“The most intricate, beautiful map you could possibly imagine”

The first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones followed the inaugural novel of George R. R. Martin’s series so minutely that, despite its obvious excellence, I found it a bit redundant: like the early days of superhero comics in which the panel art basically just illustrated the captions, each episode had the feel of an overly faithful checklist, the impeccable casting and location work a handsome but inert frame for Martin’s baroque and sinister plotting. That’s one big reason why I’m eager to see the second season, which premieres tonight — I bogged down a hundred or so pages into book two, A Clash of Kings, and so apart from a few drips and drabs that have leaked through my spoiler filter, I’m a fresh and untrammeled audience. (Given the sheer scale of A Song of Ice and Fire, at five fat volumes and counting, the whole concept of spoilers seems beside the point, rendered irrelevant by a level of structural complexity that forces synchronic rather than diachronic understandings; it’s hard enough at any given moment to keep track of the dense web of characters, alliances, and intrigues without worrying about where they’ll all be two or three thousand pages later.)

Another reason I’m looking forward to the series’ return is its arresting title sequence, a compact masterpiece of mannered visualization that establishes mood, momentum, and setting in the span of ninety seconds:

Here is how the website Art of the Title describes the governing concept:

A fiery astrolabe orbits high above a world not our own; its massive Cardanic structure sinuously coursing around a burning center, vividly recounting an unfamiliar history through a series of heraldic tableaus emblazoned upon it. An intricate map is brought into focus, as if viewed through some colossal looking glass by an unseen custodian. Cities and towns rise from the terrain, their mechanical growth driven by the gears of politics and the cogs of war.

From the spires of King’s Landing and the godswood of Winterfell, to the frozen heights of The Wall and windy plains across the Narrow Sea, Elastic’s thunderous cartographic flight through the Seven Kingdoms offers the uninitiated a sweeping education in all things Game of Thrones.

“Elastic,” of course, refers to the special-effects house that created the sequence, and Art of the Title‘s interview with the company’s creative director, Angus Wall, is enormously enlightening. Facing the challenge of establishing the nonearthly world in which Game of Thrones takes place, Wall developed the idea of a bowl-shaped map packed with detail. In his words, “Imagine it’s in a medieval tower and monks are watching over it and it’s a living map and it’s shaped like a bowl that’s 30 feet in diameter and these guys watch over it, kind of like they would the Book of Kells or something… they’re the caretakers of this map.” Realizing the limitations of that topology, Elastic put two such bowls together to create a sphere, and placing a sun in the center, arrived at the sequence’s strange and lyrical fusion of a pre-Copernican cosmos with a Dyson Sphere.

Yet even more interesting than the sequence’s conceit of taking us inside a medieval conception of the universe — a kind of cartographic imaginary — is its crystallization of a viewpoint best described as wargaming perspective: as it swoops from one kingdom to another, the camera describes a subjectivity somewhere between a god and a military general, the eternally comparing and assessing eye of the strategist. It’s an expository visual mode whose lineage is less to classical narrative than to video-game cutscenes or the mouse-driven POV in an RTS. Its ultimate root, however, is not in digital simulation but in the tabletop wargames that preceded it — what Matthew Kirschenbaum has evocatively called “paper computers.” Kirschenbaum, a professor at the University of Maryland, blogs among other places at Zone of Influence, and his post there on the anatomy of wargames contains a passage that nicely captures the roving eye of GoT‘s titles:

Hovering over the maps, the players occupy an implicit position in relation to the game world. They enjoy a kind of omniscience that would be the envy of any historical commander, their perspectives perhaps only beginning to be equaled by today’s real-time intelligence with the aid of GPS, battlefield LANs, and 21st century command and control systems.

Earlier I mentioned the sprawling complexity of A Song of Ice and Fire, a narrative we might spatialize as unmanageably large territory — unmanageable, that is, without that other form of “paper computers,” maps, histories, concordances, indices, and family trees that bring order to Martin’s endlessly elaborated diegesis. Their obvious digital counterpart would be something like this wiki, and it’s interesting to note (as does this New Yorker profile) that the author’s contentious, codependent relationship with his fan base is often battled out in such internet forums, where creative ownership of a textual property exists in tension with custodial privilege. Perhaps all maps are, in the words of Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins, contested spaces. If so, then the tabletop maps on which wargames are fought provide an apt metaphor both for Game of Thrones‘s narrative dynamics (driven as they are by the give-and-take among established powers and would-be usurpers) and for the franchise itself, whose fortunes have increasingly become distributed among many owners and interests.

All of this comes together in the laden semiotics of the show’s opening, which beckons to us not just as viewers but as players, inviting us to engage through this “television computer” with a narrative world and user experience drawn from both old and new forms of media, mapping the past and future of entertainment.

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.

Of Katniss E and Jennifer L

I’m about 30% of the way through Catching Fire, the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and something that jumped out at me in the first volume is even more apparent in the glare of publicity around the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence, that comes out March 23: the uncanny precision of the saga’s send-up of media culture and celebrity.

What stands out on first encounter with the story of Katniss Everdeen are, of course, other things. There’s the breathless, adrenalized competition for survival represented by the eponymous games themselves — a mashup of pop-culture nightmares familiar from other sources, primarily Battle Royale and Stephen King’s early novels (written as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk and The Running Man. Even earlier pre-texts include William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Nigel Kneale’s BBC one-off Year of the Sex Olympics (1968); but it took The Hunger Games to reconfigure the basic scenario of people-preying-on-other-people-for-a-mass-audience around the subjectivity of a young female protagonist: final girl as must-see TV.

My own attention is captured more by the trilogy’s portrait of its totalitarian state, the nation of Panem, which arises after the U.S. has been hobbled by a vaguely-defined catastrophe. As dystopian futures go, Panem’s mechanisms of tyranny merge the historical forms of domination mapped by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: there are thugs with guns enforcing martial law, but there are also elaborate, interlocked systems of surveillance and broadcast media in which Panem’s subjects live under a constant scrutiny whose public facets are the garish electronic proscenia of show biz.

Hardly surprising, given author Suzanne Collins’s explanation of the story’s origins; like Raymond Williams in the early 1970s, Collins had her brainstorm while randomly channel-surfing. She noticed a disturbing resonance between reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, influences which lent her resulting work the dual immediacies of contemporary political conflict and an entertainment culture of last-person-standing competitions.

It is the latter portions of the trilogy that fascinate me the most, as Katniss is primped, costumed, and styled into a media star and emblem of Panem’s coercive patriotism. The funniest and most biting scenes involve the team of make-up artists and hairstylists who have been assigned the task of making her over; themselves a tattooed and ornamented bunch with rainbow-hued hair, the entourage gives Collins — via Katniss — a chance to comment mordantly on the fixations of fame, often figured through torturous transformations of Katniss’s face and body, making literal John Updike’s characterization of celebrity as “a mask that eats into the face.”

It’s hard not to think of Katniss’s split between public persona and private space — a space that, in the Hunger Games, is implicitly subversive, even treasonous — when looking at this week’s coverage of the movie’s rollout. “Jennifer Lawrence steals the show at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere,” writes Access Hollywood, in gushing tones that could have come straight from the clown-crayoned mouth of Effie Trinket. “Jennifer Lawrence stuns the crowd in a golden Prabal Gurung gown at ‘The Hunger Games’ premiere where she chats with Access’ Shaun Robinson about how her life has changed for better and worse since taking on the role of Katniss.”

Jason Mittell wrote recently about “inferred interiority,” that intersubjective artifact of serial storytelling in which the limitations of visual media to present a character’s inner life are compensated for by the viewer’s store of knowledge accumulated through exposure to and study of previous episodes. Reading this effect transmedially and paratextually — not, that is, along the solitary throughline of a single serialized fiction, but along the perpendicular axes of an actor’s larger intertextual existence, along with that of the characters they play — it’s hard not to infer beneath Lawrence’s smiling face the subtle signs of Katniss’s resistance to her own commodification through beautification.

The critical comparisons that unfold from this odd collision of realities range from the similarities between Panem and current political culture (not exactly a huge leap, given the frightening religiosity and hard-line social conservatism of the Republican presidential candidates) to the relentless spectacularization of young women’s bodies in both fictional and actual frameworks — the disciplinary operations of patriarchy marked in the one and unmarked in the other. The artistic merits of the Hunger Games franchise aside (and for the record, I’m enjoying the books and looking forward to the film), it has succeeded, like all good dystopian SF, in collapsing a certain distance between the reassuring rituals of our daily life and the troubling trends that lurk beneath its painted-on smiles.

Awaiting Avatar

Apparently Avatar, which opened on Friday at an immersive neural simulation pod near you, posits an intricate and very real connection between the natural world and its inhabitants: animus in action, the Gaia Hypothesis operationalized on a motion-capture stage. If this is so — if some oceanic metaconsciousness englobes and organizes our reality, from blood cells to weather cells — then perhaps it’s not surprising that nature has provided a perfect metaphor for the arrival of James Cameron’s new film in the form of a giant winter storm currently coloring radar maps white and pink over most of the eastern seaboard, and trapping me and my wife (quite happily) at home.

