T HE CINEMA OF CGI ATTRACTIONS

Understanding the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster’s Appeal

Sonny Sidhu Swarthmore College Film and Media Studies 092: Film Theory and Culture Professor Patricia White Spring 2009

FMST 092: Film Theory and Culture Professor P. White

Sonny Sidhu 22 May 2009

The Cinema of CGI Attractions
Understanding the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster’s Appeal
The advent of computer-generated imaging (or CGI) in Hollywood special effects, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was welcomed enthusiastically by film critics, cinema theorists, die-hard cinephiles, and casual moviegoers alike—all of whom sensed, in this new technological frontier, the potential for a radical expansion in the scope and reach of the cinema itself. CGI technique and technology matured rapidly during the 1980s, and throughout the early 1990s the unprecedented commercial success of a string of CGI-driven special-effects blockbusters, including The Abyss [1989], Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991], and Jurassic Park [1993], demonstrated a persistent demand for CGI-driven spectacle amongst the global moviegoing public. Hollywood studios have diligently catered to that demand ever since, and today, more than fifteen years after Jurassic Park, CGI-driven special-effects spectacle is securely entrenched as the dominant mode of the Hollywood cinema, both in the domestic and (evermore) global markets. That is to say: Every summer so far this century, the Hollywood studios have presented moviegoers around the world with a slate of flashy, escapist, pointedly CGI-laden cinematic fantasies, and every summer, at least one of these films has joined the list of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time.1 The most successful of these films and franchises—The Lord of the Rings [2001, ‘02, ‘03], Harry Potter [2001, ’02, ’04, ’05, ‘07], Spider-Man [2002, ‘04, ‘07], The Chronicles of Narnia [2005], Transformers [2007], The Dark Knight [2008], and Iron Man [2008], among others—blend live-action photography with the ‘magic of CGI’ to bring to the screen familiar stories and characters from pop-cultural properties that appeared, originally, outside of the cinema. Collectively, this breed of Hollywood-produced CGI spectacle represents a global, commercial and pop-cultural juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing. How should theory ap1

Source: Internet Movie Database <http://www.imdb.com/boxoffice/alltimegross?region=world-wide>

proach these films, and the source of their immense appeal? This essay aims to define the common aesthetic that unites the most successful 21st-century Hollywood CGI-effects blockbusters through a reading of director Sam Raimi’s enormously successful Spider-Man trilogy, with the ultimate goal of approaching an understanding of the specific promise buried within the visual spectacle these films provide. Seeking to conceptualize this new breed of film, contemporary theory has embraced the early-film historian Tom Gunning’s model of a “cinema of attractions”—a term originally coined to describe the cinema as it existed prior to 1903 or 1904, in its earliest forms of production and exhibition. According to Gunning, the cinema of this period was an “exhibitionist cinema” that represented “less a way of telling stories than a way of presenting a series of views to an audience” (Gunning 1989 62). Narrative concerns, he argues, did not come to dominate the practice of filmmaking until the middle of the 20th century’s first decade, at which point the exhibitionist ‘cinema of attractions’ was gradually supplanted by the voyeuristic visual codes of later narrative cinema. To many contemporary scholars, Gunning’s description of cinema at the turn of the last century appears to perfectly capture the essence of CGI-laden Hollywood cinema around the turn of this century. In the past ten years, cinema scholars have often approached the issue of contemporary, CGI effects-driven Hollywood cinema through the theoretical framework of a latter-day ‘cinema of attractions.’ In this growing body of theory, scholars universally indicate that the two cinemas share, aesthetically, an exhibitionist mode of spectator-address and an emphasis on visual spectacle at the expense of narrative development. Some researchers venture beyond these formal similarities to note that both the early ‘cinema of attractions’ and the latter-day cinema of CGI attractions emerged within the particular techno-historical context of a visual culture informed by discourses involving the spectacular novelty of the cinema’s promise. (Crucial to this last point’s continuing utility is the fact that Hollywood CGI—which advances constantly at the exponential rate of technological accel-

