PRINT March 1991



IF MARY SHELLEY INVENTED the monster-making genre (her Frankenstein appeared in 1818), filmmakers invented its now-beloved visual clichés—the bubbling, smoking beakers, the obsessed egomaniac at the controls, the dungeonlike lab in a gloomy Gothic-style home. These disappeared with the advent of outer-space mythologies, all cyborg and android. But from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1926, to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982, they were narratives about trying to control what we’d unleashed. Any walking, talking bucket o’ bolts had better be a servant like R2D2. Or as the high-tech axiom goes, we could all be replaced by machines.

Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, 1990, pays homage to the old school with its cartoon Transylvania perched vulturelike at the edge of a suburb, and with Vincent Price, the horror-movie legend, cast in the role of scientist. But this is also a very up-to-date parable. Here the monster making can be read as a metaphor for movie making, a process that turns ordinary humans into larger-than-life creatures called celebrities.

Edward (Johnny Depp) is an extremely sentimentalized version of The Artist—living in a garret, even. His scissor-hands make sculpture of ordinary bushes and hairdos, but are also lethal weapons. So creative. So destructive. Surely this is a fable destined for deconstruction by a thousand post-Lacanians. What interests me is the point where suburban life gets prickly for Edward. He becomes a “star.” People project their fantasies onto him, and in doing this, they misperceive him. First, he is all good; then, he is all evil.

The post-Modern equivalent to being replace] by a machine is being replaced by a (mis)representation. In a 1986 piece, Talk Normal, Laurie Anderson witnesses her own replacement. She’s become an image: “I turned the corner in SoHo today and someone looked right at me and said: ’Oh no! Another Laurie Anderson clone.’ And I said: ’Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!’” So much for a celebrity’s fruitless attempt to be seen as a real person. (Or at least, as the original—not the replicant.)

Anderson, who suffers a mild case of fame compared to a Hollywood star, then actually created a clone. In a video piece shown on New York Public Television in 1987, she explained to a “talk show host” (Spalding Gray) that her fame now kept her so busy (what with all the interviews and photo sessions) that she had no time to do her actual work. “You wish there was another you. So I talked to a design team about it. . . . ” She then introduces the clone, a fidgety chain-smoking male about three feet tall, dressed like a nerd and rather warped, wider at the top than at the bottom. Anderson herself plays the clone, but her image has been so processed that one could say she’s created the perfect simulacrum: there is no original.

Anderson’s best work addresses the central koans of mass media: What is real? What can you believe? On-screen, for example, the clone looks as real as she does. They have very different personas. She’s cool; he’s insecure. She’s perky; he’s gloomy. In performance, dressed androgynously, Anderson sometimes speaks as a man (through a microphone filter that lowers her voice). She always presents the self as something fluid and manipulable, perhaps scripted. She once declared in performance that we all invent a personality and live it out, usually without bothering to ask, “Who wrote this?”

In 1987, Anderson and the clone hosted Alive from Off Center on PBS. (These segments are now part of Laurie Anderson Collected Videos, released in late 1990.) Just a couple of minutes each in length, they advertise a crisis in authenticity in a most amusing way. In one, the clone shows us a photograph of himself with a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan. “I feel like I know the guy,” the electronic fake says of the cardboard one. The clone then observes that the camera is a great liar, that Sergei Eisenstein invented the Odessa Steps massacre for The Battleship Potemkin, 1925—such an event never actually happened—because it made his film “more interesting, more compact, more coherent, more real.” At the other end of the room sits Anderson, reading a book. Framed in the window behind her is the Hollywood sign. She and the clone are wearing pastel sunglasses and flowered shirts. “Tourists take pictures to prove they were there,” the clone concludes. “Filmmakers make movies because they were never there.”

In another clip, the clone has a movie idea: Rambo comes home from Vietnam and meets Rocky, who doesn’t want to fight him “but the music starts to come up and. . . . ” It’s easy to forget for a moment that Rocky and Rambo are really the same man, Sylvester Stallone. These muscle-bound cultural icons seem to have lives of their own. And to all of us who don’t know him personally, Stallone himself is just another character whose life we follow through the gossip columns instead of the next sequel.

Never in the history of the world has it been so possible to live in a fiction. Soon we’ll be able to “jack in” to an alternative world like characters in a cyberpunk novel. The technology is still crude, but one can already don special goggles and enter a computer-generated landscape that scientists call “virtual reality.” There one can live out a fantasy—like playing major-league baseball or flying a jet. And there one can assume another identity. We can all be replaced by . . . fictive selves.

Max Headroom, a hit for 15 minutes in the ’80s, was the first computer-generated personality to make the cover of Newsweek. Headroom was a scoffing head, the alter ego of a human television character named Edison Carter. While the same actor played both Max and Edison, the Max image was processed until it didn’t look human. During each episode, Max seemed to appear at will on the TV screen of his choice. He was his own channel. Only there from the shoulders up, he had the personality of a game-show host with special powers. Max would suffer neither death nor taxes. He was pure cathode ray, a post-Mod god.

The real dilemma in relating to machines (and electronics and the images they generate) is never about being “replaced” but about being dependent. Emotionally dependent. They become our friends. As the Mia Farrow character describes it in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, 1985, when a movie character leaves the screen to court her: “I met the most wonderful man today. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.”

C. Carr is a staff writer for The Village Voice, New York.