International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 28, May 2005







Mary Helen Kolisnyk


Between the Carnival and the Panopticon:

Bukatman's _Matters of Gravity_



Scott Bukatman

_Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century_

Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003

ISBN 0-82323-3119-5

279 pp.


Scott Bukatman's _Matters of Gravity_ is a gathering of essays that the author published between 1991 and 2000. Consequently, the volume has less of the continuity to be found in book-length studies conceived around a single question or object of study. Some unity across these writings is evident, however, as Bukatman undertakes a phenomenological account of several of the elements of cinematic special effects that resonate across other popular cultural objects, texts and processes: comic books, Disneyworld, cyberlit, morphing, and other bodily transformations. Bukatman understands, and demonstrates, these phenomena to share an 'interplay of controlled space and the evocation of weightless escape [that] was often condensed by means of popular recreations throughout the twentieth century' (3). Some of the objects he examines provide more leverage than others in terms of coming to grips intellectually with what to do with or about this alternation, how to deal with it critically or what kind of position to take up in relation to it. But the book as a whole lays a groundwork for understanding special effects as a genre of sort that cuts across media; each variety of popular entertainment he addresses provides its own glimpse at a different system at work in modernity's body, and each piece in this collection adds another transparency to layer over the last to provide a fuller picture of that body.


I was interested to read this volume because I have recently had my own 'aha' moment with the formulation 'special effects', wherein the cinema was redefined for me precisely by the particular way in which film can, with or without warning, expel spectators from the narrative and hold them temporarily in a kind of wonder at what, for example, a simulated explosion looks like. This is not the kind of effect that Bukatman takes up; he dedicates his analyses rather to a decidedly more painterly aspect of special effects, and some more purely cinematic effects (e.g. camera movement), to stage a kind of face-to-face encounter with cinema's particular technical means of representation. Still, for both him and me, that encounter seems to amount to a disavowal of the very disavowal that had, in years past, dominated theories of film spectatorship, one that holds out untapped possibilities. Indeed, Bukatman acknowledges that his readings attempt to move beyond, or open up, additional avenues into ideological critiques of mass culture that rely on narrative for their logic; such a reliance is inappropriate insofar as it fails to get at the specificity of the spectatorial relation that holds in the kinds of visually- or kinetically-based texts and objects that he looks at:


'It is blazingly evident that to varying degrees theme parks, science fiction, Hollywood blockbusters, and superhero comic books constitute a rather blunt form of ideological interpellation: reactionary, masculinist, and driven to mastery. However, critical studies of visual or time-based media all too frequently fail to consider issues of *form* with the sophistication routinely brought to bear on literary objects. Hence, differences among media are elided through a reliance on (or faith in) highly linear narrative structures as the overriding, deterministic, and teleological locus of 'meaning'. Objects involving multisemic forms of address are routinely reduced to their narrative 'function' or, worse, the stasis of narrative 'closure'. While it is acknowledged that there is something *more* in these entertainments, that 'something' has frequently been tarred or celebrated under the rubric of 'excess'. The term is misapplied. These entertainments do not exceed *themselves* but rather the arbitrary conditions of narrative's hierarchical dominance (or similarly, the bounds of linguistically based signification). And so the chapters that follow strenuously avoid considerations of narrative, not to invalidate the claims of narratology but to displace its centrality in the analysis of visual or movement-based media.' (5)


Actually, he mostly strenuously avoids such considerations -- they actually reemerge at interesting moments, not at the risk of invalidating his critique of ideological critique, but with the value of supplementing the phenomenological analysis that instead he opts for. In this regard, we can see the readings as extending the premise of _Terminal Identity_ (1993), a reclaiming of a notion of bodyhood for an electronic culture that renders narrative a locus where humans can still be represented as having control over action, can play out dramas (their 'cultural translation' into data blips notwithstanding), and, further, 'providing a set of tactics for negotiating modernity' (4). Bukatman's language here derives from Michel de Certeau, who reappears over the course of the essays, and is intended to counter (or to supplement) what he calls the modernity thesis, which posits a 'general reconditioning or recalibration of the individual's proclivities to correspond to the greater intensity and rapidity of stimuli' (4). If, as he says in the piece about the depiction of superhero bodies, his earlier work argued that 'narratives constitute adaptive technologies', (48) _Matters of Gravity_ wants to explore that adaptation, its pros and cons (mostly the former, as the volume progresses), and its specificities within the cinematic context. The book does not disappoint in this regard; I devote more time below to his most fully developed arguments.


The first essay, 'There's Always . . . Tomorrowland: Disney and the Hypercinematic Experience', addresses how Disney World's various attractions and features manifest those tactics for negotiating modernity in all their ambivalence -- this ambivalence is another pattern that recurs over the course of most of the book: 'The Disney futures are simultaneously reactionary and progressive, nostalgic and challenging. They are also richly imbricated with the shifting experiences and metaphors of postmodern urbanism, electronic culture, and pervasive redefinitions of space and subjectivity' (15). This text collects observations about the design of the Disney 'experience' that speak to the park's organization against narrative and about aspects of the rides that offer precisely such narrative familiarity that ultimately mark Disney as a collection of false tactics for the negotiation of modernity (more on this below). The total Disney effect is a concretization of the above-noted project of cyberlit, and Bukatman's periodic quotation from the 'canons' of cyberculture, in addition to the division of this 28 page text into 13 subsections, leave it feeling a bit piecemeal; this is one of the less thesis-driven pieces of the collection, and the details can be hard to hang onto, especially as each of the Disney features is given a different theoretical correlate -- from the Situationists, to de Certeau, to polemicists and progenitors of cyberpunk -- each of which seems to provide positive possibilities for what Disney renders an ersatz, though the actual physical differences between each never truly gets delineated (though this does happen later in the volume).


The design of this chapter may be a response to the content itself -- the writing 'blips' from one object to the next, and affords momentary theoretical shelters that turn out to be mirages. Ultimately, Bukatman tells us that Disneyworld simulates and co-opts de Certeau's tactics and the utopia it might elicit, for reasons not postulated but that nevertheless ring of a kind of inevitability when Bukatman offers: 'The body is inscribed and defined, paradoxically extended and delimited by these pervasive, invasive technologies. It is a matter of interface.' (25) When, towards the very end, he begins to lay out the terms of the subjectivity that occupies that interface, the piece begins to feel like it does have an orientation, that it is moving toward a claim; in what is only the first contravention of his own injunction against narrativizing that interface, he identifies two of the *myths* of cyberculture as those of 'cyberpunk' and 'hippie/hacker':


'Both are opposed to technocratic mythologies of centralized control, but while hippie/hacker substitutes an ethos of personal control and individual empowerment, cyberpunk enacts the end of controls in its depiction of a world where technology circulates more or less freely and even (as in _Neuromancer_) has its own agenda' (25).


Thus, it seems, a way out of the data stream and into history is opened -- he points out that the cinema is a precursor of cyberculture, in a move that will provide considerable momentum for his project of locating the human within that interface as his discussions proceed. In this connection, it is interesting to note that 'Tomorrowland' ends with a two-page discussion of how the Disneyworld experience itself appropriates narrative, as it were preparing the body for its interface with technology, and the cinema's inherent binding together of kinesis and narrative. In the end, when Bukatman does explicitly differentiate the 'simulation of tactical resistance' that Disney engages from the 'tactical warfare' of cyberpunk, he takes the differentiation away again when he cites Merleau-Ponty's notion of 'physiognomic perception' (from _The Phenomenology of Perception_) and says that Disney's rendering of this experience is 'visible, malleable and perhaps even adorable' (31).


Some of my frustrations with the oscillation continue through the following essay, which uses a well-circulated anecdote about William Gibson's use of typewriter to write the seminal text of cyberlit as a springboard into a history of the machine's cultural reception in America (mostly) and its entry into mainstream cultural production. This piece, 'Gibson's Typewriter', may disappoint those familiar with Friedrich Kittler's contribution to the typewriter's history in _Gramophone Film Typewriter_, insofar as Bukatman's reading focuses on how the device was marketed, more than on actual instances of use, to formulate the social significance of the device. As a result, we don't find support here for developing a specific epistemology based on the separation of the writer's eyes from the actual arrangement of letters on the page (as we do in Kittler) -- although Bukatman does acknowledge this possibility and offer up some intriguing details around it: a little on the history of keyboard design, and on the machine as trope in cyberculture. And he does address Kittler, counterposing him with the more 'utopian' McLuhan (39), but this essay is more about the typewriter's contribution to an American ethos, discussing Mark Twain in some detail and the culture of convenience of which the machine became a part. The culture is not itself interrogated or really integrated into the broader conception of a human interface with technology. As a whole, it provides a case in point for the claim that technological developments always entail ambivalent consequences -- in this instance, the ambivalence resides within the specialist discourses of cyberlit and the academy, in their respective response to the Gibson anecdote more so than in the actual history of the machine. There are some truly provocative observations, like the one about the file disposal expert as a quintessential 'figure of the atomic age' (38), which might suggest much about the relationship to writing after the advent of media, or in the context of a highly bureaucratized culture.


