Brian A. Horne is a doctoral candidate in anthopology at the University of Chicago, where he studies media, music and popular culture. He is currently finishing his dissertation examining efforts to perpetuate and preserve an influential Soviet-era musical genre known as bardic song in contemporary Moscow. His chapter, "The Bards of Magnitizdat: An Aesthetic Political History of Russian Underground Recordings" will appear this summer in the volume, "Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media During and After Socialism." Brian shares his rants about staggeringly self-undermining advertisements occasionally in his blog, badvertised.blogspot.com.
Making a Living Off the Dead
Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - 10:40 AM
Halloween wouldn’t be much fun if it didn’t end. Like a roller coaster, the knowledge that Halloween can only last a short while affords a wonderfully perverse opportunity to indulge in what would otherwise be a pretty depressing confrontation with death and raw mortality. Fortunately, after only a few hours the juxtaposition of happy and healthy children with decaying skeletons ends, the ghosts retreat, the masks come off, and everything goes back to normal.
But the funny thing about living in an age of pervasive reruns, “classic” movies, and nostalgic retrospectives is that – like Haley Joel Osment – we see dead people all the time, all year round, and each year we’re haunted by more and more of them.
Just because the people who populate our media universe are mortal, doesn’t mean that death ends their careers. And this year seems to have been an especially busy one for the deceased. Tupac Shakur stole the show with a posthumous performance at the Coachella Festival in April. In the run up to the Republican National Convention, rumors circulated that Ronald Reagan was scheduled to appear courtesy of the same technology used to reanimate Shakur — though it seems this project was delayed for fear that the convention participants with pulses might be upstaged by the deceased President. And last year’s number one movie at the box office in Russia was a film about the late celebrity actor and bard Vladimir Vysotsky, which resurrected the legendary performer for audiences through a combination of computer graphics, state of the art cosmetics and, according to some accounts, a controversial rendering based on Vysotsky’s actual death mask.
Aside from some cutting edge computer technology, there’s actually surprisingly little that is genuinely novel about these new performances fashioned from images of the dead. For all the talk of futuristic “holograms” surrounding reports about Shakur and Reagan, their ghostly projections are actually just computer-assisted updates to 19th century stagecraft. And there’s certainly nothing new about entertainers attempting to reanimate the departed. Footage of Marlon Brando from 1978 was harvested and reprocessed to create scenes for the 2006 movie, Superman Returns; Steve McQueen navigated a racetrack in a cornfield in a bizarre, Field of Dreams-themed commercial for the 2005 Ford Mustang; Lawrence Olivier figured prominently in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow; Fred Astaire danced with Dirt Devils in a series of advertisements in 1997; Marilyn Monroe sang the praises of Chanel No. 5 in a 1994 perfume spot; and Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong gathered to celebrate Diet Coke with Elton John in 1992. And that’s just a sampling from only the last two decades.
Although some of these examples have been questioned on the grounds of their dubious taste, none of them have seem to have provoked the sort of horror that tends accompany near-realistic digital simulations of living people. It seems that one can navigate around this so-called “uncanny valley” and the ambiguities that come with images of the pseudo-living by simply depicting images of the dead. Somehow these films and commercials aren’t universally rejected as ghoulish tricks best left to horror films and Halloween stunts. On the contrary, they are well-funded media productions that often turn a profit. How is this possible?
The truth is that people have been using new media technologies to bring audiences into contact with the dead for as long as there have been new media technologies. Just about every communications medium you can name has, at some time or place, held the promise (or threat) of connecting the living with the dead and the supernatural. Spoken language is of supreme importance in many religions as a means of conveying the divine. Written language has been thought to allow for messages from the great beyond, and not just through the Oija board. And photographs have been scrutinized for visible traces of spirits since the 1860s. These beliefs aren’t without basis. The same media that make it possible to overcome the distances that separate the living also bridge the years that separate them from the dead. If this webpage survives long enough in some form or another, then sooner or later the words you are reading right now will be those of a dead man.
Susan Sontag eloquently summed up the situation this way: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” In other words, when you look at a photograph or a movie, you are always looking at the image of someone who is now closer to death. Every movie we watch has been assembled by filmmakers from footage from performers captured when they were closer to the beginning of their lives. In this limited sense, The Crow (1994) with Brandon Lee or The Dark Knight (2008) with Heath Ledger are extreme cases rather than exceptional ones. Most, if not all, media mine the past as a resource to be exploited in the present.
Writing for Advertising Age in response to Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in the 1994 Chanel No. 5 ad, Bob Garfield protested: “She's been dead for 32 years and still men are having their way with Marilyn Monroe. Will her body be a plaything and a commodity in perpetuity, her immortal celebrity forever tormenting her immortal soul?” Media producers are in business to extract as much value as possible from a performer’s image, regardless of whether or not the performers are still breathing. Perhaps there will come a day when images of Shakur and Monroe and the rest will be completely depleted. But until then, the show must go on.
Perhaps this accounts for some of what makes films and television shows about the dead rising to feed on the living so compelling. The living have been feeding on films of the dead for quite some time, after all. Perhaps at some level we worry that turnabout would be fair play.