Looking for Mr. Un-Real
   Nostalgia for our illusions
   by Nicholas Rombes

Most of my colleagues in the liberal arts at the University where I teach still believe that one of their primary missions is to help liberate students from a kind of false consciousness that blinds them to the injustices of The System. This is especially true of those who teach film or media studies, because the primary thrust of film theory over the past 25 years has been to demonstrate how the Hollywood dream factory has been complicit in perpetuating a sugar-coated vision of reality that glosses over the deeper fractures of life in post-capitalist America. But today these theorists are confronted with a form of media that more openly acknowledges the fact that it is “just a story” and that the reality that it creates is precisely that: a created, manufactured reality.

Although certainly not the first, The Matrix (1999) was the most successful mainstream Hollywood film to theorize on the screen what cultural theorists and philosophers had been suggesting for some time: that reality was a construct designed by those in power to blind the masses to the true conditions of their enslavement. For this insight, The Matrix was heavily indebted the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose most famous book, Simulacra and Simulation, was visually referenced in the film. However, despite Jean Baudrillard’s insistence in an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur that The Matrix got it wrong, suggesting that the film rests upon a “misunderstanding” of his theories, it’s clear that not only did the film get Baudrillard right, but that in doing so it further popularized postmodern theory in a way that, ironically, contributed to the diminishment of theory’s exotic allure. (The presence of Princeton theorist Cornel West in the second and third installments of The Matrix serves as a substitute for Baudrillard’s participation.) To be sure, Baudrillard’s discussion of The Matrix reveals a sort of predictable defensiveness and even hostility that an American project—from Hollywood no less—has managed to inject theory with an aesthetic and narrative magnetism that appeals to broad ranges of people.

The truth is, movies have always theorized the process by which they manufacture illusion. Today we might call this self-reflexive or postmodern, but from the beginning movies have had this self-aware quality that reminds us that we are complicit in the creation of the illusion we have paid to see. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery ends with one of the bandits pointing his gun directly at the camera and firing at the audience, and movies ranging from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope comedies to Annie Hall (1977) to Fight Club (1999) to Austin Powers (1997), to name just a few, directly involve the audience in ways ranging from sly gestures to outright conversations with us on the other side of the screen. The Matrix made explicit on a narrative level—and on the level of dialogue—what was always inherent in movies to begin with, namely their relentless strategies for revealing the illusion behind the reality they create.

This was taken to a new level with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, whose transparency has been fundamental to the very myths the movie trades in. In other words, the very myths that the movie sustains—fellowship, courage, humanity—are sustained, paradoxically, by a system that reveals how such myths are, in fact, manufactured. The overwhelming amount of supplemental information in the four-fold DVDs—the making-of documentaries, the interviews with actors and the filmmakers, the discussions of the process of adaptation with the screenplay writers, and so forth—all of this information in no way diminishes the illusion that all these bonus features deconstruct. In a radical development that the theorists have yet to explain, the more we see behind the scenes, the more the illusion strengthens. The demystification that is part of DVDs—the sequences that show us how the illusion was created—serves only to deepen illusion.

For it is not the everyday real that we escape from when we enter a theater, but rather the real that the movie reminds us lurks behind every scene we watch. In fact, the illusion of movies depends precisely upon our knowledge that the alternate world that the movie offers is only possible when opposed to the glimpses of the so-called real that we see during the movie. In The Return of the King, Sam’s warning to Frodo about Smiegel that “he’s a villain!” is only the most explicit admission that Smiegel is, of course, a character in a film (and a particular character of a villainous sort). Of course, Sam’s warning is slyly spoken to us, the audience. Rather than disrupt or threaten the illusion that the film offers, such moments in fact confirm the illusion. And yet how to account for the fact that the more we are treated to the behind-the-scenes demystifications of the filmmaking process, the more we crave the very illusions that we have seen deconstructed in the supplementary features of the DVD?