Bukatman returns, however, to narrative as a fulcrum concept in the final essay of the first section of the book: 'Superhero comics present body *narratives*, bodily fantasies, that incorporate (incarnate) aggrandizement and anxiety, mastery, and trauma. Comics *narrate* the body in stories' (49; my emphasis). The essay is entitled 'X-Bodies: The Torment of the Mutant Superhero (1994)', and this section of the book is called 'Remembering Cyberspace' -- perhaps significant for suggesting that these pieces were written at a particular moment that seemed to call for particular responses, particular ways of encoding the practices of cyberculture into the critical responses to it. In this third essay, which is more sustainedly an essay with a more sustained claim, he is forthright, and a bit self-effacing, about the demeanor of the writing, which he says is intended to 'incorporate autobiographical elements and a writing style less beholden to academic language' (48). However, the academic ultimately comes to the fore in this piece (he acknowledges this) which tabulates the data on the depiction of superheroes' bodies in comic books to produce something less than an ethnography -- 'I haven't done the research', he says (51) -- but nevertheless a sound taxonomy of the body types of the superhero world, with some interrogation of what those various types may mean socially, drawing mainly on Mary Douglas, Klaus Theweleit, Alan Klein, and Wolfgang Schivelbusch. This piece, too, is broken down into subsections -- six here, across thirty pages -- so the effect is less paratactic. And Bukatman does adopt what would seem to be an appropriately loose claim for his explorations: 'There are deep uncertainties operating in superhero narratives that mark a symbolic return to a presymbolic space of primal drives and primal fears as well as later anxieties that are at once psychoanalytical, social and historical' (53). Superhero bodies, their traumas, play out those fears and anxieties.


Not all of the scholarly secondary texts and theoretical lenses that he adopts in this piece are strictly trained on the specifics of bodily appearance -- Theweleit, for example, comes into play as helping to explain why superhero teams were created, more than for explaining an actual bodily appearance; his account of the Freikorps mirrors not the actual bodies of the Marvel collection of superheroes, but why their fights look the way they do. In both instances there is a simultaneous mixing and separation of bodies that gets privileged, a fantasy of both penetration and discreteness that Schivelbusch also helps to locate historically. The stable of Marvel superheroes belong to a specific moment in Bukatman's account (the 1960s), however, and a different theoretical foray is required in connection with those of Image comics. These are of a bodybuilder type, and Alan Klein is brought to bear, to make claims about the status of masculinity depicted in these representations. The categorizations that Bukatman makes here allow him to begin to sketch out the domain of a set of subgenres of comic book narratives.


After addressing the bodybuilder bodies of Image comics (which, incidentally, include some female bodies that don't appear as musclebound, but that nevertheless participate in the overall masculine ethos that Bukatman sketches by the hyperbolic depiction of their lady-parts), the discussion moves into Mary Douglas's _Purity and Danger_, which seems to provide the broadest rationale for the taxonomy, by making the broadest argument for examining the body as a locus of social structures and orders. Bukatman looks here at the X-Men, the first of the mutant superheroes who 'pose a question and a threat to the social body, which must somehow reincorporate this 'ambiguous species' or brand it (with an X?) as taboo' (69). He correlates these bodies with Douglas's framework to accomplish 'the mapping of the adolescent subject onto a social order that is perceived by that subject as arbitrary, exclusionary and incomprehensible' (70) -- that is, to locate and read a specific place to which the cultural hierarchy that the comic book readership points. In this instance, the subgenre, or this body type, can illuminate an element of the social order, because the analogy of superhero to reader is direct, not theoretically mediated in the same way as with the other body types. This coincidence of text and theoretical context leads to further contextualization. Bukatman points to the continuity of this particular confluence -- mutant superheroes stand as and speak to a marginal and not entirely articulate sector of society, in keeping with all human creatures whose bodies don't neatly map the social order, whose bodies 'serve as a sign of disorder' (69) -- in the renewed popularity of these comics for generation X, which held a similar social position in the 90s in the U.S., and further prompts an account of how the very trauma that produces all the bodily distortions that comic books manifest was itself transformed -- mutated! 'The traumatic body of the superhero now signifies a traumatized reality rather than an inadequate psyche' (77). This piece closes with a return to the autobiographical: Bukatman claims the status of a mutant in connection with his own marginal institutional status ('with no permanent appointment'), and his own 'irrational fear of losing myself by joining a community' (77). Critical trailblazer, he has offered up here a 'semioticization of the [superhero] body' that 'signifies [his] traumatized reality'; however illogically, he has constituted both a personal and a scholarly reality through the endeavour.


