Dinosaur Daguerreotypes

Nathaniel Hawthorne Visits Jurassic Park (and gets eaten by a T. Rex)

It wasn’t until I started watching The Lost World: Jurassic Park—Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton’s 1997 sequel to their 1993 original—that I realized there are barely any cameras, or even really photographs, in Jurassic Park. Nobody in the first film carries a camera, nobody takes a picture, none of the art in the visitor’s center is photographic, and even the intro film on the tour is entirely animated, apart from Barnumesque founder John Hammond’s brief gimmicky appearance and a quick piece of documentary footage of a mosquito being engulfed in sap. The most prominent cameras in the film are the security cameras that we notice primarily because of the lengths the villainous Nedry goes to turn them off. Most specifically, there are no photographs of dinosaurs.

I noticed this because The Lost World is absolutely filled with cameras. From Julianne Moore’s intimate Nikon to photojournalist Vince Vaughn’s garlands of cameras to the news footage of the ship bearing the T. Rex away from San Diego, cameras are both a conspicuous element of the mise-en-scene and a structuring style of vision for The Lost World in ways that simply would not occur to Jurassic Park. I think The Lost World is a significantly worse movie than Jurassic Park, but I don’t think I realized, until this week’s rewatch, the degree to which Lost World is up to some fundamentally very different tricks than its older sibling. And I think watching the cameras might be a key to seeing what that is.

I’m writing about the Jurassics Park for the same reason I wrote about A Knight’s Tale last week: they’re movies from my adolescence that just recently showed up on Netflix for no reason. In this [rueful adjective] moment, it’s a pleasant feeling to revisit movies you saw 45,000 times over a two-year period in the 1990s and then never again until now. (This is the basic concept for Aaron Bady and Gerry Canavan’s Kurt Vonnegut podcast, btw.) I know every beat of the T. Rex moonroof flashlight highway-flare car-drop tree-climb sequence deep in my bones, for instance, but, as Mel said when we started it, the first fifteen minutes of that movie are essentially unrecognizable to me as an adult. It’s nostalgia and estrangement, and it makes things that normally unseen weirdly visible.

It’s not that flash photography is expressly prohibited in the original Jurassic Park, although I’m sure that whatever NDA our heroes signed did, indeed, prohibit it. It’s that nobody in that film would ever think to take a photo, not even the “blood-sucking” lawyer tasked with delivering a report to Jurassic Park’s investors. Every moment of encounter, every Spielbergian reaction shot, is about us watching images being etched in other people’s memory, not exposed on film. Alienating those viewers from that experience with something so vulgar as a 1993 point-and-shoot would seem unnatural, cruel even. The few times we get anything close to a representational, mediated image—the sideview mirror that warns “objects might be closer than they appear,” the stainless steel cabinet that fools the raptor, even the Hammond clones in the video—Spielberg goes out of his way to emphasize their inherent untrustworthiness. It’s not that you don’t take pictures of this stuff; it’s that you kind of can’t.

The crucial shot, for this, is the reverse shot of the T. Rex reacting to Sam Neill’s highway flare. It’s an imperfect shot in the sense that it’s not a particularly good shot of the T. Rex if what you’re going for is a good shot of the T. Rex. She’s in focus, but the flare in the foreground, plus the rain, makes the dino a bit muddled. But, for these reasons, it’s exactly right. Of all the moments in that relentless, extraordinary sequence, it’s the one where you most feel as though you are sharing a real space with the monster. It feels candid, it feels contingent, it feels—fleetingly—improvised. It’s a perfect shot, because it’s an imperfect portrait.

There’s no pictures in Jurassic Park because Jurassic Park is the picture of Jurassic Park. The spectacle of this film isn’t the dinosaurs; it’s the photorealistic ILM- and Stan Winston-aided representation of these dinosaurs in the year 1993. To have these characters pull out cameras themselves would be beside the point. We are there to see the people seeing the dinosaurs. It’s the Spielberg film most reliant on The Spielberg Face, because it’s quite literally about what it’s like to see something of this magnitude and impossibility. It’s the opposite of the invisible dread of Jaws—though Jaws lives, like frog DNA, in this film’s genetic sequence—it’s the hypervisible sublimity of the dinosaur.

So why bring in all the cameras on the second go-round? Friend of the pod, Nathaniel Hawthorne has some thoughts. In his 1851 romance, The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne introduces a character named Holgrave. Holgrave is a daguerreotypist, a practitioner of one of the earliest forms of photography. He’s wily and rakish, charming but also exasperating and pretty annoying. He lives in a rented room in the decrepit ancestral home of an old, cursed New England family. The novel is substantially about a kind of culture clash between Holgrave and his fellow youth Phoebe, on one side, and Phoebe’s moldy, emo relatives Hepzibah and Clifford on the other. Holgrave and Phoebe are unburdened by either the weight of the past or the fast flows of the present, while Hepzibah and Clifford are alternately crushed and trampled by them. The concept of photography, still then a new medium, provides a lot of the leverage Hawthorne uses for thinking about the way American history—literary and otherwise—gets written at the convergence of these two generational ways of seeing.

