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.

2001: A Space Odyssey: This Way Up

[You can now hear this post as an audio podcast via this link. It is also available in video form here.]

There are many baffling (let’s go with the critical consensus and call them “enigmatic”) aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s going to take a lot more than a rapidly knocked-off blog entry to solve them. Like the blank, featureless monolith at its core, its mysteries cannot be definitively resolved no matter how hard you stare at them. Once you come to terms with that, you can enjoy the movie without it seeming like a space opera that fails to deliver the requisite thrills and resolutions. In some ways, disorientation is one of the film’s central motifs, whether it is created by the vast narrative ellipses, emotionally pale characters or the ambiguous, sometimes abstract spaces it depicts. Watching it again, I noticed numerous shots where Kubrick imposes a strict horizontality on the mise-en-scene. Let me explain what I mean.
2001 is about progress, the development of technologies that precipitate paradigm shifts in human life and relationships. The opening section famously shows the shift by apes from hunted, cowering scavengers into weapon-wielding territorial carnivores. The apes hold their bodies low to the ground, hunching their shoulders and scraping around in the dirt for food. One day, a large black monolith appears in their midst. Fearful at first, they seem to subject themselves in awe to the inert and inscrutable block. In return, it appears to stimulate a major evolutionary leap, inspiring one ape to to notice that the bone of a dead animal can be used to smash the bones of living creatures, providing plentiful meat, but also assisting with the subjugation of rival tribes. They become hunter-clobberers. All the apes are played by actors in suits and heavy prosthetics, except for one or two real chimpanzees to differentiate them from the new breed of enlightened beasts that will presumably evolve into homo sapiens. It will be those who dare to stand upright who will advance. Oh, and those who dare to take up arms and beat the crap out of something.
If the monolith’s appearance is significant in triggering the paradigm shifts that enable the evolution of humankind (and it is not certain that this is the case), then its power is signified by its presence at moments of cosmic order. It completes a pattern, becoming aligned with planets and moons and unlocking (?), sign-posting (?) or simply observing (?) a powerful coincidence of objects. The emergence of patterns becomes important as a graphic motif throughout the film. For the apes, the monolith represents a startling interruption of routine by straight lines and symmetry. From that point on, humans assume a new relationship with objects and tools. The match-cut which elides millions of years of history makes plain that this shift in perception is all you need to know about humans to understand how they went from picking fleas off each others’ backs to putting a space station into orbit.
In zero gravity, it becomes a moot point which way is up or down, with only the distantial relationships between objects making any sense. Hence the blissful docking of spacecraft which have mastered the dance and found a common orientation.  In 2001 interplanetary travel is not just for those with the “right stuff”, but rather a smooth, Club Class jaunt; all of the troubles of weightlessness have been circumvented by the innovations of various corporations whose logos pepper the onboard instruments. At various points, the set’s spatial clarity can be upset by a change of direction, a remix of the lines of action you thought were in play. An air hostess steps carefully down a corridor before turning and walking up the walls; later, Frank Poole jogs around the interior of the ship, seeming, from one perspective, to be running perpendicular to the floor. The next shot gives us a different point of view, as if to remind us that the orientations suggested by these interiors are denials of the actual relations between objects loosed from any gravitational pull.
Kubrick’s compositions in interior shots are decidedly horizontal for the most part. The spacecraft, cockpits, docking bays and patterned lines cumulatively depict the imposition of order, straightness and an anthropocentric levelling-out of the inconceivable, directionless emptiness of outer space:
The technologised subjection of space to measurement, alignment and re-orientation is also seen in the focus on the navigation screens which show wireframe drawings of spacecraft on rigid grids that segment and demarcate the blackness. This equipment enables pilots to bring floating craft into a more co-ordinated and stable state:
There are ecstatic moments when clarity and alignment occur, as in the quasi-mystical lining-up of planets in the opening salvo, as if their rare order switches on the film with a cosmic, curtain-raising overture. There are threats to humans’ attempts at universal horizontality. The monolith inserts a resolute vertical into proceedings, and its apparently deliberate placement on the moon is a shocking discovery to a species who had previously believed themselves to be the only beings capable of the careful positioning of things.

Now, although I’ve offered one way of reading 2001 as a depiction of human endeavour as the taming of space and distance, and I’ve done this just by looking at the arrangment of certain shots, this is not the only way to read the film. It would be even more difficult to pin down an editorial attitude to questions of technology coming from Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke. There are plenty of moments of awed contemplation as the camera lingers over its spacecraft, ejecting people from the frame and decentring dialogue to an indistinct babble of small-talk in several scenes. Elsewhere, the beautiful machines turn menacing, either by their sheer scale or under the control of the artificially intelligent computer HAL, whose impermeable logic cannot be reasoned with once he decides on his own course of action. Is this late insertion of a lethally flawed computer supposed to undercut the preceding tech-fetishism? It is difficult to say, since the final shots are impossible to reduce to a closing comment (a reading of Clarke’s story The Sentinel will provide some clues, but the film’s version is not easily assimilable with it in many respects). The transformation of Dave Bowman into a gargantuan “starchild” (the film’s most dramatic reconfiguration of notions of relative scale) overlooking the surface of Jupiter is an evolutionary leap of which we cannot conceive. It moves humankind beyond a trifling interaction with levers, switches and big mechanical toys into a new arena of unbounded space where the rules of up, down, forward and back no longer need to apply. Maybe. That’s the brilliance of 2001. It defies explanation, but manages to give the impression that it is not a surreal refusal of sense, but a distant, advanced form of representation that will only be interpretable the next time a monolith appears to help with the next stage of consciousness.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine