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Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century

Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century

by Scott Bukatman


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The headlong rush, the rapid montage, the soaring superhero, the plunging roller coaster—Matters of Gravity focuses on the experience of technological spectacle in American popular culture over the past century. In these essays, leading media and cultural theorist Scott Bukatman reveals how popular culture tames the threats posed by technology and urban modernity by immersing people in delirious kinetic environments like those traversed by Plastic Man, Superman, and the careening astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff. He argues that as advanced technologies have proliferated, popular culture has turned the attendant fear of instability into the thrill of topsy-turvydom, often by presenting images and experiences of weightless escape from controlled space.

Considering theme parks, cyberspace, cinematic special effects, superhero comics, and musical films, Matters of Gravity highlights phenomena that make technology spectacular, permit unfettered flights of fantasy, and free us momentarily from the weight of gravity and history, of past and present. Bukatman delves into the dynamic ways pop culture imagines that apotheosis of modernity: the urban metropolis. He points to two genres, musical films and superhero comics, that turn the city into a unique site of transformative power. Leaping in single bounds from lively descriptions to sharp theoretical insights, Matters of Gravity is a deft, exhilarating celebration of the liberatory effects of popular culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822331193
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/21/2003
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Scott Bukatman is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Matters of gravity

Special effects and supermen in the 20th century
By Scott Bukatman

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3119-5

Chapter One

There's Always ... Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience

The various attempts to integrate modern science into new myths remain inadequate. Ivan Chtcheglov

There's nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist. Thomas Pynchon

1. Skyway to Tomorrowland

One Tomorrowland attraction in the early days of Disneyland was the Autopia, where youngsters could drive actual, though miniature, automobiles. It was Walt Disney's intent that these young citizens-to-be would thereby learn traffic safety at an early age and hence would be prepared to enter the LA freeway system. Unfortunately, the children took "demented delight" in crashing the cars, and the ride had to be put on tracks. One can't blame the kids for resisting the immaculately conceived guidance that dominated the park at all turns, but the Disney ethos could hardly tolerate these signs of technological breakdown.

Disneyland began as a park where Walt could extend his miniature train set within surroundings of realistic landscape effects. A fascination with Americana further informed the project from an early stage, and dioramas depicting historical events and eras (much like the tableaux of early film history) were placed along the train's route in a "coherent sequence." Finally, the design was founded in adesire to construct a safe and clean environment, thoroughly distinct from the chaos and boorishness of the traditional amusement park. The end result was an America reduced, frozen, and sanitized-a fortress against the dis-ease of 1950s' society. Walt announced that, "Disneyland is going to be a place where you can't get lost."

Such tendencies are exaggerated at Walt Disney World, whose acreage is twice that of Manhattan. The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center are now supplemented by Typhoon Lagoon (a water theme park), Pleasure Island (which features discos and other "entertainment"), Fort Wilderness Campground, the Disney/MGM Studio Theme Park, numerous hotels, and a convention center. It is no longer possible to "do" the entire facility during a week-long vacation, although many families frantically try. In the "panic" terminology of Arthur Kroker ("Between ecstasy and fear, between delirium and anxiety"), Disney World has become a "panic vacation."

Tomorrowland grows more wonderful with the passage of every year, as its parabolic, populuxe stylings give a full and nostalgic voice to the aspirations of the new frontiers of the 1964 New York World's Fair (although its concrete expanses also suggest a down-at-heels airport). The extroversion of its boomerang-inflected balustrades stands in contrast to the imploded and anonymous mall structures of EPCOT's Future World. EPCOT Center was Walt's dream of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: real futures, brought to you by real corporations. This latter-day ode to tomorrow could as well be any corporate plaza on the outskirts of any urban area. Its immaculate commons, mirrored facades, and soaring fountains stand in proud affirmation of nothing in particular, while in Tomorrowland each aerodynamically turned, turquoise and white detail enshrines a visible yearning for flight, a thrusting beyond limits, and the hope and confidence in an unambivalently better tomorrow. It unintentionally becomes the most charming of retro-futures.

Tomorrowland-the very name carries a casual colloquialism. Tomorrow is, after all, not so far away, while land suggests the whimsicality of the fairy tale (it is an all important suffix in conveying a childlike innocence or nostalgia). Its extension at EPCOT, however, is something more than an exercise in self-similarity-Future World is a state of mind rather than a spatial location, a corporate symbol of monadic inclusiveness. The future is indefinite and permanent; the world is inescapable and boundless. Tomorrowland holds promise; Future World sounds like a threat. The expansiveness of the missions to Mars and exploration among the stars is replaced by the imploded concern with the cybernetic spaces of information management.

These Disney worlds bear an interesting relation to works of contemporary science fiction (SF) literature and cinema, in which ontologies of space and narrative combine and often contradict one another. Science fiction can be said to provide the referential dimension that is absent from the disembodied spaces of the electronic realm: the function of the genre, then, is to compensate for the loss of the human in the labyrinths of blip culture by transforming it into an arena susceptible to human control. Recent SF frequently posits a reconception of the human and the ability to interface with the new terminal paraspace. What occurs is a simultaneous grounding and dislocating of human bodily experience.

Referring to the 1939 World's Fair, H. Bruce Franklin has correctly noted that, "A fair billing itself as the World of Tomorrow may be considered just as much a work of science fiction as a short story or a novel, a comic book or a movie." This is surely also true of exhibitions billed as Tomorrowland or Future World, exhibitions that carry the visitor into an ambivalently defined future. The Disney futures are simultaneously reactionary and progressive, nostalgic and challenging. They are also richly imbricated with the shifting experiences and metaphors of postmodern urbanism, electronic culture, and pervasive redefinitions of space and subjectivity, as the subsequent analyses will demonstrate. Please keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times.

2. Retro-Futures

The pervasive fear that underlies the decade just past is a consequence of recognizing that we already inhabit the future. No longer is "the future" a harmless fiction, a utopian era that, by its very definition, will never arrive; it is instead upon us with a vengeance. Our presence in the future has thus initiated an obsessive recycling of the past, a seemingly inexhaustible period of meganostalgia; a return to a period of (imaginary) mastery; and an attempt to answer the question "How did I get here?" when cause and effect have vanished within the random intricacies of quantum reality. Even futures past are exhumed and aired, their quaint fantasies simultaneously mocked and yearned for. A collection of Popular Mechanics articles and illustrations entitled "Wasn't the Future Wonderful?" demonstrates the promise of an abundant, machine-aided existence, as the satisfied citizen calmly smokes his pipe amid an array of vacuum-tubed Rube Goldberg devices that tirelessly service his every desire. Scott McCloud's comic book character Zot lives in a wonderfully bulbous city that could have been designed by Frank R. Paul for the cover of any issue of Amazing Stories. These are reveries of progress based on visibility.

William Gibson's science fiction short story "The Gernsback Continuum" is about the end of the future. A photographer engaged to capture images of the utopian architectures of Frank Lloyd Wright and other 1930s and 1940s futurists enters one of those zones endemic to postmodern fiction ("Ever so gently, I went over the Edge"). In a giant ontological shift, he finds himself within this imaged, imagined, but never created retro-future. Gibson's description perfectly evokes the aspirations of another age, but it also sounds like a trip to Disneyland.

They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American. Dialta had said that the Future had come to America first, but had finally passed it by. But not here, in the heart of the Dream. Here, we'd gone on and on, in a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, of foreign wars it was possible to lose. They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world. Behind me, the illuminated city: Searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars.

To exorcise these "semiotic ghosts," the narrator watches television until they go away.

If the retro-futures are based in externalization and visibility, then one notices in the architecture of Future World the very erosion of the visible and the dataist implosion behind the mirrors of anonymous technocultural interfaces. The rides behind these facades, however, are relentlessly, reassuringly, human, thanks to the simulations technologies of audioanimatronics(tm). The Horizons pavilion at EPCOT Center (presented by General Electric), for example, contains an exemplary retro-future exhibit entitled "Looking Back at Tomorrow." "People had some pretty mixed up ideas about the future," the narrator says (smugly), as "guests" are treated to the sweetly simulated futures of Jules Verne, Georges Melies, Fritz Lang, Buck Rogers, Hugo Gernsback, and the Jetsons. The return to the retro-futures of the 1920s through the 1950s speaks to a perceived loss of subjective comprehension of, or control over, the invisible cyberhistories and cyberspaces of the present. This is the Dataist Era: the disembodying spaces of the terminal era exist independent of direct human experience or control.

3. Narrative Strategies

Disneyland, notes Thomas Hine in Populuxe, "was the first place ever conceived simultaneously with a TV series," and the park is assuredly notable for its overall narrative character. The Magic Kingdom was designed not by architects but by filmmakers, Hine continues, not as a group of buildings but as an experience. It was "a movie that could be walked into." One is led along Main Street USA toward the pinnacle of Fantasyland's castles. At the central square, towering starjets lead to Tomorrowland, while other monuments lead to further adventures. Phillip Johnson stated that the park's architecture was dedicated not to the design of space but to "the organization of procession." A general telos operates whether one concentrates on the overall structure of the entire park, the features of the various lands, or the details on each of the buildings-as Hine says, the experience is of a sequence of establishing shots, medium shots, and close-ups. Several writers have observed how the rides mimic the proairetic and hermeneutic structures of narrative: "Each car is wired for stereophonic sound and turns electronically so that the occupant sees only what the designer has intended ... exactly the way the movie camera sees" (King, 120).

