Friday, May 24, 2019

On Steven Spielberg's Self-Relexive Sadism: or, the Art of Placing a Movie's Merch in the Movie Itself

There's a fascinating scene in Jurassic Park, in which Sir Richard Attenborough and Laura Dern sit at a table, eating melting ice cream while talking about the (ongoing) failure of the park. Early in my days of trying to figure out what kind of writing I wanted to get involved in - back in 2005, in fact, a horrifyingly brief-seeming fourteen years ago - I tried to sketch out an essay revolving around the brilliant self-reflexive nature of this scene, which I took as proof of both Spielberg's deep intelligence, his suffering conscience, and his self-awareness about his cinema's moral failings. It was a sort of attack on Spielberg, designed as praise, and I called it "Consuming the Family: Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park." Hammond - Attenborough - seemed to me, as he went on mistily about flea circuses and his desire to amaze people with illusions, to be Spielberg's filmmaker-within-the-film, his cipher. I planned to quote from his monologue, then write:
The tone of this speech, which Attenborough delivers in a manner worthy of a Peter Pan who has gone too far in his innocence, while eating melting ice cream – is that of a child who has been caught doing something bad and is pouting over his guilt. This appears to be Spielberg confessing himself – and it seems to me like it can only be an act of self-hatred (or at least self-distaste) that has him direct Attenborough to make his confession so sulkily, irresponsibly and self-pityingly (he is clearly more upset that his “theme park” has failed morally than that anyone has been scared or damaged, which presumably speaks to us both of Spielberg’s actual self-awareness and conscience, and his simultaneous ultimate indifference as to whether anyone is actually harmed by his product). The “product placement” shot which precedes the scene, [of the theme park's merch, which we can fairly assume is actual Jurassic Park merch,] conspires in this mood; the swelling music and the merchandise that we feel now will never be sold convey sadness and failure – a sentimental (though still negative) view of the failure of capitalism and exploitation. “How sad that people are being eaten; it means that no one will buy all these t-shirts.” Laura Dern’s consoling rejoinder to Attenborough interestingly makes almost no sense at all when directed to the actual character he is playing... She has seen nothing else of Hammond’s “illusions,”as she calls them, so her line makes far more sense as a reassurance directed towards Steven Spielberg than to Hammond.  To forgive Hammond is to forgive Spielberg, for having frightened us and our children so badly, for having manipulated us so ruthlessly; he really only wanted to please us, all along. 
The essay - which drew on related critiques of Spielberg by the late Adam Parfey and now-retired critic Jonathan Rosenbaum - ended up getting away from me, but it has remained interesting: how brilliant it is to contrive to place your own merchandise within the film you are selling, especially when you are depicting that merch in a negative light.

Writing elsewhere in the same paper, I describe a similar scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World, which uses actual merch for the film as merch for the zoo where the T-rex has been shipped, as "the single most compelling act of product placement in cinema history" -- made all the more remarkable because "the merchandise is represented as being at worst, a sign of an evil, crass capitalism and, at best, as a profound moral failure ...probably the most unflattering product placement in cinema history."

All of this would be an example of self-reflexivity, the act of commenting on a film or its consumption within the film itself. There's a ton of that in cinema, usually seen as the stuff of the arthouse (Atom Egoyan's early films, or Peeping Tom, or Wenders at his peak, or even a film like Brian DePalma's Body Double, of which I am an unabashed fan). Spielberg usually doesn't get credited with a lot of that self-awareness, and the films of his - like the Jurassic Park movies - that most obviously partake of this quality, are the films of his which are least likely to be taken "seriously." I genuinely think they're his most interesting films (it doesn't hurt that I like dinosaurs). 

Elsewhere in the essay, I note - focusing mostly on the Jurassic Park sequel - that:
[a]nother proof, should more be needed, that these are profoundly self-aware films, and that there is some reason to say that they are “about themselves,” is that they constantly make us aware that they are movies. In-jokes abound, like the much commented on cut-out advertisement for a nonexistent version of King Lear starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that appears in a video store sequence in The Lost World. The IMDB “trivia” board for the film lists many others, which border on the Brechtian – a highway sign visible as the T-Rex goes on a rampage in San Diego reads “No Dinosaurs;” the ship that crashes into the dock in that film is named the Venture, after the ship that brought King Kong to America; the motif of a dinosaur parent come to rescue its offspring is a direct lift from the 1961 film Gorgo; the screenwriter, David Koepp, is among those eaten by said dinosaur; and during the CNN broadcast in the second film, Spielberg briefly appears beside Jeff Goldblum in the TV reflection, sitting on a couch and eating popcorn. The first film, too, reminds us of its status as a cinematic construct at every turn. To those who are really in the know – as again we can thank IMDB for making us aware of this – Tim’s repeated mentions of Robert Bakker in the film as a dinosaur expert is amusing, since he is an actual dinosaur expert who served as technical advisor on the film. Yet more: a line delivered by Ellie (“Something went wrong”) is apparently a quote from Jeff Goldblum’s character in the The Fly; and there are numerous explicit film references within the film, from Ian Malcolm’s wry “What have they got in there, King Kong?” as the electric car approaches the gates at the beginning of the tour, to the banner reading When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (the title of a 1970 film, one co-written by J. G. Ballard, whose Empire of the Sun Spielberg directed), which heralds our entry into the visitor’s center and will later, at the climax, flutter down over the rampant T-rex. 
That self-reflexivity seems to connect to many scenes, much remarked upon in the initial press for the film, in which children are menaced by dinosaurs. This all begins with Alan Grant - the Sam Neill character, and an analogue for the "parent" in the film's audience - menacing a child with a hooklike velociraptor claw.

