British Invasion


Ordinarily I’d start my post with a by-now-boilerplate apology for lagging behind the news, but in this case I will leave aside the ritual lament (“I’m just so busy this semester!”) and instead make proud boast of my lateness, boldly owning up to the fact that, although it was forty years ago last week that Monty Python’s Flying Circus had its first broadcast, I’m just getting around to remarking on it today. Seems only (il)logical to do so, given that one of Python‘s most fundamental and lasting alterations to the cultural landscape in which I grew up was to validate the non sequitur as an acceptable conversational — and often behavioral — gambit.

Let me explain. For me and my friends in grade school, the early-to-mid-seventies were a logarithmically-increasing series of social revelations, sometimes depressingly gradual, other times bruisingly abrupt, that we were “weird.” Our weirdness went by several aliases. The labels bestowed by forgiving parents and teachers were things like “smart,” “bright,” “eccentric,” “unusual,” and “creative.” Whereas the ones that arrived not from above but laterally, hurled like snowballs in the schoolyard or graffitied in ball-point across our notebooks, were more brutally and colorfully direct, and thus of course more convincing: “freak,” “spaz,” and — for me in particular, since it vaguely rhymes with Rehak — “retard.”

I see now that almost all of these phrases had their grain of truth, their icy core, their scored ink-line. In our weirdness we were smart and unusual and creative; we were also undeniably freakish, and as our emotional gyroscopes whirled wildly in search of some stable configuration, we were, by turns, spastically overenthusiastic and retardedly slow to adapt. We were book and comic readers, TV watchers, play actors, cartoon artists, model builders, rock collectors. We were boys. We liked science fiction and fantasy. Our skills and deficits were misdistributed and extreme: vastly vocabularied but garbled by braces and retainers; carefully observant but blindered by thick glasses; handsome heroes in our hearts, chubby or skinny buffoons in person. Many of us were good at science and math, others at art and theater. None of us did particularly well on the athletic field, though we did provide workouts for the kids who chased us.

Me, I made model kits of monsters like the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon — all supplied by the great company Aurora, with the last mile from hobby store to home facilitated by my indulgent parents — painted them in garish and inappropriate colors, situated them behind cardboard drum kits and guitars on yarn neckstraps, and pretended they were a rock supergroup while blasting the Monkees and the Archies from my record player. (I am not making this up.)

I was also a media addict, even back then, and when Monty Python episodes began airing over our local PBS station, I was instantly and utterly devoted to it. Which is not to say I liked everything I saw — a nascent fan, I quickly began drawing distinctions between the unquestionably great, the merely good, the tolerably adequate, and the terminally lame paroles that constituted the show’s langue, learning connections between these variations in quality and the industrial microepochs that gave rise to them: early, middle, and late Python. I had my favorite bits (Terry Gilliam’s animations, anything ever done or said by John Cleese) and my “mehs” (Terry Gilliam’s acting and the episode devoted to hot-air ballooning). Although or because I was stranded somewhere in the long latency separating my phallic and genital stages, I found every mention of sex and every glimpse of boob a fascinating magma of hypothetical desire and unearned shame. And, of course, it was all hysterically, tear-squirting, stomach-cramp-inducing funny.

The downside of Monty Python‘s funniness was the same as its upside: it gave all of us weirdos a shared social circuit. The show’s peculiar and specific argot of slapstick and trangression, dada and doo-doo, spread overnight to recess and classroom, connecting by a kind of dedicated party line any schlub who could memorize and repeat lines and skits from the show. In short, Monty Python colonized us, or more accurately it lit up like a discursive barium trace the preexisting nerd colony that theretofore had hidden underground in a nervous relay of quick glances, buried smiles, and raised eyebrows. Suddenly outed by a humor system from across the sea, we pint-sized Python fans stood revealed as a brotherhood of nudge-nudge-wink-wink, a schoolyard samizdat.

A good thing, but also a bad thing. The New York Times gets it exactly wrong when describing the “couple of guys in your dorm (usually physics majors, for some reason, and otherwise not known for their wit) who could recite every sketch”; according to Ben Brantley, “They could be pretty funny, those guys, especially if you hadn’t seen the real thing.” Nope — people who recite every Monty Python sketch are by definition not funny, or rather are funny only within an extremely bounded circle of folks who (A) already know the jokes and (B) accept said recitation as legal tender in their subcultural social capital. In my experience, there was no surer date-killer, no quicker way to get people to edge away from you at parties than by launching into such bonafide gems of genius as the Cheese Shoppe or the Argument Clinic. Yet we went on tagging each other as geek untouchables, comedy as contagion, as helpless before Pythonism’s viral spread as we would be, a few years on, by the replicating errata of Middle Earth and the United Federation of Planets.

