Archive for January, 2011

True Grit and Winter’s Bone

By coincidence, I happened to watch both True Grit and Winter’s Bone this weekend.  For a number of reasons, I’d procrastinated on seeing True Grit in theaters, and the Winter’s Bone DVD sat collecting dust in its little red envelope, its availability allowing me to delay watching it.  But thanks to a brief break in my writing schedule, I found a chance to catch up on these two films, allowing me to reflect on the similarities between the two films: namely that both films depict tough, even stubborn, teenage girls bent on addressing an absent father.  Mattie in True Grit seeks to avenge the death of her father; while Ree in Winter’s Bone takes on the task of finding her bail-hopping father to save her family’s home from being taken away.

Both films also entail classic wilderness motifs, even while tweaking those elements to genre and thematic concerns.  In True Grit, Mattie famously hires Rooster Cogburn, a tough, but weathered, U.S. Marshal to seek out her father’s killer in “Indian country,” and then insists on following him into the wilderness to see that the work is done.  To demonstrate her mettle, Mattie follows Rooster and oddly charming Texas Ranger LaBoeuf across a river–a classic threshold moment–and continues with her single-minded focus on tracking Tom Chaney, while Rooster and LaBoeuf are often reduced to petty bickering about who is a better shot (read: better man), shooting all of their cornbread in an improvised target shooting contest.  Their confrontations with various unsavory types–the boundaries between law and lawlessness become increasingly permeable outside the city–also mix in darkly comic elements.  We’re not sure in places whether to laugh or be horrified by Cogburn’s actions.

Unlike these darkly comic moments, the regional neorealism and southern Gothic elements of Winter’s Bone create a much different mood.   The film opens with Ree managing her household–her mother is either too traumatized or too strung out on medication to be of any help–when a sheriff approaches her to let her know that her father has put up their house as collateral for his bail.  Ree determines that she will find her father to ask him to turn himself in, and when it becomes clear that he may have been killed, to find his body.  Ree’s adventures take her deeper into a meth syndicate, one that seems to weave deeply into her family tree–everyone in her Ozark town seems to be a “cousin” of someone else–and one that doesn’t trust outsiders, especially someone who might get the police involved.  At the same time, Ree weighs any form of escape she can find.  Learning that joining the military could provode her with the money to save her meager home (and could provide her with an escape from her Ozark community), she visits a military recruiter, who politely rebuffs her because of her age.  Eventually Ree receives some support from her father’s somewhat estranged brother, Teardrop.  Like the Indian country of True Grit, the mountains and woods offer a wilderness where traditional rules may not apply and where an unhealthy patriarchy still holds (at one point, the wife of a local dealer insists that “no man” touched Ree when she gets beaten up).

I’m certainly not the first person to notice this coincidence. Aymar Jean Christian blogged about this several weeks ago, and argued that True Grit’s lighter touch–true to most Coen Brothers films, it contains some darkly comic moments–makes it the superior film.  Winter’s Bone, with its depiction of a rural, paranoid, meth-addicted Ozark community seems, Aymar implies, almost too unrelenting.  I’m not really interested in choosing which film is superior, but it probably is worth noting that two films with such similar plots seem to be resonating with audiences and critics alike.  I think that what makes Mattie such a powerful character is her unflinching view toward violence. During a public hanging of three criminals, she hardly blinks, accepting the violence as a normal, even necessary, part of frontier justice.

Ree, by comparison, seems focused on preserving some version of family normalcy in the face of poverty and isolation.  She teaches her younger siblings how to shoot, how to skin a squirrel, essentially how to survive.  She instructs her siblings not to ask for charity because “you shouldn’t have to ask.”  When a neighbor offers to raise one of the children–to “take over” as she puts it–Ree is horrified by the thought of breaking up the family.  This determination allows Ree to go deeper into the claustrophobic  Ozark landscape to seek out the location of her father.  And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Aymar a little.  Aymar argues that Ree’s situation (and especially the film’s lack of humor) “inspires pity rather than empathy,” but I’m not quite sure that’s right.  First, I think the film avoids caricaturing southerners.  All of the people Ree encounters are complexly drawn, their motivations shaped both by their need for survival and their recognition of Ree’s need to find her father. In fact, there are some moments of humor–Ree’s ability to challenge her friend  into manipulating her husband to loan her a car is one such moment–and although Ree lives in poverty, she also seeks to create a sense of normalcy for herself and her family.  Like Roger Ebert, I found Ree’s determination and decency to be a powerful antidote to her unrelenting environment.

