The “Clumsy Sublime” of Videogames

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

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

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

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

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