Friday, October 29, 2010

Tron Night

Last night, I participated in Tron Night, a promotional gimmick to build buzz and anticipation for Disney’s big tent pole Christmas season film, Tron Legacy. Like a similar stunt two summers ago for Cameron’s now record-breaking Avatar (both the preview and movie I wasn’t impressed by), Tron Night consisted of approximately 20 minutes of footage—a collection of about 5 or 6 disconnected scenes from the first half of the movie. Unlike Avatar, I came away very impressed by what I saw.

Last year’s preview was such a huge letdown, so maybe my standards were lower this time. The effects of Avatar looked nice, but I left with that Ferngully-vibe that later marred the film for a lot of people who dared to question Lord Cameron (as a fan of Aliens, Terminator, and even The Abyss and Titanic, I was especially disappointed after the long wait for his latest project). For all the marketing and promotion of how Avatar would revolutionize the ontological nature of cinema itself, I found the 3D surprisingly underwhelming and the whole look of the film was just plain, well, fake. I don’t know another word for it—I just didn’t feel a part of its world (in both senses of the phrase) for a second. It wasn’t just the blue skin and other design features of the Navi and their fellow inhabitants of Pandora that looked fake—it was how, even beyond that, they didn’t look photorealistic or three-dimensional at all. Instead, they had the bland 2D flatness of a fancy cartoon drawing instead of the convincing depth and life of, say, Golem in Lord of the Rings. The Navi looked so unrealistic that it made the indexical reality of the rest of the movie feel off for me.

And when I saw the final version months later with an open mind, it was just more of the same fakeness, structured around a clich├ęd, predictable plot that was about an hour longer than it needed to be. I know there were a lot of people, mostly teenagers, who genuinely loved Avatar (but let’s see how they feel about it in ten years), but its success was really due to a huge financial investment in technology upfront, an elaborate marketing campaign that repeatedly sold the film’s questionably “groundbreaking” technology, and all different kinds of ridiculous ticket inflation (3D prices, IMAX prices, even the average general admission cost is double what it was when Titanic was released 13 yrs ago). The movie itself was a whole lotta blah, and the extended preview telegraphed it.

But there were no such reservations about Tron Legacy, which may or may not turn out to be a good movie. But, of course, a big caveat: I am a huge fan of the original Tron, which was more technologically groundbreaking in how it redefined “cinema” than anything Avatar ever did. Cameron’s film did nothing especially innovative in 3D cinema, digital effects, or the IMAX format—what it did was combine them so completely at a level of spectacle and narrative unlike anything before it (but, hey, when you are “King of the World,” it’s a lot easier to afford that kind of “innovation” [$$$] in the first place). The original Tron took film apart—literally—and put it back together again. Much was made of how Tron contained the first ever completely computer-generated scenes in feature-length film history; but it was remarkable in other ways too. The film was shot on 70mm stock so that artists could go in and modified the look of the movie frame-by-frame with backlighting, hand drawings and so forth. Tiny details that would take a digital effects artist a few seconds to do today took months, even years, back then.

Its achievement was quite literally the whole history of movie effects, side-by-side with the future of movie effects simultaneously. Tron the movie itself was the technological innovation for its time; Avatar was just the most effective exploiter of other technological innovations (there was a reason Cameron spent a decade off making IMAX and 3D documentaries before returning to feature-length narrative films). Tron was not a big hit when it first appeared—partly because of intense marketplace competition in science fiction in 1982 (ET, Star Trek II, Blade Runner, etc.)—but also because it was too far ahead of its time. Neither audiences, nor perhaps the computer effects themselves, were yet ready for what Tron was trying to do.

My own relationship to Tron of course is not only a form of technological admiration (one that only grows as I come to better understand the process of filmmaking more with each passing year), but also a deeply affective and nostalgic one. But it’s weird—I don’t remember watching the film in theatres as a kid (I would have been four), and in fact the first time I ever remember watching it in its entirety was when I was in my 20s and I picked it up on DVD. But it spoke to something in me. For one thing, I remember watching the “Light Cycle” and other scenes countless times on the Disney Channel as a kid (this was back when the premium cable channel just recycled older content rather than offered any new programming, and I first saw a lot of Disney’s extensive catalog that way).

So I do remember watching a great deal of it when I was young—just not the complete movie. Moreover, watching Tron a couple decades later, I was thrown back not only to an era of early CGI that was oddly reassuring in its primitive state, but also to a video game culture structured around the old-fashioned “Game Arcade” that was ubiquitous when I was a child, but which was already quickly passing in the 21st Century home gaming era of Playstations and Xboxes. I remembered playing the Tron arcade game as a kid, as well as numerous others from the period. Tron spoke retrospectively to that huge part of my youth—where I would go off to the Mall arcade for an hour with a few bucks in hand while my parents were shopping.

I don’t know that the story of Tron ever really particularly sucked me in—the standard “technology is overtaking the world” kind of sci-fi narrative. Even Bridges’ Flynn was a strangely uninvolving character, an aloof jerk (and unevenly acted by Bridges in a rare uncharacteristic performance), while Bruce Boxleitner was too predictably bland to make for an interesting lead. Rather, it was the atmosphere of both 1980s arcades and the seductively beautiful spectacle of the ENCOM Mainframe world itself that appealed to me.

I don’t think that I ever felt “immersed” into that diegetic world, but I always found its sterile beauty transcendent and even soothing in its own nascent way. It became one of those “late night” movies for me—the ones (usually horror or science fiction) that I watched at night when I couldn’t sleep. They helped me sleep not because they were boring, but because they were, and are, so effectively atmospheric that I was taken out of my own world and into another just enough to calm me down and drift away. In a sense, I got lost in the spectacle of Tron.

And, based on what I saw last night, Tron Legacy takes that feeling to a whole new level—is it as groundbreaking as the original? Of course not. I’m not sure it does anything really technologically advanced. But what it does well is maintain the clean, barren, symmetrical look of the original, with the attendant iconography, while also giving the Mainframe world just enough grit, fog and shadows to feel like a more three-dimensional, and even more quietly sinister, world. Whereas the original Tron was simply alien in its mise-en-scene, the new one is more ambiguous, ominous and absorbing.

You feel like you’re in a world that is straddling the line between science-fiction and horror, while still retaining the original’s techno-beauty (it must be said here that Daft Punk’s score sounds simply amazing—particularly in a sequence where several Recognizers float across the digital landscape after picking Sam up—and will be worth the price of admission alone. It matches the look, sound and feel of Tron’s world while also being unlike anything we heard in the original).

Of course, this new sense of immersion, unlike the first Tron, is also due to the wise addition of 3D. But I didn’t find the 3D effect all that engaging on its own—in fact, it had the same two-plane effect that I perceived when I saw Avatar. There are objects in the foreground, while the background often felt like a flat wall, particularly involving scenes of dialogue. But overall it was effective in selling Sam’s new experience in his dad’s world.

The early “real life” scenes shown—Sam being visited at his apartment (inside a cargo shipping container) by Alan (a welcome sight in Boxleitner again), and then him exploring his Dad’s abandoned arcade (lovingly recreated from the original) were presented in the usual 2D, leading me to assume that only scenes inside the ENCOM mainframe are done in 3D. This would be a clever creative (and well as cost-conscious) move, if true.

So, what scenes did I see? The first two, as I noted above, involved Sam in the real world. I hope Boxleitner has a bigger role in the full version (the first scene of Alan’s visit was listed as Scene 20, so hopefully there’s more backstory involved in how we get from Tron to Tron Legacy). Sam’s coffee table is littered with motorcycle magazines, clearly a daredevil and a bike junkie that foreshadows the Light Cycle scenes. The next scene involves Sam discovering his dad’s basement office beneath the arcade, appropriately decorated with the relevant technology from the 1980s (a nice compliment to the old school arcade games above), where—after an abrupt cut—we are left to presume he is zapped like his Dad in the original into the computer world.

We then jump ahead to the 3D stuff and a lengthy scene in the Grid where Sam is captured by a Recognizer, carried off to a processing center, fitted with the appropriate outfits and memory discs by four female programs, and then sent off to fight in a Disc game (much like Flynn’s experience in the original, minus the obvious sex appeal). After that, we jump ahead to the very end of a Light Cycle sequence, where another program—played by Olivia Wilde—helps him escape the games and the city, into a space that is presumably “off-line.” Then, she takes Sam to the “safehouse” where he (and the audience) are re-introduced to Flynn, played with a suitably zen-like gruffiness by Jeff Bridges (this time channeling a mellower, more soft-spoken Lebowski).

This last scene was my favorite—I don’t know if I’m sold on the actor overall, but in this scene Garrett Holmund really sells Sam’s emotional state at seeing his father for the first time in 20 years, it is genuinely moving, while Bridges’ nails Flynn’s strange ambivalence as both a father genuinely happy to be reunited with his son, but also as a man who has been trapped in a networked, digitized world for so long that he no longer clearly has the interpersonal, human capacity to relate to other people in a compassionate way (thus making Sam’s heartbreak all the more devastating). It could be a great performance.

The extended preview ends with Flynn looking out over the world from the vantage point of his safe house (in a vision of the city directly evoking a similar shot in the original), and then transitions over the standard theatrical teaser trailer that many people have already seen. In fact, all the scenes in Tron Night felt like extended versions of the moments we’ve already seen in previews. There is one quick reference to “Tron” himself (which was Alan’s program in the original), but there’s no clear sense of what, if any, role the title character plays in this sequel. There is also no real sense of the film’s larger plot—we don’t know what’s at stake—online or in the real world—for Sam, Flynn, Alan or anyone else this time around.

The preview worked for me because it successfully appealed to, and intensified, the two things I love about the original: nostalgia for various media technologies and cultures from the 1980s, and the techno-beauty of Encom’s mainframe. And the role of Flynn, plus the reappearance of Bridges and Boxleitner, grounds the film in such a way that it feels like a true continuation of the original, rather than just another half-brained “reboot,” “reimagining,” or some other hollow, quick money-grab on the backs of another maxed-out transmedia franchise. So, I’m on board.

End of line.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A PhD in Pictures

"Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship."
- Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

With the arrival of my bound dissertation recently in the mail, several months after I submitted it (and that came several months after my successful defense), I think its finally time to move on from my PhD experience. A couple years ago, I blogged about the end of coursework. It was definitely surreal.

But now just feels a little different. The following is a series of photos (in some cases, the few that are left) which will always remind me of my grad school days. It is deeply affective, and so more detailed descriptions probably wouldn't do. Maybe one day I'll go back and add more specifics.

Anyway, a rare image still left from my first year in grad school (Spring 2002):

My old Oklahoma State office (circa 2002), with Scott (my desk was just to the left of this picture):

CRAS--if you have to ask, you just don't get it:

After OSU, I left for Wayne State in Detroit, MI, for a year (2004-2005). This is a copy of an old postcard I have from 1942 Detroit: I have newer picture somewhere. The English department where I worked is located on the 9th and 10th floors of the Maccabees Building today:

I left Detroit in 2005 to attend Indiana University. For a long time, I kept this other turn-of-the-century pic from Detroit on my desk at home as a reminder (this all makes sense if you read 'Islands of Detroit'--please, please, do so):

A shot of where my first office building from IU was originally located (2005-2006), before it was demolished. An added bonus? I took this picture the morning before my PhD Oral exams (early 2008):

My First SCMS Conference in Vancouver, BC (early 2006). Me, Sarah and Jenna at the train station. Such fond memories:

The building in IU that we moved into at the start of my third year (2007):

The view from my hotel room at SCMS - Philly, 2008:

A few months later, I finished my coursework, wrote and defended my exams, and packed up and left Bloomington for Chicago (May 2008):

A spontaneous reminder in late 2008 at a coffee kiosk at Harper College, Illinois, that I needed to get back to my dissertation:

I did a lot of research in the microfilm room at Northwestern University (2009-2010)--a lot initially for my dissertation, but I also did a lot later for my research assistant position. So much time locked in this room:

Spring 2009: a long day of revisions, this time on my Cinema Journal article (also a version of chapter 7 in the dissertation):

Halloween Weekend, 2009--my hiding away in the awesome Holidome in Columbus, Indiana, forty minutes east of Bloomington, as I frantically proofread all 300+ pages of the final defense copy of my dissertation, before handing copies to my committee on the following Monday:

The Mitchell Domes in Milwaukee, WI--A childhood nostalgic detour (as a native of WI). I went there twice in recent years, once in Nov. 2008 after I finished the first draft of my dissertation; once in Nov. 2009 after I finished my defense copy:

My full committee, moments after a successful defense (December 2009):

SCMS, March 2010: Wandering the LA Bonaventure just before my 8am presentation:

Graduation Day, May 2010--the view from the floor:

Premature Enlightenment?:

A dissertation, August 2010:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dissertation Now Available

The dissertation version of one of my current projects, A Frown Upside Down / The Affective, Cultural and Convergence Histories of Disney's Song of the South (2010), is finally available through ProQuest Dissertations. This is more or less the version that I completed and defended last December (I have since made more revisions).

A link to the abstract and preview can be found here--if you have access to a university library, I believe you can retrieve the full text of the dissertation by logging in to the library's database, going to ProQuest and searching for it through there (there is no direct permanent link that I know of, sorry).

I will only say for now that I don't like the abstract in retrospect--its too narrowly focused on what at the time I thought was the project's biggest scholarly contribution. But looking at it now, I feel it misses the scope of many other historical and cultural issues I'm trying to examine.

Having conceived the idea back in 2002, then researched it for another five years, and then actively worked at it for over three years, I am very proud of this work--its easily the best thing I've ever written, and I think many different audiences in time will find much of value (and provocation) in its pages. When the project is brought to its final resolution, I will take more time to reflect on the process of writing and revising it, and on what I feel its ultimate contributions may be.


Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Days and Images of Hawaii

The famous credit sequence for Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980) remains a thrilling piece of media. Although more well-known for its music (as with many such Hawaiian-themed artifacts in the American imagination), the visual sequence itself is a remarkable work of montage that even today can hold its own against the latest films and music videos. Yet, the aesthetics of those credits are only a small part of why I find it (and the show itself) absorbing—like the larger narrative canvas of Hawaii Five-O—it is also a remarkable historical snapshot of the mainland’s particular fascination with Hawaii in the middle of the 20th Century.

The credit sequence in Hawaii Five-O is a montage of the state’s appeal—spliced between introductions to the show’s stars are extended shots of Waikiki Beach, a weirdly excessive fetishization of a United Airlines 707 jet airliner (the popularity of Hawaii rose partly in tandem with the emergence of affordable airfare and a new US middle-class), hula dancing and Hawaiian girls, Honolulu’s nightlife and so forth.

But what I always find the most striking in this sequence every time are two separate shots of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu—one a bird’s eye view of the Honolulu Memorial and then a cut to a zoom-in on the Lady Columbia statue. Built just four years before the show began, it is a tribute to veterans of WWII and the Korean War (later, too, of Vietnam—a conflict which Hawaii Five-O negotiated in interesting ways during its run). The appeal of Hawaii in the mid-20th Century was always very much in dialogue with war.

My next major project, which will take many years to complete, will be a study of US images of Hawaii in film and television from roughly 1935 to 1970. The particular emphasis will probably be the 1950s and 1960s, when the territory/state was at the height of its popularity in the mainland, but the roots of that popularity stretched back to before WWII. The white sugar plantation owners in Hawaii by the 1930s realized that that commodity wasn’t going to last, and thus made the conscious decision to rebrand Hawaii as a tourist destination. As early as 1935, Hawaii became a fad in the mainland US, with the popularity of Harry Owens music and Bing Crosby musicals (in particular, 1938's Waikiki Wedding). By 1940, the interest had begun to wane, until the attack on Pearl Harbor, which added a whole other layer to the issue. While the US military had long built up a huge presence there, the attack focused mainstream America on the islands, much of which didn’t even know Hawaii was a US territory.

Before WWII, images of Hawaii largely depicted the islands as an ahistorical tropical utopia for the rich and famous (Hawaii was where Hollywood celebrities went to get away from Southern California, which is literally the subject of the 1939 Robert Young comedy, Honolulu). In a sense, that’s not unlike how Hawaii is represented today—think of a recent episode of ABC’s Modern Family or the Apatow comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).

