This paper was given at the Special Effects/Special Affects: Technologies of the Screen symposium held at the University of Melbourne, 25/3/2000.
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We tend to view the digitally driven effects of contemporary entertainment forms like blockbuster films and amusement park attractions as products that are particular to our postmodern age. The research this paper is based on, however, is very much the result of my increased frustration at numerous film critical and theoretical models to come to terms with the games of perception that current entertainment media engage the spectator in. I want to argue that entertainment spectacles of the last two decades are reliant on a baroque perceptual regime that sensorially engages the spectator in ways that recall baroque art forms of the seventeenth century.
The seventeenth century and our own era are epochs that reflect wide-scale baroque sensibilities that, while being the product of specific socio-historical and temporal conditions, reflect similar patterns and concerns on formal levels. While specific historical conditions differ radically, both epochs underwent radical cultural, perceptual, and technological shifts that manifested themselves in similar aesthetic forms. While these cultural transformations are beyond the scope of this article, I want to introduce some central features of the baroque perceptual regime in the context of the seventeenth century and our current epoch’s shared fascination with spectacle, illusionism, and the baroque formal principle of the collapse of the frame. And I want to go back in time before I move to the present.
In his book The Fold, Deleuze suggests that the baroque offers an “architecture of vision” that situates the viewer in a spatial relationship to the representation (1993, 21). Rather than providing a statically ordered perspectival arrangement, the ‘center’ continually shifts, the result being the articulation of complex spatial conditions. Classical systems are characterized by closure. Such closed systems remain centered, ensuring narrative clarity and symmetry of organization.
For example, Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens (1509-11) reflects such a classical attitude to narrative and visual form. The architectural arrangement recedes into the background, centering the two key figures – Aristotle and Plato – while a series of other philosophers flank them on either side. Aided by the use of one-point perspective, the representation aims at perceptually extending the two-dimensional wall space through architectural and figural arrangements that lead the gaze of the spectator into the depth of the composition.
The overriding sensation of the compositional and narrative arrangement is of the framing of the main protagonists within a closed and focused narrative and representational scenario, a feat achieved by the rigid, painted architectural framework. The effect is one of a representational reality that is contained within the frame. Depicting a represented reality that effaces its construction through rational means, the spectator looks into this space as if looking through a window beyond which another world exists – a metaphor also frequently used by film historians and theorists to analyze classical Hollywood cinema.
The baroque example of Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling painting of The Glorification of Urban VIII (Rome, 1633-9) in the Palazzo Barberini is, in many respects, a paragon of seventeenth century baroque attitudes to spectacle and illusionism. The single, immobile viewpoint of the classical spectator is transformed into a dynamic process that changes as a result of its three-dimensional capacity to actively engage the spectator in spatial terms. The Renaissance ideal of a perspectivally guided representation (evident in Raphael’s School of Athens) is replaced by a baroque concern with complex, dynamic motion and multiple perspectives.
The baroque’s difference to classical systems lies in the refusal to respect the limits of the frame. Instead it “tend[s] to invade space in every direction” (Focillon 1992, 58), combining multiple, shifting view points and narrative perspectives – all of which operate to collapse the classical function of the frame. The frame is present so that its framing purpose can be undermined. Open systems typical of the baroque permit a greater flow between the inside and outside, and operate according to a polycentric logic. Cortona’s ceiling painting reveals precisely such a polycentric organization.
Whereas Raphael contains his narrative by framing it within a hemispherical border that rigidly encloses the composition, Cortona uses the frame in order to escape its limits. Despite the seemingly distinct narrative segments, Cortona isn’t concerned with a narrative and visual border such as that present in Raphael’s painting – a point witnessed in the fact that numerous figures and swirling clouds tumble and float in front of and behind the painted stucco frames with the result that the narrative from one panel literally spills into the narrative of another.
In addition, the impression is such that, in order to puncture bordering visual and narrative spaces, the figures and objects perceptually appear to enter our own space. The depiction of each narrative suggests a dynamic space and open attitude, one that aims at and produces “an unlimited space continuum” (Wittkower 1985, 252). In fact, baroque spectacle often serves a dual function. It operates on the principle of co-extensive space – a space that illusionistically connects with and infinitely extends from our own. And it constructs a labyrinthine space that produces an expansive network of spatial formations that appear to extend into our own. It therefore draws the gaze of the spectator “deep into the enigmatic depths and the infinite” (Perniola 1995, 93), rhythmically recalling what Focillon labels the “system of the labyrinth”.
