…and since we are on the subject of Joel McCrea, here, courtesy of the Botanical Gardens in Kraków, is a bonus obscure allusion to Preston Sturges:
It is entirely possible your mother has told you that Henry Rollins is no fun.
Do not trust her.
He Never Died (Krawczyk 2015) is a low-budget not-quite horror, not-quite crime thriller, that is never quite brilliant and never quite camp. Jack (Rollins), a grey-haired, middle-aged man, lives alone in a small apartment, oddly disconnected from the world. He does not have a job. He keeps odd hours. He eats at the same diner every day. Most days he goes to the local church to play bingo not with but near the old folks; they do not distract him, he explains.
He keeps himself to himself.
His interactions with people are oddly stilted. He offers nothing. He states the obvious. He doesn’t get them. He is Keaton-level deadpan. (His one loquacious moment is a flatly delivered, seemingly interminable list of the many jobs he has had. That bit is actually quite brilliant.)
Oh, and he’s an immortal cannibal. Just about holding it together by not eating meat and by drinking the blood he buys from a hospital intern. That way he doesn’t kill people. He has a very long history of killing people. In fact, he started it.
But now, in a Toronto that is shot as often as possible to look like an Edward Hopper painting to convince us it is somewhere in the US, someone with a grudge is coming for him.
They don’t know what he truly is.
But they get, rather bloodily, to find out.
All this, however, is beside the point. The film is about something else entirely.
It is about watching the ageing Rollins.
There is something geological about his body. Present. Weathered by time.
It is about his weary face, crumbling like granite.
It is about the slow dawning of mortality. And about carrying on.
And through all of this, Henry Rollins is no fun. (Except, of course, that he is.)
Do not be fooled if your local arthouse tries to advertise it like this: ‘Featuring some of the most mesmerising underwater cinematography this side of Jacques Cousteau and containing undertones of the weird horror fiction of HP Lovecraft…’
They have to do it that way round cos they’re an arthouse cinema, and they figure their main audience is going to be the people who want to see Cousteau-like cinematography. And it is indeed mesmerising, rendering the world beneath the waves beautiful and alien all at once.
But the film is really for those who like their fiction weird. And who want to know where babies come from.
An oddly piscine-looking woman raises a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas, in a white-walled coastal village full of oddly piscine-looking women, each of whom is raising a ten-year-old boy. The landscape is vaguely volcanic, the beach and streets covered in cinders. They live on a diet of khaki mush filled with worms, and every day, Nicolas must take four drops of medicine that looks suspiciously like cephalopod ink. He claims to have seen a dead boy on the sea floor with a red starfish on his belly. His mother dives to retrieve the starfish, thus ‘proving’ there was no dead boy.
The camera is generally static. No one says very much.
But Nicolas senses something is not right. Where do the women go by lantern-light once their boys are asleep? What is going on at the medical facility along the cliffs? Why do all the boys eventually go there? What happens to them?
It is difficult to write more without giving too much away. Plus, the film tends to live and resonate in its obscurities, its half-glimpses and elliptical cutaways, its silences and incompletions, so writing much more would also pin down meanings in a way which counter the film’s affect. Suffice to say, there is not just Lovecraft here, but also a Lynchian suspension of meaning, the surgical/gynaecological horror of Cronenberg, a hint of del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo but without the boys adventure literalness of his ghost story, and of The Wicker Man‘s odd local customs, and even of Brian Yuzna’s Society but without the comical excesses. (There is nothing comical about this film.) Hadzihalilovic has also mentioned in interview the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.
For a while near the end you start to think it does not know how to end, but then its final shot reframes all that has gone before as a document of the Anthropocene.
It is probably the creepiest, weirdest-on-first-viewing film I have seen since Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June, and easily the best thing I have seen in a cinema this year.
We live in a world being made monstrous.
By us. Inhuman and obscene (and anthropocene). Not merely unhomely but uninhabitable.
And it is a time of monsters.
Aliens and kaiju, zombies and mutants, giant robots and costumed freaks lay waste to our cities. Rumbling urban smackdowns between unknowable forces scorch the Earth for those with an eye to the main chance. Property developers. Gentrifiers. Buy-to-let landlords. Their snouts in the tattered remains of a public purse no longer really intended to serve the public. At the same time, politicians and journalists casually – and with the most deadly of intentions – label people on our borders and estates and social security as not really human at all.
