The Hyperreal Theme in 1990s American Cinema

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2010, Volume 9, Issue 1


Randy Laist
Gateway Community College, New Haven, Connecticut

The dominant mood of mainstream American cinema in the 1980s has come to be associated with Robin Wood’s critique in his influential essay, “Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era.” In that seminal work, Wood described “Reaganite cinema” as functioning to reassure an infantilized populace that technology was benign, magical thinking can solve all of our problems, and that Father knows best. Reacting against the anxiety, disillusion, and self-doubt that characterized the cultural mood in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, the wish-fulfillment spectacles of Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) dazzle their audiences with vividly dream-like narratives of good prevailing over evil through the power of the hero’s untroubled faith in the justice of his cause. The values of “Reaganite entertainment” are embodied in what Susan Jeffords has called the “hard body” image of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and their many clones: “These hard bodies came to stand not only for a type of character – heroic, aggressive, and determined – but for the nation itself” (25). The father figure these Reaganite fantasies elevates to godlike priority symbolizes not only the integrity of the United States itself as a world power or Reagan himself as a benevolent patriarch, but also an entire metaphysical condition of stability and coherence. Along with the triumphalist celebration of America’s clear sense of purpose within a Cold War narrative, Reaganite cinema affirms a less tangible but more pervasive faith in the clarity of moral distinctions and the constancy of reality itself. If an emerging climate of globalism, multiculturalism, and feminism had threatened the white male’s cultural supremacy, the Cold War provides a metanarrative that consolidates power in the hands of the father while simultaneously anchoring reality itself to a stable set of familiar coordinates.

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the United States suddenly discovered itself in a new political and psychological landscape. The moment quickly came to symbolize the complete collapse of the Soviet empire and, with it, the entire grand narrative of what has come to be known as the short twentieth century (1914-1989). Francis Fukayama famously declared that the Berlin Wall’s collapse signified the “end of history.” No longer in the twentieth century, but not yet in the twenty-first, the 1990s or, more precisely, the period between November 9, 1989, and September 11, 2001, has been called “the modern interwar years.” More colorfully, George Will has referred to the period as “a holiday from history,” Frank Rich has described it as “a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream,” David Halberstam has called it “a time of trivial pursuits,” and even bedfellows as unlikely as Newt Gingrich and Ralph Nader have both referred to the nineties as a “lost decade.” The collapse of the Berlin Wall ends one period of history without inaugurating any apparent narrative to take its place. Politically, following the spectacular but somehow hollow victory the United States-led coalition achieved in the Gulf War, Clinton-era foreign policy drifted around from crisis to crisis – Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti – without any grand design to lend America’s role in the world coherence or direction. Madeleine Albright has said, “It was an era that was hard to explain to people. It was like being set loose on an ocean and there wasn’t really any charted course” (Chollet and Goldgeiger 69-70). The cultural effect of this strange post-mortem moment is best captured in the definitive literary masterpiece of the decade, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, in which a character explains that Americans “need the leaders of both sides to keep the cold war going. It’s the one constant thing. It’s honest, it’s dependable. Because when the tension and rivalry come to an end, that’s when your worst nightmares begin. All the power and intimidation of the state will seep out of your bloodstream. You will no longer be the main…[p]oint of reference” (170). When the threat that establishes the parameters and priorities of the Cold War American personality begins to fade, DeLillo’s character explains, “You’re the lost man of history” (182). If Reagan’s Cold War was a source of moral clarity, the post-Cold War populace finds itself bereft of such assurances and thrown back on the basic existential questions of what kind of world it inhabits and how to exist in such a world.

To be sure, the end of the Cold War was not the only significant cultural change underway during the 1990s. As American society experienced the sense that established polar narratives of good vs. evil had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, technological innovations such as cloning, virtual reality, 24-hour cable news channels, the internet, and CGI cinematography all seemed to operate simultaneously to collapse other polar narratives such as real vs. illusory, original vs. derivative, and authentic vs. artificial. Writing in 1999, cultural critic Neal Gabler argues: “After decades of public-relations contrivances and media hype, and after decades more of steady pounding by an array of social forces that have alerted each of us personally to the power of performance, life has become art, so that the two are now indistinguishable from each other” (4). To explain his troubled impression that American social life in the 1990s had been characterized by an incapacity to differentiate reality from its representations, Gabler recounts Lewis Carroll’s description of a map that is so accurate that if it were unfolded, it would bury the actual world underneath the representation. A similar fable from Jorge Luis Borges became the starting point for Jean Baudrillard’s famous essay, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in which he argued “[t]oday abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Simulacra 1). Baudrillard formulated his doctrine of hyperreality throughout the eightiess, and it had been extremely influential on the art and literature of that decade, but Baudrillard’s breakthrough into popular awareness did not come until the heavily marketed 1988 debut of his book America. Most of his books were not translated into English until the 1990s, when hyperreality came into its own as a widely-acknowledged condition. Baudrillard drew attention to himself in the early nineties with his provocative statement that the Gulf War “did not take place,” a statement which, like another controversial statement from later on in that decade, hinges on what the definition of “is” is. For citizen-consumers in the heartland, does seeing a war on television, through cameras mounted on computer-guided ordnance, make the war real? Or does it make it hyperreal, so spectacularly vivid that it has spun off into its own ontological register – neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. A book on the Clinton presidency is titled Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and Image-Making in Postmodern Politics. Hyperreality might have been first theorized in the seventies and eighties, but it is not until the nineties that the end of the Cold War, which had held reality at gunpoint since the middle of the century, along with the proliferation of new reality-bending technologies, made hyperreality come true. In the “lost decade” between 11/9 and 9/11, the texture of reality itself seemed to quiver, a psychic condition which is extremely evident when we turn to that seismograph of American consciousness, Hollywood cinema.

