How should we attend to the surface of the world? If that is too grand a question, it might be brought back to instances: How should we attend to what we see on-screen? What does it hide? What does it cover? What does it inevitably reveal? And what might we mean by the depths of that surface?
A confident, self-conscious play of surfaces characterizes neoclassical Hollywood. The classical demand for legibility and the pressures of the system recast striking images as corporate or industrial emblems. One-sheets, trailers, production stills to accompany reviews, catchphrases and mottoes that appeal to critics and audiences, occasions for word of mouth, fodder for annual reports and compilation reels—such destinies color the emblems themselves. All the phases of Hollywood production may find their allegories in such moments. Yet this surplus meaning, slipped in between the compressed planes of the surface, might always go uncomprehended. Emergent or dissolving, immanent or projective,
The stills pictured are postcards from the stages of the moviemaking process. In the first, from Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, Columbia, 1993), a producer’s body vanishes into the map, into the nation; only her head, hands, and buttons linger. She is about to embark on a location shoot while simultaneously developing the script with “the talent.” Production design anticipates special effects in Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, Universal, 1993) when a dinosaur’s head becomes the screen on which we read her genetic code. She may be animatronic, but the code upon her face stands in for the computer code that generates the film’s digital dinosaurs.1 In Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen, Warner Bros., 1995), another map appears behind a general going over “the projections” for the president. How will a horrible disease spread throughout the United States? His answer constitutes a guess at the riddle of distribution. Speed (Jan De Bont, Fox, 1994) rescues the passengers of a doomed city bus so that they might watch it plow into an airplane and explode. We see the explosion twice before the reflection of the fireball ripples across the windows in front of the former passengers and they are blown back. That audience is us, more or less. Under the sway of such powerful images, we all become passengers on Plato’s public transit system.
These images join dozens and perhaps hundreds of others that solicit but do not require such reading and identification. That gap between possibility and necessity is the arena in which identity may be tried on and the future (or the past) imagined. Sealed into this thinnest of envelopes may be a letter (p.158) for a studio, a producer, a star-turned-auteur. In the chapters that follow, we will match the decryption of such letters with the circumstances and motives behind their composition. Yet no matter how metonymic or discursive those moments and contexts may be, what matters most is their projective capacity, their power to suggest an ideal order of composition.
(1.) In The Last Dinosaur Book (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), W. J. T. Mitchell notices this same equivalence. When Rick Carter, the production designer for Jurassic Park, visited my class in the spring of 2005, he caught sight of this image as it (p.337) appears in Mitchell’s book. “That’s my shot!” he said and went on to explain that while there is no source for the projection we see on the dinosaur, he felt the image would be striking, precisely because it suggested the relationship between DNA and digital coding. After reading Mitchell’s chapter, Carter agreed with virtually all of it.