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’ √©lan, 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.


Mory said...

I don't remember too much of this movie, which I saw once when I was much younger. I'm not sure whether to take you at your word given the tongue-in-cheek presentation. But if you're serious about this, that's a neat analysis.

string_theory said...

Your ideas on the movie are very interesting. They have in fact widened my views on many other movies of the "block-buster" kind (within limits of course). However, I would like to point out a couple of things. And here they are.

1) You seem to assign a deep importance to Ellie's desire to have a baby but explicitly forgetting its most demolishing counterpart: Grant. As I'm sure you remember Alan hates children (I in fact believe at one point he actually says it himself) and this, to me, mutates the "deep importance" which should have been assigned to the baby issue into a mere pathetic american-style comedy. Any significance it had before becomes shit when we are faced with a "I dont know what car to pick but I'll choose the one where there are no fucking kids" scene.

2) The real message of the movie (and I believe the only deep one) is the proclamation of life in all its glory. Life cannot be controlled or stopped or somehow moulded into negative purposes, as you quite rightly point out.

3) Great idea on the dinner scene, I never thought of that but it makes perfect sense to me.

I feel like Spielberg keeps too much to the politically correct. One black guy, who obviously gets raped in the ass by a dozen raptors, the bad guy is the fat mess (whose desk looks like he shat on it twice), the good girl is a blonde bimbo, the fucking kids (a boy and a girl) etc etc. I say, if the fucking kid sticks to the fucking electric fence which delivers a gazillion volts then how in the name of the saviour of all that is holy can he just get up with pointy hair? No! You fucking die now, cos that's what happens to all of us if we fucking hug an electric fence.

Apart from being an insult to the master piece that is the book, JP is too linked to "what I have to show in a movie because it is right". I say, if a kid has to die, then so be it.

p.s. Dont get me started on the Rex not seeing ppl if they stay perfectly still. I mean come on, he's fucking sniffing you too, can't he smell you if your perfectly still?

John Silver said...

string_theory - I think I actually agree with what you're saying about the politically correct and I think it's a problem with Spielberg throughout (except maybe Jaws? need to think about it more). Nonetheless, and paradoxically, it's part of the attraction - Spielberg's working by cliches can also be read as working by archetypes, which gives a certain universality to his stories (hence the Everyman and Everywoman status of Alan and Ellie). It's an interesting dilemma, at all events - where the line between cliche and archetype is to be drawn (if at all).

About the baby issue, yes, of course Grant is recalcitrant, but that's exactly what he changes his mind upon by the end of the film. I'm not sure if his own views really invalidate Ellie's.

And yeah, the blind T-Rex thing is hilarious - Crichton himself pretty much answered it in the Lost World (when Levine says that the theorist who proposed the T-Rex's motion-sight "is an idiot," I read a slight reference to Spielberg there).

Incidentally though - why do you hold the book in such high esteem? (I'm not disagreeing with the notion as I'm a great admirer of that text myself, though I personally find enormous difficulty when having to compare the two - outside of the title and the dinosaurs, they've really got so little to share. Just curious to hear your thoughts).

Thanks for a great comment, btw.

string_theory said...

Well firstly I can't exactly say I hold the book as my Bible, it's just that comparing two things which share the same title (such as the book and the movie) seems kind of natural, and out of the two the book is by miles triumphant in elegance, message and why not, action. However, out of Chricton's books I must say I prefer Sphere, and maybe even Congo (both of which tragically portrayed in cash-making garbage cinema hits). Strictly remaining in the (science)fiction section I do however believe that JP is one of few books that could mark an era. Firstly, unlike Spielberg (see the latest I.Jones), Chricton creates a science-like self questioning story out of the remote past, rather than on the remote future or (for fucks sakes) on aliens. This is in my opinion a great achievement. When and where have we seen the past coming to life in monstrous forms come "back" to hunt us? Monstrosity has been used, but in forms like King Kong or Godzilla both of which scare me less than randomly dropping dead. If not in alien form, when have we ever faced the nature of where we come from face to face? And not only that, losing to it too!! Chricton's JP defies the notion of evolution, it brings onto itself a self-destructing cycle of life (the dinosaurs could breed to rule the planet?) and most importantly, by doing so it pushes the reader to question the treasure of the present and the brutality of the past, things which CANNOT be brought together.

I enjoy reading your posts more than a lot of others, mostly because they are intelligent and incredibly well written (especially for a Physics mind like mine).

John Silver said...

Well, personally I hold the book of JP to be an absolute classic - easily Crichton's best work - though I've got some trouble when it comes to properly evaluating it since I'm less familiar with the kind of scientific literature / discourse it's about (and its genre in general). I guess time will tell on this. But as to comparing book and film, I'm still stumped because they have messages of antithetical register - the book is critical (with respect to the established intellectual institutions around science) while the film is celebratory. One's destructive, the other's creative. They're so different in intent that for my part I just resign from comparing them, except for the action, which is miles more thrilling in the novel, and the elegance, which I actually much prefer in the film (the book's rather dry and suffocating by comparison).

Don't dismiss Godzilla and King Kong so easily, though. They're obviously tepid thrills now that they're so dated, but when the concept first came out they were probably received much differently. Chances are (good chances) the same things will be said about JP some decades from now. Perceptions of what's scary or not are extremely unstable and subject to change - emotional responses to art evolve in correspondence to the evolution of the art's techniques, and that's fast.

And thanks for the compliments. They're very much appreciated for a blog as new as this, and your comments are fantastic. The one on the magi made me laugh.

string_theory said...

You say Jp is by far Chricton'r best. Possibly, it's by far the one I read the fastest. You cant really let go of that book once you start it. However Sphere is somewhat more elaborate and intrinsic in nature. Whilst JP seems to convey one story-line which you are obliged to follow no questions asked "Sphere" gives you that extra magical sense of I don't know what the fuck is going on but I sure wanna find out. With JP I was reading chapter after chapter, perfectly aware of what was happening (like the movie), with Sphere I was put in situations where I was truly intrigued into finding out what this Sphere was. Furthermore, once we are told what this is we are faced with dealing with it, which is harder than the quest to get there in the first place.

I would encourage you to review the latest version of Godzilla, many people still praise it as a great movie. Personally, I'd rather stab myself in the Jubilees.

John Silver said...

Yeah, Sphere had some intriguing denouements, but ultimately I felt that's all they were. Once they'd been discovered, I didn't really feel like going back to them. JP, by contrast, felt much more suggestive and its messages resonated with me well after the reading of the novel.

Last time I saw the new godzilla I was too young to drink. From my vague memories of it it's comparable to famine and tubercolosis, but then you can't blame that on the original. Can't wait to see the remake of JP in 2060, if I haven't died by then!

string_theory said...

Bah, god knows what will happen by then. Nintendo is launching a thoght controlled video game series. If that works I'll probably spend the rest of my days on the beach, naked, with Charlize (also naked) not chatting about politics.