Monty Python was merely the first infusion of obsessive-compulsive nerd scholarship into which I and my friends were forced by a series of cultural imports from Britain: grand stuff like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Alan Moore, and the computer game Elite. The three movies I like to name as my favorites of all time each have substantial UK components: Star Wars (1977) was filmed partly at Elstree Studios, Superman (1978) at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, and Alien (1979), with Ridley Scott at the helm, at Shepperton and Bray Studios. And the trend continues right to present day: my favorite band is Genesis, I can’t get enough of Robbie Coltrane’s Cracker, and the science-fiction masterpiece of the summer was not District 9 (which gets high marks nevertheless) but the superb Children of Earth.

I sometimes wonder what to call this collection of British art and entertainment, this odd cultural constellation that seems to obey no organizing principle except its origins in England and its relevance to my development. How do you draw a boundary around a miscellany of so much that is good and essential about imaginary lives and their real social extrusions? Maybe I’m seeking a word like supergenre or metagenre, but those seem too big; try idiogenre, some way of systematizing a group of texts whose common element is their locus in a particular, historically-shaped subjectivity (my own) that is simultaneously a shared condition. The comic tragedy of the nerd, a figure both stranded on the social periphery yet crowded by his peers, lonely yet overfriended, renegade frontiersman and communal sheep, a silly-walking man with an entire Ministry of Silly Walks looming behind him.

I blame, and thank, England.


Predestination Paradox


It would be nice if ABC’s new series, Flashforward, didn’t stylistically model itself quite so slavishly on Lost — which is not to deny a legitimate familial relationship between the two shows. Indeed, it’s largely thanks to Lost that broadcast television now periodically risks acts of serial storytelling with genuine intricacy and depth, sizeable and interesting casts of characters, and generic inflections that flirt with science fiction and fantasy without ever quite falling into the proud but doomed ghetto of, say, Virtuality and Firefly. Nowadays we seem to prefer our fantastic extrapolations blended with a strong tincture of “reality”; while I might privately consider series such as Mad Men and Jericho to be as bizarre in setting and plot machination as Farscape ever was, the truth is it will be a long time before we see a space-set show lasting more than a season or two. (And before you ask, no, I haven’t gotten around to watching Defying Gravity, though some trusted friends have been telling me to give it a try.)

So Flashforward clearly owes a debt to Lost for tutoring audiences in the procedures and pleasures of the complex narratives so deftly dissected by Jason Mittell: in this specific case, the shuttling game of memory and induction by which viewers stitch together a tale told in pieces. Where 24 builds itself around the synchronic, crosscutting among simultaneous story-streams until the very concept of a pause, of downtime, is squeezed out of existence, Lost and Flashforward take as their structuring principle the diachronic, bouncing us backwards and forwards through time until one can no longer tell present from backstory. (I will admit that the most recent season of Lost finally threw off this faithful viewer like a bucking bronco; while I’m all for time-traveling back to the glory years of the 1970s, the show’s intertitled convolutions have become too much for me to keep up with, especially when further diced and sliced by the timeshifting mechanism of my DVR.)

No wonder, then, that David S. Goyer (late of Blade) and Brannon Braga (who in the 1990s both saved and ruined the Star Trek franchise, IMO) felt the moment was ripe to adapt Robert J. Sawyer‘s novel for TV. (Apparently there’s a history involving HBO and a tug-of-war over rights; perhaps a branching feature on the show’s eventual box-set release will as a deconstructive extra interweave this additional knotted plotting, an industrial Z-axis, into the general mayhem.) I remember reading Flashforward-the-book when it first came out, but it took Wikipedia to remind me how it all ended. Now that original ending has of course been jettisoned, in the process of retrofitting the story to serial form.

And a clever adaptation it looks to be. By moving up the collective “flashforward” experienced by the entire human race from twenty-odd years to six months, the TV show embeds its own climax within a different kind of foreseeable future: the conclusion of season one. That is, as the characters catch up with their own precognated fates on April 29, 2010 (in show-reality), so will we the watchers (in audience-reality), making for what I expect to be a delicious and delirious moment of suture. Like the first season of Heroes, Flashforward constructs itself around its own endpoint, arriving like clockwork twenty-odd episodes from now.

