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3 8 2 THE SCREEN IS ALIVE Digital Effects and Internet Culture in the 1990s Cyberthriller In March 2003, I attended a special screening of D. A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973) at a drive-in theater in Atlanta as part of a local film festival. As I watched I discovered that Ziggy Stardust was the perfect movie with which to indulge my desire to experience a film at a drive-in, with its 1970s “innocence” meshing with the nostalgia for the past when drive-ins were far more common. But at one crucial moment, I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw a scene from The Matrix Reloaded, a movie I hadn’t yet seen, being projected on a screen directly behind my car. The shot, of what appeared to be a series of doorways opening into an infinite regress of rooms, was pretty astonishing , but the experience of glancing into the mirror and seeing a “contemporary” version of our cyberspace future while watching and listening to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust evoked another image of the “future” from 1973. That image was intimately tied to Bowie’s own interrogations of performance and self-fashioning through his multiple rock star personas, suggesting for me a temporal dialectic of special effects in which the new returns as the always-the-same, a repetition that Walter Benjamin saw as crucial to the modern experience of history. As Susan Buck-Morss argues, “The temporal dialectic of the new as the alwaysthe -same, the hallmark of fashion, is the secret of the modern experience of history. Under capitalism, the most recent myths are continuously superseded by new ones, and this means that newness itself repeats mythically.”1 Thus, despite the “novelty” implied by the T H E S C R E E N I S A L I V E 3 9 special effects in The Matrix Reloaded, seeing the film’s special effects juxtaposed against an earlier era of cinematic futurism underscored for me the degree to which the newness of special effects is recycled, reworked, and revisited. While it is, no doubt, the case that virtually all Hollywood films rely upon digital effects to a greater or lesser degree, science fiction and fantasy films of the 1990s provided a unique site for thinking about the role of digital effects in reshaping cinematic narrative and in rethinking the definition of film as a medium. I mention the Ziggy Stardust anecdote not simply because it plays out the unique schematics of watching movies in a drive-in theater years after the original drive-in moment had passed but because both films are so deeply invested in the use of special effects to represent the future of cinema and how that future might be tied to unstable definitions of the human. In this context, the Matrix films reveled in the fantasy of what Vincent Mosco described as a “post-biological future” in which humans could transcend their frail bodies.2 While we are no doubt prepared to see the computer special effects as a crucial organizing element of The Matrix films, both formally and narratively, it is worth emphasizing that Bowie’s concert film was equally based in the “special effects” of performance and staging, of creating an illusory image of an imagined (space age) future. It should be added that my moment of recognition was not a fully innocent one. Steeped as I was in Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image, I was fully prepared to recognize the historicity of both images. My epiphany at the drive-in was also informed by Anne Friedberg’s useful Benjamin-inspired observation of the analogy between the automobile windshield and the movie screen.3 Finally, the use of special effects in The Matrix Reloaded should also serve as an important reminder of the role of digital effects in extending the marketing and promotional arms of Hollywood studios. As Edward Jay Epstein observed, the use of digital effects “further offers the prospect of a licensing cornucopia of heroes (and anti-heroes) for toys, interactive games, and amusement park rides.”4 While audiences have, in certain circumstances, rebelled against the digitization of certain characters, such as Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, the tremendous popularity of digitized characters in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, among many others, illustrates the degree to which audiences can embrace digital effects when wrapped in an enticing narrative. Significantly...


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