Both films offer fascinating, determined, even complex heroines, and I’d take many more films like them.

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Friday Links

I’m in the midst of transitioning from working on one article to starting work on another, so I’ve had a little more time this week to keep up with what’s happening online.  That’ll change soon, when I get my first set of papers, but for now, here are a few links:

  • Greg Gutfield mocks the “diversity police” for complaining about the lack of diversity among this year’s top nominees: no female director nominees, and all of the acting nominees are white.  Gutfield’s complaints are obviously meant to trivialize these complaints.  He jokes that a “diversity specialist” would cast a Korean lesbian to play Mark Zuckerberg, for example, but in doing so, he obscures the fact that a large percentage of the U.S. population rarely sees aspects of their daily experiences depicted onscreen.
  • Within the same context, Patrick Goldstein responds to readers who complained when Goldstein criticized the Oscars for a lack of diversity.  Goldstein’s key point is that there is a lack of diversity within “the Hollywood studio elite.”
  • Via Christine Becker, a discussion of Netflix’s latest PR strategy to combat increasing broadband costs.
  • Also via Christine, executives at Hulu are reconsidering their business model.
  • I missed Life in a Day when it premiered online earlier this week (and it appears that a second scheduled screening will not be available for U.S. audiences), but a number of other film critics and social media observers took a look.  Christopher Campell of Cinematical compares the film to Godfrey Regio’s Qatsi trilogy, but notes that rather than a collaborative project, the clips are subsumed under director Kevin MacDonald’s narrative vision.  Jason Silverman at Wired writes that he found the film to be “a groundbreaking piece of cinematic assemblage.” New Tee Vee offers some background on the filmmakers who were invited to attend the festival and reminds us that all of the footage has been compiled into a searchable channel on YouTube.
  • Jim Emerson responds to critics of Roger Ebert’s most recent article on 3-D cinema.  Probably Emerson’s most significant point is the degree to which many complaints descend into ad hominem attacks against Ebert rather than addressing his arguments.  I’m not particularly a fan of 3-D and I find it annoying that it has been used as an artificial tool for raising ticket prices (and, in some sense, getting audiences to help subsidize the conversion to digital projection in theaters).  But I’ll point out that Ebert and Murch likely underestimate the degree to which many audience members can (and have) adjusted to watching 3-D movies.  That doesn’t mean we necessarily prefer it.
  • Ted Hope has a post about the Kevin Smith “controversy,” reading his decision to self-distribute as reflective of indie cinema’s “refusal to ask others for permission.”  He also has a list, compiled by Orly Ravid, of all of the Sundance films that already have distribution deals.

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Wednesday Links

I don’t have anything to say about Sundance or the Oscars that hasn’t already been said.  I liked The King’s Speech way more than I expected, so I’m happy to see it get multiple nominations.  Exit through the Gift Shop was fun and inventive, and I’d imagine that a Banksy Oscar reaction would be sort of fun.  It’s not terribly surprising that no women were nominated for director, I guess, now that Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win has brought us to Hollywood gender utopia.  Otherwise I’ll be watching Oscar for the jokes.  So instead, here are some links:

  • Roger Ebert recently revived the talk about why 3-D will never work by posting a letter by Walter Murch.  The short version is that our eyes would have to eolve to accept current 3-D projection as natural.
  • Kristin Thomposon covers similar territory in a two-part series talking about some of the challenges of 3-D.  Thompson correctly highlights audience disaffection at the higher prices and the sloppiness of most 3-D conversions.  But the meat of her second post draws from James Cameron’s discussion of his plans to convert Titanic into 3-D, where he describes the process as a craft (and a highly subjective one at that).
  • Of course, domestic audience response to 3-D is only a small part of the equation.  As Patrick Goldstein points out, many films that fizzle in the U.S., including the Jack Black adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels, rake in the money overseas, thanks in part to the use of 3-D.  Goldstein adds that this overseas market may partially explain why studios have less interest in making dramas.
  • Google is buying Fflick, a tool that makes movie recommendations based on information in people’s Twitter feeds, illustrating the degree to which “content discovery” will be based upon targeted, individualized recommendation algorithms that draw drom data compiled from social media networks.  It’s tempting to read something like this as further evidence of the degree to which media conglomerates are involved a “programming of the self,” but I think these privacy dynamics are a bit more complicated (Jeff Rice has an engaging post on the complaints about Facebook’s privacy policies).
  • CNET has a brief discussion of Netflix’s plans to buy streaming rights to Warner Brothers films when their agreement with HBO expires in 2014.  Given the corporate ties between Warner and HBO, it seems unlikely to happen, but it’s a story worth watching none the less.
  • Ted Hope points out that Lance Weiler has infected Sundance with a Pandemic.
  • Some of the loudest buzz coming out of Sundance has been the reaction to Kevin Smith’s 26-minute discussion of his distribution plans for Red State.  Smith is planning to distribute the film on his own, a plan that may include a national screening tour.  Matt Singer at IFC praises Smith for his candid discussion of Hollywood economics while Patrick Goldstein suggests that Smith’s comments will make too many enemies, making it difficult for him to sustain an indie film career (at least within the indie industry).  Smith, of course, saves a little venom for the critics who have negatively reviewed many of his films.  Hoping to say more about Smith when I’ve had time to watch the video later this week.

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Pawlenty of Courage

As long-time readers of this blog likely know, I’ve been fascinated by online political campaign ads for some time, especially those that mix popular culture and politics, such as Phil De Vellis’s “Vote Different.”  Although many of these ads are straightforward mashups, many others gradually began to use other forms of citation in order to comment on the campaign or the candidates.  Now, with the 2012 Presidential campaign (especially the Republican primary) kicking into gear, it will be interesting to see how these strategies evolve.  With that in mind, I have become fascinated by the Tim Pawlenty “Courage to Stand” ad that I’ve seen linked all over the left blogosphere.

Most liberal bloggers, including Digby and Josh Marshall have expressed bemusement at the video’s apparently clumsy or self-aggrandizing use of action film codes (the video plays like a slightly edgier version of Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day), a reaction that is tempting given that Pawlenty often comes across as blander than white bread. Digby, in particular, seems to imply that the ad is meant to correct against Pawlenty’s “wimpy” image, while Marshall assumes that the ad is indicative of an over-sized ego. Plus, the ad is kind of corny.

But, as a commenter at TPM points out, the ad avoids some of the worst excesses of Tea Party politics, as well as references to 9/11, and to “Second Amendment Remedies.” Yes, the ad seems to be promoting Pawlenty as ready to be a lead in a Michael Bay film, but I think the tone of the video is just irreverent enough that it might not be taking itself completely seriously. I was amused when Hillary Clinton compared herself to Tony Soprano,* so I don’t think that Pawlenty’s ad is necessarily as excessive as it seems. It is worth noting that the ad hasn’t exactly burned the internet on fire and that most of the people I’ve seen linking to it are liberal bloggers who are making fun of the ad (although that could be a symptom of what I’m reading). It’s also worth noting that the ad–like most movie trailers–is way too noisy, making it difficult to link the imagery implied in the ad with Pawlenty in any genuine way, especially given all of the historical precedents of American success that he cites (The 1980 US Olympic hockey team? Neil Armstrong walking on the moon?). For the most part, I found myself tracking action film cliches–helicopter shot of national monuments, check; shaky camera, check–rather than taking notice of any of the verbal claims about Pawlenty. So, in terms of any real attempt to brand him as a candidate, I’m not sure that the ad actually worked. It simply seemed like a lot of visual and verbal noise.

