Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 21, August 2003

 

 

Lysa Rivera

 

Screening the Postmodern:

Sobchack's _Screening Space_

 

 

Vivian Sobchack

_Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film_

New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987

ISBN 0-8135-2492-X

345 pp.

 

Vivian Sobchack's book, _Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film_, is in many ways, and like many sci-fi films, a sequel. Written nearly a decade after her 1980 publication, _The Limits of Infinity: The American Science Fiction Film, 1950-1975_, this sequel includes the original three chapters from that book, plus a new fourth chapter, and an extended bibliography. Quick to dispel any expectations of a making up for lost time by picking up where those first three chapters left off in 1975, Sobchack insists that the new fourth chapter, 'Postfuturism', is above all concerned with 'contemporary' sci-fi cinema of the 1980s. While this fourth chapter does to some degree continue the original work's 'discussion of the aesthetic character of the genre' since the release of _Star Wars_ in 1977, the chapter's main aim 'is *not* the entire recuperation of nearly a decade's worth of American sci-fi films' (7, my emphasis). Instead, Sobchack's fourth chapter focuses on the various ways in which many of the American sci-fi films of the 1980s -- the 'electronic decade of American culture' -- visibly reflect the cultural, social, and even existential conditions of postmodernity (223). For Sobchack, the decade-long gap that separates the first three chapters from the fourth -- a gap she prefers to *explore* rather than *fill* -- appropriately reflects 'the radical alteration of our culture's temporal and spatial consciousness' since 1975 (223). Less formal in its approach to the study of American sci-fi cinema than the preceding three chapters, the fourth chapter brings to an already comprehensive study of sci-fi cinematic form a philosophical discussion of the relationship between contemporary sci-fi cinema and postmodern tendencies, something that many scholars now, in 2003, consider par for the course in contemporary sci-fi studies, but rarely provide with the thoroughness and depth of Sobchack.

 

Sobchack's reader, thus, gets the best of both worlds. Those interested in expanding their understanding of the iconographic and formal qualities of postwar American sci-fi films can count on the first three chapters for a thorough and intricate discussion of those 'formal structures that make up the specific nature and function of the American science fiction film' (7). Those less interested in the formal aspects and more interested in the philosophical tendencies of contemporary sci-fi, can rely on the longish fourth chapter (itself nearly 100 pages long) for a theoretically ambitious discussion of the postmodern posturing of both mainstream and marginal sci-fi films of the 1980s. As a scholar and fan of the American sci-fi tradition in general, in both its cinematic and written modes, I have found the text *as a whole* indispensable to my research -- it satisfies my desire for a working lexicon of the genre's forms *as well as* my desire for a theoretical and philosophical scope to my scholarship of the sci-fi film genre.

 

As many sci-fi scholars, myself included, are wont to do prior to embarking upon a journey into the relatively unknown terrain of sci-fi critical scholarship, Sobchack begins her study with the question: 'What is Science Fiction?' (17). Curiously, in her attempt to define the genre, Sobchack opts instead for a type of non-definition, or a definition that resists closure and is always subject to renewal, exception, and variation. That is to say, she opts for 'a way of defining the limits of a genre while remaining as inclusive as possible so that the definition will seem neither too arbitrary and personally manufactured nor so general that it becomes useless as a critical tool', for if the definition is to remain relevant it must 'accommodate the flux and change which is present in any living and popular art form' (18). Indeed, the first chapter explores the 'flux and change' of sci-fi's definition, tracing not only its relationship to sci-fi literature, but also its 'uneasy connection' to the horror film and the family of films that exists between horror and science (43).

 

Beginning with two of sci-fi cinema's most 'seminal films', _Destination Moon_ (Pichel, 1950) and _The Thing_ (Nyby/Hawkes 1951), and ending with Kubrick's 1968 release of _2001: A Space Odyssey_, the first chapter is effectively a history of the genre's definitions, or lack thereof, in sci-fi criticism. Readers stand a lot to gain from this chapter alone, as it meticulously outlines the parameters of how critics have defined sci-fi both against and within its sister-genres, so to speak: the horror film, the creature film, and the BEM (bug-eyed monster) film. Drawing from numerous American sci-fi films that span two decades, Sobchack's first chapter is a thorough and extremely useful genealogy of the definition of the American sci-fi film. And, by the end of the chapter, rather than rest with one fixed definition of genre, Sobchack, taking her genealogy to task and succeeding, ultimately argues for an embracing of hybridity and the ongoing 'flux and change' of sci-fi cinema's (un)definitions. 'We need', she concludes, 'a definition of science fiction which gladly recognizes these hybrid forms as part of a spectrum which moves on a sliding scale -- from the sacred to the profane -- in an attempt to reconcile man with the unknown' (63). In other words, we need to reread American sci-fi's sliding definitions, hybrid forms, and *potent fusions*, not as failures to arrive at a stable definition, but as the inevitable (and fruitful) result of a genre which in its nature attempts to 'reconcile man with the unknown'.