Avatar comes to mind because, like the blizzard, it’s been approaching for some time — on a scale of years and months rather than hours and minutes, admittedly — and I’ve been watching its looming build with identical avidity. I know Avatar’s going to be amazing, just as I knew this weekend’s storm was going to be a doozy (the expectation is 12-18 inches in the Philadelphia area, and out here in our modest suburb, the accumulation is already enough to make cars look as though they have fuzzy white duplicates of themselves balanced on their roofs). In both cases, of course, this foreknowledge is not as monolithic or automatic a thing as it might appear. The friendly meteorologists on the Weather Channel had to instruct me in the storm’s scale and implacability, teaching me my awe in advance; similarly, we all (and I’m referring here to the entire population of planet earth) have been well and thoroughly tutored in the pleasurable astonishment that awaits us when the lights go down and we don our 3D glasses to take in Cameron’s fable of Jake Sully’s time among the Na’vi.

If it isn’t clear yet, I haven’t seen Avatar. I’m waiting out the weekend crowds (and, it turns out, a giant blizzard) and plan to catch a matinee on Tuesday, along with a colleague and her son, through whose seven-year-old subjectivity I ruthlessly intend to focalize the experience. (I did something similar with my nephew, then nine, whom I took to see The Phantom Menace in 1999; turns out the prequels are much more watchable when you have an innocent beside you with no memory of what George Lucas and Star Wars used to be.) But I still feel I know just about everything there is to know about Avatar, and can name-drop its contents with confidence, thanks to the broth of prepublicity in which I’ve been marinating for the last several weeks.

All of that information, breathlessly assuring me that Avatar will be either complete crap (the /tv/ anons on 4chan) or something genuinely revolutionary (everyone else), partakes of a cultural practice spotlighted by my friend Jonathan Gray in his smart new book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. While we tend to speak of film and television in an always-already past tense (“Did you see it?” “What did you think?”), the truth is something very different. “Films and television programs often begin long before we actively seek them out,” Jon observes, going on to write about “the true beginnings of texts as coherent clusters of meaning, expectation, and engagement, and about the text’s first initial outposts, in particular trailers, posters, previews, and hype” (47). In this sense, we experience certain media texts a priori — or rather, we do everything but experience them, gorging on adumbration with only that tiny coup de grace, the film itself, arriving at the end to provide a point of capitation.

The last time I experienced anything as strong as Avatar‘s advance shockwave of publicity was with Paranormal Activity (and a couple of years ago before that with Cloverfield), but I am not naive enough to think such occurrences rare, particularly in blockbuster culture. If anything, the infrequency with which I really rev up before a big event film suggests that the well-coordinated onslaught is as much an intersubjective phenomenon as an industrial one; marketing can only go so far in setting the merry-go-round in motion, and each of us must individually make the choice to hop on the painted horse.

And having said that, I suppose I may not be as engaged with Avatar‘s prognosticatory mechanisms as I claim to be.  I’ve kept my head down, refusing to engage fully with the tableaux being laid out before me. As a fan of science-fiction film generally, and visual effects in particular, this seemed only wise; in the face of Avatar hype, the only choices appear to be total embrace or outright and hostile rejection. I want neither to bless nor curse the film before I see it. But it’s hard to stay neutral, especially when a film achieves such complete (if brief) popular saturation and friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion. (Note: I am very glad that friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion.)

So, a few closing thoughts on Avatar, offered in advance of seeing the thing. Think of them as open-ended clauses, half-told jokes awaiting a punchline; I’ll come back with a new post later this week.

  • Language games. One aspect of the film that’s drawn a great deal of attention is the invention of a complete Na’vi vocabulary and grammar. Interesting to me as an example of Cameron’s endless depth of invention — and desire for control — as well as an aggressive counter to the Klingon linguistics that arose more organically from Star Trek. Will fan cultures accrete around Avatar as hungrily as they did around that more slowly-building franchise, their consciousness organized (to misquote Lacan) by a language?
  • Start the revolution without me. We’ve been told repeatedly and insistently that Avatar is a game-changer, a paradigm shift in science-fiction storytelling. For me, the question this raises is not Is it or isn’t it? but rather, What is the role of the revolutionary in our SF movies, and in filmmaking more generally? How and why, in other words, is the “breakthrough” marketed to us as a kind of brand — most endemically, perhaps, in movies like Avatar that wear their technologies on their sleeve?
  • Multiple meanings of “Avatar.” The film’s story, as by now everyone knows, revolves around the engineering of alien bodies in which human subjectivities can ride, a kind of biological cosplay. But on another, artifactual level, avatarial bodies and mechanisms of emotional “transfer” underpin the entire production, which employs performance capture and CG acting at an unprecedented level. In what ways is Avatar a movie about itself, and how do its various messages about nature and technology interact with that supertext?

