My top twenty books of 2015

1144This year, I read 166 books for pleasure. (My definition of ‘pleasure’ here includes background reading for new modules, research projects, reader’s reports, reviews, blurbs, etc, as well as ploughing through books that have been cluttering up the house for years – or decades – before donating them to the local charity shop; hence I am surprised to find four of my top twenty were actually published in 2015).

Portnoy compliance data:
All of the world except… = 87
…straight white men writing in English = 74
plus multi-authored in ways too complex to divide = 5
(but only about 40 by women)

Top twenty titles (excluding books I’ve read before)
Novels

Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots (2008)
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (1993)
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (1979)
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (2008)
Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement (2009)
Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers (1953)
Sapphire, Push (1996)
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)

Short stories
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun (2015)
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa (2015)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images (1995)
China Miéville, Three Moments of An Explosion (2015)
Sam Selvon, Ways of Sunlight (1957)

Poetry
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition! (1975)

Comics
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me (2014)
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (2015)
Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (2013)

Biography
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (1954)
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-29 (1959)
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40 (1963)

The full list of books I read this year
Brian Aldiss, Bury My Heart at WH Smith’s
Helliconia Summer
The Twinkling of an Eye
Michelle Alexander and Jeanne Long, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating
Monica Ali, Brick Lane
Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side
Grant Allen, The Woman Who Did
Margery Allingham, The Tiger in the Smoke
Guillermo Arriaga, The Guillotine Squad
Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg, eds, Cosmic Critiques: How and Why Ten Science Fiction Stories Work
Marc Augé, The Future

JG Ballard, High Rise (film reviewed)
The Drowned World
Lynne Reid Banks, The L-Shaped Room
René Barjavel, Ashes, Ashes
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal
Walter Besant, The Revolt of Man
Calixthe Beyala, How to Cook Your Husband the African Way
David Bischoff, Young Sun Ra and the Strange Celestial Roads
Andy Boot, Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
Dennis Broe, Maverick
Michael Bronski, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps
Keith Brooke, ed., Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction
Octavia Butler, Dawn
Adulthood Rites
Imago

Brian Chikwava, Harare North
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger
Teju Cole, Open City
Warwick Collins, Gents
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
Richard Cowper, The Custodians, and Other Stories
The Twilight of Briareus

Chris Darke, La jetée
Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921
— The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsksy 1921-29
The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-40
Bernard F Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures
Joan Didion, Where I Was From
Dilman Dila, A Killing in the Sun
Brian Dooley, Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America
Nerine Dorman, ed, Terra Incognita: New Speculative Fiction from Africa
Fyodor Dostoevksy, Notes from Underground
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
–. Uncle Bernac: A Memory of the Empire
David Duffy, Losing the Head of Philip K Dick
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
Nell Dunn, Up the Junction

Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia, eds, China Miéville: Critical Essays
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails
David Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots
Allen Eyles, House of Horror: The Complete Hammer Films Story

Michael Fabre, Under the Skin
Hans Fallada, Tales from the Underworld
Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett, 1636: The Kremlin Games
Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Norton, 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K Le Guin
Carl Freedman, Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
William Gibson, The Peripheral
Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Robert SC Gordon, Bicycle Thieves
Joe Gores, Hammett
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Karl Taro Greenfield, Speed Tribes: Children of the Japanese Bubble
Sam Greenlee, Ammunition!
Walter Greenwood, Love on the Dole
John Grindrod, Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain

Joe Haldeman, The Long Habit of Living
Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Mark Harris, Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood
Ivor W Hartmann, ed., AfroSF, volume 2 
Brett Harvey, The Fifties: A Woman’s Oral History
Mary Higgs, Glimpses into the Abyss
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance
Tendai Huchu, The Maestro, the Magician and the Mathematician
Fergus Hume, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

CLR James, Letters from London
James Joyce, Dubliners

Anton Kaes, M
Sue Kaufman, The Diary of a Mad Housewife
Gerald Kersh, Night and the City (here and here)
Abdelfattah Kilito, The Clash of Images
Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
The Shining
Cyril M Kornbluth, Not this August
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin
Henry Kuttner, Elak of Atlantis

George Lamming, The Emigrants
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans
Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons
Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners
Jack London, The People of the Abyss

Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C Clarke
Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan
The Three Impostors
The Terror
Colin Macinnes, Absolute Beginners
City of Spades
Katherine Mansfield, In a German Pension
Richard Marsh, The Chase of the Ruby
The Datchet Diamonds
Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami, or the Secret History of a Scoundrel
Quentin Meillassoux, Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction
China Miéville, This Census Taker
Three Moments of An Explosion
Rick Moody, The Ice Storm
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, volume one
Susanna Moore, In the Cut

VS Naipaul, The Mimic Men
Frank Norris, Blix
Moran of the Lady Letty
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis

Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer
Ondjaki, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret

Félix J Palma, The Map of Time
Richard Powers, Generosity
Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, Concrete Park: You Send Me
–. Concrete Park: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Raymond Queneau, Zazie in the Metro

Alain Robbe-Grillet, The Erasers
Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made
David S. Roh, Betsey Huang and Greta A. Niu, eds, Techno-Orientalism: Imaging Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media
Satyajit Ray, The Diary of a Space Traveller and Other Stories
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Sunjeev Sahota, Ours are the Streets
Sapphire, Push
Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
–. Ways of Sunlight
Khairy Shalaby, The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
Patrick Sheeran, The Informer
Anne River Siddons, The House Next Door
Sister Souljah, The Coldest Winter Ever
Muriel Spark, The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Girls of Slender Means
Colin Spencer, Homosexuality: A History
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net
Herbert Strang, Round the World in Seven Days
The Old Man of the Mountain
Mrs Herbert Strang, The Girl Crusoes
Neil Strauss, ed., Radiotext(e)
Boris and Arkaday Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God (film reviewed)
Preston and Sandy Sturges, Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges

Rose Tremain, The Road Home

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation
Authority
Acceptance
Dai Vaughan, Odd Man Out
Jules Verne, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm

HG Wells, The Autocracy of Mr Parham
The Time Machine
Brian Willems, Shooting the Moon
Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Benjamin Zephaniah, Refugee Boy

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.

The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.

Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)

Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)

But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous  consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland –  and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).

Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).

To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe

evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is  – and it is indestructible!

It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions  – and nothing matters.

(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))

In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how

the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.

And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.

[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]

The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).

Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).

Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.

And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.

Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).

Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.

At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.

It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.

We will return to the novel next week.

In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.

Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.

week 10

Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Recommended reading
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).

Recommended viewing
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).

The City in Fiction and Film, week seven

man-with-a-movie-camera1week 6

There are three main parts to this week’s class: viewing and discussing Chelovek s kino-apparatom/Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929); reading and discussing Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’; and essay preparation for next week’s deadline.

In my experience, first year students often struggle with Man with a Movie Camera – very few ever seem to grasp it, let alone like it; and then by the time they are third years, and more used to engaging with a wide variety of films, a number of those who were initially quite negative about it come to appreciate it, even like it. So I did a bit more than I usually would to frame the film – especially as the day before on Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption, they had gone from looking at versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond to reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and watching Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais 1961).

Drawing on some work on film forms from an earlier week on colleague’s Film Style and Meaning module, I framed Man with a Movie Camera as both

  • a documentary, but one that does not use language tell you what its subject matter is or guide you through it
  • an experimental film that requires you to think about the connections between images (one of my favourite gags in the movie depends entirely upon our learned assumptions about narrative and continuity editing: from the right of the screen a football is lobbed into the air; cut to a shot of a man throwing a javelin from the left of the screen – will he puncture the ball in mid-flight?’; cut to a shot of a goalkeeper on the right of the screen – will the javelin impale him?)
  • a self-reflexive film about producing and exhibiting film – all about seeing and being seen, projecting images, filmmaking as an industrial craft among other industrial crafts, film as an industrial product, film as a leisure activity, film as a constructor and conveyor of illusion

and in relation to

  • city symphony films, such as Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931) – one of the students later noted formal similarities to films such as Baraka (Fricke 1992)
  • film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) – the latter of which they saw a few weeks ago on Film Style and Meaning

We also had some questions to think about while watching the film:

  • How are shots connected to each other? For what reasons does one follow another?
  • Are there graphic and/or textural matches/contrasts between successive shots?
  • Are there traces of narrative?
  • What thematic connections are elaborated across the film?
  • Think about binary oppositions: male/female, public/private, work/leisure, humans/machines, cameraman/people, capturing the city/intervening in the city

I had to stay for the start of the screening to check something in the first few minutes of the film – and ended up watching the whole thing again for the second time in less than 48 hours. I love this movie more every time I see it.

