Thoughts On: Tron (1982)
When a computer engineer breaks into a company’s system to prove that his content was stolen, he is zapped into the virtual world.
Tron is a pretty awesome movie on all fronts. Whilst this film is undeniably dated, it has aged incredibly well; the groundbreaking use of CGI a style, not just a primitive attempt at photorealism, leaving it a window into a different technological era. In fact, the only real criticism I’d give to Tron would be that the script, its dialogue and small bits of action, as well as the acting, is a little clunky. Beyond this, there is so much you could talk about with this film; the exploration of new technology and the existential questions it presented (and still does) to the world, the subtextual critique of a society moving into the digital era, the commentary on religion and, of course, the milestone application of computer generated imagery.
However, we won’t be discussing any of these things today – maybe at another time. What I want to talk about today is a phenomena that pervades all art and is particularly relevant to a film like Tron. This phenomena is attached to the idea of context and its impact on both the way a film is viewed and reviewed. So, when we now look back at Tron we are seeing a film that has passed a threshold that is defined by this phenomena. In short, when art gets to a certain age, it can’t be watched, nor critiqued, as a contemporary piece of work. Instead, its audience is dealt a task, or given the luxury, of viewing it at a distance. This means that, in a certain sense, you have to be a little more lenient and forgiving, but also more open and knowledgeable, when watch a movie like Tron. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticise old films, just that your approach has to be measured.
Such an idea implies that you actually have to learn how to watch certain movies. This is something I quickly figured out when I first started to push into film history, watching films that were made before the 80s and 70s as well as outside of the popular sphere – I was completely lost, though happily so. Admittedly, it sounds like an elitist and condescending notion to say that someone doesn’t know how to watch Citizen Kane or The Birth Of A Nation. But, I certainly don’t claim that I’m even slightly good at this. Moreover, the truth is, most people inherently have some sense of this phenomena. This is why most would be struck by awe when first watching a Lumière short that is probably older than they’ll ever come to be. Being given a window into the past leaves most people in a respectful state of amazement because they probably recognise that what they are seeing is a special artefact.
As said, this is an idea that exists in all forms of art consumption and criticism. So, for instance, when you’re told that this is one of the oldest pieces of art that we have so far found…
… you are probably as equally taken aback as when you watch a Lumière short. What you wouldn’t expect to hear, however, is someone saying that “Yeah… that’s actually really terrible. There’s no skill put on display here; the lines are in no way impressive at all. In fact, this seems misogynist to me – I just don’t like the objectification of the female form. She doesn’t even have a face.”
Whilst I’m sure that there are some people that would say something like that, and they of course can say whatever they want, this kind of criticism is pretty obviously ludicrous. Nonetheless, you can see this put on display on sites like Letterboxd when looking at reviews of old movies – even Lumière shorts. There are many who will react with criticism such as “it’s boring” or “pointless” and go as far as to harshly criticise old films with modern day values – though, there also just as many who will add a caveat of, “but, you gotta respect it”. This then brings up a debate on how you approach older films and how much you must incorporate an understanding of context into your viewing.
It’s a given that people can and should say whatever they like about movies, and I do understand the inclination to dismiss “boring” old films, but, I think this is something anyone who is serious about movies should consider further. This debate is then something that I often find myself questioning when I decide to spend a few hours researching old silent movies – often for the Every Year series. For instance, I often try to delve into the works of Méliès as he’s an early filmmaker that I truly admire. But, having seen around 75 of his films, I’ve gone through troughs and valleys of pure awe and utter disillusionment. In such, if you spend all day watching Méliès’ films, you’ll start completely taken aback by the novelty of his movies, but as you move into the 30th film, you’ll have probably recognised many of his patterns of work and will start to see through them. And by this point, it’s likely that you’ll start to become cynical. It’s here that I’ll stop watching his films because I know my perspective is probably shifted into the wrong direction.
There’s a few interesting ideas that I’ve come away with by getting this point. The primary one is that you begin to understand why cinema had to evolve and change; the old silent films, when they’re all you watch, do get boring – just as all films from a confined epoch do. And this begins to suggest that, by entirely immersing yourself in a period, you almost start to transcend the boundaries of context; you are given the illusion that you understand what it was like to have been in a theatre or nickelodeon during the early 1900s.
The truth is: unfortunately, you don’t fully understand and can’t transcend context. Whilst you have a much better incite into that cinematic period by reaching a point of exhaustion, you are still from a different era; you’re watching these silent shorts in a digital format – most probably on DVD or BluRay or on YouTube or Netflix after all. What this means is that you don’t have a full understanding of what it is like to be alive in that time, but also that you do have knowledge of the future – that which the the people living back then did not. In such, the people watching Méliès’ films as they came out didn’t know what D.W Griffith, Chaplin and Keaton would be doing 10 years down the line, what Eisenstein, Dulac, Vertov, Epstein and Buñuel would have achieved 10 years after that, what Hollywood would become another 10 years after that… the paradigm continues. This ultimately says that you have to respect context whether you like it or not because it acts as a bubble that you can’t penetrate without a time machine.
When we come to a film like Tron, we find ourselves with a movie that is probably right on the edge of this threshold that separates the contemporary film from those that are protected by context. This is of course because Tron came out in the early 80s; a period that, cinematically, is very clearly different from the modern day. This becomes all the more obvious when we realise that the likes of Jurassic Park and The Matrix still seem contemporary – they are on the edge of crossing over the threshold, but, I think they can still be considered to be in a different realm to Tron – which came out 10 years beforehand. What this ultimately means is that Tron is a movie that is now, arguably, protected by its context – and you can certainly sense this when watching the movie; you not only feel like you’re looking through a window into another time, but there is also a novelty of this apparent distance. As a result, to watch Tron ‘properly’ (or to at least get the best viewing experienced), you’d have to be forgiving of the aesthetics and style, but also understand how it is a significant landmark in film.
There is still an argument to be had here though. There are many people still alive today that of course saw Tron in the cinema when it first came out in 1982. Do these people have to respect Tron like those who did not see it when it first came out are obliged to? In my opinion, whilst they’d understand the film better than those who did not see originally see it, I think they’d have to – just like we’ll have to respect, things like Avatar and The Avengers in 30 years. This is because, whilst they certainly know what it is like to be alive in that era, they nonetheless have grown beyond it. In cinematic terms, this means that they have probably seen Terminator, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Avatar and The Avengers; they have seen cinema evolve and so don’t have a pure perspective when it concerns a retrospective look at a film such as Tron.
On a slight side-note, this line of inquiry leads us to consider the difference between ‘real-time criticism’ and ‘retrospective criticism’. Real-time criticism of the films that are from the era you are currently in has a certain bite, bias and impatience that retrospective criticism doesn’t. You can see this on this blog by going back and looking at my posts on films like Batman V Superman. I really didn’t like that film and probably ventured into absurdity when reviewing it – all because it was a film I had just seen in the cinema. What I can see when looking back on that review is a paradigm that exists in almost all real-time criticism; it lacks a measured perspective. Real-time criticism is biased because it is often influenced by consensus – either critics want to swim against the tide or go with it. However, it is also biased because there are seemingly stakes at hand. Again, I can see this in my review of Batman V Superman. With this review, I question the future of cinema and sci-fi, and so go so deep into the topic of this film because I seemingly felt that it was important to do so.
What such a reaction, that is common throughout all realms of criticism, makes clear is the purpose of real-time criticism. High-profile critics (which I certainly am not) and the common audience member (which I am), feel a responsibility to assess, monitor and reflect their era’s historical outputs. And because people feel this, subconsciously or not, they are seemingly more harsh on contemporary films – or at least, have to approach them differently to films that are no longer contemporary.
That said, there is another shade of this bias that can make people a lot more accepting of, to put it starkly, shit contemporary movies. Just like watching Méliès films all day can leave you with a sense that you better understand a cinematic epoch, watching contemporary films day-in, day-out can leave you blinded to a wider idea of cinema. This means that, by only watching new releases, you will probably grow to see films that are, considering the wider history of cinema, only mediocre, to be masterpieces. That is because your judgement of quality is defined by the parameters of the modern age – an age that doesn’t contain the films of Bergman, Tarkovsky, Welles, Kubrick and Ozu (amongst a plethora of other cinematic masters).
What this speaks to is the importance of film history to anyone that takes cinema seriously – as I’m sure that a few films by the mentioned masters will put into perspective the somewhat ludicrous, yet common, claim that Star Wars is the greatest film ever made. But, this also brings us back to the differences between real-time criticism and retrospective criticism. Whilst both forms will have their biases – all constructed by the idea of context – there isn’t a futile subjectivity looming over the practice of film criticism. By venturing further into film history, by seeing films from other countries, you will be constantly realising new sides of cinema, sides that will leave you feeling like you knew nothing last month (a feeling I’m always immersed in – one that is probably good for you). This will refine your perception of modern films and better validate real-time criticism. Added to this, there still remains the idea that watching old films, just as watching new films, is a skill. And a key aspect of the practice is certainly respecting the context of a film.
What ‘context’ then represents in respect to cinema is the relationship between the fragility and the preciousness of films. All films have their downfalls, which leaves them fragile. But, most films have redeeming factors, which can make them precious. By taking context away from a film and viewing it in a light that it wasn’t intended for, you will exploit the fragility of cinema and overlook its preciousness. This leaves your perception somewhat uneducated, but more so, overly biased. Moreover, without an understanding of context, whether it be of a film’s time or the place it was made, you’ll be left without the ability to appreciate a film for what it truly is. As said, this doesn’t then mean that you can’t say anything bad about a film made in 1940 – or 1980 likewise. Your criticism, however, should be rationalised by an understanding of the film in respect to those like it – certainly not in respect to the summer blockbuster you watched last weekend. And lastly, I think a disregard of context is completely fine if you just want to experience films. But, if you claim to take films seriously, this is something that should certainly be considered.
So, I’ll end by asking what your thoughts are on this subject. How do you think criticism should be approached with films like Tron – earlier films included? Does Tron count as a film that should be protected by its context yet? And, finally, how much does context matter; to what degree should it effect criticism?
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