Case Study #2: The Phantom Zone

Daniel Rourke

PhD Candidate in Art at Goldsmiths, University of London and Visiting Lecturer in Arts and Media, London South Bank University

(This text is an expanded version of “The Phantom Zone,” originally published at Rhizome.org, September 2013, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/sep/10/phantom-zone.)

In a 1950 film serial entitled Atom Man vs. Superman, television executive and evil genius Lex Luthor sends Superman into a ghostly limbo he calls ‘The Empty Doom.’ [1] Trapped in this phantom void, Superman’s infinite powers are rendered useless, for although he can still see and hear the ‘real’ world his ability to interact with it has all but disappeared.

Atom Man vs. Superman, 1950, Dir. Spencer Gordon Bennet, DVD screen capture.

Atom Man vs. Superman, 1950, Dir. Spencer Gordon Bennet, DVD screen capture.

Over the following decades this paraspace would reappear in the Superman mythos in various forms. [2] Eventually dubbed ‘The Phantom Zone,’ its back story was reworked substantially, until by the mid-60s it had become a parallel dimension discovered by Superman’s father, Jor El. Once used to incarcerate Krypton’s most unsavoury characters, the Phantom Zone had outlasted its doomed home world and eventually burst at the seams, sending legions of super-evil denizens raining down onto Earth. Beginning its life as an ‘empty’ doom, The Phantom Zone was soon filled with terrors prolific enough to make even the Man of Steel fear its existence.

Overseen by story editor Mortimer Weisinger, and the unfortunately named artist Wayne Boring, the late 50s and early 60s were a strange time in the Superman universe. It was an era of narrative excess wrapped by a tight, meticulous yet, many would say, repressed aesthetic. In the words of Grant Morrison:

Centuries of epic time could pass in a single caption. Synasties fell between balloons, and the sun could grow old and die on the turn of a page. It was a toy world, too, observed through the wrong end of a telescope. Boring made eternity tiny, capable of being held in two small hands. He reduced the infinite to fit in a cameo… [3]

The Phantom Zone could be readily understood on a narrative level and it had a metaphorical dimension as well, one that made conceivable the depths contained in Superman’s vast, but ultimately manipulable universe.

The Phantom Zone was usually portrayed on a television screen kept safe in one of the many rooms of the League of Justice headquarters. Staring into the screen Superman and his companions observed past terrors it was their duty to protect the future from. The Phantom Zone could also be used as a weapon and fired from a portable projection device – the cold, harsh infinity of the Empty Doom blazing into Superman’s world long enough to ensnare anyone foolish enough to stand in its rays. Whether glimpsed on screen or via projection, the Phantom Zone could be interpreted as a metaphor for the moving image.

Each page of a comic book is a frame which itself frames a series of frames, so that by altering each panel’s size, bleed, or aesthetic variety, time and space can be made elastic. Weisinger and Boring’s Phantom Zone took this mechanism further, behaving like a weaponised frame free to roam ‘within’ the comic book world. The Phantom Zone opened out onto the existence of para-dimensions. It was a comic book device that bled beyond the edge of the page, out into a world in which comic book narratives were experienced not in isolation, but in parallel with the onscreen narratives of the cinema and the television. As such, the device heralded televisual modes of attention.

Richard Donner’s Phantom Zone, 1978, Dir. Richard Donner, DVD screen capture.

Richard Donner’s Phantom Zone, 1978, Dir. Richard Donner, DVD screen capture.