The lecture began with some more framing of the film (next year, I need to try to get the lecture scheduled before the film, if possible).

Viva Paci describes the emergence of cinema as ‘part of the euphoria of modernity’. Like ‘other fetish phenomena typical of modernity, such as billboards, posters, expositions and store shelves’, cinema is ‘merchandise that makes itself visible, turning its presence into spectacle’ (126).Last week we saw, in Modern Times, the centrality of the department store to modern urban experience, and Man with a Movie Camera directly addresses some of these other phenomena. For example, in the early sequence of a sleeping woman slowly waking, there are  cut-aways to a detail from a poster, which later is revealed as the poster for a film called The Awakening (of a woman).

I outlined some of the ways in which many early actualité films shared the same drive as expositions and world’s fairs to expose mass audiences to new technologies and views/simulations of distant and exotic lands (and as this week is also thinking a little bit more about urban alienation and disorientation, it is not insignificant that the first known US serial killer, HH Holmes, stalked in and around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).

Paci also relates cinema to

exoticism (as found in the era’s expositions and in the Paris arcades celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin), train journeys (and the new visions of the landscape in movement and the proliferation of perspectives they offered), advances in the faculty of sight (from the air, for example, or with microscopes) and the improvements to fantastic images [that] had already fed the collective imaginative identity extended [and] new aesthetic habits. (125)

Annoyingly, I could not find my copy of The World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johnson 1984) to show off some 1939 New York World’s Fair footage, so instead we focused on the connections to trains and new technologies of vision. An 1861 quote form Benjamin Gastineau best captures train travel as proleptic of watching a programme of short films such as the Lumière brothers first charged an audience to see at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café on 28 December 1895:

Devouring distance at the rate of fifteen leagues an hour, the steam engine, that powerful stage manager, throws the switches, changes the décor, and shifts the point of view every moment; in quick succession it presents the astonished traveller with happy scenes, sad scenes, burlesque interludes, brilliant fireworks, all visions that disappear as soon as they are seen. (Schivelbusch 63)

Hale's_Tours_of_the_WorldWe spoke about Hale’s Tours (launched, of course, at an exposition – the 1904 St Louis Exhibition) and train films and, of course, Edison’s Railroad Smashup (1904), for which the film company bought two decommissioned trains and crashed them into each other. If we had way more time, I would also have shown the remarkable train crashes from Orlacs hände (Wiene 1924) and Spione (Lang 1928), the sequence shot from the front of the train in Bulldog Jack (Forde 1935) and the opening of La bête humaine (Renoir 1938) to show how this fascination continued on into narrative cinema, and is in some ways the visual precursor of the jump to lightspeed/hyperspace, etc.

imagesFor new technologies of vision, we recalled some work from Film Style and Meaning on Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography – examples of pre-cinema which also lead to Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of the workplace, suggested in both Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera – and the similarities that can be found in such contemporaneous art as Marcel nude2Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2 (1912). And, of course, we watched Cheese Mites (Duncan 1903) and Percy Smith’s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and his juggling fly films to see how microscopes and time-lapse photography could show human eyes things our eyes could otherwise not see. We looked at some views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort (Clair 1925) – aerial views of a kind previously only accessible to people in aircraft and construction workers – and also at Onésime horloger (Durand 1908), in which the protagonist, frustrated that he cannot get his inheritance until he is older, speeds up the Paris city clock: a series of gags are played out, made funny by the accelerated pace of the action; and undercranked footage played back at regular speed sees pedestrians dash through the city, even more harried than usual by the regulation of life by clocks (which, of course, connects back to railroads, factories and other disciplinary institutions). .

