Space is the Place (John Coney 1974)

[A version of this review originally appeared in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 92 (2004), 97–100.]

Sun_Ra_Space_is_Place_21Imagine Philip K. Dick was born 15 years earlier, black and with an astonishing musical talent in Birmingham, Alabama . . . imagine that, and you might just get Herman Poole Blount who became Le Sony’r Ra who was known as Sun Ra. You might just get the other visionary genius of postwar American sf.

Reading John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (Payback 1997), the comparison with Dick seems not entirely spurious. Both were phenomenally productive (Ra recorded over 1000 compositions on at least 120 albums). Both compulsively permutated and reiterated core themes and images whose shades of meaning and internal contradictions always seemed to imply a larger scheme in which they were reconciled. Both were innovators working with battered clichés. Both were treated indifferently at home and lionised in France. Both had run-ins with the FBI, possibly (in 1971 Ra and his Arkestra were invited to Oakland by Bobby Seale and lived for a while in a house owned by the Black Panther Party). Both were students of gnosticism and the Bible. Both had life-changing mystical experiences (in 1936 Ra underwent an ‘alien abduction’), but while the events of 2-3-74 led Dick to write his 8000-page exegesis, Ra lived his exegesis for the next 57 years, in person and on stage. Both were ontologically-troubled, perceiving the world as a veil (either that, or they were both persuasive charlatans). Both were self-mythologisers. Both have been called mad.

Of course, there were also many differences.

tumblr_mku7b2UL0I1s3e71xo1_1280Dick never claimed to be from Saturn, nor did he describe Star Wars as ‘very accurate’. He was not a major figure in post-war jazz, or the frequently unacknowledged godfather of world music, or one of the first musicians to experiment extensively with electronic keyboards. Dick did not mount spectacular lightshows before the likes of Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, the Grateful Dead and others whose attempts to transform gigs into overwhelming integrated audiovisual experiences are sometimes cited as inspiring VR’s total immersion grail.

Nor was Dick born black in Alabama in 1914.

And although Dick was keen, at one point, to make a movie (of Ubik (1969)), he failed. Ra, however, succeeded—even if it was not always clear that the barely-released, rarely-seen Space is the Place was a success.

The plot is straightforward enough. Ra, wandering in an alien garden, explains that he is establishing a Black colony there, to see what they can accomplish without white people around—but should he bring the colonists by ‘isotope transportation transmolecularisation’ or by teleporting them through music? Cut to Chicago, 1943. Sonny Ray is a nightclub pianist. Insulted by a well-dressed black pimp called the Overseer (Ray Johnson), his playing intensifies: glasses explode, smoke pours from the piano, everyone flees. Sonny Ray, now Ra, and the Overseer are transported to an arid plain—Chicago, it appears, was just another phase in an ongoing conflict. The Overseer accepts Ra’s challenge to a game of ‘the end of the world’. Ra flies to Oakland, California in a spaceship powered by the music of his Intergalactic Solar Arkestra. The Overseer recruits Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a reporter for ‘stone jive Channel Five’, to his cause, along with a brothel madam and two female nurses (who are treated throughout as little more than sex objects). Meanwhile, Ra reaches out to the ‘black youth of planet Earth’ and opens the Outer Space Employment Agency. He convinces the Overseer to up the stakes by letting him put on a show. Government agents abduct Ra and interrogate him about his spaceship’s power source and the African space programme, torturing him with a tape of what sounds like a high school band performing a particularly chipper version of ‘Dixie’. But the show goes on, and Sun Ra returns to space, taking with him a selection of African Americans to establish a colony on an uninhabited garden world. In order to secure this reversal of the Middle Passage from the interference of white people, Sun Ra destroys the Earth behind them.

sun-ra-space-450Shot on 16mm with a tiny budget, the movie has some very rough edges: flat visuals, indifferent dialogue (Ra wrote his own), thin characters, weak performances, poor pacing and the kind of inconsistencies and incoherence one often associates with Ra’s self-consciously elusive and playful pronouncements. Director Coney cites movies like Rocketship X-M (Neumann 1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (Hilton 1954) as inspiring the deliberately cheesy special effects that, aware of budgetary constraints, they set out to create. Fortunately, this unpolished quality quite closely matches Ra’s own pre-punk DIY aesthetic—throughout his career, his and the Arkestra’s costumes were generally homemade and looked it, although those in the movie are of a better quality. (A more remarkable example of this DIY aesthetic is the drum Ra told bassoonist James Jacson to make from a lightning-struck tree opposite the Arkestra’s Philadelphia home—an incident Jacson recounts in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise). The movie’s rawness reflects the circumstances of its production. By Hollywood standards, it is only a little less professional than many blaxploitation movies, and more professional than some. But in judging such movies, Hollywood’s standards are not the most appropriate measure.

Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino’s 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ identified three kinds of filmmaking. First Cinema is the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators. Second Cinema comprises auteurist cinema and art cinema; but however well-intentioned it might be, it is a bourgeois cinema dependent upon First Cinema distribution. Third Cinema is neither commercial nor bourgeois. In its most militant forms, it is closely aligned with political groups, has clear political goals and is unconcerned with politically-debilitating myths of objectivity and balance. It is an activists’ cinema, embedded in struggle. In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic spectacles, Third World countries should aim to create an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggle. In addressing Space is the Place and some of the more radically inclined blaxploitation movies – Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles 1971), The Spook Who sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon 1973) – such standards and ideas might prove more appropriate.[i]

maxresdefaultIt is easy to deplore Hollywood’s destruction and depletion of other national cinemas. What is less obvious is the ways in, and extent to, which Hollywood has deprived the US of a national cinema, a tendency evident since the 1920s and currently foregrounded by the multinational ownership of the major Hollywood companies and their increasingly standard policy of treating the US as just one more territory in which they can sell movies. From this perspective, independent film can, depending on the degree and nature of its independence, be regarded as a national cinema manqué; and Space, Sweetback and Spook can be seen as efforts groping towards an indigenous Third Cinema.[ii] Their rawness and rough edges are products of the dialectics of perfect and imperfect cinema.

Space’s imperfections display the disjunctions of the era. Only a movie this marginal could:

  • display pictures of Angela Davis, George Jackson, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and other black revolutionaries quite so proudly
  • punish a villain by making his underlings, white and black alike, suddenly see him as a ‘nigger’ and treat him like one
  • depict a race war in which whitey loses so comprehensively.[iii]

Only Space could present elements of Ra’s Astro Black Mythology, blending an outer space future with a black Egyptian past – rejecting centuries of Christian metaphorisation of Egypt as a place of bondage and claiming it instead as the Promised Land, as black civilisation.[iv]

vlcsnap-2010-04-13-17h05m45s82And perhaps only such a marginal production could have displayed its misogyny so crudely. But to dismiss Space on this count would be problematic (and not just because many Hollywood productions of the period were just as bad, if more polished). Rather, it is another imperfection that opens up that particular historical conjuncture. This is not to exculpate – nor is it to damn with faint praise by reducing Space to the status of an interesting historical document. More accurate than Star Wars, it tries to offer a new hope, albeit an imperfect one.

Notes
[i]

Although as Mike Wayne argues in Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema (Pluto 2001) we should not regard these types of cinema as pigeonholes into which movies can be placed—instead, particular movies should be considered as embodying the dialectical interplay of these different cinemas.

[ii]

The films of the LA Rebellion group, which mostly rejected blaxploitation, can be understood as another attempt.

[iii]

Compare the wimped-out ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J Lee Thompson 1972).

[iv]

See Graham Lock’s Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke 1999).

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Eden Log (Franck Vestiel France 2007)

[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 3.1 (2010), 157–61]

edenlogEden Log begins in darkness.

Water drips into water.

Ragged breaths.

Flashes of light reveal a man (Clovis Cornillac), caked in mud, waking, staggering to his feet. (Later, much later, we – and he – will learn that his name is Tolbiac, but for now he has no idea who or where he is.)

He finds a torch on a nearby corpse and in its intermittent light he creeps and crawls and climbs up out of this cave into the lower levels of a seemingly derelict industrial complex. Cables and roots, difficult to tell apart, hang from the ceiling, industrial detritus devolving into, merging with, the subterranean-organic. On the wall behind him, a half-seen diagram describes a process which seems to involve humans descending below ground and then later ascending. He presses through heavy turnstiles and is greeted by projections of half a dozen women, immaculately clothed and coiffed, who address him in multiple languages. In the ominously bland idiolect of a corporate shill, one of them states,

The contract is fair. It is thanks to your work below that you will build your paradise above. Look after the plant and it will look after you.

This pun on plant, which works in French as well as in English, opens up one of the several fields of ambiguity in which this often elliptical film nestles. The plant is both a miraculous tree of vast proportions, its roots reaching far underground, and the industrial complex which extracts sap with ‘infinite energetic properties’ from the tree so as to power a city.

eden-log-clovis-cornillacAs Tolbiac ascends through underground levels – a trajectory that materialises the vertical integration upon which the Eden Log corporation’s gradually unveiled monopoly depends – he encounters various others from whom he begins to piece together the world and its story. One man, suspended from a wall, claims to have brought down the system, but it is not entirely clear where he ends and the plant (in either sense) begins. Tolbiac triggers a recording of the final confrontation between the technicians and the guards: when faced with an information leak over their corporate malfeasance, the nature and extent of which will only later become clear(er), Eden Log overrode all protocols about the relative autonomy of the subterranean levels and sent in guards to destroy the evidence and eradicate the threat.

1242613626_3The plant has been responding to its escalating exploitation by releasing a toxin that mutates the workers into strange, no-longer human creatures. Tolbiac’s struggle against transformation wavers when he finds an uninfected woman (Vimala Pons) and, suddenly abhuman, rapes her. He is appalled by what he has done, and what he is becoming. She elects to accompany him up to the surface, not knowing that he has infected her.

Eventually, having pieced together most of the puzzle, Tolbiac is recognised – and, at last, named – by the guards he used to command. Pretending to be himself, he cons his way past the guards and plugs himself into the plant, which has always been sterile, infecting it with life. It erupts, shattering the dome that contained it, and expands to take over the deserted city, transforming it into a beautiful – and colour-filled – landscape.

Eden Log actually begins not in darkness but with a quotation:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis 3:23)

Tolbiac’s initial emergence from the mud might be taken as a reworking of the creation of Adam in The Bible: In The Beginning… (US/Italy 1966), replacing John Huston’s achingly – and thus camply – tasteful images of an inspirited wind blowing aside yellow sand to reveal the first man with birthing imagery that is rather more fecal, fluid and feminine. Eden Log certainly invites psychoanalytical readings: its setting recalls the maternal interiors of Alien (Scott UK/US 1979), the rape carries strong overtones of a primal scene fantasy, and Tolbiac’s ascent into realms of language and control, the realm from which he fathered himself, plays out an Oedipal entry into the Symbolic.

The biblical quotation can also be interpreted as Vestiel’s announcement of his transition to directing feature films. Previously, he had directed three episodes of the French cop show, Central Nuit (Night Squad 2001– ), and gathered assistant director credits on numerous films, including Blueberry (Renegade; Kounen France/Mexico/UK 2004), adapted from Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s bande desinée, and Ils (Them; Moreau and Palud France/Romania 2006). Such experience undoubtedly prepared him well for shooting a film in the dark, in confined spaces[1] and with an elusive – some have claimed incomprehensible – narrative with religious overtones.[2] Many of the reviews of Eden Log struggled to make sense of a film with the narrative structure of a Paul W.S. Anderson video game adaptation but stripped of his prolonged action sequences and clearly-defined (if one-dimensional) characters, motives and goals. Struggling to make sense of their disappointed expectations, reviewers typically drew fairly insubstantial comparisons with THX 1138 (Lucas US 1971), Le dernier combat (The Last Battle; Besson France 1983), Cube (Natali Canada 1997), Pi (Aronofsky US 1998) and Primer (Carruth US 2004), among others – often for no better reasons than Eden Log being a first film, French, black-and-white (sort of), low-budget, visually striking and/or elliptically plotted.

A more productive comparison might be drawn with Tsukamoto Shinya. Although Eden Log lacks the viscerality of Haze (Japan 2005), in which a man likewise drags himself through a mysterious subterranean location, Vestiel shares Tsukamoto’s eye for post-industrial landscapes – for once-essential components mutating into something almost-organic – along with his taste for apocalyptic rebirth and a posthuman otherness that defies eutopian-dystopian binaries.

Vestiel’s decision to begin the action in overwhelming darkness, with intermittent flashes of light that reveal less than they show, recalls the opening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper US 1974), with which Eden Log shares an energy crisis narrative about the dehumanising effects of capital. But it also announces that Eden Log is self-consciously a film. Garrett Stewart argues that

cinema exists in the interval between two absences, the one whose loss is marked by any and all photographic images and the one brought on by tossing away each image in instantaneous turn. (xi)

For him, the presence of still photographs within the diegesis functions as a reminder of the photogram, the still image that is held in front of the viewer for a twenty-fourth of a second as the film is projected but which is never seen or experienced as a still image. Vestiel’s prolonged stretches of darkness between each flash of light work in a similar manner, to remind us of the unseen dark absence which replaces each photogram in succession.

This filmic self-consciousness is further developed by the projection of images within the diegesis. For example, in the sequence in which Tolbiac replays the recording of the final attempt at negotiation before the guards invaded the subterranean levels, he must scurry to raise into the air a variety of surfaces so that the recorded dialogue can be accompanied by images projected onto these détourned screens, rematerialising a profilmic moment that is no more and reminding us that the

filmic medium is the once having been there of the represented spaces themselves, absented by necessity to make possible the materiality of their moving image on the track. (Stewart 5)

Later, a wizened figure, attached to the plant but slumped as if dead, is eerily animated as an earlier recording of him is projected onto his unmoving face. This play between the inanimate and the animated – which resonates strongly with the decision to strip the film stock of all colour, apart from the occasional revenant touch of red and green[3] – confronts us once more with the interplay between the substrate and the surface of the filmic experience itself. As Stewart notes,

photography engraves the death it resembles, [whereas] cinema defers the death whose escape it simulates. (xi)

Vestiel’s striking use of light and darkness, his flickering between presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, is matched by a refusal fully to explicate the world of the film or the narrative. By adhering to Tolbiac’s amnesiac perspective as he pieces together information from the thinnest and most elusive of expository clues, Vestiel situates the viewer in the space between obscurity and illumination. Even those adept in the relevant genre conventions will find themselves frustrated by Vestiel’s grimly playful evasion of specificity – a strategy clearly announced in the rape scene.

Having raced together into a room-sized elevator, Tolbiac removes his unknown companion’s helmet, revealing that she is a woman. With increasing passion – and apparently in flashforward – they begin to make love. This is soon intercut with another image stream in which the sex is reconfigured as Tolbiac violently raping the woman, and with a third in which he seems to be looking on in disgust at himself. The scene ends with Tolbiac slumped against a wall in dismay, and with the woman curled up in a corner, crying; and yet when he finds a way out, repeating to himself, ‘It’s not me, it’s not me’, she accompanies him.

While it remains unclear what has actually happened between Tolbiac and the woman, the frequent complaint in online commentary that the scene is gratuitous and that it makes no sense for the woman to follow her rapist indicates the extent to which generic framings can override the indeterminacy of the specific. This troubling conjuncture of community and violence, the flicker between affective intersubjectivity and aggressive domination, between what might be and what is, is at the core of the film’s critique of contemporary power.