Clever, but maybe not smart. Look what happened to Heroes, which did great until collapsing into meaningless narratorhea with the start of its second season. I can think of countless TV series done in by their own cruelly relentless seriality, overstaying their welcome, swapping in cast members and increasingly baroque storytelling gimmicks until the final result is a ghoulish, cyborged facsimile of the show we once knew and loved. People speak of “jumping the shark,” but the truth of a TV show that’s lost its soul is something much more depressing: an elderly parent babbling in the grip of Alzheimer’s, a friend lost to dementia, a young and innocent heart curdled by prostitution or drug addiction. The excitement of Flashforward will consist of watching as it knowingly exploits the feints and deferrals of serial form, doling out clues and red herrings that keep us guessing even as the destination comes inexorably into greater focus — a finale that, by its final arrival, will appear perfectly logical. Good storytelling gets us to the expected endpoint by unexpected means, and I wonder if Flashforward has it in itself to pull off the trick more than once.

In the meantime, let’s sit back and appreciate the tapestry as it emerges for the first, unrepeatable time. The characters have already begun to build a “conspiracy wall,” tacking up photos, scribbled notes, and lengths of string to make a tableau that simultaneously constructs the future as solution while decoding it as mystery. And don’t forget the wonderful opportunity for meta-reflection on the existential whys and wherefores of TV as the first episode ends with another kind of “flashforward” — this one a promotional montage enticing us with glimpses of the season to come. In this sense, of course, the show is a perfect commercial animal, advertising itself and its high concept with every beat of its crass and calculated heart. But in another, purer sense, it is a kind of koan, an invitation to meditate on the deeper patterns of the stories we tell; the time in which we experience them; the nature of narrative consciousness itself.

Flashforward may be, in short, one last chance to live in the media present (even as its central conceit destroys any sense of simple present-ness). Here’s to enjoying the experience before the show is ruined by its own need to respawn in 2010-2011, by the ongoing efforts of the spoiler community and devout Wiki priesthood, or by the aforementioned box sets, downloads, and torrents. A series like this is perfectly engineered for its time, which is to say, paced to the week-by-week parceling of information, the micro-gaps of commercial breaks and the macro-gaps between episodes.

Yet even as we put a name to the temporality of TV, it is already past. For all such gaps are dissolving in the quick waters of new media, and with them the gaps in knowledge (precisely-lathed questions with carefully-choreographed answers) on which a show like Flashforward, and by extension all serial storytelling, thrives. We who are “lucky” enough to straddle this historical juncture — at which the digital is reworking the media forms with which we grew up — face our own version of the predestination paradox: knowing full well where we’re going, yet helpless before the forces that deliver us there.

Counting Down Galactica (4 of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting Down Galactica (3 of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counting Down Galactica (2 of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeshifting Terminator and Dollhouse

I was struck by these promising numbers regarding the number of viewers using DVRs to timeshift episodes of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse, FOX’s ratings-challenged Friday-night block of science fiction.

I started off as a big fan of TSCC, a series which, especially as it hit its stride at the start of season two, seemed on its way to assuming the mantle of the nearly-departed Battlestar Galactica. Reflecting the new tone of SF on television, Chronicles is moody, nuanced, and — with its tangled motifs of time travel and maternal distress — introspective to the point of convolution. I have nowhere near the same appreciation for Dollhouse, which seems to me the very definition of misbegotten: a rather obvious, emptily sensational concept yoked to an unimaginatively-cast lineup of unlikeable characters. As this Penny Arcade comic and accompanying commentary observes, Dollhouse is interesting primarily for what it reveals about the changing author function in serial television: we’re now to the point where we measure the quality of certain shows based on hypothetical extrapolations about how good the text would have been had network execs (those good old go-to villains) not interfered with the showrunner’s divine inspiration.

Significantly, though, I’ve only watched the first episode of Dollhouse; the second and third installments await on my DVR, along with the most recent Chronicles. Placing the shows together on Friday night seemed like a certain death sentence — cult TV fans will never forgive the sin NBC committed against the original Star Trek in 1968-1969, leaving its third season to wither on the ice-floe slot of Fridays at 10 p.m., well away from its target audience — except for one thing. Cult TV has cult viewing habits associated with it, and one of the things we fans do is relocate episodes to spaces in our schedule better suited to focused, attentive viewing. In a word, we timeshift. The sagging numbers for Dollhouse and Chronicles both received a giant boost when DVR statistics were factored in, suggesting not just that the shows might have some life in them yet, but that new technologies of viewing may make the difference.