We then turned to Soviet montage, and again I was able to connect back to some work on editing and montage from Film Style and Meaning. I began by introducing the key figures and their most important films:

  • Sergei Eisenstein – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), The General Line (1929), Alexander Nevsky (1939), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (1944, 1945)
  • Lev Kuleshov – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)
  • Vsevolod Pudovkin – Mother (1926), The End of St Petersburg (1927), Storm over Asia (1928)
  • Esfir Shub – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), creator of the compilation film – who also fleetingly appears in Man with a Movie Camera
  • Dziga Vertov – Kino-Pravda (1925-28), A Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Three Songs of Lenin (1934), Lullaby (1937)
  • Yelizaveta Svilova, who plays the editor in Man with a Movie Camera as well as editing it and others of her husband’s films before becoming a director herself in the 1940s (her brother-in-law, Mikhail Kaufman. also shot several of his brother’s films, including Man with a Movie Camera, in which he also plays the cameraman)

A quick description of the Kuleshov effect gave me the excuse I’ve been looking for to show off the actorly range of lardy racist Steven Seagal, before 715661586edd971305e05f19b5f311b1reminding students of Eisenstein’s theoretical discussion of montage and the analysis they had done of the clash of images in the sequence from Strike in which the assault on the workers is intercut with the slaughter of the bull in the abattoir. Plus, some lions.

We then finally discussed Man with a Movie Camera in some detail, picking out moments such as:

  • the intercutting of the woman rubbing her eyes, the shutters of her window-blinds opening and closing, the camera shutter – associative editing, detecting similarities and differences between phenomena, sketching out relations between organic and mechanical actions
  • the superimposition of the eye on the camera lens – a kind of cyborg melding of mechanical means and human consciousness, emphasising differences in kinds of vision
  • the splitscreens in which the cameraman towers over the city – part of the depiction of the cameraman as an heroic figure that runs throughout the film, and of the celebration of the camera’s ability to see anywhere, but also with a hint of surveillance (there is one shot in the film in which the camera is positioned high above the street and seems to move autonomously, like a CCTV camera)
  • the stop-motion animation of the camera, giving it life – animating it, as the camera/projector does with each still image it captures/projects
  • the shots which show something hurtling towards or passing over the camera, and the following shots which reveal how it is done
  • Svilova editing the film, and the later placement of the frames in the film, animated and given a context
  • industrial footage, especially of rotating devices and interlocking gears that recall the mechanism of the camera/projector – and nice to see a sewing machine included, since the camera/projector borrowed from sewing machine technology the intermittence device that allows individual frames to be held momentarily in place to capture/project each individual image
  • the skill of manual labour, such as the woman making cigarette packages, but also how machine-like it is in its endless speed, precision and repetition
  • the obsession with trains and trams, constantly on the verge of catastrophic collision
  • the shop-window mannequins that wake up and come to life along with the humans, awoken by the presence of the sun (or the camera)
  • the world being captured unawares vs. people’s reactions when they know they are being filmed – and that film is present in the world not just as labour and recorder but also as projection, cinema, leisure activity
  • the use of freezeframes and slow motion, recalling the material basis of film (the photogram), the role of editing, and those early motion studies of Muybridge and Marey

The final section of class was about Tom Gunning’s discussion of the cinema of attractions. Early film history used to be told in terms of a tension or conflict between two approaches to cinema that ultimately and somehow inevitably resulted in the dominance of narrative cinema. These tensions were rooted in a distinction between:

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s ‘realist’ actualité films (i.e., views of the real world or actuality footage), that mostly eschewed anything but the most minimal of narrative form; see Baby’s Breakfast (1895) or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or the non-Lumière Black Diamond Express and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

and

Georges Méliès fantastical féerie films (i.e., ‘trick films’ organised around special effects) that, because of the nature of many of his gags and routines, contain some more obvious narrative structuration; see The India Rubber Head (1901) or A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Tom Gunning and others have, over the last thirty years, argued against this view, finding that despite superficial differences both approaches to filmmaking shared something profoundly fundamental in common: a basic exhibitionist impulse to present an audience with ‘a series of views’ that are ‘fascinating because of their illusory power’. Reality/fantasy, actuality/staged, non-narrative/narrative are pretty much red herrings in the first decade of cinema.

We then spend some time working on this long passage to get a better sense of what Gunning means by cinema of attractions:

To summarize, the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as the early close-ups just described, or trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious incidents (executions, current events). It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. … An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’. … a montage of such attractions, creat[es] a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory depictions’.