In the original essay, I continue:
Dr. Grant clearly has unacceptable thoughts and fantasies about children – perhaps part of his own unresolved issues about his own childishness. Adam Parfrey, in a rather unscholarly (but interesting) “smear” essay in Answer Me magazine (issue 3, 114) entitled “Pederastic Park,” describes this scene quite well, saying that

the sadistic tone (of the film) is established early on, when a fat child challenges the paleontological theories of protagonist Sam Neill. Neill turns on the boy, and in low, menacing tones, he demonstrates to the child how a prehistoric nasty would mangle and devour him. Adding a distinctly Peter Kurtenish frisson, Neill slashes near the child’s belly and crotch with a large, sharp claw.
As Parfrey rightly emphasizes, the scene is extremely unsettling; it is far more important to an intelligent reading of the film than a casual audience would likely realize, as it speaks directly to our desires as an audience, our reasons for being in the theatre in the first place. Insofar as male viewers can identify with it, they are made aware of their own troubling ambivalences about fatherhood and responsibility, and their own transgressive and taboo desires to torture, dominate, and abuse their power. (Parfrey is particularly interested in the menacing gesture towards the child’s genitals and goes on, not entirely successfully, to offer “evidence” in Hook, E.T., and Jurassic Park that Spielberg may have pedophilic tendencies; one is relieved that the trials of Michael Jackson had not yet begun, since surely Spielberg’s then-friendship with Jackson would have been cited as further evidence against him, as it is in Crispin Glover’s essay in the Parfrey-edited Apocalypse Culture II (392); Michael Jackson, recall, had been initially cast as the lead in Hook). We are invited both to want to see people, possibly even children, disembowelled and eaten – Spielberg himself, in an interview for the Making of featurette, speaks of making the audience want to “root for the people, not just for the dinosaurs,” as if rooting for the dinosaurs (and thereby wanting to see people eaten) is a desire that one can self-evidently expect in the audience, even taking primacy over the desire to see the characters safely through the film. 
As parents, though, we surely must feel ambivalent about this as a locus for pleasure; we have brought our children into this arena, after all. If something questionable is going to be done to children – if we are going to indeed see them killed and mutilated, and like the idea, as Alan seems to, here – what kind of parents are we? This needs to be worked through, so that males in the audience can leave reassured of their own fitness as fathers, and women and children in the audience can leave reassured of the father’s fundamental goodness and their own safety. Probably for closure to take place, so aware are we that this is a “Steven Spielberg movie” (and that Spielberg is the true patriarch of Jurassic Park) we need even to come to terms with the disruptions that this unsettling scene cause to our image of him, and our acceptance of the film experience as a whole. We want it to be made “all right” that, sitting with our children, we have briefly seen and taken pleasure in a child’s figurative disembowelment and abuse. How else can we enjoy this film with a good conscience?
It kind of sucks that I never could wrangle that essay to completion. Looking back, it gets me thinking, however: what other films in film history have used their own promotional materials inside the movie, and what mood did those product placements serve to convey? (Have any ever been as maudlin and self-hating as Spielberg's?). It's been awhile since I watched the original King Kong, but, for example, could there be a scene in the lobby of the theatre where Kong is brought where you see Kong t-shirts of figurines or promotional posters on display? 

I am not about to stop writing this to check, but it would seem truly prescient, if so; this sort of thing seems a possibility in any film where the realms of the monstrous and showbiz intersect. Nowadays, films about show business invite you to read them as metaphors for themselves, to look at them as a comment on their own intentions and processes, but back in 1933, when King Kong came out, it seems to me that anyone was likely to be that self-aware. Is there a table of Gwangi dolls on sale in front of the circus in my favourite King Kong copycat, The Valley of Gwangi? I missed it, if so, but it's another place where such a thing could be possible. (Again, I'm not going to get up and check, sorry - but it's a damned entertaining little movie, if you care to do the legwork, with Harryhausen dinosaurs, an eohippus, a circus, and a climax in a burning Mexican cathedral!). 

What I can confirm, though, is that in 1955's Revenge of the Creature - an inferior but interesting sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, now most noteworthy as the film that began Clint Eastwood's acting career , there is a scene where there is an unmistakable, oft-repeated photograph of the Creature, in signature pose, turned into a cardboard "standee" - the sort of thing that I used to assemble back at Rogers Video in the 1990s, which would have been prevalent in movie theatre lobbies in the 1950s. It is obviously a bit of promotional material from the first film, placed in the second film in front of the aquarium where the captured Creature is being held, to promote him as an attraction. Unlike Jurassic Park, there doesn't seem to be any commentary whatsoever buried in the standee: the filmmakers may have been amused at the idea of saving on budget by re-purposing a promotional item as a prop within the film - they may have realized they were being "clever" - but they don't seem to be consciously engaged in meta-level message-making. It's just thriftiness - a fine quality in exploitation filmmaking.   

It would be welcome to hear of other films where actual movie merch or promotional material is encoded into the film. There must be others. I'm particularly interested in scenes where the merch serves in some way, overt or covert, on the actual "selling" of the film. (If you read about this via my Facebook feed, it would be vastly preferable to me if you comment below THIS article, rather than my social media post, so it has a bit more permanence) (Edited to add: I see that Rowan Lipkovits has already commented on Facebook about Spaceballs toilet paper). 

As for Steven Spielberg, I personally wish he'd stop trying to make "respectable" films and get back to his strong suit: misanthropic, sadistic, and self-aware films in which dinosaurs, sharks, or, if you will, gigantic trucks menace people. Much, much more interesting to watch and think about than Lincoln, or War Horse, or so forth... and somehow much more honest...

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