Shortly after taking office, Clinton’s defense secretary Les Aspin announced that it was “the end of the Star Wars era” (Chollet and Goldgeiger 236-7). He was referring primarily to the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union had eliminated any reason to pursue space-based missile defense technology, but he might just as well have been referring to the post-Reagan mood of popular cinema. In his study of the cultural impact of movies in America, Robert Sklar observes that the eighties Reaganite aesthetic had become outmoded by 1990, a shift which he attributes to the cyclical nature of popular trends: “The ‘hard body’ quickly proved unstable as a human (or even superhuman) quality…The bottom line (in every sense) for Hollywood’s link to Reagan-era politics is that even ideology gives way before the demands of film cycles and marketplace logic” (346-7). But if we accept that Reaganite cinema is so closely connected to the political climate of the eighties, it stands to reason that if the mood of American movies shifts in the wake of the Cold War’s abrupt conclusion, that change is not merely the capricious work of marketplace logic, but is connected to changes in the national mood. The mainstream cinema of the 1990s, what we might call “Clintonite cinema,” represents a distinct break with the unapologetic triumphalism of the 1980s. If Wood defined eighties cinema as reaffirming the values of technology, fantasy, and patriarchy, the Hollywood visions of the nineties much more frequently destabilize these values. A cinema of reassurance epitomized by such transcendent dreams as E.T. and Return of the Jedi (1983), the two top-grossing films of the eighties, had become replaced by a cinema of apocalyptic nightmares, including the top grossing films of the nineties: Titanic (1997) and Jurassic Park (1993). If the auteur cinema of the pre-Reagan era aimed for gritty realism (The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976)) and the most prominent feature of Reaganite cinema is its fantastic unrealism, Clintonite cinema is characterized by the mood of hyperrealism, communicated in various ways by such benchmark films as JFK (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), and The Matrix (1999). The Matrix explicitly alludes to Baudrillardian hyperreality, although Baudrillard himself denied that the fantasy scenario dramatized in The Matrix was a faithful representation of his ideas. Baudrillard downplayed the significance of The Matrix in demonstrating the cultural impact of the concept of hyperreality, explaining that “there had already been other movies dealing with the growing blur between the real and the virtual: The Truman Show [(1998)], Minority Report [(2002)], even Mulholland Drive [(2001)]” (Lancelin). Whether or not The Matrix is a fair representation of Baudrillardian hyperreality (a question to which I shall return), Baudrillard’s observation suggests that hyperreality had become a motif throughout the cinema of the period. The hyperreal cinema of the 1990s conceives of the movie screen as neither a window on a preexisting social reality (realism) nor as a wormhole into a fantastic dream-dimension (escapism), but as an arena in which images and reality exchange masks, blend into one another, and challenge the philosophical premises which differentiate them from one another. In the rest of this article, I will examine the manner in which nineties cinema explores the theme of hyperreality, beginning with several films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and then branching out to describe the manner in which a hyperreal sensibility informs cinematic representations of mediation, space, time, identity, and even “reality” itself.


Hyperreal Cinema

The films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the hardest of the hard bodies, exemplify the hyperreal turn. Having established his acting career in the eighties as the definitively one-dimensional hero of Conan the Barbarian (1982), Commando (1985), and Predator (1987) or the definitively one-dimensional villain in The Terminator (1984), Schwarzenegger turned to a series of roles which seemed consciously selected to problematize the very Reaganite image he had come to represent. In the same way that Clint Eastwood began interrogating his own ultra-violent “Dirty Harry” persona in Unforgiven (1990), Schwarzenegger’s roles in the early nineties indicate a curve toward self-consciousness, irony, and destabilization of simplistic Reaganite moral dichotomies of right and wrong, as well as of ontological dichotomies of real and unreal. In Schwarzenegger’s first film of the decade, Total Recall (1990), he plays Quaid, an ordinary construction worker in the not-too-distant future whose dreams of a more exciting life lead him to a company that specializes in implanted memories. The trope of artificial memories is a thinly-veiled metaphor for cinema itself, and this impression is reinforced when the technician in charge of the procedure explains to Quaid that the commodified memories come in different genres. The client can choose the kind of memory he wants to have implanted, and naturally, our hero opts for the action-adventure fantasy, a prewritten script which, we learn incidentally, includes many of details which the rest of the narrative will include. When something goes wrong with the implant procedure, or seems to, Quaid is off and running, living in the action-adventure screenplay he has selected for himself. Throughout the movie, some evidence seems to point toward the metanarrative that the whole adventure is playing out in Quaid’s mind as he is strapped to a chair in the Rekall laboratory, while other evidence convinces us (and Quaid) that the adventure is real and that it was his previous life as a construction worker that had been a fabrication. In The Wizard of Oz, the fantasy world of Oz and the real world of Kansas are clearly differentiated from one another by many signifiers, not least of which is the style of cinematography. In Star Wars, the fantasy that takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” never impinges on any human reality, so we can give ourselves over to the fantasy without violating any ontological boundaries. But in Total Recall, we find ourselves in an ambivalent space the nature of which hinges on our definition of “is.” We are neither safely in the world of illusion nor of reality, but in the no-man’s land of the hyperreal.

