Monday, November 7, 2011

How to Be a Retronaut

When Forrest Gump was first released, what focussed the attention of the public wasn’t its appalling caricature of the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, nor its reactionary hollowing out of history. It was the digital effects. This may seem quaint now, especially if one considers that so much ground had already been broken – and in more spectacular fashion – by the likes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But maybe it was just that fact: that Gump’s digital effects weren’t overtly spectacular, nor used to depict the extraordinary, but fit in rather within a more classic kind of storytelling in the tradition of great American cinema. Think It’s a Wonderful Life with the benefit of modern post-production: so not a radically changed film, but one that made full use of the available technology of our time – as Frank Capra did in his – in order to achieve maximum photographic realism.

A lot was made in the marketing of the picture about the feather carried by the wind in the opening and closing sequences: a feather that was tracked with uncanny precision and grace by Robert Zemeckis’ aerial shot, except of course it didn’t magically land at Forrest’s feet simply because it wasn’t there when the camera was rolling: it was inserted later by Ken Ralston’s team of digital artists. Somehow, that filmmakers could conjure that feather into existence seemed just as momentous as the coming to life on the screen of Spielberg’s T-Rex the year before. It was a new kind of magic.

That this magic in Forrest Gump served also the very peculiar and far from innocent purpose of rewriting post-War American history from a disconsolately conservative perspective later became the subject of extensive critical attention. However this concerns me today only in passing. I want to show how some of the sequences implicated in this manipulation of the shared historical record were also precursors to a seemingly less politically charged but also far more prevalent relationship with our mediated past. It’s a relationship that has virtually come to define internet culture, and culture more generally.

Tom Hanks next to JFK. But also, Tom Hanks next to John Lennon. Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon. Tom Hanks who picks up the notebook dropped by a black student at the newly desegregated University of Alabama. And so forth. It is in these scenes that Gump’s use of digital effects is at its most self-conscious, inviting the spectator to marvel at the technology that allows the film to literally write its lead character into the country’s history. This leads to an ontological paradox whereby the seamlessness of the insertion from the point of view of its photographic realism should be – but isn’t – negated by the fact that spectator is fully aware of the deception. Or, to put it another way: we admire how real those images look precisely because we know that they have been forged, and the manner in which they have been forged.

Photographic manipulation of course is as old as the medium, but I think there is merit in the argument that with digital technologies there has been a step change, and we have entered a post-photographic era in which the existence of the objective referent that used to be a defining feature of the medium (for instance according to Barthes) can no longer be assumed under practically any circumstance. Gump’s historical mashups have been used to illustrate just this point. However an aspect that is less often remarked upon is how silly and full of bathos these sequences are. Forrest tells JFK that he needs to pee, bares his buttocks in front of Lyndon Johnson, discusses hotel arrangements with Nixon (he’s staying at the Watergate, of course), inspires Lennon to come up with the lyrics of 'Imagine'. In every instance, while it is ostensibly Hanks’ character that provides the comedy, who gets ridiculed are his historical counterparts, and what gets trivialised – for the sake of jokes that are every bit as laboured and unfunny as the technical execution of the sequences is sophisticated – is capital-aitch History.

If there is satirical intent in any of this, it’s hard to see the point of it. It seems to me rather that the object of these sequences is the very act of toying with the past, the demonstration that we can do it, we can alter the record at will. As I say, once the initial wave of critical acclaim for the film subsided, the focus shifted onto its rewriting of four decades of American political and social history. While most of this work is done in more complex and extended sequences, and often quite literally written on the body of the character played by Robin Wright, the manipulation of the archival footage speaks to a disenchanted attitude towards the past that is just as central to its making meaning. 'There is nothing sacred about history' is one of Gump’s core messages, and while it wasn’t a novel one at the time, the newly available digital compositing tools allowed the filmmakers to make it with unprecedented forcefulness.

The author, ca. 1908
Nearly two decades later, that kind of manipulation has become not just routine – it’s everywhere. Every other photo that is put up on Facebook or Flickr has some sort of retro-filter a-la Hipstamatic applied to it. There is no era in poster-art that won’t get cleverly reinvented as alternative past or present. There is no worldwide current event that won’t make Hitler angry, or that cannot be represented as a series of status updates on Facebook. Endless film prequels, the current vogue for period television drama, vintage tastes in fashion and the retromania in pop music described by Simon Reynolds are all manifestations of the folding of the past into the present that defines late postmodernity through the mediation of digital technology.

A digital artefact has no physical characteristics, therefore cannot be dated independently of its claims as to the time when it was created or posted. What follows – along the lines of what Paolo Cherchi-Usai has written about the moving image, and of one of the main corollaries of the contention that we live in a ‘post-photographic era’ – is that a digital artefact cannot be regarded as a historical document. More than that: we cannot keep time digitally. Not without a commitment to establishing and maintaining common timelines. Not when I can turn around in a day or a year’s time and change the content of this post without leaving a discernible trace.

