„You’ve just been erased!“
„You’ve just been erased!“
At the end of Eraser, after a long chase through a gun factory Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Caan are facing each other, all alone in a long whitewashed hallway. They were chasing each other all through the film. Caan (the bad one) first betrayed Schwarzenegger (the good one) and then tried to kill him.
Now when they are confronted with each other all of a sudden, many people´s lives are at stake. If Caan survives, a new wonder weapon will get into the hands of the Russians. And Vanessa Williams, who should be protected by Schwarzenegger as an agent of a witness protection programme, probably would die, too.
Slight low-angle shots emphasize the drama of the situation. It is an archetypical scene, a duel of life and death. Someone´s going to die now. We have seen this scene a thousand times in a thousand films. We know, what is going to happen before Caan or Schwarzenegger even raise their semi-automatic guns. Both of them start shooting at the same time.
Neither one gets shot, even though they are facing each other directly, firing their guns. As if a ghost would catch the bullets out of the air, they seem to disappear silently without reaching the body of the antagonist. After several rounds, both of them look amazed at the smoking muzzles of their guns and then at their unhurt opponent, as if it was their own mirror image. The action movie Eraser allows a situation which cannot be solved with force …
A well cleaned and therefore invisible gate of glass separates the hallway of the high-tech lab. That is why neither is hit: The bullets bounce off like pinballs at the bullet-proof screen. Nothing but a surprise effect. And of course Schwarzenegger will put a stop to his opponent’s dirty game at the end of the endless showdown.
That duel scene stayed in my memory, because it is more than a bewildering surprise effect in an action movie. At the same time, it describes the dilemma which makes it all the more difficult for the traditional narrative cinema to tell its stories.
The „kinetic image“ (Gilles Deleuze) of narrative cinema needs physical action on at which to point its cameras. But in the real world, in our non-cinema daily routine, exactly that physical action keeps disappearing every day. It is being replaced by highly abstract, optically non-portrayable processes in computers, data nets, in apparatus which are put in faceless chests. The visible – and so that, which cinema lived off for more than hundred years – is disappearing in technology.
One can make a two hour film about a good old bank robbery – like Dog Day Afternoon, but if someone – like in Terminator 2 – cracks an ATM with a manipulated credit card, the scene is filmed in five minutes maximum. Today´s worst crimes probably take place in the electronic circulation of money between the international stock markets. Until today Hollywood cinema still has not come up with anything better than producing wild chases as of the time of The Great Train Robbery. It should be quite impossible to portray the crimes, dramas, comedies and punishments of the 21st century like that.
Hollywood cinema has tried to get out of that problem for a long time. The few Hollywood movies dealing with computers usually describe them as the realm of evil, like in War Games, Sneakers or Ghost in the Machine. Only occasionally they appear as electronic fairyland, as „cyberspace“ (Tron, The Lawnmower Man). Yet, the dramaturgical challenges meeting cinema with the increased computerization of the world have been ignored by the American movie entertainment up until recently. This only changed last year, when all of a sudden Hollywood, too, got connected to the internet. In movies like The Net, Exit Out, Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic the internet more or less became the leading actor and for the first time the attempt was made to illustrate the inside processes of a computer. In Hackers, the inside of a data processing system looked like the high-tech apartment of a designer; in Johnny Mnemonic computer-psychedelia and Barbara Sukowa were used in the attempt to visualize data streams.
Eraser is a particularly insistent attempt to pretend to be able to ignore the vanishing of the visible world in amorphous technology. The invisible wall of bullet-proof glass in the scene mentioned above represents the silent pressure of the relationships of the technisized and computerized world. Instead of enemies of flesh and blood, Schwarzenegger and Caan are confronted with an impersonal, abstract technological power, where they don´t get anywhere with their machine-gun bullets. Which can´t even be seen.
Beside eraser, a couple of other recent Hollywood productions try to deal with the omnipresence of computers in everyday routine and global data-networking. Apart from Eraser the internet also plays a significant role in Mission Impossible, Independence Day, Twister, Copykill and Assassins. In each film the attempt is made to solve the problem of the disappearing of the visible in technology which we experience now.