Holgrave’s whole deal is that he’s constantly both super braggy and self-deprecating about his profession. Early in the novel, as Holgrave purchases a cookie from Hepzibah’s store, he casually slips in a florid description of his work that I’m sure his landlady has had explained to her a thousand times before: “I misuse heaven’s blessed sunshine by tracing out human features through its agency.” This fucking guy. For Holgrave, photography is about capturing nature’s power—an act he considers both extremely cool and a little unsettling. Wielding this power through the daguerreotype might be a “misuse,” but it’s also revelatory of previously invisible truths. The camera, in other words, only looks like a neutral, objective instrument, when, in fact, it is extractive of the natural world and invasive of the human soul. It takes things it shouldn’t be able to take and sees things it shouldn’t be able to see. This isn’t necessarily all bad, for Hawthorne, it’s just a more accurate description of the act of representation than binaries like novel and romance, objective and subjective usually allow. Heartbreaking: the worst person you know just made a great point.

It’s not a wild insight to suggest that, if Jurassic Park is a story about humans meddling in the affairs of the gods in order to “misuse” the natural world, then The Lost World is about a universe in which dinosaurs—since reanimated and left undisturbed on an island—have become natural once again, and we, by our presence, endanger them the way we endanger everything else we encounter in the natural world. On rewatch, one of the best lines in the first film is when, after the T. Rex attack, Lex says she hates carnivores. Sam Neill just kind of shrugs and says, “They just…do what they do.” So don’t we all.

As a result, The Lost World is a pretty gnarly journey. Bilge Ebiri calls it Spielberg’s “nastiest” film: “a truly demented series of mostly wordless action and horror setpieces whose technical proficiency is matched only by their cruelty.” But Lost World isn’t a nastier experience because Spielberg became suddenly more cynical between films. It’s nastier because what comes after Jurassic Park is nastier. Jurassic Park is what naïve complacency before disaster feels like, before the thing happening to the tropical island in the middle of the ocean happens to San Diego. The romance of the first thing blinds you to the reality of the second. Nobody’s alarmed by the impact tremors in their cups of water because the stomping seems so far from here.

But the paparazzi was always on its way, like the horsemen of the apocalypse. As Susan Sontag put it, the photographer “both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates…they will get something down that is disappearing—and often hasten its disappearance by photographing it.” All the filmic worlds we have are lost ones.

Finally Watching // Dark (Netflix)

Just one episode so far, but one character in this German sci-fi series refers to deja vu as a “glitch in the matrix.” Is that supposed to be reference to The Matrix, or does The Matrix not exist in the universe of this show? Like, is “glitch in the matrix” just a cliche that people say sometimes? Are we watching a person independently invent the idea of The Matrix? Big questions!

Flagging // Taste the Nation (hulu)

I mean, it’s fine, I guess.

Finally Finished // Sex Education (Netflix)

This season, with all of its teen movie references and its decision to have its quirky nice-guy protagonist break bad a little, made me think that it’s kind of a cover version of Can’t Hardly Wait that’s courageous enough to acknowledge that its main character can be as much of a manipulative jerk as all the other nominal manipulative jerks on the show. Plus, the space erotica Romeo and Juliet musical in the last episode is very good.

Recommendations //

Alison Willmore inspired my rewatch with this great essay about why Jurassic Park is such good pandemic viewing.

All the faux-daguerreotype images in this post courtesy of the TinType app by Hipstamatic.

The great Anne Helen Petersen is leaving Buzzfeed and starting a paid subscription newsletter. It’ll be worth it. Annie’s moves from academia to popular criticism to the sorts of deeply reported stories she’s been writing in and about the American West for the past several years are really inspiring, and I’m really excited for her to make another big move.

If you’d like more about daguerreotypes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, run to your local independent bookstore’s online portal and snag Marcy Dinius’ The Camera and the Press and Sarah Blackwood’s The Portrait’s Subject.

Also: it’s paywalled if you don’t have access to a university library, but Marcy Dinius’ short essay “The Long History of the Selfie” is one of the best, most teachable essays about photography—of any period—I’ve ever read.

I’ll write something about Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country here soon, but I wanted to re-up an essay from a few years ago that Alfred Martin Jr. wrote about Green’s previous show Underground, and the fascinating dynamics of race, aesthetics, and project development at the WGN network.

If you’ve got HBO Max and a small kid and you’ve never seen the Studio Ghibli films—as I shamefully hadn’t before this quarantine—then get there fast. They’re just the best, and the American voice casts are wonderfully, hilariously detailed time capsules of whatever year they were overdubbed. My sentimental fave at the moment isn’t even a Miyazaki; it’s Yoshifumi Kondō’s Whispers of the Heart, which—despite lacking almost all the supernatural excess of the rest of the catalogue—is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. Specifically the inexplicable narrative centrality of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Relatedly, my daughter now really likes dancing and signing to “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and, if I’m being honest, you could do a lot worse than listening to this Toots and the Maytals cover over and over again in your living room.

This week’s regional food item is less an item than a saga. In Pittsburgh, since 1986, the iconic signature dessert of Eat’n Park restaurant has been the Smiley Cookie. In 2005, their competitor, King’s Family Restaurant, introduced the Frownie Brownie. After a hiatus, the Frownie Brownie is back, and this is now, and has been, my favorite celebrity beef.

We’re big fennel-heads over here. This recipe is surprisingly great for how simple it is. Smash those anchovies!

If you like this newsletter, please forward it to your friends or post this letter somewhere people you like will see it. Subscribing happens here, I’m on twitter dot com here, and I respond to every response I get, so please feel free to get in touch. I’m also sorely in need of new regional food items to feature—send me your strange meats and counterintuitive sandwiches!

Hold on to your butts,

Phil.