And then it was time to discuss the essay due next week.

Incidentally, 20% of the class really enjoyed Man with a Movie Camera, 20% liked specific parts of it, and 60% declined to comment

week 8

Recommended critical reading
Berman, Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin, 1998.
–. On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. London: Verso, 2009
Feldman, Seth. “‘Peace Between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 40–54.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 736–750.
Keiller, Patrick. “Urban Space and Early Film.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 29–39.
Paci, Viva. “The Attraction of the Intelligent Eye: Obsessions with the Vision Machine in Early Film Theories.”, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 121–137.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: IB Tauris, 2000.
Strathausen, Carsten. “Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 15–40.
Strauven, Wanda. ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Webber, Andrew. “Symphony of a City: Motion Pictures and Still Lives in Weimar Berlin.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 56–71.

Recommended reading
Cities are often depicted as so alienating and disorienting that their denizens are driven to madness of various sorts, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City (2003).

Cities can also offer possibilities for freedom, as in Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), and for metamorphosis, as in chapters 6–7 of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and chapter 11 of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), in which trips to London transform rural girls into a glamorous ladies.

Recommended viewing
Other city ‘symphony’ films include Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931). Some film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953), are clearly related, as are such contemporary films as London Orbital (Petit and Sinclair 2002), Finisterre (Evans and Kelly 2003) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (Evans 2005).
People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) combines a city symphony with a narrative about a group of young people played by non-professional actors.
Films of urban transformation include Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski 1936), Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Apartment (Wilder 1960) and Better than Chocolate (Wheeler 1999).
Films of urban derangement include The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Lang 1933), Repulsion (Polanksi 1965), Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and American Psycho (Harron 2000).
Urban transformation and derangement come together in disturbing ways in Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto 1995), Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and A Snake of June (Tsukamoto 2002).

 

Primer (Shane Carruth USA 2004)

primer-movie-poster-2004-1020241222[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 98 (2006), 152–6]

From a garage in Dallas, four men run a business in their spare time, using scavenged components and their knowledge of physics, computers and engineering to devise patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich. Two years, fourteen patents – and the best they have managed is disenchantment with each other and a marginal mail-order business selling JTAG cards. However, while experimenting with superconductors, Aaron (Shane Carruth) stumbles upon something peculiar – the system they have built puts out more energy than they put into it. He and Abe (David Sullivan) keep it secret from Phillip (Anand Upanhyaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden). They realise that ‘the easiest way to be exploited [is] to sell something they did not understand’ but also, over following weeks and months, that they are ‘out of their depth’. Until one day, Abe takes Aaron step-by-step through what he has learned – they have actually created a kind of time machine. If they switch it on at time A and enter it later at time B, they can return to time A; but this also means that between times A and B there are two of each of them coexisting. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but things start to go awry when the much less cautious Aaron begins to fantasise about getting revenge on an investor who messed them around: Aaron imagines assaulting him and then going back in time to tell himself not to do it. He dreams of acting with impunity, of becoming so rich that he is above the law.

Actually, things go awry much sooner (or possibly later) than that: Aaron grasped the machine’s potential more quickly than Abe realised and has been deceiving him, carrying out his own agenda. Aarons and Abes multiply, attacking other versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. Aaron and Abe appear less frequently in the same shot, and when they do they are often separated not just by distance but by the vertical lines of background architecture or ominous black shapes.

Placing all that has passed under erasure, the story ends – I think – at some point between the start of the film and Abe’s first use of the time machine. An Abe is sabotaging the machine while the original Abe (or possibly the same Abe, only earlier) is building it, in the hope that he will give up (read backwards, his surname, Terger, provides a clue). An Aaron, somewhere overseas and apparently with corporate or state backing, is constructing a much bigger machine, while the original Aaron (or possibly the same Aaron, only earlier) continues to live with his family. I think.

