Before Steven Spielberg, there was Michelangelo

Special effects aren't an invention of the modern age

Norman Klein's book on special effects is not for those who prefer easily digestible sound bites. He writes a thick, stringy, multilayered, surging broth of relentless prose that demands much chewing before swallowing. And he has a remarkably wide, sometimes inventive vocabulary that he enjoys overusing.

If Klein's stylistic pyrotechnics are maddening, they're also strangely appropriate to his subject. He's not just writing about the familiar use of special effects in modern cinema, although he is fascinating on this subject, showing how such visions were engineered decades before computers entered the picture. For him "special effects" extend throughout time and space. He pursues this idea until he convinces himself and his somewhat exhausted readers that we are victims of "global illusion."

He has a point. We may, indeed, be cheerfully asleep to many of the effective manipulations of worldwide corporate and political strategies. For instance, much media presentation of war is probably closer to "special effects" than we like to admit. That he alerts readers to such misrepresentations is admirable - when you finally arrive at the point.

En route, Klein hammers home his argument that modern special effects are not really modern at all, but refer back to the perspective illusions of Renaissance art and the "scripted spaces" of Baroque churches and urban planning. Such designs were the tools of church and state, symbolizing hierarchies and consolidating the power of popes and princes. Seventeenth-century courtly masques and labyrinths, carnivals, magic lanterns, hot air balloons, wood-engraved travel illustrations, even cuckoo clocks, are all drawn in under the same banner, fooling many of the people much of the time.

Theatrical effects were clear precursors of 20th-century special effects in movies and modern theme parks like Disneyland. He suggests that casino slot machines are the ultimate special-effects toy.

The degree to which historical practice and precedent may be at the root of these ploys of our time is surprising.

There is, it would seem, nothing new under the sun - especially in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. These are places of crucial significance to Klein's theme and he knows them well. His descriptions are informative, funny, and spine-chilling by turns. He convincingly suggests that Vegas is the home of the "electronic Baroque," with its half-scale simulations of cityscapes from all over the world.

This movie-set "cinematic city," however, is consciously designed as artifice. It is an architecture to entertain, to encourage money-spending and gambling, as well as to turn us into stay-at-home tourists. We end up looking at the world through special effects.

Klein has a way of suddenly zapping you with insights, supported by powerful and original metaphors. "Inside the cinematic sim-city," he writes, "characters don't need an interior life. They move along like genetically engineered fruit with no flavor, but the shelf life of a doorknob."

At other points, he brandishes a sense of irony that comes too close to truth for comfort: "Polishing an imago can be like polishing a jelly bean. First pretend that old photos were actually a street. Then hire an architect who relies on digital imaging. Then make the streets camera-ready. Let special-effects editing step in. Meanwhile in Europe, many old streets are already staged like movie sets. They only need a little polish." He must know how frequently nothing but the street facades of old European city buildings are preserved intact, while behind them are secreted absolutely modern buildings. And very often these facades are "polished." They look too good to be true.

You can't read this book and ever think of special effects the same way again. The author obviously relishes them, but he also sees them as dangerous. They are ways of erasing "memory, identity, sense of place." They involve hidden control. They "loom larger in times of crisis," he writes. "They are trauma as reassurance. Next I suspect that special effects will gather more defense contracts, as the war in Iraq speeds along. It is indeed a morbid science.... It is indeed our worst nightmare and our fondest desires invading the same space at the same time."

This is a more serious-minded book than its title might suggest. Special effects turn out to be far more than exhaustively clever trickery. They may have a corrosively misleading "effect" on our imagination. "They are clues," says Klein inarguably, "to a state of mind."

Christopher Andreae writes about art for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.

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