 

In an attempt to limit and strengthen her study, and after having explored and defined (or not) 'the parameters of the sci-fi film as a genre', Sobchack writes that the next two chapters -- counterparts in many ways -- both 'deal intensively only with those visual and aural elements which seem to define the genre formally' (12). Sobchack states early on that as a genre the sci-fi film, unlike the Western and Gangster film, contains emblematic images and sounds that '*evoke* the genre, but which are -- specifically and physically -- *not* essential to it' (65, my emphasis). In other words, while 'a great deal has been written about the images in sci-fi films, most often that writing has been more descriptive than analytic' (64). Sobchack's goal, then, becomes a matter of offering her readers a 'new approach to the sci-fi film . . . one which is able to deal with the structural relationships between images and sounds as well as those between thematic elements' (13). These two chapters succeed in their more *analytical* approach to sci-fi by examining the formal elements *and* analyzing their significance within their larger thematic contexts. Comparing 'the spaceship', for example, to the Western's 'railroad', Sobchack notes that while the latter 'in the history of the Western film has not altered in its physical particularity or its specific significance', the spaceship provokes 'no consistent cluster of meanings' (68). Varying from film to film, and even at times within a film, the spaceship's significance is inconstant. And, as Sobchack notes, because there is no constant meaning, it has 'no emblematic power' (68). Depending on the film's *attitude* to the cultural and technological milieu of its historical moment, then, the ship itself will be treated 'lovingly, positively, optimistically', or -- if the attitude is negative -- 'demonically' (70-71).

 

Taking this as her launching point, if you will, Sobchack provides a meticulous and extremely useful examination -- with numerous examples and images -- of the fully 'realized' (other) world in sci-fi landscapes and settings to demonstrate how the 'visual connection between all sci-fi films lies in the consistent and repetitious use not of *specific* images, but of *types* of images which function in the same way from film to film to create an imaginatively realized world which is always removed from the world we know' (87). Rather than understanding the spaceship as symbolic (like the railroad) of a specific historical moment (Western industrial expansion), Sobchack understands it to be a part of a larger 'imaginatively realized' economy of sci-fi signs, so to speak, that fully determines the spaceship's significance. This enables Sobchack to engage in a very helpful 'cheek by cheek' reading of the popular 'types' of images: the alien, the robot, the Martian landscape, and, of course, the android. Clearly, Sobchack's 'new approach' to studying the iconography (or, perhaps lack thereof) of the American sci-fi film sheds important but often dimmed critical light on how the genre demands what it has hitherto lacked in sci-fi film scholarship: an *analysis* (as opposed to a neutral *description*) of the genre's images that takes into consideration their larger cultural, economic, and historical contexts, but, more interestingly to me, their relationships to each other within the sci-fi signifying practice -- that 'imaginatively realized' (other) world.

 

Meant as neither an 'apologia' nor a 'justification' for the aural elements of the American sci-fi film, the third chapter is an effective and meticulous attempt to 'illuminate and describe the prevalent aural problems unique to [the] genre' in the hopes of suggesting that our 'negative overview of sci-fi dialogue is too simple, too stereotyped, and too cliched to be illuminating' (222). Recognizing that 'no amount of critical discussion' can turn a lousy film into a great one -- 'or alchemically turn a leaden soundtrack into a golden one' (222) -- Sobchack nonetheless provides us with another broad illustrative survey of the aural patterns in American sci-fi films and their intimate connection with the themes of sci-fi, or the 'flux and change' of its attitudes. Often outdone by the primacy of the visual, the 'soundtrack of the sci-fi film' (which for Sobchack includes dialogue and those tiny taken-for-granted aural effects, such as beeps and buzzes) is an essential formal feature. It is, as she puts it, 'the sound of technology', on the one hand, and the echo of our *attitudes* towards that technology, on the other (222).