Two recent film examples suggest the extent to which this dual articulation of the “architecture of vision” (embodied by the infinite and the labyrinth) has become ingrained in Hollywood effects cinema, primarily as a result of computer generated special effects. The opening scene of Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997) literally (at least, in visual terms) makes the spectator become ‘lost in space’. Computer effects create the illusion of the longest zoom-out shot in the history of the cinema as the camera appears to travel ever outwards through infinite space, continually relocating its center, from planet to planet, solar system to solar system.
We’re confronted by an infinite vision, one that ultimately deceives us as it shifts from outer space to inner space (while still retaining its concern with the infinite). Event Horizon (Paul Anderson 1997) again plunges the audience’s vision into an infinite zoom-out. In this sequence, the camera (or the computer effect mimicking a camera motion) centers on the view of a figure through a window. The figure seems to be hanging upside down but, as the camera pulls out it also rotates and recenters the spectator’s view to one that encompasses a larger view of a space station (which includes further figures seen through windows situated at different angles to the original figure). Again, the camera zooms out and, as it rotates, provides an even longer shot of the station. So it continues, until this dizzying spatial effect reveals the massive polycentric and labyrinthine structure that is the space station, which is itself situated within a boundless space.
A baroque logic pervades both scenes, one that turns traditional mono-directional perspective on its head. In the construction of these co-extensive and labyrinthine spaces, ‘a’ center is no longer present. The continual relocation and multiplication of centers creates a spatial disorientation that emphasizes kinetic motion. In these instances, via the camera (and computer that produces the digital effects) our vision often appears to be violently thrust into the space and representation depicted on the screen. The frame appears to illusionistically collapses, with the result that traditional perspective which relies on the frame and a static view point also collapses. An illusion of infinity itself is placed before the spectator and an invitation is extended to engage with the spectacle in dynamic and disorienting terms.
It’s theme park rides like the recent Amazing Adventures of Spiderman 3D roller coaster at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Florida, that further expand the potential for realizing a complexity of space that perceptually appears to collapse of the frame and evoke spatial indeterminacy. Such examples reflect the way our own era has taken baroque games of perception to new limits – a fact that necessitates a rearticulation of Deleuze’s conception of a baroque architecture of visions. We instead need to consider an architecture that encompasses the senses.
The technology that now conjures illusions with such technical mastery within the arena of the theme park quite literally engages, assaults and confuses our senses. Often using hydraulically powered motion simulators combined with film and digital technology, the participatory and invasive nature of these spectacles produce such an intense sense of the architectural dimension of sight and sound that many an audience member literally suffers the effects in the form of nausea.
Given the baroque concern with the perceptual collapse of the frame, Deleuze has argued that the “.Baroque establishes a total art or a unity of the arts” and that “it does so first of all in extension, each art tending to be prolonged and even to be prolonged into the next art, which exceeds the one before.” (Deleuze 1993, 123). Theme park attractions (which stand at the center of the most ‘cutting edge’ technological developments in the entertainment industry) take to new limits the “unity of the arts”.
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, a multi-media attraction at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure, Florida, is typical of the current state of the unity of the arts that populates current entertainment forms. Screen action using computer, video and film technology combines with live action in the form of a roller coaster to produce an exhilarating, participatory entertainment experience.
In the Marvel Superhero Island – one of the lands of the Islands of Adventure – the group of adventurers physically travel through the corridors of the Daily Bugle, the newspaper complex that’s the workplace of Peter Parker, alias Spiderman.
The offices of Peter Parker and other reporters are experienced both as architectural environments and as sculptural spaces where objects like desks, newspapers, computer terminals, photographs, discarded food, and clothing appear as if frozen in time as a three-dimensional realization of a comic book world. Reporters (in animated form on tvTV screens) inform us of the catastrophic events that have occurred in New York City. Dr. Octopus – Spiderman’s archenemy – and his group of villainous accomplices are wreaking havoc on the city.