They are good for thinking with – from Marx’s vampire capitalists and cyborg factories to the brain-eating undead ghouls that shamble relentlessly across all our post-millennial screens, large and small, dragging the mechanisms by which biopolitical states of exception operate out into plain sight.
Even though monsters might not exist they are the most material of metaphors, and more than mere metaphor.
They matter and make meaning.
Monsters refuse monstrosity.
In Tade Thompson’s ‘One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sunlight’, a deliberately self-interred then accidentally disinterred West African vampire tells his tale. He turned his back on the human world, but had to return to it to learn how to be in a world to which he could never belong. With chilling composure he observes armies clash and people kill for reasons he cannot fathom. He remembers a tale he was told in childhood in which – reworking Dracula’s voyage to Britain – one of the vampire kind, taken unknowingly, broke free in a slaveship and killed everyone onboard. Despite this, the monster, it is clear, was not the real monster. Like the protagonist, the monster refuses – rather than denies – monstrosity. The monster resists and refutes it. He buries himself. He walks away.
‘He had the combined face of a pig and a monkey, which comforted her.’ And so it should. All of us.
Even if we must rip this line from Dilman Dila’s ‘Monwor’ completely out of context.
You must look closely to spot the monster. Although it’s not hard.
The eponymous and implied monster of Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Chikwambo’ is a motley being, an exquisite corpse: it has ‘the face of a new born baby’, albeit with ‘the head dangl[ing] to the side as if stitched up to the neckless body’, and the ‘hands’ of a ‘monkey, the legs of a baboon and [a] torso made of a patchwork of cloth and dried animal skins, fur from rabbits and cows’. A Chikwambo is created by huroyi, or witchcraft, usually for a businessman looking to get rich. All he needs to do is feed it with a relative’s blood and ‘that blood metamorphose[s] into money’.
It’s a labour-power equation. The Chikwambo can eat or die; the businessman should fuck off and die.
Likewise, in Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘Bush Baby’, there’s a wastrel gambler turned thief, the gwei-gwei pursuing and torturing him for stealing its mat, and the men who lied to the wastrel gambler thief, tricking him into stealing from the forest-spirit even though they know it will cost him – agonisingly – his life. Spot the monster.
Is there some calculus by which we can determine the moment at which the becoming-monstrous occurs? At which capital is embodied and the capitalist becomes capital?
When the monster is monstrated and the line is drawn, the monstrator is always on the wrong side of it.
See Apartheid (cf. James Bennett and Dave Johnston’s comic ‘A Divided Sun’).
Monsters are the world.
In Zambia’s Ndola sunken lakes the Ichitapa lurks. If your shadow falls on the water, the monster will cut it from your body, and you will fall into the water and be devoured. There were thing here before us, Jayne Bauling’s ‘Severed’ tells us, things we cannot account for. Things that will remain long after we – individually and as a species – are gone. They predate us, and they pre-date us, and they will be our post-.
There might be a time when the only ethical thing left for us is, as a character in Vianne Venter’s ‘Acid Test’ seems to think, a radical green accelerationism. Bring it all down, and let the world return.
(Delightfully, and perhaps instructively, Ndola is a twin town of Aldershot.)
Your description of the monster misdescribes the monster and destroys it.
In Joe Vaz’s ‘After the Rain’, strange and deadly things emerge from the abandoned mines swiss-cheesing the ground beneath Johannesburg. Even the bugs in the mountainous mine dumps fear these creatures. They prey on township folk, like some contorted repressed returning, a reminder of the suffering and immiseration and state violence under Apartheid and since.
Mistaken for ‘long skinny men with dog-heads’, the creatures turn out to be dogs, ‘standing on long hind legs, balancing [their] weight on the tips of [their] paws’, a correction that is also mistake. Whatever they are, they are that, not something or some other thing that they resemble. Not the isomorphic protagonist, who got out as a nine-year-old back in 1986 and only now, thirty years later, returns.
But this is what happens when the monster ventures from its lair into normalcy.
Its angularity, its awkward and improbable being, its ferocity and anguish, get domesticated. Like a dog.
‘History is what hurts’, Jameson tells us, failing to add: ‘That, and monsters’.
They hurt and they hurt. They are in pain, and they bring pain.
Like the witch in Sarah Lotz’s ‘That Woman’ and the women who support and protect her because justice is not going to come from patriarchy or the state. Like the daughter of the old witch in Joan De La Haye’s ‘Impundulu’, who unleashes her just rage and anguish – and the eponymous lightning bird – not only on the man who raped her and made her miscarry but on all those who would take his side. On what we, often glibly, call rape culture and patriarchy.
As if naming them contains them.
The other has just as much right (and wrong) as the self.
Which doesn’t mean it’s easy or comfortable, as Su Opperman’s grotesque comic ‘The Death of One’ shows us.
Although maybe I’m reading it wrong. Maybe what I should be paying attention to is the page split into four panels, across the top two of which the man says ‘the death of one is…’ and across the bottom pair of which the sawtooth-beaked, bird-headed man-thing with too many eyes concludes ‘…is life to the other’. This is not some Lion King circle-of-life pablum, but a call for the dissolution of the monadic subject (and his comedy sidekick, the rational economic actor). An invocation of full communism.
‘If you see a monster at your doorstep’, Grandma says in Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘On the Road’, ‘the wise thing to do is shut the door’. Grandma is wrong.
The other is not really other, Lacan says, it just reflects and projects the ego. The Other is radical alterity. It cannot be identified with. It cannot be assimilated. It is unique and beyond representation and it is also the system of representation – the symbolic – that mediates the relationship between the radical, unassimilable alterity of subjects. The Other we first encounter is – quelle surprise! – the mother, defined of course by her phallic lack, which in turn figures the signifier that is always missing.
‘There is an abyss between this world and the next,’ the narrator of Toby Bennett’s ‘Sacrament of Tears’ writes, ‘I fear my nephew looked deep and could not make sense of what he saw’.
But perhaps the abyss is not a vagina, and the vagina is not an abyss.
Perhaps difference is not a lack at all.
Perhaps difference is an opening-out, a flowering into the realm of monsters. Which is where the monadic phallic white subject already, unbeknown to himself, lives. Along with us all.
Perhaps, like the queer, monster-embracing protagonist of Nerine Dorman’s ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’, we should not focus so much on the monster entering our world but instead on going away from here with the monster. On becoming monster.
Because difference is an opening-out onto that place beyond, which is called hope or utopia.
Not just full communism.
Manhattan is mine.
Just my dog for company.
And my zombie prey.
He understands Shrek.
But the point of Bob Marley?
Not a fucking clue.
He kills the puppy.
Wait! What? He kills the puppy?
Fuck Robert Neville.
Last week, we spent some time discussing the layers of observation, performance and display going on in Le couple témoin, as the protagonists are monitored by psychosociological experimenters, watch by television audiences and reported on in current affairs shows. This built on the idea of media – and television in particular – being repeatedly connected to alienation in mid-twentieth-century culture. In All That Heaven Allows, the widow Cary is offered television as a replacement for social life and romance. In Fahrenheit 451, we noted was the role of television in alienating Montag not only from his wife (a microcosm of Bradbury’s broader point about the (anti)social role of television) but also from himself when he watches the coverage of the Mechanical Hound pursuing him:
He watched the scene, fascinated, not wanting to move. It seemed so remote and no part of him; it was a play apart and separate, wondrous to watch, not without its strange pleasure. … If he wished, he could linger here, in comfort, and follow the entire hunt on through its swift phases, down alleys across streets, over empty running avenues, crossing lots and playgrounds, with pauses here and there for the necessary commercials … and so on finally to this house with Faber and himself seated, drinking … Then, if he wished, Montag might rise, walk to the window, keep one eye on the TV screen, open the window, lean out, look back, and see himself dramatized described, made over, standing there, limned in the bright small television screen from outside, a drama to be watched objectively, knowing that in other parlours he was large as life, in full colour, dimensionally perfect! And if he kept his eyes peeled quickly he would see himself, an instant before oblivion, being punctured for the benefit of how many civilian parlour-sitters who had been wakened from sleep a few minutes ago by the frantic sirening of their living room walls to come watch the big game, the hunt, the one-man carnival.
Would he have time for a speech? As the Hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn’t he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in the metal-plier jaws, and trotted off into darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance – a splendid fade-out!
With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess-game he was witnessing, move by move. (172-4, 177)
This dissociation continues even when Montag has escaped: the hunt continues; the Hound tracks down someone else in Montag’s place, cameras carefully shooting it all so as to maintain the deception of the rogue fireman’s capture. It is as if a second Montag has detached from the first. He witnesses his fate as if he has been given access to an alternate world in which he did not make the river crossing.
Television and associated media play a role in High-Rise, too.
