Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Primitive Accumulation of Prehistory: On the Jurassic Park films

As a kid I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I know that there is nothing unique about this and that is precisely why I relate it. My obsession took place at a time before there was an adequate pop culture outlet for that expression. It was before the Jurassic Park films before even The Land Before Time films. So I sought out every dinosaur film I could whenever they played on the afternoon or late night movie, The Land that Time Forgot, The Last Dinosaur, Dinosaurus, etc., These films were hard to come by, and many of them are not very good at all. There is a story told in my family, a legend of sorts, of the night we all ended up in a motel while taking the yearly pilgrimage to visit the grandparents, flipped through channels only to stumble upon a showing of the  Valley of the Gwangi.  Not a great dinosaur film but one that nonetheless benefitted from the work of Ray Harryhausen. It was a different time, one defined by the scarcity of cultural products rather than their proliferation. Dinosaur films were hard to come by, and good ones less so, so a dinosaur obsessed kid took what they could.

There was an interesting diversity of premises of dinosaur films during the fifties, sixties, and seventies. The problem of all dinosaur films is the same, how to get prehistoric creatures in the same place and time with humans (that is if one does not just fake prehistory, putting dinosaurs and cavemen in the same film). One could chart a crude history of solutions to this problem, a history that begins first with an undiscovered island or valley untouched by the progress of evolution, a premise that became increasingly untenable with the mapping of the entire world. Hence the creation of the dinosaur period film, combining dinosaurs and cowboys (Gwangi and the far inferior Beast From Hollow Mountain) or set during World War One, the last days of colonial conquest (The Land that Time Forgot and The People that Time Forgot), all of  which takes one back to a time in which one could still believe in a lost world. Or if that did not work the lost world could be moved underground (Voyage to the Center of the Earth) or to another planet. (Planet of Dinosaurs). (I am working from memory here, but surprisingly time travel did not feature in many of these films at all. Although it did show up in fiction, most notably Ray Bradbury's great short story "The Sound of Thunder" which also functioned as its own argument against future time travel films.) The history of the dinosaur film largely follows the history of colonialism and resource extraction from the "new world" to the north pole and beyond. It is no wonder that Jefferson and the Koch brothers are such big fans of paleontology. W.J.T Mitchell has written a whole book on the dinosaur as icon of the modern state and corporation. 

The diversity of premise was undermined by a fairly limited, even repetitive cast of dinosaurs. Almost all of them featured a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or as it is known today T-Rex, as the star.  With a triceratops, pterodactyl, and a few others rounding out the cast. Dinosaurs were an interesting cultural creation, caught someplace between real creatures and fantastic monsters. As cultural creations they belonged to a kind of common culture, at least to children in the twentieth century. The T-Rex could show up anywhere from the museum to the movies; it was famous, but belonged to no one.

In thinking about Jurassic Park I found a passage from Michael Crichton on the film's IMDB page that explicitly cites the fame, or as the say nowadays, brand recognition of the dinosaur as part of the impetus for the original novel. As Crichton states

"I went to a museum and they had this sideshow. There was a little boy who couldn't have been more than six. His feet didn't even touch the ground. Each time they showed a dinosaur he would shout, "Tyrannosaurus!" "Stegosaurus!". He did that for an hour and I thought, "What is it about dinosaurs that's so fascinating?" That's when I decided to write "Jurassic Park".

It is hard not to think of this as some kind of "eureka" moment, the discovery not of some fossil or oil reserve, but of a massive untapped cultural reserve. 

Jurassic Park can first be understood as first and foremost an updating of the specific genre problem of the dinosaur film. Genetic manipulation becomes the new frontier to be explored and commodified. The mapping of the genome makes possible what the mapping of the earth precluded, the return of dinosaurs into our world. The diegetic technical innovation is coupled with the technical innovation that made the film possible. It would not be the first time that genetic manipulation and computer generated imagery would combine as two facets of the informatics of domination, one one the screen the other behind the scenes.  If the original Jurassic Park is notable for anything it is for its effects; situated between the fall of animatronic practical effects and the rise of the digital effects it hit a kind of sweet spot--more convincing than stop motion or mechanical creatures but without the video game feel of the modern digital film.

