Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006Following the disastrous performance of Carry on England (Thomas 1976), pulled from cinemas after just three days, producer Peter Rogers decided the long-running series of tepid sex comedies needed a change of direction if it was to survive.

For the 29th instalment, he turned to Jack Trevor Story, then enjoying all the notoriety a weekly Guardian column about his disastrous domestic and romantic entanglements could bring.

An occasional and peripheral figure in the British science fiction New Wave, Story rapidly produced a screenplay parodying Ballard’s High Rise (1975). Despite the scepticism of director Gerald Thomas, Rogers took the plunge, in the hope that they could cash in on the publicity for Nicolas Roeg’s official adaptation, then in production.

Kenneth Williams, in his 25th Carry On, is the only series regular to appear, albeit in little more than an extended cameo. He plays Queen, an effeminate architect presiding over a newly erected but already crumbling apartment building, while struggling to finance further ‘erections’. Elke Sommer, in her second Carry On, plays his perpetually aroused but sexually frustrated wife.

Rogers and Thomas turned to a pair of up-and-coming sex comedy stars for their leading men. Martin Shaw, so effective in LWT’s late-sixties Doctor in the House series, was ideal as the dishy doctor Prang, while Lewis Collins, briefly glimpsed in Norman Cohen’s Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976), proved his perfect foil as the thuggish, proletarian Nobby. The two actors, however, soon fell out.

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Suzanne Danielle, in a role reputedly intended for Mary Millington, plays the unnamed air hostess displaced from Prang’s bed when his sister – Judy Geeson in her second Carry On – appears. Other familiar faces in minor roles and an extended, if utterly innocuous, orgy scene, include Yute Stensgaard, Valerie Leon, Vicki Michelle, Carol Drinkwater and Koo Stark.

Carry On Getting It Up broke even in just one week, which was as long as it lasted in British cinemas before being withdrawn in the face of legal action – but not from the uncredited, and unpaid, Ballard.

Rather, Ernő Goldfinger, apparently unaware that Ballard’s Royal was partly based on him, took umbrage at being depicted as a poor architect and worse heterosexual.

Deciding not to risk a court case, Rogers suppressed the film, and immediately began work on Carry on Emmannuelle, with Kenneth Williams, a handful of series regulars and, in her first named role, Suzanne Danielle.

What – if anything – Ballard made of Carry On Getting It Up remains a mystery. We have been unable to trace any mention of it by him. We are, however, delighted to bring it back to the big screen for the first time since Morph debuted on the telly and Star Wars was a hit.

Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

My top 26 films of 2016

In 2016 I watched 308 films – less than usual, in part because I taught less film this year, in part because I was reading too much.

Top 26 films seen in 2016 (not including films I’ve seen before)
Evolution (Hadzihalilovic 2015)
The Neon Demon (Winding Refn 2016)
He Never Died (Krawczyk 2015)
Mænd & høns/Men & Chicken (Jensen 2015)
Bush Mama (Gerima 1979)
Arsenal (Dovzhenko 1929)
Two Year at Sea (Rivers 2011)
Dutchman (Harvey 1967)
Kraftidioten/In Order of Disappearance (Moland 2014)
Kotoko (Tsukamoto 2011)
Arrival (Villeneuve 2015)
The Last Winter (Fessenden 2006)
Amigo
(Sayles 2010)
girlfight (Kusama 2000)
Creed (Coogler 2015)
Lost River (Gosling 2014)
Le Capital (Costa-Gavras 2012)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
(Edwards 2016)
Vertigo Sea (Akomfrah 2015)
Losing Ground (Collins 1982)
Welcome Home Brother Charles (Fanaka 1975)
The Sacrament (West 2013)
The Flying Ace (Norman 1926)
Shooting Stars
(Bramble and Asquith 1928)
That Demon Within (Lam 2014)

The 308 films of 2016
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Buñuel 1954)
Ah! La Barbe (de Chomón 1905)
Ai no Korida (Oshima 1976)
Albert Nobbs (Garcia 2011)
All That Heaven Allows (Sirk 1955)
A maison ensorcelée (de Chomón 1908)
Amigo (Sayles 2010)
Anita and Me (Hüseyin 2002)
À nous la liberté (Clair 1931)
L’antre de le sorcière (de Chomón )
Army of Darkness (Raimi 1993)
Arrival (Villeneuve 2015)
Arsenal (Dovzhenko 1929)
Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (Chabat 2002)
Attack of the Giant Leeches (Kowalski 1959)
Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
Austerity (Gavris 2015)
Autómata (Ibáñez 2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon 2015)
Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (Ocelot 2006)

