Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Super Streamlined Shiny New Retro-Futuristic Past Is Here, Now.

Film Review: The Incredibles.

In cartoons like The Jetsons and The Flintstones, the 1960’s nuclear family is transported to space or stone age conditions, suggesting that wherever we are in time - whether being chased by a woolly mammoth or teleporting across space - several constants can be relied upon; wives will nag, brothers and sisters will fight and husbands will miserably slope off to work in faceless office jobs. Similarly, In The Incredibles a thoroughly ‘normal’ family of superheroes find themselves facing a life of suburban drudgery after being forced into early retirement by an ungrateful world.

The suburbia in which The Incredibles end up though is a kind of souped-up parody of late 60’s modernism. Spaciously laid out grids of groovy bungalows - Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian house meets John Lautner – spread out for miles in an orderly, conformist utopia. The imagery in the film evokes the techno-modernism of the late ‘60’s but bathed in a nostalgic glow made possible by today’s super advanced computer modelling: everything here seems to shimmer in a retro-haze of rendered perfection. 1960’s suburbia is given a shiny newness it never had at the time whilst its modernity is simultaneously parodied as a period piece. So, cars are super-shapely Stingrays or even-more-outrageous-than-usual Oldsmobiles, the city is a vertigo inducing composite of Metropolis and Batman’s Gotham and the villain lives in the ultimate You Only Live Twice era Bond set.

The film both acknowledges and revels in the irony of re-creating such retro-modernism as silvery mono-rails swooping into hollowed out volcanoes or chrome staircases cantilevered at improbable angles – the groovy futurism of Ken Adam’s Bond sets surpassed visually and rendered by a technology still in its infancy when they were made. Like a beautifully rendered picture of an Amstrad computer, it’s technology looking admiringly at itself in the mirror.

It’s in this relationship between computer technology and the imagery it employs that the film may have something interesting to say about contemporary architecture. In The Incredibles, the latest computer modelling software is used to parody the design dreams of the past. In architecture, the same technology is used to create visions of the future. Nothing is new in The Incredibles, only the technology employed to make it possible. The computers used to make this film burn their way through improbable mathematical calculations in order to make Mr Incredible’s sagging paunch bounce up and down or render the dated Trimphone in his office. The computer render in architecture is (still) seen as a transparent, visionary tool, without its own values or representational codes. There is a functionalist strain of argument in architecture that says computer technology leads inevitably to certain kinds of forms: as if using the computer will lead automatically to a vision of the future. Pixar’s use exposes the fatuousness of this argument, using computers to model, with extraordinary verisimilitude, the chromium shine on a Corvette wing mirror, or the sun as it filters through the jungle mist. Not only that, but that they also achieve infinitely more subtle modulations of tone, atmosphere and, ultimately, value.

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