Junk Science or Junk Audiences?

Okay, let’s get three things out of the way.  First, that title was just too harsh, but “Junk Science or non-Literarily savy Audiences” just doesn’t have the same ring.  Second, this topic goes all the way back to this post when I delivered what I felt to be the common sense claim that works of art–texts typewritten, graphical, musical, or otherwise–are the products of author’s intentions–a fact that aids in their interpretation.  Now, I’ve not stepped away from that view one bit–even as I’ve been made aware of how controversial the whole question of intention and interpretation is.  However, in that post a long time ago I was really only meaning to argue a point somewhat akin to the one I’m after in this post: that works of art ought to be interpreted with an eye to the fact that they are intentionally constructed to do things, to argue things, and to make people feel things when they experience them.  That is, authors give us what we need to understand their stories and invest them with careful attention to detail in order to maximize the experience.  Third, I am a huge geek.  Perhaps not as geeky as someone who knows Klingon, can explain the multiple theories of what Han Solo was up to when he used a unit of distance (parsecs) to describe the time the Millennium Falcon took to complete the Kessel Run, and while there might be incriminating photos of me somewhere on the Net, not one of them has me cosplaying, but I am just as geeky about my own pet interests.  However, in a very real way, this post is an attempt to remind geeks and realists of all stripes of something that they already know: texts are the products of authors for audiences.  So, if by accepting my arguments, you can take-the-piss-out-of the scientifically minded, hardcore fanboy or fangirl, or have the-piss-taken-out-of your own pet nitpicks, I hope that you find yourself capable of enjoying texts as texts in a way not possible before you read this.

Martin Heidegger wrote in his “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” (The Origin of the Work of Art) that art is not merely the expression of some element of truth already existing in a culture, but the means of creating it–while constituting a way of accessing that truth for the culture.  Thus, works of art are not merely representations of the way things are, but actually constitute a community’s shared understanding of the way things are.  As such, the experience of engaging an art work is to inhabit the art world that it creates–the world in which the truth is available/ constituted.  Now, all this sounds a bit esoteric when the art work in question is Monet’s Water Lilies, but when the text under examination is Star Wars it doesn’t sound odd at all to say the George Lucas created an art world that we inhabit along with Luke, Leah, and Chewie for 125 minutes at a time.  I would further argue that it is a compliment to the author’s of works whose worlds are so believable that we find ourselves arguing about them, but a proper engagement–a proper interpretation–still demands that we remain cognizant that what we experience was constructed for us.

I can hear you shouting “Argue about what? What are you trying to say? Will you get to the point already!”  Fear not, gentle reader I will make my point–just as soon as I bring to mind a few specific examples.  Do you remember the opening scene in Star Wars where the rebel blockade runner ship is chased by the huge Imperial Destroyer taking up the entire screen and accompanied by an ominous 60Hz hum and the sounds of weapon’s fire and explosions?  How about the original theatrical version of Blade Runner with the much maligned voice overs–especially the voice-over about the Tyrrel corporation in the opening sequence?  How about the opening sequence of Psycho where the camera zooms from an impossible distance to the window where Marrion Crane cavorts accompanied–from the very beginning–by the ambient sounds of cars and street sounds appropriate to the closeup only?

These scenes each represent combinations of visuals and sounds that are–for one reason or another–impossible–bending physics, breaking POV credibility, or otherwise demonstrating that the film is an art world rather than an alternate world.  By this distinction between art world and alternate world, I mean to highlight that a  film–as an art world–is presented to us by an author and as such invites us to engage with it in the ways that are most beneficial to our enjoyment of it–even when those ways violate the rules of our world–or even the world’s own rules.  Some of these transgressions of our own world’s rules we accept with little hesitation: Decker is somehow narrating over a whole series of abstracted views of Los Angeles circa 2019 in Blade Runner and we don’t ask how his explanatory voice-over and the visual images we are fed fit together.  Is Deckard narrating a travelogue?  If so, for whom is it shown?  Where in the film’s continuity is this happening?  Just how exactly are we seeing these expansive visions of the city?  Are we in a flying car? Are we in a flying car with Decker?  That might explain how we hear his voice and see these slow fly overs, but how is it that Decker is also inside the pyramid-shaped building that we are moving toward?  We don’t worry about it, we understand the convention of the voice over and the God’s eye view crane shot.

Other transgressions are so subtle we don’t even think about them: the continuity of sound from the beginning of the zoom from miles away to that one window ledge where Janet Leigh engages in a post-coital fight with her adulterous Lothario in Psycho.  How is it that I can hear the same car horns and street noise that the lovers do while I still seem to be miles and miles away?  Shouldn’t those sounds at least become louder as the camera/ I approach?

However, there are some transgressions that cinema realists–my term for folks that seem to believe that movies are just cameras and microphones placed near events that exist (in some sense) autonomously or at least indifferently to the existence of authors and audiences as an alternate world–do get steamed up over: sounds in space.  In Star Wars, as impressive and affecting as it might be, there could be no 60Hz hum from the engines of the massive Imperial Destroyer.  Sound is compression and rarefactions of a medium–on Earth the medium is most commonly air.  However, in airless space, there is no medium to constitute “sound” as such.  Perhaps if you blew up a ship with some ordinance someone with their ear pressed to the hull might be able to “hear” it, but without an atmosphere no one could hear anything in the conventional sense.  I think it was Ridley Scott’s Alien that first brought this fact to the comic book stores of America with its tagline “In space, no one can hear you scream” and cinema realists ever since have delighted in counting who did it right (Star Trek 2009) and who did it wrong (Star Trek 1979).

Why do we hear ships firing energy weapons and explosions emanating from wounded star ships?  Because we are being told this story from the perspective of a omnicient narrator.  One who is able to communicate the auditory perspectives of everyone involved on the various ships, who is able to provide the that famous text-crawl that gives us the Rebel Force’s back story in episode IV, and the one who–at the behest of the author–gives us all the information we need to enjoy the story.  With this simple fact in mind, there is no need to argue about the sound of phaser fire or the impossibility of explosions in space–with no oxygen to burn.  With only rare exceptions, films are stories accommodated for our understanding.  What would an explosion of an oxygen rich environment (a space ship) look like in a zero gravity environment (out in space, far from any gravitation producing objects)?  I have no idea, and neither do you–so we are given what we can understand by authors who intend for us to understand their stories.

So, I’m tired of hearing that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a better film that Star Wars simply because Star Wars has faster than light drives, simplistic ecosystems, humanoid aliens with racist? accents speaking English, and Earth-like gravity.  Kubrick’s 2001 might be a great film–even a greater film than the less realistic genre fare that has become the backbone of pop-culture sci-fi, but it’s not better simply because its soundtrack substitutes the Blue Danube for engine noise.  There is a real temptation to say that the authors of many Sci-fi classics are guilty of pushing junk science, but I’d like to argue that if these films do “fail” in any meaningful way, it is because they have been too effective at causing their audiences to believe they aren’t art worlds at all, but alternate worlds that ought to follow the Rules of Science–forgetting that worlds that these works have created exist only to constitute big “T” Truths applicable to our world.

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