Baise-moi (Despentes and Trihn Thi 2000)
Barcelone – parc au crépuscule (de Chomón 1904)
Barcelone, principale ville de la Catalogne (de Chomón 1912)
Belle (Asante 2013)
Betrayal of the Dove (Hamilton 1993)
Better Off Dead (Holland 1985)
The Big Knife (Aldrich 1955)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Iñárritu 2014)
Blood Ah Goh Run (Shabazz 1982)
Bloody Mallory (Magnat 2002)
Blue Ruin (Saulnier 2013)
La boîte à cigars (de Chomón 1907)
Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991)
Brave (Andrews, Chapman and Purcell 2012)
Bret Maverick (Margolin 1981)
Bride of Frankestein (Whale 1935)
The Brothers Bloom (Johnson 2008)
Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004)
Bunny Lake is Missing (Preminger 1964)
Burning an Illusion (Shabazz 1981)
The Burrowers (Petty 2008)
Bush Mama (Gerima 1979)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill 1969)
By Right of Birth (Gant 1921)

The Caller (Seidelman 1987)
Le Capital (Costa-Gavras 2012)
La caporal épinglé (Renoir 1962)
Carol (Haynes 2015)
Casablanca (Curtiz 1942)
Les cents trucs (de Chomón 1906)
Chappie (Blomkamp 2015)
Chappie (Blomkamp 2015)
Chigger Ale (Llansó and Seoane 2013)
Child 44 (Espinosa 2015)
Child of Resistance (Gerima 1973)
Cloud Atlas (Wachowskis and Tykwer 2012)
Cobra Verde (Herzog 1987)
Coiffures et types de Hollande (Machin 1910)
Comedown (Huda 2012)
The Company of Wolves (Jordan 1984)
Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (Kagan 1987)
Contagion (Soderbergh 2011)
Le couple témoin (Klein 1977)
Le courant électrique (de Chomón 1906)
Création de la serpentine (de Chomón 1908)
Creed (Coogler 2015)
Crimson Peak (del Toro 2015)
Cry of the City (Siodmak 1948)
Cthulhu Regio Entropy (Carvalho 2016)

Dallas Buyers Club (Vallée 2013)
Dark Mirror (Siodmak 1946)
Dead of Night (Cavalcanti, Crichton, Dearden and Hamer 1945)
Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller 2015)
Dick Barton at Bay (Grayson 1950)
Dick Barton: Special Agent (Goulding 1948)
Dick Barton Strikes Back (Grayson 1949)
Diggstown (Ritchie 1992)
Dirty Pretty Things (Frears 2002)
District 9 (Blomkamp 2009)
Divergent (Burger 2014)
Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001)
Don’t Look Now (Roeg 1973)
Dracula Untold (Shore 2014)
Drive Hard (Trenchard-Smith 2014)
Ducks and Drakes (Campbell 1921)
Dutchman (Harvey 1967)

Edge of Tomorrow (Liman 2014)
Electric Hôtel (de Chomón 1908)
Elf (Favreau 20003)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)
En avant les musiques (de Chomón 1907)
Entr’acte (Clair 1924)
Evil Dead II (Raimi 1987)
Evil Roy Slade (Paris 1972)
Evolution (Hadzihalilovic 2015)
Excalibur (Boorman 1981)
Une excursio incohérente (de Chomón 1909)
Ex Machina (Garland 2015)

Fahrenheit 451 (Truffaut 1966)
The Fall (Tarsem 2006)
Fantastic Four (Trank 2015)
Fauteuils d’orchestre (Thompson 2006)
The Flying Ace (Norman 1926)
Fording the River (Smith 1910)
Frankenstein (Whale 1931)
Frida (Taymor 2002)
Frozen (Buck and Lee 2013)
Fury (Ayer 2015)
Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (Goodwin 2014)

Galaxy Quest (Parisot 1999)
Gazon Maudit (Balasko 1995)
Gérone, la Venise espagnole (de Chomón 1912)
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jarmusch 1999)
Ghosts with Shit Jobs (McCawley, Morrison, Munroe and Young 2012)
The Gift (Edgerton 2015)
Ginger Snaps (Fawcett 2000)
girlfight (Kusama 2000)
The Girl on the Train (Taylor 2016)
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Amirpour 2014)
The Gold Diggers (Potter 1983)
Le goût des autres (Jaoui 2000)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson 2014)
Green Room (Saulnier 2015)
Grosse Point Blank (Armitage 1997)
Growing Up (Cole 1971)