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eration predicted by Moore’s law, yet which is subject to the seasonal rhythm of the Hollywood release schedule in its exhibition—seems to offer the promise of endlessly renewable novelty.) Contemporary scholarship amply demonstrates the metaphorical usefulness of Gunning’s early ‘cinema of attractions’ model in engaging with basic aesthetic and techno-historical issues surrounding the current reign of the Hollywood CGI blockbuster. However, today’s theory offers less consensus on the present-day applicability of the most important component of Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions’ model—namely, the author’s penetrating insight into the socio-cultural context within which the technologically novel visual spectacle of the early cinema came to resonate in the collective psyche, and was elevated from mere diversion to attraction. The element of attraction that supports Gunning’s model of early cinema derived from a social impulse far more complicated than a simple interest in visual spectacle and technological novelty. Similarly, if contemporary cinema theory seeks to fully understand the current Hollywood blockbuster category as a ‘cinema of attractions,’ it must look beyond CGI’s surface novelty and graphical flash to examine the fundamental significance and allure that this imagery holds in the psychology of the 21st-century spectator-subject. Tom Gunning approaches the question of audience-attraction in the ‘cinema of attractions’ model in “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Published in 1995, six years after “The Cinema of Attractions,” this essay represented Gunning’s effort to redeem the early cinema spectator from a primitivist myth of credulous naïveté, which, the author argues, was a fabrication of subsequent 20th-century cinema theory:
The first audiences, according to this myth, were naïve, encountering [the] threatening and rampant image with no defenses, with no tradition by which to understand it. The absolute novelty of the moving image therefore reduced them to a state usually attributed to savages in their primal encounter with the advanced technology of Western colonialists, howling and fleeing in impotent terror before the power of the machine. This audience of the first exhibitions exists outside of the willing suspension of disbelief, the immediacy of their terror short-circuiting even disavowal’s detour of ‘I know very well… but all the same.’ Credulity overwhelms all else, the physical reflex signaling a visual trauma (Gunning 1995 114-15).

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According to Gunning, the idea that early cinema spectators were fundamentally deceived by the powerful illusion projected by the cinema apparatus is popular because it supports a number of 20thcentury realist discourses on film rooted in the ‘objectivity’ or ‘indexicality’ of the photographic medium—the existential relationship that links every photographic image to a real-world referent grounded in a distinct time and place. However this idea, in Gunning’s view, bears little relation to fact. Rather, he argues, early cinema spectators were mostly savvy and self-possessed subjects of a late-19th-century visual culture that placed great emphasis on the technological novelty of a variety of visual effects, whose appeal was understood to lie not in the spectacle of the effects themselves, but in the unique, thrilling ontological uncertainty of the images they produced. According to Gunning, “the projection of the first moving images stands at the climax of a period of intense development in visual entertainments, a tradition in which realism was valued largely for its uncanny effects” (Gunning 1995 116). This suggests the early spectators were not liable to confuse cinematic images for the objects depicted therein, because in the context of the visual culture in which the first cinematic images were displayed, the very concept of cinematic realism had already been constructed as a matter of reference, not of existence. Tracing cinema’s lineage back to the magical theatre of 19thcentury stage illusions, Gunning writes, “rather than being a simple reality effect, the illusionistic arts of the nineteenth century cannily exploited their unbelievable nature, keeping a conscious focus on the fact that they were only illusions… Rather than mistaking the [cinematic] image for reality, the spectator is astonished by its transformation through the new illusion of projected motion. Far from credulity, it is the incredible nature of the illusion itself that renders the viewer speechless” (Gunning 1995 117-18). In the early ‘cinema of attractions,’ the cinema’s illusion of reality did not merely conjure the attraction—it was the attraction. To the extent that early audiences were visibly astonished by the cinematic display, their response indicates little more than their complicity in a contemporary discourse that stressed the novel

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power of emerging visual-effects technologies to produce astonishing effects of spatial and temporal subjective displacement—in short, to reshape the spectator’s notion of reality. Early spectators were indeed astonished by the enhanced indexicality of the cinematic medium, not for indexicality’s own sake (as the myth of their petrification before the ‘real’ object onscreen would indicate), but because of the novel capability inherent in the medium’s expanded indexical faculties. What was thrilling about the cinema, then, was its apparent capacity to extend the spectator’s perception of objects in time beyond the spatio-temporal constraints of corporeal subjectivity. According to Gunning, the promise of the cinema thrilled early spectators because it seemed to offer a reprieve from some of the peculiar demands and disappointments of urban life at the turn of the 20th century. In the author’s own words, the ‘cinema of attractions’ “responds to the specifics of modern and especially urban life, what Benjamin and Kracauer understood as the drying up of experience and its replacement by a culture of distraction” (Gunning 1995 126). Invoking the Augustinian concept of curiositas—defined in the fifth-century Confessions as a ‘lust of the eyes’ that attaches itself even to the unbeautiful ‘simply because of the lust to find out and to know’—Gunning writes:
While the impulse to curiositas may be as old as Augustine, there is no question that the nineteenth century sharpened this form of ‘lust of the eyes’ and its commercial exploitation. Expanding urbanisation with its kaleidoscopic succession of city sights, the growth of consumer society with its new emphasis on stimulating spending through visual display, and the escalating horizons of colonial exploration with new peoples and territories to be categorised and exploited all provoked the desire for images and attractions (Gunning 1995 124).

