An Afternoon in Jurassic Park

October 17, 1994

Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the highest grossing movie in the history of the cinema – “the film that shows that film is everywhere except in the film”. It is a movie that celebrates “the introversion of the exterior and the extroversion of the interior”, showing conclusively “that any attempt at total realism cannot escape the hype of the hyperreal”. An outstanding example of “the animatic telecinematic”, it presents us with “sublime, protean, plasmatic forms in their metastatic expression,” and reveals the cinema “as cryptic, cryogenic incorporator”. It makes one aware of “one’s mortal immortality and immortal mortality”. But finally, no matter how much one admires Spielberg’s knack with “viral, vital virtualities”, it must be admitted that “the essence of film is always already its non-essence”.

All this and more – much, much more – was offered up by Alan Cholodenko, a senior lecturer at Sydney University’s  Power Institute of Fine Arts, during a Sunday public education seminar titled, “An Afternoon in Jurassic Park”. Cholodenko’s verbal pyrotechnics provided a bizarre sequel to the more down-to-earth analyses of visiting professor WJT Mitchell, from the University of Chicago, and Ross Harley from the University of New South Wales.

For the past year, all over the world, Jurassic Park has been virtually unavoidable. The pre-publicity assaulted us from all sides, long before one could see the actual film. The plastic dinosaurs, the T-shirts, the games, the publications, the tie-in exhibitions at natural history museums, are just as ubiquitous, even though the box office stampede has died down. Now, with the movie being released on video, a new wave of Jurassic Park publicity is rolling inexorably towards us.

WJT Mitchell – “Tom” to his friends -  looked at the changing image of the dinosaur in American culture. He discussed the significance that dinosaur bones held for statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and captains of industry such as Andrew Carnegie in providing a link with antiquity that the New World seemed to lack. He examined the work of different generations of dinosaur illustrators who followed the contemporary thinking of the paleontologists. Since we have only known about dinosaurs from the early nineteenth century, he argued that they were distinctive products of the modern age, whose rising popularity coincides with the rise of the museum itself. Above all, he tried to show the kinds of contradictory meanings that dinosaurs still have for us, as objects of contempt and pity, awe and terror.

Ross Harley presented Jurassic Park as the supreme example of Hollywood’s new “exhibitionist cinema” – where narrative, character and plot are reduced to bare essentials so as not to interfere with a roller-coaster ride of bodily shocks and computer graphics. He discussed the way the film parodied  theme parks and consumerism, while laying the groundwork for a “mass consumption environment” on a global scale.

Both these speakers left one completely unprepared for the aural assault of the black-clad Dr. Cholodenko. His paper, “‘Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear’: The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard”, was  delivered at break-neck speed. He paused only long enough to smile at one or two of his own puns. Fingers were wiggled in the air to signpost numerous quotations from his idol, Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher who believes that we inhabit “a definitively unreal world, beyond all criteria of truth and reality.” Since this effectively renders all political and ethical positions meaningless, the dedicated Baudrillardian is apparently free to amuse himself with displays of incomprehensible word-play, which he may consider “witty” or “poetic”. The Power Institute itself, must be thoroughly Baudrillardian, since it  has no qualms about putting a distinguished overseas scholar into a seminar with a local exponent of “theory-fiction special effects”.

A final, troubling thought raised by Dr Mitchell was that the cultural critic is a kind of middle-man who helps to promote the product he analyses, no matter how pernicious he finds its messages. He admitted an antipathy for commentators who simply “go along for the ride”. But the possible complicity of the critic held no terrors for Dr Cholodenko, who happily announced: “virtual reality is the only reality I’ve ever known”.