The City in Fiction and Film, week 10: The Secret Agent, part two

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week 9

This week we continued with Conrad’s novel, and also took a look at Hitchcock’s adaptation of it as Sabotage (Hitchcock UK 1936). Our first step was to pick up on a reading exercise left over from last week: in what ways and to what extent do the Professor’s views of society/life (54-6) differ from or coincide with those of Inspector Heat (73-74) and the Assistant Commissioner (82)? [All page references to the current Penguin edition.]

The Professor imagines a world governed by social convention, from which he has separated himself because he is superior to the mass of humankind. To him, society is ‘a complex organised fact’ which orders their lives – even the lives of policemen and anarchists/terrorists, who are similarly bound by it. He describes how Chief Inspector Heat has always to worry about countless things – his bosses, reputation, legal process, being paid, publicity – whereas he himself is capable of focusing on just one thing: building the perfect detonator. He is misanthropic, and has cut himself off from others and, as far as he can, from the needs of his own body.

Heat recognises this social order – he understands thieves. They, like other workers, labour, choosing to risk imprisonment rather than to risk the ‘ankylosis, or lead-poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust’ that come with working ‘in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in too-grinding shops’ (73). There is a certain honesty to their dishonesty. They are subject to the same morality as him, to the same conventions and demands: ‘Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways but with a seriousness essentially the same’ (74).

The Assistant Commissioner, who misses the active life of being a copper in the tropics, is discontented with his job (he does not like sitting behind a desk, or having to rely on the underlings he manages) and with his life (his wife, who is from a higher class, insisted on living in Britain). Each night, on the way home, he plays whist at his club with the same three acquaintances, none of whom really know each other – they are ‘co-sufferers’, plagued by the indistinct ‘secret ills of existence’ (82). The club, the game, is a safe haven, a semblance of friendship.

All three accept the existence of a less than satisfactory social order: the Professor would destroy it; Heat is content with it, as long as everyone stays in their assigned place and plays their ascribed role; the Assistant Commissioner does his duty in preserving it, regardless of personal feelings. This is the universe that that iron knitting machine knits without pause or consideration.

Stephen Bernstein’s ‘Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent‘ describes the novel in terms of its ‘gothic paranoia and ‘the omnipresence of gothic gloom’’: ‘Everything is ghostly, haunted’ (286) and ‘haunting … is a condition of existence’ rather than merely an isolated location or single individual (287). With this in mind, we looked for gothic imagery of: death, burial, gloom, misery, impoverishment, ill-health, sleepwalking, funerals, existential despair (and clocks).

Verloc’s house is ‘in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone’ (205), where the ‘dull brown shelves’ of ‘shady wares’ seem to ‘devour the sheen of the light’ (169). It is in a street where the distant cries of newspaperboys ‘expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop’ (162) – indeed, in the ‘darkness and solitude of Brett Street … all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones’ (219). Winnie, when courting another, had imagined marriage as ‘a voyage down the sparkling stream of life’ (191); but when circumstances prompted her to marry Verloc in stead, she found ‘there was no sparkle of any kind of the lazy stream of his life’ , and ‘domestic feeling’ turns out to be ‘stagnant and deep like a placid pool’ (193). Verloc, after Stevie’s death, longs for prison, which ‘was a place as safe from certain unlawful vengeances as the grave’ (186), while Ossipon, on the run with Winnie, curses ‘insular Britain’, which might as well be a prison.

 

Or we could take Winnie as a key example of the range of deathly imagery applied to characters. When Verloc fails to comprehend the extent of her grief over Stevie, her heart ‘hardened and chilled into a lump of ice’ and ‘her features [set] into a frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no writing on it’ (191). The next page recalls her traumatic childhood, in which she had to protect her younger brother from being beaten by their drunken father, a broken brute of a man. Haunted by these memories, she ‘heard [his] words again in a ghostly fashion’ (192). When she replies to Verloc, ‘it was as if a corpse had spoken’ (196). When she has put on a hat and veil to go out, he complains that it is impossible to ‘tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live woman’ (203). She even becomes an inanimate object in a suddenly abstract scientific space:

The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. (206)

She looks at the clock ‘mechanically’ (212) – some time earlier, Verloc was described as an automaton:

Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery in side of him. (156)

Fleeing the house, terrified of being executed and thus intent on making her way to the Thames to commit suicide, Winnie finds, ironically, that ‘The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows’ (214):

She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss form which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out. (214)

When Ossipon becomes embroiled in her escape attempt, he takes on the appearance of his own death mask – ‘with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness’ (232) – while she becomes like death: ‘all black – black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers’ (234), and when she lifts her veil, ‘out of [her adamant] face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes’ (235). Ossipon, who is looking to justify robbing and abandoning her, suddenly see her resemblance to Stevie and, recalling Lombroso’s ‘criminal anthropology’,  begins to catalogue her degenerate features. He thus traps her once more in a system beyond her control – like marriage and family and money and class.

Against the broad backdrop of gothic paranoia found in such examples, we turned to chapter eight. The careful reader will have guess already that Stevie died in the explosion, but as chapter eight starts, he seems to be alive and well.

I remember when I first read The Secret Agent (I would have been maybe fifteen, and had already read Heart of Darkness (1899) to try to figure out  Apocalypse Now (Coppola US 1979), which I had sneaked into the cinema to see, and not understand, when I was 11, on the same day that I saw Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise US 1979). Ah! my precocious and misspent youth!). I was absolutely caught up by the suspense of wondering whether it was indeed Stevie killed in the bomb blast, and then was completely thrown by chapter eight and most of chapter nine, which do not signal that they are set in between Verloc’s meeting with Vladimir and the bombing. For the longest time I hated those chapters – it felt like Conrad was cheating, just like the bit with the doorbell at the end of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme US 1991) – but now I see them rather differently. Yes, on one level, it remains a cheap trick; but it also effectively extends that pervading sense of death-in-life as Stevie is consigned, like Schrodinger’s cat, to a limbo existence, hovering between life and death. And chapter eight in particular is fabulously rich in conveying Conrad’s gloomy entombing London populated with grotesques.

The hackney carriage driver is ‘maimed’, his left hand replaced with an iron hook; his giant ruddy face, ‘bloated and sodden’ (125), almost lights up the ‘muddy stretch of … street’ (124). He is stubbly, dirty, with ‘little red eyes’ and ‘big lips’ that have a ‘violet tint’ (126). His intellect has ‘lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather’ (126). His horse is ‘infirm’ (124) and emaciated, its ‘ribs and backbone’ visible (132). The carriage itself is not much better (124). The streets through which he drives Winnie and her mother are so narrow that they can look in the passing windows, which shake and rattle as the carriage goes past, sounding as if they might collapse. Jammed ‘close to the curbstone’, their ‘progress’ is insignificant (126).

When Stevie jumps down from the box to lighten the horse’s burden, Winnie is as ‘white as a ghost’ (125) – later, Verloc will look at her ‘as though she had been a phantom’ (139) – but under the gaslights of the ‘early dirty night’ (126), her cheeks take on an orange hue (127). Her mother’s naturally bilious ‘predisposition’ gives her a yellow complexion – only blushing might turn her cheeks orange (127). The almshouse to which she is moving – barren, unfurnished, just ‘bare planks and cheaply papered bricks’ (123) – has such narrow dimensions that it ‘might well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave’ (127).

In ‘the seclusion of the back bedroom’ of Verloc’s house, she had ‘reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world’ (128); she know she will die soon, and so she must ensure Stevie’ s future by abandoning him prematurely, and this decision – to move south of the river! – seems to be at one with the entropic decline of the cosmos. Later, it will be noted that ‘it may be said that [,] having parted for good from her children [she] had also departed this life’ (135) – and she certainly departs the novel, returning only as a memory, someone who must be told of Stevie’s death yet who seems to Winnie to be so far distant as to be utterly inaccessible.

The cab meanwhile rattles on, jolting so violently as to obliterate ‘every sensation of onward movement’ and create the impression of ‘being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a medieval device for the punishment of crime or’ – and this is a brilliant, deflationary touch, ‘some very new-fangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver’ (129). A similar ironic tone – evident throughout the novel – can be seen when the cabman examines his payment:

pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil. … he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured. … A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp. (131, 132, 132-3)

The continual disjunction between epic phrasing and commonplace life seems simultaneously to say that people should matter this much and clearly do not, and that such illusions might make life bearable, but they are nonetheless illusions.

(This ironic disjuncture exposes the hypocrisy and cant of those who chatter about the ‘dignity of labour’ and ‘heavenly rewards’ by drawing attention to the meagreness of lives here and now and the constraints under which they are lived. Part of me admires that the apolitical Conrad, who believes there is no possible solution to the exigencies of life in a godless universe, never looks for one, and that he refuses to offer any platitudes; but on the other hand, it also frees him from the responsibility of trying to find temporary and partial solutions to real suffering, which kind of annoys me. In this context, Stevie becomes the kind of model liberal subject, incoherently moved to pity and incomprehension – all ‘sensations’ (133), ‘immoderate compassion’ and ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ (134), he cannot comprehend that it is not somehow the job of the police to right such wrongs, but rather in Winnie’s words to ensure ‘that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’ (138). This is undoubtedly one of those things that, she profoundly feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’ (141). The irony will escalate in the closing chapters of the novel as Conrad gives us insight first into Verloc and Winnie, as their mutual incomprehension grows, and then Winnie and Ossipon, as they talk at cross-purposes, neither perceiving the other, just imputing motives to them.)

The departing cab seems

cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. … Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as it if were the Cab of Death. (135-6)

After Winnie and Stevie return home, the pensive Verloc goes for an aimless walk, leading ‘a cortège of dismal thoughts along dark streets’ (141). On returning home, he stares at Winnie with ‘a somnambulistic, expressionless gaze’ (141) – perhaps like that of Cesar, who we saw in a clip from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few weeks ago; later, Inspector Heat will also be described as a ‘somnambulist’ (176). Verloc thinks of his mother-in-law in terms of ‘rats leaving a doomed ship’ (141), and then undresses

with the unnoticing inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company. (142)

Conrad moves from sarcastic commentary on Verloc’s melodramatic self-presentation of his situation to the delightful image of the animated ticking of the clock – that would not be out of place in either a Fleischer cartoon or a volume of Marx (who often animates inanimate objects in their relation to human life). The clock will become a recurring image in the later stages of the novel – just a couple of pages later, Winnie will ‘let the lonely clock on the landing count of fifteen ticks into the abyss of eternity’ (144) before responding to her husband, and a couple more pages later we will learn of Stevie’s discomposing habit of sitting in the dark at its foot (147). In Winnie’s dullness after killing Verloc she will be puzzled by the ticking of another clock, one that does not actually tick, and then slowly realise it is the sound of his blood running out (209, 210). She will look at the clock again, assuming it must have stopped since time is passing much more slowly than she thought (212); and she will fear it, half-believing that ‘clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer’ (213). (We have already seen the importance of clock imagery to Fritz Lang’s vision of the modern city in both M and Metropolis.)

In closing, we briefly considered the differences between Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Conrad’s novel, noting among other things how Hitchcock of seems to take small items of inspiration. When the Assistant Commissioner leaves his office, ‘his descent into the street was like a descent into a slimy aquarium’ (117); in the film, Verloc meets his paymaster in the subterranean aquarium at Regent’s Park Zoo. When Hitchcock seems to play up Oscar Homolka’s resemblance to Bela Lugosi, this might also be based on vaguely vampiric imagery in the novel – the comparison of Verloc arriving back from the continent like the influenza (Dracula as a European infection), and the revelation that Ossipon basically conducts his business by night to sleep during the day, and so on. The aquarium, of course, also plays into Hitchcock’s imagery of caged birds and animals – exemplifying gothic entrapment, the snare of circumstances.