The early cinema spectator was an urbanized subject burdened by a fundamental contradiction of the turn-of-the-century condition: a heightened awareness of the richness and variety of the world’s images, coupled with an oppressive sense of one’s own inability to take it all in. The cinema’s arrival promised to alleviate this burden of modernity by technologically expanding the spectator’s ability to see the images of the world. The early ‘cinema of attractions’ arose out of filmmakers’ attempts to

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deliver on this promise, and exhibits what Gunning calls an impulsively ‘encyclopedic’ ambition, with the ultimate goal of “transforming all of reality into cinematographical views” (1995 126). As Gunning observes:
It is not surprising that city street scenes, advertising films, and foreign views all formed important genres of early cinema. The enormous popularity of foreign views (already developed and exploited by the stereoscope and magic lantern) expresses an almost unquenchable desire to consume the world through images. The cinema was, as the slogan of one early film company put it, an invention which put the world within your grasp. Early cinema categorised the visible world as a series of discreet attractions, and the catalogues of the first production companies present a nearly encyclopœdic survey of this new hyper-visible topology, from landscape panoramas to microphotography, from domestic scenes to the beheading of prisoners and the execution of elephants (Gunning 1995 124-25).

In Gunning’s reading, the attraction of the early cinema derived from the medium’s potential to expand the spectator’s self-consciously limited ability to perceive the innumerable visual wonders of the world, and thus the early ‘cinema of attractions’ took as its subject these elusive sights. “If the first spectators screamed,” Gunning argues, “it was to acknowledge the power of the apparatus to sweep away a prior and firmly entrenched sense of reality. This vertiginous experience of the frailty of our knowledge of the world before the power of visual illusion produced that mixture of pleasure and anxiety which the purveyors of popular art had labeled sensations and thrills and on which they founded a new aesthetic of attractions” (Gunning 1995 121-22). The myth of the naïve early spectator presumes that the aesthetic of the ‘cinema of attractions’ was in fact primitive, and that it remained in a primitive state for years because an unsophisticated and easily-astonished audience, failing to demand a higher level of cinematic craft, allowed it to. Gunning’s redemptive project turns this notion on its head, revealing that the audience for early cinema, having sensed the attraction and promise of this new medium early on, approached it with a specific set of demands, and that the aesthetic of the ‘cinema of attractions’ was in fact carefully calibrated to fulfill its spectators’ expectations and validate this sense of promise.

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Gunning’s insight is pertinent to the subject of this essay because it demonstrates a useful way of approaching the question of the attraction of the 21st-century Hollywood CGI blockbuster aesthetic. To the extent that contemporary theory engages this question, it tends to treat it as though it were no question at all. Seeking to locate the particular appeal of the new Hollywood blockbuster, critics cite the extreme visuality of the CGI blockbuster aesthetic, as well as the perpetual discourse of the ‘new’ that accompanies the aesthetic in contemporary visual culture, as though these factors alone could support the form through nearly two decades of unprecedented commercial and cultural ascendance. To ignore the missing element of audience attraction—the spark of conceptual novelty buried within a new technology, which allows audiences to draw personal meaning and significance from a nevertheless predominantly visual aesthetic—is to do contemporary audiences a disservice. Like Gunning’s early cinema spectators, the contemporary spectators of the Hollywood CGI blockbuster cinema have been made out to be slack-jawed, passive, and indiscriminate—satisfied by novel visual spectacle, and demanding little more. If the 21st-century Hollywood cinema of the CGI-effects blockbuster is, indeed, a cinema of attractions, then theory must acknowledge that this attraction lies not simply in the loudness and newness of these films’ CGI effects, but in their seeming capacity to bend the dimensions of reality, allowing the cinema to show audiences sights they’ve always wanted to see, but couldn’t—until now. What, specifically, does the audience of the cinema of CGI attractions want to see? Judging from domestic and worldwide box-office statistics, the single greatest audience demand in our time is for films that feature cherished properties culled from the existing body of popular culture— whether from literature, video games, toys, comic books, graphic novels, or television—brought to life in full Hollywood style, with moments of action and spectacle enhanced by CGI special-effects technologies. In fact, twenty-four of the fifty highest-grossing films in history, worldwide, are 21stcentury Hollywood CGI-effects blockbusters that feature familiar stories and characters drawn from