Speed Indeed


The trailer for Speed Racer has been available for a little under a week, and word of it is spreading through social channels almost as quickly as through the manifold viral vectors of information space. (The world of organic embodied communications can only stand back and shake its head in wonder at its fleet digital progeny. YouTube’s version is here; I recommend viewing it in higher quality through the official website.) I’ve watched the trailer several times myself, in increasing fascination; students and colleagues have emailed me links to it; I even overheard two students discussing it excitedly, as though it were the movie itself: It’s already out? Cool! Whatever the merits of the work-in-progress the trailer is advertising, it has certainly achieved its intended purpose, acting not so much as a preview, but rather a demo of the full-length version that will hit theaters in May 2008. It captures the movie in miniature, scales it down to an iPod-sized burst of visual attractions and narrative beats.

I admit to being suckered (or sucker-punched) by the look of Speed Racer, a hypperreal funhouse crafted from neon candy and shot in an infinitely deep focus that would make Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe weep for joy. I guess it’s not surprising that Larry and Andy Wachowski, following up the silvery-green slickness of their Matrix trilogy, have prepared another film whose brand identity depends largely upon its visual texture: an internally consistent cinematic VR — a graphic engine in the truest sense — in which cinematography, visual effects, and mise-en-sc??ne have flowed into each other like gooey fudge.

Actually, add editing to that mix, for the Speed Racer trailer is the first I can think of to offer a scene transition as a visual hook. The image at the top of this article shows the endpoint of a camera move: tracking around protagonist Speed (Emile Hirsch), the background blurs into a rainbow ribbon, and Hirsch’s shoulder “wipes” the next shot into existence. The moment features prominently in the trailer and in stills grabbed from it (like the one I found by Googling), yet it seems to be neither a turning point in the narrative, a revelation of character, nor a generic marker. Instead, it showcases a new “verb” in film grammar, signaling that Speed Racer will not simply tell a great story, but will tell it using an entirely new set of rules.

Yeah, right. We’ve all heard this before; cinema probably started making promises it couldn’t keep on December 29, 1895, the day after the first public screening of a motion picture. But unlike the Lumi??re Brothers — who called cinema “an invention without a future” — the Wachowskis have set themselves the task of forging cinema’s next epoch. Whether they can do it with Speed Racer remains to be seen. On the surface, it’s a giddy experiment in mapping anime style into live action, though I suspect the production has stretched the concept of digital animation so far that any ontological divide between it and live action has long since ceased to matter. It may end up no more successful than Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), which also toyed with a new kind of transition, in that case a pattern of orthogonal wipes based on comic-book panels. Lee’s experiment didn’t do much to pep up that dismal movie, but something tells me that Speed Racer will fare better. Here’s hoping.

NBC’s Heroic Measures


Though I’m sure spoilerrific information is out there — perhaps in the fall previewing going on at The Extratextuals, which I look forward to reading starting tomorrow — I’m as pure as the driven snow when it comes to tonight’s season premiere of Heroes. I’m something of a late adopter of this show, having dived into the series a third of a way through its first season. (I still remember the blissful November weekend I spent binging on the first six episodes.) Now, like much of the country, I’m feeling the crazy wound-up energy of settling in for a great roller coaster ride. I love being in the midst of an ongoing, expertly told story which is also a game of expectations: the audience saying Yeah, but can you top yourself? and the show saying (literally) Just watch me.

So I’m glad I know nothing of what’s going to happen on a narrative level. On the industrial side, I’m equally unsure. NBC’s decision to yank its programming from iTunes struck me as remarkably stupid, especially as I imagine that the Heroes audience trends toward (A) those who will happily pay $1.99 to download episodes and (B) those who will equally happily acquire the content through torrents, peer-to-peer, or other means if the first source dries up. (Acting out the teleplays with hand-puppets, perhaps?) But at the same time, I work on a daily basis with a very devoted sector of the Heroes demographic — college students — who, I learned while teaching a course on television and new media last spring, don’t particularly mind watching their TV on network websites like NBC’s. They even stick around for the embedded advertising, which is what drives me away from such options. Maybe these young men and women lack the grouchy hacker-derived ethic which still grumbles in my guts that Information should be free … of excessive branding. Whatever the reason for these students’ easy acceptance of NBC’s proprietary flow, I applaud them for it. Whatever gets you the TV you want to see.

So NBC’s gamble of offering episodes as free downloads with a one-week expiration date may work out after all. Me, I’ll be watching tonight’s Heroes the old-fashioned way: on tape, timeshifted by an hour so my wife can catch the premiere of The Bachelor.