Eden_LogThe Eden Log corporation’s circular logo which reappears throughout the film contains a diagram of tree as an intricate network, branching out in all directions. This potentially rhizomatic image is disrupted by the corporation’s name, which bisects the circle horizontally, turning the network into a tree with branches above ground and roots below. It forces verticality and thus hierarchy onto the image. The tree, as Deleuze and Guattari argue,

plots a point, fixes an order (7)

even as the rhizome that this tree places under erasure

expose[s] arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. (8)

Indeed, the film’s working title, Network Zero, suggests the point at which vertical hierarchy severs and deforms lateral multiplicity. The plant – both the tree and the factory housing it – is a synecdoche for the Eden Log corporation which owns it, part of the biopolitical order that, according to Michel Foucault, extends and veils the disciplinary sovereign power of the state to

make live and let die. (241)

In the closing minutes of the film it is revealed that Eden Log has promised immigrants who labour in the plant will be rewarded with citizenship, and concealed from the citizens that the plant is feeding on its workers. Eden Log has a vision of ‘a new social order’ built upon this ‘integration’ of non-citizen outsiders into ‘our civilisation’, and believes that when the truth is revealed that ‘our citizens will accept what our needs impose on these populations’. This exemplifies the manner in which biopolitical governance moulds populations to serve the economy. It can be seen as the logic of the Holocaust, in which the

death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier. (Foucault 255)

But it is also the logic of the supposedly free market.

And to this sovereign power Eden Log counterposes zoē, the

simple act of living common to all living beings (Agamben 1)

which is shared by the abhuman not-death-but-continuation of the mutated workers and the plant-human-machines, and by the climactic, uncanny efflorescence of computer-generated nature.

Notes
[1]
Eden Log was shot in a damp, freezing ten-acre mushroom bed sixty feet below ground, as well as water decontamination stations and sewers.

[2]
Vestiel co-authored the screenplay with Pierre Bordage, co-writer of Marc Caro’s less-than-coherent Dante 01 (France 2008), on which Vestiel also worked as assistant director.

[3]
There are two other bursts of (rather artificial-looking) colour when, courtesy of CGI, the plant effloresces. Stewart suggests that

in the second half of this century, science fiction has continued, more and more vividly, to imagine the technologies that would outdo it, do it in. In the digital era, however, futurist cinema has for the first time mobilized rather than merely evoked its own self-anachronizing upgrades. Engineered by computer enhancements, the super-annuation of a suddenly hybrid medium has become manifestly planned obsolescence, performed from within rather than simply foreseen. (222)

Works cited
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone, 1988.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles 1949)

4668460913_77a9d048aa_bThis post is based on a couple of old conference papers, delivered at Screen (2005) and ICFA 27 (2006), that I never had chance to develop further and forgot about until I stumbled on a draft the other day.

Bernard Knowles’ 1949 film The Perfect Woman is based on Wallace Geoffrey and Basil Mitchell’s play, which premiered September 11th 1948 at the Playhouse Theatre, and follows it quite closely. The dotty Professor Belmon (Miles Malleson) builds a robot called Olga (Pamela Devis), modelled on his niece, Penelope (Patricia Roc). He hires Roger Cavendish (Nigel Patrick), a penniless man about town, and his valet, Ramshead (Stanley Holloway), to field-test Olga by taking her out in society. Penelope, who has led a rather sheltered life, swaps places with Olga. The threesome book into the bridal suite at the Hotel Splendide. Rumours of Roger’s marriage soon reach his aunt, Lady Mary (Philippa Gill), who returns immediately from Paris. The farce escalates until Roger and Penelope realise they love each other. Their mutual declaration sends Olga, who for no clear reason cannot be allowed to hear the word ‘love’, haywire. She blows up, taking part of the hotel with her.

It is a lovely little film, and a rare example of the science fiction romantic comedy.

Many sf movies provoke laughter, and some – sf comedies – even intend to. Many sf movies also contain romance, but few are romances. And ‘sf romantic comedy’ is a vanishingly small category.

Undoubtedly, the film industry’s gendered assumptions about the audiences the two genres attract prevent the greenlighting of such projects, and thus reduce the likelihood of them even being proposed. But perhaps, too, there is an incompatibility in the generic logics of the dominant forms of sf and romantic comedy.

The romantic comedy narrative is typically intimate. Its characters often withdraw from the social realm to a green space or relatively hermetic equivalent. The genre’s spectacle is also intimate: a star couple talk to each other and, in close-up and luminously-lit, finally profess their love; those moments when William Powell and Myrna Loy enjoy each other’s martini-enhancedThin3-300x225 company, talking to each other but saying nothing in particular and certainly nothing of any narrative consequence. In contrast, however much sf tries to humanise its concerns, its narratives – global crises, interplanetary conflicts – do not happen on the scale of the individual, and its spectacle is environmental: human figures are there to provide a sense of the scale of the backdrop, of just how big the alien fleet is.

These are of course generalisations.[i]

Not all sf cinema is spectacular. Often for budgetary reasons, sf films sometimes tell smaller scale stories. For every dozen 50s drive-in movies in which an alien invasion takes the form of some guy in an old gorilla suit and a deep-sea diver’s helmet wandering around Bronson caverns, there is an sf movie in which smallness is about an intimate human scale: Liquid Sky (1982), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Last Night (1998), Possible Worlds (2000), Chetyre (2005) and the recent ‘low-fi sci-fi’ trend. Moving past the dominant contemporary logic of sf-as-spectacle lessens the sense that sf and romantic comedy are necessarily antagonistic.

So I want to begin by considering The Perfect Woman in the light of Darko Suvin’s and Samuel Delany’s accounts of how sf works. Suvin defined sf as

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment

He argued that

SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional “novum” (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic

and that the

novum or cognitive innovation is a totalizing phenomenon or relationship deviating from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality.[ii]

The Suvinian sf text is one in which the author has imagined some materially plausible innovation, thought through all the implications of its introduction, and then written a story in which that altered world is presented in all its variety without ever necessarily explaining the root of the alteration.

In reality, few sf texts do this.

But there are some common variations on this ideal, such as the gadget story, common in the pre-World War 2 pulps, in which an astonishing device with all manner of implications and potential consequences is devised, operated briefly and then destroyed. This story type demonstrates the powerful conservativism of actually-existing sf, despite the radical potential Suvin and others find in it.

Actually-existing cinema is likewise conservative.

Generally incapable of proposing radical social transformation (it is more interested in robots and monsters than alternative social, political or economic structures), sf film often introduces a novum, whether a terminator or a man’s white suit, into a relatively hermetic social setting so as to briefly play out some of its implications before the possibility of radical transformation is shut down by the narrative reassertion of equilibrium. When following this structure, sf comes closer to the structure of romantic comedy – or at least permits a complementary structure to occur, with the restricted space/time of the novum’s presence paralleling romantic comedy’s green space (the nighttime woodland of Bringing Up Baby (1938)) or other delimited transitional space/time (the road – and several nights – of It Happened One Night (1934)).

This structural meshing of genres occurs in The Perfect Woman.

A novum – the android Olga – is introduced into an otherwise unchanged social setting (admittedly it matches neither the author’s nor the implied viewer’s but the conventional upper class milieu of West End farce, looking pre-World War 1 rather than post-World War 2). But rather than allowing the android to be introduced into this social realm, Penelope substitutes herself for the novum and thus transforms the hotel suite into a romantic comedy’s ‘green space’. Some potential implications of this new technology are hinted at, but the movie concentrates instead on the more intimate concerns of the stars falling in love; and as they declare their love, the android self-destructs, permitting the world to continue as if she had never existed.

Delany argues that different kinds of word-series are distinguished by their level of subjunctivity: reportage says this happened; naturalistic fiction could have happened; fantasy could not have happened; science fiction has not happened (which might include might happen, will not happen, have not happened yet, could have happened in the past but did not).[iii] He argues that as we learn the level of subjunctivity of the text, we simultaneously learn how to read the words from which it is constructed. An example he uses to clarify this idea is the expression ‘Her world exploded’. A romance novel’s clichéd description of emotional trauma might mean something different when describing Princess Leia.[iv]

leia-emotes

Delany argues that the

point is not that the meaning of the sentences is ambiguous … but that the route to their possible mundane meanings and the route to their possible SF meanings are both clearly determined.[v]

However, the ambiguity of such a sentence is vitally important: just because it appears in an sf context does not mean that it must be read in its latter sense; there are more proximate determinants of meanings than genre, although those determinants themselves might be determined – enabled or constrained – by genre (although of course genre is simultaneously determined by how the sentence is read). And in this particular instance from Star Wars it can mean both things at once.

Delany is of interest because The Perfect Woman develops much of its humour through linguistic ambiguity, including some fairly racy doubles entendres and other systems of doubling, other proliferations and profligacies. I will outline some of these, before returning to the question of genre by asking, so who exactly is the perfect woman? Penelope or Olga?

The basic humour of double meanings comes from the fact that Olga must be given explicit verbal instructions; but she is programmed to respond to words regardless of the context in which they are uttered (she consistently ignores genre). And it is not only expressions like ‘hopping mad’, ‘get a kick out of it’ and ‘slap up’ that cause problems.

When Belmon’s housekeeper, Mrs Butters (Irene Handl), takes Olga on the tube, she enquires at the gate, ‘Is this right for Green Park?’ Olga, who is ahead of her, turns right and nearly walks straight into the gents’ loos.

This strand also involves Penelope-as-Olga deliberately obeying such accidental instructions, and Roger and Ramshead’s growing proficiency at working necessary instructions into conversation.

When Belmon hires Roger and Ramshead, he talks at length about a woman he has ‘made’ without ever mentioning that he means a robot. Bubbling below the surface is a sense of impropriety, of everything Belmon says in innocence being taken by the others to mean something else – the viewer knows the real meaning, but can enjoy their misinterpretation. The scene culminates in Belmon explaining that the field-test is to avoid embarrassment when he presents Olga to his fellow scientists: it would do no good to give her a big build up only to find that he has produced

a woman who can’t work.

Ramshead uncertainly responds,

a woman must work, if she’s a working woman, scrubbing and all that.

The meaning of ‘working woman’ shifts from ‘functioning robot’ to ‘woman engaged in work’ to ‘prostitute’; ‘scrubbing’ simultaneously evokes domestic labour and, possibly, a scrubber in the sense of slattern (although the OED’s first recorded usage of ‘scrubber’ in this way is not until 1958).

tumblr_lnlexheZyf1qzdvhio1_r4_500There is a similarly difficult to interpret moment later in the film when Olga smokes a cigarette and breathes out through her ears: was this a joke about fellatio in 1949? and, as in the fellatio joke, is this ability what makes her a candidate for the perfect woman?

This euphemistic humour recurs. There are jokes about the delicacy of the mechanism, and about how beautifully built Penelope-as-Olga is. And when Mrs Butters, sozzled on sherry sits in Ramshead’s lap, he comments on her breath smelling of trifle.

Alongside euphemism is the unintended meaning, as when Belmon tells Roger

A child could work Olga. I’m sure you’ll get on with it.