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wider popular culture. Evidently, the most successful Hollywood CGI-effects blockbusters share a common focus of subject matter, but since the attraction of this cinema is aesthetic as well as thematic, we must also ask: Do these films also share a common aesthetic, and if so, what formal qualities define that aesthetic? Director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man cycle of films provides us with an obvious case for close study as we address the question of a CGI aesthetic of attractions. Even by the dizzying standards of the 21st-century Hollywood cinema of CGI attractions, the success of the Spider-Man trilogy was enormous, and enduring—today, all three of its entries continue to hold positions in both the domestic and worldwide all-time box-office top twenty. Raimi’s Spider-Man films exhibit an internally consistent aesthetic that is both recognizable and recognizably ‘CGI.’ Moreover, subsequent to the success of the Spider-Man films this aesthetic—distinguished by a hypersaturated and predominantly primary color palette; an exaggerated, almost assaultive emphasis on camera mobility; and the nearly continuous blending of CGI and live-action footage into a seamless and hyperreal composite—has in many ways become a blueprint for the Hollywood cinema of CGI attractions, in general, and the CGI cinema of comic-book adaptations, in particular. In “The Hollywood Cobweb: New Laws of Attraction,” theorist Dick Tomasovic examines Raimi’s Spider-Man within a ‘cinema of attractions’ framework, finding that, “like early films, SpiderMan proposes a profoundly exhibitionist system of the image-attraction, because, after all, it is always a question of giving to see rather than of telling; moreover, the stories do not have much to tell (the story of Spider-Man has been told a thousand times in the comics, just like everybody knows the history of Titanic)” (Tomasovic 314). While Hollywood CGI-effects blockbusters like Spider-Man, which build on widely familiar elements of pop-culture mythology, may betray a reduced emphasis on narrative exegesis, this cinema is distinguished from the early ‘cinema of attractions’ by the fact that it must, to some extent, concern itself with the development of narrative. As Tomasovic notes:

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“The opposition between the ‘system of monstrative attractions’ and the ‘system of narrative integration’ is not valid any longer here. According to the tradition of comics, the supernatural is attached to the character (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’). Without the character, there is no attraction. The dichotomy narration/attraction becomes actually the condition of the attraction” (Tomasovic 314). In the Hollywood cinema of CGI attractions, unlike the early ‘cinema of attractions,’ the exhibitionist visual spectacularism of the CGI sequence must be incorporated into a structure largely defined by the voyeuristic codes of narrative cinema, resulting in a hybrid mode of spectator-address that vacillates between these two poles. While these films may be dominated by a traditional Hollywood mode of narrative integration, at times the narrative must recede into the background to make way for the ‘interruptive spectacle’ of CGI special effects (to borrow a term coined by Brooks Landon in reference to the pre-CGI special effects of 1970s sci-fi cinema). Although the phrase ‘interruptive spectacle’ aptly describes the mode in which both CGI and non-CGI special-effects sequences operate within the context of Hollywood narrative cinema, the aesthetic of the CGI-effects attraction is marked by a particular quality of alterity that distinguishes it even from earlier forms of special effects. In her work on the CGI-driven Hollywood blockbuster cinema of the early 1990s, Michele Pierson details the beginnings of a presentational tradition of marked (and remarked-upon) visual difference pertaining to the CGI special effect, which contributed to its extra- or even counter-narrative aesthetic of alterity:
The mode of arts-and-effects direction characteristic of science-fiction cinema in the early 1990s is very much directed towards establishing a spectatorial relation to its computer-generated special effects that is wondering, and even contemplative… The presentation of key computergenerated images produces a distinct break in the action. These temporal and narrative breaks might be thought of as helping to establish the conditions under which spectators’ willed immersion in the action—their readiness to be carried along by ‘the ride’—is suspended long enough to direct their attention to the display of the digital artefact. Effects sequences featuring CGI commonly exhibit a mode of spectatorial address that—with its tableau-style framing, longer takes, and strategic intercutting between shots of the computer-generated object and reaction shots of the characters—solicits a contemplative viewing of the computer-generated image (Pierson 169).