For his 1978 big-budget movie version of Superman, director Richard Donner cunningly translated the Phantom Zone into something resembling the cinema screen itself. [4] In the film’s opening sequence a crystal surface swoops down from the immense backdrop of space, rendering the despicable General Zod and his cronies two-dimensional as it imprisons them. In the documentary The Magic Behind the Cape, bundled with the DVD release of Superman in 2001, we are given an insight into the technical prowess behind Donner’s Phantom Zone. [5]

The actors are made to simulate existential terror against the black void of the studio, pressed up against translucent, flesh-like membranes and physically rotated out of sync with the gaze of the camera. Rendering the ‘faux’ two-dimensional surface of Donner’s Phantom Zone believable required all manner of human dimensions to be framed out of the final production. The actors react to causes generated beyond the studio space, the director’s commands, or the camera’s gaze. They twist and recoil from transformations still to occur in post-production. In a sense, the actors behave as bodies that are already images. With its reliance on post-produced visual effects, Donner’s Phantom Zone sequence represents an intermediary stage in the gradual removal of sets, locations, and any ‘actual’ spatial depths from the film production process.

Today, actors must address their humanity to green voids post-produced with CGI and the indexical relationship between the film image and the events unfolding in front of the lens has been almost entirely shattered. In this phantom cinema produced after the event, ever-deeper layers of special effects seal actors into a cinematic paraspace.

Superman Returns green screen work, 2006, Dir. Bryan Singer, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rr5_uWLsI, accessed June 28, 2014.

Superman Returns green screen work, 2006, Dir. Bryan Singer, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rr5_uWLsI, accessed June 28, 2014.

Just as the Phantom Zone of the comic book heralded televisual modes of attention, the Phantom Zone of the 1970s marked a perceptual regime in which the cinematic image was increasingly sealed off from reality by synthetic visual effects.

For Walter Benjamin, writing about cinema’s first ‘Golden Era,’ the ability of the cinema screen to frame discontinuous times and spaces represented a profound ‘truth’ beyond the scope of individual experience. Delivered by cinema, Benjamin argued, mechanically disseminated images were actually fracturing the limits of our perceptions, training “human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” [6] The cinema screen offered audiences who were confined to finite bodies that had never before experienced such juxtapositions an apparently shared experience of illuminated consciousness. Via the ‘shock-character’ of montage, Benjamin believed, cinema broke through the mirage of proletarian experience nourishing an awareness of what Benjamin called the ‘new nature;’ a nature that included, according to Susan Buck-Morss: “Not just industrial technology, but the entire world of matter (including human beings) as it has been transformed by that technology.” [7]

Gilles Deleuze, writing some 50 years after Benjamin, took these ideas further, citing the philosophical potential of cinema in the dividual quality of the cinematographic image. For Deleuze the montage produced an image of time itself, giving “common standard of measurement to things which do not have one,” framing “long shots of countryside and close-ups of the face, an astronomical system and a single drop of water” within a single perceptual apparatus. [8] In an interview on the subject Deleuze proudly declared, “What I call Ideas are images that make one think… And in each case the thoughts are inseparable from the images; they are completely immanent to the images.” [9] In short, cinema was less a technology than an evolving mode of machinic thought, what D.N. Rodowick calls, “a foundation of thinking in the form of time.” [10] Furthermore, according to Rodowick, “what film helps us to understand is how we think in and through time in a situation where time passes in us and divides us from ourselves.” [11] Even before we expect ‘narratives’ to emerge from the discontinuous images made to reel before our eyes, cinema is an ‘Idea.’ “A massive decentering of the psyche” in which subjectivity is made relative and dispersed “across a duration not wholly its own.” [12]
Observing the relation between representation and visibility, Jens Andermann notes:

Truth, the truth of representation, crucially depends on the clear-cut separation between the visible and the invisible, the non-objectness of the latter. Truth is the effect of what we could call the catachretic nature of visuality, the way in which the world of visual objects can point to the invisible domain of pure being only by obsessively pointing to itself. [13]

As from the Greek root ‘aisthanesthai’ – to perceive – the aesthetic conditions through which the Phantom Zone have been translated frame far more than a supposed fictional void. Called upon to indicate an absolute outside – the unfathomable infinity of another, ghostly, parallel universe outside, beside or beyond time and space – the Phantom Zone instead reiterates the medium of its delivery, whether comic book, television, or cinema, with mirror-like insistency.

