Jurassic Park: Spielberg’s Flea Circus

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“I wanted to show them something that wasn’t an illusion.”

A re-watch of Jurassic Park is an obvious choice given the release of Jurassic World, which I’ve yet to see but I feel like I already have, if that’s not too cynical a view. I have fond memories of Jurassic Park – I literally remember the scene where Laura Dern and Sam Neill’s jaws drop as a living dinosaur moves in front of them, as in the cinema there was literally the same reaction to the state-of-the-art computer effects that brought the dinosaurs to life.

I was very interested in a recent reading of Jurassic Park that has the movie in some way connected thematically to its actual place in cinema history – the CGI dinosaurs that were so crucial to its success, and the position of Spielberg himself as a John Hammond-esque puppeteer of popular cinema. The idea that the film itself is about movie-making or creating myths, a preoccupation of cinephile Spielberg – “What you got in there – King Kong?”.

Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough in the original, is the enthusiastic puller of strings of Jurassic Park, the popular attraction. Just as Spielberg pulls the strings of Jurassic Park the film. Hammond sits lonely beside his Jurassic Park merchandise slurping melting ice cream. T-shirts, lunchboxes, tie-in products with the logo out front – was this the version of authorship that Spielberg ever expected of himself. Is the film somehow a lament for the blockbuster cinema that the director almost found himself trapped within? An admission of guilt almost? “You packaged it and patented it and stuck it on a plastic lunchbox”. As CGI dinosaurs tear apart the theme park, is it part-joyful catharsis for the film-maker?

Hammond is seen as a paternal figure, a sort of all-purpose creator, the director of the attraction. He announces that he’s been there at the birth of all of the dinosaurs, acting like a proud mother/father. His staff are like unruly teenagers, with Dennis Nedry the ultimate angry child – “Thanks Dad” he announces after another spat. He’s like a doting parent so lost in his creation that he forgets any notion of humanity or morality. How much of himself Spielberg saw in Hammond is unclear, but as the director of the movie one does have exactly the same relationship with crew and actors, and has to maintain the same level of tunnel-vision on the spectacle of the movie.

Think of Hammond as Spielberg, at the introductory presentation to Jurassic Park. The visitors sit in a mini-cinema, and Hammond the ringmaster interacts with a film-version of himself on the screen. He fluffs his lines, and spoils parts of the film. He sits at the back of the screening and talks about how the music will be changed in the sequence they’re watching – very much the self-obsessed director making excuses for his own creation. His guests don’t want to watch his film – they duck out for a taste of real life instead.

There is a constant tension in Jurassic Park between the spectacle of the theme park as an attraction, and the real life concerns of humanity. Twice in the film the hero literally exits a ride mid-presentation, breaking the safety bar to explore the science lab, and running from the moving tour to treat a poorly Triceratops. The contrast between the guided sections of the tour, which fall flat at every turn, and the happy accidents of the excursions behind the scenes – to the Triceratops, the feeding of the cow to the Raptors, the birth of a new dinosaur in the lab. The limits of spectacle – nothing that is shown to you can compare to the experiences of real life.

Sam Neill’s everyday paleontologist seems an intentionally bland everyman antidote both to the slick theme park, and the slick blockbuster film built around it. He hates computers – his first touch of a computer screen sees the image break up in unexplained static. Yet the dinosaurs of Spielberg’s grand creation are, in crucial moments, computer generated. It’s as if the hero isn’t playing the game – is he the part of the director’s personality that longs to escape and break free from the ephemera of blockbuster event movie-making. He can’t even work out the helicopter seatbelts that take him to Jurassic Park, deciding to simply knot the belts together himself – a sign of his maverick disruption to the proceedings. And he hates kids – Spielberg’s E.T. crowned him the king of the kid’s-eye-view.

I’ve always found the character of Ian Malcolm interesting too, played by Jeff Goldblum. He represents the character of the narcissistic ‘star’, who I’m sure Spielberg had plenty of contact with, in the film a rock-star-like mathematician with an interest in chaos theory. It’s odd what little part he actually plays in the film. He explains his notion by using the way a drop of water flows off the back of your hand in a chaotic manner. But I have always thought that what Malcolm is actually explaining is the basis for the huge part chance plays in the way the film ultimately plays out. And this film uses chance as a convenient driver of so much of the action. The way the car falls from the tree just out of reach of the fleeing characters. The way the Raptor slips on the ice in the kitchen freezer. The way the T-Rex appears at the split-second required to save the day at the end of the film. Malcolm is Spielberg’s way of breaking the fourth wall to excuse the dreadful coincidences that litter the film.