Hitchcock also has a rather different, if also black, sense of humour. He shows up the absurdities of common people through attention to the details of mundane life, whereas Conrad’s ironic distancing from his characters often seems like sarcastic mockery of their aspirations and illusions.

week 11

Recommended critical reading – see week 9
Recommended reading – see week 9
Recommended viewing – see week 9

Gone Girl (David Fincher 2014)

unnamedand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Gone Girl (2014) is not the monomaniacal lengths to which Gillian Flynn went, first as novelist and then as screenwriter, just to play an elaborate unfunny homage to Kevin Smith by once more getting Ben Affleck to chase Amy, nor is it the film’s astonishing commitment to demonstrating that, regardless of the PC-gone-madness of SJWs everywhere, women, especially blonde ones, are at the very core of their DNA betrayers, no, the very best thing about the film – all about love, performativity, duplicity, mendacity, treachery, revenge and psychosis – is the way it captures the raw truth of the relationship between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon when they were cowriting Good Will Hunting (1997), except with Rosamund Pike playing Affleck…

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy 2014)

Nightcrawler-Movie-Posterand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Nightcrawler (2014) is not that it turns out not to be an X-Men spin-off, though that is a relief, nor is it the always amusing irony of one medium using a slickly seedy story to criticise another medium for being slick and seedy (and to berate the other medium’s audience for their complicity while expecting its own audience not to notice their complicity in watching the film in the first place), no, the best thing about Nightcrawler is Jake Gyllenhaal’s really quite astonishing performance, as if they were after Patrick Bateman but ended up with Sheldon Cooper…

The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)

 

 

 

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week three

tumblr_l30hu35gF41qz6k9qo1_1280Week 2

One of the issues in designing a coherent new programme is working out at which level, in which module and when in that module (in relation to the other modules) to deliver certain kinds of material. When we designed the BA Film Studies twelve years ago, we decided to concentrate a lot of the film theory and critical theory in a compulsory level two (i.e., second year) module, whimsically entitled Currents in Film Theory. On the new BA Literature and Film Studies, in which students will encounter literary theory as well as film theory and critical theory, such a module seemed inappropriate, so part of our design process involved deciding what of this kind of material students needed to encounter and how best to divide it up between modules and levels.

All of which is a long way round to saying that today’s class involved an introduction to semiotics, ably supported by the first chapter of Jonathan Bignell’s Media Semiotics: An Introduction, still by far the best book of its kind – and I’m not just saying that because he used to teach me. (There will some structuralism, Marxism and feminism soon.)

By the end of the lecture, we had covered these terms/ideas from Saussure and Peirce:

Semiotics
diachronic vs. synchronic
langue and parole
the sign is arbitrary and conventional
sign = signifier + signified
the referent
syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic
symbol, icon and index
denotation and connotation

There was, as always, much exemplification through the medium of cats. (Back in the day, it was always trees, but over the last couple of decades this arboreal hegemony has fallen to a relentless feline insurgency – probably something to do with the internet and the ‘mind-control’ parasite Toxoplasma gondii.)

We’ll nail down these terms with a test at the start of class next week. A revision aid can be found here.

We looked at three texts this week – John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1940) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927).

The vagaries of timetabling mean that each week the screening comes before the lecture, which is normally not a problem, but the challenge today was to come up with screening questions that are basically asking questions about semiotics without using semiotic terminology. Such as:

What kind of man is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)? How do we know these things about him? How does he differ from Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)?
How do we know Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is gay?
How do we know Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot be trusted? Is he also gay? Is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) his lover?
How many roles does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) play? How does she imply these differences?
How does Brigid differ from Iva Archer (Gladys George)? How do they both differ from Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick)?
How do we tell Lt. Detective Dundy (Barton McLane) and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) apart? In what ways does Polhaus resemble Sam Spade? In what ways does he resemble Dundy?

Although we did not get to work through all these questions in detail, it became very clear very quickly how much information is conveyed by costume and manner. We were obviously in the realm of signs – of signifiers and signifieds, of denotations and connotations.

When Miles walks into the office and finds Spade interviewing Brigid, the contrasts between the two men are clear and shape our understanding of each of them in relation to the other. Spade is in a tailored suit with subtle stripes, buttoned up with a precisely knotted tie; his manner thus far has been similarly professional, slightly patronising. Miles, a taller and slightly gangly figure, wears a baggier suit, unbuttoned, his shirt and tie not as neat; he makes no effort to conceal his sexual interest in Brigid, seating himself on the edge of Spade’s desk. Archer’s desk faces the window, Spade’s the door. He lacks Spade’s composure, his air of competence; Archer’s death, then, comes as little surprise.

Joel Cairo’s card smells of gardenias. He is small and feminised, his costume dapper, his hair neatly oiled curls. He wears gloves to keep his hands soft; he fiddles nervously with his cane, constantly positioning it near his mouth, suggesting some kind of oral fixation. His accent is exotic, as are the overseas places he has visited – and his surname. It is difficult to tell how much of his ‘deviant’ persona from M, which had been a hit in the US, is carried over, but it is clear that The Maltese Falcon – like many American crime films – uses queerness to connote wrongness and villainy. Some of this is evident in the corpulent Gutman, too, with Wilmer just the latest in what appears to be a succession of young men he picks up to work as his henchmen (and catamites?). However, there is an intriguing countercurrent at work. Perhaps it is the appeal of the exotic, perhaps just the brilliant performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, but neither character is particularly loathsome – and both in various ways are quite likeable.

We also noted the importance of transience and anonymity again in the representation of the city: Brigid goes by three names and at least that many personas; no-one knows their neighbours or lives in a discernible community; the closest thing to a friendship we see is between Spade and Effie (boss and employee).

