and so anyway it turns out the best thing about The Reef (2010), a based-on-a-true-story shark attack movie, is the side betting on the shark’s or sharks’ (it remains unclear) taste in television when it/they eventually show up; will it/they go for the actors who’ve been in Neighbours first, or those who’ve been in Home Away, or the one who has been in both, or the one who has been in neither but was one of McLeod’s Daughters?
Hard to Be a God takes the bare armature of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name – human observers embedded among the population of an alien world, which resembles the terrestrial middle ages and in which the first traces of a Renaissance are being brutally expunged – and does something remarkable with it.
At times it reminded me of Andrei Rublev, of Aguirre, Wrath of God, of Seven Samurai, of Come and See, of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring, of Tetsuo, of Erasherhead, of Jodorowsky, of A Field in England, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is not remotely like them, or like anything else.
As early as the 1960s, Aleksei German was the Strugatskys’ director of choice, and it only took him half a century to make the film. His earliest attempt was halted when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, since a film about a fledgling Renaissance being crushed by an invading totalitarian power was deemed untimely. (German was also briefly involved in Peter Fleischmann’s disastrous 1989 adaptation.) In 2000, he finally began what would become a six-year-long shoot (partly in the Czech Republic), but he died in 2013, leaving his filmmaker son, Aleksei German, Jr., to finalise the edit and the soundtrack.
The Strugatskys’ often comic tale poses a series of ethical questions around the (im)possibility of humanitarian intervention akin to those with which Star Trek’s prime directive narratives feebly wrestle. Are there circumstances in which violence can be used to cut short the violence of others? Is it more cruel passively to observe than it is to step in with an overwhelming force that will turn a society on its head? What is the ethical cost to the observer/intervener? The Strugatsky’s novel can also be understood as an expression of anxiety about the re-emergence of Stalinism as the Khruschev-era Thaw drew to a close.
German transforms this material into something marvellously different.
A black-and-white world of rain and mud and shit and piss and snot and blood. Of raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Of grotesquery and deformity. Of violence and death. Of the idiocy, as Marx might say, of feudal life.
The frame is frequently crowded. Depth of field is constantly destabilised. Fog and smoke and pouring rain obscure the distinction between earth and sky, clouding out the horizon and disrupting perspective. Objects repeatedly cross the frame inches from the camera, blocking our view of what we might otherwise assume to be the subjects of the film. Characters repeatedly look straight at the camera, not to break the fourth wall but as if it is not there. Or as if the camera cannot be permitted to be in the world without being part of the world; and in this the camera is like the terrestrial observers. They are not permitted to stay, like a Federation away team, separate from the world they visit. They are immersed in it. Mired. And so are we.
It is like reading Rabelais, or reading Bakhtin’s reading of him; and in its relentlessness, Hard to Be a God is really funny.
The few Anglophone reviews of the film I’ve seen complain about the absence of a clear plot. But narrative obliquity is the point. Life doesn’t have a plot or narrative arcs. We are just in the middle of all this stuff going on all the time. And it is comical and absurd and messy and always in our faces.
If I’d been watching it alone, I’d have turned off the not-that-helpful subtitles.
Hard to be a God is obsessed with the odours of the world it can only disclose indirectly, and with the textures of the world. It continually uses the limitations of the medium – the gulf between the tactile and the visual – to undercut the fiction of the neutral, uninvolved observer. Despite the often troubling content of the image, the pristine cinematography is often too beautiful to bear. Don Remata’s spotless white clothes and handkerchieves function in a similar manner – in their absurdity, they are reminders of the full and unavoidable intersubjectivity of being in the world.
Hard to Be a God might not be your cup of tea. That is your loss.
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Mutant Chronicles (2008) is not Ron Perlman’s Oirish accent (to be sure), nor is it the film’s unwillingness to leave any cliché unturned in the pursuit of mediocrity; no, the best thing about Mutant Chronicles is Sean Pertwee, for it is one of the fundamental laws of cinema that, regardless of the thing he is in, Sean Pertwee will be the best thing in the thing he is in…and that he will die more horribly and with greater inevitability than Sean Bean…
It is now twelve months to the day that I set myself the task of, for one full year, reading books only by straight, white, middle-class, Anglopone, cis male authors. During that time I read 144 books. The things I learned in my year of selective reading made me pretty glad to have persevered.
First, while you might think finding books by such authors would be as easy as going in a bookstore and throwing a rock, it turns out it actually is.
My other findings are graphed below.
When contacted for comment, both Martin Amis and Ian McEwan banged on self-importantly and interminably.
During the same period, my friend Jason Wyngarde performed a similar experiment with films. His findings were much the same, but he also uncovered a further pattern.
If Jupiter Ascending has whetted your appetite for films in which a girl and her dog fight against tyranny and longueurs…
White God begins with a beautifully composed aerial shot of a major Budapest intersection. The streets are deserted. A tiny figure cycles up onto the flyover.
It has a familiar eeriness to it – like the deserted Waterloo Bridge near the start of 28 Days Later…, but without the graininess, the obvious digital compositing. And, shot from so far above, it is as much about the construction of urban spaces and the ways they channel us as it is about the shocking emptiness of this particular space at this moment.
The cyclist – a young girl, Lili, maybe thirteen years old – passes an abandoned car, its doors wide open, and descends into the city streets. Through intersection after intersection. Patient, determined. As if searching, cautiously and with trepidation.
Then the dogs appear.
Dozens of them.
Not from something, but toward something. With purpose.
They barely even notice her.
The film leaps back a few weeks. Lili’s mother and her partner are off to Australia for three months, so she is left with her father – once a professor, now a meat inspector at an abattoir, dishevelled and disgruntled. (He is inspired by David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1991)). Lili insists on taking her dog, Hagen, with her.
The tension between estranged father and daughter soon focuses on the dog, culminating in Hagen being abandoned by a busy roadside.
The film then follows two paths.
An oh-so-arthouse mildly prurient exploration of the occasionally sexualised Lili’s pubescent struggles – with her father, with older teenagers from the orchestra in which she plays trumpet – as she tries to find Hagen and ultimately reconciles with her father.
And the story of Hagen’s life as a stray. He is befriended by a scruffy terrier, who teaches him about life on the streets, how to find food and water and shelter. How to avoid the city dogcatchers. Le barkour. But Hagen is eventually caught and sold into the world of dogfighting.
In the arena he quickly learns the horrible cost of this so-called sport.
Soon, Hagen finds himself in the dog pound, facing a lethal injection. He rebels, rather bloodily, and frees the other dogs.
He is Barktacus; they have nothing to lose but their chains.
The canine uprising has begun.
A lot of the criticism the film faced after winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year has to do with the supposed murkiness of its metaphor. This is typical of critics who don’t quite get how fantasy works, and who are incapable of finding value in the fantastic until they have translated it into the mundane. What exactly do the dogs stand for? They don’t have to stand for anything. Let them just be dogs; they will accrue meaning(s) regardless.
In complaining about the purported failure of White God‘s symbolism to symbolise some particular thing clearly, critics unwittingly clamour for an unambiguous one-to-one allegorical correspondence between manifest and latent content. Which is precisely what they would complain about if the film actually did do something so lunkheaded. That would be like valuing Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) so highly solely because it is a roman à clef of the Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, rather than because it is also much richer and more ambiguous than that.
Kornél Mundruczó has cited a range of sf influences – Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator – although his film probably comes closer to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). He inevitably mentions Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), and more surprisingly the films of Fassbinder and of Sirk:
For me, White God and All That Heaven Allows is the same story. Both discuss how society confines and forces people to behave.
The genius of Sirk’s film is to move between the constraints faced by a middle-aged widow and the repressiveness of an entire society. Mundruczó’s film is perhaps less successful, but the alternation between the two narrative strands creates a similar critical resonance. It is about race and about immiseration and about state power and about the tyranny of free markets; about family, gender and generation; about species; about surviving and providing and being better than the unhomely world we daily build will allow.
It is also about crossing The Incredible Journey (1963) with The Birds (1963) with Zéro de conduite (1933) or, better yet, Hue and Cry (1947), and throwing in a little Pied Piper of Hamelin, so as to rework, as its anagrammatical title suggests, Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982).
Does it work? Not quite. But that did not keep me from enjoying loads of it, mostly the doggy parts.
Some might complain about the film’s typical liberal substitution of a vague warm fuzzy feeling for the coherent revolutionary politics it is incapable of imagining. But it is a film that functions primarily on an affective level. There is so much simple joy to be found in seeing dozens of dogs, all different sizes and shapes and colours, running freely together, in fast motion and slow, that the image of revolution undergoes a quite radical transformation – it is violent and scary, but it is also comical and energetic and charming and delightful, as any worthwhile revolution must surely be.
And almost incidentally it does have some good politics in the mix. According to dog-trainer Teresa Miller, the two dogs playing Hagen don’t quite understand that they are dogs, and so simply did not get that they were supposed to be leading the pack. So although Hagen runs near the front of the pack, he never leads it. He is no Bane, which helps keep the canine rebels from becoming some clumsy reactionary representation of Occupy or Indignado or Tahrir or Syntagma, and which helps keep him unmuzzled. And the film ends in media res, not with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) memorialisation of an already foreclosed future but, like The Birds, with the future still open … and if Hagen and his dogged comrades can just get to the horses, the cows, the sheep, the birds….
Note While leaving the cinema, I was momentarily thrown by the end credit I thought read ADDITIONAL CATS.
A giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.
Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.
The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.
Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.
The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.
He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, Ronald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.
Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…
But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.
As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.
In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.
The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).
Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.
This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no gentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…
Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?
In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…
Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.
[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]
In 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.
Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.
But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.
The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.
But snow is rare in film noir.
There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.
Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.
Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.
Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.
All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.
But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.
In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.
Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.
So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.
François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. The gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.
Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.
Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.
In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.
The Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.
However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.
Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?
‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.
[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]
[After finding yesterday’s old piece on China, I remembered doing this one, too. But on reading it, I have no memory at all of writing it. It’s from the Readercon 17 programme, back in 2006 when China and James Morrow were GoHs.]
This was the plan, the plan was this: I would get the first post-rush hour train from Bristol to London and be there by noon.
‘There’ is the Starbucks in Borders bookstore on Oxford Street, our default meeting-up place in central London, and we would leave ‘there’ as soon as possible, and grab some pizza at a place around the corner (where, a year earlier, our arrival had been greeted with rapturous applause from the staff – not because they recognised China, but because they’d been open for almost an hour and we were their first customers that day). And after lunch, although the pretext for meeting up was discussing essay proposals for a book we are editing on Marxism and sf, we would head to the Natural History Museum to see the thirty-foot long, newly-on-display, giant squid.
That was the plan, the plan was that.
So of course that was not what happened.
Readers of King Rat and the stories in Looking for Jake (and a forthcoming project, as yet still a secret [Un Lun Dun, I guess]) will know that London is a strange place, where all kinds of unexpected things can happen; that the fabric of the city itself is fantastical. Strange chimera flit through the crowds, pausing to take fliers advertising clubs and bars and language schools from fastidiously scruffy young men and women being paid way less than minimum wage for their cash-in-hand labour, and roar in anguish, in bafflement, at this world which is no longer theirs, and retreat temporarily into the interstices, before emerging once more, hooked on it. Creatures, remnants from another time, can be glimpsed in the reflective surfaces of department stores and sandwich shops, phone booths and passing buses. Others dance across the rooftops. And then there’s the people, who are pretty fucking strange.
But our delays and derailments are far more mundane. Family. Trains. And by the time we get ‘there’ it is gone two o’clock. (There was an amusing incident involving a borrowed phone in case China needed to contact me, which he does, but by text, which my quick briefing on this new-fangled technology did not cover. I manage to find the message but am uncertain how to reply. I amaze myself by finding China’s number in the phone’s address book, so I call and leave him a message. The number later transpires to be that of his old phone. But I will omit this is at makes me sound much too old yet insufficiently curmudgeonly. And has nothing to do with trains or cephalapods.)
Lunch is relocated to an Italian restaurant, which does a pasta dish China likes involving little balls of fried courgette and spinach. Our arrival prompts neither adulation nor irony.
‘Trains,’ I tut, to boost my curmudgeon-score as we share a mezze and several varieties of bread. But we have been talking about trains a lot, lately. I have a crazy notion that there is a book to be written about trains and early cinema and time-travel (but very distinctly not about early railroad films or time-travel movies), and China’s voracious reading, especially the research for Iron Council (and for his review of Stefan Grabinski’s The Motion Demon), keeps throwing up gems. It’s like having a really good research assistant I don’t have to supervise or pay (although he has still not returned my copies of The Iron Horse, Once Upon a Time in the West and Emperor of the North Pole).
These are the three things he tells me.
‘The seemingly obvious use of the railroad to “mean” Manifest Destiny, as in Zane Grey’s The U.P. Trail, is only permissible because of the peculiarity of that particular railroad. It really did only have one line, at least for a brief moment, but much longer iconically, and that’s been the source of a lot of notions of the unilinearity of the railroad, which are completely spurious. Not even a consideration of the siding or even the parallelism of tracks (necessary unless all trains are going only one way, a patent absurdity). So railroads aren’t even a misused symbol – they only work symbolically because of a lie.’
‘Of a failure, no, a refusal, to observe accurately,’ I suggest, ‘because that would strip the metaphor of its political potency.’
The mezze is really good.
‘Iron Council riffed heavily on Frank Spearman’s Whispering Smith. Spearman was a sort-of libertarian, reportedly Ayn Rand’s favourite writer, did lots of stuff about rugged railwaymen. Whispering Smith is a troubleshooter for the railroad who is allowed to go anywhere and do more or less anything, including kill anyone necessary, to “fix problems”. It is an extremely perspicacious critique of rugged individualist/libertarian railroadism (as I’ve christened the ideology), because contrary to the “enlightened self-interest” of the Randists and half of Spearman’s own characters, the thrusting of the rails is only possible with a roving assassin – a man in a permanent state of Schmittian law-making exception! – bringing peace for capital-expansion at the end of a gun beyond the bounds of the rails. So the railroad relies for the always-spurious solidity of even its semiotic status to the right on an implicit awareness of beyond-railroad coercion of the most violent kind. Spearman, a cunning writer, recognises this and rather than attempt to conceal it, hides its in plain view.’
‘Agamben,’ I mutter, sipping a rather non-descript red wine, knowing that his Schmitt reference is more astute than my name-drop (but then he did study – and write a book on – legal theory). I refill my glass and reflect on how it is possible for China to talk so enthusiastically about stuff despite his rather non-committal approach to drinking.
‘And then there’s Bruno Schulz, using trains (in several different ways – history as both inside and outside the train itself, on the rails as well as in the corridors) to think about the alterity of history and alternate possibilities. I’m increasingly interested by the idea of the multi-track nature of railroads, let alone Grabinski’s sidings, as key to their importance. There’s this astonishing passage in his ‘The Age of Genius’ in The Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass:
Ordinary facts are arranged within time, strung along its length as on a thread. There they have their antecedents and their consequences, which crowd tightly together and press hard one upon the other without any pause. This has its importance for any narrative, of which continuity and successiveness are the soul.
Yet what is to be done with events that have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred too late, after the whole of time has been distributed, divided and allotted; events that have been left in the cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, homeless and errant?
Could it be that time is too narrow for all events? Could it happen that all the seats within time might have been sold? Worried, we run along the train of events, preparing ourselves for the journey.
For heaven’s sake, is there perhaps some kind of bidding for time? Conductor, where are you?
Don’t let’s get excited. Don’t let’s panic; we can settle it all calmly within our own terms of reference. Have you ever heard of parallel streams of time within a two-track time? Yes, there are such branch lines of time, somewhat illegal and suspect, but when, like us, one is burdened with contraband of supernumerary events which cannot be registered, one cannot be too fussy. Let us try to find at some point of history such a branch line, a blind track onto which to shunt these illegal events. There is nothing to fear. It will all happen imperceptibly: the reader won’t feel any shock. Who knows? Perhaps even now, while we mention it, the doubtful manoeuvre is already behind us and we are, in fact, proceeding into a cul-de-sac.
‘Isn’t that fucking amazing?”
I have to agree.
I also have to confess.
This was the plan, the plan was this: over lunch we would talk wisely and wittily about arcane things, scare the children at the next table with our profanity and their parents with out erudition (or vice versa). It is not that China is scarily geeky (although he does know his shit), nor that I cannot write convincing dialogue (although I cannot); but rather that China’s words come from a long and almost painfully helpful email he sent me after a phone conversation about matters locomotive.
Conversation over lunch that day really focused on our childish enthusiasm for all things cephalopodic and tentacular. I’d recently rewatched Jon Lurie’s series of fake fishing documentaries, Fishing With John, in which he takes various celebrities – Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe – on improbable fishing expeditions. The series ends with a two-parter in which John – who died while ice-fishing with Willem in the previous instalment, a fitting punishment considering they used the proper equipment rather than chainsaws to cut through the ice – is discovered to be not only alive and well but taking Dennis Hopper fishing for giant squid in the Andaman Sea. After arduous travels, unsuccessful angling, a sidetrip to see some squid-worshipping monks who warn of the giant squid’s hypnotic powers, they finally meet with success, of a sort. A giant squid rises to the surface. But all is not well. Disorientation strikes Dennis and John. What is going on? Has something happened? They leave Asia disconsolate, because despite seeing their prey up close, it hypnotised them, and they believe their expedition a complete failure.
Jeff VanderMeer’s name of course crops up, as it always does in squidversations. But a new potential source of delight is introduced. An aside about James Woods not sleepwalking through a performance but actually sleeping through a performance in ER triggers a memory deep in China.
‘Have you ever,’ he asked, ‘seen Tentacles? I’ve only heard about it – a 70s Jaws rip-off about a giant octopus – in which John Huston literally phones in his performance. Apparently, he finally gave in and agreed to appear in it on the condition that he didn’t have to leave his own home to do so. So his performance consists of him sitting on a lawn-chair on his own lawn, saying things over his own phone like, “Hmmm, yes, that does sound like it could be the work of a giant octopus”.’
Neither wise nor witty, neither arcane nor profane; more geeky than erudite; but it certainly did scare the children sat at the table next to us. And their parents.
Coda 1. We did actually discuss the proposals and finalise the line-up for Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction.
Coda 2. The little balls of courgette and spinach are really rather good.
Coda 3. While China’s books are available at all good bookstores, it is worth noting that Tentacles is also available on region 1 DVD, but while I was able to pick up a copy for just five bucks, there is a heavy price to pay: it comes with the Joan Collins movie Empire of the Ants, a low point in a career hardly distinguished by its heights.
Coda 4. We never did get to the Natural History Museum to see the giant squid.
Coda 5. Unless we did but just can’t remember. Hypnotic powers, y’know.
You know how seeing those words on a screen fills you with dread and giggles?
Let’s remake Escape from New York in a futuristic banlieue, no, wait, in a space prison.
Let’s make a movie about taxis going really fast four separate times, and then let’s make it three more times except instead of taxis we’ll have a delivery guy who kicks ass but has a heart of gold, and then we’ll try it on telly, and then we’ll reboot it and pretend the first ones never happened…
The ideas just pour out of him.
However, just because French courts ruled that Besson is ‘the death of cinema’ (long story, kinda almost true), it does not mean that he cannot have good ideas.
He bunged Tony Jaa euros when it mattered. There was Jean Reno as the clean-up guy, and that whole le parkour thing.
Sometimes his ideas are obviously crazy, but then turn out not to be. Like the morning he sat down and thought, I know, I’ll make Jason Statham a movie star.
Perhaps his most surprising idea to date, though, is his decision to remake Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 censor-bothering erotic drama Last Tango in Paris.
Given the late-career boosts enjoyed by ageing male stars in recent movies from Besson’s Europacorp, competition for the role of Paul, made famous by Marlon Brando, was understandably stiff. Michael Biehn, Michael Madsen, Craig Fairbrass and Andy Garcia were all considered. But, Besson explains, it was Woody Harrelson’s performance in Zombieland (2009) that caught his eye. ‘He was perfect. I completely believed he would criss-cross the post-apocalyptic badlands checking out convenience stores and vending machines. Such drive! Such focus! I knew the moment I saw it that he was ideal for Paul.’
In Last Tango, Paul meets a mysterious woman, Jeanne (Scarlett Johansson), at a Parisian apartment they both want to rent. She is half his age. Soon they embark on an intense – and quite graphic – sexual relationship. They agree to keep it all anonymous, to share no details of their personal lives, and soon Paul finds himself in a race against time to retrieve from evil Albanians a world-shaking secret concealed in France’s only remaining can of a popular fizzy drink…
Luc Besson’s Last Tango in Paris opens June 18.
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Hours (2013) – a film in which Paul Walker must hand crank a battery recharger every 3 minutes or less for several days in order to keep his prematurely-born daughter alive in a ventilator while Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath rage outside the deserted hospital – is the bit when Vin Diesel, sporting a prosthetic nose that makes him look like Nicole Kidman, rocks up in an old Detroit muscle car fitted out as a hovercraft to drop off James Franco, who races into the hospital to save father and infant by gnawing off his own arm, though I confess my eyelids did get a little heavy about seventy-five minutes into the movie and so I can’t swear this is exactly how it ended…