Writer-director-editor and co-star Carruth (he was also responsible for casting, production design, sound design and the film’s original music) is rumoured to have shot a scene in which everything is explained, but if so, he was wise to cut it – and not only because it must have contained long and stilted dialogue (and probably lots of diagrams). The film is effective because of its refusal to clarify what we see and hear. Fresh but often elliptical information demands that we, like the protagonists, revise our understanding of earlier scenes, which in turn alters our understanding of the information. Multiple viewings are required for those who wish to figure it out, but, like Videodrome (1983), I am not certain it can be – and this renders it probably unique among American time-travel fictions. For example, unlike the Back to the Future ( 1985–90) and Terminator (1984–2003) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to an oedipal primal scene fantasy; and however much their final reels might prattle about the future not being fixed, they lack Primer’s more thoroughgoing destabilisation of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to modernist European time-travel fantasies like La jetée (1962), L’anné dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime ( 1968) (Primer’s womb imagery, aural rather than visual, seems to allude to the latter in particular).

Like these nouvelle vague films, Primer is also a meditation on cinema itself. Although it is a coincidence that the Lumière brothers ‘invented’ cinema in the same year that Wells published The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), there is a complex interconnection between time-travel and motion pictures that goes beyond the Wells/Paul patent for a never-constructed fairground ride/exhibition space that reconstructed the Time Traveller’s voyage. The projected representation of past moments, undercranking and overcranking the camera so as to produce fast- and slow-motion, editing out frames or editing them together – these are all experiments in altering time, reconstructing it so as to be experienced differently. (And it is worth recalling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Marienbad was inspired by Aldolfo Bioy Casares’s neglected sf novel La invención de Morel (1940), whose title nods to Wells but whose story of a man who falls in love with an unattainable woman in a virtual projection of a recorded past was itself inspired by the author’s fascination with silent movie actress Louise Brooks.) Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through four windows in it: the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering; perhaps a consequence of shooting insufficient coverage, it nonetheless disrupts and thus becomes instructive about the ways conventional editing creates the illusion of continuous time and space. Elsewhere, jumpcuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

Technical errors during filming left much of the sound recording unusable; the post-synchronised dialogue and ambient sound often just don’t sound quite right, further alienating the viewer, especially during scenes dominated by hard-sf speak. The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance while its characters do little to evoke a sympathetic response, making it something to scrutinise rather than wallow in – not that one would want to: the world it creates is far from appealing (shot on super-16mm, and blown up to 35mm via a digital intermediary, it is dominated by sickly greens and yellows), and not just in terms of its appearance.

Roger Luckhurst argues that the figure of the heroic scientist – whether Ralph 124c41+ or Thomas Edison – emerged in popular culture just as the real-world efforts of the latter and his ilk were industrialising and commodifying the processes of technological innovation, effectively removing it from the realm of the individual creator. Just as La invención de Morel explores capital’s colonisation of the unconsconscious in terms of the articulation of desire through the commodified image of an actress, so Primer sees the logic of capital spread into every aspect of its protagonists’ being. They work 30 hours per week in the garage on top of their day jobs. Robert proposes a project which might be fun, but Aaron and Abe dismiss it because it is unlikely to reach a marketable stage. Alienated from their labour and from whatever pleasure they derived from tinkering with things in the garage, all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They have instrumentalised their skills and desires, and compartmentalised their lives. Unable to produce a profitable device, they instead use time-travel to pick up information on stocks and shares. The fantasy of free energy (and self-replication) turns into the fantasy of immaterial capital boundlessly reproducing itself. By explicitly rejecting the lottery in favour of the stock market they throw themselves into capital’s annexation of our future.

That their experiment is doomed is suggested throughout by the sense that life cannot be compartmentalised, that causation is complex rather than linear. At one point, Aaron ‘accidentally’ reproduces his cell phone, and when it rings he has to work out whether the network will contact both identical phones or just search grid by grid until it finds one of them. Elsewhere, inexplicably, the father of a girl they know suddenly appears with two or three days of facial hair despite being clean-shaven just a few hours earlier. ‘There’s always leaks,’ Abe tells Aaron, and consequences seem to come not in chains but webs which reach in all directions.

Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex present already out of control. Its garage inventors resemble the utopian writers described in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), but unlike them Aaron and Abe are unable to imagine change, the radical break – the first negation – that makes utopia possible. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only conceptualise using this fabulous new technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the same. The market might pretend it is homeostatic, orderly and inevitable, but a fragment of hope can be found in how thoroughly Aaron and Abe are made to learn that the status quo is complex, dynamic and riddled with contradiction.