Think of the ‘bloodsucking lawyer’ in the film as well – the dreaded creepy suited money-man despatched to check on the progress of the theme park like a dreaded executive sent to check the progress of a film on-set. He warns Hammond about his budget and the prospect of the park being shut down. Spielberg of course faced that exact issue with the very famous story of the creation of Jaws, which went vastly over budget. And just like Jurassic Park, nothing worked properly on that project either. And even faced with the incredible spectacle of a real dinosaur, the lawyer can only enjoy the sight by thinking of the money that is going to be made, cynicism at every turn. At the first sign of trouble he heads off to hide in the toilets and meets a sticky end.

Of course the dinosaurs themselves are the ultimate disruptors in the film. There is ultimately a huge irony in the theme of ‘life finding a way’ or the forces of nature, mutated and angry, wiping clean the notion of humans thinking that they can create at will. They cannot tame the monster – ultimately Spielberg’s career as a showman has led him to be a polarising figure, and his friend and collaborator George Lucas (who edited Jurassic Park while Spielberg was shooting Schindler’s List) would know that more than most. And the force of nature that overcomes the spectacle happen to be embodied in dinosaurs operated on a practical level by animatronic models and CGI effects. These expensive effects, practical and computer-generated, dominate the movie and proved to be the ultimate draw at the cinema – as John Hammond himself says about his own creation, “We’ve spared no expense.

There’s a telling, famous moment in the film where Bob Peck’s gamekeeper looks in the wing mirror at the approaching T-Rex. It’s a visual joke – the mirror says ‘objects may appear nearer than they actually are’ and we laugh because when a T-Rex is chasing you the illusion is truly fearful. But it’s also a play on the idea that the T-Rex actually is an illusion created by computer – it is not nearer than it actually is, it is not even real at all, the wing mirror is entirely wrong.

This motif of reality and illusion is played out throughout the film. At the first dinosaur dig, computer technology ‘reveals’ the thermal illusion of the dinosaur buried in the Earth. The heart-stopping sequence with the Raptors in the kitchen has a raptor dive at Lex only for it to be revealed that it’s only a reflection of her that fools the raptor (which in itself fools us). Indeed when Lex first sees the Raptor’s shadow holding up a spoonful of wobbling jelly, the silhouette of the Raptor appears in line with a theme-park painting of a raptor – a painted illusion, shadowed by a cinematic illusion, played for dramatic illusion in the film.

There’s also a lot of computer interaction in the film. I’ve mentioned that the hero hates computers. But yet computers created the spectacle that made the film such a hit. Yet the computer system creates the failures that bring the theme park to its knees in the first place. There’s also a strong connection between the idea of computer code, and the DNA strands that make up the basis of the recreated life that gives birth to Jurassic Park in the first place. The famous image of the Raptor in the control room, with code projected onto her skin – is it the code of the DNA that was retrieved to create her, or the code that makes her live in the cinema?

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Hammond sits next to his merchandise and slurps his melted ice cream and talks about the flea circus he used to run in his youth. And how the illusion of the flea circus (spoiler: there are never any fleas in a flea circus) drove him to try and create something real. It could literally be Spielberg himself talking about his creations – “It’s still a flea circus. It’s all an illusion”.

The Shining and mazes

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There’s a famous hedge maze in The Shining – it’s where the final confrontation between murderous father and his six year old son takes place. But there are plenty of mazes throughout the film – the long winding roads leading to the desolate Overlook Hotel, and the long tracking shots of confusing hotel corridors that make up the majority of the film. Although we spend a lot of time moving through these corridors, we don’t ever really get a sense of the how the areas of the hotel join up together – nor are we supposed to. I suppose, put simply, we’re supposed to feel lost in the maze.

Kubrick puts his films together like puzzles to be solved, mazes of imagery and allusion. All critics seem certain that colours have a symbolic value in his films, though it’s hard to pin down what colour means what in what situation – it’s as if he’s inviting us to work it out, then confounding it at regular intervals. I don’t like references as a thing generally – I think there’s something elitist about putting in something else that you have to know about to enjoy the experience. Kubrick is known for his classical music allusions, but I haven’t spent much time sifting through his choices. One of his primary references was appatently Minos and the maze of the minotaur – the idea of the beast lost in the maze, as a sort of metaphor for the brutality of man trapped in the subconscious. A lot of modern stories seem to offer some sort of variation on that theme, which can become a rather tedious bout of navel-gazing in the wrong hands.

There’s something very mathematical about a rectangular maze design, that I think affects and informs the entirety of the way The Shining looks. Kubrick is renowned for his symmetrical shot compositions, with a central point of perspective, like looking along the straight line of the maze. When things are presented in such a square-on perspective they often have the feel of being constructed, artistic tableau – you’re never not aware of the frame itself, like looking at a very controlled, precise scene in an art gallery. There is very little in The Shining that doesn’t work around that idea of the centre point, the square on perspective, the feeling of being in a square maze. There’s something about duality and mirror images that he also loves, and the apparitions of the twins in this film are iconic, one on either side of the centre of the image, reflecting and related to each other. There’s even a strange idea in the film of recurring, almost resurrecting mirror-image characters from the past, as if Jack is tied to some other human from a different time period, as suggested in the film’s final, mysterious shot, almost impossible to explain.