The hotel is run by the Italian Farini (Fred Berger) and the guests are served by a Swiss waiter (David Hurst), leading to jokes about pronunciation and meaning, including confusion over the respective meanings of ‘to say’ and ‘to talk’. This strand begins when Ramshead tells Roger he has booked them into the Splendide.

Roger: Splendid.
Ramshead: Really, I always presumed it was pronounced splendide.

In a later exchange, ‘vase’ is pronounced three different ways – ‘vorze’, ‘varze’ and ‘vayze’ – in as many words.

When Lady Mary dismisses the waiter, saying

You needn’t wait.

He mournfully replies

That’s what I’m for.

When serving Penelope a second bowl of soup, he gets into an argument about whether or not she wants any more:

But sometimes when a lady says ‘no’ it is ‘yes’ she is meaning so ‘no’ means ‘yes’, no?

All of this wordplay depends upon the profligacy of signs, of signifiers producing multiple signifieds. And by constantly foregrounding linguistic ambiguity, The Perfect Woman draws attention to the contextual derivation of meaning and offers a fantasy of plenty during post-war scarcity. The latter is suggested by the anachronistic upper class milieu. Roger’s penniless condition, his fully-extended overdraft, and his aunt’s refusal to pay his monthly allowance are comic conventions that do nothing to exclude him.

Stanley-Holloway-and-Patricia-Roc-and-David-HurstWhen ordering dinner, Ramshead asks for just

something light. Say some soup, fish, chicken, joint, sweet, cheese, dessert, coffee, anything else that occurs to you … Oh yes, something to drink. A bottle of scotch, two dozen bottles of beer, another bottle of scotch, a small fizzy lemonade, and a bottle of scotch.

At the prospect of food, Penelope licks her lips in a peculiarly lascivious close-up; the shot is more or less repeated when Farini describes dessert.[vi]

YooniqImages_102357432And much is made of the fabulous underwear bought for Olga but modelled by Penelope – its luxury and ‘femininity’ contrasting strongly with Olga’s rather more fetishistic underclothing.

THE PERFECT WOMAN (1949) MILES MALLESON, PATRICIA ROC; IRENE HANDL; BERNARD KNOWLES (DIR); PFTW 002 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDUnlike the Ealing comedies Hue and Cry (1947) and Passport to Pimlico (1949), the war’s devastation of London is hidden, an eradication of history which even includes changing the waiter’s nationality from German-Swiss to Swiss – in another gesture of profligacy, he is called Wolfgang Wilhelm Winkel, the second.

One might regard all this as a consolatory fantasy – a West End big rock candy mountain – in the way it is often asserted that 1930s musicals offered escape from the lived reality of the Depression. Read in this way, and through a lens provided by Andreas Huyssen’s discussion of the two Marias in Metropolis (1927), a central part of this fantasy is the destruction of the machine.[vii] The twinning of Penelope and Olga enables a separation of woman-as-nature from woman-as-technology. And the bridal suite functions as a romantic comedy green space – it is where Penelope clearly belongs and from which Olga, who sparks energy and manically goosesteps around the suite when she hears the word ‘love’, must be ejected.

This decision, the film’s nomination of Penelope rather than Olga as the perfect woman, requires examination.

Penelope asks her uncle

why did you make it like me?

He replies

Well, my dear, I call her the perfect woman … where else should I find such a model? It was either you or Mrs Butters.

When Roger asks him why he calls Olga the perfect woman, Belmon explains

Well, she does exactly what she’s told. She can’t talk. She can’t eat. And you can leave her switched off under a dust sheet for … weeks at a time.

Roger and Ramshead nod approval.

Earlier, Belmon says that Penelope is

 After all … only just another young woman. Flesh and blood and a little calcium … there are millions of them. Mass production. There’s only one Olga.

As with many robotic creations, and with doubles since Hoffman and Poe, this overt reference to mass production in relation to humans evokes the spectre of mechanical reproduction as capital cyborgises and homogenises the subject, as relations between people take on the form of relations between things.

Silvia Federici argues that

the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.[viii]

And what Marxist accounts of the transition to capitalism have often failed to recognise are the ways in which women were removed from the realm of ‘productive work’. Both the domestic and reproductive labour they then undertook were normalised as female activities and as activities which should not be counted as part of the labour necessary for the extraction of surplus-value, despite being essential to the reproduction of labour power both in terms of enabling the labouring man to recuperate and of having children.

It is not then surprising to find jokes about ‘working women’ and ‘scrubbers’, or layers of misogyny underlying Belmon’s lines about the perfect woman. These lines locate the film within a clear sf tradition, exemplified by Lester Del Rey’s ‘Helen O’Loy’ (1938) and Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Andover and the Android‘ (1963), in which a robot woman is preferred to any human female. A more atypical story in this vein is CL Moore’s ‘No Woman Born’ (1944), a sort-of feminist/anti-humanist story in which the cyborged female protagonist loves the superiority her new form gives her.

YooniqImages_102357428The Perfect Woman, by destroying the foreign/industrial/bound female body hidden by dustsheets, constrictive underwear and heavy macs, offers up the female body as a sensuous object, part of a ‘natural’ plenitude in the scarcity of post-war Britain. This, then, is why Olga cannot hear the word ‘love’ without going haywire. If domestic labour is treated as a person instead of a thing, patriarchal-capital logic is under threat. The only thing to do is to design the robot to malfunction should such a thing happen, saving the system and punishing the offending man with the loss of his robot. By thus restoring a ‘natural’ order of class and gender, it suggests that the green space need never end.

