Monday, January 17, 2011

The World Will Be Tron

The passage from postmodernism to virtuality involves a shift from copying to simulating the world, from the reproductive practices of photography and film, to post-reproductive or simulation technologies such as telepresence, advanced digital imaging, virtual reality and other immersive environments.

(Darren Tofts, ‘The World Will Be Tlön’)

Entonces desaparecerán del planeta el inglés y el francés y el mero español. El mundo será Tlön.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’)

The grand design of Clu, the villain in Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, is to take over the world at the head of an army of software constructs magicked into being by a laser printer, and then rid it, genocidally, of its imperfections. The apocalypse will be heralded by the message ‘New updates are available’, and what gets updated is us.

How long has cinema and popular culture more generally been recycling this idea? Yet at least the first incarnation of Tron came up with a striking and original aesthetic for it, and one that has the not insignificant merit of having dated quite well. I’m not just talking about the perennially cool light cycles, but also the sepia complexion of the characters on the grid, resembling actors in a silent movie, set against the far more well-defined and colourful, ultimately real-, concrete-looking uniforms and scenery. The object of imperfect simulation, inside a computer, is the human flesh.

And then, yes, there were the light cycles, and those memory discs that doubled as weapons, because the (il)logic in the digital world was one of gladiatorial entertainment, a cruel arcade game in which everyone gets only one life, and in which the prize was control of information necessary for the functioning of the post-Fordist society. In Tron: Legacy, the corporation has moved from selling games and running an unspecified informational infrastructure to exerting a de facto monopoly on the world’s operating systems, and the prize has become the control of its boardroom, a birthright that young Sam – the son of Tron’s hero Kevin Flynn – seems uninterested in assuming. In the meantime his old man, having disappeared from this side of the computer screen in mysterious circumstances, is stuck on the grid and locked in an extenuating positional war with the Codified Likeness Utility, or Clu, the programme he had designed a quarter of a century earlier to run the place.

Thus the premise of the sequel, but so tired is the script, so derivative most of its visuals, that the story becomes that of another remake, another recycling.

A remake, because Legacy doesn’t really bother to become another film: it is more interested in playing around with the cult iconicity of the original than doing something interesting with it and – the employment of Jeff Bridges’ zen master buddy notwithstanding – it never seriously entertains pretences of spiritual or philosophical depth (unlike, say, Avatar or The Matrix). So one is left to contemplate its ways of rememory: its poster is a replica of the Tron poster; its opening sequence morphs the lines on a microchip into an urban landscape, just like in Tron; the memory disc duels and the extended team light cycle battle get replayed more or less blow by blow; the long, slow journey towards the portal mimics a similar scene on the old grid. It’s one long and frankly at times barely sufferable cinematic déjà vu.

And then there is Kevin Flynn himself, who appears as a young man in the form of Clu thanks to the magic of digital performance capture whilst the finely aged Bridges gets to play the older version straight. Here, like in the case of the untalented Mr. Gollum, we get schooled again in the blindness of the filmmaker to the limits of a new technology: the (barely) animated Clu gets a whole rousing speech and extended close-ups as if he could measure up to real actors, whereas he’s exactly what it says on the box: a codified likeness, what a person may look like after extensive facial reconstruction surgery or a series of strokes, and then only so long as you choose to suspend disbelief and trust in the code. Yet while China Mieville's critique of CGI remains valid and current, we must concede that it has become genuinely difficult to tell some digital effects from their more traditional in-camera counterparts, and digital backdrops from concrete scenery. It is therefore possible for performance capture to lay some claim of genuine future viability, in which case Legacy could just be heralding a new era of remakes in which you actually get to use the original, since-aged or deceased actors. In a film in which nothing is original – the few new locations, Flynn’s hideout on the grid and Castor’s bar, are baffling pieces of Kubrickiana – this is just about the overt theme of Legacy, pace PKD: we can remake you.

This particular mode of recycling requires an almost casual meshing between the simulated and the actual, the virtual and the real, that reminds us of the extent in which these slippages have become ingrained, integral to entertainment and storytelling. In this respect the old Tron seems, yes, different and far more naïve. You couldn’t imagine a contemporary film sporting this laugh-out-loud intertitle,

nor one featuring the sequence of Flynn’s digitisation, line by excruciating line.

In Legacy, Sam gets blasted by the same laser beam but the effects are instantaneous. This neatly circumvents the need to represent the transformation, which also happens to be at the heart of the extropian immortalist project: how is the you inside the machine still you, if the digital copy doesn’t just replicate but in fact replace the analogue, flesh-and-blood original? In lieu of coming up with the requisite pseudo-science, Legacy speeds up the process to the extent that it cannot be visually apprehended if not as a conventional transition, much like a fade out.

In fact the greater speed of the action sequences is another and wholly predictable difference between the old and new Tron. Greater speed as we know in computing terms means more power, more bandwidth, that is to say a better experience. This is something that Pat Cadigan liked to play with in her Dore Konstantin novels – to have faster access to artificial reality meant for her characters having greater, richer access to it. 

Another thing happens in the transition from the ‘real world’ onto the grid: namely, the film goes 3D. This is just about the only interesting idea in Legacy: to have made the simulated world more real than the real, in at least one aspect – its visual depth. And for once the third dimension adds value to the mise-en-scene, thanks to some quite nifty direction and a smattering of suitably grandiose vistas. If nothing else, the grid seems vast, capable of fitting a specular world. This may be what we want to take away from Tron: Legacy: a couple of frames, the odd half-sequence, in that they do a passing job of representing that other world that so preoccupies us, cyberspace, and thus may be deserving of a place in the catalogue of our imaginings.