Like Montag, Laing experiences moments of dissociation. When the jeweller from the 40th floor takes his fatal plunge (suicide? murder? accident?), Laing is among those who crowd onto the balcony of a neighbouring apartment:
Pushed along the railing, Laing saw his own empty balcony fifteen feet away. In an absurd moment of panic, he wondered if he himself was the victim. (41)
In the first half of the novel we learn about Wilder’s plan to make a documentary about the building and the breakdown of society within it – which his wife, Helen, who seems fully aware of Ballard’s own imagery, shrugs off as just another prison documentary, like the one he has been film in his day job. By the mid-point of the novel, everyone it seems is filming their own acts of violence – ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras are shooting away’ (90) – and showing their rushes to each other in the building’s move theatre.
Paul Crosland, the head of Laing’s clan, is also a television news anchor, and he continues to go into the studios to read the news, cataloguing disasters in calm and reassuring tones, never mentioning the similar catastrophe ripping through the building where he lives (96) – a departure from the teleprompter for which Laing continues to hope even as the novel draws to a close (151). When Crosland returns home, it is to stoke confrontations with other clans, emitting a blind and furious anger even though he ‘often … had no idea what he was arguing about’ (97). In those moments, unprotected by his makeup, Crosland’s outrage appears to Laing like that of ‘an announcer tricked for the first time into reading an item of bad news about himself’ (97). Such a dissolution of the distinction between public and private selves, between civilised and brutish behaviour, is linked to and articulated in relation to the electronic media that surround us in the city (just as the inhabitants of Alphaville in some way seem to live inside the Alpha 60 computer, which seems to be so thoroughly extended and distributed through the city as to be coterminous with it).
Even more mediatised is the drunken Eleanor Powell: ‘After a few cocktails she was hyper-animated, and flicked on and off like a confused TV monitor revealing glimpses of extraordinary programmes which Laing could only understand when he was drunk himself’ (96).
Soon, Laing can only watch the television with the sound turned down,
not out of boredom with these documentaries and situation comedies, but because they were meaningless. Even the commercial, with their concern for the realities of everyday life, were transmissions from another planet. Squatting among the plastic garbage-sacks, his furniture piled up behind him, Laing studied these lavish reconstructions of housewives cleaning their immaculate kitchens, deodorants spraying well-groomed armpits. Together they formed the elements of a mysterious domestic universe. (106-7)
When Wilder once more begins his ascent of the building, taking his cine-camera everywhere with him like some kind of protective fetish, he invites those he meets to take part in the television documentary he is making (or deluding himself he is making). On the lower-levels, people are eager to participate, voicing their many complaints, but the higher up he gets the more reluctant his potential interviewees become. Many of them are the kind of middle-class technocrats for whom being on television is nothing new, having previously appeared ‘as professional experts on various current-affairs programmes’ (115). Furthermore, ‘“Television is for watching, Wilder,” one of the women told him firmly, “not for appearing on.”’ (115). It is a curious kind of restraint amid all the chaos of the building, yet some proprieties, it seems, must be maintained. Soon, Wilder’s resolve to make the documentary begins to fade. Perhaps it is because, in some way, he has seen it all before – on television:
The decline of the apartment building reminded him of a slow-motion newsreel of a town in the Andes being carried down the mountain slopes to its death, the inhabitants still hanging out their washing in the disintegrating gardens, cooking in their kitchens as the walls were pulverized around them. (120)
On the top floor, Royal and his entourage dress formally for dinner at a pristine dining table, but even there the ‘theatricality of this contrived setting’ is obvious, ‘like a badly rehearsed and under-financed television commercial for a high-life product’ (132).
It is not just television, though.
The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. What depraved species of electric flora would spring to life form the garbage-strewn carpets of the corridors in response to this new source of light? The floors were littered with the blackened negative strips, flakes falling from this internal sun. … Laing’s feet crackled among the polaroid negatives scattered about the corridor floor, each recording a long-forgotten act of violence. (109, 150)
The flash of the Polaroid cameras is picked up on by the flickering lights, recalling the flicker of the movie projector and of analogue televisions:
the lights began to flicker continuously like a fibrillating heart. … a broken mirror lay on the bed, the pieces flickering like the fragments of another world trying unsuccessfully to reconstitute itself. … [Steele] beckoned Laing forward into the stuttering light. … The lights continued to flicker with the harsh over-reality of an atrocity newsreel. … the lights flickered from the doorways of ransacked apartments, form overturned lamps lying on the floor and television screens brought back to a last intermittent life. … In an empty bedroom a cine-projector screened the last feet of a pornographic film on to the wall facing the bed. (110-11)
Wilder projects footage of himself ‘upon the walls and ceiling’ of the elevator lobby, watching the images ‘as if about to leap on to the backs of his own shadows and ride them like a troupe of beasts up the flues of the building’, while in Talbot’s apartment the ‘lurid caricatures’ of homophobic graffiti sprayed ‘on the walls glimmered in the torch-light like the priapic figures drawn by cave-dwellers’ (108). Some floors above, the ‘even light’ in Royal’s penthouse is ‘as dead as a time exposure in a police photography recording a crime’ (138).