The Harvest (Smith 1908)
The Hateful Eight (Tarantino 2015)
The Haunting (Wise 1963)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell 2001)
He Never Died (Krawczyk 2015)
L’hereu de can pruna (de Chomón 1904)
Los Heróes del sitio de Zaragoza (de Chomón 1903)
High-Rise (Wheatley 2015)
hors d’ouevres (Potter 1971)
Hot Fuzz (Wright 2007)
Hour Glass (Gerima 1971)
How I Live Now (Macdonald 2013)

I Don’t Know You, But I Need You to Change the World (Libre Films 2016)
L’inaugurazione del campanile di San Marco (1912)
Independence Day (Emmerich 1996)
Innocence (Hadzihalilovic 2004)
L’insaisissable pickpocket (de Chomón 1908)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen brothers 2014)
In Time (Niccol 2011)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel 1956)
The Invisible Man (Whale 1933)
It Follows (Mitchell 2014)

Jerk (Potter 1969)
John Wick (Stahelski 2014)

Kill, Baby…Kill! (Bava 1967)
Ki ri ki, acrobates japanois (de Chomón 1907)
Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich 1955)
Kotoko (Tsukamoto 2011)
Kraftidioten/In Order of Disappearance (Moland 2014)
Krampus (Dougherty 2015)
Kung Fury (Sandberg 2015)

The Last Winter (Fessenden 2006)
Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise (Schaner 2015)
Life and Lyrics (Laxton 2006)
The Lion in Winter (Harvey 1968)
The Lobster (Lanthimos 2016)
Locke (Knight 2013)
The London Story (Potter 1986)
The Long Good Friday (Mackenzie 1980)
Losing Ground (Collins 1982)
Lost River (Gosling 2014)
Love (Eubank 2011)
Les lunatiques (de Chomón 1908)

The Machine (James 2013)
Mad About Men (Thomas 1954)
Mad Love (Freund (1935)
Maggie (Hobson 2015)
The Maltese Falcon (Huston 1940)
Mænd & høns/Men & Chicken (Jensen 2015)
The Maze Runner (Ball 2014)
Mea Culpa (Cavayé 2014)
The Mechanic (West 2011)
The Medusa Touch (Gold 1978)
Métamorphoses (de Chomón 1912)
The Mistletoe Bough (Stow 1904)
Mix Me a Person (Norman 1962)
Moon (Jones 2009)
The Movement (Antoine 2015)
The Mummy (Freund 1932)

Naked Lunch (Cronenberg 1991)
The Neon Demon (Winding Refn 2016)
Night in the Wild Garden (Llansó 2015)
Noah (Aronofsky 2014)
Nosferatu (Murnau 1922)

One Million Steps (Stotz 2015)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch 2013)
OSS 117: Le Caire, nid d’espions (Hazanavicius 2006)
Les ouefs du Pâques (de Chomón 1907)
Les papillons japonais (de Chomón 1908)

The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986)
Paul (Mottola 2011)
Peau d’âne (Demy 1970)
Le petit poucet (de Chomón 1909)
The Phantom of the Opera (Lubin 1943)
Pitch Perfect 2 (Banks 2015)
Pirates are the Best Customers (Lungu 2015)
Play (Potter 1970)
Plotono nuotatori della III divisione cavalleria comandata da S.A.R. il conte torino (Comerio 1912)
Plongeur fantastique (de Chomón 1906)
Poison (Haynes 1991)
Pool of London (Dearden 1951)
Post Grad (Jenson 2009)
Prête-moi ta main (Lartigua 2006)
Pride (Warchus 2014)
Pride and Prejudice (Leonard 1940)
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers 2016)

Queen Kong (Agrama 1976)

The Raid 2 (Evans 2014)
Rapsodia Satanica (Oxilia 1917)
A Reckless Rover (1918)
Red Riding Hood (Hardwicke 2011)
Repo Chick (Cox 2009)
Repo Man (Cox 1984)
Repo Man (Cox 1984)
Rio Bravo (Hawks 1959)
The River (Renoir 1951)
RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987)
RoboCop 2 (Kershner 1990)
RoboCop 3 (Dekker 1993)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards 2016)
Le Roi des dollars (de Chomón 1905)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006)

Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936)
The Sacrament (West 2013)
Les Saignantes (Bekolo 2005)
Les Saignantes (Bekolo 2005)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Wright 2010)
Sculpteur express (de Chomón 1907)
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (Akomfrah 1993)
Shank (Ali 2010)
Shooting Stars (Bramble and Asquith 1928)
Sicario (Villeneuve 2015)
Sightseers (Wheatley 2012)
Silent Country (Wren 2016)
Silk Stockings (Mamoulian 1957)
Sin Nombre (Fukunaga 2009)
Slow West (Maclean 2015)
Snowpiercer (Bong 2013)
Song of Freedom (Wills 1936)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee 1939)
Southland Tales (Kelly 2006)
Southland Tales (Kelly 2006)
Southpaw (Fuqua 2015)
South West 9 (Parry 2001)
Space Station 76 (Plotnick 2014)
Le spectre rouge (de Chomón 1907)
Speed (De Bont 1994)
Stalag 17 (Wilder 1953)
Stalker (Tarkovsky 1979) and here, too
Star Wars (Lucas 1977)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams 2015)
Step Up (Fletcher 2006)
Stormy Weather (Stone 1945)
Streets of Parliament (O’Connell 2015)
Sucker Punch (Snyder 2011)
Superstition andalouse (de Chomón 1912)
Sur un air de Charleston (Renoir 1927)

Take Shelter (Nichols 2011)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976)
That Demon Within (Lam 2014)
Le théâtre électrique de bob (de Chomón 1906)
The Thing (Carpenter 1982)
The Thing from Another World (Nyby 1951)
Thirteen (Hardwicke 2003)
This is My Land (Rivers 2006)
Thriller (Potter 1979)
Throne of Blood (Kurosawa 1957)
The Time Machine (Schellerup 1978)
Tomatoes Tree (Mobasseri 2016)
Tomorrowland (Bird 2015)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu 1971)
The Transporter (Letterier and Yuen 2002)
Tree (Zare 2016)
Tropikos (Akomfrah 2014)
Les tulipes (de Chomón 1907)
Two Nights of Vaudeville (1915)
Two Year at Sea (Rivers 2011)

Under the Skin (Glazer 2013)

Le Vampire (Painlevé 1945)
Vertigo Sea (Akomfrah 2015)
De Vierde Man (Verhoeven 1983)
Villain (Tuchner 1971)
Le voleur invisible (de Chomón 1909)
Le voyage sur Jupiter (de Chomón 1909)

The Walk (Zemeckis 2015)
Welcome Home Brother Charles (Fanaka 1975)
Werewolf of London (Walker 1935)
What a Carve Up! (Jackson 1961)
The Wicker Man (Hardy 1973)
Wild Card (West 2015)
The Wolf Man (Waggner 1941)
The Wolverine (Mangold 2013)
Written on the Wind (Sirk 1956)

X-Men (Singer 2000)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer 2014)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn 2011)
X-Men 2 (Singer 2002)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner 2005)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood 2009)
Xtro (Davenport 1982)
Xtro II: The Second Encounter (Davenport 1990)

Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991)

Stuff what I done in 2016

So the big thing this year was receiving the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Lifetime Achievement Award for Critical Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy. I am still a little freaked out by it.

Other honours this year included being asked to join the advisory board of the soon-to-be-launched Miskatonic Journal of Horror Studies and being invited to give three keynotes and a couple of research papers/talks:

  • ‘The Afrocyberpunk City’, The City of the Future symposium, Universität Hamburg, Germany 29–30 January 2016
  • ‘Afrofuturism Archive Accrue Artefact’, King’s Fantastic Talks series, King’s College, London, 27 February 2016
  • ‘Robots on the Streets, Icebergs in the Skies: London, Austerity, Anthropocene’, Fantasies of Contemporary Culture, Cardiff University/Prifysgol Caerdydd, 23 May 2016
  • ‘Afrofuturism, Archive, Anthropocene’, Global Fantastika, University of Lancaster, 4–5 July 2016
  • ‘Things Above, and Beyond: the Anthropocene Unconscious of Miéville’s ‘Polynia’ and Llansó’s Crumbs’, Fantastic Material(s): Things and the Workings of the Non-Real, Institute of English Cultures and Literatures, Uniwersytet Śląski w Katowicach, Poland 7–8 July 2016
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In Cardiff, with Billy Proctor, at a conference only slightly populated by balding middle-aged white men

Good times were had in Germany, Wales, England and especially Poland – though clearly I am getting old as I was forced to retire sick at the end of the first day of Global Fantastika, which I still feel guilty about. I also examined 4 PhDs: two in the UK, one in Australia (though they never fly you down there) and one in Sweden – where a good time was also had.

