Mutant Chronicles (Simon Hunter 2008)

The_Mutant_Chroniclesand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Mutant Chronicles (2008) is not Ron Perlman’s Oirish accent (to be sure), nor is it the film’s unwillingness to leave any cliché unturned in the pursuit of mediocrity; no, the best thing about Mutant Chronicles is Sean Pertwee, for it is one of the fundamental laws of cinema that, regardless of the thing he is in, Sean Pertwee will be the best thing in the thing he is in…and that he will die more horribly and with greater inevitability than Sean Bean…

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Solving Jeremy Clarkson

jeremy-clarkson-cartoonApparently Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television, is struggling to work out the fate of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He has already described those defending Clarkson as being like those who covered up Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic predations. The Mail, in its typically confused manner, has implied today that Cohen accused Clarkson of paedophilia.

Obviously, this cannot go on.

It is tedious beyond belief, and Clarkson should have been sacked years ago.

But Top Gear is ‘the most-watched “factual” programme in the world’, and a huge money-spinner. No wonder Cohen knows what to do but cannot manage to do it.

It seems to me the answer is clear.

The BBC should take Clarkson back, but return Top Gear to the format originally proposed by JG Ballard.crashbangwallop

Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.

Marlow Moss and the Martian Invasion of Cornwall

A detail from White, Black, Yellow and Blue, 1954, by Marlow MossNever heard of the British Constructivist painter and sculptor Marlow Moss? Neither had I until I stumbled across a rather hidden-away room at the Tate last weekend.

Marlow Moss was born Marjorie Jewel Moss in Kilburn on 29 May 1889 to master hosier/clothier Lionel Moss and Frannie Jacobs. Defying her parents’ wishes, she attended the St John’s Wood School of Art in 1916–17 and then the Slade School of Fine Art until 1919. She is said to have left because of a nervous breakdown. She recovered in Cornwall, returned to London, returned to Cornwall to study sculpture at the Penzance School of Art, returned to London to set up a studio. In 1926, she changed her name to Marlow and adopted a masculine appearance for the rest of her life.

Marlow Moss, circa 1937
Marlow Moss, circa 1937

In 1927, Marlow moved to Paris, and met lifelong partner AH ‘Nettie’ Nijhoff, the writer-wife of Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff. At the Académie Modern, Marlow studied under Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant, but was influenced by Piet Mondrian. Marlow was a founder member of the Abstraction-Création group, which included Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Marlow’s paintings in this period are akin to Mondrians’s neo-plasticism, but the mathematically-minded Marlow is also believed to have influenced his more instinctual work (Marlow introduced parallel double-gridlines into paintings in 1931, marlowmosssomething Mondrian did not do until his 1932 Composition with Double Line with Yellow). In the 1930s, after visiting Athens, Marlow started to make all-white reliefs of wood, rope and string.

Nearly all Marlow’s pre-war work was destroyed in 1944 when the Normandy chateau Marlow and Nijhoff had rented was bombed by Germans; but Marlow had already escaped from Nijhoff’s Zeeland home when Holland fell in May 1940 and returned to Cornwall. Studying architecture at the Spatial-Construction-in-S-002Penzance School prompted a turn to sculptural work. Living in Lamorna Cove, Marlow was now a neighbour of the St Ives-based Nicholson and Hepworth. Marlow twice wrote to Nicholson suggesting they meet for tea, but never received a reply. Henry Moore also seems to have been less than supportive.

Marlow died of cancer on 23 August 1958. The current, single-room exhibition at the Tate is Marlow’s first solo exhibition in the UK. It includes paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, including two pieces, Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite (1956-7) and Construction Spatial (1953), inspired by the Martian cylinder that crashed near Truro at the turn of the century, and the war machine that emerged from it.

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Portnoy compliant: a reading experiment

It is now twelve months to the day that I set myself the task of, for one full year, reading books only by straight, white, middle-class, Anglopone, cis male authors. During that time I read 144 books. The things I learned in my year of selective reading made me pretty glad to have persevered.

First, while you might think finding books by such authors would be as easy as going in a bookstore and throwing a rock, it turns out it actually is.

My other findings are graphed below.

boredomrage

FamiliarityContemptGraph

When contacted for comment, both Martin Amis and Ian McEwan banged on self-importantly and interminably.

During the same period, my friend Jason Wyngarde performed a similar experiment with films. His findings were much the same, but he also uncovered a further pattern.

breastsexplosions

Fehér isten a.k.a. White God (Kornél Mundruczó Hungary 2014)

whitegodIf you like dogs, and you like revolution…

If Jupiter Ascending has whetted your appetite for films in which a girl and her dog fight against tyranny and longueurs…

Trailer

White God begins with a beautifully composed aerial shot of a major Budapest intersection. The streets are deserted. A tiny figure cycles up onto the flyover.

