Brainstorm: The Medium is the Mess

Apparently, political correctness forbids me from using the term “Brainstorm“, since it might offend epilepsy sufferers. I have to say “thought shower”. That won’t please these guys. If you find this outrageously ridiculous, perhaps this link here is the one for you. Visit there, and once you’ve stopped huffing indignantly you can come back here and talk about Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 movie B-r-a-i-n-s-t-o-r-m.

Brainstorm is an oddity in some respects, but we can situate it within a small subset of science fiction and/or horror movies about killer media. In films like Strange Days and Ringu/The Ring (can anyone name some others?), watching a piece of footage can be lethal, but utterly compulsive. The plot of Thought Sh… sorry, Brainstorm is driven by a clever gadget akin to the HMD (head-mounted display) used in virtual reality. Instead of occupying the user’s field of vision, this gizmo takes over all the senses to produce a perfect recording and playback of a person’s sensory data. A later version is capable allows the “viewer” to explore the memories of the recorded person. Christopher Walken is Michael Brace, a lead scientist on the project under a chain-smoking, formidably edgy Louise Fletcher (still best known as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Natalie Wood, who shot most of her scenes before her accidental death by drowning two years before the film made it to the screen in 1983, is Brace’s estranged wife, Karen.

There is both utopia and dystopia here. Brainstorm expresses mistrust of immersive media and virtual reality, both in its depiction of its corruption by humans too frail to avoid its sensuous thrills, and in its attempted co-option by the military-industrial complex. And yet, the central gadget is a force for positive change. It might enable great leaps forward in education, by beaming libraries of knowledge directly into children’s brains; personally, I’m a little uncomfortable with this stock science fiction trope, which takes the social aspect of learning out of the equation and reduces education to something like a refuelling stop.

When Hal, the lab technician, splices a bit of POV porn into a perpetual orgasm, it leaves him a twitching, vegetative junkie on an image-drip. His inappropriate edit took a moment from someone else’s experience out of context and reduced it to a single moment of pleasure. Again, Trumbull offers an upside to what might be seen as a crippling flaw in the technology – Hal is rescued from his torpor and becomes a better husband, and a more keen golfer. How this happened is not exactly explained, but it may be the result of an expanded consciousness gleaned from shared experience with another human: it seems not to matter that such mind-expansion came from repeatedly imagining that he was boning a colleague.

The device also effects a profound reconciliation between Michael and Karen – by experiencing each others’ memories and feelings, they forge an empathetic bond which they hadn’t achieved during the unmediated years of their marriage. And when Lillian records her own death by heart-attack (those cigarettes were a signpost of imminent cardiastrophe, in case it was too subtle for you…), the tape becomes a deadly weapon that gives the Feds the idea of co-opting the equipment in order to brainwash and traumatise enemy combatants and no doubt other funny-looking counter-cultural suspicious types. But it also allows Michael to vicariously experience Lillian’s death, giving him a POV shot from the edge of the afterlife. By showing the audience a vision of heaven (and by subscribing to the standard celestial iconography of cosmic angels and dazzling vanishing points he leaves us in doubt that that is what is being shown), Trumbull renders literal what had remained abstract in the Stargate sequence, his gift to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The abstraction of Stargate, in which the floods of colour and light resist form, gives way to discernible shapes, constellations, gallaxies and, finally, a piercing bright vanishing point pulling in hordes of angels.

Douglas Trumbull was heavily invested in the idea of experiential media, in the development of his Ridefilm event simulation equipment (later owned by the IMAX corporation, another set of big gadgets designed to create the illusion of envelopment in the image). He developed the Showscan technique, essentially a large format, high definition process, for use on Brainstorm’s POV shots. This didn’t work out, and the film was projected in standard formats – the disappointment and delays in getting Brainstorm released in the wake of Natalie Wood’s death may have led Trumbull to quit the movie business to focus on constructing ride films: he never directed another film for conventional cinema release. In the scene where the potential investors are shown a showreel of clips for the fictional “sensory cinema” in Brainstorm, Trumbull is clearly referencing earlier cinematic forms of entertainment, most notably Cinerama, a widescreen process requiring three cameras and three projectors, which was briefly popular in the early 1950s. In these sequences, the POV is of disembodied vision moving forwards at high speed, occasionally taking transcendent flight over the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge (Henry Hathaway’s How the West was Won, one of the few feature films shot using Cinerama, also features aerial shots over American landscapes, and This is Cinerama, a showcase for the process, included flyovers of the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge and a ride on a rollercoaster).

Trumbull displays a faith in the power of media that errs only when confronted by the frailties of viewers. It is when humans get in the way that Trumbull foresees problems, when their bodies, genitals, sexual appetites and dodgy arteries lead to abuse of his fabulous technology. Brainstorm‘s gizmo has so much to offer its users: it will allow them to leapfrog the inadequacies of their bodies and become not voyeurs of experience but communities of electronically shared and mediated emotions, if only they can stop trying to assimilate it with their usual requirements that visual culture should titillate or immediately gratify. And yet, whenever Brainstorm tries to show its viewers (i.e. you the viewer of the film, not the idealised spectator contained within the diegesis) what it would be like to use this device, it has to fall back on the language of cinema, using music, soft focus, montage and smooth tracking shots to synthesise the multi-sensory environments of human perception. But it is striking today how much the imagined glimpses into Lillian’s memory make it look like a networked library of spatialised data, navigable by a user like a Wikipedia of someone else’s brain:

Ultimately, though, Brainstorm seems to imply that the medium is not just the message, but everything else into the bargain – it’s an extension, augmentation of the self, or at least of the senses that help to define one’s knowledge of the self and enable interaction with other selves – it is only as good as you are, and will help or hinder your personal development accordingly. Either that, or it will be used against you by shifty military types who want to storm your brain with sensory overload.

Further Reading:

A good overview of Douglas Trumbull’s career.

A brief review of the film from Moria.

Article from Wired magazine about Trumbull’s Las Vegas virtual reality ride.

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