In another space – a large auditorium – we’re greeted by J. Jonah Jameson, the Bugle Boss (as mediated through a large screen), and he initiates us as stand-in reporters. With our mission clear, we move into the next room, a “subway station” where we enter a “scoop” – a roller coaster buggy – and head off on our reporting job. Armed with our protective goggles (3D glasses), our journey in the scoop takes us through the streets of New York (á la Marvel Universe) which appear as architecture, painted sets, and sculptured environments. As we plummet through the city – at times being swirled around in multiple 3600 spins (a fact that disturbs the centered vision associated with classical form) – at various intervals we’re strategically placed in front of 3D filmed images projected onto domed and wide screens.
These larger-than-life filmed animations place us further in the middle of the action. Spiderman, for example, introduces himself by “leaping” onto our scoop car – causing our car to rock – then somersaulting back into one of the film screens. This motion is not merely perceived. Our bodies, which are thrown around in the car, experience it in real, immediate and exhilarating ways.
Informing us he’ll be our protector, Spiderman fails to spare us the shocking sensations of being electrocuted by Electro or torched by Dr. Octopus: in both instances, the common response is to raise our hands instinctively to protect our faces in anticipation of the 3D attack that seems to physically threaten us. Likewise, he’s nowhere in sight when our scoop-mobile plunges downwards at a 450 angle and we appear to fall from skyscraper-height and into an IMAX-constructed illusion of a New York pavement as it speedily approaches us. Our response? Mine, at least, was to scream with horror – and a perverse sense of joy. Such experiences thrust us into basic bodily states – states that lure our senses into believing in the existence of illusions that are not there.
In this attraction, the reality of the audience’s presence within Universal’s Islands of Adventure melds with the fiction of the Spiderman comic book universe. Like many of the effects films and attractions that preceded it, the Spiderman attraction has pushed film technology and amusement park rides to new limits by unifying previously self-contained media forms. In doing so, it’s expanded the affective potential of these techno-illusions.
This is the realm of baroque spectacle as theatre of the world: once invited beyond the proscenium, and beyond the frame, the frame perceptually disintegrates embroiling the viewer in a series of baroque “folds”, to use Deleuze’s term, that present the possibility of a limitless scope of sensory immersion. Insides and outsides are continually rewritten, and multiple media and lived realities are continually reframed.
Operating according to the logic of the “unity of the arts”, rides such as Spiderman not only draw upon the formal aspects of other media, they actually incorporate multiple media formats into their structure – in the process, engaging with as many senses as possible in order to heighten the illusion of the collapsing proscenium. For example, when the animated version of Dr. Octopus blasts the audience with fire, the animated fire ruptures its film boundary and enters the architectural interior that we inhabit, appearing as ‘real’ fire whose heat we feel and whose smoke effects we smell – and even taste.
Likewise, the surround sound systems that widescreen cinema first introduced as a five speaker format in the ’50s (and which were given new life with the release of Star Wars in 1977 and in the era of surround-sound cinema that followed) are now replaced with new digital audio effects by the Soundelux Entertainment Group that comprise over two hundred audio tracks and hundreds of speakers that are littered throughout the attraction, thus providing an auditory illusion of the collapse of the frame that matches the visual.
State of the art digital effects, the digital sound system, roller coaster technology, revamped widescreen and 3D cinema formats combine with the theatrical effects such as fire and smoke to produce an immersive and sensorially entertaining experience that engages all our senses – from the haptic to the auditory. Superheroes and supervillains are now placed within a 3D context, and the illusionistic outcome is not only technologically groundbreaking butbut also phenomenologically new. All the while, audience members sit in their seats, wondering how these illusions are possible.
However, as the song goes: “Everything old is new again”. The attraction “remediates” and provides alternate technological and multi-media dimensions to baroque spectacles familiar to audiences since the seventeenth century. Bolter and Grusin have discussed the ways in which media forms rely on media historicity: media continually remediate, redefine and revitalise their own forms by drawing upon other media. They state: “Both new and old media are invoking the twin logics of immediacy and hypermediacy in their efforts to remake themselves and each other” (Bolter and Grusin 1999, 5).