* And, yes, the fact that a Sopranos joke played a role in a prominent political campaign ad shows just how old this genre of campaign ads actually is.

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Gabler, Elitism, Cultural Taste

I belatedly came across Neal Gabler’s frustrating Boston Globe editorial,”The End of Cultural Elitism,” via A.O. Scott’s response in the New York Times.  In essence, Gabler finally seems to wake up to the existence of Internet-based criticism, prompting him to make the argument that we have reached what he calls “the democratization of cultural influence.”  Thus, Internet-based critics now stand on a level playing field with high-brow tastemakers such as “media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics.”  Gabler deftly avoids taking a qualitative stand on the implications of this shift.  The Internet enables word-of-mouth to circulate endlessly, allowing everyday people to counteract the imposed hierarchies of cultural taste.

It’s a nice story, I guess, but it’s also one that makes its arguments on the basis of some rather slippery generalizations.  First, as one of the commenters in this forum points out, Gabler conflates taste with popularity, in order to make his case that movie and TV audiences are ignoring the critics and other elite tastemakers.  In doing so, he offers two main examples that are worth considering.  First, he uses American Idol to make the case that musical taste has been democratized.  There is a partial point to be made here.  We can vote for Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, or Jennifer Hudson, but winning Idol has never been a guarantee of a successful musical career, and our tastes as viewers/voters are, in fact, deeply shaped by the comments of the critics who judge each performance.  Although voters may initially defy the pronouncements of the judges, they also participate in a highly-sponsored spectacle, one that depends on the marketability of young pop vocalists.

His second example, The Social Network is even more problematic in that, despite Gabler’s claims, the film has been relatively successful at the box office given that it is a drama targeted primarily toward an adult audience, one without any marketable stars.  But Gabler glosses the fact that word-of-mouth has generally been fairly positive when it comes to The Social Network.  We might also look at True Grit, a relatively low-budget Coen Brothers film that has achieved a combination of relative box office success and critical acclaim, both among the tastemakers and audiences.

But Gabler’s most questionable point, for me at least, was his claim that Rotten Tomates and Ain’t It Cool News represent the most powerful examples of this new form of democratization, opposing the influence of “the tonier critics” who no longer have the same influence.  Of course, Rotten Tomatoes (like IMDB and other movie sites) aggregates critical reviews, many of them by critics working for “elite” publications such as The New York Times.  And, although AICN started well outside of the power structures of the Hollywood studio system–Harry Knowles was quite literally the blogger in the basement–it is now firmly entrenched within those same institutions, getting access to early screenings and other promotional materials.  Gabler is careful enough to admit that cultural populism has always “fought” against top-down impositions of culture, but the suggestion of an antagonistic relationship between high and low culture obscures the overlap between the two.

With that in mind, I found A. O. Scott’s response somewhat refreshing, although a second look raises some questions.  First, I think Scott is correct to question how Gabler defines “the elite.”  Scott challenges the idea that critics are imposing cultural taste, instead arguing that it’s a media industry marketing machine that performs the imposition of culture.   And in some sense, I agree with Scott that culture industries manufacture hype that can be used to bring crowds into movie theaters and theme parks and to sell DVDs and cheap plastic toys.  But I think Scott may push his point a little far when suggests that the marketers “manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers.”  Such a claim implies that viewers have little to no agency in negotiating their relationship with culture or making choices about how they respond to the movies and TV shows they do consume. Scott’s argument builds to a conclusion that echoes traditional culture industry arguments in concluding that the marketing of Hollywood fare deceptively provides users with the illusion of choice and freedom and that the critic (or public intellectual more broadly) offers one of the only possible disruptions of this process.

Part of my hesitation is due to the fact that, in some cases, critics are in fact complicit in this process.  Critical acclaim for The Social Network, True Grit, or even Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight can, in some cases, fit within the network of hype that Scott seems to distance himself from.  This doesn’t mean that critics shouldn’t participate in this media ecosystem, and it certainly doesn’t mean that critics are irrelevant (as Gabler surmises).  Critics, many of them affiliated with what Gabler might describe as “elite” institutions, continue to play a vital cultural role in shaping and contributing to our conversations about culture.  And popular culture can often provide us with a powerful vocabulary for talking about other social and political issues.  But I think we lose quite a bit when some of those same critics make such sweeping historical and cultural generalizations that we lose out on the specificity and diversity of practices taking place within critical culture.