$(KGrHqJ,!hgE6Z3Bp3UUBOwjvTUkN!~~60_35But this preference is compromised by Patricia Roc’s performance as Penelope, another of the film’s areas of doubling and ambiguity. She is most enjoyable to watch when she slips between robot and human, when the viewer is invited into complicity with her masquerade. The concluding ‘falling in love’ is as perfunctory as it is compulsory. There is therefore the prospect of her popping out from behind the facade of the normalised gender role of Roger’s wife.

If, as Federici argues, the role of the wife is to reproduce labour, to be subsumed into and as part of the mechanism by which surplus-value is extracted, Penelope has already demonstrated that she lives in excess of such constraints – even if this excess is articulated through a much more post-feminist-seeming making-invisible of labour through fantasising about consumption.

Notes
[i]
The extent of their validity might be judged by considering the spate of overblown sf family melodramas such as Deep Impact (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), the entire Star Wars series, every sf film Spielberg ever made. This turn to melodrama – which is as often about fathers and sons as it is about romance – can be seen as a way of humanising the spectacular scale made possible by CGI, of turning masculine-gendered genres into less masculinely-coded ones. This logic also applies to such movies as Titanic (1997) and Pearl Harbor (2001), which use the technologies of sf cinema to construct melodramatic spectacles. Perhaps another reason for these movies’ relative success is that in melodrama, like sf, the environment signifies. It is spectacular and has meaning.

[ii]
Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp.7-8, 63, 64; italics in original.

[iii]
See Samuel R. Delany, ‘About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words’, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Elizabethtown: Dragon Press, 1977), pp.33-49.

[iv]
See Samuel R. Delany, ‘The Semiology of Silence: The Science Fiction Studies Interview’, Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1994), pp.21-58.

[v]
Delany, ‘The Semiology of Silence’, p.27.

[vi]
Several other pieces of business are repeated, with variations: because she does not believe Roger, Lady Mary sticks a pin in Penelope and then later in Olga. When Roger and Penelope first swoon at each other and make as if to kiss, Mrs Butters, who has just arrived, shouts stop at Olga. Misunderstanding, they stop and look around, and Penelope kisses Roger on the cheek; this gag is repeated, only the second time it is Roger who kisses Penelope.

[vii]
Andreas Huyssen, ‘The Vamp and the Machine: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis’, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp.65-81.

[viii]
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), p.146; italics in original.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann 2013)

2013-04-The-Great-Gatsby-Poster-7and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Great Gatsby (2013) is not the way in which it continues the proud tradition, initiated by Jack Clayton and Francis Ford Coppola, of taking longer to watch than it would to read the novel, nor is it the film’s studied visuals that take you back to the 1980s and 1990s and to Aki Kaurismäki’s slyly static camera, nor is it the way the austere mise-en-scene recalls the powerful minimalism of Carl Theodore Dreyer in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but the sheer fact that it is at long last finally fucking over now and I can go to bed…

120 years of sf cinema, part nine: 2005-2014

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the ninth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74), part six (1975-84), part seven (1985-94), part eight (1994-2004)

200521395_Wild-Blue-Yonder-1
Chetyre/4 (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy)
Pervye na Lune (Aleksey Fedorchenko)
Pyl/Dust (Sergey Loban)
Les saignantes (Jean-Pierre Bekolo)
Tian bian yi duo yun/The Wayward Cloud (Ming-liang Tsai)
The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog)

2006
Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
Electroma (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo)
Gui si/Silk (Chao-Pin Su)
Gwoemul/The Host (Joon-ho Bong)
Krrish (Rakesh Roshan)
Papurika/Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
Special (Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore)

2007vlcsnap-2010-03-31-22h59m45s74
La Antena (Esteban Sapir)
Bekushiru: 2077 Nihon sakoku/Vexille (Fumihiko Sori)
Los cronocrímenes/Time Crimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
Dai-Nihonjin/Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Eden Log (Franck Vestiel)
I Am Legend (Frances Lawrence)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
Resident Evil: Extinction (Russell Mulcahy)

2008Doomsday(1)
Boku no kanojo wa saibôgu/Cyborg She (Jae-young Kwak)
Doomsday (Neil Marshall)
Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)
Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga/20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

2009srs_trailer_sidebar
Fisshu sutôr/Fish Story (Yoshihiro Nakamura)
Gamer (Neveldine + Taylor)
Metropia (Tarik Saleh)
Moon (Duncan Jones)
Mr Nobody (Jaco von Dormael)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Stingray Sam (Cory McAbee)
20-seiki shônen: Dai 2 shô – Saigo no kibô/20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
20-seiki shônen: Saishû-shô – Bokura no hata/20th Century Boys 3: Redemption (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

2010enthiran
Action Replayy (Vipul Amrutlal Shah)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)
Enthiran (Shankar)
Monsters (Gareth Edwards)
Stake Land (Jim Mickle)

2011
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek)
Detention (Joseph Kahn)
Fase 7/Phase 7 (Nicolás Goldbart)
In Time (Andrew Niccol)
Juan de los Muertos/Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués)
Love (William Eubank)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)

2012982490_024
Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg)
Dredd (Pete Travis)
Ghosts with Shit Jobs (Chris McCawley, Jim Morrison, Jim Munroe and Tate Young)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier)
Transfer (Damir Lukacevic)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams)