[In Katowice, where Karolina, knowing I don’t really like having my photo taken, ensured I existed only in fragments. More on Poland here, here,  here, here, here and here. {More on Sweden here, here, here and here.}]

There was also the launch of the monograph series Studies in Global Science Fiction, for Palgrave, which I am coediting with Anindita Bannerjee and Rachel Heywood Ferreira. Our first volume, Ritch Calvin’s Feminist Science Fiction and Feminist Epistemology: Four Modes, is already out. Send proposals.

The nearest I got this year to publishing an article in a refereed journal were an immensely long interview:

  • ‘Not Just the Viggo Mortensen of Desolated Left Politics: An Interview with China Miéville’, Paradoxa 28: Global Weirding (2016), edited by Gerry Canavan and Andrew Hageman. The introduction to the issue is here; the other interview, between Andrew, Timothy Morton and Jeff VanderMeer is here; and the contents page from which China and I are mysteriously missing – I assume it is a complex metafictional gag  that will make sense when you read the interview – is here

and a chapter in an edited collection:

  • ‘Paying Freedom Dues: Marxism, Black Radicalism, and Blaxploitation Sf’ in Ewa Mazierska and Alfredo Suppia, eds, Red Alert: Marxist Approaches to Science Fiction Cinema (Wayne State UP 2016), 72–97

But I did manage some essays, reviews and blogs:

I also gave a talk on ‘Why Are So Many Robots Female?’ for the We, Robot event at the Being Human festival, finished an article on Afrofuturism, Robots of Brixton and Crumbs, wrote four book chapters (on cult sf movies, dystopian sf movies, sf between the wars, and afrofuturism in the 1960s and 1970s, all but one of which still need revising and polishing), a review essay and two book reviews.

I am knackered.

The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges 1974), adapted from Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972)

[another of those pieces written for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Narrated from the perspective of the doctors treating him, particularly psychiatrist Janet Ross, Crichton’s novel tells the story of divorced, thirtysomething computer scientist, Harold Benson. He suffers from blackouts during which he becomes extremely violent. Since orthodox medication has no effect on his Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome, he agrees to a radical surgical procedure, conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (NRU). Forty electrodes are inserted into the damaged section of his brain and a nuclear powerpack into his shoulder. A computer implanted in his neck will detect the onset of a seizure and abort it with a shock through one of the electrodes. Ross considers Benson, who believes that machines are ‘competing with human beings’ and will ‘ultimately … take over the world’ (15), is an unsuitable candidate for this procedure. Professor Manon is also opposed to the operation since it will do nothing to cure Benson’s psychosis, but the ambitious Dr Ellis justifies his decision to proceed on the grounds that it will at least stop Benson’s seizures and the accompanying violence. On the eve of the operation, a young woman called Angela Black visits Benson.

After the operation, Roger McPherson, head of the NRU, is troubled by Benson’s continued conviction about the machine threat. Monitoring Benson’s brain activity, Ross notices the increasing frequency of stimulations as he starts to ‘initiate seizures in order to experience the pleasurable shocks’ (131). Benson escapes from the hospital. A computer projection indicates that within hours he will be receiving almost continuous stimulations, making 1317932233_9him uncontrollably violent. The medical staff set out to find him. Shortly after the tipping-point passes, Angela is found murdered, her skull crushed and her body repeatedly stabbed post-mortem.

When Benson attacks Ross in her home, she uses her microwave to disrupt his powerpack, but Dr Morris, who tracks him to a hangar, is brutally beaten. While Ellis spins the story for the media, the LAPD’s Captain Anders discovers that Benson obtained plans for the hospital’s wiring system. Ross and Anders descend into the labyrinthine basement housing the hospital’s mainframe, and when Benson attemps to destroy it, Ross shoots him dead.

The selection of Mike Hodges – director of the quintessential British neo-noir Get Carter (1971) and the self-reflexive black crime comedy Pulp (1972) – to adapt Crichton’s novel might seem a curious choice. However, even if Hodges’ background in documentary (including ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action (1963–99) in the early 1960s) had not recommended him for the project, it certainly assisted him in crafting the most aesthetically (and least financially) successful Crichton adaptation. Crichton uses various techniques in an attempt to lend his potboiler a kind of documentary realism, including: the same title format for each chapter (e.g., ‘WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1971: Implantation’); a timeline of the history of psychosurgical therapy, culminating in an entry which reads ‘Harold Benson is operated on in Los Angeles’ (the October 23 1971 date of this introduction, like the chapter titles, implies that the novel is a record of something that has already happened); sundry computer outputs; facsimiles of LAPD crime and death reports; and a six-page bibliography. While Hodges’ documentarian skills might suit him to these and related aspects of the novel, his black humour and leftist political sensibilities are utterly at odds with Crichton’s distinctive reactionary blend of moralistic earnestness and hysterical technophobia.