The building is media-saturated. In the darkness, nothing remains hidden. Artificial light exposes it all. (Just as the audiotapes made by Pangbourne (83, 140), the gynecologist who never touches his patients, and by Wilder (129-30), unleash things otherwise hidden.)
The novel self-reflexively – but not unambiguously – attributes the breakdown of society in the building to the post-Freudian subjectivities produced by a culture of affluence, commodities and consumerism. Talbot notes that they are not witnessing a return to some ‘happy primitivism’ or ‘the noble savage’; rather, the residents, ‘outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection’, seem to ‘resent never having had a chance to become perverse’ (109).
There is certainly plentiful evidence of regression to infantile psychosexual behaviour in the novel.
Laing takes his older sister – who reminds him of his mother and used to look after him as a child – as a lover; although she has inherited something of their mother’s ‘shrewish manner’, which he dislikes, he nonetheless finds this echo reassuring (98-9). This breaking of the incest taboo has two purposes.
First, it recalls anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that the cultural ban on incest is intended to promote social stability by favouring exogamy (sex/ marriage outside the group) over endogamy (sex/marriage within the group) and thus expanding the network of mutually dependent interrelationships. Ballard perhaps suggests, then, that with the alienation, isolation and disconnectedness of contemporary urban life, exogamy – engaging with others – might seem to become the greater threat; certainly exogamy is ill-suited to the inward-looking inhabitants of the building.
Second, the incest taboo returns us to the Freudianism that the novel denies but also has in spades. In the Oedipal complex, incestuous desire (the male infant for the mother, the female infant for the father) is the norm, and it must be defeated. The novel repeatedly plays on this. When Royal experiments with touching the passive Helen Wilder ‘she reacted, not by pushing his hand away, but by moving it to her waist and lightly holding it there as she would the straying hands of her children’ (135).
Wilder’s entire trajectory ends up being one of infantile regression. He feels the need to break free from his wife because by doing so ‘he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence’ (118). She watches him like a mother ‘as he hunted in her purse for money … amused by her husband’s dependence on the fictions of this elaborate toy [the phallic camera] he takes everywhere with him’ (119). He likes the dark because in it he can ‘deliberately play on all [his] repressed instincts’ (120). He welcomes the building’s ‘forced conscription of the deviant strains of his character’ and the fact that ‘this free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’ (120). Mrs Hillman, in whose apartment Wilder stays, spends ‘all her time worrying about him, like an over-anxious mother fretting about a wayward child’ (124), but ‘No more ill-suited couple, Wilder decided, could have been cast to play mock-mother and mock-son’ (125). This mock-relationship leaves room for the possibility of a sexual relationship of the kind the incest taboo is intended to prevent: over the course of the evening spends with the Hillmans, Wilder ‘became more and more oafish …, deliberately coarsening himself like a delinquent youth fooling about with a besotted headmistress’ (126). (He also concocts a lie about Talbot ‘molesting a child in a swimming-pool changing room’, and the fact that everyone knows the accusation to be untrue somehow reinforces it (127) – so some taboos remain to be manipulated by the bullying Wilder.)
Having left the Hillmans behind him, Wilder is soon dominating another woman, who is anxious to avoid the exogamy this encounter involves:
She welcomed him as she would any marauding hunter. First she would try to kill him, but failing this give him food and her body, breast-feed him back to a state of childishness and even, perhaps, feel affection for him. Then, the moment he was asleep, cut his throat. (160)
Although this is described as ‘the synopsis of the ideal marriage’ (160), it is so only inasmuch as it recapitulates the complex feelings of interdependence and aggression as the mother-infant dyad is ruptured and the Oedipal struggle commences.
