Waking Into Dream: Competence Cascades, Thick Texts, and the Universalization of the Geek Aesthetic
An excerpt from From Alien To The Matrix.
'Waking into dream' was always the working title for this collection of essays on science fiction film; like many working titles, it has served as a useful seed around which my ideas have crystallized in the two years I have taken to work on the book. I knew, when I started, that a part of my emphasis would be the way that certain works of art, among them science fiction films, have the capacity to act as triggers for the creative and critical imagination.
As I worked on the films I ended up selecting - there are many other important films I have not written about in this volume, and omission is not to be taken as a covert critical judgement - I found myself thinking about film-making, and particularly script-writing, as a process; this is not a book about creative constraints in sf film-making, but it is a book which at least occasionally considers them. Similarly, it is not a book about how changes in viewing technology have affected our sense of what the authentic version of a film is - but this too is a subject that gets at least passing consideration.
What that title has come to mean for me is this. We watch these films in order to enjoy them, but also to think about them afterwards, and come back to watching them with an enjoyment deepened and made more complex by that thought. This means, in turn, that the pleasures of the best of these films are not merely those of surprise and exhilaration, but are also that different exhilaration which comes from going around the track a second time and a third. One of the factors which helped determine the selection of films under discussion here is that many of them date from a period recent enough that it was known to those involved that they would be viewed repeatedly both in cinemas and through home entertainment media - the rise of first the VHS tape and then the DVD, has meant that it is now possible for most of us to know films more intensely than has been the case at any previous date.
These are not only science fiction films, they are films whose production and consumption has been crucially affected by the growth of technology. The Internet has meant that it is sometimes possible to choose to know a film's script in considerable detail before seeing it. The presence on many DVDs of a commentary track means that it is possible for any viewer to listen to a canonical version of the director's, and sometimes the principal actors' and technicians', intentions and sense of their own failures and successes. (Some of the most remarkable examples of this have taken place outside SF film - the DVD of Baz Luhrman's 'Moulin Rouge' enables the viewer to re-edit certain elaborate musical sequences by including all the camera angles from which they were shot.)
This period, the last quarter of the twentieth century, has been one in which the technologies of science fiction, horror and fantasy filmmaking underwent serious changes. Other film genres were affected by these technological shifts, but far less crucially - David Fincher uses radical makeup and modelling work in 'Seven', serious CGI in 'Fight Club', but this is unusual. Much of this has been due to what I call competence cascades, that is to say, the process whereby a rare set of professional skills is admired and imitated by an amateur following and the professional and amateur worlds influence each other in a process of continuous feedback and change of roles until the professional skills are far more advanced and far less rare.
To take but one example: there have always been professional makeup artists fascinated by the grotesque and monstrous. The actor Lon Chaney built an entire film career from designing monster makeups for himself and playing roles in those getups; other makeup artists produced, for example, the elaborate makeup worn by Boris Karloff in Universal Pictures' 'Frankenstein'. Various of those makeups - the Frankenstein monster or Lon Chaney's 'Phantom of the Opera', for example - became cliches both through movie spin-offery and through the growth of a fan culture dedicated to appreciating, and duplicating, them.
The magazine 'Famous Monsters of Filmland' ran from 1958 to 1984 and included regular features in which amateur makeup artists showed their work, and occasional competitions to pick the best of such amateur makeup jobs - the prizes often including a chance to meet the winner's heroes, the professional monster makeup people; the magazine 'Fangoria' which started in 1979 included photo features of how makeups were achieved. The costuming strand of science fiction and horror fan conventions contributed to the creation of a body of expertise; the art work of science fiction magazines and comic books helped create a visual vocabulary from which makeup artists could derive ideas for new creatures.
It is not necessarily the case that most, or even many, makeup artists working in this field were ever active in the fandom, but the anecdotal evidence is that some at least of the current professionals in the field grew up fascinated by both actual films and the makeups crucial to them and by the associated material. What the fandom will have helped do was validate the career choice at all pre-professional stages. What is clear is that where, once these skills were rare, now they are common enough that during his films of 'Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson could run something like an industrial production line of people producing monster makeups in large quantities for each day's shooting. It is also clear that ever more elaborate makeups are becoming easier to do - the technology has improved - and even marginally less unendurable for the actors who have to work with them
Similarly, the development of computer graphics as a way of creating special effects that would previously, if possible at all, have involved fiddly stop-motion work with detailed models has been a process in which the distinction between talented amateur, semi-professional out-worker and highly paid professional has often been blurred. A fascination with 'how did they do that?' is always likely to become ' I could do that better'. The television space opera series 'Babylon 5' was made possible by the availability of ambitious young Californian semi-professionals who regarded its massive set piece battles as a showcase for their talents; the same is true of some of the young New Zealanders who worked on 'The Lord of the Rings'. The more people there are around who have a new skill, the more that skill will spread and be defined.
Among such skills, in a way, is the ability to negotiate the complicated Big Dumb Narrative Object of the corpus of sf and fantasy genre writing, picking and choosing narrative tropes and developed ideas and making from them something that either is new, or appears to be with enough verisimilitude to count as such. ( I created the term 'Big Dumb Object' to describe plots ,common in the 1970s, in which the protagonists found a location so vast and complex that the entire book was taken up with their traversing it. Nick Lowe has usefully suggested that genres like sf and fantasy are themselves Big Dumb Narrative Objects, that part of the pleasure of them is learning to move around them with more than a tourist's sense of location..)
An inability to cope with this material will at times leave even significant critics floundering when they have to try. Reviewing, favourably, Brian Singer's second X-Men film, the late Alexander Walker found himself entirely unable to parse the early scene in which the hobgoblin- like Nightcrawler teleports rapidly around the Oval Office. Nightcrawler's abilities, visually presented in that scene, are exhibited at various points throughout the plot - Walker nonetheless found himself unable to describe the relevant scenes accurately. In an era in which there are sf films, sf is one of the things that a film critic has to know about.
Historically one of the determining aspects of any genre is the presence of stylistic or narrative tropes; another is the process whereby writers echo consciously earlier use of those tropes. Sometimes that echo is a purely ludic gambit, a way of including the expert reader or viewer in a conspiracy of informed smugness; sometimes, as with the locked-room mystery once fashionable in the detective story, it is a way in which the author can display virtuoso skill; sometimes, and particularly in sf ( which has important roots in the polemic mode of utopian fiction) it is a way of taking issue with the political and social assumptions implicit in an earlier use of the material. Randell Garrett's 1958 novelette of interplanetary shipwreck involved male colonists lobotomizing a murderess to make her over into a brood-mare; the heroine of Joanna Russ's 1977 novel 'We who are About to' kills most of her fellow-castaways out of a mixture of kindness and preservation of her own autonomy.
Originality in genre work is only some of the time a matter of the completely new plot or idea;it is as often a question of the inventive spin put on a stock matter. It is accordingly sometimes beside the point to consider particular embodiments as in any sense plagiarisms one of another; films from the various sub-genres within sf film, say, should be judged according to the grace notes, if any, specific to a particular incarnation of the Menacing Intruder, rather than by trying to establish a clear line of intellectual primacy between the Terminator, the Predator, the Species and so on. Indeed, I would argue that the extent to which particular screenwriters, directors and so on are comfortable inhabitants of the sf corpus is one of the positive aspects of their work because it means that when they reinvent the wheel, they know that that is what they are doing. James Cameron is the obvious example here, which is why, perhaps, this collection gives so much consideration to his work.
There are huge sub-universes that bud off from genres - possibly the biggest of all Big Dumb Narrative Objects is the corpus of continuity attached to Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics have accumulated well over half a century's worth of biography of its scores of super-hero and super- villain characters, often attaching to those radically different alternate presents, aborted futures and past incarnations. Marvel Comics continuity is a megatext comparable in scale to that of the mythologies of the Ancient Classical European world, say - yet, in its essence and in its obsessional concerns, it is a subset of the rather smaller megatext of the whole sf and fantasy genres on which it has always drawn. Accordingly, a film like Ang Lee's 'Hulk' needs to be understood not only in terms of the extended continuity of that particular comic book title, but in terms of the other concerns - nanotechnology, bio-engineering, giant mutant poodles - that are tropes imported from the broader sf world.
This process of understanding whence ideas have been drawn and transformed into a particular script, as of understanding how the look of a particular film derives in part from the technical accomplishment and creative innovation of its designers, make-up crew, CGI technicians as well as from the personal vision of a director or producer is what makes all films, but most especially sf films, thick texts. A thick text is one to read which we have to understand the existence of process. The film we first see in the cinema may be further revised to the final form of an extended director's cut; our knowledge of it may be transformed when viewing it on DVD by the presence of deleted scenes - and we may not necessarily agree with the decision to delete them, even where we understand what the arguments in favour of that deletion were.
