Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Machismo Institute of Technology

Yesterday I attended the movie Iron Man, since -- like any good student of computer-mediated communication -- I feel compelled to see any and all big-budget films about cyborgs. Unlike Transformers, in which the camera did not linger on the physical union of man and machine, what was particularly striking about Iron Man was its focus on what a girlfriend of mine euphemistically calls "scenery" or gratuitous displays of a muscular male body, albeit the middle-aged body of the lead actor. Often the footage could have served as evidence for the theses of critic Klaus Theweleit in the second volume of Male Fantasies, where he argues that masculine self-image depends upon "the bounding and maintenance of the self" in which the ultimate goal is to be transformed into a "man of steel." Although the hero of the film has several epiphanies about his own lack of emotional connection to others -- particularly women, he continues to be more strongly attached to fast shiny cars and torpedoes than to any potential mates.

Also noteworthy was how the plot line strongly associated MIT with the brand of hyper-masculinity depicted in the film, since we are repeatedly reminded that our hero is a graduate of that Massachusetts institution of higher learning. Other recent Hollywood movies, such as 21, have similarly shown MIT students no longer as nerds but now as active agents full of swagger and bravado. In the case of the Iron Man film, part of this has to do with the transmedia incorporation of reality-TV elements from competitive robotics shows, which often feature MIT graduates, students, and faculty.

Finally, the use of the digital effects program After Effects (or a clone) was obvious from the opening sequence onward, and a number of stock plot devices associated with this software repeatedly appeared in the film. These included computer screen-replacement shots of downloads of secret documents, heads-up displays, news graphics, and mobile targeting interfaces, which were all basic projects in the introductory course in After Effects that I took last year. This fxpodcast explains how one of the interfaces was conceived as a "character" in the film, as it provided overlays of 3D space in a visual grammar that both superimposed and subverted the conventional logic of the fixed screen. One of the effects houses that worked on the film, The Orphanage, has actually released free plug-ins for After Effects in the past that are based on tools that they developed as extensions of this popular proprietary software package for movie work.

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