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.


Ashleigh said...

Wonderful post! I'll be rereading this for a few days.

I was going through an intense Beatles phase when I first saw Forrest Gump, and when I saw the "footage" of John Lennon sitting next to Tom Hanks on the Dick Cavett show ("It's easy if you try, Dick") I was pretty excited and moved. I knew it wasn't real, but at the same time it overpowered my senses! I couldn't accept that it wasn't real, and somehow the scene became a formative Lennon moment for me. But later, thinking about it more clearly and a bit more critically, the scene comes across as a misleading and quite patronising portrayal of Lennon and how he was "inspired" to write "Imagine". I'm fairly certain he didn't write it in response to the situation in Communist China.

One other thing. My brother just bought a new iPad, and we were fluffing around with some of the photo effects. We added effects to a photo of him and his son standing in a park and suddenly it looked just like somebody's great great grandfather standing in a freshly harvested field in the early twentieth century. Very disturbing. And also kind of irresistible.

Unknown said...

Saving Private Ryan and Castaway form a sort of trinity in my mind with Forrest Gump. Tom Hanks has a lot of power at some level, and Hollywood not only needs the content, they need the history, to make another history.
The history of the trinity.
Interesting Forrest's mother dies as well, leaving him and his son, after the death of Jenny, alone in the house.

Ben Wilson said...

Yes, it was an annoying and silly movie. An extended idiot joke. I found it hard to find any meaning in a stream of altered American nostalgia, other than what it says about Americans and their taste for nostalgia. It was around about then that I realized their civilization peaked at around 1970, just before I was born.

Anonymous said...

Of course, your title, borrowed from Retronaut, was borrowed even there; from the famous opening line of L. P. Hartley's 1953 novel The Gobetween ("The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there").

It's always struck me as a profound observation. Forrest Gump is truly a repugnant movie, in its utter mockery of history, but I'm not sure that any non-documentary historical film (or TV) is really able to come very close to capturing the past accurately, and I think that's what Hartley was getting at - the past is not just "different", but impossible to visit.

None of that excuses Forrest Gump, though, which is just taking the piss.


Giovanni Tiso said...

I love that Hartley line but taken out of context - much like "good fences make good neighbours" - it's often twisted to mean something else entirel. In the case of Retronaut, the idea is that the past is the foreign country that you might wish to visit as a tourist, for its attractions.

Giovanni Tiso said...

when I saw the "footage" of John Lennon sitting next to Tom Hanks on the Dick Cavett show ("It's easy if you try, Dick") I was pretty excited and moved.

Seeing the film again for the first time since it came out I was struck by the fact that they got the mouths of Lennon, Kennedy etc. in the footage to move differently in order to fit the script - an effect that is quite obvious now, but I doubt I would have noticed at the time. It strikes me that this was hardly necessary: they could have simply tailored the new script to the original mouth movements, as is done in foreign language dubbing. But I also suspect that they did it because they wanted to, and that there was a frisson in treating those greats like digital puppets.

David K Wayne said...

"Saving Private Ryan and Castaway form a sort of trinity in my mind with Forrest Gump."

Quartet, if you include The Terminal - based on the true story of an Iranian man, turned into generic Hollywood 'foreign' - to keep middle America at ease, no doubt.

Saving Private Ryan - the eternal moral authority of US military might.
Castaway - corporate loyalty as (literal) global survival strategy, even where society doesn't exist.
Forrest Gump - white patriarchy is the only way - even idiotic white patriarchy is preferable to the experience and knowledge of those rebelling against it.
The Terminal - 'American' isn't a privileged legal status - its a boyhood dream, a stubborn faith transcending geography, law and history.

For all his hideous films, Hanks is THE movie star of 'full spectrum dominance'. It's interesting how a likeable 80s comedy actor came to represent something so nauseating/intimidating with the advent of globalisation. Since 1989, he's probably been the most reliable box-office draw to this day. Jimmy Stewart without the depth or doubt. John Wayne without the violence or divisiveness. Spencer Tracy without an adult emotional life. He's the face of national unity, for a time when war and imperialism was rebranded 'humanitarian intervention' and the methods for rewriting history have become a domestic pastime.

Another excellent post BTW (as usual!).

Unknown said...