I would also suggest that the original Jurassic Park film can be situated with the predominance of the "Set piece" filmmaking. The term Spielbergian has been used to mean many things, the schmaltzy family connections, the commodification of a particular brand of childlike wonder, etc., but I would argue it is also the fragmentation of the film into a series of memorable set pieces held together by the thinest of plots (themselves usually about family connections). Spielberg's films almost seem to be designed to be stumbled upon on cable, watched for the big exciting scenes,  like the T-Rex escape, only to resume flipping channels once it has ended. There are only a few Spielberg films that I would even consider watching again from beginning to end, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The rest just seem like the whole is lesser than its parts. I barely remember his War of the Worlds remake, but I would watch that attack on the ferry again. I know that Michael Bay has been associated with fragmentation and chaos, but Spielberg is in some sense the prehistory of the destruction of attention. This may be as much a reflection of the changing mediascape which is defined less by scarcity than by an overabundance of options. 

Jurassic Park can also be understood as a kind of nostalgia film, one that mines the childhood fascination with dinosaurs in the same way other films extract value from the recognized figures of transformers and the USS Enterprise. Unlike other nostalgia films which cash in on a particular cartoon, comic book, or toy line that belongs to a media conglomerate, Jurassic Park cashes in on something generic, earth's common natural history. I remember reading that this was a challenge for the inevitable marketing of toys and other tie-ins for the first film. Unlike transformers or stormtroopers anyone can sell a toy T-Rex (the German company Schleich makes a great one that is sold at many museums). Jurassic Park countered this by placing a conspicuous JP brand on every toy, and ran commercials encouraging kids to look for the specific brand on their dinosaur toys. The films and their marketing campaign are an attempt to make natural history a specifically branded experience, part of a different sort of empire. To some extent this worked; despite its success there have been remarkably few dinosaur movies since the creation of Jurassic Park. What had limited success at the level of toys has succeeded at the level of films. If you want to see dinosaurs, even ones created by computers and rubber, you have to go to Jurassic Park. 

With the later sequels this particular problem of branding moves from marketing to the interior of the film itself, becoming an integral part of the plot. Much of the plot of the recent films concerns the park creating its own dinosaurs. Something confusing from the level of narrative given the ever expanding number of dinosaurs to draw from. The created dinosaurs solve two problems, one external and one internal to the films. First, given that the creations are products of artistic directors, special effects artists, and toy marketers and not paleontologists and museums, I am sure that they are wholly owned intellectual properties of Universal and Amblin Entertainment. Anyone call sell a toy T-Rex but an Indominus Rex is always going to be Jurassic Park brand. The genetically modified dinosaurs, the Indominus Rex and Indoraptor, also solve another problem internal to the films, splitting the monster from the animal. Of course every film that tries to make a monster from an animal comes up against such difficulties. It is hard to explain why an animal would continue to hunt humans with such zeal and dedication especially when there are other sources of food. Animals are not serial killers. This becomes even more difficult with the dinosaur, which unlike the shark is loved as much as it is feared. In the latter films the genetically modified monster becomes the villain and the actually existing dinosaurs become if not the hero then at least sympathetic. As Saturday Night Live has picked up on, one recurring element of the films is to have the T-Rex save the day without necessarily intending to (or at the very least devour an unscrupulous executive on the way out).

If there is anything good to be said about the latest film, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom it is that it these two solutions turn against each other. While every Jurassic Park film is set up against a commons and the privation of that commons, dinosaurs as a part of cultural history and natural history on the one hand and the Jurassic Park branded dinosaur experience on the other, the most recent film makes this opposition explicit, becoming a kind of self-criticism. The dinosaurs just want to be left alone to return to some sort of natural world, and the villains want to weaponize and monetize them to make them something profitable. The film's villains are the ones who want to contain, brand, and market everything, and the human protagonists are the ones who ultimately want to smash the cages and let everything escape.

On this last point we can draw a parallel with the other Michael Crichton story being remade, Westworld. Both Westworld and Jurassic Park began with the (same) nightmare scenario of a theme park gone amok, with the robots and dinosaurs escaping, but both have ended on the same point with the creatures (artificial lifeforms) escaping the park altogether, now considered less a nightmare than a necessary, perhaps even utopian, salvation. The old adage that "we have met the enemy and it is us" has its necessary corollary the recognition that our monsters might just be our salvation. 

Updated 6/9/2022

My tendency to click unto the latest news about dinosaurs eventually caught up with me to the point that I started to see ads for dinosaur toys from Schleich. The striking thing is that it seems that the company has responded to Jurassic Park's attempt to contain the paleontological commons. They have made a toy of every dinosaur featured in the recent films, Mosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, and even the Gigantosaurus from the yet to be released new film. In this way they have turned the tables on the film's logic of commodification, using them for advertising of some new and unpopular dinosaurs. They have even created their own Dino Park set. To paraphrase the films, commodification finds a way. The tendency for one company to own collective imagination is countered by capitalist commodification. 

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