Thursday, 10 July 2008
Jurassic Park: The Forgotten Masterpiece
Ok, so this post is a continuation of the one of a few days ago, where I built this up like I was a four-armed bricklayer in the middle of London’s industrial boom in the 19th Century. For those of you who haven’t read that wonderful piece of futility or who are suffering from Alzheimer, I staked the outlandish claim that Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is not only his most underrated movie, but also one of his best, most original, most deeply moving and with a really kick-ass artistic statement. Don’t believe me? Well – on to the demonstration on how JP is a film about art, and about the relationship of art to life! *rolling drums.*
*more rolling drums.*
*yet more rolling drums.*
*more rolling drums while you hear someone’s voice in the background screaming “Where the fuck is he??”*
*more rolling drums. The cello-player now joins in to the music.*
*someone from the audience joins in with a harmonica, and now you basically have a Blues trio while the audience is cheerily clapping in tune, except for the most elitist among them who start leaving the place in irritation*
*finally someone throws him out onto the stage, he has bleary eyes and a soul that has touched the deep pits of hell with its forehead and was still halfway back when it was woken up, now he slurs his speech, slightly hungover as he seems to be whenever he's not drunk, and finally begins*
All right. The theme of ‘life’ is of course predominant in the movie, with some speeches even taken straight out of Crichton and with all the dialogue on the miracle of life, how life cannot be controlled, etc. This seems initially a discussion of science – how attempting to dominate (intellectually more so than materially) ‘life’ through scientific paradigms is ethically improper as well as materially incontrollable. (In the book it was indeed a scientific discussion, though the main points were somewhat different). The thematic discussions of life are actualized in the two main characters, Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, who represent the Everyman and Everywoman of the movie and are closely connected to the natural and the genuine, from Alan’s discordance with (and hostility towards) all sorts of machines or electronic equipments to Ellie’s heartfelt desire to have a baby.
Since JP is as elementary and elemental as anything by Spielberg, these characters are ‘genderised’ heavily in their clothing. Consider for a second the dinner scene, which reunites pretty much all of the central characters in the film, kids exempted, and look at the colours they’re wearing: Alan Grant in ocean-blue, pink shirt for Ellie Sattler (ok, so it’s ‘skin-colour,’ which is technically a light kind of orange, but it’s about as close to pink as you can get an adult to wear without making her look like she’s begging for drugs in an Amsterdam district). The colour of their clothes foregrounds their gender, in accordance with their role of Everyman plus Everywoman. The other characters instead are dressed as follows: immaculate cloud-white from socks to shirt to hair and beard for John Hammond, the aspiring ‘creator,’ man who thinks he is God, etc. Equally uncompromising and pervasive black for Ian Malcolm (again including his hair, this guy Spielberg really doesn’t compromise when it comes to colour), standing merely for a power of destruction, omen or agent for that which does not produce, does not create, does not contribute but only and inexorably breaks order and structure (see his familial situation, repeatedly married and with kids, ‘always on the lookout for the next Mrs. Malcolm’ and in fact trying to break Alan and Ellie’s relation by getting hold of the blonde, which I guess I can’t blame him for since Laura Dern in 1993 was as hot as a friggin’ baked potato, hm-hmmm). Finally Gennaro, merely the businessman, neutral figure of no interest to the director or to the other characters, dressed from jacket to tie and (again) even to hair in boring grey.
That dinner is also important because it stands as one of the first steps in the parable of disillusionment undergone by John Hammond. Already at that table he is surprised to find that no-one other than the lawyer actually agrees with or is moved by his project. He is particularly disappointed that Alan and Ellie aren’t into it – for the park was built, after all, for them.
It is around this stage that Hammond’s character starts sharing some thematic streaks with the arts rather than the sciences, for one thing in his association with the role of the creator (more commonly the artist than the scientist), and similarly in his ‘humanitarian’ élan, which typically represents the aspirations of a budding young artist: he wants to change or at least affect ‘life’ or the lives of those around him for the better, where life is here represented by Alan and Ellie, these two complementary and self-sufficient characters, younger than him and a little alienated by his suggestions. Increasingly as the film progresses Hammond finds more and more obstacles in the way of his project, until he realizes that his original idea (‘creation is an act of sheer will’) was no more than a self-congratulatory delusion.
The resulting speech, one of the most moving in Spielberg’s entire oeuvre and well delivered by Richard Attenborough, is not about scientific truth, but about illusion, representation, and the relationship between representation and real life. It is also Spielberg’s most poignantly autobiographical (probably unintentionally so), if we consider that JP, more so even than Cameron’s Terminator 2, marks the inauguration of CGI, the next step in special effects and in giving cinematography a semblance of the real. I think it worth re-proposing it in full:
You know, the first attraction I ever built when I came down from Scotland was a flea-circus: Pettycoat Lane. Really quite wonderful. We had a trapeze, and a carosel, and a see-saw. They all moved, motorised of course, but people would say they could see the fleas: ‘oh I can see the fleas, mommy, can’t you see the fleas.’ Clown-fleas, and high-wire fleas, and fleas on parade. But with this place, I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion; something that was real; something that they could see, and touch… I mean, not devoid of merit.
The thing is, though, that life doesn’t need Hammond’s (or Spielberg’s) fanciful illusions to go on. It does so regardless, in all its silent majesty: the final image of the film, before the helicopter flies off into the sunset, is a shot of five herons flying over the sea. Tying in of course with its previous, multiple references to dinosaurs evolving into birds, it seems that in its conclusion the film chooses the real birds over the illusive dinosaurs, in an image which signifies life’s cycle of constant rebirth and renewal. They fly slowly, indifferent to all the disturbance and noise (the sound and fury, shall we say) caused by the dinosaurs’ drama. The same meaning is asserted within the helicopter as Alan and Ellie are reunited and symbolically taking care of kids, while Malcolm simply stares into the distance, physically incapacitated, and Hammond looks into his fossilized mosquito – his original dream – in disillusionment. He could not give (it) life. Beautiful as it may be, the mosquito, or the film, or the text which narrates it and speaks to us through the ages, is nonetheless fossilized beyond repair.
Spielberg’s steadfast optimism about life’s capacity to renew itself and adapt, and about its wonder and beauty, comes with a marked pessimism about his own trade, and about its (in)capacity to influence and change the world around him. It is an act of pity in its most graceful form that Spielberg, in the moment when everybody is climbing onto the helicopter, should have dedicated those last few seconds on the island to John Hammond. Hammond detaches himself from the group, he steps away from them and towards the camera, towards his own island. He looks at it; the wind shakes his hair and he needs a stick to walk; he sees the summation of his hopes and his fears, and the battlefield only reveals his own ruin. Then Alan Grant takes him by the arm and silently leads him back in.
Hail to thee, John Hammond, and thank you. If for nothing else, for having tried.