect was digital or analog. In the same way that slang catches on, everything overnight became “CGI.” That newcomer to the neighborhood, the one who had people peering nervously through their drapes at the moving truck, had moved in and changed the suburb completely. Special-effects cinema now operated under a technological form of the one-drop rule: all it took was a dab of CGI to turn the whole thing into a “digital effects movie.” (Certain film scholars regularly use this term to refer to both Titanic [1997] and The Matrix [1999], neither of which employs more than a handful of digitally-assisted shots — many of these involving intricate handoffs from practical miniatures or composited live-action elements.)

Inscribed in each frame of Tron is the idea, if not the actual presence, of the digital; it was the first full-length rehearsal of a special-effects story we’ve been telling ourselves ever since. Viewed today, what stands out about the first film is what an antique and human artifact — an analog artifact — it truly is. The arrival of Tron: Legacy, simultaneously a sequel, update, and reimagining of the original, gives us a chance to engage again with that long-ago state of the art; to appreciate the treadmill evolution of blockbuster cinema, so devoted to change yet so fixed in its aims; and to experience a fresh and vastly more potent vision of what’s around the corner. The unique lure (and trap) of our sophisticated cinematic engines is that they never quite turn that corner, never do more than freeze for an instant, in the guise of its realization, a fantasy of film’s future. In this sense — to rephrase Bruno Latour — we have never been digital.

Part Two: 2,415 Times Smarter


In getting a hold on what Tron: Legacy (hereafter T:L) both is and isn’t, I find myself thinking about a line from its predecessor. Ed Dillinger (David Warner), figurative and literal avatar of the evil corporation Encom, sits in his office — all silver slabs and glass surfaces overlooking the city’s nighttime gridglow, in the cleverest and most sustained of the thematic conceits that run throughout both films: the paralleling, to the point of indistinguishability, of our “real” architectural spaces and the electronic world inside the computer. (Two years ahead of Neuromancer and a full decade before Snow Crash, Tron invented cyberspace.)

Typing on a desk-sized touchscreen keyboard that neatly predates the iPad, Dillinger confers with the Master Control Program or MCP, a growling monitorial application devoted to locking down misbehavior in the electronic world as it extends its own reach ever outward. (The notion of fascist algorithm, policing internal imperfection while growing like a malignancy, is remapped in T:L onto CLU — another once-humble program omnivorously metastasized.) MCP complains that its plans to infiltrate the Pentagon and General Motors will be endangered by the presence of a new and independent security watchdog program, Tron. “This is what I get for using humans,” grumbles MCP, which in terms of human psychology we might well rename OCD with a touch of NCP. “Now wait a minute,” Dillinger counters, “I wrote you.” MCP replies coldly, “I’ve gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.”

The notion that software — synecdoche for the larger bugaboo of technology “itself” — could become smarter on its own, exceeding human intelligence and transcending the petty imperatives of organic morality, is of course the battery that powers any number of science-fiction doomsday scenarios. Over the years, fictionalizations of the emergent cybernetic predator have evolved from single mainframe computers (Colossus: The Forbin Project [1970], WarGames [1983]) to networks and metal monsters (Skynet and its time-traveling assassins in the Terminator franchise) to graphic simulations that run on our own neural wetware, seducing us through our senses (the Matrix series [1999-2003]). The electronic world established in Tron mixes elements of all three stages, adding an element of alternative storybook reality a la Oz, Neverland … or Disneyworld.

Out here in the real world, however, what runs beneath these visions of mechanical apocalypse is something closer to the Technological Singularity warned of by Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, as our movie-making machinery — in particular, the special-effects industry — approaches a point where its powers of simulation merge with its custom-designed, mass-produced dreams and nightmares. That is to say: our technologies of visualization may incubate the very futures we fear, so intimately tied to the futures we desire that it’s impossible to sort one from the other, much less to dictate which outcome we will eventually achieve.

In terms of its graphical sophistication as well as the extended forms of cultural and economic control that have come to constitute a well-engineered blockbuster, Tron: Legacy is at least 2,415 times “smarter” than its 1982 parent, and whatever else we may think of it — whatever interpretive tricks we use to reduce it to and contain it as “just a movie” — it should not escape our attention that the kind of human/machine fusion, not to mention the theme of runaway AI, at play in its narrative are surface manifestations of much more vast and far-reaching transformations: a deep structure of technological evolution whose implications only start with the idea that celluloid art has been taken over by digital spectacle.

The lightning rod for much of the anxiety over the replacement of one medium by another, the myth of film’s imminent extinction, is the synthespian or photorealistic virtual actor, which, following the logic of the preceding paragraphs, is one of Tron: Legacy‘s chief selling points. Its star, Jeff Bridges, plays two roles — the first as Flynn, onetime hotshot hacker, and the second as CLU, his creation and nemesis in the electronic world. Doppelgangers originally, Flynn has aged while CLU remains unchanged, the spitting image of Flynn/Bridges circa 1982.

Except that this image doesn’t really “spit.” It stares, simmers, and smirks; occasionally shouts; knocks things off tables; and does some mean acrobatic stunts. But CLU’s fascinating weirdness is just as evident in stillness as in motion (see the top of this post), for it’s clearly not Jeff Bridges we’re looking at, but a creepy near-miss. Let’s pause for a moment on this question: why a miss at all? Why couldn’t the filmmakers have conjured up a closer approximation, erasing the line between actor and digital double? Nearly ten years after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it seems that CGI should have come farther. After all, the makers of T:L weren’t bound by the aesthetic obstructions that Robert Zemeckis imposed on his recent films, a string of CG waxworks (The Polar Express [2004], Beowulf [2007], A Christmas Carol [2009], and soon — shudder — a Yellow Submarine remake) in which the inescapable wrongness of the motion-captured performances are evidently a conscious embrace of stylization rather than a failed attempt at organic verisimilitude. And if CLU were really intended to convince us, he could have been achieved through the traditional retinue of doubling effects: split-frame mattes, body doubles in clever shot-reverse-shot arrangements, or the combination of these with motion-control cinematography as in the masterful composites of Back to the Future 2, which, made in 1989, is only seven years older than the first Tron.

The answer to the apparent conundrum is this: CLU is supposed to look that way; we are supposed to notice the difference, because the effect wouldn’t be special if we didn’t. The thesis of Dan North’s excellent book Performing Illusions is that no special effect is ever perfect — we can always spot the joins, and the excitement of effects lies in their ceaseless toying with our faculties of suspicion and detection, the interpretation of high-tech dreams. Updating the argument for synthespian performances like CLU’s, we might profitably dispose of the notion that the Uncanny Valley is something to be crossed. Instead, smart special effects set up residence smack-dab in the middle.

Consider by analogy the use of Botox. Is the point of such cosmetic procedures to absolutely disguise the signs of age? Or are they meant to remain forever fractionally detectable as multivalent signifiers — of privilege and wealth, of confident consumption, of caring enough about flaws in appearance to (pretend to) hide them? Here too is evidence of Tron: Legacy’s amplified intelligence, or at least its subtle cleverness: dangling before us a CLU that doesn’t quite pass the visual Turing Test, it simultaneously sells us the diegetically crucial idea of a computer program in the shape of human (which, in fact, it is) and in its apparent failure lulls us into overconfident susceptibility to the film’s larger tapestry of tricks. 2,415 times smarter indeed!

Part Three: The Sea of Simulation


Doubles, of course, have always abounded in the works that constitute the Tron franchise. In the first film, both protagonist (Flynn/Tron) and antagonist (Sark/MCP) exist as pairs, and are duplicated yet again in the diegetic dualism of real world/electronic world. (Interestingly, only MCP seems to lack a human manifestation — though it could be argued that Encom itself fulfills that function, since corporations are legally recognized as people.) And the hall of mirrors keeps on going. Along the axis of time, Tron and Tron: Legacy are like reflections of each other in their structural symmetry. Along the axis of media, Jeff Bridges dominates the winter movie season with performances in both T:L and True Grit, a kind of intertextual cloning. (The Dude doesn’t just abide — he multiplies.)

Amid this rapture of echoes, what matters originality? The critical disdain for Tron: Legacy seems to hinge on three accusations: its incoherent storytelling; its dependence on special effects; and the fact that it’s largely a retread of Tron ’82. I’ll deal with the first two claims below, but on the third count, T:L must surely plead “not guilty by reason of nostalgia.” The Tron ur-text is a tale about entering a world that exists alongside and within our own — indeed, that subtends and structures our reality. Less a narrative of exploration than of introspection, its metaphysics spiral inward to feed off themselves. Given these ouroboros-like dynamics, the sequel inevitably repeats the pattern laid down in the first, carrying viewers back to another embedded experience — that of encountering the first Tron — and inviting us to contrast the two, just as we enjoy comparing Flynn and CLU.

