Man in the Suit


Sad news: Ben Chapman, who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon in the 1954 film of the same name, is dead.

Chapman’s death, while no less tragic, hits me a little differently than the passing of William Tuttle, whom I wrote about last August. While Tuttle contributed to hundreds of films, Chapman played just one role in one movie — and that uncredited at the time. While Tuttle worked behind the scenes, Chapman performed in front of the camera. And while Tuttle designed and applied makeup and prosthetics that others wore, Chapman was literally the man in the suit: a full-body sheath made of foam rubber, a headpiece fringed with pulsating gills, and two webbed gloves tipped with fearsome claws.

In this sense, we might think of Chapman as occupying a nodal point in the circuit of special effects manufacture precisely opposite that of the costume’s “creator.” Somebody else designed the thing; all Chapman did was inhabit it. Indeed, Chapman’s contribution subdivides and apparently dissipates the more closely we examine it, scattering into a shadowy network of elided labor and thwarted fame. He was not, for example, the only person to play the Creature. Ricou Browning wore the suit for underwater sequences, while Chapman did the bits on land. (Browning returned for the water scenes in sequels Revenge of the Creature [1955] and The Creature Walks Among Us [1956]; in these films the Creature-on-land was played by Tom Hennesy and Don Megowan respectively.) Even the suit’s original designer is in question, credited for many years to veteran makeup artist Bud Westmore, but recently recuperated as the work of Milicent Patrick.

Yet amid the thicket of Hollywood’s ramified pasts, Chapman and the suit he wore are fused in my memory as well as the collective memory of horror and science fiction fans. To some extent this is due to the first Creature‘s place at the overlap of several important genre histories. It was a cornerstone of the grand 1950s wave of cinematic SF that includes The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), Them (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956), The Blob (1958), and — a personal favorite and source of this blog’s signature image — Forbidden Planet (1956). Moreover, Creature was directed by Jack Arnold, who also helmed the classics It Came From Outer Space (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Not all of these films are of equal caliber, certainly. They run the gamut from cerebral “message” films to drive-in shockers, a continuum on which Creature probably registers toward the window-mounted-speakers end. Befitting its status as an early Jaws, Creature was released in 3D. As a kid, I was lucky enough to see one of these ghosty red-and-green prints at a screening on the University of Michigan campus; the headache induced by those plastic glasses is inseparable from the excitement of seeing claws jutting out of a petrified wall in one of the film’s opening images.


But the fascination of Creature (the movie) and Creature (the monster) outlasted their tricked-up 3D and their genre boomlet, surviving as only an icon can throughout many replayings on TV, VCR, and DVD. Ben Chapman built a career out of his few minutes on screen, appearing at conventions, giving interviews, and running a website whose very title — — insists on the singular authenticity of his performance. Like the suit he wore, a neglected piece of film flotsam rediscovered by a janitor and ultimately purchased by Forrest J. Ackerman of Famous Monsters, Chapman physically anchored a diffuse cloud of memories and fantasies, concretizing a point in time and space where Creature from the Black Lagoon “really happened.”

Not just an icon, then, but an index: evidentiary proof of a world existing simultaneously before the camera and within our imaginations, and hence a junction point between virtual and real, dream and daylight, forgotten and retrieved, submarine and dry land.


Always Under Construction


The teaser for J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, previously playing only to privileged viewers of Cloverfield, is now available for global consumption and scrutiny on Paramount’s official movie site. My own attention — and imagination — are captured less by the teaser’s aural invocations of real and virtual history (oratory by John F. Kennedy and Leonard Nimoy, the opening strains of Alexander Courage’s Trek score, even a weird snippet of the transporter sound effect) and more by the big eyeball-kick of a reveal that arrives at the end: the Enterprise itself, “under construction” (screen grab above).

Those two words close out the teaser and also adorn the website, clearly inviting us to indulge in the metaphorical collapse of film and starship. In Trek‘s calculus of the imaginary, this is nothing new; from the franchise’s 1966 “launch” onward, a happy equation — perhaps homology is the better term — has existed between the various televisual and filmic incarnations of Trek and the spacefaring vessel that is its primary characters’ means of exploration. The Enterprise, in other words, has always served as something akin to the gun-gripping hand at the bottom of the screen in a first-person shooter: an interface between our world and fictive future history, a graphic conceit easing us over the screen border that separates living room from starship bridge. (It’s not an original insight on my part to point out that Kirk and crew seek out strange new worlds while essentially sitting on comfy recliners and watching a big-screen TV.) Befitting their status as new textual “technologies,” each installment of the franchise has redesigned the Enterprise slightly, even given us new ships in which to take our weekly voyages: the Voyager, the Defiant, and all those goofy runabouts on Deep Space Nine.