In the twenties Brecht wrote, that a picture of a krupp factory wouldn´t show how the company operates. But one could still point the camera at machines and physically working humans. If one wants to shoot a workplace in the service society of the nineties, one has to show people at a computer – and that is not very thrilling for the eye. How the mechanism behind the activity is working has become impossible to portray.
Eraser defends the right of depicting with the automatic firearm: When Schwarzenegger finds out, that there is a screen of glass between him and Caan, he starts to shoot at the smoke detector on the ceiling. The sprinkler system and the fire alarm are triggered off, „and here we go again“: water sprays from the ceiling, the glass screen opens up, the short break is over, and on goes the chase in the old manner – upstairs, downstairs, through backyards, junkyards and docks. The „blinds“ of our technisized world – once more Schwarzenegger managed to shoot them out of the way.
Again and again Eraser recapitulates this act of re-visualizing unsightly, technical processes: When the electricity fails in one office building and the computer wouldn´t spit out the crucial CD, again only a small round from the machine gun helps to crack the chassis of the computer. Later, when Schwarzenegger proceeds to the final shoot-out, with nonchalant gesture he throws away his mobile phone: From now on no wire- or bodyless technology would help any more, but merely pure physical force. And even the high-tech super-weapon the film is all about is of no use anymore as the powerline breaks and the electricity is off. The old, mechanical machine gun of Schwarzenegger however: shoots and shoots and shoots …
The worker and his film-double
It is interesting enough, that members of a trade union are also playing a positive role in Eraser. At the end of the film, a handful of overweight Italian-Americans from the dock workers union office come to help Schwarzenegger with their bare fists. The scene at the gate of the docks almost looks like a parody on the strikes and the labour disputes which have not taken place in the US for a long time. A guard, armed with a body-based transmitter and other technical rubbish, in old tradition gets bopped on the head with the comment: „You just don´t fuck with the union!“
The trade unions have been shattered in American entertainment movies since the „Reagan revolution“ like no one else except the Columbian cocaine bosses: Most of the time they wasted the membership fees and were as unscrupulous as corrupt – and beside that a plain anachronism of the time of the industrial revolution, just like the working class they were representing.
„You´ve just been erased!“ is said again and again in Eraser. For the working class in American film – and in the US – the same is valid: It just has been erased like a file from the hard disc of a computer. Neither in everyday life nor in cinema, which is almost the same in the US, is it visible anymore. The deindustrialization of America has been followed by the film: Hard working blue-collar people with decency and self-consciousness, the eternal Little Joes of Frank Capra’s films can barely be found in American cinema any more. Instead, there is a whole lot of „white trash“ to have a look at in a caravan on a junkyard with no health insurance.
„Being a nobody, bear it no longer“, demanded the „Internationale“ from the proletariat. Eraser fights for the human right to depiction in film. Schwarzenegger and the damned of this earth – that is a strange „unified community“. However, the same technology which „erased“ the American working class, now gets Schwarzenegger unemployed. Even „The Last Action Hero“ is a loser to modernization: The machines which took over the jobs of the industrial workers are the same which now look like nothing in the cinema. And against the machinery of post-industrial society, Schwarzenegger, with all his muscles and weapons, is powerless.
Politics of the telly box
Eraser is only one of several American mainstream films which are dealing with the problem of technisation and the disappearing of the visible. For example the first half hour of Independence Day only transports visual action by the camera rushing through the rooms. The action itself is on the screens of television sets – and everyone, even the president of the United States, is sitting in front of them, rooted to the spot.
he science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) by Robert Wise already anticipated that politics and history are merely going to take place on the telly box when television for the first time in the history of cinema was the central story. When President Bush during the Gulf War watched CNN to obtain information about his military campaign rather than reading the memos of his secret service, forty years after The Day the Earth Stood Still life was imitating art.
In Copykill Sigourney Weaver gets her death threats by e-mail (including Java-applet) instead of snail-mail and logs in the Internet Relay Chat. The murderer is editing the films of his victims on a PowerMac. In Assassins, Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas not only attack each other with machine guns, but also with their laptops. (Naturally the film has got a more sensuous relation to the guns than to the computers: Banderas is kissing his gun, he is just switching on and slamming the PowerBook.)