The theme of hyperreality is elaborated in three Schwarzenegger films from the early nineties: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Last Action Hero (1993), and True Lies (1994). In Terminator 2, the most successful movie of his career, Schwarzenegger reprises his iconic role from the first Terminator with a significant twist that illustrates very tellingly the cultural change from 1984 to 1991. The first movie tells a very straight-forward narrative of man versus machine, whereas the battle-lines of the sequel are much more ambiguously drawn. It is true that “the machines” are still bent on destroying humanity, but at least one machine, Arnold, can be recast as a guardian angel and can even be reprogrammed to learn and to love. The confrontation in T2 is not between natural humans and artificial machines or between “real” human beings and cybernetic imitations. The division between the real and the copy has collapsed, and now in order to survive, Sarah Connor must overcome her knee-jerk technophobia and ally herself with a world of simulacra. The movie intentionally establishes Arnold himself as Baudrillard’s paradoxical “copy without an original.” Having been sent back in time, the T-1000 breaks into the Skynet laboratory where he was conceived and successfully terminates his unborn self, destroying the research and equipment which led to his development. To make matters even more complex, that research itself turns out to have been based entirely on a piece of the first T-1000 that had been left behind from 1984. The Arnold machine gave birth to itself in a closed temporal loop that is outside of linear time and in which the copy is literally its own original. Moreover, this hyperreal entity is the perfect foster-father for John Connor, who, as a representative of the new techno-savvy generation, is himself a hyperreal construct, having orchestrated the circumstances of his own conception by sending Reese back in time to impregnate his mother. Both the machine and the boy are hyperreal, detached from the old binaries of nature/technology, past/future, and authentic/artificial. Naturally, as John’s mother comes to realize, the hyperreal robot is the perfect father for her hyperreal son: “Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing – this machine – was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.” The simulacrum is more human than “real” human beings. The brave new world of hyperreality compels us to reassess our twentieth-century prejudices about nature and technology.

In The Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger again depicts a character whose artificiality makes him an ideal father-figure. The film tells the story of Danny Madigan’s travels between the real world and the fictional world of his favorite “hard body” movie franchise. The differences between Danny’s world and the world of Jack Slater are played for laughs and the movie’s end restores the integrity of the barrier between the two worlds, suggesting that The Last Action Hero is meant to be a fundamentally conservative reaffirmation of the separation of reality and unreality. But at the same time, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the very attempt to communicate the difference between reality and fiction ultimately discloses the various correspondences between them. When Danny enters the fictional world, he discovers that fictional characters have real emotions, even as Danny, as a real person, has an emotional life that is centered around the fictional events of the movies he loves. When Slater enters the real world, he actually functions very effectively there, impressing Danny’s mother as a viable husband and father-figure, and bending the laws of physics and physiology, which seem just as malleable in the real world as they are in the screen world, to heroic purposes. The climax of the movie takes place on opening night of the new Jack Slater film, where the bad guys who have escaped from the fictional world plan to assassinate Arnold Schwarzenegger as a way of getting rid of Jack Slater. Schwarzenegger appears as himself, with his wife Maria Shriver and a handful of other celebrities doing cameos of themselves, a spectacle which has the effect of folding the outside world of media celebrity into the fictional world of the film, provoking in the audience a sense that they are shuttling back and forth between fiction and reality in much the same way as Danny. A journalist interviewing Arnold opines that Schwarzenegger’s own incredible biography could only be possible “in Hollywood;” Schwarzenegger himself, as a “real” person, is a product of the quasi-fictional space of “the movies.” The fictional Arnold saves the real Arnold from an assassination attempt, compounding the sense that reality and fiction are existentially codependent. Although the Berlin Wall of the screen’s surface is reestablished between Jack and Danny at the end of the story, the movie has promoted the impression that this barrier is not as impermeable as we had taken it to be.

The title of the movie True Lies seems intentionally to echo Umberto Eco's: “absolute fake” (8). If the more conservative screenplay of The Last Action Hero attempts to restore a separation between artifice and reality, True Lies derives its narrative momentum from the dismantling of such a separation. As in The Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger plays a double role as both a fictional character and a real person. In one life, Harry Tasker is a cartoonishly efficient super-spy, and in the other life, he is a “real-life” suburban husband and father. The twist is that they are both the same person, and the story moves toward the integration of the fantastic and quotidian profiles of contemporary existence. If Harry is more successful and more fulfilled in his fictional life than in his real life, it is only a symptom of a broader epidemic of fictional values and fictional characters insinuating themselves into the home and usurping its living occupants. Harry’s partner explains that Harry’s failure to raise his daughter is mitigated by the fact that he is not her “real” father anyway; “her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna. You can’t compete with that.” Fictional characters have already de-realized the structure of the nuclear family. The only way that Harry can compete with fictional rivals to his patriarchal authority is to become a fictional character himself. Fortunately for Harry, he already is a fictional character, so all he has to do to win back his daughter’s love is to rescue her from the roof of a skyscraper with a Harrier jet in a breathtaking special effects sequence. Unlike Schwarzenegger’s previous movies on this same theme, True Lies explicitly contextualizes the “reality crisis” on the domestic level of daily experience within the geopolitical situation of a post-11/9 world characterized by loose nukes from former Soviet republics coupled with the emerging threat of Arab terrorism. Whereas the Cold War provided a stable framework for maintaining rigid distinctions between values such as us and them or reality and unreality, the new situation is a viral reorganization of the territoriality of danger. The threat is now on the home front, which is transformed into a possible site of duplicity and betrayal. The movie’s solution to exorcising the home of this stultifying atmosphere of suspicion is to reorganize the family unit as a hyperreal construct. Trust issues between husband and wife are neutralized by the reinscription of both partners into the fictional space of the action-adventure genre. They are still a “real” family – they sit around the dining room table and thumb-wrestle with their daughter – but they slip seamlessly into their alternative lives as a team of international spies. Their new sense of domestic security is accomplished through their shared immersion in a hyperreal existence.

All four of these big-budget Schwarzenegger films in one way or another interrogate the same condition illustrated much more explicitly in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), a high-concept parable of hyperreality. The opening shot of Altman’s movie begins with an off-camera voice shouting “action,” and then evolves into a complexly orchestrated eight-minute long tracking shot that winds its way through the campus of a movie studio picking up fragments of conversations, all of which are about movies and one of which is about famous tracking shots from classic movies of the past. Throughout the film, celebrities playing themselves mingle with celebrities playing fictional characters, and when actors appear on the screen in cameo roles, viewers do not know until they open their mouths whether or not they are supposed to be representing themselves. Altman uses a visual motif in which the camera will pull away from the action to focus in on one of the many ambient movie posters in a way that both comments on the action of the story and reveals that action to be self-consciously cinematic. Griffin Mill, the movie executive at the center of the narrative, lives his life “in the movies” in the same way as Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater. At the very end of the movie, Mill gets a call from a writer during which we learn that the movie we have been watching, The Player, is the movie written by a writer blackmailing Mill who is himself a fictional character in the unnamed writer’s movie. But if Mill is a fictional character, then who is the blackmailed executive who green-lighted the real movie we have just seen? The paradox of the copy with no original is the same one we saw in the origin story of the T-1000 after the Skynet laboratory has blown up; in Altman’s own assessment, The Player depicts the circumstances that pertain when “the mirror starts reflecting itself.” It is a world of hyperreality in which, in Baudrillard’s words, “we have flown free of the referential sphere of the real and of history” (Illusion 1). One of the Hollywood writers portrayed in the movie insists that Habeus Corpus, his story of miscarried justice, must have a tragic ending, “because that’s the reality. That happens.” His simulation of earnestness refers to a realm of extra-cinematic values, some possible world outside of the Hollywood bubble where history, tragedy, guilt, and consequence continue to exist. But in The Player, reality itself has become absorbed into the Hollywood aesthetic, so when Mill rewrites the end of Habeus Corpus with a Hollywood ending, it actually does capture the “reality” of the world depicted in Altman’s movie, a world in which nothing tragic is allowed to happen to the hero. The real target of Altman’s satire, however, is not the movie-people on the screen, but the audience out in the “real” world whose enthusiastic receptivity to hyperreal values makes the kind of movies Mill produces so commercially successful. The audience of The Player – Altman’s most conventionally plotted movie – responds exactly the way Griffin Mill would predict an audience should react. The pleasure the audience can’t help taking in the cinematic mastery of Altman’s story-telling, in the opportunities for celebrity-sighting the movie provides, and even in the giddy thrill of the “up” ending – our very own emotional responses to the movie’s manipulation of cinematic values – reveal that the audience lives a significant portion of their lives in Mill’s world, in a reality that is a mere reflection of the movies’ commercially produced representations of reality.

Compared to the self-mirroring complexity of The Player, The Truman Show, identified by Baudrillard as a faithful representation of hyperreality, seems at first glance to be a story in which the unreal world of Truman’s dome-world is directly contrasted against the “real” world inhabited by the television audience. When Truman raises his hand to touch the painted sky that delimits the scope of his stage-managed existence, the contact collapses the illusion of the fake world and puts Truman into physical contact – for the first time in his life – with “reality.” Where The Player completely eliminates any possibility of differentiating the fake from the real, The Truman Show, despite its elaborate conception of a world that is a vast television studio and a human being whose entire life has been designed by television writers, seems to reaffirm in its climax the truth of reality and the escapability of artificial social structures. Truman’s story is a traditionally humanist tale about the capacity of the committed individual to escape the shackles of Plato’s cave and to emerge into the true light of the real world. This reading of the movie, however, is subtly undermined by the brief glimpses the film allows us of people in “the real world” – the audience of the Truman show – who are always seen glued to their television sets, entranced by “The Truman Show” not as captives under an artificial dome, but as virtual participants in the televisual world that is coextensive with the planet earth itself. The video graphics of “The Truman Show”’ logo draw a parallel between the circle of Truman’s dome and the circularity of the earth, orbited by communications satellites and spy cameras, the only difference being that, while Truman can escape from his dome, we in “the real world” have nowhere to go aside from flipping channels to see, as Truman’s audience does after “The Truman Show” is over, “what else is on.” The success of “The Truman Show” in the world of the movie and the success of The Truman Show in theaters suggests that audiences recognize Truman’s situation as their own. Describing the first reality show family, the Louds, whose daily lives became the subject of the PBS documentary “An American Family” in 1973, Baudrillard explains that the concept of “Reality Television” does just as much to make reality televisual as it does to make television real. “We are all Louds doomed not to invasion…by the media and their models, but to their induction, to their infiltration” (Simulation 30). When Christof, the god-cum-television-producer of Truman’s world, tries to pacify his rebellious creation by explaining that “[t]here’s no more truth out there [in the world outside the dome] than there is in the world I created for you,” we recognize that he is twisting the meaning of “truth” to persuade Truman to obey him, but the movie’s failure to follow Truman out of the dome suggests that there really is nothing for Truman to discover aside from more layers of domes. Like television itself and the media generally, “The Truman Show” serves the function that Baudrillard called deterrence. By presenting us with a world that is obviously fake, we are distracted from recognizing the artificiality of the world itself. Media images provide the impression that unreality is contained within the frame of the movie or television screen or fixed under the studio-dome, whereas the real situation is one in which television captures us not in the crude “Truman Show” mode of placing us under state surveillance, but in the much more pervasive and intangible mode of turning life itself into something that exists for the sake of television.

If the completely hyperreal dream-reality of The Player captures the power of cinema to teleport us into alternate ontological registers and the illusion of an illusion depicted in The Truman Show comments upon the deterrence-function of television in masking the hyperreality of everyday life, two films from Oliver Stone, JFK and Natural Born Killers (1994), provide a window onto a landscape where an ambient media environment has become so supersaturated that any opposing poles of determination separating reality and representation dissolve into conceptual anarchy. Stone had achieved celebrity in the eighties by writing and directing films which stood in opposition to Reaganite fantasy, aspiring to reveal the “ugly reality” of modern America in pictures such as Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), and Wall Street (1987). In the early nineties however, Stone embraced a radical new style characterized by rapid montage, the editing together of different types of film stock, and self-consciously cinematic visual effects, all of which seem calculated to complicate the events of the narrative by drawing attention to the manner in which that narrative is being represented. In JFK, the issue of the authenticity of historical documents in the age of sophisticated means of image-manipulation becomes a central element of the diegetic narrative when the photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald that appeared on the cover of Life magazine and “basically condemned Oswald in the public eye” is theorized to be a fake. As Jim Garrison’s staff member describes perceived incongruities in the photograph, the scene is edited together with interpolated shots of the photograph being doctored by an anonymous spook. The audience is encouraged to wonder at the ontological provenance of this footage of the photo being doctored. Is it “documentary”? Are we supposed to believe that Stone’s movie is giving us privileged access to the “truth” of the photo’s origin? Or are these images simply a filmmaker’s device to illustrate what it would look like if Garrison’s staff member is correct in her theory? Extra-diegetically, the audience of JFK is shuttled back and forth between authentic film footage connected to the Kennedy assassination and scrupulously concocted recreations of contemporary documentary evidence. Intercutting actual footage from the Zapruder film with footage of filmed reenactments of the assassination confuses the boundary between what “really happened” and the fictions we have constructed in retrospect, lending an aura of credence to the possibility that the original assassination was itself “staged.” Of course, Stone’s entire film plays out this same dilemma on a grand scale. In response to critics of the movie who derided the conspiracy theory JFK appears to advance, Stone has stated that his film is not intended as a documentary-style explication of a historical truth, but rather is intended to erect a “counter-myth” against what he considers the official myth propagated by the Warren Report (Fuller). We are left in a world where all we have access to are the myths, the representations, and the simulacra, the real having vanished in a puff of gunsmoke along with our “slain father-leader.” One of the characters in JFK opines that ever since Kennedy’s death, American existence has been characterized by “an air of make-believe.” More so than any particular theory about who shot JFK, the thesis of Stone’s film is that reality itself has been assassinated, under circumstances that we can only reconstruct out of a montage of images that are ambivalently real and/or unreal – fragments of a hyperreal mediascape.

Natural Born Killers’ Mickey and Malory are the Adam and Eve of this new hyperreal environment. In the opening minutes of the movie, black-and-white images of the American landscape cut to black-and-white images from a television changing channels. The American landscape is not only (photographs of) Monument Valley, but also incorporates video images of Leave it to Beaver, Nixon’s resignation speech, and a million other equivalent landmarks of the American imagination which, when strung together, refer to a sense of reality that blurs what is in the world and what is on television, what is shocking and what is banal, what is fictional and what is real. Leaving behind any aspiration to social realism, Stone paints a world of antisocial hyperrealism intended to represent not the “real” world, but a picture of the cultural condition we inhabit in the wake of the assassination of reality. During the opening credits, Mickey and Malory drive their convertible through a video montage of their true homeland, which is not one of waving fields of grain and purple mountains majesty, but is more accurately represented by a video montage of clips from monster movies, war footage, nature documentaries, atomic explosions, newspaper headlines, and unreadable snippets of violence and confusion, accompanied all the while by a soundtrack that is a similar bricolage of songs, noir poetry, and sound effects. Inevitably, Stone edits into his tapestry images from the contemporary nineties mediascape, including the Bobbitt, King, and Simpson trials, causing Sylvia Chong to observe: “In blurring the line between fiction and fact, Stone ends up making the real seem fake rather than making the fictional seem true” (264). Chong sees this as a flaw in the film, but if we consider Natural Born Killers within the context of the hyperreal, it is clear that the film succeeds to the extent that it does evoke the impression that the “real” world that Americans inhabit in 1994 is itself a kind of video montage. If so many of the images in that montage happen to be lurid and violent, blaming Stone or the film for amorality (as Chong and many others have done) is like blaming your acne on your mirror. Like The Player, Natural Born Killers elicits our own complicity with the cultural tendency it satirizes, blending critique with enactment in a way that collapses the border between character and audience as well as between moralistic valuations of guilt and innocence.

One might also include films such as Pleasantville (1998), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) and its sequel (1996), and Scream (1996) and its sequels (1997, 2000) in a discussion of nineties movies that examine the manner in which acclimatization to the Truman Show dome of a multimedia environment warps the texture of reality. The most extreme representation of this style of artificial reality is the common cyberpunk tropes of a consciousness that exists entirely within a machine and a lived experience that is a computer program. Although the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction has existed since the seventies, it is not until the nineties that it becomes a common cinematic device, a development attributable both to the popularization of Virtual Reality following the Gulf War as well as to advances in digital special effects technology. In the nineties, films such as Lawnmower Man (1992), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Cube (1997), Dark City (1998), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Existenz (1999), and, of course, The Matrix, use the metaphor of a computer-generated world as a way of imagining the manner in which it is possible for human beings to exist in alternate ontological registers. It will be remembered that Baudrillard dismissed The Matrix from the canon of hyperreal cinema because he felt the movie did more to emphasize the difference between the illusion of the Matrix and the reality of the resistance fighters who had escaped the Matrix than it did to suggest the possibility that illusion and reality have entered into a new synthesis. Baudrillard makes these comments in reference to both the first Matrix movie and its first sequel, The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) in which the “real” world of the rebel city of Zion becomes the primary setting of the action. The sequels to The Matrix are both very patently post-9/11 movies in that they do in fact distance themselves from endorsing a hyperreal ontology. They are fraught with history and consequence in deference to the rebooting of reality that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent War on Terror have come to represent. But when we consider the first Matrix film in isolation, the delineation between reality and hyperreality is much more ambiguous. Whereas the sequels shift their focus away from the computer world and toward the real world, almost all of the first movie’s plot and the vast majority of that movie’s memorable action sequences take place inside the matrix or some other computer-generated environment. By introducing the matrix as a naturalistic environment and by impressing the audience with the vividness and persuasiveness of the virtual world, the first movie evokes a sense that the virtual landscape is also a real dwelling place, whereas the supposedly “real” city of Zion is never anything more than a rumor. The end of The Matrix emphasizes Neo’s commitment to working within the Matrix to raise the consciousness of its inhabitants, among whom, it is understood, are we ourselves. The point of view of the next two movies, however, puts the audience on the side of “reality” against the evil machines, and the franchise returns us to the Matrix only as tourists. The sequels never return us to a sense that the Matrix is where we are comfortable and at home. This makes the first Matrix movie a much more effective metaphor for the condition of hyperreality than the sequels. The climax of the film, furthermore, puts the ontological status of the “real world” itself into question. Morpheus had told us definitively that death in the Matrix results in real-life death. This rule is supposed to be a rule of physiology – of “reality” – as opposed to a virtual rule that can just as easily be annulled by reprogramming. When Trinity and Neo’s love proves potent enough to resurrect Neo back from the dead, this event bypasses the laws of physical reality rather than the virtual laws of the Matrix. Someone who had not seen the sequels would be justified in theorizing that what Trinity and Neo think is “the real world” is actually only another computer program. Immersing us as it does in the world of the Matrix, the first movie opens the floodgates of a vertiginous skepticism that undermines any foundation for a stable reality.