Of course, we’ve been timeshifting TV for years, first through the VCR and now through any number of digitally-based tools for spooling, streaming, and stealing video. The new technology I refer to is monitorial: the ability to track and quantify this collective behavior. That a once private, even renegade practice is now on the broadcasters’ radar is dishearteningly panoptic in one sense; in another sense, impossible to separate from the first, it may represent a new kind of power — a fannish vox populi to which the producers of beleaguered but promising series might listen.

Counting Down Galactica (1 of 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Thoughts on the Oscars

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

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

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

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

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


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

— Wolf Blitzer, CNN

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

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

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

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

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

Titles on the Fringe

Once again I find myself without much to add to the positive consensus surrounding a new media release; in this case, it’s the FOX series Fringe, which had its premiere on Tuesday. My friends and fellow bloggers Jon Gray and Geoff Long both give the show props, which by itself would have convinced me to donate the time and DVR space to watch the fledgling serial spread its wings. The fact that the series is a sleek update of The X-Files is just icing on the cake.

In this case, it’s a cake whose monster-of-the-week decorations seem likely to rest on a creamy backdrop of conspiracy; let’s hope Fringe (if it takes off) does a better job of upkeep on its conspiracy than did X-Files. That landmark series — another spawn of the FOX network, though from long ago when it was a brassy little David throwing stones at the Goliaths of ABC, NBC, and CBS — became nearly axiomatic for me back in 1993 when I stumbled across it one Friday night. I watched it obsessively, first by myself, then with a circle of friends; it was, for a time, a perfect example not just of “appointment television” but of “subcultural TV,” accumulating local fanbaselets who would crowd the couch, eat take-out pizza, and stay up late discussing the series’ marvelously spooky adumbrations and witty gross-outs. But after about three seasons, the show began to falter, and I watched in sadness as The X-Files succumbed to the fate of so many serial properties that lose their way and become craven copies of themselves: National Lampoon, American Flagg, Star Wars.

The problem with X-Files was that it couldn’t, over its unforgivably extended run of nine seasons, sustain the weavework necessary for a good, gripping conspiracy: a counterpoint of deferral and revelation, unbelievable questions flowing naturally from believable answers with the formal intricacy of a tango. After about season six, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch anymore; to do so would have been like visiting an aged and senile relative in a nursing home, a loved one who could no longer recognize me, or me her.

I have no idea whether Fringe will ever be as good as the best or as bad as the worst of The X-Files, but I’m already looking forward to finding out. I’ve written previously about J. J. Abrams and his gift for creating haloes of speculation around the media properties with which his name is associated, such as Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield. He’s good at the open-ended promise, and while he’s proven himself a decent director of standalone films (I’m pretty sure the new Star Trek will rock), his natural environment is clearly the serial structure of dramatic television narrative, which even in its sunniest incarnation is like a friendly conspiracy to satisfy week-by-week while keeping us coming back for more.

As I stated at the beginning, other commentators are doing a fine job of assessing Fringe‘s premise and cast of characters. The only point I’ll add is that the show’s signature visual — as much a part of its texture as the timejumps on Lost or the fades-to-white on Six Feet Under — turns me on immensely. I’m speaking, of course, about the floating 3D titles that identify locale, as in this shot:

Jon points out that the conceit of embedding titles within three-dimensional space has been done previously in Grand Theft Auto 4. Though that videogame’s grim repetitiveness was too much (or not enough) for this gamer, I appreciated the title trick, and recognized it as having an even longer lineage. The truth is, embedded titles have been “floating” around the mediascape for several years. The first time I noticed them was in David Fincher’s magnificent, underrated Panic Room. There, the opening credits unfold in architectural space, suspended against the buildings of Manhattan in sunlit Copperplate:

My fascination with Panic Room, a high-tech homage to Alfred Hitchcock in which form mercilessly follows function (the whole film is a trap, a cinematic homology of the brownstone in which Jodie Foster defends herself against murderous intruders), began with that title sequence and only grew. Notice, for example, how Foster’s name lurks in the right-hand corner of one shot, as though waiting for its closeup in the next:

The work of visual-effects houses Picture Mill and Computer Cafe, Panic Room‘s embedded titles make us acutely uneasy by conflating two spaces of film spectatorship that ordinarily remain reassuringly separate: the “in-there” of the movie’s action and the “out-here” of credits, subtitles, musical score, and other elements that are of the movie but not perceivable by the characters in the storyworld. It’s precisely the difference between diegetic and nondiegetic, one of the basic distinctions I teach students in my introductory film course.

