Retro-Futurism

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Henry Jenkins has written a perceptive review of In the Shadow of No Towers and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, arguing that both works "want to bring us back to the future. Sky Captain uses state of the art digital technologies to reconstruct the popular American imagination, circa 1939; No Towers tells a personal narrative of September 11 through iconography drawn primarily from early twentieth century comic strips. No Towers makes explicit what Sky Captain leaves implicit—the idea that we are returning to images from the past to cope with our uncertainty about the future."

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  1. “‘…the idea that we are returning to images from the past to cope with our uncertainty about the future.'”

    Or, more likely, the creators just happened to like 1930-40s pulp fiction. Why does everyone have to make a sociology argument out of everything?

  2. Well, one of the works under review is an explicit response to 9/11, and the other, according to Jenkins’ piece, includes stuff like this: “Airships barely avoid colliding with skyscrapers. A mysterious mad scientist — with a quasi-religious vision of purification and redemption — threatens to destroy the world from his hiding place in some uncharted spot.” RTFA.

  3. Mark S.

    Here, here. It’s like David Brin’s horribly revealing polemic against the, er, Rebel Alliance in Star Wars because they, um, killed a space-station filled with, um, conscripted innocents. Sometimes an exploding Deathstar is just an exploding Deathstar.

  4. Why would we “return” to 1930s science fiction imagery to deal with uncertainty about the future? When people feel uncertain about the future, they turn to things that are comforting and familiar. The iconography of Sky Captain isn’t something that most of the viewing audience is likely to be familiar with — it’s stuff that hasn’t been common in American pop culture for forty or fifty years.

    I also have to take issue with this line:

    Science fiction, post 9/11, has offered little by way of alternative visions of the future beyond more of the same.

    It’s only been 3 years. The three years *prior* to 9/11 also “offered little by way of alternative visions of the future beyond more of the same”. Really original views of the future have always been rare in sci-fi cinema — even landmark films like “Blade Runner” and “2001” featured worlds not terribly different from our own.

  5. Jesse,

    I’ll admit I haven’t rtfa, but when did OBL threaten to destroy the world from his hiding place?

  6. Dan: You make a good point about post-9/11 science fiction. I don’t agree with your other argument, though, because I think the more important question in this context is what appeals to the creators, not the audience. Early twentieth century comics obviously play that role of comfortable familiarity for Spiegelman, whether or not they affect all his readers that way; ’30s iconography apparently does the same for the creator of Sky Captain, to judge from his comment about the “haunting mental image of a Zeppelin descending through snow and searchlights toward its moorings in Manhattan, which called out to him from some now-forgotten Hollywood movie.”

    My biggest disagreement with Jenkins is that I think this “retro-futurism” actually predates the war on terror. But I think he has interesting things to say about the gloss 9/11 puts onto such images, and the possibility that it makes them more appealing.

    Crimethink: Well, if you want to get technical, our modern airships didn’t “barely avoid colliding with skyscrapers” either — they actually did collide with them. But the resonance is still there.

  7. If someone enjoys going to the symphony instead of listening to the newest rock band, are they hiding in the past to deal with the uncertain future, or do they just like classical better than rock?

    I think Jenkins is reading way too much into the stylistic choices that went into Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Absent some sort of confirmation from the creator, we have no way of determining whether Jenkins speculation regarding Kerry Conran’s mental state is accurate (although the fact Jenkin describes a move that Conran began working on more than 10 years as a reaction to 9/11 suggest it’s not). Indeed, Jenkins entire thesis hinges on a rather agregious example of question begging.

    Somtimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  8. A mysterious mad scientist — with a quasi-religious vision of purification and redemption — threatens to destroy the world from his hiding place in some uncharted spot.

    One can certainly draw a parallel with 9/11, but this is a very old trope in fantastic fiction: see Ming the Merciless, various bad Karloff movies, and probably some Rider Haggard novels.

  9. Maybe those guys are just getting old, you know? Fiddling the same old tunes.

  10. I think there’s something to this. Maybe in part it’s that sci-fi has used up the last dregs of cyberpunk, but I think dystopias have lost resonance. Partly because obviously Soylent Green aint’ happening, and LA’s got a long way to go before it’ll look like 2019. Sci fi has always been about the present, so it’s not surprising that a new vision would be sought to fit the present circumstances.

  11. I think the more important question in this context is what appeals to the creators, not the audience

    I don’t think that Conran’s interest in 30s-50s sci-fi imagery has anything to do with 9/11, though. It’s something he loves; that much is obvious from the movie. I suppose it may be a means of coping *too*, but I don’t think that’s the major factor here.

    But then, I was the ideal target audience for Sky Captain, since I’ve been longing for a “retro” sci-fi movie for ages. So maybe I’m just biased.

  12. Hey, all you “lighten up, it’s just a movie” types need to lighten up: It’s just an article. If mental masturbation is a crime, then alla yous are guilty.

    But now that I have the two of you together, I must ask: What is the difference between Douglas Fletcher and Todd Fletcher?

  13. Jesse,

    I’m not trying to be technical. As PapayaSF points out, if you think that any story about a bad guy hatching evil schemes from his hideout is a reaction to 9/11, there were a lot of stories reacting to 9/11 before 9/11.

    It reminds me of this one guy on another forum who posted an essay about how The Lord of the Rings was really about the War on Terror. He obviously meant it as a joke, but a LOT of people in the forum took it seriously and thought it was an interesting idea.

  14. Tim,

    Lighten up, it’s just a post! 😉

    P.S. This may be the first time my existence has been acknowledged by a Reason writer! Woohoo!

  15. As PapayaSF points out, if you think that any story about a bad guy hatching evil schemes from his hideout is a reaction to 9/11, there were a lot of stories reacting to 9/11 before 9/11.

    And as I pointed out, I think the “retrofuturism” Jenkins describes is actually older than 9/11. But 9/11 puts a new gloss on a lot of those old plots and images.

  16. Jesse,

    Sorry, I didn’t read that part of your follow-up comment (rtfc, I guess ;). The excitement of seeing my name must have been too much for me! 😀

  17. The difference between Todd Fletcher and Douglas Fletcher is that Todd is my younger brother. A fine lad, good to his children, dog, feeds his cats. I, on the other hand…

  18. “And as I pointed out, I think the “retrofuturism” Jenkins describes is actually older than 9/11.”

    Just look at the FASA wargame “Crimson Skies.”

  19. Someday, Crimethink, we’ll make you a star!

  20. Retrofuturism it may be for some, but Sky Captain worked for me on a nostalgic level. As a kid in the 60’s, I was introduced to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and many another chapter-play hero and heroine by television. Childrens’ shows such as that hosted by Chuck McCann would show a 15 minute slice each day. While college students were watching Batman as comedy, and inspiring Hollywood producers to revive the Caped Crusader for television as farce, we crumb-crunchers were riding with Gene Autry against the Phantom Empire, entirely irony-free. Yes, we caught on to the joke when we hit puberty. Even Dozier’s Dork Knight shouldn’t have been fooled by Jill St. John in a Robin outfit. But when we were young and innocent, we were young and innocent.

    SCATWOT is an homage to that innocence. It borrows images and ideas from the Superman cartoons, Eisner’s Blackhawk, Airboy, King Kong and many more. I’d be interested in a review from a 10-year-old of today.

    Kevin

  21. Andrew,

    It’s like David Brin’s horribly revealing polemic against the, er, Rebel Alliance in Star Wars because they, um, killed a space-station filled with, um, conscripted innocents

    Actually, he was mad that Darth Vader was forgiven for blowing up a planet full of innocents because he saved his son’s life. And the anti-democratic nature of the Star Wars universe.