If The Matrix and the other representatives of nineties cyberpunk cinema illustrate the porous and paranoid spatiality of the hyperreal condition, other films of the period can be read as meditations on hyperreal temporality. Baudrillard theorized that the end of the millennium exerted a kind of Einsteinian “hyperbolic curvature” on our sense of time that resulted in a “retroversion of history to infinity” (Illusion 11). In such a temporal backflow, time only seems to pass, events only seem to happen, and free will is only illusory because our sense of the present is frozen in an atemporal vacuum where the past and future exist simultaneously. As esoteric as Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreal temporality may seem, the possibility of such a time-sense is central not only to Terminator 2, in which the heroes fight against the possibility that the future is just as fixed in its dimensions as the past, but also other major motion pictures of the period such as 12 Monkeys (1995) and Minority Report (2002). The premise of 12 Monkeys, the story of a man who is haunted throughout his life by the childhood vision of what turns out to be his own death, is that time-travel may allow the people of the future to visit different historical eras, but history itself is unalterable. We can observe history, the same way we do on the History Channel, but we are unable to influence it in any way. Time exists independently of our desires and our choices, and we are doomed to simply watch events unfold, cut off from any possibility of agency or participation. This sense of virtual, spectacular time in which 12 Monkeys’ characters are trapped is paralleled by the extra-narrative circumstance that Terry Gilliam’s film is a retelling of an earlier film, Chris Marker’s La Jettee (1962), which is itself a retelling of an earlier film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which is an adaptation of a novel about a man who becomes obsessed with reproducing a model to replace a vanished original of his lost love. This context frames the movie itself as a copy of a copy of a copy, a cinematic performance of the “precession of simulacra” described by Baudrillard. Although Minority Report came out in theaters after 9/11, I include it in this survey because it was filmed in the summer of 2001 and originally conceived as a prequel to Total Recall back in 1990, so the development of this movie actually spans the entire period I am describing. The time-sense represented in Minority Report is one that includes an element of choice and alternative possibilities. Anderton does not in fact kill the person he had been predicted to kill at exactly the scheduled time, and the existence of “minority reports” in the precogs’ visions suggests that certain events have only a two-thirds likelihood of coming to pass. Nevertheless, the movie’s logic suggests that in order to avoid falling into your future with the same blind inertia with which a thrown ball falls to the ground, it is necessary to know what your future will be. The only thing that keeps Anderton from pulling the trigger on the man whom he believes kidnapped and murdered his son is the insight into free will that he has obtained from his own vision of his own future, played out in front of him like the movie in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs (1987) that you can watch before it’s finished being made. A similar awareness of intersecting with a future that has already been predicted informs the climax of the movie, when the villain solves the problem of whether or not to enact the prophesied murder of Anderton by turning the gun on himself. Presumably, when they unplug the precogs and disband the precrime unit, the human race is restored to its natural condition of blindly following the determinist trajectories of a future that has the quality of a preexisting movie, even if no one is watching it. Like 12 Monkeys, Minority Report posits a hyperreal variety of time that exists all at once, in which history doesn’t really happen because everything always already exists. One other variant of the representation of hyperreal temporality in the movies of the “modern interwar years” is worth mentioning, a subgenre of narratives in which it is revealed that the protagonist has been dead throughout the entire movie. The most famous example is The Sixth Sense (1999), but this “Owl Creek Bridge” scenario also grounds the plots of Jacob’s Ladder (1989), Dead Man (1995), Waking Life (2001), and Vanilla Sky (2001). In all of these movies, time is represented as entirely simulacral, evoking an idea of existence that undermines all of the criteria Western philosophy has postulated for differentiating the real from the illusory.

