the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Jurassic Park (1993)

Uncle Steven's Cabin

The most popular play ever staged in the United States is, without doubt, Uncle Tom's Cabin. In late nineteenth century America, when theater reigned as the leading form of entertainment (no competition with movies, television, radio, rock concerts…) there were as many as 30 touring companies who performed it exclusively . Uncle Tom's Cabin defined popular entertainment. The success of this melodramatic tale, which featured slave owners chasing a runaway, had little to do with empathy for the plight of African Americans. A few decades later audiences would flock to D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation which painted the Ku Klux Klan as the guardians of Western Civilization. The stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin had no political message. This was entertainment for the glands and not the head. Audiences came to witness an elaborately staged chase which repeatedly invoked the motif of the innocents narrowly escaping the evil hunters. Producers spared no expense. One production featured actual running water for the "crossing of the Mississippi". Our great-great grandparents ate it up.

Times change. It is difficult to find a script of this play; actual live productions are an even greater rarity. Modern audiences prefer Jurassic Park. This movie is having the most successful opening of any film in the history of cinema. Jurassic Park is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, a Harvard educated doctor who uses his extensive knowledge of science as a basis for action-oriented stories. Steven Spielberg, the leading motion-picture director of our time, brought it to the screen. It was scored by John Williams, one of the most tiresome composers of all time. The Hollywood public relations wizards launched an advertising campaign which rivals Batman and Malcolm X. (Cartoon characters, black historical figures, dinosaurs - they are very indiscriminate about what they sell but damn good at selling the product). It is projected that the ancillary goods (cups, hats, tee-shirts) will gross close to a billion dollars.

The film purports to make a statement about the application of advanced science, specifically genetics. This notion gained credence when the New York Times ran a front page article about a group of scientists who isolated a strand of DNA from an insect from the Jurassic period (190 to 140 million years ago). The bug was trapped in amber. This coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to the set up in Mr. Crichton's book, in which dinosaurs are resurrected from blood found in a mosquito which is trapped in amber. The story broke within a week of the film's opening and was based on an article in the scientific journal "Nature". Hollywood public relations people have not been know to keep abreast of reports in science publications but it would not be surprising if they had a hand in the timing of this disclosure. The National Science Foundation readily admits planning the release of a dinosaur-related study to coincide with the opening of the film. Ms. Dybas, a spokeswoman for the N.S.F., was quoted as saying: "We thought it would be a good opportunity to get the word out on 4 of the 10 dinosaur research projects the N.S.F. is funding this year"*. It would be interesting to know whom Ms. Dybas is trying to "get the word out" to. The canard that Jurassic Park is a serious film about science had other venerable supporters. New York's Museum of Natural History whored itself to the movie by presenting an exhibit featuring "the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park" (the robot-monsters used in the movie). This was coordinated with the release of the film and featured a large banner over the main entrance highlighting the Jurassic Park logo. Ironically the notion that scientists can be bought exists in the plot of the film: a tycoon bribes two paleontologists to spend a weekend at his "Jurassic Park" by promising three years of research money. Art imitates life.

This film has nothing to do with science. It is about large ferocious lizard-like monsters tearing up people, cars and each other (not to mention one cow and one goat). It was easy to be saddened by the death of the barnyard animals, less so by any of the human carnage. Animals, especially ones that graze, have a natural ability to be at home on the screen; if only this had been true for their anthropoid supporting cast. The stars of this film are the faux-reptiles. The real mammals never had a chance. The script was merciless to them. The fate of the ruminants has been revealed. The humans spouted inane dialogue while their actions showed a penchant for stupidity. The robotic-lizards carried the day. Despite the fact they were machines they had more character than the hominid performers. It is certainly easier to eat than be eaten but even given the circumstances it is hard to fathom why the humans were so pathetic. The men, women and children in this film were as sympathetic as a random member of the Tokyo crowd which faced Godzilla. Pity these poor actors. It is the equivalent of having been sawed in half on stage and being upstaged by the saw. They bear some responsibility themselves. It had to have been a two pronged attack: the script in combination with their lackluster performances. Only that could have produced such a resounding catastrophe; at least from the human perspective.

