Out of the Unknown: ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ BBC2 8 November 1965

Patricia 'Paddy' Russell
Patricia ‘Paddy’ Russell

The second original script for the series has, like ‘Stranger in the Family’, a contemporary setting (but is rather less adventurous in its use of location shooting – just the exterior of an old suburban home and the Putney street outside). The writer, Mike Watts, had primarily worked for various ITV companies, although in 1965 he also scripted a couple of episodes of the BBC’s The Troubleshooters (1965–72); in addition to writing original dramas and episodes, he wrote or co-wrote several British crime movies, all of them comedies, The Pot Carriers (1962), The Cracksman (1963), Crooks in Cloisters (1964), which I remember fondly but haven’t seen in about a million years, and Joey Boy (1965). The director was Paddy Russell, one of the first two women directors at the BBC. Originally an actress, she appeared in a 1950 adaptation of Karel Capek’s The Insect Play for BBC Sunday-Night Theatre (1950–59) and in two different and uncredited roles in a couple of episodes of Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953); she quit acting to become Cartier’s floor manager and then a director. Despite a long and varied career that lasted until around 1980, and included everything from 55 episodes of Z Cars (1962–78) to 15 instalments of the gameshow 3-2-1 (1978–87), she is probably best remembered as the director of Doctor Who’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), The Pyramids of Mars (1975) and The Horror of Fang Rock (1997). Here, she does an excellent job of never letting the potentially ridiculous aspects of the story teeter over into the comical.

OOTU Come buttercup Repeat 12th August 1966‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ tells the story of Henry Wilkes (Milo O’Shea), a fishmonger and an obsessive gardener who, thanks to his weekly, year-long correspondence with the mysterious Mr Pringle, has managed to grow a number of exotic species which should not even survive in the UK. He has, in fact, grown them to monstrous size, feeding them experimental foodstuffs as well as diced rabbit and cockles. There is something odd about them, though. Birds stay away from the garden. Wilkes, who has given the plants names, also talks to them, and they respond, although we do not hear their voices or what they say; their sentience, however, is confirmed for viewers by their physical responses to his proximity and touch, and the way they extend feelers to grasp at the food he scatters on the soil. Wilkes goes as far as to steal hextellenium, a dangerous chemical, from the pharmacy next to his shop to use in an experimental formula to make Nobby, his favourite among the plants, grow even bigger and stronger.

come-04Indeed, Wilkes is so obsessed with plants as living beings that he berates his new shop assistant, Anne Lovejoy (Patsy Rowlands), for dressing the displays of fish with parsley – he refuses to stock the herb in an effort to discourage his customers from making parsley sauce – and for putting tomato and lettuce in her cheese sandwiches. She is extremely devoted to her new boss, ever so slightly a-quiver when he is around.

come-01Monica Wilkes (Christine Hargreaves) is a nervous mess, concerned her husband no longer loves her and driven to distraction by the weirdness the garden exudes. Although she has witnessed nothing in particular to distress her so, she senses it is somehow unnatural. She suffers from headaches and depression, and her only comfort is her pet dog, Mina, an obvious child surrogate whom she obsessively sketches and paints. (If the story was told from Monica’s point of view, it might be rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892).)

This potential middle-class love triangle comes to the fore when Dr Chambers (Desmond Jordan) is brought in to consult on Monica’s ‘nerves’. (He is a private specialist, rather than an NHS doctor, which is significant to the class politics of the story: there are clear social hierarchies, including ones around education, the amateur and the professional.) Chambers bluntly asks Wilkes whether the source of Monica’s anxiety could be that he is having an affair with another woman.

But something else entirely is going on. Something rather queer.

comeThere is a tradition of sf/horror stories about sentient plants, from HG Wells’s ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) to The Thing (from another World) (Nyby 1951) to Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006). Many of these stories are obsessed with reproduction, especially Don Siegel’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the peculiarities of human sexual reproduction are mapped onto a post-war world world being transformed by commodity production. In ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’,  though, the plants are partly about masturbation and all about homosexual desire.