In recent weeks I’ve grown weary of contemplating the ingenious, demonic ways in which Abrams builds interest in his projects, using feints and dead-ends to set us buzzing with anticipation and antagonism toward experiences that lie buried in our future (what the Cloverfield monster looks like, what’s really going on on Lost, and so forth). Every dissection of the Abrams effect, it now seems to me, just adds to the Abrams effect; the name of the game in a transmedia age is the viral replication of text, cultivation of mind-share expertly timed to the release calendar. In the end it doesn’t really matter whether our chatter is in the service of bunking or debunking. It’s all, in the eyes of the media industries, good.

So I think I’ll sidestep the argumentative bait offered by the teaser image, namely the degree to which Abrams’s Enterprise is faithful — or not — to the Enterprise(s) of history. Suffice to say that the ship hasn’t been reinvented to the egregious extent of the Jupiter II’s makeover in the 1998 film version of Lost in Space (a sin against science fiction for which Akiva Goldsman has partly compensated with the impressive I Am Legend). From the head-on view we’re given, the new Enterprise maintains the classic saucer-and-twin-nacelles configuration of Walter “Matt” Jefferies’s 60s design, which is good enough for me.

What I will point out is how insistently the “under construction” trope has recurred in Star Trek‘s big picture — its diegesis, metatext, or whatever we’re calling the giant mass of still and moving images, documents and data, that constitute its 42-year-old corpus. Scenes where the ship is in drydock abound in the movies and more recent TV series. 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first viable expansion of the franchise and proof of its ability to endlessly regenerate itself, contains an extended sequence in which Kirk and Scotty circle the under-construction Enterprise-A.


This rhapsodic interlude, derided by many critics and even some fans as evidence of ST:TMP‘s visual-effects metastasis — the elephantine marriage of budgetary excess and narcissistic self-indulgence — seems, over the years, to have undergone a kind of greening, emerging as the film’s kernel of authentic Trek, the powerfully beating heart (throbbing dilithium crystal?) of what is otherwise a rather gray and inert film.


And this image, from the 2005 Ships of the Line calendar, even more succinctly pinpoints the lovely lure of a starship under construction. “Christopher Pike, Commanding” and the class of favored images it exemplifies are like Star Trek‘s primal scenes. Often generated by nonprofessionals using 3D rendering programs, they are what inspired me to write a dissertation chapter about Star Trek‘s “hardware fandom” — those who spend their time buying blueprints of Constitution-class starships, doodling D7 Klingon cruisers and Romulan Birds of Prey, building model kits of the Galileo-7 shuttlecraft, and taping together cardboard-tube and cereal-box mockups of phasers, communicators, and tricorders.

All of those objects were imperfect, and none quite measured up to the onscreen ideal. But it was their very imperfections — their under-constructedness — that marked them as ours, as real and full of possibility. Better the dream of what might come to be then the grim result of its arrival. When it comes right down to it, the Enterprise is always being built, always under construction. I don’t mind waiting another year with the partial version that Abrams has given us.

Four-Leaf “Clover”


Like the Manhattan-demolishing leviathan at its center — sometimes only a distant, crashing presence, sometimes terrifyingly close and looming — Cloverfield is an enigma built of striking contrasts. At once epic and intimate, the film seems utterly familiar in some ways and breathtakingly new in others. At its best (and there is a lot of “best” in its 84-minute running time), Cloverfield takes an almost unbearably cliched monster-movie premise and reinvents it whole, deftly stripping away the audience’s ability to anticipate what will happen next — even if, moments later, we realize that we saw the twists and shocks coming a mile away.

In this sense, the new film from producer and concept author J. J. Abrams, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves accomplishes what any good movie must: find a new, temporarily convincing way to obey the established rules of its genre and yet package them in a manner that seems fresh and original. I say “temporarily” because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game: assuming Cloverfield is the box-office phenomenon its makers and marketers clearly expect it to be, we’re in for any number of B, C, and D-grade knockoffs. We’ll quickly tire of the Cloverfield effect, just as we tired of the Matrix‘s bullet time, CG films featuring wisecracking animals in an urban setting, or — next on the block for burnout — the recent boomlet of pregnancy comedies like Knocked Up and Juno.

For the moment, though, we’re in the sweet spot. Cloverfield works beautifully as a lean, scary, and occasionally awe-inspiring fusion of science fiction and horror. Its impact seems inseparable from the promotional campaign leading up to its release, though what strikes me in retrospect (now that the quantum function of collective anticipation has collapsed, the wave of our wanting condensed into a hard particle of finished film) is how trickily non-promotional the publicity turned out to be. From its first teaser onwards, Cloverfield was sold to us more on the basis of what we didn’t know than what we did.