And it bodes well for the remaining essays in the volume; as Bukatman turns away from 'remembering cyberspace' they become much more directed and focused on further negotiating the terms of the interface that the preceding texts seem, rather, to simply encounter. The next section of the volume, 'Kaleidoscopic Perceptions', consists of two essays, the only two with that incorporate the phrase 'special effects' into their titles. The first of these is 'The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime', where the most thoroughgoing rationale for resisting narrative gets articulated, and a fully conceptual troping of some of the major features of cinematic science fiction special effects get catalogued and contextualized. To the extent that it can be said to focus on any single figure, this one takes Douglas Trumbull as its subject; he is responsible for work as diverse as the so-called Stargate sequence of Kubrick's _2001_, the cityscape of _Blade Runner_, as well as an installation in a Las Vegas hotel (discussed in the ensuing piece). The diversity here belies the imaginative coherence in Trumbull's work as far as envisioning cognitive experience is concerned; one might say he succeeds in depicting the adaptation cited in the modernity thesis, at least in part through his 'evocation of the sublime' (82). This evocation, well accounted for in Bukatman's discussion, resolves much of the ambivalence from the preceding essays -- this despite the fact that Trumbull's work itself is 'rooted in an ambivalent relation to new technologies, and like those of other forms, they depend on new technologies for their very effect(s)' (83).


The intellectual-historical backdrop for this piece is set by drawing on Jonathan Crary's determination, in _Techniques of the Observer_, of an epistemological rupture that severed perception from concrete referents, and made it more, or as much, a matter of its own physiological conditions. But Bukatman critiques Crary for not dealing with bodily experience fully enough to 'liberate the study of visuality from the academy's own predilection for rationalized sensation and managed perception' (87). He points to Barbara Maria Stafford's work, which centers on the 18th century, as an alternative or (again) as a supplement that can rectify the dangers of grounding the phenomena he examines 'in systems of surveillance and control' (85) in keeping with a Foucaultian perspective. Stafford, on the other hand, pursues a history of 'sensationalized knowledge', according to which the study of vision, which for Crary entails a disembodiment, was rather mobilized to re-inform or re-educate vision. The distinction may seem like a fine one, but it matters to Bukatman for how it attributes primacy to the body, and allows for embodied knowledge:


'the constant address to the body that marks the panorama and, later, the amusement park attraction, is not simply a writing of the body into an expanding field of signification; it is also a means of inscribing new, potentially traumatic phenomena and perspectives onto the familiar experiential field of the body' (87).


We get here Bukatman's rationale for privileging Michel de Certeau, appointed official opponent of Foucault's historiography, in addition to an implicit critique, it should be noted, of Kittler, who also employs a Foucaultian historiography. More to the point, we get here a segue into the subject proper of this text, by way of a very brief history of visual attractions and the cinema's place in that history. That place seems to have a unique relationship with the sublime -- here, again, are grounds for displacing narrative from the center of the analysis of visual texts. The sublime is construed here, through the English tradition, as something of a philosophically grounded bodily experience of ambivalence that generates an identification with the sublime object.


'The genre of science fiction often exhibits its spectatorial excess in the form of the special effect, which is especially effective at bringing the narrative to a spectacular halt. Science fiction participates in the presentational mode through the prevalence of optical effects that in fact re-integrates the virtual space of the spectacle with the physical space of the theater' (90).


This passage also poses sci-fi special effects as something of an analogue of the separation of vision from the body. The sublime object is typically available to visual perception, but its overwhelming awe is resistant to comprehension, and thus a chasm is opened up between perception and meaning that paradoxically situates the disembodiment at the level of affect.