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Netflix Networks

Several years ago, I wrote a blog post about the “Netflix friends” tool, which allowed friends to find each other on Netflix and to see how those friends had rated particular films (some of those reflections eventually found their way into Reinventing Cinema)  I expressed ambivalence about having others see how I had rated movies (or knowing which movies I had seen), but ended up trying it out for a while.  Eventually I forgot about it and didn’t even notice when the Netflix community features were closed.  Apparently Netflix eventually created a tool that allowed you to integrate your Netflix ratings with your Facebook profile, and although I never did this (as far as I can remember), I don’t think that it’s something I likely wouldn’t have chosen to do.  And, given this recent announcement by Netflix that it is “retooling” their Facebook integration application, it would appear that many Netflix users likely agree with me.

Netflix’s reasons for creating the program seem reasonable enough: it’s useful and interesting to know what movies and TV shows your friends and community are watching: word-of-mouth recommendations can be very powerful in navigating the massive menu of media content.  But the comments to the Netflix post are extremely instructive in showing how hyperconnectivity has its limits.  Some of the commenters emphasize that they are not on Facebook, many of them due to privacy concerns about the site.  Others don’t want their friends to know how they’ve rated certain films (one commenter suggested it would be “embarrassing” if her friends saw that she had rated more than a dozen or so films).  Others pointed out that the feature clogged their news feeds on Facebook, turning the ratings into a version of Facebook “spam.”  Although I have little doubt that Netflix will develop another friends feature, I am intrigued by how this “failure” illustrates some of the potential limits of the uneasy intersections between social networking, marketing, and privacy.  But I am also intrigued by the degree to which many of the Netflix commenters are thinking critically about these issues.

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Tron: Legacy

Like many science-fiction films, especially those about virtual worlds, Tron: Legacy (IMDB) cultivates a carefully-observed ambivalence about the effects of technology.  In many of these films, virtual-reality technologies either enslave us through ideological spectacle (The Matrix)  or distract us from real social problems (Strange Days).  At the same time, the narratives of many of these films depend on digital effects that require extremely sophisticated technologies.  As Eric Kohn points out in his excellent review of Tron: Legacy, this seems to lead to a “paradox,” in which “a franchise built around the fetishistic obsession with cyberculture now preaches its evils.”  Although I think Kohn is correct, at least at the level of narrative (the main goal of the human characters is to leave the “grid” where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been trapped for two decades), the spectacular aspects of the film still embrace a kind of “techno-cool” that seems to be perfectly attuned to the legacy of the original film.

Although this tension between a technophobic narrative and technological spectacle is nothing new–Kohn and others have even identified intersections between Tron: Legacy and Chaplin’s Modern TimesTron: Legacy’s unique status as a much-belated sequel positions it as an enticing case for talking about some of the challenges involved in transmedia storytelling, digital special effects, and especially what might be called technological nostalgia (although that’s not quite the right phrase).  

Nick Tierce’s Tron-ified Modern Times from Nick Tierce on Vimeo.

As I was watching Tron: Legacy, I found myself feeling acutely aware of how the film was working to establish a “new” media franchise for Disney. After my recent trip to Universal Studios, I could easily imagine a simulation ride based on the interior of the game world, and the movie itself was planned with a video game in mind (and apparently a sequel or two). As a result, in a few places, the film seemed to be straining to establish the parameters for the grid, with many of these “rules” (escapees from the grid must have a disc containing all of their memories with them when they leave) defying any kind of logical sense, as Roger Ebert observes in his review. At the same time, aspects of the framing narrative seemed readymade for the cultural logic of Disney: young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is essentially orphaned when his dad becomes trapped in the grid, turning him into a “safe” rebel who races motorcycles through city streets (preparing him nicely for at least one of the games he is forced to play in the grid) and pulls creative pranks on the board of the corporation he inherited. The result is that the film, early on at least, seems to hang on to a number of cinematic cliches, and later, once we have reached the grid, the rules seem to change according to whims driven by the film’s plot. Essentially, Kevin tells us that when he designed the grid, he created a bot of sorts named Clu that would ensure that the grid remained “perfect.” Of course, what happens is that Clu attempts not simply to eliminate imperfections but to get rid of difference itself (the film renders this idea by turning him into a kind of fascist leader who spits out speeches to faceless masses).