In the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries, entertainment forms like this theme park attraction engage in such a complex and excessive level of interaction and remediation that it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle one media form from another. Does Spiderman, for example, belong to the realm of the cinema, television, computer technology, sculpture, architecture, the theatre, the comic book, the animated cartoon, or the theme park attraction?
Furthermore, the baroque “fold” informs the logic of these remediated spectacles as all of these multimedia ‘realities’ intermingle with and fold into one another as characters from within the screen appear to enter the space of the audience and the space of the audience appears to become one with the space of the screens. 3D effects, computer graphics, animation, widescreen technologies, digital sound, and roller coaster engineering combine to construct and immerse us in an illusion that breaks down of spatial boundaries that separate the audience’s reality from the representation, making it difficult to fix the boundaries that frame the illusion and distinguish it from reality.
The total unity of the arts that Deleuze discusses occurs through extension, invoking the motion of the fold: like the fluid media and figural transformations of Cortona’s Barberini ceiling, one space extends into another, one medium into the next, the spectator into the spectacle, and the spectacle into the spectator. However, extending the baroque spatial dimension of sight, this baroque attraction employs multi-media technologies to produce virtual trompe l’oeil effects that call into play all the senses. Introducing motion, sound, and other sensorial encounters to visual spectacle, the contemporary baroque articulates the perceptual collapse of the frame more powerfully, and in ways not witnessed before.
The classical paradigm associated with pre-’60’s Hollywood cinema, and its associations with narrativity and the ‘passive’ spectator (a model that persists to this day in film theory), no longer seems viable given new entertainment experiences concerned with spectacle, multimedia formations, and active audience address and participation. Spectacle engulfs the audience in invasive, spatial, and theatrical terms, producing a participatory, thrilling experience that makes our very being quiver with exhilaration.
Underlying Bolter and Grusin’s statement regarding the concerns for immediacy and hypermediacy lies the possibility for a baroque logic: in “their efforts to remake themselves”, entertainment media often slip into a baroque obsession with virtuosity and the grand theatricality of illusionism. By seeking to collapse the proscenium arch, current entertainment spectacles like the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman also insist on the eventual revelation of the process of mediation.
The attraction lures the audience into various levels of reality by displaying a variety of technologically conjured effects – in the process, setting itself up as a new kind of techno-spatial experience. A condition of the audience embracing the immediacy of the illusion as perceptually real is that we also (eventually) recognize and applaud the complexities involved in its construction. Indeed, by remediating 3D cinema, animated cartoons, comic books, television, and the roller coaster, Spiderman also stakes its claim for out-performing these media. The result is that an interplay occurs between old and new traditions, one that suggests that the remediation of prior forms in Spiderman the ride has “improved” or “advanced” the audience’s understanding of a perceptual reality, especially in relation to the perceptions provided by older media experiences. Framing itself within its own historicity, underlying Spiderman is a virtuoso concern, one that results from its flawless articulation of an illusion that invades the audience’s space in such deceptively real terms.
Increasingly, therefore – and through their own media-specific methods – entertainment spectacles strive to obliterate the frame that demarcates a distance between reality and representation. The cinema relies on widescreen formats, computer-generated special effects, and surround sound experiences. Theme park attractions draw upon a variety of methods including Imax and Omnimax screen formats, widescreen images, digital sound effects, 3D, simulation rides, and theatrical experiences to sensorially engage the spectator, inviting them to believe that the illusion they witness is perceptually real. As Gunning observes in relation to the pre-cinema: “These optical entertainments exemplify the state of suspended disbelief that Octave Mannoni describes as ‘I know very well, and all the same.’ In a new realm of visual entertainment this psychic state might best be described as ‘I know very well, and yet I see.'” (Gunning 1995, 471).
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard 1999. Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.
Deleuze, Gilles 1993. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press. (Originally published 1988).
Focillon, Henri 1992. The Life of Forms in Art. London: Zone Books. (Originally published in 1934).
Gunning, Tom 1995. “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny.” Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video. Ed. Patrice Petro, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Perniola, Mario 1995. Enigmas: the Egyptian Movement in Society and Art. Trans. Christopher Woodall. London and New York: Verso. (Originally published 1990).
Wittkower, Rudolf 1985. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750. Middlesex: Penguin. (Originally published 1958).