Wilkes comforts Monica with transparent – to us – lies. He is oblivious to Anne, even as he seeks her collusion in his secretive schemes; in a quite agonising scene, his efforts to make up for snapping at her lead to an intimate conversation, during which he is completely unaware of quite how likely she might be to misinterpret his sudden attention (Rowlands excels, as always, at combining self-deprecation, class aspiration, timidity and repressed desire). He has been engaged in a secretive correspondence with Pringle, a man whom no one has met and who regularly sends him odd packages. Wilkes takes special pleasure in the plant he calls Nobby. He thrusts his hands deep into Nobby’s leaves to administer a ‘morning tickle’, during which he calls the plant what sounds like ‘a little old plonker’ and then unquestionably a ‘great big silly old faggot’. And when he plunges a syringe full of his special formula into Nobby’s roots to make his favourite even bigger, the framing of the shot makes it look as if Wilkes is fumbling with his penis. Elsewhere, he describes himself to Anne as ‘the biggest cockle-eater in the business’.

And Nobby is a jealous lover. He devours Mina, and then barks like the dog so as to lure Monica to her death; and then when Anne turns up, laden with cockles for Wilkes…

outunknown8bigThe script was originally commissioned as a seventy-five minute drama; cutting it down to sixty-minutes (even then, it overruns by a minute), might be why the end seems a little rushed, fizzles a little. On the one hand, there is no revelation that Pringle is really an intelligent plant, which is probably a good thing; but there is certainly left open the unexplored possibility that Nobby or the other plants are telepathically controlling Wilkes and others…

Other things to watch out for
— Patsy Rowland’s reverse acting when the plant wraps its tendrils around her neck
— The quite astonishing line after Wilkes tears a plastic flower off one his customer’s bosoms: You can’t go out for a pair of kippers nowadays without getting raped.
— The expression on Patsy Rowland’s face when she walks out of the shop just in time to hear that line being delivered.
come-03— And Norman. Watch out for Norman. He is the pharmacist. He is also Eric Thompson, Emma’s dad and, far more significantly for world culture, the narrator of the English-language dub of  The Magic Roundabout (1965–77).

Previous episode, ‘Time in Advance

Next episode, ‘Sucker Bait

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

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Great title, even better opening line

$_35Just when I though nothing could be better than the title of Dan Mannix’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower, I decided to read the opening line, which was, it turns out, even better:

I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Sideshows.  (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1951, p.1)

I did not dare read on.

Dandies in the Underworld

fantomasA 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.

raffles-1917He 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, da993b7bbe01f24bdfcf2ae6e48c04bbRonald 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, raffles_tll10starring 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).

21129_Danger-Diabolik-05Costume, 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-raf_bun2dresses, 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 castgentleman, 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.]

Out of the Unknown: ‘Time in Advance’ (BBC2 1 November 1965)

William Tenn
William Tenn

This episode is based on ‘Time in Advance’ (Galaxy 1956) by William Tenn, the pseudonym of Philip Klass, UK-born but US-resident since childhood. He published only one novel, Of Men and Monsters (magazine version 1963; book version 1968), but around fifty short stories in the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s. ‘Time in Advance’ was reprinted as the title story of a 1958 collection of his work by Bantam in the US and  in the UK by Gollancz in 1963 and the Science Fiction Book Club in 1964; Brian Aldiss also included it in Introducing SF: A Science Fiction Anthology for Faber and Faber in 1964. It has been anthologised a handful of times since then, though the reasons for its early prominence rather elude me.

The premise of the story is neatly ironic. In the future, in order to reduce crime and also to provide labour for the arduous colonisation of other worlds, murder is made legal – sort of. If you announce your intention to kill, you can serve a halved sentence breaking alien rocks in perilous circumstances, and if you survive, you return to Earth and receive a license permitting you to commit the murder (or equivalent crimes, the sentences of which equal that which you have already served; and you do not have to identify your intended victim). Often, just a short stint vlcsnap-2014-12-07-11h12m42s210_zps60fd4ec0off-world is enough to dissuade people from murder, and they return home chastened; those determined to see it through rarely survive. (Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Minority Report’ introduced a rather different notion of pre-crime earlier the same year, in the January 1956 Fantastic Universe.)