It has a familiar eeriness to it – like the deserted Waterloo Bridge near the start of 28 Days Later…, but without the graininess, the obvious digital compositing. And, shot from so far above, it is as much about the construction of urban spaces and the ways they channel us as it is about the shocking emptiness of this particular space at this moment.

The cyclist – a young girl, Lili, maybe thirteen years old – passes an abandoned car, its doors wide open, and descends into the city streets. Through intersection after intersection. Patient, determined. As if searching, cautiously and with trepidation.

Then the dogs appear.

Dozens of them.

Running.

Not from something, but toward something. With purpose.

They barely even notice her.

The film leaps back a few weeks. Lili’s mother and her partner are off to Australia for three months, so she is left with her father – once a professor, now a meat inspector at an abattoir, dishevelled and disgruntled. (He is inspired by David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1991)). Lili insists on taking her dog, Hagen, with her.

The tension between estranged father and daughter soon focuses on the dog, culminating in Hagen being abandoned by a busy roadside.

The film then follows two paths.

white god-feher isten-zsofia psotta-hagenAn oh-so-arthouse mildly prurient exploration of the occasionally sexualised Lili’s pubescent struggles – with her father, with older teenagers from the orchestra in which she plays trumpet – as she tries to find Hagen and ultimately reconciles with her father.

And the story of Hagen’s life as a stray. He is befriended by a dog_THUMB-1418155236944scruffy terrier, who teaches him about life on the streets, how to find food and water and shelter. How to avoid the city dogcatchers. Le barkour. But Hagen is eventually caught and sold into the world of dogfighting.

In the arena he quickly learns the horrible cost of this so-called sport.

Soon, Hagen finds himself in the dog pound, facing a lethal injection. He rebels, rather bloodily, and frees the other dogs.

He is Barktacus; they have nothing to lose but their chains.

The canine uprising has begun.

A lot of the criticism the film faced after winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year has to do with the supposed murkiness of its metaphor. This is typical of critics who don’t quite get how fantasy works, and who are incapable of finding value in the fantastic until they have translated it into the mundane. What exactly do the dogs stand for? They don’t have to stand for anything. Let them just be dogs; they will accrue meaning(s) regardless.

In complaining about the purported failure of White God‘s symbolism to symbolise some particular thing clearly, critics unwittingly clamour for an unambiguous one-to-one allegorical correspondence between manifest and latent content. Which is precisely what they would complain about if the film actually did do something so lunkheaded. That would be like  valuing Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) so highly solely because it is a roman à clef of the Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, rather than because it is also much richer and more ambiguous than that.

Kornél Mundruczó has cited a range of sf influences – Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator – although his film probably comes closer to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). He inevitably mentions Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), and more surprisingly the films of Fassbinder and of Sirk:

For me, White God and All That Heaven Allows is the same story. Both discuss how society confines and forces people to behave.

The genius of Sirk’s film is to move between the constraints faced by a middle-aged widow and the repressiveness of an entire society. Mundruczó’s film is perhaps less successful, but the alternation between the two narrative strands creates a similar critical resonance. It is about race and about immiseration and about state power and about the tyranny of free markets; about family, gender and generation; about species; about surviving and providing and being better than the unhomely world we daily build will allow.

It is also about crossing The Incredible Journey (1963) with The Birds (1963) with Zéro de conduite (1933) or, better yet, Hue and Cry (1947), and throwing in a little Pied Piper of Hamelin, so as to rework, as its anagrammatical title suggests, Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982).

Does it work? Not quite. But that did not keep me from enjoying loads of it, mostly the doggy parts.

Some might complain about the film’s typical liberal substitution of a vague warm fuzzy feeling for the coherent revolutionary politics it is incapable of imagining. But it is a film that functions primarily on an affective level. There is so much simple joy to beb9114194-0ea0-4e19-8aa1-312cd5d19455-460x276 found in seeing dozens of dogs, all different sizes and shapes and colours, running freely together, in fast motion and slow, that the image of revolution undergoes a quite radical transformation – it is violent and scary, but it is also comical and energetic and charming and delightful, as any worthwhile revolution must surely be.

And almost incidentally it does have some good politics in the mix. According to dog-trainer Teresa Miller, the two dogs playing Hagen don’t quite understand that they are dogs, and so simply did not get that they were supposed to be leading the pack. So although Hagen runs near the front of the pack, he never leads it. He is no Bane, which helps keep the canine rebels from becoming some clumsy reactionary representation of Occupy or Indignado or Tahrir or Syntagma, and which helps keep him unmuzzled. white-godAnd the film ends in media res, not with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) memorialisation of an already foreclosed future but, like The Birds, with the future still open … and if Hagen and his dogged comrades can just get to the horses, the cows, the sheep, the birds….

Note While leaving the cinema, I was momentarily thrown by the end credit I thought read ADDITIONAL CATS.