    Article here

  22. There’s a much simpler explanation for “retrofuturism” that seems to have been overlooked. Who amongst us (of a certain age, at least) does not see that the future offered up by our past is ever so much lovelier than the future offered to us today.
    The vision of the world projected by “Popular Science” and “Populare Mechanics” (and Readers Digest and a plethora of others) — who would not prefer that to the astigmatic view of a Bush? Or a Kerry?
    I want the future my parents promised us, not the one that was delivered.
    And you know, if we focused our message on what we wanted versus what we got, we might just be able to shift the focus to why and how we got the future we did.
    regards,
    Shirley Knott

  23. For the record, I know that retrofuturism is older than 9/11. After all, I begin the essay discussing William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuium” and do acknowledge the guy was working on this film way before 9/11, though we don’t know what changes his original vision underwent as it was brought to the screen. But the retrofuturism of Bladerunner or Brazil works on very different levels, borrows a different set of images than are reflected in these two works. I am also one of these folks who has loved these old images most of my lifetime: I have a collection of memorabilia from the 1939 World’s Fair and grew up with Ming the Merciless. The Mad Scientist is of course a trope of the genre. But I was struck by simply how many of the tropes of the genre here were being used in ways that resonated with September 11 in ways that do not strike me as random or accidental. The film could have evoked 1939 science fiction without any of the war machines, for example, and most, though not all, mad scientists of the era were not bent on destroying the world, but in ruling it (a larger preoccupation of the period). The destruction of Shangri La was a totally reworking of the original plotline. I would agree that I am probably being unfair to contemporary science fiction — it’s been in a rut since well before 9/11 and it may be too soon to expect anyone to come up with an alternative vision of the future so soon. Anyway, since you guys were talking about me, I figured I’d throw my two cents in.

  24. Apparently neither the retro-futurism of Sky Captain nor its terroristic subtext have that much resonance or herald much of a sociological trend since it’s a huge, expensive bomb. I wish it weren’t because it’s a pretty damn cool movie.

  25. Jenkins says the movie takes place in 1939, before World War II. That can’t be right, since there are two references to “World War I” in the movie.

    Then again, I shouldn’t look to closely at the logic in a movie where planes can enter the water in a power dive and turn into submersibles.

  26. my favorite example of retrofuturism is contrasting bush’s debate performance with the trailer of the chuck norris classic “invasion USA.”

  27. Oh shit! I forget to feed my cats…

  28. The 1939 year is based on the films which are shown in the background of shots or when the female protagonist goes to Radio City Music Hall. I hadn’t caught the WWI reference but there’s no direct references to WWII anywhere in the film.

  29. I assumed that the references to “World War I” were either a mistake on the director’s part, or due to a belief that the audience would be confused if they referred to “The Great War”.

  30. Where the hell is Biggles?

  31. I assumed that the references to “World War I” were either a mistake on the director’s part, or due to a belief that the audience would be confused if they referred to “The Great War”.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I read in some review that the latter was actually the case. They were afraid the audience would either have no idea what “The Great War” referred to — or, if the script said simply “the World War,” most people wouldn’t realize it must refer to the other World War, the one without the Nazis. So they went ahead and put “World War One” in the script, anachronism be danged.

    (Interesting to think that today “The Great War” is now, by and large, a forgotten war, remembered mainly for trench warfare [which we don’t do anymore], mustard gas, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, and [for political wonks only] a way to fret about the perils of entangling alliances.)

    General comment: While I tend to be a “sometimes a cool cigar-shaped airship is just a cool cigar-shaped airship” type of thinker, the resonances to 9/11 are interesting once pointed out.

    I have got to go see this movie.

    PS: For those who haven’t figured it out, “RTFA” stands for “read the fascinating article.” 🙂

  32. WASFA

    What a stupid fucking abbreviation

  33. I want the future my parents promised us, not the one that was delivered.

    I want to sue the estate of Stanley Kubrick for false advertising: 2001 was the shittiest year America’s had in half a century.

  34. Biggles was an RAF WWI flyer in British adventure fiction.

    http://www.biggles.info/

    Kevin

    It’s perfectly ordinary banter, Squiffy.

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