By the old logic of movie marketing, the more we were fed about an upcoming film, the better. Even in cases where a structuring piece of narrative information was withheld, as in The Crying Game, the absence itself became a lure, with reviewers falling all over themselves not to give away the Secret So Shocking You Won’t Believe Your Eyes! Not so Cloverfield, whose central mystery — the monster’s nature and appearance — became an object of extended forensic investigation by fans and, for many, the primary reason to turn up on opening day to see the film. Speculative images like the one at the top of this article (not, let me add, an accurate representation) abounded as fans scoured Quicktime files frame-by-frame and read clues Rorschach-like into promotional artwork. This was accompanied by much skepticism about the prospect of our ever actually seeing the monster; many felt we were in for another bait-and-switch of the Blair Witch variety.

It’s probably no spoiler at this point to announce that there is a monster, and a very satisfying one at that. What’s great, though, is how our fear and fascination toward the thing is mostly generated through the human activity around it, in particular the reactions of the quartet of young actors whom we follow throughout the movie. None is a well-known performer, for obvious reasons. Encountering a familiar movie face amid the frenzy and pathos of Cloverfield would destroy the film’s precarious conceit of being “real” footage captured by “real” people as the attack “really” happens.

The filmic pursuit of realism has a long and storied history — almost as long as the list of ways that Hollywood has put that realism to cynical use to sell its fictions. In staying within the boundaries of its metaphor, Cloverfield is endlessly gimmicky, finding ways to frame traditional dramatic setpieces and character beats while entirely avoiding artful compositions or anything resembling continuity editing. (As a side note, the visual effects are particularly impressive for the way in which digital elements have been added to jouncing camera work; the production’s match-movers deserve a special technical Oscar of their own.)

For Cloverfield‘s interwoven illusions — not just the spectacle of invented monsters, but affective phantasms like suspense and empathy — to work, everything must seem unplanned, contingent, or (my favorite word from graduate school) aleatory. That term means “dependent on chance or luck,” and it’s entirely appropriate in this context. Abrams and company have stumbled upon a way to put an electrifying new spin on a comfortable old story, and as fans of the genre, we are lucky indeed.

Cloverfield and the Mystery Box of Abrams’s Authorship


I expected a little more from J. J. Abrams’s talk at My first disappointment was in realizing that the presentation is almost a year old: he gave it in March 2007, and waiting till now to air it smacks of a publicity push for Cloverfield, the new monster movie produced by Abrams and directed by Matt Reeves, set for release one week from now (or as teaser images like the one above would have it — striving for 9/11-like gravitas — 1.18.08).

The second disappointment came from the disconnect between the content of the talk and the mental picture I’d formed based on the blurb:

There’s a moment in J.J. Abrams’ amazing new TEDTalk, on the mysteries of life and the mysteries of storytelling, where he makes a great point: Filmmaking as an art has become much more democratic in the past 10 years. Technology is letting more and more people tell their own stories, share their own mysteries. Abrams shows some examples of high-quality films made on home computers, and shares his love of the small, emotional moments inside even the biggest blockbusters.

Somehow I took these innocuous words as promise of some major revelation from Abrams, a writer-producer-director-showrunner on whose bandwagon I’ve been all to happy to hop. Alias was a great show for its first couple of seasons, Lost continues to be blissful mind candy, and I quite liked Mission Impossible III (though I seem to be one of the few who did). My reservations about Abrams’s Star Trek reboot aside, I’ll follow the man anywhere at this point. But I found his talk a frustrating ramble, full of half-told jokes and half-completed insights, shifting more or less randomly from his childhood love of magic tricks to the power of special effects to “do anything.” Along the way he shows a few movie clips, makes a lot of people laugh and applaud, essentially charming his way through a loosely-organized scramble of ideas that feel pulled from his back pocket.

More fool me for projecting so helplessly my own hunger for insider knowledge. What I wanted, I now realize, was stories about Cloverfield. Like many genre fans, I’m endlessly intrigued by the film, about which little is known except that little is known about it. The basic outline is clear enough: giant monster attacks New York City. What distinguishes Cloverfield from classic kaiju eiga like Toho’s Godzilla films — and this is what’s got interested parties both excited and dismayed — is the storytelling conceit: consisting entirely of “found footage,” Cloverfield shows the attack from ground level, in jumpy snatches of handheld shots supposedly retrieved from consumer video cameras and cell phones. Like The Blair Witch Project, which attempted to breathe new life into the horror genre by stripping it of its tried-and-true (and trite) conventions of narrative and cinematography, Cloverfield, for those who accept its experimental approach, may pack an exhilarating punch.

For those who don’t, however, the film will stand as merely the latest reiteration of the Emperor’s New Clothes, another media “product” failing to live up to its hype. And that’s what is ultimately so interesting about Abrams’s talk at TED: it embodies the very effect that Abrams is so good at injecting into the stories he oversees. In the manner of M. Night Shyamalan, who struggles ever more unconvincingly with each new film to brand himself a master of the twist surprise, Abrams’s authorship has become associated with a sense of unfolding mystery, enigmatic tapestries glimpsed one tantalizing thread at a time. One doesn’t watch a series like Lost so much as decipher it; the pleasure comes from a complex interplay of continuity and surprise, the marvelous sense of teetering eternally at the brink of chaos even as new symmetries and patterns become legible.