We have to learn again that all works of art are to some extent provisional - in that they are abandoned rather than ever completed, and in that they are always one particular stage in a notional process which may be picked up again two decades later. ( Ridley Scott's 2003 re-edit of 'Alien' is a case in point here. We have to learn that all works of art are contingent - the existence of David Fincher's 'Alien„' is a consequence of the decision, at a fairly late stage, to abandon Vincent Ward's rather different version. We have to learn that any particular version of a work of art is likely to be a palimpsest through the surface of which earlier versions may up- crop - the harvesting machines crucial to the original denouement of Joss Whedon's script for 'Alien Resurrection' are unexplainedly present on screen in shots of the hold of the pirate ship The Betty. We have to learn that all works of art are in some measure collective - either because the nature of the specific art - cinema, dance, opera, theatre - involves collaboration, or because they draw on, are inspired by and argue with earlier work. We have to learn that most works of art are compromises - compromises with imperfectly developed visions, with imperfect technique, with the demands of patrons, studios, the Church or the State. To read a film, a novel, a great choral work in the light of these awarenesses is to see it as a thick text.
Reading a film as a thick text encourages us to see it in its context, both chronologically in terms of its being influenced by other films, or influencing later ones, or reimagined by critics or even its original makers in the light of that influence and its consequences. It enables us to create a criticism which includes a sense of the particular thick text as an object positioned in the broader space of the generic megatext of which it is a part. It makes it possible to include in our sense of it its particular role in the development of the cascade of particular technical competences that were needful to its conception and making.
It is also to regard obsessiveness in regard of reading and understanding as in no way a bad thing, and to regard almost any sort of knowledge as potentially relevant. In the late 1960s, I met briefly a geologist obsessed with the works of JRR Tolkien to the extent that he had made up an entire rationalization of the underlying continental drift implied by the standard map of Middleearth, and was inclined to mock him gently for it.
These days, I would reflect that Tolkien had a pantheist's obsession with landscape, and that his imagined landscapes drew on observation, and that a geologist's obsession might tell us something useful about how solid that observation was. I would further reflect that a sense of landscape is something that Tolkien shared with, say, Hardy, however less adequately, and wonder what my geologist friend could tell me usefully about Hardy's observation of the world, nor assume that a love of Tolkien precluded a love of Hardy. I would respect a sense of text that tried to read in the light of knowledge; I would, in other words, valorize what we may proudly call the geek aesthetic.
It is not, in the world of broadsheet journalism, fashionable to care too deeply about anything, whether it be socialism or a piece of popular culture, as much as the expression of individual ego and the mockery of others. One of the problems with much writing about popular culture is that it comes from writers whose careers are likely to develop in the direction of writing columns rather than reviews, whose reviews are try-outs for the better-paid column that might be a part of their future. Inevitably, it is hard for such reviewers to avoid the sort of smartass self- promotion which darkens counsel - and to write about popular culture we need to make discriminations as fine as those which apply to the cultural artefacts recognized as high art.
What is mocked as geek culture - television shows, comics, cult films - is art that people not only love, but think about and through. One of the standard assumptions about the consumption of popular culture is that it is neccessarily consumed passively - evil moguls feed the masses material that dulls their senses and discriminations; this overestimates the power of, say, Rupert Murdoch to harness absolutely everything to his dark purposes. The Murdoch empire itself includes not only politically reactionary media like 'The Sun' in Great Britain and 'Fox News' on American television, but quietly subversive material like Matt Groenig's 'The Simpsons.' One of the contradictions of late capitalism is that its obsession with market forces stops it stifling work that puts a quasi-oppositional case to the values and political causes it seeks to patronize.
A feature of the geek aesthetic is that popular culture is consumed in an active way - sitting through films and television shows can be the start of appreciating them, not simply an end in itself. A quick check of the Internet via search engines demonstrates how universal such an aesthetic is becoming.
And popular film and television and comics can be the focus through which a large audience gets a sense of the tragic and the ecstatic. There is a view expressed for example by Richard Jenkyns in his Prospect review of my 'Reading the Vampire Slayer' that popular culture inevitably debases serious themes on the rare occasions that it touches on them. There are two points to be made here. One is that later generations may re-assess what is and is not high culture - Jane Austen's defense of the novel in a period where it was regarded by many as a trivial form is a case in point. The other is that to believe this is a piece of pessimism that goes alongside a deeply elitist view of how society functions. ( Rudyard Kipling's short story 'The Janeites' both demonstrates how geeky the appreciation of high culture can become and indicates how a shared obsessive fondness for text can be a useful piece of social glue.)
A recent Guardian article on the popularity of Peter Jackson's film of Tolkien's trilogy argued that ' we are all nerds (or geeks} now' . What this introduction would argue is that this is not a bad thing - passionate reading of every aspect of the texts of popular culture is one of the cultural strengths of our time, a way of expanding the canon that includes rather than excludes, a way of democratizing critical sensibility.