The opening sequences also present another representation problem, in that they were filmed in 2D, while the grid sequences were filmed in 3D. Given the rapid movements within the game world, the use of 3D actually seems fitting. Although a pre-credit title tells viewers to wear their 3-D glasses throughout the film, (like Ebert) I removed mine during the 2D scenes simply because the dark glasses made those scenes too murky. But an even more engaging aspect of the early scene was the use of digital special effects to make Jeff Bridges appear to be nearly thirty years earlier. The scene reminded me of an internet rumor that George Lucas had purchased the rights to reproduce digital versions of a number of classical Hollywood actors in order to create new films. But it’s an uncanny match, one that makes his weathered appearance in the grid later in the film all the more powerful, given all of the time we know that he has lost (leading to yet another logical problem: why would a digitized creation “age” in the same way that organic bodies do?).

The tensions between the visual design of the “real” world and the grid are also worth noting. Someone among my Facebook friends suggested that the film resembles a “bourgeois Blade Runner,” and I can see that reading. Many of the spaceships and visual design elements seem to evoke a slightly cleaned up version of the shabby cityscapes of Blade Runner. To some extent, I think this is due to what I have decided to call “technological nostalgia,” the film’s attempt to evoke and update older fantasies of “the grid,” the matrix, cyberspace, or computerization in general. This nostalgia is suggested in part by the closed down arcade that serves as a portal to the grid. When Sam answers a page coming from his dad’s office, he goes to find the old classic games covered in dust, a somewhat “lost” model of gaming in the internet era, in which broadband connections and powerful graphics cards on personal computers make popping quarters into a giant box completely unnecessary. But it’s the grid itself that recalls earlier attempts at depicting the virtual (worth noting: this Indy Weekly article offers a solid history of the original Tron’s visual influence). But I think it’s also suggested in some of tech noir imagery, the spaceships that evoke some of Syd Mead’s work in the 1980s, and other visual imagery that seems to have given rise to the cyberspace imagination starting with Blade Runner and running through William Gibson’s Neuromancer into The Matrix and, later, cyberspace itself.

These thoughts are, I’ll admit, somewhat scattered. I think that’s due, in part, to the tension described by Kohn between the film’s use of computers to render a visually engaging virtual world and the technophobic narrative. But there is also a lost sense of whimsy in this Tron update. In the original Matrix, the film powerfully captured the excitement and novelty of digital media. Keanu’s recognition that he could defy the laws of physics suggested that he could “free his mind” and imagine that anything is possible. In Tron: Legacy, the film stills seems to hold out hope that digital effects can astonish us, but it’s far less optimistic about whether those tools will do anything other than leave us isolated and alienated from others.

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More than Gift Shops

I’m winding down from a short trip to Orlando, where Andrea and I (along with her daughter) spent the New Years Eve weekend visiting the two halves of the Universal Studios theme park (by the way, we were actually in Islands of Adventure when a small fire broke out on one of the rides), followed by an evening trip to Downtown Disney (in what is now a tradition of fun New Year’s adventures).  It’s the first time I’ve been to an amusement park in (quite possibly) twenty years, and the first time since high school that I attended a theme park that is explicitly connected to a movie studio.  When visting Orlando (or Universal Studios in general), it’s easy to see why authors might be tempted to embrace Jean Baudrillard’s arguments about simulation: the parks and the city itself seem to be entirely populated with artificial representations.  The Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure almost seamlessly simulates the powerful blend of past and present Britishness found in J.K. Rowling’s novels and in the movies.  Artificial snow drapes the rooftops of some of the shops (or shoppes); fake owls hover in one of the restaurants; and street vendors hawk (extremely tasty butter beer).  The ride simulations, especially The Mummy and Spider-Man, create the sensation of actually inhabiting the worlds of the movies and graphic novels, allowing riders to feel the effect of swinging from building to building or of descending deeper into the hidden chambers alongside of Brendan Fraser.