The story opens with Nicholas Crandall and Otto Henck, who have kept each other alive through countless dangers, returning aboard the convict ship Jean Valjean, their sentences completed, their desire to kill unchanged. And then, in rather a schematic manner, Nick encounters an array of people who either assume they are his intended victim or wish him to use his immunity from prosecution to other ends. He learns that everyone is kind of shitty and that he does not have the will to kill even his worst enemy, while Otto is denied the possibility of revenge upon his unfaithful wife.

It is entertaining enough in its jadedness, but rather poorly constructed. Nick tends to meet other characters just once, with each exchange being wrapped up and effectively forgotten before the next commences, and a number of passages – such as Nick’s explanation of his grievance – seem very first draft, not so much in the quality of their prose as in their off the cuff rationalisation. According to Tenn, the story was written in one night, after a friend, Calder Willingham was mugged on his way over to visit. The seed of the story was Willingham’s sense that he would never again feel safe in Greenwich Village:

‘That’s the worst thing about these rotten criminals – not what they do to you at the moment, but what they do to you in the future, when they’re not even around’. (370)

Tenn took the completed story to Horace Gold the next morning, who promptly bought it without requiring any changes.

The episode is the first of three directed by Peter Sasdy, the others being ‘The Midas Plague’ (20 December 1965) and ‘The Eye’ (24 November 1966). A prolific director of serial and standalone television drama since 1959, he had previously directed the Terry Nation-scripted, Peter Cushing-starring, Irene Shubik-script-edited adaptation of Asimov’s ‘The Caves of Steel’ (5 June 1964) for Story Parade (1964). He graduated to films with Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Countess Dracula (1971), written by Jeremy Paul, author of ‘The Dead Past’, and Hands of the Ripper (1971), all made for Hammer, and the 1972 Doomwatch spin-off movie, written by Cybermen creators Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, made for Tigon. He directed a few more films, including the horror movies Nothing but the Night (1973) and I Don’t Want to Be Born (1975) and the Canadian sf-western Welcome to Blood City (1977). But the remainder of his career was spent primarily in television, directing Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), as well as episodes of Arthur of the Britons (1972-73), Great Mysteries (1973-74), Supernatural (1977), 1990 (1977-78), Return of the Saint (1978-79), Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1979-80), Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984-85) and Imaginary Friends (1987). Which means I saw an awful lot of his work while growing up, albeit without knowing it.

The script by Peter Erickson, who would next year co-write Doctor Who’s ‘The Ark’ four-parter, does the best it can to make the story less schematic. It also, thankfully, omits the wealthy and strikingly beautiful woman who tries to persuade Tenn’s Crandall not to commit murder but instead to rape her in as brutal and degrading a manner as possible – since it carries the same sentence, he couldn’t be prosecuted for it. And Erickson changes the conclusion of the story – while Tenn cannot quite maintain his misanthropy to the end, Erickson introduces one more betrayal:

I was his best friend. It was my turn to make a profit out of him.

timeErickson works hard to create a more distinctive future world than the one Tenn sketches in, albeit from familiar enough building blocks. Scarcity has been banished, and most people live lives of leisure. Redevelopment projects turn massive apartment blocks into nature parks (!), and automation is widespread (in a nice touch, which plays a little clunkily now, it is implied that revolutionary power source behind Crandall’s desire for revenge has lead to sufficient changes in his and Otto’s seven year absence that they have to figure out and explain to each other – i.e., the audience – how things work). The existence of voluntary euthanasia suggests a certain ambivalence about this future, as does the fact that pretty much the entire cast sport similar white-blond/e wigs. On the one hand, this merely suggests alterity, a kind of Thal-like premature glam-rock; on the other, some kind of Aryan uniformity. The skin make-up on some characters anticipates the gold-skinned cast of Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), and it remains unclear whether the excessive eyeliner worn by some of the male characters signifies, along with the psychedelic wall displays, the perpetuation of a youthful culture or queasiness about so much leisure and its potential for time-04decadence. Certainly, as Crandall, Edward Judd’s trademark ability – exercised so well in the Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), First Men in the Moon (1964), Invasion (1966), Island of Terror (1966) and The Vengeance of She (1968) – to play sympathetic but unlikeable characters allows a kind of manly robustness to be let loose in this queer future.