But what about those who, for reasons of age or taste, never saw the first Tron? Certainly Disney made no effort to share the original with us; their decision not to put out a Blu-Ray version, or even rerelease the handsome two-disk 20th anniversary DVD, has led to conspiratorial muttering in the blogosphere about the studio’s coverup of an outdated original, whose visual effects now read as ridiculously primitive. Perhaps this is so. But then again, Disney has fine-tuned the business of selectively withholding their archive, creating rarity and hence demand for even their flimsiest products. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if the strategy of “disappearing” Tron pre-Tron: Legacy were in fact an inspired marketing move, one aimed less at monetary profit than at building discursive capital. What, after all, do fans, cineastes, academics, and other guardians of taste enjoy more than a privileged “I’ve seen it and you haven’t” relationship to a treasured text? Comic-Con has become the modern agora, where the value of geek entertainment items is set for the masses, and carefully coordinated buzz transmutes subcultural fetish into pop-culture hit.

It’s maddeningly circular, I know, to insist that it takes an appreciation of Tron to appreciate Tron: Legacy. But maybe the apparent tautology resolves if we substitute terms of evaluation that don’t have to do with blockbuster cinema. Does it take appreciation of Ozu (or Tarkovsky or Haneke or [insert name here]) to appreciate other films by the same director? Tron: Legacy is not in any classical sense an auteurist work — I couldn’t tell you who directed it without checking IMDb — but who says the brand itself can’t function as an auteur, in the sense that a sensitive reading of it depends on familiarity with tics and tropes specific to the larger body of work? Alternatively, we might think of Tron as sub-brand of a larger industrial genre, the blockbuster, whose outward accessibility belies the increasingly bizarre contours of its experience. With its diffuse boundaries (where does a blockbuster begin and end? — surely not within the running time of a single feature-length movie) and baroque textual patterns (from the convoluted commitments of transmedia continuity to rapidfire editing and slangy shorthands of action pacing), the contemporary blockbuster possesses its own exotic aesthetic, one requiring its own protocols of interpretation, its own kind of training, to properly engage. High concept does not necessarily mean non-complex.

Certainly, watching Tron: Legacy, I realized it must look like visual-effects salad to an eye untrained in sensory overwhelm. I don’t claim to enjoy everything made this way: Speed Racer made me queasy, and Revenge of the Fallen put me into an even deeper sleep than did the first Transformers. T:L, however, is much calmer in its way, perhaps because its governing look — blue, silver, and orange neon against black — keeps the frame-cramming to a minimum. (The post-1983 George Lucas committed no greater sin than deciding to pack every square inch of screen with nattering detail.) Here the sequel’s emulation of Tron‘s graphics is an accidental boon: limited memory and storage led in the original to a reliance on black to fill in screen space, a restriction reinvented in T:L as strikingly distinctive design. Our mad blockbusters may indeed be getting harder to watch and follow. But perhaps we shouldn’t see this as proof of commercially-driven intellectual bankruptcy and inept execution, but as the emergence of a new — and in its way, wonderfully difficult and challenging — mode of popular art.

T:L works for me as a movie not because its screenplay is particularly clever or original, but because it smoothly superimposes two different orders of technological performance. The first layer, contained within the film text, is the synthesis of live action and computer animation that in its intricate layering succeeds in creating a genuinely alternate reality: action-adventure seen through the kino-eye. Avatar attempted this as well, but compared to T:L, Cameron’s fantasia strikes me as disingenuous in its simulationist strategy. The lush green jungles of Pandora and glittering blue skin of the Na’vi are the most organic of surfaces in which CGI could cloak itself: a rendering challenge to be sure, but as deceptively sentimental in its way as a Thomas Kinkade painting. Avatar is the digital performing in “greenface,” sneakily dissembling about its technological core. Tron: Legacy, by contrast, takes as its representational mission simulation itself. Its tapestry of visual effects is thematically and ontologically coterminous with the world of its narrative; it is, for us and for its characters, a sea of simulation.

Many critics have missed this point, insisting that the electronic world the film portrays should have reflected the networked environment of the modern internet. But what T:L enshrines is not cyberspace as the shared social web it has lately become, but the solipsistic arena of first-person combat as we knew it in videogames of the late 1970s. As its plotting makes clear, T:L is at heart about the arcade: an ethos of rastered pyrotechnics and three-lives-for-a-quarter. The adrenaline of its faster scenes and the trances of its slower moments (many of them cued by the silver-haired Flynn’s zen koans) perfectly capture the affective dialectics of cabinet contests like Tempest or Missile Command: at once blazing with fever and stoned on flow.