 

Kubrick's _2001: A Space Odyssey_ serves as useful example of how seemingly dry and ineffective dialogue is actually, when read *analytically* and with a consideration of context, apt and effective. In her typical thoroughness and attention to a film's specificity in movement, sight, and sound, Sobchack argues that the terse and dry human dialogue may be read as effectively throwing into relief the 'more human than human' (238) qualities of HAL's computerized voice *as well as* the growing awareness, in 1968, of the inadequacy of language. Whenever someone speaks in _2001_, writes Sobchack, 'we are consistently made aware of how our language -- and therefore, our emotions and thought patterns -- have not kept up with either our technology or our experience. We no longer have the words, or imagination, to describe our universe' (177). Here, Sobchack draws a link between what has hitherto been 'read' as a negative quality -- the terse and dry dialogue of sci-fi films (conversely manifested in the overblown dialogue of other sci-fi films) -- and the film's larger context, its cultural conditions. While, as Sobchack concedes, this type of analysis will not be able to redeem a 'lousy film', it points to a new approach to analyzing the formal features of the sci-fi film. Perhaps as a response to her own analytical innovation here, Sobchack's fourth chapter, as we shall see, continues this approach by looking this time at the American sci-fi film of the 1980s.

 

The fourth chapter, written nearly a decade after the first three and certainly less formal in its approach to the study of the American sci-fi film, bases its entire study on the assumption -- now a given -- that 'the existential attitude of the contemporary sci-fi film is different' from the films of the 1950s and 60s, 'even if its basic material is the same' (226). Sobchack insists that what has lead to this 'radical alteration of our culture's temporal and spatial consciousness' is in no small part technological (223). As she puts it: 'Ten years ago the digital watch, the personal computer, the video game, and the VCR were elite objects rather than popular commodities. Now they are an integral part of our everyday lives -- consuming us as much as we consume them' (223). While new technologies certainly enable new visual and aural 'special effects', what Sobchack spends most of the chapter looking at are the changes in 'attitude' of the sci-fi film that are now marked by a completely different 'sense' of time and space. The fourth chapter derives its strength, in my opinion, from its philosophical and theoretical underpinnings. Drawing explicitly from Heidegger and Jameson, and implicitly from Baudrillard's 'hyperreal' world of surfaces and simulacra, the fourth chapter can be read alone for its thorough handling of the 'postmodernist' tendencies -- the 'postfuturism' -- of contemporary sci-fi film. In fact, I would even go so far as to say this fourth chapter has proven more helpful for my own research into the affinities of the postmodern to film in general, than many 'mundane film' genre studies have.

 

The chapter reads, once again, like a genealogy of the American sci-fi filmic body, beginning with Kubrick's 1968 release of _2001_, the year that marks the end of American sci-fi cinema's first 'Golden Age'. The films that emerged at the closing of the first Golden Age witnessed, according to Sobchack, a change in the way 'space' was represented (hence, perhaps, the title of her book). Rather than the space-travel narratives of the sci-fi 1950s films -- which had 'an aggressive and three-dimensional thrust, whether it was narrativized as optimistic . . . or pessimistic' -- space in these later films becomes 'semantically inscribed as inescapably domestic and crowded' (226). Moreover, losing its urgency, 'Time' in these films is depicted as 'statically stretching forward toward an impoverished and unwelcome future' (226). In short, the films that span this brief period are dystopic and despairing -- largely, Sobchack later points out, reflecting the socio-political unrest of the time (political disenchantment and the Vietnam mistake). While certainly recognizing the historical richness of the connection between these dystopic sci-fi films and the political milieu of their particular historical moment, Sobchack nonetheless spends most of the chapter looking at the films that emerge in the years following 1977, the year of American sci-fi's 'second Golden Age'.

 

Clearly, 1977 was a 'big bucks' year in the history of American sci-fi cinema as it alone saw the release of two seminal American sci-fi films: _Star Wars_ (Lucas) and _Close Encounters of the Third Kind_ (Spielberg). Whereas the first 'Golden Age' of the sci-fi film emerged 'coincidentally with the emergent cultural logic of late capitalism [and a] wariness and wonder [of its] new groundbreaking aesthetic', the second 'Golden Age' represents the aesthetics of 'postmodern logic' (252). In this age, insists Sobchack throughout the fourth chapter and with her typical illustrative power, 'the genre's altered aesthetics articulate not a wariness and wonder at the emergence of a new cultural logic, but rather an acceptance of and wonder at the logic's current pervasiveness, its now common grounding of social existence, its very *lack of novelty*' (252). In short, the 'new' sci-fi film brings postmodern logic 'to visibility -- symbolically representing the new structures of experience' (244), both spatially and temporally. Space is no longer 'deep' and something to explore; because of the prowess electronic simulation, space becomes part of our everyday existence. We no longer penetrate space; we skim its surfaces in an ongoing (and postmodern) process of 'jouissance' and play.