Ultimately, breaking the building’s taboo on using guns, Wilder kills Royal, the building’s patriarch, and finds himself on the roof surrounded by other – actual – children and the women who care for them. He immediately becomes completely infantile. Hoping to join the children, he wanders out towards the women:
In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers. (168)
Laing’s fate is not so clear-cut. The novel ends with him holed up in his apartment with Alice, his sister-lover-mother, and Eleanor Powell, who seems to be merging with her. He addresses them in the childish voice he used as a trainee doctor when talking to ‘the duller of his child patients’ (171), and believing himself to be in control he forages food and waits on them. He indulges them when they treat ‘him like two governesses in a rich man’s ménage, teasing a wayward and introspective child’ (172) – presumably he is both the rich man and the child – and sometimes he acts as if they really are in charge (this is so convincing that once a raiding party of women left him alone, assuming he was the prisoner of the two women). Laing likes the arrangements – even if he deludes himself as to its actual nature – because it represents ‘an intimate family circle, the first he had know since childhood’ (172).
We also looked at three passages to chart Laing’s progress (regress) – when he attempts to leave the building but turns back (101-4), the start of chapter seven when the building seems to become timeless and motionless (145-7), and when he find Eleanor feeding her cat with her own blood (151-3) – and asked basically the same questions of each: what imagery and ideas does Ballard use to describe the building and its residents? how does the world inside differ from the world outside? why does Laing find it impossible to leave and why in each subsequent passage does he seem happier despite (because of?) the further deterioration of his environment?
This notion of deterioration is important. Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments went from being merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom. Typically, what was conveniently forgotten – often for ideological reasons – was that for many people moving from slums to the new developments was headily utopian. Many people finally had enough bedrooms that they did not need to share, indoor plumbing, etc. While Aneurin Bevan’s brick-built housing was intended to last, many of the the prefabricated developments only had intended lives of a few decades, and soon began to deteriorate, not least because councils often failed properly to fund maintenance to post-war housing projects. That this was the fault of government did not get in the way of the residents themselves being being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. High-Rise was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996) dramatises a version of these events). Whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre.
In closing, we had a brief discussion about Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976), focusing particularly on the ways in which it pretty much reduces New York to a demonised and perilous Times Square, bathed in a red light to make it infernal. This, too, fits in with a broader discourse, one that would lead to the purging of such urban spaces, ridding them of the diverse ethnic and sexual working class cultures that inhabited them in favour of redevelopment. The value of land and property on Manhattan was too high, and full of potential to become even higher, to be left to such people. There was money, and lots of it, to be made by criminalising them, driving them out, displacing them, and by thus reversing white-flight, by gentrification, by tourist-friendly Disneyfication.
We will pick up on this next week when we look at some blaxploitation and some LA Rebellion films as part of the background for thinking about Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991).
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about the newly restored version of Don’t Look Now (1973), which incorporates some footage cut at the request of Stephen Murphy, chair of the BBFC, is not the fresh emphasis it places upon Donald Sutherland’s pre-emptive bid to become the new Doctor Who after Jon Pertwee’s departure the following year by dressing up as much like Tom Baker as possible, but the shocking and totally unexpected revelation of who Roeg initially intended to unveil as the diminutive Venetian serial killer…
This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.
But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.
Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.
This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).
During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)
The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.
Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.
We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.
The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.
This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)
In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:
We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.
First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).
There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.
The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).
And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Under the Skin (2013) – the dreary-with-nice-landscapes arthouse remake of Species (Donaldson 1995) that ultimately fails in it valiant attempt at comedy greatness by not crassly letting the dog who caused all the drownings survive after the parents and the Czech guy and the toddler die, though it comes close when the radio news announces that the father, a professor, was reported missing by his university when he failed to turn up to work on Monday morning – is not the perfect casting of blank-faced affectless Scarlett Johansson as the blank-faced affectless alien, nor that you can spend the last part of the movie correcting the typo in its title by chanting Undo the skin! Undo the Johansskin! but the fact that you can spend half the day reading articles that not only praise the film for subverting the male gaze and thus opening up towards otherness but also complain about all the Glaswegian accents…
and so anyway it turn out that the best thing about Dracula Untold (2014) is not that, despite its title, it begins with extensive voiceover narration, nor that it promptly sets you up to expect a queer vampire western when the first named location is Broketooth Mountain, nor that Luke Evans dies right at the start so that his big brother Jason Statham can take over (mainly because that doesn’t actually happen), nor the Taransylvaniarantula spiders lurking in the ancient vampire’s cave, but the moment when Vlad, his kingdom about to be overrun by Turks (well, they’re Turk-ish), as a last resort goes to implore the ancient vampire master, ‘Save my people – you’re Charles Dance, you’ll do any old shit for money’…