The Phantom Zone hides the cinematographic, dividual image in plain view. Its reappearance and reimagining over the last 60 odd years, in ever newer forms and aesthetic modes, can be read paradigmatically, that is, as a figure that stands in place of, and points towards, shifts, mutations and absolute overturnings in our perceptual acuity. Its most recent iteration is in the 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and in particular in a viral trailer distributed on YouTube a few weeks before the film was released. [14, 15] Coming towards us soars a new mode of machinic thought; a Phantom Zone of unparalleled depth and aesthetic complexity that opens onto a new new – digital – nature.

The General Zod trailer for Man of Steel begins with a static rift that breaks into a visual and audial disarrangement of the phrase, “You are not alone.” General Zod’s masked face materializes, blended with the digital miasma: a painterly 3D effect that highlights the inherent ‘otherness’ of where his message originates. The aesthetic is unsettling in as much as it is recognizable. We have no doubt as viewers of this ‘viral’ dispatch as to the narrative meaning of what we are witnessing, namely, a datastream compressed and distributed from a paraspace by an entity very much unlike us. The uncanny significance of the trailer stems more from how very normal the digital miasma feels; from how apprehensible this barrage of noise is to us. Indeed, it is ‘other,’ but its otherness is also somehow routine, foreseeable. The pathogen here is not Zod’s message, it is digital technology itself. The glitched aesthetic of the trailer has become so habitual as to herald the passing of digital materiality into the background of awareness. Its mode of dissemination, via the Trojan Horse of YouTube, just as un-visible as we shift between online and offline modes of communication. The surface of this Phantom Zone very much interfaces with our material world, even if the message it impresses upon us aches to be composed of an alien substance.

Digital video does the work of representation via codecs that compress the amount of information needed to produce a moving image. Rather than the individual frames of film, each as visually rich and total as the last, in a codec only the difference between frames need be encoded, making each frame “more like a set of movement instructions than an image.” [16] The painterly technique used in the General Zod trailer is normally derived from a collapse between key (image) and reference (difference) frames at the status of encoding. The process is called ‘datamoshing,’ and has its origins in glitch art, a form of media manipulation predicated on those minute moments when the surface of an image or sound cracks open to reveal some aspect of the process that produced it. By a method of cutting, repeating, or glitching of key and reference frames visual representations are made to blend into one another; space becomes difference and time becomes image. Present instructions for movement are co-opted by past image events, molding a novel future presence. The General Zod ‘Hollywood’ trailer homages/copies/steals the datamoshing technique, marking digital video’s final move from convenient means of dissemination, to palpable aesthetic (i.e. perceptual) and cultural influence.

Viral Trailer ‘General Zod’s Warning’, 2013, Dir. Zack Snyder, YouTube screen capture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QkfmqsDTgY, accessed June 28, 2014.

Viral Trailer ‘General Zod’s Warning’, 2013, Dir. Zack Snyder, YouTube screen capture, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QkfmqsDTgY, accessed June 28, 2014.

In the actual movie, Man of Steel (2013), Zod’s video message is transposed in its entirety to the fictional Planet Earth. The viral component of its movement around the web is entirely absent: its apparent digitality, therefore, remains somewhat intact, but only as a mere surface appearance. This time around the message shattering through the Phantom Zone is completely devoid of affective power: it frames nothing but its existence as a narrative device. The filmmakers rely on a series of ‘taking over the world’ tropes to set the stage for General Zod’s Earth-shaking proclamation. TV sets in stereotypical, exotic, locales flicker into life, all broadcasting the same thing. Electronic billboards light up, loudspeakers blare, mobile phones rumble in pockets, indeed, all imaging technologies suddenly take on the role of prostheses for a single, datamoshed, stream. In one – particularly sincere – moment of the montage a faceless character clutches a Nokia brand smartphone in the centre of shot and exclaims, “It’s coming through the RSS feeds!” This surface, this Phantom Zone, frames an apparatus far vaster than a datamoshed image codec: an apparatus apparently impossible to represent through the medium of cinema. The surface appearance of the original viral trailer is only a small component of what constitutes the image it conveys, and thus, of the image it frames of our time. Digital materiality shows itself via poorly compressed video clips arriving through streams of overburdened bandwidth. Our understanding of what constitutes a digital image must then, according to Mark Hansen, “be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable.” [17]