Special effects, especially Trumbull's, achieve largely the same effect -- temporarily expelling the spectator from an identificatory position into a spectatorial one, that is, one in which (like Stafford's apparatuses) show how the spectator sees or ought to see. In this connection, Bukatman points out other analogies with 19th century landscape painting, another medium of the sublime, via art historian Andrew Wilton who says that these paintings:


'impose a dramatic mode of vision upon the viewer, who is compelled to enact with the eye leaps and plunges, ascents, penetrations and progressions that plot for him the three-dimensional presence of the perceived landscape. Such turbulent moments are usually grounded within the calmer description of a larger landscape, just as Trumbull's kinetic effects are rooted in the narrative progression of a feature film' (95).


Bukatman then devotes a paragraph to _Star Trek: The Motion Picture_ and the Stargate sequence of _2001_ and the ways that these Trumbull projects activate similar effects, before taking his historical survey of the sublime to America. With this he connects the Schivelbusch thesis with the evolution of that notion; the train was central to the development of a uniquely American relation to nature, and thus with landscape conventions and the spectatorial positionings that developed here, particularly in luminist paintings. These provide their own analogies to the Trumbull effects, especially via Frederick Church, whose depictions of 'American light' also evince the Stargate sequence. And this takes Bukatman to the technological sublime, posited as uniquely American.


'The presence of the sublime in science fiction, a deeply American genre, implies that our fantasies of superiority emerge from our ambivalence regarding technological power rather than nature's might . . . The might of technology, supposedly our own creation, is mastered through a powerful display that acknowledges anxiety but recontains it within the field of spectatorial power.' (101)


Ambivalence creeps back in as Bukatman turns toward his conclusion; the mode of the sublime is both fearful and fascinating (102), and the overcoming of nature finds its fullest depictions through Trumbull's effects in _Star Trek_ and _Blade Runner_ (and it is presaged in _Silent Running_ and _Close Encounters of the Third Kind_): 'Trumbull's accomplishment is the articulation of the tension between anxiety and identification as we strain to assimilate the imagined infinities of technological power' (104). But that conclusion itself takes about four pages, and stands as a defence of that ambivalence, an argument for seeing past some of its downsides -- its persistent 'phallocentrist bias' (107), for example -- on the strength of what he sees as its potential to remodel intersubjectivity. This possibility emerges thanks to the technological sublime, which divorces technology 'from its sociological, rationalist underpinnings to become a technology without technocracy, a technology beyond the scope of human control . . . The sublime presence an accommodation that is both surrender and transcendence, a loss of self that only leads -- *back? forward?* -- to a renewed and newly strengthened experience of self' (106).


More of Bukatman's cogent summaries and engagement with the pertinent scholarship appear; at the very end of the book he declares the specificity of special effects to the cinema: they are an intensification of more generic cinematic effects, and as such they have the potential to exceed mere ambivalence by providing spectators access to a different physicality and a different relation to affect, allowing us 'to map ourselves into the anxious spaces of first industrial and now electronic culture' (109). It is a matter, for him, of using perception, the sensorium, to begin to comprehend the often overwhelming spread of technology, and to provide a counterballast to its excesses so as not to lose ourselves utterly to it.


The other selection in this second section of the book, 'The Ultimate Trip: Special Effects and Kaleidoscopic Perception', is also a defence (in the positive sense) of including cinematic special effects among the cultural products that may hold out a unique possibility for us to occupy technology in ways that keep us present in modernity. The point of reference here is the kaleidoscope, a cultural artifact embraced in the late 19th century, and a medium, as it were, of 'delirium, kinesis and immersion' (114) -- thus another progenitor of special effects. It is another of Bukatman's paradigms for the cultural response to the burgeoning of rationality in society through technology and urbanization. He points to the otherwise quite divergent _The Incredible Shrinking Man_ and _Forbidden Planet_ as both including segments in which a 'slight twist of the camera suggests the visual play of the kaleidoscope' (116), a move that he argues is close to being fundamental to those sci-fi film that involve journeys. The Stargate sequence of _2001_ is revisited here, this time not as sublime but as kaleidoscopic. He also draws on a study of the 18th century by Terry Castle, 'The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny', to demonstrate the interaction of rational and irrational; it is not immediately clear why this is pertinent here more so than in the context of the preceding essay on the sublime -- especially given that _2001_ manifests both, and the same sequence of it, no less! There would no doubt have to be a fuller account of the psychoanalytic concepts in play in each discussion to elaborate on this.


