“If you’re looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself,
look into the cinematic fiction”, Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, 2006)
How do the movies and TV inform and structure our reality? What is the role of fictional representations of places, landscapes, and cityscapes in our actual experiences of them? In what ways are our perceptions of reality affected or generated by virtual things? We have seen a recent emphasis in archaeological theory to look not only at contemporary, but virtual material culture as well (e.g. Harrison 2010). Virtual materiality is especially a relevant subject for the questions of how fictions, media and visual representations shape the ways in which we see and interact with material things in their ‘actuality’. Slavoj Zizek points out that movies play a crucial role in the constitution of our realities, and that this fantasy element of movie fiction is integral and inseparable part of what we call reality. “If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you loose reality itself”, he argues in his 2006 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.
Godzilla’s approach to contemporary material culture. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998).
Thinking about Zizek’s ideas on the interplay between the imaginary and the real becomes especially interesting when we look at how a place such as New York City is being perceived in relation to its virtual representations. For all those people visiting the city for the first time, walking around midtown and taking loads of pictures, there is a perspective of pre-experience (or virtual experience), that is, the expectations and knowledge of the place that comes from various media (novels, newspapers, TV, films, etc). In such encounters with the actual materiality of New York City, our ideas, impressions, and experiences are often formed and defined in relation to those virtual experiences that have already been generated through visual and/or textual media. It is to a large extent due to its virtual culture, particularly the one regulated by TV shows and movies, that New York is seen by many as one of the most exciting cities. One hears all too often ‘it’s like in the movies’ type of reactions to NYC, or finds comments on facebook photos such as ‘it’s so Sex and the City!’ It’s also interesting to observe how with facebook, especially with the sharing of photos and comments, our experiences which have already gone through virtual and actual stages, return back again to a virtual medium. Looking at how material things are differently and/or similarly discerned at the levels of our virtual and actual encounters with them could be another interesting question in the archaeological approaches to contemporary materiality.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968): A New York story after all.
But going back to Zizek’s ideas about the movie fantasy forming our reality and reflecting our desires, how can we think about these topics in regard to New York City and its representations in the movies? I was especially thinking about the science fiction-horror-apocalyptic type of films that are so often set in New York City, and what could be the connection here with Zizek’s arguments, both in the sense of what makes the city such a frequent choice for the catastrophic and apocalyptic scenarios, and how could we relate this kind of cinematic fantasy with our actual envisioning of the city? What do the movies like Escape from New York, Godzilla, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, King Kong, Cloverfield, I Am Legend, and others, reveal about our imaginary worlds and how do such fantasies connect with the real world? Where does the virtual New York City meet with the actual one? In its virtual space, the city has had difficult times avoiding meteors, floods, glaciations, aliens, giant apes, monsters of all sort, etc. Whereas in our actual New York City experiences we might not witness the same kind of movie-awesomeness (that is, if one finds Godzilla talking a stroll down Manhattan to be an awesome sight indeed), the more subtle links between the fictive and actual New York cityscapes still remain apparent.
Harrison, R. 2010 Exorcising the ‘plague of fantasies’: mass media and archaeology’s role in the present; or why we need an archaeology of ‘now’. World Archaeology 42(3): 328-340.
Related links: 20 Movies That Destroy New York: http://www.premiere.com/Feature/20-Movies-That-Destroy-New-York