The fake-dinosaurs, however, were absolutely brilliant. They really seemed real. They acted just as one expected large, mean-spirited lizards to act. They were graceful, single-minded, cruel and hungry. The only disappointment was the Triceratops. He acted like a machine. The reason is he was the only dinosaur who was not eating or being eaten. Fear and ravenousness are portrayed magnificently by all the others. Unfortunately Triceratops was sick. That requires more technique. Perhaps in a few years the technicians at Industrial Light and Magic will insert new chips and instill a wider range of emotion. Not to worry, much was accomplished despite the dinosaurs' limited ability to exhibit passion. In fact the representations of mankind made them appear to be brimming with ardor. It was a relief to have the humans disappear during the climax. It was pure reptile vs. reptile; no distractions from those horrible insect-like bipedal primates.

There is no doubt that the lizards are as spectacular as the humans are appalling. Whether one wishes to focus on the insipid portrayals of people or the technical wizardry of the pseudo-dinosaurs it is important take note of the insidiousness of this film. The movie is grounded in falseness. The pseudo-science has already been mentioned. Even more disturbing is the relationship between what the movie preaches and the impact of the film's arrival. The central storyline involves a tycoon who endangers his own grandchildren, not to mention the rest of the planet, by arrogantly building his notion of a dream-park without thinking of the consequences. Mr. Spielberg and his minions, are guilty of the same crime. The marketing of this film is directed at children. (Is the assorted McDonalds paraphernalia [cups, happy meals…] directed at the over 30 crowd?). Mr. Spielberg, however, announced that he is forbidding his tykes to bear witness. He claims it is too violent. Hmmmm. It is difficult to know whether Mr. Spielberg the parent has ever met Mr. Spielberg the movie tycoon. Perhaps during one of the screenings the two shall coalesce. This might give birth to an interesting advertising campaign: dinosaurs cups might start appearing in Yuppie bars. Speaking of dinosaur cups: the gift shop in the tycoon's dinosaur park features actual Jurassic Park regalia that your children can purchase in any number of shops. Children's television shows are subject to very strict guidelines as to how merchandise, especially toys, can be advertised (one would never guess by watching Saturday morning TV). It would be interesting to know whether this film's exhibiting of the gift shop items, essentially advertising souvenirs in the midst of the story, would be in violation of that law. Ignoring the legal issue, what is Mr. Spielberg actually saying by including this clever marketing gimmick? Are the pee-wees who sport this attire making an ironic statement about a tycoon's dream gone bad? Or, more likely, are they showing support for a movie moguls dream gone good? Mr. Spielberg has probably not considered any of these questions. He is not an evil man. He is merely a very successful tycoon who is relentlessly pursuing his dream. Sound familiar?

Jurassic Park is a meditation on the role of technology in modern society. What drives audiences to see this film are the impressive special effects. The leaps that have been made in video, film and robotic technology are truly astounding. The dinosaurs are a visual culmination technical craftsmanship. Underlying all the sophisticated high-tech images lies a very old story. The chase has always compelled us; whether it is a enslaved person fleeing his oppressors or a sundry group of tourists caught on a Caribbean island hiding from dinosaurs. Chases are fun but it is hard to really understand characters who are stalking one another with frenzied zeal. That is why the characters take a subordinate role to the elements that will heightened the suspense of being caught. Animated poodles could have worked just as well playing any of the human roles in Jurassic Park as long as the dinosaurs were scarery and the impediments they had to surmount were difficult enough to raise the level of anxiety. This task of building the monsters and the obstacles lies in the realm of the technician rather than the artist. There can be little question that a great deal of artistry is needed. It must have taken a virtuoso to realize the dream of having running water represent the Mississippi in those late 19th century productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. That same genius is alive in the movement of the robotic lizards. This wizardry is akin to the finesse of a master craftsman rather than the brush-stroke of a great artist. Artists are concerned with a dinosaur's head and heart, not his teeth and limbs. A good artist tries to move an audience. Master Craftsmen are concerned with producing spectacular goods. It is immaterial to them whether the friuts of their labor are used to mesmorize a crowd. Artist's are more concerned with moving an individual's soul, not a mob's. Unfortunately the economics of show business dictates a need for a mob. That was true in the days of Uncle Tom's Cabin as well. In spite of all the new technology very little has changed or will change. Let us not forget that times change. Jurassic Park's dinosaurs will some day seem as arcane as the staged river crossings of 100 years ago. Steven Spielberg will become as obscure as last century's theater barons. The only difference is speed. Things happen faster. Expect the next "Cabin" to be built in the next 30 years by pillar of the entertainment community who has command over a legion of master craftsmen. It probably will not be a film. It certainly will not be a play. No need to remind its creator of that long-forgotten fossil, Jurassic Park. It would be the equivalent of warning Steven Spielberg about Uncle Tom's Cabin or a tycoon about the danger of re-introducing dinosaurs.

No comments: