Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Author: Jason Sperb
Why are deserts so fascinating? It is because you are delivered from all depth there – brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meaning and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference-points (Baudrillard, 1988:124).
Having cost more than 150 million dollars to produce, Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) – after a spectacular, though short-lived weekend opening of 62.1 million dollars – limped to a little more than $130 million in the United States, marking the film as a flop of Godzilla-type proportions. Perhaps, though, had the film been marketed not as a comic book/visual effects extravaganza, but as an implicit, symbolic ghost story – of the waiting for the revenant – Lee’s film would have faired better, or at least been more strongly received from attentive audiences. Despite the entire visual spectacle of the film, the cutting edge special effects or even the ground-breaking editing, what remains at the core of Hulk, what makes the film most interesting to watch on repeated viewings, is something unseen – the prospect of a spirit that lurks just beneath the simulated surface of Hulk, especially as the film returns again and again to places within the American desert.
Best typified by the highly strained relationship between scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana; aka, the Hulk) and his father (Nick Nolte), Hulk indisputably highlights – on a basic thematic level – the inability for people to outrun their pasts. Hulk’s primary plot revolves around how Banner’s father – a brilliant, but reckless, even psychotic scientist – tests a banned, secret formula for making humans stronger on himself without authorization; although nothing apparently happens to him, the unstable genes descend to his unborn son. Several decades later, these genes are then activated when an adult Bruce, now a scientist at Berkeley, is exposed to gamma radiation during a disastrous test experiment, which, in turn, begins the transformation into the Hulk. Aside from manifesting the rage bottled up within Bruce, the Hulk’s prominent, simulated physique also clearly points towards the reification of Bruce’s since uprooted past. Raised by foster parents, Bruce claims to have no knowledge of what happened to his birth family. Eventually, however, Bruce has to confront both his father and his past while his alter-ego, the Hulk, is recklessly destroying society.
Specifically, he must confront how his father killed his mother after sabotaging the military base he had been working on before being fired. The large, green, computer-generated simulation of a creature, however, is not the means through which Banner’s bottled-up past is most dramatically embodied. Instead, Banner’s past materializes most pointedly in the film’s many scenes in an unnamed desert near the old military base. Some of the scenes involve flashbacks – where both Bruce and his ex-girlfriend and fellow scientist, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), vaguely recall events that happened when they were children living near the base. Other scenes include the adult Bruce and the Hulk returning to the since-abandoned wasteland. Whatever the exact context, Hulk repeatedly revisits these certain moments in the desert, searching – even on a basic plot level – not only for the exact truth of what happened at the military base and to Bruce Banner’s family, but perhaps for something more as well.
Many of the formal aspects of Hulk – as a filmic text – could be considered postmodern – specifically, the film’s discourse reveals an intertextual play on the nature of self-reflexive editing and comic book story structures. But more interesting for my present project is the hyperreality of those images in the film’s representation of the American desert – a geographical plane which serves as the central metaphor of Jean Baudrillard’s (theoretically-historic) discussion of America:
All that is cold and dead in desertification or social enucleation rediscovers its contemplative form here in the heat of the desert. Here in the transversality of the desert and the irony of geology, the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space. The inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial, superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic form here, its ecstatic form. For the desert is simply that: an ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance (Baudrillard, America, 1988:5).
What remains particularly remarkable about Ang Lee’s comic book epic is not just that the film thematically foregrounds the inability to outrun the past – in essence, the inability to deny time itself – or even that Hulk specifically reconstructs Baudrillard’s ecstatic critique of culture in the desert (his ulterior, asocial, superficial world) in flashbacks, as I will reveal at greater lengths in subsequent posts. What compels me the most to write about it is how the film subsequently suspends (when the narrative of Hulk returns years later), the French theorist’s celebrated discussion of postmodern America and the culturally-liberating death of history – “an ecstatic form of disappearance” as itself a historical artifact, now decades removed from his original journey. Through flashback, Hulk captures this moment as a moment. Within the old abandoned restaurants and drive-in theatres and the worn-out highways – the symbolic forms of America – time lingers through those specters which are produced by such images in the desert, images which increasingly aware of time. Likewise, a sense of time returns to Bruce Banner when he begins to confront the unavoidability of his past.
The images in the desert of Hulk – especially those in the flashbacks – seem particularly hyperreal, as though spatially reifying, within the film’s diegetic space, Baudrillard’s historic perceptions of America in the earlier postmodern age. The desert, of course, represented for Baudrillard, “a natural extension of the inner silence of the body. If humanity’s language, technology, and buildings are an extension of its constructive faculties, the desert alone is an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of humanity’s disappearance” (1988: 68). In the flashback sequences of the film (taking place, presumably, some time in the 1970s), the desert around the military base – including the generic pre-fabricated homes where military families live – is filled with the hyperreal signifiers of “artificial paradises” (Ibid.:8), those which posit “a superficial neutrality” with “no origin, no reference points” in American culture. Betty and her father eat ice cream at the obscene Scooper Dooper Ice Cream Stand, complete with a bright blue and pink façade, and a giant ice cream cone and malt cup jetting out from its façade – the sort of masked and perverted simulacra that Baudrillard often mentioned in America.
“America is a giant hologram, in the sense that information concerning the whole is contained in each of its elements,” Baudrillard once wrote, “Take the tiniest little place in the desert, any old street in a Mid-West town, a parking lot, a Californian house, a Burger King or a Studebaker, and you have the whole of the US” Ibid.:29). Located next to the shop – at the core of the otherwise barren landscape – are a gas station, a generic roadside café and the Victory Drive-In Movie Theatre, a commercial venue which directly recalls the symbolism of Baudrillard’s trip through the desert. This image of a drive-in theatre recalls Chris Richardson’s frontispiece image of the cowboy on horse back, looking at the Movie Screen in the desert, at the beginning of America.
The drive-in theatre will also play a major role later on in the plot of Hulk, as though appropriating a crucial, central mark of Baudrillard’s vision of America as a key location for the film itself. This striking image in the film also calls forth Baudrillard’s own belief that “even outside the movie theatres the whole [of America] is cinematic” (Ibid.:56). Along the highway – “the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways” (Ibid.: 5) – this roadside strip of consumer culture venues, soda shops, diners, and theatres, recalls how:
In this sense, the latest fast-food outlet, the most banal suburb, the blandest of giant American cars or the most insignificant cartoon-strip majorette is more at the centre of the world than any of the cultural manifestations of old Europe. This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naïve: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of the “just as it is (Ibid.:28).
The desert “you pass through,” meanwhile, “is like the set of a Western, the city a screen of signs and formulas.”
Baudrillard posited the desert as the perfect metaphor for America, which best suites “the concrete, social life of America,” as well as the “emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum” (Ibid.:56). Hulk’s flashbacks, meanwhile, reify these Baudrillardian perceptions of American society during the time of the initial “fascination of senseless repetition . . . already present in the abstraction of the journey” through the desert (Ibid.:1). In the present day of the narrative, meanwhile, the faded desert sets of Hulk propose a shift to this now-dated European perception of America and of America.
Critically, the other flashbacks also present a moment of cultural rupture, the specific ways in which, once proposed by Baudrillard, humanity might disappear. Attempting to kill off the genetic disorder he believes “has been passed on” – in essence, to kill off tradition and cause – Bruce’s dad kills his mom at the same instant as the sabotaged military lab (from which he was fired) explodes in the desert distance, in a giant green mushroom cloud over the horizon (also witnessed by a young Betty sitting inside the Scooper Dooper).
Hulk offers several possibilities for the death of history, the shift to pure effect – the father’s nervous breakdown and resulting incarceration from society and social consciousness, the subsequent pleasure of amnesia for both Betty and Bruce, and the jump in time to the present day (with almost no narrative accounting of the time between). These ruptures point to the Baudrillard’s possibility in America of:
a liberation of all effects, some of them perfectly excessive and abject. But this is precisely the point: the high point of liberation, its logical outcome, is to be found in the spectacular orgy, speed, the instantaneity of change, generalized eccentricity (Ibid.:96).
The culmination of this blocked, deracinated past suggests that “utopia has been achieved here and anti-utopia is being achieved: the anti-utopia of unreason, of deterritorialization, of the indeterminacy of language and the subject, of the neutralization of all values, of the death of culture” (Ibid.:97). Bruce’s dad recounts the memory of those times to an adult Betty, claiming that she “cannot imagine the unbearable finality of” that moment, when he “took everything that was dear to [him] and transformed it into nothing more than a memory,” a memory (memories) which seemed otherwise erased from individual and cultural consciousness.
This “unbearable finality” evokes the moment for Baudrillard when, as in Hulk, history ends – when effect replaces cause – when the effect of those memory fragments from the desert (for Betty and Bruce) replace their origin – or, why these memories even exist for them in the first place. “The end of history,” wrote Baudrillard, “was precisely the inauguration of this chain reaction” begun with “explosions and exterminations (Auschwitz and Hiroshima)” and thus “created an anticipatory form” of existence away from thinking spatially and chronologically in terms of a beginning and an end; “we no longer have any awareness of death, since we have subtly passed over into a state where life is excessively easy” (Ibid.:43).
Much of Hulk, those moments in the film’s chronology beyond the desert “explosion,” purport to extend this death of history, of memory, and at least initially suggest the possibility that life for the characters in the film can exist superficially, transparently, and as indicated by the wide narrative jump in time from then to now, and by Betty and Bruce’s respective memory losses – that existence itself can be curiously ahistorical or even “pure” in the Baudrillardian sense, i.e., without concerns for the origins and reference-points of cause, depth or desire.
That other equally important and since-forgotten moment – the possible source of cause, depth and desire – is the extermination of Bruce’s mother. The implosion of Bruce’s family echoes the realization of Baudrillard’s anti-utopia, where the traditional boundaries, like those of family and cultural difference, suddenly break down and reemerge as the rootless simulation – in this case, as Bruce “Krensler” (his adopted surname being one of many deracinated simulations in the film).
You have to bring something into the desert to sacrifice, and offer it to the desert as a victim,” wrote Baudrillard, “A woman. If something has to disappear, something matching the desert for beauty, why not a woman? The sacrifice of the mother, the implosion of the Banner family, signifies this new “absence of difference” (Ibid.:47). Since “the orgy is over, liberation is over; it is not sex one is looking for but one’s ‘gender,’ i.e. both one’s ‘look’ and its genetic formula. People no longer oscillate between desire and its fulfillment, but between their genetic formula and their sexual identity (to be discovered) (Ibid.:46).
Thus, “nothing is more alien to American deserts than symbiosis,” the possibility of a synthesis between difference, between mother and father (Ibid.:66). The breakdown of family boundaries, the removal of dialectical gender difference, completes and even intensifies the Baudrillardian breakdown in the symbiotic construction of territories, determinacy, culture and history; the rupture in the desert, and in the family during the flashbacks of Hulk, posits the possibility of a pure age for a new generation, one without origin or referents – “the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire” (Ibid.:6).
In this historic moment, the boundaries within and outside the home, between the succession of generations, between cause and effect, have imploded, have “ceased to exist” here in the desert, where “the real and the imaginary have come to an end (opening up all spaces for simulation)” ( Ibid.:98).
The result becomes a state of “perpetual simulation” (Ibid.:76), and indeed, much of Hulk extends the theoretical positions underlining Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacra and informing other similar postm
odern concerns, formally and thematically – “everything [after this rupture] is destined to reappear as simulation” (Ibid.:32). The Hulk himself, born with no cohesive awareness or real understanding of his alter-ego’s past, is a CGI simulation, where the computer image has replaced the origin – the man himself (the actor Eric Bana, and the character of Bruce Banner – the real and the imaginary here has been supplanted by simulation).
The film’s ground-breaking editing techniques, which take split-screen effects to a whole new level, represent another simulation within Hulk. Certainly, this formal collage effect of images self-reflexively references back to the film’s comic book origins, but what may remain more fascinating about this device is how (by breaking apart each scene into a collection of images of the same event from a variety of points-of-view) Hulk’s editing calls attention to the very process of classic film editing itself – the painstaking process of taking several different established perspectives, filmed from different angles, and cutting them so that they form linear narrative and visual movement.
Hulk’s approach, however, is effectively to deconstruct the original technical process and privilege the images as images, rather than as an illusory sequence of visuals telling a cinematic story – in essence, to suggest “the material fiction of the image” (Ibid.:57). Like Bruce Banner’s large, green computer representation, the clever editing tricks seem to foreground for the viewer – more so than the story events of Hulk in and of themselves – the cinematic representation of the events of Hulk.
On the surface then, for reasons only hinted at above, Hulk as a film may seem self-evidently “postmodern” in ways generally accepted. Certainly, the film revels in the formal process of cinematic simulation. Yet, even while Hulk foregrounds postmodern cinema and issues of representation in fairly apparent ways, what remains more fascinating about the film is the way it implicitly posits traditional postmodernity – here suggested affectively through Baudrillard and through America – as itself a historical artifact.
After Bruce is drugged and taken into custody by the US Military, fearing the threat of the Hulk, he walks with Betty through the rows of abandoned military homes – the former “artificial paradises” – and cannot imagine that he once lived there. The houses themselves are empty and dirty; there is little sign that life ever once existed there. Later, after turning back into the Hulk, he escapes from the new underground base by blowing out through the old entrance of the now empty drive-in movie theatre, which turns out to be a façade for the new military installation. Here, the Victory Theatre – once thought to be a referent-free spatial simulation so perfectly reminiscent of Baudrillard’s America – is revealed not to be empty, but instead to mask something beneath the surface, as though there may yet be life in the desert. The Hulk’s explosive emergence through the faded façade shatters the perpetuity of one simulacrum by another.
The Scooper Dooper ice cream shop, however, still stands – like the homes and the Victory – now abandoned, dirty and run-down. This desert may still suggest a kind of social emptiness, of exodus and a certain form of disappearance, to be sure, as it once had for Baudrillard, but the present desert of Hulk is not quite empty of depth and referents; rather the afferent specters, generated by the images of these buildings, point back to Baudrillard – that is, to his perceptions of “America” as he sped along the highways – and the theoretical past he carries with him, now threatens the void in the desert – an elusive, arbitrary signified to the signifier of time-worn giant malt cups and ice cream cones.
Instead of further “deliver[ing] from all depth,” Hulk suspends the perceptions of Baudrillard by locating his theories and observations diegetically in the film’s desert flashbacks, and then abandoning them there for the years to uneventfully pass, as though momentarily severed – by his own rupture, no less – from the present. Baudrillard’s theories – the spirit of “emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum” – hide within the specters lurking in the margins of Hulk.
Here, Baudrillard’s much-discussed “liberation” from the clutches of desire and tradition – in a constant simulated “post orgy” (Ibid.:46)—suggests instead perhaps a desert mirage for contemporary society and for Hulk; even while certain types of simulations may still populate the film, and thus gives continued currency to theories on simulation and simulacra, there is ultimately no permanent death of emotion, least of all with the Hulk himself. In America, the barren desert (equaling “no desire” [Ibid.:123]) was supposed to be “a sublime form that banishes all sociality, all sentimentality, all sexuality” (Ibid.:71), but instead fertilizes the seed of Bruce’s anger, of his violent conversion to the Hulk in an explosion of rage.
With his past, his emotions, once erased in Baudrillard’s simulated desert with the death of his mother and incarceration of his father, Bruce himself is suddenly and unexpectedly born again as the large green monster – “everything that disappears in Europe,” to push Baudrillard even further, “is born again in San Francisco” (Ibid.:57). He thus proceeds on his rampage of destruction, as though the earlier state of simulation – Bruce’s previous state of cool demeanors and emotional distance – proved to be not a new “sublime” period in his life or the death of the real, but rather merely a façade that attempted to displace his feelings and his past.
When Bruce – taking the form of the Hulk – finally confronts his past, standing up to his father and finally reliving the events which lead to the death of his mother, it is as though Bruce – working through the emotional and cultural layers erected by the formal and spatial Baudrillardian simulacra throughout Hulk – is confronting tradition itself, provoked by his own haunted nerves. When he returns to the desert, remembers his dead mother and murderous father, Bruce finally acknowledges the origin he thought he did not possess, or from which he was thought to have been liberated several decades earlier.
In these respects, Hulk is not classically postmodern; aside from affectively historicizing Baudrillard’s end of history (as it materialized in America), the film and its title character attempt to intensify an affective awareness (though not, I emphasize, a cognitive representation) of depth and causality, of a referent beneath the prominent simulations. The death of Banner’s mother and the explosion of the military base – thought to celebrate the extermination amidst the cultural emptiness of the desert – instead suggest a core in Hulk, materializing a sense of tradition in the aftermath of the theorist’s announced disappearance of humanity. Moreover, the role of the father within Hulk (not merely highlighting the return of the past) underlines the impermanence of implosion and “deterritorialization.” Though the simulacrum is still what’s true (Bruce cannot return to the past, of course, nor aspire to represent it), we sense instead that real boundaries within the family and within generations still do remain.
The character of Bruce calls forth the state of high theory itself. His slowly returning memory, the emergence of the Hulk, points to the lingering affect of time, perhaps “tradition,” in critical theory, even in postmodernity. It is as though the momentary rupture with the past, the seductive and once theoretically-popular desire to place all cultural texts at the simulated level of singular perception in a state of pure mediation and representation had all come and gone – just like the Scooper Dooper Ice Cream Stand and the Victory Drive-In Theatre. Bruce’s final confrontation with the father brings into relief the inevitable theoretical confrontation with tradition – the very foundation, whether he is conscious or accepting of it, upon which is built his very existence. But, of course, this confrontation can only take place in the present, for the past is still past, with only representations allowing it the possibility of (affective) presence.
“America has never been short of violence, nor of events, people, or ideas,” Baudrillard wrote, “but these things do not of themselves constitute a history” (Ibid.:80). Of course, this very proclamation that America does not have any real history has itself, in some sense, becomes part of the nation’s past in Hulk – his fleeting, ephemeral, subjective perceptions ironically now the object of historical and critical inquiry. America may have been “created in the hopes of escaping from history, of building a utopia sheltered from history” (Ibid.:80), but events in Hulk posit that such a project was no more successful in America than it had been in Europe. Just as the architectural skeletons (indeed, skeletons of earlier simulated skeletons) of a past American existence still rest peacefully in Hulk’s desert, showing all too well the brutal, ravaging effects of time, America and Americans’ historical past remains, even if only peripherally, in contemporary consciousness, perhaps unseen only from those who had sought to deny its existence by temporarily “free[-ing] themselves from that historical centrality” of the European ‘Old World'” (Ibid.:81).
In the present-day desert of Hulk, the specters of Baudrillard – now history still present – await their return, even though the prospect of its very rebirth threatens the possibility of the rupture it once proposed. History was for Baudrillard “the transcending of a social and political rationality, as a dialectical, conflictual vision of societies” (Ibid.:80), something which Americans, America and America were thought to be lacking. However, the final clash of Bruce and his father, the epic struggle for dominance, embodies that “dialectical, conflictual vision” which has and will continue to shape American society, and will continue to shape critical theory.
About the Author
Jason Sperb is Doctoral Student, Communication and Culture, Indiana University, USA.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted in two sections as posts on the academic group media blog, Dr. Mabuse’s Kaleido-Scope, in March and April of 2007: http://dr-mabuses-kaleido-scope.blogspot.com/2007/04/specters-of-baudrillard-via-hulk-part-2.html (link no longer active 2019)
Jean Baudrillard (1988). America. New York: Verso.
Ang Lee (Director, 2003). The Hulk. Universal Pictures, USA.