Early on in the film Prometheus, the sort-of-prequel to Alien, the Captain of the eponymous space vessel, Janek (Idris Elba) can be seen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the company for which he’s taking on this mission, the Weyland Corporation. As I sat in the theatre during this scene, I had a very strange experience. The movie hadn’t become all-out ridiculous and terrible yet (it wouldn’t be much longer, though), but I already knew that I wasn’t particularly enjoying it. However, at the moment that Janek appears wearing that shirt, two simultaneous thoughts occurred to me, one of them unsurprising and the other very surprising indeed – One: that shirt is definitely available for sale somewhere; and Two: I want that shirt.
It was not surprising that I knew the shirt would be available because we all now know and expect that any media product is itself, from a certain perspective, just a commercial for its associated merchandise. If FOX thinks they can make money selling Weyland Corp t-shirts, they’re going to sell them.
The reason that my desire for the shirt was surprising was because I didn’t like the movie. Am I just so brainwashed that I want anything that happens projected on a screen in front of me? I have all kinds of stupid (by which I mean awesome) crap associated with media products that I enjoy, but that kind of makes sense – my Nine Inch Nails t-shirts and Ninja Turtles action figures symbolize and reify my connection to these things, and also communicate something about me and my interests to others who might see them. But I don’t particularly want to be associated with Prometheus, do I? The Frank the Bunny figure that sits on my bookshelf makes me think of Donnie Darko, which is a movie I like, which makes me happy. But if I bought the Weyland t-shirt, according to the same logic, it would make me think of Prometheus, which was a movie I didn’t like, which should make me feel bad. Plus, anyone who saw me wearing the shirt and recognized it would probably think that I was trying to signal that I did like the movie. So what exactly is going on here? I have no desire to own the DVD of Prometheus when it comes out, so what was the source of my desire to own the shirt?
I think that the difference is that the shirt is not just “a Prometheus t-shirt” in the way that my Nine Inch Nails t-shirts are just Nine Inch Nails t-shirts; it’s not an object that represents something related to the movie in the way that my Ninja Turtle figures are representations of the characters from Ninja Turtles. The Weyland Corp shirt is an object that appeared in the movie as itself, which is also an object that now exists in real life. This phenomenon of objects from media getting produced into real-life artifacts is often referred to as “defictionalization,” and it seems as if defictionalization is becoming more and more commonplace not only to help diversify corporate income streams, but as a means of restoring a shrinking sense of the authenticity of art as our consumption of media occurs in increasingly non-physical ways.
Authenticity in art is sort of a weird concept. Philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay in 1936 called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” wherein he argues that there once was a sort of metaphysical authenticity associated with works of art – by which he meant a painting, a statue, some physical object created by an artist that you could look at, walk around, touch and/or vomit on – but that since around the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when industrialization for the first time made mechanical reproduction a trivial and affordable task, the aura of art was beginning to fade. Because it was now possible to create arbitrary numbers of things by purely automated processes, the authenticity of any given work became essentially null and void.
He identified authenticity with genuineness; an original, say, Picasso, might be atom-for-atom identical with a forgery, but only the original is authentic even though there’s no physical difference between the two objects. Mechanical reproduction, though, can make it so that a work has no original and therefore has no aura of authenticity, and Benjamin identifies the still-emerging medium of film as the perfect illustration of this evolution of the nature of art: one copy of a reel of film is in principle just as good as any other. “From a photographic negative,” he says, “one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.”
Benjamin actually thought that the elimination of the aura of authenticity from art was a positive thing, because he felt that divorcing artworks from the mysticality of the aura would help art to progress beyond what he saw as the magical and religious connotations of its cave-painting ancestry and become instead a form of purely political expression. “Mechanical reproduction,” he wrote, “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”
How much more so does the aura decompose as we become less and less dependent on even physical transmission of media for our consumption. A first edition of Ulysses can still sell for €400,000 even though we’ve been mechanically reproducing books since 1440; but in an all-too-plausible future in which all books are electronic, the idea of an “original” of, say, the Twenty-Second Century’s greatest literary masterpiece becomes totally absurd.
The Aura Strikes Back
But the aura refuses to go gently. In the wake of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, media art has adopted two main tactics in the attempt to recapture the aura of authenticity: performance, the complete abstraction of a work into an event – and defictionalization – the reification of an appearance into an object.
The rise of performance and installation art is an obvious reaction to mechanical reproduction. Instead of the artistic process culminating in a product, you get an event, bounded in space and time, and when it happens you have to be there, or else you miss it forever. This strengthens the aura of the art to a degree even greater than before mechanical reproduction – you can still go see a Picasso wherever it happens to be, but you can’t see The Artist is Present unless the artist literally is present – you can go watch the documentary, but it’s decidedly not the same thing; it’s about the art, rather than the art itself. It’s not as authentic. This is also behind the whole “event movie” thing. Big movies are marketed now not just as entertainment but as participatory experiences. The easier it gets to separate an artwork from its means of consumption, the more important it is to portray that consumption as somehow an artistic statement in itself. Having seen a big movie on opening night has a sense of authenticity to it. Sitting there in the theatre with a few dozen other people, watching it together, somehow feels more authentic than watching a pirated copy of it at home on your iPad or whatever.