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While certain early-‘90s strategies of framing the CGI effect may have fallen by the wayside in the 21st-century CGI blockbuster cinema (surely, as the contemporary audience’s initial awe of the technique of CGI gives way to an increasingly jaded familiarity, the practice of intercutting between a CGI effect and reaction shots of impressed spectator-surrogates has all but disappeared), Pierson’s observations remain useful to our understanding of today’s cinema of CGI attractions—a cinema that continues to present technically and technologically virtuosic CGI special effects sequences in the mode of interruptive spectacle. Pierson notes, “What becomes important in the counternarrative represented by this ‘show-stopping’ special-effects imagery, is not the power of special effects to represent the other-worldly technologies of future societies and alien civilizations, but the power of special effects to present the awesome imaging capabilities of special-effects technologies themselves” (165). The spectacle of the CGI effect interrupts the narrative because, as a form of cinematic attraction akin to the original attraction of the early cinema, it must draw attention to the technological novelty of its own technique, and in so doing must short-circuit a network of narrative codes designed to render the apparatus of the cinema transparent. When CGI effects are forced to compete with narrative, they struggle to attain the status of spectacle, let alone attraction. Thus, the cinema of CGI attractions offers forth the special-effects setpiece—a selfcontained cinematic subunit in which the voyeuristic narrative code of apparatus-transparency that structures the film as a whole is set aside, for the moment, to allow an exhibitionist framing of the featured CGI attraction. Raimi’s Spider-Man films rely heavily on the ‘narrative-setpiece-narrative’ rhythm of exegesis that characterizes the 21st-century cinema of CGI attractions, and in some senses Raimi allows the spectacle to dominate; it appears as though the films’ narrative material has been tailored to fit within plot structures primarily defined by the escalating spectacle of a series of interruptive CGI setpieces.

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The third Spider-Man film contains one of the most arresting setpieces to be found within the whole cycle, and indeed within all of the 21st-century cinema of attractions to date: a continuous three-minute tracking shot depicting the reorganization of a pile of sand, grain-by-grain, into the form of the villain Sandman (Thomas Haden Church). To quote the film critic Manohla Dargis’ particularly lyrical description of the scene’s effect, “when [Sandman] rises from a bed of sand after a ‘particle atomizer’ scrambles his molecules, his newly granulated form shifts and spills apart, then lurches into human form with a heaviness that recalls Boris Karloff staggering into the world as Frankenstein’s monster. There’s poetry in this metamorphosis, not just technological bravura, a glimpse into the glory and agony of transformation” (1). The visual poetry of the Sandman birth sequence replaces the narrative prose of Spider-Man 3’s exegesis for several minutes, during which the film’s mode of address largely reverts to the exhibitionism of early cinema. Bob Rehak, a writer on the function of special effects in contemporary cinema, notes the correspondence between the aesthetic of the CGI setpiece and the presentational mode of early films: “Like atavistic structures within the human body, setpieces seem to preserve long-ago aesthetics of early cinema: their logic of action and escalation recalls Edison kinetoscopes and Keystone Cops chases, while more hushed and contemplative setpieces (like the Sandman birth) have about them something of the arresting stillness and visual splendor of the actualité” (1). The Sandman birth sequence opens with an extreme close-up on a configuration of lifeless sand particles. For a moment, the frame holds on this unfamiliar and disorienting image. Then, as the camera slowly zooms out and enters its circular tracking motion, the particles begin to stir, and as the bed of sand gradually coheres into an a recognizably vital and human form, the uncanny spectacle of the illusion comes to life. This halting presentation, which dramatizes the transformative promise of the leap from photographic to CGI special-effects, mirrors the manner in which the first cinematic images were exhibited. According to Tom Gunning:

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“In the earliest Lumière exhibitions the films were initially presented as frozen unmoving images, projections of still photographs. Then, flaunting a mastery of visual showmanship, the projector began cranking and the image moved. Or, as [Maxim] Gorky described it, ‘suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life’… This coup de théâtre, the sudden transformation from still image to moving illusion, startled audiences and displayed the novelty and fascination of the cinématographe… the presentation acts out the contradictory stages of involvement with the image, unfolding, like other nineteenth-century visual entertainments, a vacillation between belief and incredulity” (Gunning 1995 118-19).