Part of the difference, however, resides in the tropology attributed to the sublime as compared to the uncanny. The sublime is about the infinite, whereas the kaleidoscopic/uncanny is about excess -- a fine distinction, perhaps, but each with a very different valorization. The sublime turns us inside out, somehow, in Bukatman's reading, whereas the uncanny turns us *upside-down* -- this is the camera-twisting effect; the move will, later, segue into the musical, where the ultimate 'trip' will be retroped as a gymnastic (a manifestation of what Bukatman calls the grace of being). This retroping will be possible in part because the potential to take the bodily experiences of special effects and render them newly conceptual via phenomenology is specifically a *utopian* potential.


The remaining section of the book takes up such bodily movements as dance; in the remainder of this particular piece on kaleidoscopic perception, Bukatman elaborates instead on less intentional movements and their relationship to utopia, by noting the parity of Castle's observations with some of Tom Gunning's with regard to 'the persistence of the uncanny in popular entertainment' (120), and moving on to take up the body's performance of utopia through its interface with those popular entertainments with which he is primarily concerned. To demonstrate this, he filters Trumbull's multimedia installation at the Luxor in Las Vegas through Louis Marin's _Utopics_. Bukatman says of this installation: 'If [its] images of utopia are irreducibly banal, the experience of a kinetic, delirious, immersive, and yet still magisterial vision retains its affect' (122). And he recaps Marin to point to an imaginative precursor, saying that movement 'is the fact of traversing terrain, crossing borders, and transgressing boundaries' (122). Now, movement itself does not necessarily entail border crossing -- unless one wants to posit a model based, say, on bodily growth motility or some other model according to which the body somehow traverses itself in movement. And I do not preclude any such possibility -- I just don't see it invoked here, and it matters because of how Bukatman proceeds, namely, with a reading of _The Right Stuff_ that *narrativizes* such a border crossing on an intergalactic scale to provide a representation of a body literally undergoing the sublime, embodying what, in the preceding essay, was only an intellectual move. It is a stunning payoff for all of the back-and-forthing, all of the analogies, all of the kinesis of his own analysis, to find such a perfect depiction of it, actually, in an otherwise banal blockbuster. But I cannot quite get past the fact that it is indeed a narrativization, when Bukatman has been insisting, in this piece and across the volume, that the crucial experience of special effects is one that somehow resists narrative; he uses the concept in connection with the Trumbull installation at Luxor, too. But, to invoke a true chestnut of literary theory, doesn't the fact that these phenomena all entail movement, and thus temporal change, necessarily render them to the order of narrative? Bukatman acknowledges that Marin offers a way past the kind of narrativization that undermines the bodily dimension: 'Narrative, no less than spectacle, is itself often defined by such kinetic transgression' (123). Still, there is some lack of clarity here, at least for me: he has not specified enough how narrative limits or curtails bodily experience, and seems to revise Marin's notion even as he invokes it.


In any case, the upshot for Bukatman is that 'utopia is less a place, a fixed site, than a trajectory. Actually, it's a field of possible, and multiple, trajectories' (125). I suspect that something about Marin's collapse of narration and description may be to the point as far as this de-narrativization of narrative is concerned, but this is not the place to delve into it. Bukatman's point is that the potential of sci-fi is related to its fundamentally kinetic nature -- whether the manifestation is filmic or literary (he refers to both); his reading of _The Right Stuff_ makes it a story of a sublime overcoming of the very technocracy that Bukatman says needs to be jettisoned by our sense of technology and that can indeed be jettisoned via the experience of the sublime. The John Glenn character is depicted as a,


'team-playing character [who] is constantly mocked yet is nevertheless permitted to literally reach the heights . . . What the film describes is a massive technological, technocratic system that solely exists in order to launch one man beyond its reach, beyond itself. Thus Glenn's transcendence is not a transcendence of self but a movement beyond the authority and rationality of systems' (128).


Bukatman pays particular attention to the work of Jordan Belson, abstract filmmaker and designer of planetarium shows, recruited for the movie's skyscapes in his account of the film.