Naturally, the individuals who inhabit the peculiar space-time of hyperreality are prone to crises of identity. The Western self is predicated on the maintenance of a sharp division between interior and exterior, personal and public, and imaginary and real. When these categories become destabilized, subjectivity itself becomes another circulating image within the hyperreal montage. If conventional Western psychology posits a distinction between the soul and the inanimate mask, hyperreal psychology follows Oscar Wilde in considering the extent to which social masks represent the truth of human reality. In John Woo’s Face/Off (1997) a cop and a criminal have their faces surgically swapped and discover themselves becoming attracted to their new identities. The meta-narrative device of casting two movies stars well-known for their characteristic mannerisms increases the degree to which the film represents identity as a performative image rather than an interior essence. In Being John Malkovich (1999), not only is identity represented as transferable, but the characters discover that they are most authentically themselves when they are inhabiting the body of a famous actor. The unnamed Narrator of Fight Club (1999) invents an improbable alter ego of himself, a glamorous and charismatic terrorist who embodies the authentic personality behind the anonymous consumer-self. Our efforts to understand the identity of the main character of Fight Club must work toward a synthesis of the “real” Edward Norton self and the self-consciously imaginary Brad Pitt self. In Mulholland Drive (2001), the Hollywood background suggests a cinematic context for both the manner in which the identities of the two women in the first story blend into one another (with the assistance of photographic effects) and also for the manner in which the scorned woman in the second story (Diane) dreams up an alternate fantasy version of herself (Betty) who lives happily ever after with a woman who resembles the lover who had abandoned her in real life. In the hyperreal world of cinematic images, identity is fluid, role-playing is a form of honesty, and dreams are no less real than “reality.” Another recurring source of identity dysphoria in the popular cinema of the nineties results from the apprehension that individuality is becoming absorbed by market forces. In Toy Story (1995), Alien Resurrection (1997), and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), a central character experiences an existential crisis upon discovering that he/she/it is one modular unit of a mass-produced commodity. The characterizations in these three movies of Buzz Lightyear, Ripley, and David seem intended to reassure their audiences that, in a hyperreal world in which appearances and reality share the same ontological status, while it may be true that people are commodities, commodities are people too, a message that offsets the dehumanizing of human beings with the corresponding tendency to humanize the inhuman.

While all of the films I have been discussing explicitly confront the question of hyperreality in their narrative content, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction achieves its unique effect of glossy postmodernism by immersing itself entirely in a hyperreal atmosphere. Like Natural Born Killers, which is based on a script by Tarantino, Pulp Fiction, as the very title implies, does not aspire to represent reality, but to represent a bottomless hyperreality of cultural images. But while Stone’s moralizing tendency turns Natural Born Killers into a critique of the amoral superficiality of the hyperreal image-world, Tarantino’s instinct is to revel in the narrative freedom, allusive logorrhea, and transgressive humor which accompany a Baudrillardian permutation in the texture of the real. Indeed, one explanation for the cultural impact of Pulp Fiction is that it captures so completely the mood I have been describing in this article. If The Truman Show, The Matrix, and Fight Club all associate hyperrealism with anxiety and suspicion, the madcap tone of Pulp Fiction defuses these fears, replacing dread with a mood of carnivalesque celebration. In Tarantino’s masterpiece, hyperreality is fun! If it is true that the hyperreal condition is awash in meaningless violence, at least it means that the accidental shooting of someone in the back seat of your car is purged of its moral dimensions and reinvented as a kind of game. If it is true that hyperreal existence is subtended by a fundamental suspicion that lived experience may be unreal, the kind of reality that remains behind is a site of mystery and miracle, answering in many ways to the dream of a Christian cosmos. Why didn’t Vince Vega and Jules get mown down by the bullets fired at them at the beginning of the film? The answer is obvious to the audience – because they are fictional characters inhabiting the charmed space of hyperreality in which, as long as you remain the main character in your own movie, as long as you are cool enough, you remain invulnerable. Vince Vega can only get killed when he steps into the doomed role of “anonymous hood” in somebody else’s movie. If hyperreal identity can be an acute source of anxiety for those who hang on to a nostalgic Enlightenment ideal of subjectivity, for people at home in the hyperreal image-scape, salvation requires nothing more than crossing over into a new pulp fictional genre, as Jules sets out to do at the end of Pulp Fiction. Although Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, which both came out in 1994, were popularly considered to represent opposite sides of the culture wars which raged throughout the 1990s, Forrest Gump’s desultory mood of inconsequence, its depiction of history and reality as a collage of media images, and the divine aura of invulnerability it half-jokingly weaves around its protagonist all place Forrest Gump within the same hyperreal meta-genre as Pulp Fiction. Home Alone (1991), South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999), and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) are all characterized by a similar mood, as are the movies featuring the Pierce Brosnan incarnation of James Bond. While Bond had always enjoyed the invulnerable comfort of a hyperreal existence, GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and The World Is Not Enough (1999) rebooted the Bond franchise by going “meta,” representing Bond as a self-consciously fictional protagonist, performing his heroic function is a world that is equally hyperreal.


Looking for the Real

Inevitably, the predominance of a hyperreal aesthetic in the culture exists alongside a counter-tendency of films that attempt to return the cinema to the purposes of realism. Some of the most remarkable features of the cinematic history of the nineties are the rising popularity of independent films which were assumed to be more “authentic”: the emergence of African-American filmmakers who became charged with telling the truth about inner-city life; the success of revisionist epics such as Dances with Wolves (1990) Unforgiven; and even a revisionist Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which sought to revisit traditional Hollywood subjects from a more “historicized” point of view; and grand historical productions such as Schindler’s List (1993), Titanic (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), which sought to depict as truthfully as possible the historical tragedies they represent. Each of these strategies of realism, however, cannot evade the hyperreal cultural environment. Many of the most successful independent films of the decade, including El Mariachi (1992), Memento (2000), and even Pulp Fiction itself, are hymns to hyperreality, suggesting that independent cinema is not synonymous with realist cinema. The promise that Spike Lee and John Singleton would reveal the truth of ghetto life to suburban America had more to do with white expectations than the visions of these black filmmakers. Sharon Willis has critiqued the manner in which a "few black male directors were given cultural authority as ethnographic native informants, as if an experiential frame guaranteed the ‘authenticity’ of their representations of the black community” (48) and argues that the attempts of white audiences and reviewers to read films like Boyz in the Hood and Jungle Fever (both 1991) as documentaries obscures and diminishes the actual accomplishments of these films. Revisionist epics begin from a philosophical assumption that the popular understanding of history is rooted more in film history than real history, that the vast majority of our racist myths about Native Americans or our romanticized notions of the Old West are the products of Hollywood rather than of living memory. The revisionist solution is to revise popular attitudes by making more “realistic” movies, but of course, this involves a mirror-game of vanishing origins; the revisionist movies are even further away from the “truth” than the cowboys and Indians shoot-em-ups of yore precisely because the revisionist films earnestly profess to be representing reality. The simplistic Hollywood formulas of racism and violence are not eliminated from these movies, but simply return in other forms. In Dances with Wolves, the racist stereotypes of Native Americans are simply divided into the noble stereotype represented by the Sioux and the savage stereotype represented by the Pawnee. Unforgiven attempts to demythologize the glamour of frontier violence, but actually reinforces many of the stereotypes about the Wild West that it critiques.