Our hunger for spectacle today reaches deep into the mechanics of spectacle itself; we pillage images not only for their value as images, but also for their value as stories of how they were made into images. It is the logic of our time that we desire knowledge of the making of the very illusions that are supposed deliver us from the Real. The greatness of films like 28 Days Later is that they remind us how quickly a relatively new technology that is supposed to bring us a truer, more authentic representation of the Real—digital cameras—becomes a familiar part of our visual rhetoric in ways that override our moment-by-moment awareness of the medium of the new technology. The pixilated image, the shaky camera movement, the odd framings, these notations that we are watching something that was made possible by specific technologies and precise choices are normalized in a film like 28 Days Later where the experimental qualities of the film are secured and made legitimate in the service of a story that authorizes their use. So too the alternate ending, which appeared in theaters 29 days after the film’s opening, suggests that the logic of DVDs, with their supplementary materials and multiple narrative pathways, is finding its way into films in their theatrical releases.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given that at their heart films are about the manipulation of story through time, a process that always reveals its seams no matter how hard the film tries to conceal them. Things happen to characters and they change. To involve the audience in this process—even in the marginal way of presenting alternate endings or deleted scenes—represents only the first stages in a transformation that will in time erase the distinction between film and the creation of film. Already movies like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) are buried in their DVD versions under the weight of the numerous narratives of the film’s creation. Today, it is not the film that fascinates, but rather the gesture of filmmaking. The film itself is only the excuse to deconstruct yet another illusion.

The desire for illusion today is no more than nostalgia. For many of us—raised on video games, the internet, and ironic, self-aware cartoons—have inherited the world of shattered illusions, and so have turned to the storytelling process itself as a source of fascination. Blogs, vlogs, chatrooms, DVD supplementals, reality television, metafiction, and video games that integrate real movie scenes into the game world—what these suggest is a sort of second-order reality whose allure is not that they present an alternate reality, but rather that they offer a glimpse into the process of creation. And an event such as the awarding in 2003 of the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Stephen King suggests a begrudging acknowledgement that postmodern theory was mainstreamed in American culture long ago. Indeed, many of King’s novels—such as The Dark Half (1989) which concerns the violent real-life emergence of an author’s pen name—reveal how deeply the more “literary” qualities of postmodern fiction usually associated with Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon or Paul Auster (metafiction, ironic references to name brands and pop culture, plot structures that reveal the artifice of the storytelling process) have in fact been embedded in popular culture for some time.

And critics and theorists have yet to fully account for the fact that it is in the most mainstream, genre-based movies (especially comedies) over the last decades where there has been the greatest and most radical exploration of how the illusion of film is created, in works including Blazing Saddles (1974), Clue (1985), Spaceballs (1987), Wayne’s World (1992), the Scream series (1996, 1997, 2000), and the Austin Powers series (1997, 1999, 2002). As many of us who teach film studies to college students would confirm, films that are described as radical in recent film essays and textbooks are often met with bemused familiarity by students whose experiences with DVDs, video games and their own digital cameras have taught them much about the possibilities of editing, time, and narrative experimentation in films. For example, Memento’s backwards structure is more a confirmation, an affirmation about how the world really works, than an act of defiance. The multiple—sometimes simultaneous—camera angles available to a player of almost any video game makes the four-quadrant screen of Time Code (2000) seem more like a clumsy attempt at point-of-view than a radical experiment.

Ours is the era of the archive, the anthology, the database, which collect and make official the most radical, avant-garde anti-illusionist forms. If postmodernism blurred and eradicated the lines between high and low art, between the Real and the imagined, this new era of the archive threatens the avant-garde with a sense of permanence and stability. As films that we have only read about or remember dimly from our past are released on DVD and made available with one-click from online retailers, we see the myths that we have constructed around them crumble. For who is not disappointed at finally watching the films of the mythic Stan Brakhage, now available on DVD from Criterion? And those strange MTV videos from Spike Jonze, before he directed Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), are archived (along with the work of Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham) on DVDs from Palm Pictures, rendering them so familiar that they become danger-free. Back in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” wrote of the loss of “aura” in objects that were cut off from their original contexts through photography or other mechanisms of reproduction. He wrote, “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its image, or, rather, its copy.”

Today our urge is not only to get hold of the copy of the object, but to the story of its production, carefully catalogued on multi-disc DVD sets and on websites. The self-reflexive element of film has now been extended into the very medium of storage. Even movies that try to create and sustain an illusory world—such as Minority Report (2002), which includes as one of its bonus features "Minority Report: From Story to Screen: Steven Spielberg recounts his approach to the film's characters and storyline”—cannot, in the age of DVD extras, hope to suppress to conditions of their production. Our deconstructed reality has become our new reality. It is the gesture that fascinates—the gesture of filmmaking, of music-making, of storytelling—rather than what is produced by the gesture. Which is to say: we tolerate movies today insofar as they confess to us their illusions.

-- Nicholas Rombes

Nicholas Rombes is an associate professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he teaches classes in film and literature, and were he co-founded the Electronic Critique Program (www.e-crit.com).

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