But, for a couple decades, images of the islands seemed very locked in to a particular moment in American history. In particular, I’m interested in examining the reception of these film and television images through the lens of US military involvement in the Pacific, whiteness’ negotiation with notions of racial utopia, and the emergence of a new leisure middle-class. It is similar in scope and methodology to the Song of the South project—focusing on the historical contexts, generational nostalgia and transmediated branding of populist American media within an overlapping time frame (40s-70s)—but with a very different series of central artifacts.

* * *

So, then, the question becomes . . . why? There are two answers. The first is more scholarly (and perfectly valid): people just haven’t yet talked about it, and yet it demands attention. Consider this: in 1961, Elvis Presley’s soundtrack album to the film Blue Hawaii was released, and went on to be the highest-selling album of his career during his lifetime. Elvis went on to do two more popular films and soundtracks during this decade set in Hawaii (Girls, Girls, Girls and Paradise, Hawaiian Style). In 1966, meanwhile, the historical epic, Hawaii (based on the hugely popular James Michener novel of the same name), was the highest-grossing film of the year (and followed with a sequel four years later). In 1968, finally, Hawaii Five-O premiered, and went on to be the longest-running night-time drama in the history of American broadcast television, until it was finally passed by Law and Order in 2003. My initial research question is, then, why was the subject of Hawaii so popular by the 1960s?

But, as I mentioned above, the seeds for this were planted in the 1930s—like my project on Song of the South, I think of media history in terms of accumulation and dissipation, such that asking why something was popular in mainstream US media requires looking more so at the decades which proceeded the timeframe in question, those decades which established the conditions of possibility which the presence of current texts then activate. For example, the sudden, unexpected popularity of Song of the South in 1972 was less a reflection of that decade, and more the culmination of different factors set in motion in the 1950s and 1960s (even though those were the decades when the film was theatrically-unsuccessful and then pulled from circulation for 16 years). There, I suppose, the connection ends—I have a very different personal relationship to the kitschy, if condescending, Hawaii Five-O than to the far more disturbing Disney film (and, of course, the historical context of the Hawaiian islands is very different than the American South).

The other interest in the Hawaii is more personal—my grandfather and father both worked for United Airlines, which built its tourist empire, beginning in the 1950s, on being the “official” gateway to Hawaii for mainland tourists. Episodes of Hawaii Five-O (and the opening sequence of Blue Hawaii) are littered with gratuitous shots of United jets. My grandparents went there every summer. All of this is a part of my family’s history. What is also a part of my family’s history is war. My grandfather served in the Pacific during the Korean War. Meanwhile, two of my uncles, his sons, then served in Vietnam.

A few years ago (approx. `05-`06), at a family holiday gathering in Oregon, several of us were talking about experiences visiting Hawaii (I had only been there a couple of times as a kid, though I have since visited there once more in 2007). While my grandfather and father talked excessively, nostalgically even, about their many memories of the islands, my uncle (who never had the luxuries of air travel that others in his family had) at one point simply remarked, “the only time I was in Hawaii was on my way to Vietnam.”

This was always very powerful to me. In many ways, that simple statement completely changed my understanding of that generation of post-(pre-?)war, middle-class, white America’s relationship to Hawaii, and I think in retrospect planted the seeds for this project. I understood what my uncle was literally saying—dating to the late 19th century, Hawaii was always the hub for the US military presence in the Pacific (even before the US military overthrew the sovereign Hawaiian government in 1983). In the 20th Century, all military activities and personnel involving conflicts with the Japanese, the North Koreans and the Vietnamese went through Oahu. But I also understood what he was saying symbolically—his memories of Hawaii directly co-existed with memories of combat. I also then thought about my other uncle, the one who didn’t come back from Vietnam, and realized that the last vision he had of the US, and maybe of “paradise,” was Honolulu.

Whether one agrees or not with the righteousness of 20th Century US military intervention in the Pacific (and I adamantly do not), there is nonetheless a profound, genuine, sense of “utopia” at work there for a whole generation of middle-class Americans—including those, remember, who didn’t have a choice about serving—when they saw images and sounds of Hawaii in populist media of the time. Hawaii was the last, and first, thing they saw of paradise (and of the U.S.) on their way to, and from, war. That brief shot of the Honolulu Memorial evoked that memory for audiences, every week on CBS, for 13 seasons.