26 June 2004
Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century
by Scott Bukatman (Duke University Press)
Near the beginning of The Matrix Reloaded, the Nebuchadnezzar‘s new operator stares at the columns of green code on his screen and says that Neo is “doing his Superman thing”. Cut to a shot of Keanu Reeves as Neo, black-clad and Ray-Ban’d, speeding through a moonlit cloudscape in the Matrix like a supersonic bat. The line raises a laugh, paying homage to the writer-directors’ comic-book heritage, but the reference also feels incongruous, uncomfortable. It is the only acknowledgment in the Matrix trilogy of real-world pop culture. It is also a blunt confession that the story has plateaued: whereas the first film dramatises Neo’s becoming, his fulfilling of an apparent heroic destiny, by the beginning of the second film there is no becoming left to do: he is a superhero. Driven by this shift of pulp genre, the muted greens and greys of the first film give way to a more lurid palette and cluttered mise en scène.
But can a superhero movie work if the hero is just too, well, super? A superhero must always have a peculiar vulnerability — a weak spot named after the heel of an early superhero, Achilles. Neo, however, is simply invincible in the world of the Matrix, able to fly, beat off 100 Agent Smiths, and bring his lover back to life. Thus his weakness, his Kryptonite, can only be the fact that in the real world, he is still “only human”, a piece of vulnerable meat. The fact that virtual experience is, finally, always anchored to the flesh is at once the lament and triumph of classic cyberpunk fiction from William Gibson onwards.
So the Matrix sequels try to solve their narrative problems by fusing the genres of superhero story and cyberpunk, two traditions that are, among others, superbly analysed in Scott Bukatman’s collection of essays. As he points out, in modern science fiction “the body may be ‘simulated, morphed, modified, re-tooled, genetically engineered and even dissolved’, but it is never entirely eliminated: the subject always retains a meat component”.
A large part of his book, indeed, concerns the question of bodies in a technologised age. Bukatman argues that the swooping camera movements in the early virtual-reality fantasy film Tron, for example, act so as to embody the viewer in its alienating new spaces, to give us “‘a place’ in this computerised world, a place defined almost solely in terms of spatial penetration and kinetic achievement”. The purpose of much science fiction, paradoxically, is to provide the comforting illusion that we know where we are. Extending this thesis, Bukatman spends an excellent chapter analysing the “scopic mastery” offered by certain special-effects shots in sci-fi cinema, especially the epic space tableaux of the sfx guru Douglas Trumbull in films such as Silent Running, Close Encounters and the first Star Trek movie. The omnipotent God’s-eye view of such visions, he argues, derives directly from examples of the epic sublime in the paintings of Turner or Frederick Church, which performed the same reassuring function in the 19th century. “The over whelming perceptual power granted by these panoramic displays addressed the perceived loss of cognitive power experienced by the subject in an increasingly technologised world.”
Similarly, the hypertrophied but imperilled muscularity of comic-book superheroes, Bukatman says, embodies modern neuroses. “The superhero body is everything – a ‘corporeal’, rather than a ‘cognitive’, mapping of the subject into a cultural system.” Their pumped-up fleshliness – presented, as Bukatman notes, essentially in the manner of the classical nude, the skintight costumes furnishing colour rather than cover – serves only to emphasise the vulnerability of the meat in the modern world.
Bukatman’s passion, evinced throughout these essays, for sci-fi films and pulp comic-books is infectious, and it is a treat to learn especially of a satirical comic series called Doom Patrol, with its ludically surreal storylines. “An early enemy,” Bukatman tells us, “was the Brotherhood of Evil, now reformed as the Brotherhood of Dada, whose first act is to trap Paris within a recursively structured painting.” Another villain in the Doom Patrol world is called The Quiz, who has “every superpower you haven’t thought of — to fight her involves thinking of lots of superpowers ‘really quickly’”.
There are just a few occasions when the clichés of industrialised cultural studies rear their heads: for example, Bukatman indulges a few times in the weirdly masochistic postmodern academic tradition of debasing reason — “science fiction is a notoriously rationalist genre”, we are told, which is not the whole truth (Forbidden Planet is explicitly Freudian, the Matrix films are mystical); and anyway, what is wrong with being rationalist? Occasionally, too, one finds a sentence such as the following: “If, as some theorists of culture would have it, mediation is im-mediately [sic] tantamount to manipulation, then the proliferation of mediated experiential modes will indeed produce a vapid, inertial society of spectacles and simulations.” Luckily, Bukatman more often sees himself as a rebel superhero fighting the sober constrictions of the academy, which, as he neatly complains, “so often mistrusts the pleasures of illusion, dismissed as illusions of pleasure”. And his prose is much the wittier and more readable for it, encompassing everything from high-table puns such as “The Différance Engine” (alluding to Derrida and the steampunk novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) to dick jokes.
His final chapter is the best: a reading of superheroes in their various urban environments that is studded with lovely aperçus. Bukatman draws an analogy between the 1811 imposition of Manhattan’s grid street system and the rectilinear layout of traditional comic strips which was subsequently exploded and dissolved for artistic effect. The strange fact that superheroes always live in big cities persuades him that the liberating sight of Superman flying, Spider-Man swinging or Batman leaping through the skylines is again an attempt to domesticate the dehumanised concrete sprawl. Superman, Bukatman says, “represented, in 1938, a kind of Corbusierian ideal. Superman has X-ray vision: walls become permeable, transparent. Through his benign, controlled authority, Superman renders the city open, modernist and democratic; he furthers a sense that Le Corbusier described in 1925, namely, that ‘Everything is known to us’.”
A similar implication is made by one image-cluster in the Matrix trilogy. Neo does not figure in Bukatman’s book, since it was written before he became a superhero proper in Reloaded. And yet the first film already symbolically visualises Neo’s becoming-superman in his transcendence of the urban environment. Near the beginning of The Matrix, Neo is teetering on a skyscraper window ledge, and decides to go back inside to the waiting agents rather than risk climbing to safety. At the end of the film he leaves the telephone booth and soars up into the sky, beyond the tallest of the nowhere-city’s buildings. No coincidence that, at the trilogy’s climax, the end of The Matrix Revolutions, Neo undergoes his Ascension in a blazing sea of photonic architecture, the metropolis of the machines, that resembles nothing so much as the medieval vision of a Heavenly City.