2013
Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)edge-of-tomorrow_emily-blunt
Trudno byt bogom/Hard To Be a God (Aleksey German)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

2014
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Fehér isten/White God (Kornél Mundruczó)
The Rover (David Michôd)
The Signal (William Eubank)

b9114194-0ea0-4e19-8aa1-312cd5d19455-460x276

120 years of sf cinema, part eight: 1995-2004

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the eighth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons). Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74), part six (1975-84), part seven (1985-94)

1995015-the-city-of-lost-children-theredlist
Atolladero (Óscar Aibar)
La cité des enfants perdus/City of Lost Children (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Kôkaku Kidôtai/Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii)

1996
Rubber’s Lover (Shozin Fukui)
Space Truckers (Stuart Gordon)

1997event_horizon_gravity_drive
Abre los ojos/Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar)
Conceiving Ada (Lynn Hershman-Leeson)
Cube (Vincenzo Natali)
Epsilon (Rolf de Heer)
Event Horizon (Paul WS Anderson)
Face/Off (John Woo)
Gattaca (Andrew Niccol)
Nowhere (Gregg Araki)
Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Bille August)
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven)
The Sticky Fingers of Time (Hilary Brougher)

1998movie-of-the-day-blade-L-1tZSBX
Blade (Stephen Norrington)
Dark City (Alex Proyas)
Last Night (Don McKellar)
New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara)
Pi (Darren Aronofsky)
La Sonámbula (Fernando Spiner)
Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes)

1999Ubergonzo
eXistenZ (David Cronenberg)
Muppets from Space (Tim Hill)
Spectres of the Spectrum (Craig Baldwin)
Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi)

2000
Batoru rowaiaru/Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku)
Donggam/Ditto (Jeong-kwon Kim)
Happy Accidents (Brad Anderson)
Pitch Black (David Twohy)
Possible Worlds (Robert Lepage)

2001billy-zane-and-cq-gallery
The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee)
Avalon (Mamoru Oshii)
CQ (Roman Coppola)
Electric Dragon 80,000 V (Sogo Ishii)
Hey, Happy! (Noam Gonick)
Kairo/Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

2002
2009: Lost Memories (Si-myung Lee)
Cypher (Vincenzo Natali)
Rokugatsu no hebi/A Snake of June (Tsukamoto Shinya)
Teknolust (Lynn Hershman-Leeson)

200328sl3
Akarui mirai/Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Bedwin Hacker (Nadia El Fani)
Dopperugengâ/Doppelganger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Jigureul jikyeora!/Save the Green Planet (Joon-Hwan Jang)
Koi… Mil Gaya (Rakesh Roshan)
Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (Manish Jha)
Patalghar (Abhijit Choudhury)
Le temps du loup/Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke)

2004
2046 (Wong Kar-wai)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
The Final Cut (Omar Naim)
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii)
G.O.R.A. (Ömer Faruk Sorak)
Primer (Shane Carruth)

part nine, 2005-14

752.original

120 years of sf cinema, part seven: 1985-1994

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the seventh part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74), part six (1975-84)

thequietearth
1985
Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
The Quiet Earth (Geoff Murphy)
The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
Zaveshchaniye professora Douelya/Professor Dowell’s Testament (Leonid Menaker)

1986
Aliens (James Cameron) – original cinema cut
The Fly (David Cronenberg)
Hombre mirando al sudeste/Man Facing South East (Eliseo Subiela)
Kamikaze (Didier Grousset)
Kin-dza-dza! (Georgiy Daneliya)
Mauvais Sang (Léos Carax)
Offret/The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
RocketKitKongoKit (Craig Baldwin)

1987bfi-00m-iwp
Friendship’s Death (Peter Wollen)
Gandahar (René Laloux)
Ground Zero (Bruce Myles and Michael Pattinson)
Island of the Alive (Larry Cohen)
Mr India (Shekhar Kapur)
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven)

1988
Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo)
Caller (Arthur Seidelmann)
Incident at Raven’s Gate (Rolf de Heer)
Na srebrnym globie/On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski)
They Live (John Carpenter)

1989tumblr_muj6gegSuy1r3owlzo1_1280
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto Shinya)
Tremors (Ron Underwood)

1990
Darkman (Sam Raimi)
Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter)
Hardware (Richard Stanley)

1991poison4
Bis ans Ende der Welt/Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders) 280 minute director’s cut
Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg)
964 Pinocchio (Shozin Fukui)
Poison (Todd Haynes)
Terminator II: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer (Tsukamoto Shinya)

19922186664,MqveFMRzikFV7Hc_8n63Uc1ipmVb1vLp9msrFhS3XaEtcAt+Fsvlg6ONLfyZMTzjSXWrTFvr7eQHr2OVvq3ulg==
Alien 3 (David Fincher)
Dongfang San Xia/The Heroic Trio (Johnny To)
Gauyat Sandiu Haplui/Saviour of the Soul (Corey Yuen)
Gayniggers from Outer Space (Morten Lindberg)
Orlando (Sally Potter)
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin)

1993
Acción mutante (Alex de la Iglesia)
Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla)
Sankofa (Haile Gerima)

1994
Cosmic Slop (Reginald Hudlin, Warrington Hudlin and Kevin Rodney Sullivan)
Welcome II the Terrordome (Ngozi Onwurah)

George-Clinton-Cosmic-Slop

part eight, 1995-2004