In his short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, first published in 1940 in the magazine Sur and then in 1941 in the collection above, Borges tells of a world imagined in so much detail that it comes to replace the real one. The creators of this world, first organised as a secret society in the sixteenth century, proceed in their design – not unlike Clu – under the guidance of the philosophical doctrine of idealism (Berkeley himself was a member), and let their mindchild intrude upon reality a little bit at a time, initially via the mischievous inclusion of an entry on the Tlönian country of Uqbar in a few copies of volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia of 1917. These incursions culminate in 1937 with the delivery to one of the adepts of a complete set of The First Encylopaedia of Tlön, which coincides with the appearance in various world locations of objects that appear to come from Tlön as described in the encyclopaedia. Then come the objects with unlikely material properties, seemingly not of this world. And by the time the story draws to a close, the fiction is poised to take over.
Contact with Tlön, the habit of Tlön, has disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Tlön’s rigor, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already Tlön’s […] “primitive language” has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Tlön’s harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the history that governed my own childhood; already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing with certainty–not even that it is false.

It may seem a little extravagant to get Borges out of bed to account for a film as pedestrian as Tron: Legacy, unless we were to read into it the symptoms of a growing inurement – and blindness – to simulations. That humans may be digitised, or software constructs made flesh, as in the case of the female protagonist at the end of Legacy, is a trope that no longer requires justification. But then so is hyperspace, right? Yet nobody believes in it. True. Except here the realities are beginning to nest – which, as Darren Tofts has observed in his masterly essay on Tlön, was the point of Borges' story: a calling into question of the boundary between fiction and reality, which is not just the overt subject of the story but also deployed in the way that it is told, by the first person Borges, leaving a trail of clues that could be traced to actual persons, places and publications, as in the act of manufacturing a myth (we would say a hoax). Writes Tofts:
As a synthetic reality, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" draws us, the readers of Borges the writer, the people outside-text, into its perplexing ontological orbits. That is, our experience of the world is affected by our involvement in the story. Like the inhabitants of Tlön, we find ourselves engaging with metaphysics as if it were a "branch of fantastic literature" […] Borges defiantly teases the readers' desire to believe in the reality of the discovered world, secure, as they are, in their assured, known world outside-text. He tests, in other words, the extent to which readers are prepared to forestall their exit strategy, to explore the outer limits of credulity to do with this previously unknown world.

The use of virtuality in film has presented us with a number of Borgesian knots in the last two decades. Recall for instance how in The Matrix the cityscape of Sydney, Australia, was used as the palimpsest for a digital set that stood in the diegesis for a real place but was later revealed to be a simulation – which, in a perplexing convergence of fantasy and reality, is exactly what it was. And what about Toy Story 3, what of those Thinkway replica toys, modelled with neurotic precision from Woody and his friends, some fifteen years after the fact, doing exactly what the toys do in the film, and more. Are they not real?

On the face of it, Legacy offers no such intricate puzzles. The replica light cycle paraded around at the launches doesn’t fool us: it is a fake. We know that Jeff Bridges has aged. There are no meaningful intrusions, no persistent blurring of the ontological distinctions. Except we forget that it all started with gaming: Tron was an actual arcade title, its release by Bally Midway set to coincide with that of the original film. It had its own sequels, the latest of which, Tron: Evolution, paved the way for Legacy. It was proof of ownership of a game that enabled Flynn to gain control of the corporation, Encom. And what is a game if not a world imagined in enough detail as to become real? When you can socialise, study, achieve status and work in a game environment, how can you say that it’s not real? And if you were still inclined to, could you tell with ease which parts of a game are not real, and which part are your life? Is there a threshold that you can step back through, signalling that you've abandoned the fantasy?

Tron: Legacy doesn’t cogently explore any of these dimensions, it just happens to be immersed in them, like in a soup. The franchise itself is shorthand for the conflation of gaming and cinematic narrative: it paved the way for all the crossovers and the reciprocal adaptations – films into games (was ET the worst of them all?), and games into films (Final Fantasy, surely, the lousiest). Several generations of the Tron games are remediated in the course of the film. And then there is the question of Flynn senior: what should we make of his twenty-year absence? Was he really digitised, or did he rather choose retire to live in the game, yet at the same time refusing to play it according to the rules (‘removing himself from the equation’, in zen fashion) precisely in order to defer closure, and seal off the exit strategy of the virtual?

Answering some of these question is as difficult as it is, ultimately, boring, but the dullness of Legacy may just remind us that virtuality is at its most insidious not when it is spectacular and seductive and filled with surprise and pleasures, but rather when it is repetitive and tedious, always remaking and recycling itself, near-indistinguishable from life and work. Contact with Tron, the habit of Tron, is poised to disintegrate this world.

Jorge Luis Borges. 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius'. Tr. Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 68-81.Available online in a different (and uncredited) translation here, and in Spanish here.

Darren Tofts. 'The World Will Be Tlön: Mapping the Fantastic onto the Virtual'. In Postmodern Culture, Volume 13, Number 2, January 2003. Paywalled here.

For a study of Borges' story in relation to gaming, see chapter 7 of Gordon Calleja's doctoral thesis, Digital Games as Designed Experience: Reframing the Concept of Immersion (Victoria University of Wellington, 2007), available for download here.

Thanking Jake, as more or less customary.