Walter Benjamin says that Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’

is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.

We began with the moment in which the narrator first spots this mysterious man – whose appearance is a parole (speech-act) which the narrator struggles to filter through the available langue (sign system):

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental powers, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of supreme despair.

And then we took a step back to the start of the story, in which the narrator describes looking out at the crowd on a London street, abstracting himself from it, presenting himself as some kind of disembodied neutral observer, who fantasises about his ability to see without being seen. For two pages, he divides the crowd into distinct groups, and distinguishes between them by their costume, demeanour and behaviour, producing a catalogue of types, descending from the respectable professional classes down through clerks and swells, gamblers and pickpockets, prostitutes and drunks. The narrator reads the character of these people from their appearance; and the author persuades us of its accuracy and truthfulness through his careful selection of signs (words) for their denotative and, perhaps more importantly, connotative powers. No wonder, then, that ‘the man of the crowd’ comes as a shock, an epistemological limit that might undermine the certainty with which the narrator has described everyone else.

We also had a think about the following:

How does the story express the anonymity of life in the city?
How does it contrast day/night, different districts, different social or economic classes?
Who is the man the narrator follows?
What does the ending mean?

Virginia Woolf’s essay does some similar things. We thought about the connotations of the place names she includes:

the area between Holborn and the Strand
Oxford Street
Mayfair
Brixton
Waterloo Bridge
Barnes
Surbiton

Some of them retain similar connotations; others, such as ‘Brixton’, which then evoked a middle class suburb with green spaces, connotes something very different now. (Next semester we will look at some Windrush era and post-Windrush representations of London.)

Woolf begins by talking about the very personal connotations of items in one’s own room, where

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

But there is an important slippage between this investment of personal meanings in a bowl or a stain on the carpet, and the connotations for readers. For the narrator, the bowl recalls the holiday in Mantua where is was purchased. For the reader, the buyer’s fond memory of the woman who sold it reeks of English class condescension, and the bowl connotes wealth, because who but the well-off could afford to spend a summer in Italy?

There is a curious passage also when the narrator visits a shoe store. A female dwarf, accompanied by two regular-sized women, reveals her perfect, full-sized, ‘arched and aristocratic’ foot. Its revelation alters her demeanour, and thus that of the people in the store. At the same time, the narrator is infected by the fantastical imagery of dwarves and giants (the regular-sized companions), and this spills over into her phantasmagorical description of the often-foreign working class denizens of the area around Seven Dials and Covent Garden. It is as if she cannot bring herself to directly describe this area and the people there. And, like Poe’s narrator, Woolf’s narrator is suddenly shocked by the appearance of a stereotypical Jew, with all the long and terrible anti-semitic baggage that evokes.

Woolf also fantasises about seeing without being seen – she describes herself as stripping away the shell of her home and becoming like the pearl in the oyster, which promptly transmutes into a giant eye, capable of observing the surfaces of things, the plane of signification. As a consequence of which, I now imagine Virginia Woolf looks like this:

Untitled-1

 

I also had the opening of chapter 25, ‘A Tie With a Windsor Knot’, from Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) to hand, but time as always was our enemy – will probably kick off next week’s class with it. (My colleague teaching the Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption module will be doing some work on James Bond in the coming weeks, so it will make a nice crossover; she has been working on Sherlock Holmes this week, so I will be building on that next week.)

Recommended critical reading
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See chapter 3, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax.”
Stam, Robert, ed. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part II, “Cine-Semiology,” on how semiotics was developed in relation to film.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 3, “Film Languages.”

Recommended reading
The opening and closing pages of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) capture the bustle and variety of a modern city street.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) repeatedly leaps from the mind of one character to another as they walk across London.
John Huston’s film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Recommended viewing
Women take on the role of detectives and attempt to make sense of the city, solve crimes or discover their own identities in Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman 1985) and In the Cut (Campion 2003).

Week four

 

 

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam 2014)

the-drop-tom-hardyand so anyway it turn out that the best thing about The Drop (2014) is not that we get to see James Gandolfini in action one last time, nor is it the reminder of quite how good a writer Dennis Lehane is, nor is it the way that it confirms that the sole motivation left to men in contemporary cinema is protecting or revenging their dogs, as in Equilibrium, I Am LegendThe Rover, John Wick (and presumably John Wick 2) and the Fast and Furious franchise (let’s face it, Paul Walker was basically Vin Diesel’s adorable little stray), as well as Human Target on the telly, no, the best thing about The Drop is every single scene in which Tom Hardy picks up young Rocco (or Mike, as he would have preferred to call him) and it becomes  impossible to decide which is the cutest puppy of all…

TomHardy_TheDrop_AnimalRescue-590x900

Tom-Hardy-and-a-Dog-in-The-Drop1

The City in Fiction and Film, week two

really

lorrem

Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

The City in Fiction and Film, week one

This year we launched the new single honours BA Literature and Film Studies. The single honours bit is important. In a joint honours with a name like this, generally students could expect to take a couple of modules in the English department and a couple in the Film Studies department each year, with the relationships between literature and film largely unexplored (beyond, perhaps, a module on adaptation). So we set out to do something rather different – to continue to recognise medium-specificities and disciplinary knowledges/practices/skills, but also to bring them together. Various practicalities (staff specialisms and availability, institutional structures, etc) shaped the form this has taken. Basically, each year, students on the degree take one literary studies module, one film studies module, and two modules organised around a particular set of ideas that study both film and literature together; and none of these are shared with other programmes.

In the first year, one of the ‘combined’ modules looks at issues of cultural value and the other one – my one – is about representations of the city in fiction and film. Each week we have a two-hour screening slot, and a three-hour session which combines lecture and seminar activities in various mixes.

I will try to find time each week to blog about what we have been up to.