The second technological performance superimposed on Tron: Legacy is, of course, the exhibition apparatus of IMAX and 3D, inscribed in the film’s planning and execution even for those who catch the print in lesser formats. In this sense, too, T:L advances the milestone planted by Avatar, beacon of an emerging mode of megafilm engineering. It seems the case that every year will see one such standout instance of expanded blockbuster cinema — an event built in equal parts from visual effects and pop-culture archetypes, impossible to predict but plain in retrospect. I like to imagine that these exemplars will tend to appear not in the summer season but at year’s end, as part of our annual rituals of rest and renewal: the passing of the old, the welcoming of the new. Tron: Legacy manages to be about both temporal polarities, the past and the future, at once. That it weaves such a sublime pattern on the loom of razzle-dazzle science fiction is a funny and remarkable thing.


To those who have read to the end of this essay, it’s probably clear that I dug Tron: Legacy, but it may be less clear — in the sense of “twelve words or less” — exactly why. I confess I’m not sure myself; that’s what I’ve tried to work out by writing this. I suppose in summary I would boil it down to this: watching T:L, I felt transported in a way that’s become increasingly rare as I grow older, and the list of movies I’ve seen and re-seen grows ever longer. Once upon a time, this act of transport happened automatically, without my even trying; I stumbled into the rabbit-holes of film fantasy with the ease of … well, I’ll let Laurie Anderson have the final words.

I wanted you. And I was looking for you.
But I couldn’t find you.
I wanted you. And I was looking for you all day.
But I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t find you.

You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time.

The “Clumsy Sublime” of Videogames

To anyone interested in how old image technologies date, I highly recommend Laura Mulvey’s short essay in the Spring 2007 Film Quarterly (Vol. 60, No. 3, Pages 3-3) entitled “A Clumsy Sublime.” (The link is here, but you may need special privileges to access it; I’m writing this post in my office, from whose campus-tied network a vast infospace of journals and databases is transparently visitable.) Mulvey writes about rear-projection cinematography, that trick of placing actors in front of false backgrounds — think of scenes in films from the 1940s and 1950s in which characters drive a car, their cranking of the steering wheel bearing no relationship to the projected movie-in-a-movie of the road unspooling behind them. Nowadays these shots are for the most part instantly spottable for the in-studio machinations they are: nothing makes an undergraduate audience snicker more quickly than the sudden jump to a stilted closeup of an actor standing before an all-too-grainy slideshow. Mulvey deftly dissects the economic reasons that made rear-projection shots a necessity, but the real jackpot comes in the essay’s concluding paragraph, where she writes:

This paradoxical, impossible space, detached from either an approximation to reality or the verisimilitude of fiction, allows the audience to see the dream space of cinema. But rear projection renders the dream uncertain: the image of a cinematic sublime depends on a mechanism that is fascinating because of, not in spite of, its clumsy visibility.

With newly fine-grained methods of compositing images filmed at different spaces and times — the traveling matte was only the first step on a path to digital cut-and-paste cinema — rear projection is rarely seen anymore. But as Mulvey observes, “As so often happens with passing time, [rear projection’s] disappearance has given this once-despised technology new interest and poignancy.”

Her point is equally applicable to a range of filmmaking techniques, especially those of special effects and visual effects, which invariably pay for their cutting-edge-ness by going quickly stale. (Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-motion animation, for example, “fools” no one now, but is prized, indeed cherished, by aficionados.) But I’d like to extend the category of the clumsy sublime to another medium, the videogame, which has evolved much more rapidly and visibly than cinema: under the speeding metronome of Moore’s Law, gaming’s technological substrate is essentially reinvented every couple of years. Games from 2000 can’t help but announce their relative primitiveness, which in turn looks cutting-edge next to games of 1995, and so on and so on back to the circular screen of the PDP-1 and the rastery vessels of 1962’s Spacewar. Yet we don’t disdain old games as hopelessly unsophisticated; instead, a lively retrogame movement preserves and celebrates the pleasures of 8-bit displays and games that fit into 4K of RAM.

Two examples of videogames’ clumsy sublimity can be found on these marvelous websites. Rosemarie Fiore is an artist whose work includes beautiful time-lapse photographs of classic videogames of the early 1980s like Tempest, Gyruss, and Qix. Diving beneath the surface of the screen, Ben Fry’s distellamap traces the calls and returns of code, the dancing of data, in Atari 2600 games. What I like about these projects is that they don’t just fetishize the old arcade cabinets, home computers and consoles, cartridges and software: rather, they build on and interpret the pleasures of gaming’s past while staying true to its graphic appeal and crudely elegant architecture — the fast-emerging clumsy sublime of new interactive media.