There’s a wonderful video here that collates a bunch of these similar Kubrick shots together, notably the famous visual effect of the journey through space and time of Bowman at the end of 2001. I do think Kubrick is a master, but it doesn’t hurt his legacy that his calling cards were things that very clearly drew attention to the eye of the director looming over every constructed image. The funny thing about it is that if you continually shoot from this perspective, it is actually harder to create meaning in terms of what we know as traditional montage, because as a director you almost deny yourself the chance to edit a scene for narrative – the only cut you have is jarring. Which probably is one of the reasons why this is a seminal horror film.

What is odd about The Shining, if you consider that it’s considered by some the greatest horror film ever made, is how little it actually relies on horror. We are lost in the maze, as are the characters, and the experience is not punctuated by shock or surprise as such, but a sense of losing direction and perspective the deeper we get. I was struck by the fact that the famous axe scenes where Jack breaks down doors in the hotel, are not presented as ‘shocks’ in traditional horror style – you see Jack raise his axe before the blows are struck. There’s only one moment in the film where somebody jumps out on somebody else. There are a couple of jarring narrative-breaking cuts, like when bloody images are basically inserted into the film. But other than those, the film operates on a system of creeping mysterious tension – we are consistently ahead of the characters, and the horror comes from their creeping realisation of what we already knew. I think relatively few horror films have ever been made using this style of narrative, and it’s absurd really because it’s so effective. I’m reminded of the scene in the film where Jack looks over at the model of the maze, and we see his wife and child in the maze as if through his point of view – we know they are lost and in danger in this place, but they are oblivious to it.

A reference Kubrick probably didn’t intend, was the way the presentation of the film now resembles the way that we often experience videogames. In 1980 the idea of a 3-dimensional maze in a videogame was all but an impossibility, but these days a huge number of videogames approximate the experience of being in a maze, looking for the ‘exit’, trying to get a sense of the space in which you exist, and also being in a place that is often relentlessly square-on. Many games fix their perspective very precisely in exactly the sort of central way that Kubrick did – in games we have spent a hell of a lot of time looking at a fixed point perspective, moving forward into it. Dungeon Master, Tempest, Ultima Underworld, Doom, Myst. What has happened to the modern videogame is that, aware of the deadening undertones and mesmerising approach of such a perspective, games go out of their way to avoid it – levels are deliberately curved and use vertical space deliberately to avoid seeming like mazes. Even though they are essentially mazes. Many modern games want to present the idea of exploring a maze, while actually being straight corridors.

People tend to think that they don’t like mazes, or think of them as frustrating – but people definitely do like puzzle boxes. I think Kubrick definitely intended his movies to be puzzle boxes – to be pored over and endlessly considered due to the clues and images within them. Maybe the internet was originally invented just to give Kubrick fans the chance to share their theories on his films – certainly the internet has massively helped cement his legend. The most interesting puzzle in The Shining, in my opinion, are the hints towards the legacy of usurping native Americans from their lands – it’s explained at the start of the film that settlers fought off native attack while they built the hotel over an Indian burial ground. The centre-piece of the film seems to be the memory/ghost of a party of the great and good, full of British accents and motifs of wealth and status, like a sort of colonial celebration that cannot be erased by time. It’s not the centre of The Shining, but it’s an interesting idea that Kubrick clearly chose to explore.

There’s an interesting documentary called Room 237 about some of the theories around The Shining, but I’m surprised that it is so razor-focussed on content rather than form or structure, obsessing over the actual implications of the work, rather than the intention of the film-maker to confuse and intrigue. The film barely makes mention of the maze, or the Minotaur myth, that I feel is completely central to the film – maybe it’s too obvious to contemplate. Maybe I’m more of a formalist than most, but to me it’s the equivalent of reading the books on the bookshelves to discover the mood of a space, rather than the actual architecture of that space itself. The fact is that the very dramatic structure of the film is as maze-like as any other element of the film, especially because so many of the shots that make up the movie are single shots, the montage almost literally is the structure in most cases. It’s all very well looking at posters on the wall, or props, or intriguing bits of continuity or framing, but such things are insignificant compared to the dramatic thrust of the piece, or the way that the audience receives and interprets it.

But I do think to Kubrick the idea of the maze was more interesting than beating it. I think that goes for all of his films. I think they are constructed in a way that deliberately stops them being solved. He wanted them to be a maze that you are lost in. And actually, I’m sure he realised that a maze only has power while it remains unsolved.