Other things to look out for:
— Judy Parfitt as Marie, and Mike Pratt (y’know Randall, from Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969-71)) as Otto
–Numerous reflections of the microphone boom and sometimes the entire crew in the metallic walls – one of the real problems when shininess signifies futurity.

Last episode, ‘The Dead Past

Next episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
William Tenn, ‘Time in Advance’, Immodest Proposals: The Complete Science Fiction of William Tenn, volume 1. Framingham: NESFA, 2000. 349–70.

Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 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 odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only 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. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe 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 23-The-Criminal-360x216the 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.

jlgThe 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.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

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.]

On Matters Locomotive and Tentacular; or, Four or Five (More) Things About China Miéville

[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.

tentacles‘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.

51M+qPPQDFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘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.

$_35Iron 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.

220px-Sanatoriumpodklepsydra‘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.

Four or Five Things About China Miéville

[Just stumbled across this old thing I wrote for the Wiscon 17 Programme Booklet in 2003, when China and Carol Emshwiller were GOHs]

Skulltopus011 Saturday September 28th 2002 was a bright and clear day in London. Which was just as well, because China and Emma were late. A group of us had arranged to meet at the National Film Theatre’s Café on the South Bank of the Thames at 12.30. From there, we would cross the river to the Embankment to join the protest march against war on Iraq and for a free Palestine.

In a way, though, the delay didn’t matter. Despite early police claims that there were only 40,000 protestors, it was clear there were ten times that number. It’s not like anyone would have noticed if we were late.

But coffee had been drunk and impatience was setting in and the crowd on the opposite bank was swelling and China wasn’t answering his mobile phone.

Suddenly, in the distance, a sighting.

Arms were waved. Watches were pointed at extravagantly. Tutting noises were made.

China and Emma arrived. China was breathless, not from rushing but from excitement. ‘Sorry we’re late, but you won’t believe what we’ve just seen. We had to stop and watch. We were walking through the park, and there was this pelican. Fucking huge, and it just swooped down and ate a pigeon. It was gross. You could see the pigeon struggling in its gullet.’

China was right. Nobody believed him.

Not that the story was completely implausible. It’s just that impish Mike Harrison had already started the rumour that en route they had popped into John Lewis – an irredeemably bourgeois department store – to buy some things for their new flat.

To this day, nobody believes China’s story about the pelican and the pigeon. But for some reason everybody seems to take a special delight in preferring to believe Mike’s version of events.

***

One of China’s favourite passages of our sf explanation is to be found in Eric Flint’s 1632. It goes like this:

So that’s about it folks … Somehow – nobody knows how – we’ve been planted somewhere in the middle of Germany almost four hundred years ago. With no way back.

It seems like this passage might soon occupy that special place in China’s heart once reserved for a line from the underrated Prince of Darkness:

Nothing anywhere ever should be able to do what it is doing.

***

China’s taste in movies is a bit hit-and-miss.

He’s right about Prince of Darkness – it is underrated. He’s right about Being John Malkovich – the more you think about it the worse it becomes. He’s right about Donnie Darko – it is a little too knowing for its own good. And he’s right about Daredevil – even it if was identical in every other respect, it would have been massively improved by casting Eric Stoltz instead of Ben Affleck.

But he will insist on the genius of the first five minutes of X-Men.

And that Fight Club is a great movie.

***

One of China’s favourite comic book panels is to be found in an old Trigan Empire strip from Look and Learn. It is night-time. On a roof in a city an old man and a young lad are stargazing. Suddenly there is a noise. They both look alarmed.

What was that?

say the old man. The boy replies:

It sounded like a large party of men rushing stealthily down the alley!

***

Last autumn, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. We got home from my first session of chemotherapy about 3.30pm on Friday 15th November. Around 4.00pm the doorbell rang. China and Emma had sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with a hope-it-went-okay kind of message. Later that evening I phoned to thank them, and the first thing China did was apologise in case receiving flowers from a male friend made me feel awkward.

It was a rugged, ironic, manly thing to do; but, in truth, I’d never before received flowers from a male friend and I’d no idea feeling awkward about it was even an option.

***

Perhaps these tidbits, incidents and events will provide a future biographer with things around which to drape some insights into China’s character. But I will leave it to you to decide what it all might mean.

[A sort of sequel piece can be found here.]