Mission Impossible is also about snatching the visual from technology one more time. The story is about a computer and a Syquest disc with a list of American spies on it; Tom Cruise is even searching for the thieves on the internet. In the meantime there are experts in Hollywood, who are programming special interfaces for films to illustrate for everyone, what is happening in the computer: In Mission Impossible, Tom Cruise is sending an e-mail by clicking on an envelope icon which then is flapping its wings into the monochrome black dephts of cyberspace.
Such visualisations, Macintosh user surfaces appear spartanic in comparison, are created by the computer advisor Andrew Eio, who reprogrammed After Dark and Netscape surfaces for Hackers which then were comprehensible even for computer-illiterates; after all the films are supposed to be distributed in Third World countries as well, where only a small part of the audience is used to computers. „We have taken our creative freedom“, says Eio about his screendesigns. „The basis is reality which continued a bit“. Digerati and Eio are probably going to gain more and more influence on the „look“ of Hollywood movies. John Sullivan, who was doing the computer generated special effects for Eraser, even praises the talent of Arnold Schwarzenegger to work with computer animations: „He knows the technology we are working with, the computer images and green screens.“
In Mission Impossible, Copykill or Assassins the user surfaces look amazingly old-fashioned and simple at first sight. That is because the programmes, which are commonly used in the meantime like Word 6.0 or the Netscape browser, are not compatible for cinema: they are too tender and full of detail to be impressive on a big screen. The rough interface in the computer lab in which Cruise – hanging from the ceiling – is downloading important data, remind the computer lad rather of old DOS or Amiga times – otherwise it would simply be plain in the cinema.
The computer is only truly integrated in the visual design of the film at one spot of Mission Impossible: At the beginning of the film the embassy in Prague is searched for someone by a bunch of secret service people, supervised by Jon Voight from the outside. The agents were hiding micro in different places (spectacles, brooch, tiepin) known from James Bond films.The images are sent to the laptop of Voight and appear as tiny windows on the screen. Brian de Palma, who was experimenting with the split screen technique (actually a seventies technique) in films like Sisters and Body Double, helps to give this technique new honours: split screen, this time not cinemascope, but Windows 95.
The Recipe: Girls, guns and discs
Each of those films tries to involve the computer in its own way, without giving up on traditional dramaturgy with action, wild chases and speed, speed, speed. Ironically, many of the most spectacular scenes of those films would not have been possible without a computer. Eraser especially lives because of special effects which could only have been produced on fast Silicon Graphics super computers. In one scene Schwarzenegger is playing catch with a parachute, later in the New York Zoo he is fighting with crocodiles and finally sends them up the river with the words „You are luggage!“ – both are quite impossible stunts which in Eraser were assembled from real shots, computer effects and models. The visible disappears in the computer, but the computer then also creates the visible again. The breathtaking chasing scene in Mission Impossible, when the helicopter is pursuing the TGV through the Eurotunnel was mainly produced on the hard disc of a high-performance computer.
David W. Griffith is said to have stated, that every film needs two things: „A girl and a gun“. James Caan in Eraser updates this maxim to the latest state of (digital-) technique, when he is shouting: „Get the girl! Get the gun! And get the disc!“ – Eraser is trying to set up another film drama out of those ingredients.
From the beginning, cinema has dealt with the disappearing of the visible and physical labour. Like Harun Farocki emphasizes in his essay film „Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik“, even in the very first film of the Lumiere brothers they pointed the camera at the gate of their factory and filmed the workers leaving the factory rather than them at work. This can be taken as a symbol: When cinema was invented, the big times of mechanic-industrial labour were almost already over. The history of cinema also is the history of the disappearence of physical labour and industry which vice versa takes away its elixir of life: the visible and the filmable. In Europe today, the dying cinema has to be publicily funded, just like the dying heavy industry.
The revenge of the losers of modernization
Eraser ends with a symbolic scene. An icon of the industrial revolution – and cinema – has a guest appearance in the grand final of the film: the railway. A freight train crashes the car in which the high-tech bandits are locked, because Schwarzenegger tinkered around with the electronic (!!!) door locks. One of the unionists watches with satisfaction.
This is the revenge of the losers to modernization: If we became superfluous by technology and got erased in cinema, then at least we are taking you with us. At least this one time, at least in this one film. I imagine, how that scene should draw approving roaring and spontaneous applause of the proletarian audience in American cinemas. „You´ve just been erased“ are the last words of the film.