The topics of these rides are intensely narrative as well; Peter Pan's Flight recapitulates the entire narrative of the film, encounters with giant plastic sea creatures in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea are narrated by an ersatz James Mason, and the famed Jungle Cruise provides a human guide pretending to steer the vessel while interacting with the real flora and pseudofauna. Even the roller coaster, whose raison d'etre is purely kinetic sensation, is narrativized in the Magic Kingdom. Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain are geographically specific, simulated experiences (a space flight, a runaway train) that arguably add little to the basic pleasures of gravity.

Narrative provides a comforting and teleological paradigm for the physical experience. It is not a startling innovation, this commingling of kinesis and narrative. As Raymond Fielding pointed out in 1957, Disney's Trip to the Moon is only an update of the Hale's Tours exhibits that were popular between 1904 and 1906. Audiences for Hale's Tours boarded a mock train carriage, and while a film of exotic locales played up ahead the coach would be rocked and a breeze might even play over them. Now retitled Mission to Mars, the Disney attraction features a preflight area, seats that move in a simulacrum of gravitational effects, a film view of the exotic Martian landscape through upper and lower "windows," and even a fictitious crisis for dramatic effect. This combination of simulation and transportation, as noted, was a fundament of the parks' conception. The WEDway (as in Walter E. Disney) People Mover has the distinction of being a ride with no purpose beyond demonstrating its own transport technology (it remains one of the most relaxing attractions at the park). The implications carried by the rides of Tomorrowland bear upon the ontological status of the subject in an era defined by an implosive and disembodying proliferation of electronic technologies (as will be shown).

4. Futurama

Seemingly opposed to the banality of the Disney narrative experience is the tough posturing of cyberpunk science fiction, a popular subgenre in the 1980s. John Clute, a science fiction editor and critic, describes a crisis in science fiction representation that is grounded in the passage from the thrusting promise of the Space Age to the invisible circulations and movements of the Electronic Age.

No longer has information any tangible, kinetic analogue in the world of the senses, or in the imaginations of writers of fiction. Gone are the great arrays of vacuum tubes, the thousands of toggles that heroes of space fiction would flick almost faster than the eye could see as they dodged space "torpedoes," outflanked alien "battle lines," steered through asteroid "storms"; gone, more importantly, is any sustained sense of the autonomy, in space and time, of gross visible individual human actions. And if "actions" are now invisible, then our fates are likewise beyond our grasp. We no longer feel that we penetrate the future; futures penetrate us.

Technological change has moved into the terminal spaces of the computer, the video screen, and the fiber optic cable. Through its surreal yet plausible spatialization of electronic culture, cyberpunk science fiction achieved real importance. The invisible spaces of the computer are metaphorically "entered" by the physiologically enhanced "cyberspace cowboys" of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), for example, reinstating the possibility of "visible individual human actions."

Cyberpunk stages a rejection of the white towers of technocracy in favor of a street-level science fiction exemplified in cinema by the retrofitted urbanism of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Cyberpunk polemicist Bruce Sterling writes that science fiction "has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Hugo Gernsback, when Science was safely enshrined-and confined-in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control." The measured forms of instrumental reason no longer dominate the technosphere, which has now slipped, as Baudrillard continually notes, into a self-regulating and implosive state.

Cyberpunk is notorious for its repudiation of this ivory-towered confidence, this faith in a future that works: this is not quite true of Disney's Horizons. Following its reactionary retrospective of retro-futures, Horizons presents its own set of prognostications based upon the by this time dubious premise of technological progress devoid of social implications. Improved urbanism, undersea farming (a Disney mania), colonies in outer space-nothing disturbs the stability of the white, heterosexual, middle class, extended nuclear family (and, speaking of nuclear, how is all this powered?). Indeed, tranquility is improved, as holographic videophones permit instantaneous communication (reach out and touch someone).

The simple but unavoidable irony of this audioanimated(tm) diorama is that there isn't even the gesture toward a social reality that can be found in Lang's Metropolis and the poetry of his Frau du Mond or in Melies's Voyage dans la lune. The outmoded futures retain a special vibrancy: the Disney version is at once more utopian, more banal, and more ignorant. Only the citizens, in their homogenized glory, are revealed and encountered, their lives conveniently (and conventionally) narrativized. The central planning apparatus (corporate? governmental?) remains invisible, functioning as the omniscient narrator of this future world and its successes. Bruce Franklin has written of Futurama that "It is the corporation that plans and builds, while the people are purely passive, comfortably watching the creation in motion as mere spectators."


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction 1

One Remembering Cyberspace

1 There's Always . . . Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience 13

2 Gibson's Typewriter 32

3 X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero (1994) 48

Two Kaleidoscopic Perceptions

4 The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime 81

5 The Ultimate Trip: Special Effects and Kaleidoscopic Perception 111

Three The Grace of Beings

6 Taking Shape: Morphing and the Performance of Self 133

7 Syncopated City: New York in Musical Film (1929-1961) 157

8 The Boys in the Hoods: A Song of the Urban Superhero (2000) 184

Notes 225

Bibliography 257

Index 270

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