Defictionalization is the other thing. When an object that appears in a work itself becomes a work that you can pick up, or listen to, or, most importantly, own. A recentish example of this is the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels. The titular character plays bass in a garage band called Sex Bob-Omb. In both the comics and the movie, it’s explicitly stated that the band is terrible. But while in the comics, because it’s a silent medium, we have to take the character’s word for it, in the movie they’re obviously going to have to play some music for us (unless they decide to go the “tell-don’t-show” route, like with Babydoll’s hypnotic dance routines in Sucker Punch that we never get to see, significantly reducing that movie’s…I don’t want to say “believability,” but certainly its relatability). Director Edgar Wright could easily have chosen to make Sex Bob-Omb genuinely terrible, but since their music is involved in several major plot points, he instead decided to take it very seriously, having Beck compose several original songs for the band, and the actors playing band members’ parts to literally play their parts, guitar and bass and drums and vox all being performed by the people we see on screen.
This is a form of defictionalization. Whereas before the movie, we could, for instance, be a fan of Sex Bob-Omb on Facebook or whatever, it would have been a joke, because the band and their music were not something that actually existed. Now, though, because these songs are now real, you can go out and get the Scott Pilgrim vs The World soundtrack and rock out to them to your heart’s content, this fake band could actually be your favourite band. This is now real music. What that does is ground the world of the movie more solidly in the real world. It makes the diegetic music non-diegetic in a way that connects the viewer/listener with it in a more physical sense than would have been possible before.
Maybe an even better example of this is the novel Bad Twin, ostensibly written by Gary Troup. Bad Twin is a mystery novel whose author was a character on the ABC TV series LOST. Though the author doesn’t ever appear onscreen, dying namelessly in the pilot episode, another character can be seen reading the original manuscript of the book left behind later on in the series. The version of the novel in our world (currently out of print, but which you can easily find used on Amazon or wherever) was largely a marketing ploy; fanatical fans would buy anything that they thought would give them some hint as to what the hell was going on with that show.
While the novel was passably good, it wasn’t brilliant, and though no secrets were given away, certain themes emerged that, in retrospect, further elaborate on the tropes and concerns that the show was interested in but either never got around to using, or decided to keep ambiguous, depending on how you felt about the finale (I, for the record, liked it). The fact that Bad Twin is framed as something real, an actual physical book nevertheless written by a completely fictional person, again, connects the reader who cares into the world as depicted by the show in a more visceral sense than just sitting in front of the television does. It breaks down the need to suspend your disbelief a little bit more, because here’s a real object, an actual product, a book just like any other book you might want to read – and books are written by people. Real people. Somebody had to write it, and the bio on the inside cover flap tells you that it was Gary Troup, who mysteriously disappeared along with the rest of the inhabitants of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. The reality of that unreal event, its aura of authenticity, is enhanced by your new ability to hold and read something that you can watch Sawyer hold and read as you watch the show.
Which brings us back to Prometheus and the Weyland Corp t-shirt. Why did I want it so much, even though I didn’t like the movie? I think it could be because I didn’t like the movie. But I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to like that movie. Because I’m a fan who’s invested in the world in which the Alien series takes place. I even liked David Fincher’s oft-bemoaned Alien3. Quite a lot, in fact. But this t-shirt incident reminds me of how much I ended up desiring the really awesome New Rock boots worn by Winona Ryder’s character, Annalee Call, in Alien Resurrection, the Joss Whedon-scripted fourth installment in the series that deserved to be much better than it was. Those were real boots already, expensive, stompy, $400 boots that you could go out and buy. And that fact grounded the movie, somehow made it more believable and less of a travesty.
I think that’s what’s going on with the t-shirt thing, too. Yes, Prometheus was dumb. But the more you accept the plausibility of some event, the more connected you feel to it. If you can wear a t-shirt that was also worn by Janek on the bridge of the Prometheus, it lends at least a little bit of plausibility to the whole train wreck. Probably that’s an irrational reaction, but it also works. Our reactions to art – even failed art like Prometheus – don’t have to be rational, as long as they’re genuine. Owning and wearing a piece of that world makes us feel like we have a stake in it that we otherwise don’t, because the characters are so stupid and the scenario so ridiculous. Defictionalization gives us a means of partially rehabilitating Prometheus.
Not too long after watching the movie, I did, in fact, see that shirt for sale at Hot Topic. I didn’t buy it. However, I’m holding out hope that the Director’s Cut of Prometheus may turn out to be salvageable. Remember Blade Runner? Remember that awesome gun Deckerd has? Same thing. It’s not too late, Ridley Scott! It’s not too late to redeem yourself!