But embedded titles such as the ones in Panic Room and Fringe confound easy categorical compartmentalization, rupturing the hygienic membrane that keeps the double registers of filmic phenomenology apart. The titles hang in an undecidable place, with uncertain epistemological and ontological status, like ghosts. They are perfect for a show that concerns itself with the threads of unreality that run through the texture of the everyday.

Ironically, the titles on Fringe are receiving criticism from fans like those on this Ain’t It Cool talkback, who see them as a cliched attempt to capitalize on an overworked idea:

The pilot was okay, but the leads were dull and the dialogue not much better. And the establishing subtitles looked like double ripoff of the opening credits of Panic Room and the “chapter 1” titles on Heroes. They’re “cool”, but they’ll likely become distracting in the long run.

I hated the 3D text … This sort of things has to stop. it’s not cool, David Fincher’s title sequence in Panic Room was stupid, stop it. It completly takes me out of the scene when this stuff shows up on screen. It reminds you you’re watching TV. It takes a few seconds to realize it’s not a “real” object and other characters, cars, plans, are not seeing that object, even though it’s perfectly 3D shaded to fit in the scene. And it serves NO PURPOSE other than to take you out of the scene and distract you. it’s a dumb, childish, show-off-y amateurish “let’s copy Fincher” thing, and I want it out of this and Heroes.

…I DVR’d the show while I was working, came in about 40 minutes into it before flipping over to my recording. They were outside the building at Harvard and I thought, “Hey cool, Harvard built huge letters spelling out their name outside one of their buildings.”… then I realized they were just ripping off the Panic Room title sequence. Weak.

The visual trick of embedded titles is, like any fusion of style and technology, a packaged idea with its own itinerary and lifespan; it will travel from text to text and medium to medium, picked up here in a movie, there in a videogame, and again in a TV series. In an article I published last year in Film Criticism, I labeled such entities “microgenres,” basing the term on my observation of the strange cultural circulation of the bullet time visual effect:

If the sprawling experiment of the Matrix trilogy left us with any definite conclusion, it is this: special effects have taken on a life of their own. By saying this, I do not mean simply to reiterate the familiar (and debatable) claim that movies are increasingly driven by spectacle over story, or that, in this age of computer-generated imagery (CGI), special effects are “better than ever.” Instead, bullet time’s storied trajectory draws attention to the fact that certain privileged special effects behave in ways that confound traditional understandings of cinematic narrative, meaning, and genre — quite literally traveling from one place to another like mini-movies unto themselves. As The Matrix‘s most emblematic signifier and most quoted element, bullet time spread seemingly overnight to other movies, cloaking itself in the vestments of Shakespearean tragedy (Titus, 1999), high-concept television remake (Charlie’s Angels, 2000), caper film (Swordfish, 2001), teen adventure (Clockstoppers, 2002), and cop/buddy film (Bad Boys 2, 2003). Furthermore, its migration crossed formal boundaries into animation, TV ads, music videos, and computer games, suggesting that bullet time’s look — not its underlying technologies or associated authors and owners — played the determining role in its proliferation. Almost as suddenly as it sprang on the public scene, however, bullet time burned out. Advertisements for everything from Apple Jacks and Taco Bell to BMW and Citibank Visa made use of its signature coupling of slowed time and freely roaming cameras. The martial-arts parody Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002) recapped The Matrix‘s key moments during an extended duel between the Chosen One (Steve Oedekerk) and a computer-animated cow. Put to scullery work as a sportscasting aid in the CBS Superbowl, parodied in Scary Movie (2000), Shrek (2001), and The Simpsons, the once-special effect died from overexposure, becoming first a cliche, then a joke. The rise and fall of bullet time — less a singular special effect than a named and stylistically branded package of photographic and digital techniques — echoes the fleeting celebrity of the morph ten years earlier. Both played out their fifteen minutes of fame across a Best-Buy’s-worth of media screens. And both hint at the recent emergence of an unusual, scaled-down class of generic objects: aggregates of imagery and meaning that circulate with startling rapidity, and startlingly frank public acknowledgement, through our media networks.

Clearly, embedded titles are undergoing a similar process, arising first as an innovation, then reproducing virally across a host of texts. Soon enough, I’m sure, we’ll see the parodies: imagine a film of the Scary Movie ilk in which someone clonks his head on a floating title. Ah, well: such is media evolution. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying the effect in its more sober incarnation on Fringe, where this particular package of signifiers has found a respectful — and generically appropriate — home.