 

Without getting too far into the text, I will provide a mere glimpse of what Sobchack's discussion encompasses in its focused analysis of these 'new structures' of spatial and temporal experiences in the postmodern era of sci-fi films. Beginning with our new 'sense' of space, Sobchack examines how American sci-fi films have gone from 'screening space' as 'deep' to screening it as 'depthless'. The traditional perception of *depth* in space has been 'challenged by our current and very real kinetic responses to . . . *simulated* space' (230). Our depth perception, then, has 'become flattened' by the superficial (surface-oriented) 'iconic space of electronic simulation' (256). This depthlessness, Sobchack insists, is not a loss of dimension, but rather an excess of surface, and to illustrate her point here, as in the previous chapters, the breadth and depth of Sobchack's catalogue of filmic examples are impressive *and* convincing.

 

If electronic technologies have fragmented and flattened *both* our experiences and representations of space, then it follows that 'our temporal sense also has been electronically transformed and made visible' (235). In a thorough close-reading of _Blade Runner_ (Scott, 1982), Sobchack looks at how many of the characters experience the past in a non-linear, inauthentic, and thoroughly mediated mode. Citing the artificial 'memory implants' and the use of the 'precious photo' as two of her examples, Sobchack effectively demonstrates how _Blade Runner_, emblematic of many of the films at this time (both mainstream and marginal), represents a mediated, 'decelerated', but not 'static' time. Filled 'with curious things and dynamized as a series of concatenated events rather than linearly pressured to stream forward by the teleology of plot', even the temporal movement of these sci-fi films take a certain pleasure in 'holding the moment to sensually engage in its surfaces, to embrace is material collections as *happenings*' (228).

 

The sci-fi film scholar or buff has much to gain from reading Sobchack's text, not merely because it provides an impressive and comprehensive knowledge of the genre since 1950; not merely because it provides an abundance of examples to illustrate each and every point made; and not merely because it represents an indispensable discussion of that 'gap' that separates the American sci-fi scene between Kubrick's 1968 release of _2001_ and Spielberg's _Star Wars_ in 1977. Equally important is the contribution the fourth chapter alone makes to providing a useful critical link between American science fiction film and postmodern theory vis-a-vis Heidegger, Jameson, and, although never explicitly named, Baudrillard. One may argue that it is nothing new to 'read' films such as _Blade Runner_ and _Repo Man_ (Cox, 1984) in light of the postmodern tendencies of the 1980s. However, Sobchack's fourth chapter goes beyond the obvious and self-evident by offering a closer reading of the entire *body* of sci-fi films of this particular decade, putting them in an engaged *cheek by cheek* reading with each other, thereby articulating how 'the postmodern' is made 'visible' in several ways and in quite different films within the genre, be it the existentially and stylistically subversive _Repo Man_, or the more conventional and commercially 'popular' _E.T._ (Spielberg, 1982). In other words, Sobchack gives fair play to both mainstream and marginal -- subversive and conforming -- as she slides and skims the surfaces ('screening space') of American sci-fi cinema in the 1980s, offering her readers an indispensable critical map -- and a detailed, intricate, and accurate one at that -- of the dawn of the American postmodern sci-fi film. In this way, despite evidence of it being somewhat 'dated' (there is no mention, of course, of cyberspace or virtual reality) the fourth chapter remains innovative and relevant in its thorough articulation and 'screening' of the postmodern spatial and temporal (lived) experience in contemporary sci-fi cinema.

 

While one may be tempted to leave the book, written, after all, 'way back in' 1987, hungry for a fifth chapter (on, say, the cyberspace narrative), one only has to recall the assiduous work of the first three chapters (and the fourth, to a lesser degree) in their more thorough and meticulous 'work' and formal analysis -- beginning with genealogical study of the genre's criticism, and then moving onto two extended studies of the 'formal features' that have helped to define the genre. In them, Sobchack provides not only a genealogy of the sci-fi film's body of criticism; she also provides a critical and extremely productive approach to understanding the 'formal features' that define that genre. In this way alone -- fourth (or fifth) chapter notwithstanding -- _Screening Space_ is a sequel any sci-fi film scholar or buff must 'see'. I thought I knew a lot about the sci-fi film's history, and then I read this book.

 

University of Washington, Seattle, USA

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Lysa Rivera, 'Screening the Postmodern: Sobchack's _Screening Space_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 21, August 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n21rivera>.

 

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