It’s also very easy to see how people can criticize these parks and the city as beacons of consumerism.  It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars paying for park admission, parking, food (the meal pass appeared to be a good money saver, but it wasn’t really *that* helpful), and, of course, souvenirs.  In addition to the butter beer, one can also buy wizard wands, capes, and other foods related to the Harry Potter franchise.  And of course, almost every ride exits through the gift shop (to echo the title of a recent documentary), where you are presented with pictures of you and your family enjoying (or reacting to) the rides, presenting you with (a simulation of?) family enjoyment that you can also purchase.  Downtown Disney itself straddles this line.  It’s not part of the actual park, but it offers a kind of simulation of the public square where customers can walk along streets or sidewalks watching “street performers” and other activities that you might see in a “real” city.

But I think we lose quite a bit of specificity in viewing these spaces as mere simulations or as ideological ruses designed to lure in tourist dollars, especially the international tourists who filled our hotel to capacity (rather than visting other parts of the world).  After visiting the parks, I’m not quite sure I have a good  answer to that question.  Certainly I enjoyed the rides.  The Simpsons ride simulation managed to be both incredibly funny and a thoughtful engagement with the show. and the Terminator 3-D show provided an impressive visual spectacle, one that used 3-D relatively well.  Other sections creatively engage our interest in the ways in which cinematic illusions are created.  One of these shows, the Horror Makeup Show (in which Andrea “volunteered” to participate in a couple of stunts) demonstrates how some blood and guts effects are produced, providing viewers, participants, or visitors with a small degree of “insider knowledge” while also linking the park to Hollywood’s past (the show’s hosts make reference to Hitchcock and other Golden Age horror filmmakers).  Similarly, Disaster invites users to “star” in a disaster movie directed by a hologrammatic auteur played by Christopher Walken.  Volunteer “actors” from the crowd of various types are placed in basic costumes and shot in front of a green screen in order to create the effect of being in a disaster movie, allowing you (in the cheery rhetoric of the ride’s web page to make “your big screen debut!”  Again, it’s kind of a crash course in Filmmaking 101 and allows for some form of participation in and movement through a motion picture.

These “ride shows” make explicit something that is prevalent in many–though not all–of the rides and shows at Universal, a form of direct address to the consumer-visitor that is not quite as evident in the movies themselves.  While waiting for various rides, characters (or actors) will directly address the visitors, alerting them to safety rules and other aspects of park etiquette.  In fact, part of what made the Simpsons ride work so well is the fact that these “rules” could be seamlessly integrated with clips from past episodes of the show in which Homer and family visited the Krustyland amusement park, itself a sly parody of Disney World, one that allows Universal to claim a level of “edginess” ostensibly not present in their perpetually cheery rival.

Because I haven’t had a chance to visit them, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how theme parks fit within a wider entertainment culture, and after two days visiting Universal parks, I’m now curious to engage even further with the dynamics enacted within the park.  Yes, the parks do create some form of illusion.  Once the fire broke out, it was clear the spell was broken.  Although the fire was quickly contained and no one was hurt, the mere presence of black smoke was enough to drive people toward the park’s exit in a mass exodus.  And our ability to know how some effects are produced may not “inoculate” us against other ideologies produced by Hollywood.  However, it’s impossible to deny the pleasures of participation and engagement produced by the parks themselves.  I never felt like I was in Hogwarts while visiting the Harry Potter section.  My reaction was immediately “meta:” they did a good job of creating an illusion (a reaction that most reviews seem to express in one form or another).    In this sense, amusement parks extend the story in creative and engaging, if expensive, ways.

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