If you’ve ever played with the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, you’ll have a fairly precise sense of the difficulties that the web has in keeping its own records and historicizing itself. When you’re even lucky enough to be able to access a snapshot of the particular website you’re looking for at a time that is close enough to the one of your choosing, many of the elements of the page won’t load and most of the links won’t work (due to an aggravated version of what goes by the wonderful moniker of ‘link rot’). Yet while the self-styled archive facility works poorly, in many respects the web is nothing if not its own archive, a vast repository of digital artefacts that are always present to the reader – both in that they are in a very meaningful sense produced on the user’s browser at the time they are accessed, and in that their temporal coordinates are often uncertain or missing altogether, so that not only you sometimes find it hard to tell where you are, but also when you are. (In the noteworthy case of Google Streetview images, you know exactly where but not when.)

The internet is always-now and, like cinema, like Forrest Gump, it aspires to subsume history, to represent it and contain it whole, except to an even greater extent than cinema its primary mode of access to the past is not narrative, but aesthetic, and consists in capturing and reproducing the key stylistic features of an epoch. The Hipstamatic app does just that: by changing the look of a picture it writes its subjects into the past; in similar fashion, by giving your current browser the look of the classic Netscape Navigator you can surf the web as if it were 1999 (an experience that can be heightened by giving the visited sites the Geocities treatment).

As for the mode of reception, the past thus conceived is primarily a commodity, albeit one that – as is so often the case on the web – is exchanged and consumed without any money changing hands. The site that this post is named after (motto: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’) is exemplary in this respect, being a digest or collection of content created elsewhere, updated frequently and largely without comment, in a format that is ready to be liked and tweeted and linked on Facebook so that your friends too can exclaim or more likely mutter ‘oh - cool!’. The whole thing is like a perpetual hit-generating machine, and each stylistic intervention, each gimmicky idea is not given the time and space to develop into a fully-articulated project and become remotely useful or even – as in the case of steampunk – interestingly loathsome.

Like the faux-archival scenes in Gump ­– which, as Thomas Byers has noted, ‘by being overtly comic […] allow for a kind of "end of ideology" defense of the film, in which critics of the film's politics can be seen as humorless ideologues’ – How to Be a Retronaut pre-empts critique by being light-hearted, clever, technically accomplished. To say bad things about it would be to commit the cardinal sin of taking oneself too seriously, which fact alone makes the site a perfect haunt for the well-adjusted. And in a sense that is fair enough: who would bother and why to take issue with any of the material linked above, instead of pausing to enjoy it for the often genuinely clever thing that it is? Nor am I suggesting that the appreciative chuckle is acceptable so long as it belongs to a critical theorist. The issue is rather what happens when the retronaut becomes the model subject, the index of how to access and understand the past, and thus a figure to work against in order to recover the ‘genuine historicity’ whose loss, as Byers also reminds us, was lamented by Fredric Jameson ten years before Gump hit the screens, when the manifestations of that cultural logic were tame in comparison.

There is little that is comic about the treatment of history writ large in Gump. If it is true that the civil rights movement, feminism and the counterculture dealt a series of blows to the white patriarchal America of Forrest’s birth, in seeking to remove that trauma and undo its effects on society the film puts forward a peculiar idea of memory as disease that comes together in the wretched figure of Jenny: she who will die – after having apologised to Forrest for her past – of ‘some sort of virus’ that the doctors can’t cure, a virus that we are meant to literally associate with AIDS but is also, metaphorically, the morbid manifestation of a lifetime of wrong choices, wrong desires, wrong aspirations. When Jenny finally expires, and Forrest is left to raise alone the couple’s child, he does one last thing for her: he purchases and bulldozes her childhood home, the place where she had been abused by her father: a gesture whose crude intent and brute physicality contrasts with the subtle manipulation of the digitised historical record but reflects the same attitude, the same will to own the past and dispose of it as virtue dictates. It is at that point, having restored the figure of the patriarch and its attendant social and family values, that Forrest can cease to dwell on the past – for he now dwells in it. He has become the Retronaut.

Some useful essays on Forrest Gump (the Byers one in particular is excellent). Regrettably they're all behind steep academic walls at present:

Thomas B. Byers. ‘History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture.’ Modern Fiction Studies Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 1996

Jennifer Hyland Wang. ‘“A Struggle of Contending Stories": Race, Gender, and Political Memory in "Forrest Gump”’. Cinema Journal

Stephen Prince. ‘True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Spring, 1996), pp. 27-37.