In its cinematic and comic book guises, the Phantom Zone was depicted as “a kind of membrane dividing yet connecting two worlds that are alien to and also dependent upon each other.” [18] The success of the datamoshed trailer comes from the way it broke through that interface, its visual surface bubbling with a new kind of viral, digital, potential that encompasses and exposes the material engaged in its delivery. As cinematographic subjects we have an integral understanding of the materiality of film. Although we know that the frames of cinema are separate we crave the illusion of movement, and the image of time, they create. The ‘viral’ datamoshed message corrupts this separation between image and movement, the viewer and the viewed. Not only does General Zod seem to push out, from inside the numerical image, it is as if we, the viewing subject enraptured by the digital event, have been consumed by its flow. The datamoshed Phantom Zone trailer takes the one last, brave, step beyond the apparatus of image production. Not only is the studio, the actor, and even the slick appeal of CGI framed out of its mode of delivery, arriving through a network that holds us complicit, this Phantom Zone frames the ‘real’ world in its entirety, making even the fictional world it appeals to devoid of affective impact.

Once again, the Phantom Zone highlights the material mode of its delivery with uncanny exactness. But unlike Deleuze’s ‘time-image,’ formed by a linear stream of film frames made to flicker before our eyes, the digital event is dividual in multiple dimensions allowing “a new image [to] arise from any point whatsoever of the preceding image.” [19] We are now surrounded by images that supersede mere visual appearance: they generate and are generated by everything the digital touches, including we, the most important component of General Zod’s ‘viral’ diffusion. The digital Phantom Zone extends to both sides of the flickering screen.

References:

1. Spencer Gordon Bennet, Atom Man vs. Superman, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, 1950.
2. Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 164.
3. Grant Morrison, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero (London: Vintage Books, 2012), 62.
4. Richard Donner, Superman, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, 1978.
5. Michael Thau, The Magic Behind the Cape, Documentary, Short, 2001.
6. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 26.
7. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1991), 70.
8. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image (Continuum, 2005), 16.
9. Gilles Deleuze and David Lapoujade, Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995 (Semiotext(e), 2006), 291.
10. David Norman Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine (Duke University Press, 1997), 83.
11. Ibid., 84.
12. David Norman Rodowick, Afterimages of Gilles Deleuze’s Film Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 336.
13. Jens Andermann, The Optic of the State: Visuality and Power in Argentina and Brazil (University of Pittsburgh Pre, 2007), 5.
14. Zack Snyder, Man of Steel, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, 2013.
15. Man of Steel Viral – General Zod’s Warning (2013) Superman Movie HD, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QkfmqsDTgY.
16. “Datamoshing – the Beauty of Glitch,” BackStarCreativeMedia, last modified April 9, 2009, http://backstar.com/blog/2009/04/09/datamoshing-the-beauty-of-glitch/.
17. Mark B. Hansen, “Cinema Beyond Cybernetics, or How to Frame the Digital Image,” Configurations 10, no. 1 (2002): 54.
18. Mark Poster, The Second Media Age (Wiley, 1995), 20.
19. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 265.

Bio:

Daniel Rourke is a writer, researcher, educator and artist. He is currently finalising a PhD in Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work is concerned with re-articulating the digital in light of current debates surrounding post-humanism and is predominantly realised through critical fabulations that address everything as a science fiction. His writing has appeared in AfterImage, Alluvium and at Rhizome.org.
http://machinemachine.net
twitter @therourke