Similarly, Schindler’s List, Titanic, and Saving Private Ryan are all preoccupied with the problem of remembering authentically rather than cinematically. All three historical dramas invoke frame-narratives (the Jewish ceremonies at the beginning and end of Schindler’s List, the quest for Rose’s Heart of the Ocean necklace, the visit of the elderly James Ryan and his family to the Normandy American Cemetery) to both remind us and try to make us forget that what we are watching is a cinematic reconstruction rather than a documentary. It is a confession of bad faith, but at least it is an honest confession. Spielberg is painfully aware that he is showing us fake Holocaust victims and fake World War II veterans as a way of trying to conjure up our sympathy for the real victims and soldiers. He is aware that he is trying to entertain us with what is an inescapably tragic story. He is aware that the latest cinematic technologies are much more capable of making World War II era history look “real” to a modern audience than the actual film footage that recorded the actual events. All of these circumstances entail both a moral danger and an ontological danger. If the fake is more real than the real, then are we not disgracing the memory of the people whose story we want to tell, even as we are engaged in the telling of it? That is the moral danger. But, even more penetrating is the ontological slippage: if artifice is more capable of eliciting our sympathies than reality, then what does that suggest about the artificial nature of all human sympathy? If artificially reconstructed images are better at preserving memory than any more “real” artifacts or narratives, then isn’t it the case that memory itself – even the most sacred and profound memory that we associate with our war dead and the victims of historical atrocities – is nothing more than a commerce in fictional imagery? Although Spielberg has been criticized for “substituting celluloid representations [of the holocaust] for real events” (Horowitz 123), his epilogue in which the elderly Holocaust survivors appear holding hands with the actors who portrayed them in the film acknowledges the limits of both representation and reality alone, and the mutual codependence of reality and representation in the memory of a hyperreal culture. Likewise, in the final moments of Titanic, the Heart of the Ocean, the jewel which represented the real truth of history, that object the quest for which holds the frame-narrative and the main story together, slips into the sea, never to be found, a metaphor for the unspeakability of history and the futility of trying to grasp it in any physical or visual way. Reality sinks into the sea, and we are left trying to do the best we can with our patchwork of authentic reconstructions, our copies of vanished originals.

In his study of the repercussions of 9/11 on film and television, Wheeler Winston Dixon explains that “something has been lost in the aftermath of 9/11; the reality of destruction and physical violence has been made concrete and immediate. The deaths we witnessed when the twin towers fell were staged, but they were real – real suffering, real pain, and real loss” (24, italics in original). Wheeler’s analysis suggests that “what has been lost” in the rubble of ground zero is our hazy atmosphere of hyperreality. Indeed, it is easy to perceive that the heyday of hyperreal exuberance that characterizes the popular cinema of the nineties is over by 2002. As we have already observed, the two Matrix sequels, both post-9/11 productions, become less interested in the phantasmal space of the cyberworld and direct their narrative energies toward the dire urgency of the war between flesh and machine playing out in reality. The childish innocence of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is succeeded by the childish maturity and operatic tragedy of the two sequels (2002 and 2005). Brosnan’s James Bond is replaced by Daniel Craig’s scowling alcoholic, a bitter realist in a tragic world. Nevertheless, for all the dramatic effects 9/11 and its turbulent aftermath have had on the popular imagination, and as tempting as it may be to scholars of recent history to count 2001 as the first year on a new calendar, it is equally necessary to realize that many of the issues that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century – terrorism, globalization, and cybercommunications – have their origins in the final decade of the twentieth century. Baudrillard cautions us that 9/11 and subsequent events are not to be characterized as “a reappearance of history or a Real irrupting in the heart of the Virtual.” Contemporary news stories “do not constitute events in history, but beyond history, beyond its end” (Intelligence of Evil 126). The popular meme that 9/11 represented a return of the real may be dangerously misleading, giving us a false sense of groundedness when in fact we still inhabit a cultural condition in which fiction and reality continue to play mirror-games with one another.


Works Cited

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---. The Illusion of the End. Tr. Chris Turner. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

---. The Intelligence of Evil. Tr. Chris Turner. Oxford UP: Berg, 2005.

Chollet, Derek and James Goldgeiger. America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11. NY: Public Affairs, 2008. Print.

Chong, Sylvia. “From ‘Blood Auteurism’ to the Violence of Pornography: Sam Peckinpah and Oliver Stone.” New Hollywood Violence. Ed. Steven Jay Schneider. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. 249-68. Print.

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. NY: Scribners, 1997. Print.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. Tr. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, 1986.

Fuller, Graham. “The Unstoppable Stone.” Interview Jan. 1996. Web. 23 Dec. 2009.

Gabler, Neal. Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. NY: Alfred A. Knopf,1999. Print.

Horowiz, Sara R. “But is it Good for the Jews? Spielberg’s Schindler and the Aesthetics of Atrocity.” Spielberg’s Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler’s List. Ed. Yosefa Leshitzky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. 119-139. Print.

Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993. Print.

Lancelin, Aude. Interview with Jean Baudrillard. Le Nouvel Observateur. July 23, 2003. Web. 23 Dec. 2009.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. NY: Random House, 1994. Print.

Willis, Sharon. “Movies and Wayward Images.” American Cinema of the 1990s: Themes and Variations. Ed. Chris Holmlund. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2008. 45-69. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond. NY: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.

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