Yes I was bending to fit my argument, Terminal is awesome in the very wrong kind of way, then there is Philadelphia and Charlie Wilson's war and Sleepless in Seattle, not to mention he is The Cowboy in Toy Story. I often do a very personal slant on these films to my family.
They call it making one of my speeches.
A most excellent post Mr Gio. Perfectly supported reasoning while allowing much scope for thought, you are a blog anomaly.

wv; jamerap, I do not love it though.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Jimmy Stewart without the depth or doubt. John Wayne without the violence or divisiveness. Spencer Tracy without an adult emotional life.

Jack Lemmon without the femininity, humour or capacity to feel pain.

Jolisa said...

Constant reader, fervent lurker here, just chipping in to make a plea in mitigation on behalf of How to Be a Retronaut. I read it slightly differently: not as a once-over-lightly online tourist attraction, but as a (carefully curated) irruption of the absolute pastness of the past into the would-be frictionlessness of the virtual world.

Curiously, the site seems to be down at the moment so I'll have to make my argument from memory. I'm thinking of the posts in which the past appears in unlikely form (colourised images of the Blitz, for example, or moving images from a period earlier than we might imagine possible). Or the childhood film footage of the "80 year old girl", which swoops with great pathos from the 1930s right down to the present day of the woman whose birthday is being celebrated. Or the occasional post in which true period photos are compared with false period photos, or a photo is presented without a date, for us to interpret and locate.

To my mind, the site's purpose (and value) is not simply cultivating or provoking nostalgia, but bearing vivid and interruptive witness to the way the past (as we never knew it) is gone, even while seductively appearing to be preserved in digital aspic. I always come to the site with eager delight, and often come away from it feeling slightly hollow, temporal, terribly contingent... and thus alive.

(An opposite dynamic applies to your own good site: I show up slightly nervous about what I might find to challenge me, and come away feeling happily provoked and inspired. Oh, and also alive).

But I am just one reader.

wv: ersto, a temporal variant of ergo; thus: used when demonstrating a truth about something that no longer exists. (Cogito, ersto eram: I think, therefore-in-a-fleeting-way I ever-so-briefly was.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

There is some great material on the site, no question. That's where I came across the poster art of Sean Hartter (linked in the post) and many other things of interest - they also featured, I think (can't be sure, I'm not able to access the site either) the wonderful Leningrad then-as-now pictures I first saw on Nina Power's site and wrote about here. I just personally find the "and now... this" approach (or, less charitably: dump stuff, sell ads) wearisome, in the absence of an effort to counter the accretive nature of the collection with at least some effort to inject order or meaning into it. For a site that claims to be a guide, the conceptual framework is remarkably thin, if not downright glib (look a the list of clusters, when the site is back up). A matter of nuance, possibly, but I find the approach taken by John Ptak on his Science Books site far more sympathetic, as I do Francesca's of Buchi nella sabbia and Studiolum's at Poemas del río Wang: those are my retronauts (they also all happen to be idiosyncratic, verbose, slightly mad - so I must acknowledge my bias there).

David K Wayne said...

Of course - Woody. How could I forget? A character repeatedly coming to terms with the changing social contract between him and his competitor (Buzz) and his boss (the kid), while being a magical commodity. Fought over by investors, liquidators and evil kids like Sid(dam) and his dog Scud (!). The Clintonian cowboy riding back into town just as Bush II makes an exit.

As for Philadelphia - Hollywood's favourite kind of gay man: One who dies young (even when his sex life is absent for the duration of the film). There's also Apollo 13 - space belongs to America, even if it leads to disaster.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's an everyman thing? He never gets to ask The Question though (Parsifal), more a Pilgrims Progress.

wv, qualiti, small finesse

Andre said...

Thinking about "link rot" as a practical example of how the historical context of a work becomes changed or lost the further we get from the creation of the work: already there are people who have only ever seen the "Forrest Gump" version of these historical events. How long before these become the most accessible versions?

I'm struck by the way link rot occurs for so many works sooner or later, even pre-Internet :reading Moby-Dick, so many of the references the author assumes to be instantly recognizable to the reader are no longer easily available. The links have been broken by the passage of time and history.

I wonder how hard our internet, even a post like this, will be to understand a century from now?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I doubt very much that this post will be available in any form a century from now, along with most of our internet.

It's true that there is link rot in Moby Dick, but I'm always amazed when I look at Vittore Branca's edition of the Decameron (one of those books you'd almost read for the foonotes alone) at how many references to ephemera and news of the day scholars have been able to explain and reconstruct. And the book is nearly seven hundred years old. I don't think we'll come close to beating that - our technologies are too fragile and we write too much.

Unknown said...

It is true as you say, this digital is ephemera.