Crichton presents his novel as a cautionary intervention into technoscientific developments and the failure of a purportedly democratic system to foster informed popular debate about key social issues and trends. Whatever degree of hucksterism this involves, it is presented as a genuine concern. However, although the novel does evoke concerns around the dehumanising potentials of technology, it fails to articulate a coherent position in relation to them. This ideological fuzziness, typical of Crichton’s work, may in part account for his phenomenal success.

The key contradiction shaping the novel is between linear and non-linear determinism, articulated through a dislike and simultaneous embrace of authoritarian structures, and through an equally muddled championing of individualism and moralistic disdain for the ways in which certain people ‘misuse’ their freedom. Crichton’s reactionary leanings often take on a pseudo-pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-big government tone (for example, substantial passages are devoted to characters arguing that violent behaviour results from physical brain damage, while no-one even contemplates any of the other potential causes suggested in all the ‘bad theory floating around, written by sociologists and paid for by good taxpayer money’ (41)), which completely contradicts his growing awareness of complex determinism.

1974terminalman01When Benson arrives at the hospital, Morris signs for him ‘as if he were receiving a package from United Parcel’ (8), a subjection to bureaucratic processes that resonates with the patient’s psychosis. McPherson later suggests that Benson has been turned into ‘a read-out device’ for the implanted computer, ‘as helpless to control the read-out as a TV screen is helpless to control the information presented on it’ (83; italics in original). The hospital computer refers to Benson as an ‘auxillary unit’ (120), while he describes himself as ‘an automobile in a complicated service station’ (125). Morris begrudges his pager, which keeps him perpetually networked into administrative systems, and at one point suddenly notices that computers monitor and predict LA traffic flows. Such ruminations are given a sense of inevitable – and detrimental – consequence through the linear determinism espoused by several characters and by the frequency with which futurological and computer projections are treated as inarguable: in 1967, McPherson surveyed the fields of ‘diagnostic conceptualization, surgical technology, and microelectronics’ and concluded that it would be possible to perform ‘an operation for ADL seizures in July of 1971’ (197), a prediction which proved too conservative by four months; and the positive progression cycle, in which Benson’s brain learns to trigger seizures, is plotted from just three points on a graph, predicting to within a couple of minutes when he will go into continuous stimulation. Consequently, when Morris is told about July 1969’s ‘Watershed Week’ – ‘when the information-handling capacity of all the computers in the world exceeded the information-handling capacity of all the human brains in the world’ – and that by 1975 computers will ‘lead human beings by fifty to one in terms of capacity’ (159-60), the novel succeeds in conveying a sense of menace. This is achieved by conflating a not unreasonable prediction of quantitative change with the implication that it must necessarily result in a threat to humanity – or at least to our human qualities (which consist entirely of small-town, middle-American values).

Such linear determinism seeps out into Crichton’s depiction of a dehumanised social world. As Ross drives around LA, she muses upon the ways in which an automobile-dominated culture ‘thwarted some deep human need to congregate, to be together, to see and be seen’ (147), producing a depersonalized society of ‘recent emigrants and therefore strangers’ (147) who lack traditional institutions and infrastructures. LA offers ‘freedom’, but no ‘supports’, and tends to attract ‘people with problems’ (148), a euphemism for homosexuals, who are equated in the same passage with loneliness and suicide. The novel’s homophobia is striking (for example, Ross bemoans a short-lease culture which results in apartment buildings ‘full of hookers, full of gays, full of drugs and transients’ (171)), implying that any alternative to heterosexuality is a form of deviance born of dehumanising modernity.

terminal-man-photo-1Curiously, though, Crichton also struggles at times to express a sense of the complex, non-linear determinism underpinning his trademark narrative about the failure of complex systems, best – if still rather clumsily – articulated through the chaos mathematics he invokes in Jurassic Park (1990). In The Terminal Man, it is most clearly developed through Gerhard’s computer programmes, called Saint George and Martha. Designed to interact with each other, they are capable of responding ‘with three emotional states – love, fear, and anger’ and of ‘produc[ing] three actions – approach, withdrawal, attack’ (99). Despite this system’s simplicity, it ‘produce[s] complex and unpredictable machine behavior’ (115). After running more than a hundred times, Saint George, ‘programmed for saintliness’, ‘is learning not be a saint around Martha’ (103), even threatening to kill her. This is presented as a value-neutral experiment, but the obvious gender stereotyping suggests that the dependence on initial conditions need not be that sensitive to produce this result. The implications of a later discussion, in which Gerhard and Ross contemplate the possibility that after twenty-four hours of stimulations Benson’s brain has become something radically different than the one on which they operated and thus beyond their capacity to predict, are likewise countered by the utter predictability of the plot.

