Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird, 1982

Hacker and video game whiz Flynn is transported into the world of the computer, where humanoid "programs" travel around a fantastic abstract landscape fighting the Master Control Program.

In my first article on Tron I said that "as a movie, it kind of sucks. But as a piece of pop art, it's very cool." I still can't endorse it as a narrative, and even as a spectacle it needs to be trimmed down by a good half-hour or so. But since I saw it in 2003 it has stuck with me much more than I expected it would. If I were to start collecting movies, this would probably be one of the first ones on my list, above other movies that are significantly better. It's got high rewatchability value, for the same reason that I'm more likely to idly flip through one of my art books than start back in on a novel.

Random thoughts on this viewing:

Tron opens in an arcade. Man, remember arcades? I was a kid during the arcade boom in the first half of the 1980s and went to them all the time — it was the big social activity of the day, going with your friends to the arcade and blowing a couple of dollars' worth of quarters on Pengo and Food Fight.
Because I grew up with them, it never occurred to me that they were anything strange. But they are, both from the perspective of the past and the future. I mean, imagine telling someone from the 1930s that fifty years later kids would spend their time getting together in dark rooms standing in front of large cabinets pulling on sticks and pressing buttons to make colorful little spaceships shoot each other and suchlike among a cacophony of beeps, bloops and blorps. It would have seemed far more alien and futuristic than something as pedestrian as moon colonies. On the flip side, tell a kid today that once upon a time video games weren't things you played alone or with a couple of your buddies down in the basement, but were instead played mostly in vast, loud communal halls where you spent a fair amount of time interacting, in person, with strangers. It was a different culture. (Because I was a kid and not a teenager, I can't attest to whether there was any kind of dating scene around arcades — Tron has Jeff Bridges cheered on by a bevy of nubiles as he blows up Recognizers, but for all I know the Recognizers may be more realistic than the nubiles.)

I've been thinking about why Tron's mise en scène resonated so much with me. I think that Tron defined an aesthetic for the dawn of the computer age that's very much in tune with my own associations — and that's important to me, because the dawn of the computer age is where I spent my childhood.

Let's start with the circuitry. It's one of the dominant themes in Tron's look, from the glowing lines etched onto the characters' white armor to backgrounds to the very design of the world behind the screen. In Tron Maze-A-Tron circuitry not only inspired the look of the game but actually made up the substance as well: you're running around on a big circuit board, powering up at transformers, dodging resistors, your path barred by ROM chips. This probably seems pretty weird to The Youth of Today. In the years since Tron we've been trained to think that a journey to "the inside of the computer" might entail running around on a desktop peering into manila folders and perhaps occasionally hiding in a trash can from a giant grinning paper clip. The kids I see tapping out IM messages during lectures probably have no more familiarity with or interest in the innards of the sealed boxes they're typing on than they do in what the profs are saying.
But in 1982, juggling circuit boards was part of owning a computer. If you wanted a Color Graphics Adapter or a 20 Megabyte Hard Disk you went to a small store that smelled of clean cardboard boxes and bought a green slab covered in chips and printed circuits. How could you hold in your hands these brain-meltingly complex feats of engineering genius, beautiful beyond the dreams of Mondrian, and not feel like you were living in the future?

The same thing goes for the vocabulary. As ridiculous as it now seems to have a "program" named "RAM" throwing a "disk" around — sort of like me calling myself Office and throwing a tiny house at people — it does capture an interesting moment in the transformation of our culture from one in which virtually no one had a computer at home
to one in which many households would have been substantially crippled were their little beige boxes of floppy black squares to go missing. At the beginning of this period, computer terminology meant nothing to the man on the street (or, more likely, the man in the gas line); a handful of years later, it was so commonplace that it had lost its magic. But Tron came out in 1982, when words like "RAM" and "disk" and "program" were still exotic words to conjure by.

Video games, too, were more futuristic in the early '80s than they are now. Looking at the popular games of today, one says "oh, look, football" or "oh, look, crime." A movie based on the modern video game aesthetic would look like an hour and a half of ESPN, or in the case of the crime games, an hour and a half of... well, I guess that'd be ESPN again. Right now we're in an unfortunate phase in which game designers aim for photorealism but fall short: it's the worst of both worlds, as the results are both unconvincing and ugly. But when I was a kid, game designers knew very well that they didn't have a prayer of achieving photorealism and so didn't try. If today's games try to crawl as far as they can into the "representation" corner of Scott McCloud's famous pyramid, 1980s games staked out their territory over on the right, on the "iconic" side, and in the case of works like Qix and Tempest and Vectron, up into the realm of abstraction as well. McCloud points out that iconic forms can be much more involving than more realistic ones, and that was certainly my experience: I spent much of my youth in the cool, clean, colorful world of pixels and vectors. So Tron's geometric citadels and abstract landscapes felt like home to me.

Finally, there's the way that by hearkening back to the tinted black and white of the dawn of cinema, Tron suggests that it, too, is an artifact of the dawn of a new age. Put it all together and it's a very compelling package.

The frame I captured to show off the tinting has Yori in it, and she is worth a paragraph of her own. The filmmakers made a very interesting decision where Yori was concerned: they didn't tart her up. The male programs wear helmets so you can't see their hair; Yori wears a helmet so you can't see her hair. The males wear head-to-toe armor with glowing circuitry; Yori wears head-to-toe armor with glowing circuitry. And somehow this ends up being sexier than if she'd been running around with her midriff bare and her long blonde tresses flying free. There's just something very cool about how you can be looking at Yori among other "programs" in the same sort of armor, in a very long shot so that they're little more than specks, with Yori turned away so you can't see her breasts, and you can still instantly pick out that she's the girl. Dress her up like all the others, but you can't escape the fact that wimmins is diffurnt. It is funny to realize that you are wired to respond to cues you weren't even conscious of. "Whoa, check out the center of gravity on her!"

But back to games. As I mentioned in my first article, even thought I didn't see Tron until 2003, elements of it were familiar to me because I spent so many hours of my childhood playing the Intellivision games based on the movie. It was neat to see things like the Master Control Program and the Solar Sailer brought to life, but above all, I got a kick out of the sequences in which Tron is chucking his disc around. I spent so much time playing Tron Deadly Discs that to an extent you could say that it was the only sport I was really good at. If only it had actually, y'know, existed. So watching live-action Tron Deadly Discs was a treat. Now if only Electronic Arts would repackage Tron Deadly Discs as a two-player console game. It'd have another Madden on its hands. Someone needs to get on this.

Tron Deadly Discs

Tron Maze-A-Tron

Tron Solar Sailer

One last thing. One of the most interesting aspects of Tron, certainly an element I'd emphasize if I were writing about this for a seminar, is the way that it links the utopian world of the free system to the real modern landscape. To wit:

But of course that utopian last shot is not utopian in real life, not at street level: it is the smoggy sprawl of metro Los Angeles. Even from above, that basin full of lights doesn't automatically make you go "ooh pretty" the way it does in Tron; in Koyaanisqatsi, for instance, such scenes are intended to produce a shudder. Interestingly, Tron does include one dystopian image, a long shot of the Encom office where Alan works:

True, this isn't exactly subtle, and the line between the matte painting and the real cubicles is a little too visible, but I thought it made for some pretty hilarious satire. But then I got to thinking. This is a movie that closes approvingly with Los Angeles sprawl. This is also a movie that closes approvingly with Flynn not shutting down Encom, not turning it into a "free system," but simply pulling off a coup d'etat and becoming head of this corporate behemoth, complete with private helicopter. So maybe the sea of cubicles isn't meant to be satire. Maybe the filmmakers thought the cubicles were cool.


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