The third section of _Matters of Gravity_ is entitled 'The Grace of Beings'. Its first foray is into the process of morphing, as precursored in philosophy, exemplified in Michael Jackson's 'Black or White' video, and misappropriated in the Jim Carrey vehicle, 'The Mask'. In this piece, entitled 'Taking Shape: Morphing and the Performance of Self', Bukatman cuts across historical moments and genres to offer up an aesthetic assessment of this computer-generated special effect -- that is, an overview of how it retropes existing aesthetic strategies (cinematic and otherwise), and materializes the cognitive activity around memory and identity (Proust, Oliver Sacks, and Henri Bergson all come in for discussion). Morphing is the digitized transformation of shapes, most dramatically used to transform face or body shapes, and it is used in the Jackson video particularly to elide racial and ethnic body differences. In this discussion, ambivalence does not attach itself to bodily response, as in the case of Disney et al, but to body representations, and Bukatman offers a masterful reading of the video, turning to Gilles Deleuze's work on film to unpack and make sense of it. But the video itself, and its particular special effect, is not reducible to any one theory and the ensuing discussion takes up other instances of racial and ethnic performance that problematize Jackson's deployment of morphing. For example, Minstrelsy and Marjorie Garber's work on masquerade are examined in connection with _The Mask_. Ultimately, Bukatman comes down *against* the value of this particular computer-generated film trick, declaring that is vulnerable to 'permit[ting] history's elision and repression' (154), and that its particular representation of the instability of identity 'holds out empty arms' (156), though once again holding out more idealistic possibilities.


One of these gets elaborated in 'Syncopated City: New York in Musical Film (1929-1961)', which also provides a thorough overview of its topic, with a considerable layering of extra-cinematic significance -- ways of determining, as in the case of the morphing article, how to read various phenomena of spectacle together. In this instance, it is the tourist's vantage point -- exploited in such representations as _Swing Time_, _Broadway Melody of 1938_, and _On the Town_ -- that emerges as the locus of the unresolved dialectic of anxiety and utopian impulse; but this only after a fashion, for these New York City musicals render the spectator a 'kinesthetic participant in [their] graceful mobility' (180). A vantage point both nostalgically irreal (as is reflected in the essay's closing paragraph) and (instinctively?) appealing, that Bukatman devolves into the actual and fictional treatment of Times Square and Coney Island to elaborate it. The syncopation metaphor comes from the ways that the depiction of the city in musicals entailed an engagement with its inherent multiethnicity -- it is Bukatman's 'solution' to the problem of ethnic elision posed by morphing; he spends time in this essay on a dance sequence from _The Band Wagon_ involving Fred Astaire and LeRoy Daniels (the latter playing a black shoe shine). From this, we get a clear statement about how the movie camera allows for an interface with technology:


'How does the individual exist in the phantasmagoria of the syncopated city? As the discussion of improvisation already suggests, the cinematic synchrony of bodies and cameras becomes a primary vehicle of urban integration in the New York musical. Such synchrony extends the formal abstraction of everyday life found in set designs, rhythms, lyrics, and choreography to the body of the spectator'. (175)


On this basis, he looks at Busby Berkeley, _West Side Story_, and another dance sequence from _The Band Wagon_ to show how, thanks to the camera: 'The viewer becomes both a spectator and an integrated part of the dance, a kinesthetic participant in its graceful mobility' (180).


The collection's closing piece, 'The Boys in the Hoods: A Song of the Urban Superhero (2000)', does everything, I think, a reader would want (whether familiar with the essay's subject matter or not, as all of these selections do). It makes a case for the genesis of the superhero as a uniquely modern urban phenomenon, surveying some of the basic features of popular comic book superhero narratives and rendering them *tropes*, the defining creative distortions that collectively encapsulate a particular experience of modernity. These features recur across the comic book genre, and Bukatman situates them within the various discourses of the modern city to demonstrate how they reflect the 'negotiation of modernity'. He observes superheroes as architectural beings (skyscrapers), as journalists (William Randolph Hearst as un-caped crusader, precursor of Superman), and as necessarily masked (because modern identity needs to be protected, can't be exposed). And they all seem to navigate the city through flight, while we readers are 'often placed so low to the ground that even the curbs loom menacingly' (190). Michel de Certeau again emerges here, as does Rem Koolhaas, to help provide continuity to the density of urban landscape and its mirrorings in superhero kinesis. The tightness of the discussion here no doubt derives from its tight focus on its object (the superhero) and the frame Bukatman gives it -- or rather, acknowledges as part of the genre (dare I say, New York City). As a result, it seems that the ambivalence whose lack of resolve seems to leave the other discussions up in the air (so to speak) here finds, rather, an embodiment that persists across urban experience.


New York University

New York, USA



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Mary Helen Kolisnyk, 'Between the Carnival and the Panopticon: Bukatman's _Matters of Gravity_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 28, May 2005 <>.













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