A generous reader might construe the material about Saint George and Martha as Crichton’s commentary on his own deployment of blandly named, more or less indistinguishable characters. One might even see such characters, typical of Crichton’s fiction, as an elaboration upon his screeds against the anonymity of modern, urban life while working within an American popular fiction idiom which privileges the description of externalities from which the reader is to infer interiorities. However, Crichton does describe several characters’ interior lives, albeit perfunctorily, and just as the novel reads like the treatment for a screenplay, these formulaic passages seem like notes for the actors who might step in and bring them to life. A more conventional adaptation would undoubtedly have sought to animate them through the verisimilar and melodramatic strategies typical of Hollywood productions (such as Crichton himself deployed, with some success, in adapting Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) in 1978), but Hodges takes a rather different path. He transforms Crichton’s dyspeptic, incoherent jeremiad into a rigorous critique of totalizing institutions (here, medicine, combined with legal and penal systems, as well as the police and patriarchy) which can be understood as modelling the deeper logic of social, political and economic structures governing everyday life – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman 1975), but without its sentimental desire for heroism and redemption.

the-terminal-man-main-reviewThe film opens in pitch black night, the only light emanating from the cockpit of an insectile police helicopter facing the camera, the only noise that of its engines as it takes to the air; the helicopter will become an aggressively loud presence, signalling the powerlessness not merely of Benson (George Segal) to avoid it but of the audience in the face of the system it represents. The film cuts to a restaurant, in which doctors Ellis (Richard Dysart), McPherson (Donald Moffat) and Friedman (James Sikking) discuss Benson and ADL syndrome. Benson’s back-story is related, with impressive economy, through a series of photographs that the three men examine – Benson with his wife and daughter, Benson being arrested, the battered face of Benson’s wife – while planning the media coverage of the operation. To Hodges’ regret, he added this sequence to help allay studio concerns that ‘the film had no one to root for’ (personal email) rather than cutting 2013-03-22-1atermdirectly to the title sequence: a black screen with white credits, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25; footsteps approach in a corridor; a key chain rattles; there is a scraping sound, a peephole opens on the right of the screen and an eye peers through, looking out at the audience; the men in the corridor, functionaries of some institution, discuss Benson; the caption ‘tuesday’ appears, and the film cuts to Benson being delivered by the police to the hospital. Three more times during the film the screen goes to black, a peephole opens, and these anonymous, uneducated men – it is not clear if they are prison warders or asylum orderlies – discuss Benson. The film also ends with a version of this shot, in which one of the voices says, ‘They want you next’, to which the other responds ‘Quit kidding around’. These final words comically deflate the clichéd threat intoned by the first speaker; but beneath the end credits, the police helicopter descends through the night, coming full circle, yet instead of the deafening rotors there is silence, and then a cold wind howls. This hesitation – erasing then reinstating the film’s ominous implications – indicate Hodges’ wry amusement at the materials with which he is working and, simultaneously, a genuine sense that, despite their pulpiness, they can be utilised to critique contemporary social realities.

Hodges’ damning depiction of the total institution depends upon four major strategies. First, there is the film’s remarkable production design, in particular its use of colour. The title sequence establishes The Terminal Man’s oppressive palette; it is as close as a colour film can get to a black-and-white production, with several shots among the most overtly expressionist to be found in Hollywood outside of classical film noir. The walls, floor and furniture of the hospital lobby are black, and its windows open onto utter darkness outside. Throughout the hospital, if walls are white, then doors and furnishings are black. The staff all wear white, except for when, off-duty, they wear black. If there is a source of light, everything around it is pooled in darkness. The only relief – slight that it is – comes from occasional blue-greys or flashing orange lights. Until the final stages of the film, there is no indication that daytime even exists, but once we are there, bright clear light and whiteness – from the walls of Dr Ross’s (Joan Hackett) apartment to Benson’s choice of suit – dominate, although black furnishings remind the audience of the night to come. Day or night, there is no escape from these carefully orchestrated constraints.