The first week of a module with new students always has particular tensions between:

1) all the institutional and organisational information that at least needs to be said aloud;
2) icebreaking;
3) encouraging students to start talking to each other and with the whole group;
and 4) actually studying something together

Fortunately, we were able to keep the first intake onto the degree quite small, and the students have already had induction sessions and a class together, so 2) could at least be folded into 3) and 4). Bureaucracies, however, tend to proliferate the items for 1) and drop them in the programme leader’s lap – in this instance, mine. Fortunately, I have great colleagues and we were able to share that load out a bit across the modules. Otherwise we might never have got to 4).

And at least everyone now knows what to do in case of fires or medical emergencies…

There is a further tension between introducing the module as a whole and meaningfully studying something quite specific that week.

In preparation for class, we read China Miéville’s London’s Overthrow and watched The Long Good Friday (Mackenzie 1981).

We began with some general questions:

  • How are cities defined?
  • How do cities differ from towns?
  • What are the relationships between the city and the country? Between the city and the conurbation or megalopolis? Between ‘the city’ and actual cities?
  • Is the city merely a physical, architectural phenomenon?
  • How are cities experienced and imagined?

Which inevitably lead to our first run-in with that student-frustrating formula: there is no definitive answer.

Louis Wirth in the 1930s defined cities in terms of permanence, large population, high population density and social heterogeneity. The UN seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of cities to mapping space in terms of intensive urban agglomerations and extensive metropolition regions. In the UK, unless you happen to have an Anglican diocesan cathedral, city status is awarded by the monarch – usually after some kind of competition tied to a celebration of the monarchy, such as a jubilee or royal wedding.

Probably the most useful definition in terms of the coming weeks is Richard Sennett’s self-consciously ‘simple’ attempt from 1977: ‘a city is a human settlement where strangers are likely to meet’. Which we unpicked for a while.

The Long Good Friday
Crime movies are often good for social and political commentary. The urban crime movie, particularly as it builds on hardboiled fiction, makes use of physical mobility across the city to explore social, political and economic relationships; and by moving across class and race barriers, it is able to depict crime as mirroring and/or paralleling ‘legitimate’culture. Hollywood’s ‘ethnic’ gangster movie protagonist (Scarface, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar in the 1930s through to, say, Dead Presidents in the 1990s) pursued individual wealth and personal success but because of race/ethnic/class exclusion had to rely on ‘illegitimate’ means. In the 1940s, with High Sierra and Force of Evil there is a shift to depicting organised crime as not really any different from capitalist corporations – a tendency which reaches a high point in especially the second Godfather film, and which results in bankers becoming indistinguishable from criminals in The International. Against that genre history, The Long Good Friday takes on a British neoliberal – or Thatcherite – specificity in the way it maps out relations between between crime, politics, policing, urban redevelopment and international finance. Gangland boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) captures something of the Conservative’s ideological contradiction between

  • a there-is-no-such-thing-as-society neoliberalism of competitive economic self-interest and ‘freedom’
  • a social conservatism (family, nation, social order, white privilege, etc)

The depiction of the Irish and especially the IRA is informative in this regard. The film came out as the Conservative government and their media lackeys were changing the treatment and representation of the IRA from political dissidents to nothing more than a violent criminal gang. This process began much earlier but had a particular resonance at the time – the film was released on 2 February 1981, less than a month before Bobby Sands and others began the second hunger strike in the Maze Prison. The film also sees politics and political commitment treated as an utterly inexplicable black box, and self-serving economic competition as natural, normal common-sense everyone understands and agrees with – a straight-up Thatcher move (that also involves pretending neoliberalism is not a political project, and accelerating the transition, that Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about years earlier, from government to governance).

We also thought about the film’s treatment of urban gay culture – on the one hand, a little bit seedy and secretive; on the other, everyone knows but no one much cares that Colin (Paul Freeman), Shand’s right-hand man, is gay; on the third hand, if you are gay in this movie you do die violently.

The representation of Brixton is also marked by contradictions: multi-ethnic streets (including a baby Dexter Fletcher!), but Shand implies that it is a black neighbourhood and that is why it has gone downhill; he also expresses disbelief at people being forced to live in such conditions, but it is not entirely clear whether this is empathy or a wannabe property developer seeing an opportunity – not an opportunity to build regular folks better homes, but an opportunity to get rich from property speculation.

London’s Overthrow
The Long Good Friday‘s unredeveloped docklands setting and the anticipation of a 1988 London Olympics make it increasingly timely – and a good match for Miéville’s essay. London’s Overthrow was written partly as a response to the propaganda surrounding the London Olympics development, and in the long shadow cast by the police killing of Mark Duggan and the popular protests (or ‘riots’) that swept British cities 6-11 August 2011.

Sadly, all the Olympics promos I could find online contained some airbrushed images of London but focused much more on athletes doing athletics – understandable, if unhelpful in this context. So we took a look at this short London tourism video from 2014 – all iconic architecture, tradition and (financial) modernity, almost entirely North of the Thames, bustling but never crowded, multi-ethnic but quite astonishingly white-looking, prettified. (Frankly, this video is more fun, especially the way it cons you into outrage at seeming to miss the entire point of The Clash, but I am still not sure what to make of this one.)

We didn’t have enough time to do more than some headline points about Miéville’s essay:

  • the publicity image of London contrasted with apocalyptic imagery;
  • the publicity image of London contrasted with imagery of a more diverse and stratified London;
  • the city transformed by technologies: the phone camera, advertising and other screens;
  • the city transformed by ownership: public space, privatised spaces, ASBOs (PSPOs);
  • planned London and unplanned London;
  • and, because there is something delightfully wrong about mentioning Jacques Derrida in the first week of an undergraduate degree, controlling the future (l’futur) and leaving potentials open (l’avenir)

If there were world enough and time, it would have been good to contrast some of the youtube footage of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprising with Wretch 32’s ‘Unorthodox’ video that Miéville discusses. But as it was, there was barely time even to conclude with this image:

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From the too-much-information section of the module handbook:
Recommended reading
China Miéville’s novels are usually set in an alternative London (King Rat (1998), Un Lun Dun (2007), Kraken (2010)), or in one of the cities in the fantasy world of Bas Lag (Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), Iron Council (2004)). The City & the City (2009) is a murder-mystery set in two different cities that occupy the same physical space.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Mysterious Kôr” (1944) contrasts an imaginary city with wartime London as an unmarried couple try to find somewhere they can sleep together.
This concern with the relationships between real and unreal cities is also central to Arthur Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895), Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons (1985), Iain Banks’s The Bridge (1986), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), G. Willow Wilson’s Cairo (2007) and David Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012).

Recommended viewing
Other movies about the murky connections between crime, business and politics include The Bad Sleep Well (Kurosawa 1960), Get Carter (Hodges 1971), The Godfather (Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Polanski 1974), The Godfather: Part II (Coppola 1974), City of Hope (Sayles 1991), Face (Bird 1997), The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Edel 2008), Mesrine (Richet 2008) and The International (Tykwer 2009).
Julien Temple’s documentary London: The Modern Babylon (2012) offers a history of the city through found footage – taken from films, newsreels, television, etc – that is useful for thinking about the ways in which moving images shape our understanding, expectations and memories of cities. Thom Andersen’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) uses movie footage to explore the ways in which Los Angeles is represented (and represents other cities) in Hollywood films – and to contrast this virtual or imaginary ‘Los Angeles’ with his own experience of living in the ‘real’ Los Angeles. Guy Maddin’s pseudo-documentary My Winnipeg (2007) concocts a fictional history of his hometown.

Week two

Gerald Kersh on the subject of cats – no, really, it is only cats he is writing about, nothing else at all

imagesI have always been fascinated by the way Gerald Kersh describes characters. Descriptions full of loathing that very quickly slide into self-loathing. I’m currently part-way through Night and the City (1938) – the source of Jules Dassin’s rather good 1950 film with Richard Widmark and of Irwin Winkler’s rather terrible 1992 film with Robert De Niro – and cataloguing a selection I will share when I am done. But in the meantime, in one of Kersh’s rather characteristic digressions, he has decided to tackle the subject of cats in nighttime London.

I swear it is only cats he is talking about. Nothing else.

First, he obviously prefers dogs to cats. And to women from villages.

Cats may be terrible to mice, but they have no equipment for heavier game. If they had long claws, cats would be extinct: they dilate with hatred, they shriek with hatred – they want to rend, devour, torture, and obliterate each other; but they can’t. So they pour out all their venom in their voices, their howling and malevolent voices; exactly like the gossiping women of the villages. (80)

He then moves on to the subject of tom cats howling and shrieking in the night. Their motivations, their anguish. At no point is this about anything other than tom cats.

Why do tom-cats do this thing? For them, love is by no means all moonlight and roses. The genital organ of a tom-cat bristles with spikes, like a pip-scraper; it is a severe surgical instrument of reproduction, not pleasure. He loses blood and fur in frenzies of impotent rage, and almost bursts with bitterness, simply to achieve a torture-chamber.
What good does it do? It generates more cats.
Who wants more cats? (80)

But what, you ask, about the female of the species? Ah, there’s a grey female there. Let’s follow her for three pages, remembering at all times that this is only about cats, nothing else – not even the image of religious transcendence culminating in a pun you might not believe he could have got away with in 1938.

What did she not know about sex and motherhood? She had had fifty kittens and forgotten about them. Tom-cats … were all right; but for her part, she found more sensual pleasure in an empty sardine-tin…

The grey cat was unable to suppress a yawn. How monotonous, how miserably familiar, were the oscillations and outcries of these passion-intoxicated males! They were all alike…

It was impossible to embarrass this cat.
She was shameless and heartless, a cat of the city; elusive as an eel, resilient as rubber, indestructible and persistent as chewing-gum; a tile-begotten hybrid, born among salmon tins and broken bottles, whose pedigree had slunk in offal from dustbin to dustbin since Egypt. … Every muscle in her body seemed to have been designed for prowling, sneaking, ducking and running away. She lived for herself, parasitically … In hundreds of homes her presence had been suspected by a smell, proved by the disappearance of food and disposed of by hisses and blows. Ratepayers often took her in and christened her with fancy names; but in the end, they always gave her away, with false and hypocritical eulogies and regrets. She had no idea of the significance of a box of ashes, and regarded the practice of Rubbing Her Nose In It as a charming human eccentricity rather than a lesson, or punishment.

Why hunt mice? Only fools work. There is always food. The city is full of people, most of whom are mad. Poor crazed creatures – they give away food! The only proper thing to do with food is eat it all. Give nothing away. Preserve yourself! Preserve yourself! The world is your cat’s-meat. The Great Tom-Cat, who plays with the world like a ball of wool, created man to give you warmth, milk and chicken-bones, and put the sun in the sky to make you purr . . . You are the Great Tom-Cat’s Chosen Pussies. (81-82)

[Quotations from London Books edition, 2007]

 

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara (Criterion Eclipse boxset 28)

Kurahara_box[A version of this review first appeared in Film International 62 (2013), 54–8]

Following an apprenticeship under Toho’s Kajiro Yamamoto, and a short stint at Shochiku, Koreyoshi Kurahara joined Nikkatsu in 1954, the year the studio recommenced production after the war. He served as an assistant director on Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu 1956), Kô Nakahira’s ground-breaking taiyozoku-eiga (sun tribe film), before going on to direct a couple of films per year for the studio between 1957 and 1967, enlivening potentially formulaic material in a manner every bit as distinctive as that of his better-known contemporary, Seijun Suzuki.

XXX_Film_iamwaiting_originalKurahara’s debut film, I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze 1957) – included in the earlier Criterion Eclipse collection, Nikatsu Noir – seems less like American film noir than French poetic realism. A moody, melancholic tale centred on a dockside café, it tells of the apparently doomed love between the café’s owner (an ex-boxer, stripped of his license after killing a man in a brawl) and a woman (a former opera singer, reduced to warbling in a mobster’s nightclub) he dissuades from committing suicide. Their respective backstories, however, contain the cruellest of coincidences and traps. This sense of inescapable fate is key to the earliest of the films included in this boxset, Intimidation (Aru kyouhaku 1960). Like La Bête humaine (1938), it begins with a train approaching a town, but where Jean Renoir’s film concentrates on the rails which run relentlessly ahead, crossing and merging but always driving forward, remorselessly conveying the hapless driver to his fate, Intimidation’s opening shots are misty – oneiric – with steam and condensation. Kurahara’s train races through the tunnels cut into snow-covered mountains, taking us beneath the cold heights that rise above but are inseparable from the darkness below.

Kurahara_Filmw_Intimidation_originalIntimidation focuses on the relationship between Takita, the assistant manager of a regional bank, and his childhood friend, Nakaike. Many years earlier, Takita had been involved with Nakaike’s sister, Yuki, but abandoned her to steal Kumiko, the daughter of the bank president, away from Nakaike and thus accumulate nepotistic advantages. While Nakaike is still a lowly clerk, and Yuki an embittered geisha, Takita is being promoted to the Tokyo head office, where he is to be groomed as his father-in-law’s successor. The train, though, has brought a stranger to town who threatens blackmail: unless Takita rob his own bank, Kumaki will reveal his financial irregularities and sexual infidelities. Takita hopes to take advantage of the fact that Nakaike is on guard duty on the night of the robbery. But – as an eerie dream sequence, deploying a subjective camera far more effectively than either Dark Passage (Daves 1947) or Lady in the Lake (Montgomery 1947), warns us – nothing is quite what it seems.

The economy of the film’s set-up enables Kurahara to focus upon set-pieces – such as an almost-silent heist, every bit as remarkable as the one in Rififi (Dassin 1955) – and upon unpacking, through a series of reversals, multiple layers of manipulation, revenge, humiliation and despite. Lacking the claustrophobia of film noir’s Academy ratio, Kurahara uses his widescreen format (and a frequently mobile camera) to emphasise movement through physical space, which he contrasts to the relative absence of social mobility. Depth of field, along with startling cuts along the 180° line, stress the gulf between classes. Kurahara also often favours high angle shots that strengthen the diagonal arrangement of rival characters, craning down as the balance of power alters to shift their apparent relative height. Other high angle shots seem to pin characters to the floor, as if on a dissection board. Juxtapositions within and between shots jab the viewer in the eye like a boxer, compressing information with all the swagger of Sam Fuller.

warped ones 1Such bravura flourishes become the core of Kurahara’s style by The Warped Ones (Kyonetsu no kisetsu 1960). Reworking the taiyozoku-eiga by turning from Crazed Fruit’s privileged kids to the disenfranchised youths of the unhomely, post-war tenements, it follows the story of petty criminal Akira. Thanks to journalist Kashiwagi, he is caught pick-pocketing a tourist and sentenced to Tokyo Juvenile Reformatory, where, amidst brutality and violence, he meets another young thug, Masura. After this dazzling title sequence, the film proper begins with their release. Teaming up with the prostitute Yuki, they begin a summer of casual crime. Revenge, rape, street-fighting, murder and abortions follow, interspersed with hi-jinks, impulsive thievery, mucking around and mockery of bourgeois pastimes. Driven by Toshiro Mayuzumi’s jazz score, Yoshio Mamiya’s lively hand-held cinematography and Akira Suzuki’s snappy editing, The Warped Ones is, at times, even more exhausting than it is fascinating – as if Neveldine+Taylor had directed a mash-up of Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Bande à part (1964) co-written by Jim Thompson and a young Harlan Ellison. Kurahara’s camera is constantly distracted, preferring to move through space rather than cut to reaction shots. Its gaze often drifts upwards to swirl across the collage of jazz greats decorating the ceiling of Akira’s favourite bar or, more tellingly, to flood the screen with the brilliant white blaze of the summer sun. This is not the Impressionist dappling of light found in Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950), but light as a monumental, sublime energy: on the one hand, it suggests the transcendence of earthly conditions for which Akira yearns but lacks the patience to attain; and on the other, an oppressive weight, pinning him down, exposing his purposelessness. As with Intimidation, life presses hot and hard, and Kurahara cannot resist showing us every bead of sweat.

Although not exactly a sequel, Black Sun (Kuroi taiyo 1964) returns to this milieu. In The Warped Ones, Akira threatens Kashiwagi’s pregnant girlfriend Fumiko with a broken bottle. Gill, a black American who hangs out in the same bar, intervenes, dragging Akira away and driving him to the beach. In a totally unexpected sequence – which echoes earlier shots of Masura and Yuki cavorting while Akira rapes and impregnates Fumiko – Gill and Akira run hand in hand across the sand before plunging into the sea harmlessly to exhaust Akira’s rage. In Black Sun, Tamio Kurahara_Filmw_BlackSun_originalKawachi plays Mei, identical to his earlier Akira in almost every respect, Yuko Chishiro plays another prostitute called Yuki, and Chico Roland plays Gill, a wounded GI on the run after killing two other servicemen. The film starts with the desolate wasteland before an ominously alien-looking nuclear power station, where tiny figures scavenge for scrap. The jazz-obsessed Mei, who lives in a bombed-out church with his dog Thelonius Monk, thinks nothing of robbing these weary middle-aged mudlarks so that he can buy the new Max Roach Quartet album. When he finds Gill hiding in his squat, Mei assumes they will automatically be friends, since he loves black American music, and thus all black Americans. The culture-clash melodrama that follows (perhaps the oddest of rashamen films) plays like some demented, infernal rendition of The Defiant Ones (Kramer 1958) – part John Cassavetes, part Shinya Tsukamoto. Roland plays Gill as a feverish, distracted brute, wielding a ridiculously large machine gun, sweating profusely, mumbling and yelping his lines. Kurahara draws awkward parallels between post-Occupation Japan and the American civil rights struggle – and at one point even has Mei don blackface and whitewash Gill’s face so that they can escape by posing as street entertainers.

But all this bizzarerie ends magnificently. The increasingly incoherent Gill is obsessed with reaching the sea, which he associates with his mother and with redemption. Mei manages to get him first to a filthy, oil-slicked estuary, and then to a rooftop overlooking a heavily industrialised port. Somehow Gill gets caught in the ropes tethering an advertising balloon. He pleads with Mei to release it. And as the pursuing MPs close in, the delirious Gill rises up towards the sun, an absurd, black, blasphemous, jazz Christ.

Made between The Warped Ones and Black Sun, I Hate But Love (Nikui an-chikusho 1962) moderates and modulates Kurahara’s stylistic excesses, as one would expect of a colour vehicle for Nikkatsu’s – arguably Japan’s – biggest stars of that year, Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. (Ishihara, an overnight success thanks to his performance in Crazed Fruit, played I Am Waiting’s ex-boxer and had already in 1962 co-starred with Asaoka in Kurahara’s hit Ginza Love Story (Ginza no koi no monogatari)). Kurahara’s camera remains restless, but not so unanchored that it cannot cope with sets and occasional back-projection. This time the contrived set up comes straight from a 1930s screwball or 1950s sex comedy, but the movie that ensues is more of a melodrama. Sort of.

i hate but love 1In just two years, Daisaku Kita has been transformed from a penniless poet into a radio and television star, thanks to a deal he struck with Noriko Sakakta: she would manage him, initially for free, but they would never consummate their romantic entanglement with so much as a kiss. Fed up with an unfulfilling life of constant bustling activity, and frustrated by his relationship with Noriko, Daisaku encounters Yoshiko Igawa. She has devoted her life to buying a jeep with which to aid Toshio Kosaka, a doctor in a remote village, in his work. Yoshiko insists that she and Toshio, who have conducted their entire relationship through letters, possess a ‘pure love’. Daisaku agrees on air to deliver the jeep to Toshio, so that he can experience some trace of this love – a love so different to that which he shares with Noriko. And Noriko pursues him across Japan, trying to bring him back in order to save his career from his multiple breaches of contract – at least, that is what she tells herself.

Kurahara’s road movie never becomes as achingly romantic as Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) or Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997), and his melodrama eschews the oedipal intensity of Nicholas Ray. His comedy has neither the bite of Preston Sturges (although one sequence resembles Sullivan’s Travels (1941) more than slightly), nor the brashness of Yasuzo Masumura’s Giants and Toys (Kyojin to gangu 1958), although Masumura – and Frank Tashlin – would undoubtedly have enjoyed the sequence in which Daisaku and Noriko struggle through a cloacal tunnel onto the fecal mud of mountain roads. But somehow Kurahara pulls it off – his stars, especially Asaoka, are a delight – and he even manages to conclude with a shot looking up at the sun, here betokening a pure love of hope and renewal.

The light that saturates Asaoka’s Etsuko – and the entire frame – in Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki 1967) signifies something rather different: sexual ecstasy, erotic distraction, amoral desire. Etsuko, widowed soon after her marriage, submits to the attentions of her father-in-law, fends off those of her brother-in-law, and yearns for the family’s young groundskeeper, Saburo. Despite desiring Etsuko, Saburo does not know what to make of her, and her pursuit of him is confused, impulsive, uncertain. The class gulf between them is too great for her imagination to bridge, and she becomes increasingly cruel to him, trying to make him suffer just as she (feels she) suffers. Based on a Yukio Mishima novel, and offering the perfect set-up for a film by Luis Buñuel or Douglas Sirk, Thirst for Love instead more closely resembles Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman (Nippon konchuki 1963) and Intentions of Murder (Akai satsui 1964) in its study of a feminisuto (but hardly feminist) woman.

While occasional shots and scenes possess the still formality of Yasujirô Ozu, these are odd moments of calm in another stylistically mercurial movie, incorporating voice-over narration, interior monologues, negative footage, slow motion, extreme close-ups, stills, sound distortions, intertitles, flashes of violent fantasised action, brief flashes of colour film (bright red, of course), a conversation that suddenly jumps into long-shot and switches from audible dialogue to subtitles, and, most remarkable of all, a two-and-half minute shot in which the camera cranes around an ornate light-fitting, showing the eight people seated at the family dinner table, before moving off to one side to look down at them as they converse, and then craning around and down behind Saburo as he rises to leave, before zooming in on Etsuko, sitting at the other end of the table, as she watches him depart.

Thirst for Love was Kurahara’s last film under contract to Nikkatsu. Studio bosses purportedly found it too arty and delayed its release, prompting Kurahara to quit the studio (in the same year, Nikkatsu fired Suzuki for turning in the brilliant absurdist hitman movie, Branded to Kill (Koroshi no rakuin 1967), rather than the sane, polished and pedestrian Joe Shishido vehicle they had expected). Kurahara continued to make movies, albeit at a reduced rate, eventually transforming himself into the reliable and unchallenging director of such films as Antarctica (Nankyoku monogatari 1983), the biggest Japanese box-office hit prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime 1997). But in his decade as a Nikkatsu contract director with an output as eclectic as Suzuki’s, he developed a personal style and vision every bit as striking as those of such contemporaries in the Japanese New Wave as Imamura, Masumura, Nagisa Oshima and Hiroshi Teshigahara. And by making this selection of his films available, Criterion have once more done us invaluable service.