Like the early film exhibitors who opened their cinematic presentations by projecting the beginning of a film in suspended animation, Raimi opens the Sandman birth sequence with a technically unimpressive still shot of a pile of sand, deftly dramatizing the technological novelty and conceptually transformative power inherent in the animated images that follow. In the early ‘cinema of attractions’ model, the ‘fascination of the cinématographe’ lay in its novel power as a technology of perceptual extension, and the promise that it could fulfill the dream of a ‘world within your [visual] grasp.’ What dream does the novel power of CGI special-effects technology promise to fulfill? Michele Pierson notes that “one of the most powerful discourses on computer-generated imaging technologies centers on the possibility that this technology might one day produce images that are so realistic it is impossible to distinguish them from objects in the real world... Popular discourses on CGI effects have also focused on the dream of simulation, often presenting the latest Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster as an invitation to participate in the technoscientific adventure that this dream represents” (Pierson 167). The ‘dream of simulation’ certainly seems to be at work in the Sandman birth scene, a CGI-effects sequence that de-emphasizes its own visual spectacularity through formal restraint (the long take; the simplicity of the camera’s movement) and seeks to mask its synthetic artifice through the inclusion of pseudophotographic cues such as lens flare and motion blur. The Sandman sequence is an exercise in what Stephen Prince has termed ‘perceptual realism,’ a theory of cinematic realism that supplants traditional models based on the indexicality of the photographic image with a model that acknowledges the potential for any imSidhu 12

age—photographic or otherwise—to correspond to a spectator’s experience and expectation of reality. According to Prince, “a perceptually realistic image is one which structurally corresponds to the viewer’s audiovisual experience of three-dimensional space” (32). In the case of live-action/CGI composites (or fully-CGI sequences meant to match a live-action aesthetic), the demands of perceptual realism dictate the inclusion of pseudophotographic cues, such that the CGI image appears to have been recorded using the same familiar apparatus responsible for the corresponding live-action material. According to Prince, “[pseudophotographic] techniques… lend credence and a sense of reality to the composited image such that its computerized components seem to fulfill the indexicalized conditions of photographic realism” (Prince 33). The novel consequence of ontological uncertainty produced by a convincingly ‘photographic’ yet conceptually fantastic CGI effect stems from the residual currency, within contemporary visual culture, of discourses of indexicality surrounding the photographic-cinematic image. If the photographic image of an object is understood to indicate the real-world existence of its referent, then the presence of a convincingly ‘photographic’ image of a conceptually fantastic object seems to imply that this object, too, exists in reality. According to the cinema scholar Dan North, in “witnessing the birth of the Sandman, one of the pleasures comes from seeing a two-dimensional comic book character transplanted into a three-dimensional, digitally rendered figure” (1). In North’s opinion, much of the attraction of this visual spectacle stems from the fact that the figure of the Sandman is ‘digitally rendered’—in fact, he argues, “the Sandman is the perfect CGI character [because] the kind of particle-system modeling used to make swarms of particles take on shapes and patterns is something that computer-graphics are equipped to do—it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to do this in stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation… In short, the scene’s novelty value is to be understood in terms of its differentiation from prior instances of animation and effects shots” (1). North believes that the fundamental attraction of the Sandman birth sequence derives from its status as a

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particularly novel and sophisticated instance of visual spectacle—in this case, a spectacular demonstration of CGI’s capacity to simultaneously calculate and render motion vectors for a huge number of individual digital sand particles. While North’s observations are astute—the Sandman birth sequence indeed revels in its own novelty, and is presented in a way that renders self-evident the existential debt it owes to the fantastic technology of CGI—his analysis accounts for only the technohistorical and visual attraction of the CGI-effects aesthetic, not its conceptual potency. Indeed, by focusing so keenly on the element of technologically novel visual spectacle within the Sandman birth scene, North largely ignores the subtle formal qualities of counter-spectacle that permeate the scene and differentiate it from the visual hyperbole that characterizes most of Spider-Man 3’s big CGIeffects setpieces. As Bob Rehak notes, “for all the sequence’s correctly lauded technical artistry and narrative concision, there is something ploddingly literal at its heart, a blunt sense of investigation that smacks of pornography, surveillance-camera footage, and NASA animations—all forms, incidentally, that share the Spider-Man scene’s unflinching long take” (1). Rehak’s point is well-taken— for all the obviously fantastical elements at play within this sequence, its overall effect is remarkably subdued, grounded in a banal aesthetic of primitive (and thus assuredly indexical) cinematic technique. The key to this sequence’s conceptual potency, and thereby its status as an attraction, lies in the tension that arises between its conceptually fantastic subject and the photographically grounded literalism of its aesthetic—a tension that exploits contemporary audiences’ residual faith in the indexical fidelity of film to evoke a thrilling state of ontological uncertainty in which obviously unreal elements seem to possess a verifiable trait of existence: the quality of photographability. In essence, this seems to be the attraction of the 21st-century CGI blockbuster category as a whole. Like the cinema itself at the moment of its introduction, contemporary CGI promises to reshape the spectator’s sense of the dimensions of reality—or at the very least, realism—by showing her something she previously lacked the capacity to perceive visually. In the context of the early

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‘cinema of attractions,’ the visual spectacle of photography in motion offered an experiencedeprived and image-addicted urban audience the promise of visual mastery over the world’s farflung objects of wonder. In the context of 21st-century visual culture, the spectacle of perceptually realistic CGI special effects technology offers an image-saturated, internet-enabled cinema audience (an audience that might justifiably worry that it has seen everything worth seeing in this shrunken, globalized world), the promise of the imaginary made visual and thus manifest—at least according to an inherited logic of cinematic indexicality. In this sense, it is not surprising that the most successful films of our time have generally featured cherished characters and stories culled from the collective imagination of contemporary cinema audiences. The success of these films simply indicates a generalized demand for literal renderings of previously imagined but cinematically unrealizable images. It is only logical to expect renderings of the most widely-held fantasies—fantasies involving popular superheroes and familiar literary neverlands—to find the greatest audience. Neither is it surprising that the most successful cinema of our time is that which most convincingly merges the inherited technology of the photographic cinema with the new technology of CGI. Just as CGI extends the indexical capabilities of photographic cinema by enabling the cinema to include images with no realworld referent, the photographic cinema extends the figurative capabilities of CGI by providing it with a visual grammar of indexical photographic reality that can be used to wipe away the traces of its own synthetic artifice. In the 21st-century Hollywood cinema of CGI attractions, the indexical photographic image takes on qualities of the figurative synthetic image, and the figurative synthetic image takes on qualities of the indexical photographic image, their convergence profoundly and thrillingly interrogating the spectator’s inborn sense of the conceptual and sensory limits of reality. The aesthetic of this cinema can be found where the literal meets the figurative, where realism meets formalism, and most importantly, where the photographic cinema meets the cinema of computergenerated imagery—in the uncanny zone of the perceptually realistic fantasy.

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Works Cited Dargis. Manohla. "Movie Review: Spider-Man 3," New York Times. 04 May 2007: Web. Retrieved 13 May 2009. <http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/movies/04spid.html?scp=3&sq=spiderman%203&st=cse&pagewanted=print>. Gunning, Tom. "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde." The Film Studies Reader. Ed. Joanne Hollows, Peter Hutchings, and Mark Jancovich. London: Oxford University Press, 2000: pp 61-65 Gunning, Tom. "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator." Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. Ed. Linda Williams. Rutgers University Press, 1994: pp 11433. North, Dan. "How Special Effects Work #1: The Sandman." [Weblog Spectacular Attractions] 11 Dec 2008. Web. Retrieved 13 May 2009. <http://drnorth.wordpress.com/2008/12/11/howspecial-effects-work-1-the-sandman/>. Pierson, Michele. "CGI effects in Hollywood science-fiction cinema 1989-95: the wonder years." Screen 40:2(1999): 158-76. Prince, Stephen. "True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory." Film Quarterly 49(1996). Spider-Man 3. Dir. Sam Raimi. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 2007. Film. Rehak, Bob. "Getting Granular with Setpieces." [Weblog Graphic Engine] 16 Dec 2008. Web. Retrieved 13 May 2009. < http://graphic-engine.swarthmore.edu/?p=212>. Tomasovic, Dick. "The Hollywood Cobweb: New Laws of Attraction." The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

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