Second, there is Hodges’ meticulous shot-construction, perhaps the most significant aspect of which is his frequent partial obscuring of Ross. Marginalised by the medical establishment for being a woman, a psychiatrist (rather than a surgeon), and more concerned about the patient than the procedure, Ross is often pushed by Hodges to the edge of the frame or picked out, diminished in the distance, from between foregrounded the-terminal-man-_-joan-hackettsurgeons. While Crichton does acknowledge the sexism Ross faces, including incidents and passages of introspection, Hodges’ low-key spatialisation of patriarchal hegemony is far more effective. This spatialisation of gendered power is further emphasised during the sequence in which Ross’s discomfiture, when alone with Benson during the testing of his electrodes, is ignored by the male doctors observing them through one-way glass positioned high on the wall above them. The Foucauldian aspects of commonplace surveillance are even more clearly evinced during the lengthy surgical procedurals – articulated through an impeccable low-key precision, self-consciously devoid of the melodramatic imperatives shaping such sequences in Crichton’s E.R. (1994–2009) – as a crowd gathers around to observe the operation from above.

Third, there are the performances. Joan Hackett’s self-conscious awkwardness as Ross is essential to the critique of gender politics. The very different physiques, looks, mannerisms and accents of Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and, as Dr Morris, Michael C. Gwynne provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the senior medical staff than can be found in Crichton’s novel, but Hodges does not permit them to become more than components of the systems within which they function. An occasional line or gesture suggests that they are fuller human beings than their social roles allow, but such moments (for example, Ellis’s off-colour comment to McPherson about Ross, or Morris’ attempt to terminal-man-2flirt with Angela (Jill Clayburgh)) seem to bemuse the other characters. Retrospectively, George Segal seems an unlikely Benson. Despite a successful career as a dramatic actor on stage, television and film, by the early 1970s he was focusing on the kind of comedy roles with which he has subsequently become most closely associated. By effectively casting him against type, Hodges produces a soft-spoken, genial everyman who is overtaken by external forces (the pre-credits material is, indeed, a misstep, giving Benson too much specificity, and counteracting the effectiveness of a later scene in which a recording of his litany of suburban lifestyle elements and possessions plays on multiple diegetic screens). He is particularly effective when his actions – stabbing Angela, attacking the robot on which he had been working – become mechanical, taking control of his body.

the-terminal-man-1974-dvdrip-xvid-andrei-avi_snapshot_01-39-49_2011-12-22_17-52-47Finally, there is the revised ending of the story. Rather than seeing off Benson’s attack with her microwave, Ross, fearing he might attack her, holds out a knife towards him. In a moment of lucidity between stimulations, he walks onto the blade. Instead of launching an assault on the hospital computer, Benson then heads to a cemetery and descends into an open grave. The police close in and while Ross struggles to reach her patient, the police helicopter appears once more, bearing the sniper who will shoot Benson. People rush forward, and from the bottom of the grave we see them forced back by police whose vizored helmets recall not only those worn by the surgeons while they operated on Benson but also the brutally anonymous robot police of THX 1138 (Lucas 1971).

Thanks to Hodges’ stylistic innovations, The Terminal Man should be spoken of in the same breath as other films of the period in which Britons brought a European arthouse sensibility to American genre fiction, such as Point Blank (Boorman 1967) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg 1976). In terms of its political critique, however, it belongs alongside Medium Cool (Wexler 1969), Punishment Park (Watkins 1971), The Parallax View (Pakula 1974) and The Conversation (Coppola 1974). It is without question one of the most accomplished and important sf films of the 1970s.

References
Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man. London: Arrow, 1996.
Mike Hodges, personal email. 5 July 2009.

Things I have learned from the movies: The Gift (Edgerton 2015)

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1That any two guys, no matter how big the differences between them – say, decades ago, back in high school, one of them lied about the other being gay, which resulted in endless bullying and the poor kid nearly being killed by his own father – can learn to get along. Even if the former victim must drug, rape and impregnate the wife of his former tormentor to make him confront the truth about the past and the flaws within himself.[1]

A heart-warming tale of two men learning to forgive each other and move on with their lives.

Notes
[1] But did he actually rape and impregnate her? Whooo-oooo, you’ll never actually know for sure. Which I guess makes it okay. Sort of. As long as, either way, the wife is always merely the mere terrain on which the two guys work out their conflict. Anything more would be political correctness gone mad!