Abrams’s stories are like magic tricks, full of misdirection and sleight of hand. It drives some people crazy — they see it as nothing more than a shell game, and they ask, with some justification, when we’ll finally get to the truth, the Big Reveal. But as his talk at TED demonstrates, Abrams has always been more about the agile foreshadowing than the final result. It’s a style built paradoxically on the deferral, really the denial, of pleasure — a curious and almost masochistic structure of feeling in our pop culture of instant gratification.

Perhaps that’s where the TED talk’s value really resides. Gabbing about the “mystery box” — a metaphor promiscuously encompassing everything from a good suspense story to bargain-basement digital visual effects to the blank page awaiting an author’s pen — Abrams delivers no substantive content. But he does provide the promise of it: the sense that a breakthrough is just around the corner. It’s an authorial style suited to the rhythms and structure of serial television, which can give closure only through opening up new mysteries. Whether it will work within the bounded length of Cloverfield, that risky mystery box that will open for our inspection next Friday, remains to be seen.

Smut in 1080p

This article on the porn industry’s response to the HD DVD / Blu-Ray format wars caught my eye, reminding me that changing technological standards are an equal-opportunity disrupter. It’s not only the big  movie studios (like Warner Brothers, which made headlines last week by throwing its weight behind Blu-Ray) that must adapt to the sensory promise and commercial peril of HD, but porn providers,  television networks, and videogame makers: up and down and all around the messy scape of contemporary media, its brightly-lit and family-friendly spaces as well as its more shadowy and stigmatized precincts.

The prospect of HD pornography is interesting, of course, because it’s such a natural evolution of this omnipresent yet disavowed form. The employment of media to stimulate, arouse, and drive to climax the apparatus of pleasure hard-wired into our brains and bodies is as old as, well, any medium you care to name. From painted scrolls to printed fiction, stag reels to feature films, comic books to KiSS dolls, porn has always been with us: the dirty little secret (dirty big secret, really, since very few are unaware of it) of a species whose unique co-evolution of optical acuity, symbolic play, and recording and playback instrumentalities has granted us the ability — the curse, some would say — to script and immerse ourselves in virtual realities on page and screen. That porn is now making the leap to a technology promising higher-fidelity imaging and increased storage capacity is hardly surprising.

The news also reminds us of the central, integral role of porn in the economic fortunes of a given medium. I remember discovering, as a teenager in the 1980s, that the mom-and-pop video stores springing up in my home town invariably contained a back room (often, for some reason, accessed through swinging wooden doors like those in an old-time saloon) of “adult” videocassettes. In the 1990s a friend of mine, manager of one of the chain video places that replaced the standalone stores, let me in on the fact that something like 60% of their revenues came from rentals of porn. The same “XXX factor” also structures the internet, providing a vastly profitable armature of explicit websites and chat rooms — to say nothing of the free and anonymous fora of newsgroups, imageboards, torrents, and file-sharing networks — atop which the allegedly dominant presence of Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc. seem like a thin veneer of respectable masquerade, as flimsy a gateway as those swinging saloon doors.

The inevitable and ironic question facing HD porn is whether it will show too much, a worry deliciously summarized in the article’s mention of “concern about how much the camera would capture in high-definition.” The piece goes on to quote Albert Lazarito, vice president of Silver Sinema, as saying that “Imperfections are modified” by the format. (I suspect that Lazarito actually said, or meant, that imperfections are magnified.) The fact is that porn is frequently a grim, almost grisly, affair in its clinical precision. Unlike the soft-core content of what’s often labeled “erotica,” the blunt capture of sexual congress in porn tends to unfold in ghoulishly long takes, more akin to footage from a surveillance camera or weather satellite than the suturing, storytelling grammar of classical Hollywood. Traditional continuity editing is reserved for the talky interludes between sexual “numbers,” resulting in a binary structure something like the alternation of cut-scenes and interactive play in many videogames. (And here let’s not forget the words attributed to id Software’s John Carmack, Edison of the 3D graphics engine, that “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”)

As an industry that sometimes thrives on the paired physical and economic exploitation of its onscreen workers, porn imagery contains its share of bruises, needle marks, botched plastic surgeries, and poorly-concealed grimaces of boredom (at best) or pain (at worst). How will viewers respond to the pathos and suffering at the industry’s core — of capitalism’s antihumanism writ large across the bodies offered up for consumers’ pleasure-at-a-distance — when those excesses are rendered in resolutions of 1920×1080?