Julia and I have been rewatching favorite comedies from the 90s and early 2000s, and we’ve been put off by how outdated they seem. Harold and Kumar has a startling amount of homophobia, and Austin Powers, even when making light of the sexual faux pas of a 1960s London swinger dropped into 1990s America, comes across as uncomfortably rape-y. We’ve been avoiding Ace Ventura, knowing that entire plot hinges on what amounts to a transphobic joke.
I’ve long felt this way about technology in fiction – that even if you try to futureproof your story, anachronisms slip through. Your conceptual sci-fi world might anticipate flying cars and virtual reality, but then everyone’s still using dot matrix printers.
When it comes to technology, though, these anachronisms over time acquire a kind of charm. What would The Matrix be without its reliance on pay phones? What would the original Star Wars be without its knobs and dials and buttons and radio waves, it’s notable lack of networked technology? Certainly not the analog dream that it is. I’m reminded, as I am every so often, of what Brian Eno said about the signatures of new mediums:
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
But this doesn’t seem to be the case with the cultural context. The Uncle Tom-ishness of Song of the South only gets more uncomfortable and ugly over time. The racism of The Birth of a Nation is not and hopefully will never be cherished and emulated the way that VHS tracking glitches are. Maybe I’m wrong to be comparing the two altogether, like comparing apples to apple-tree terroir. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t evolve socially as quickly as we evolve technologically, that racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are still so prevalent in our world, that the forms they take on in these films may be laughably outdated, but the hatred and intolerance at their core remains, and is uncharmingly reflecting back to us.
I refuse to end this letter on such a down note, so instead I’ll mention one more film, that we just finished tonight: Disclosure, a new documentary (streaming now on Netflix) about trans representation in film and television. Through interviews with trans creatives, it not only touches on Ace Ventura but also D.W. Griffith, and had Julia and I noticing and discussing the anti-trans ideas that we too grew up with and unknowingly carry around. Highly recommended.