Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006Frustrated at repeatedly missing out on the chance to film one of Ballard’s novels, Stanley Baker optioned a number of his short stories through his production company Oakhurst Productions, including ‘Track 12’ (1958). Of the intended anthology picture, only one, the 22-minite ‘Track 12’, was completed, shot by Joseph Losey from a script by Harold Pinter, during a break in production on Accident (Losey 1967). 

bf65b22ea58a62662420952923502ec196986099Dirk Bogarde is chilling as the diffident biochemist, Sheringham, avenging his cuckolding by Baker’s robust Maxted. An unbilled Julie Christie was persuaded by Bogarde, who had worked with her on John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965), to provide the glimpsed fragments of Susan Sheringham’s face and body – and the overwhelming, screen-filling kissing lips of the film’s startling conclusion, an image that had a profound influence on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983).

Christie would, of course, go on to co-star in Losey’s Palme d’Or-winning The Go-Between (1971), his fourth and final collaboration with Pinter; and Ballard later scripted the contemporary sequences that saved Pinter’s adaptation of John Fowles’s 1969 The French Lieutenant’s Woman, directed by Karel Reisz in 1981, from mere historical pictorialism.

Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

Evolution (Lucille Hadzihalilovic 2015)

evolution-poster-lucile-hadzihalilovicDo not be fooled if your local arthouse tries to advertise it like this: ‘Featuring some of the most mesmerising underwater cinematography this side of Jacques Cousteau and containing undertones of the weird horror fiction of HP Lovecraft…’

They have to do it that way round cos they’re an arthouse cinema, and they figure their main audience is going to be the people who want to see Cousteau-like cinematography. And it is indeed mesmerising, rendering the world beneath the waves beautiful and alien all at once.

But the film is really for those who like their fiction weird. And who want to know where babies come from.

An oddly piscine-looking woman raises a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas, in a white-walled coastal village full of oddly piscine-looking women, each of whom is raising a ten-year-old boy. The landscape is vaguely volcanic, the beach and streets covered in cinders. They live on a diet of khaki mush filled with worms, and every day, Nicolas must take four drops of medicine that looks suspiciously like cephalopod ink. He claims to have seen a dead boy on the sea floor with a red starfish on his belly. His mother dives to retrieve the starfish, thus ‘proving’ there was no dead boy.

maxresdefaultThe camera is generally static. No one says very much.

But Nicolas senses something is not right. Where do the women go by lantern-light once their boys are asleep? What is going on at the medical facility along the cliffs? Why do all the boys eventually go there? What happens to them?

It is difficult to write more without giving too much away. Plus, the film tends to live and resonate in its obscurities, its half-glimpses and elliptical cutaways, its silences and incompletions, so writing much more would also pin down meanings in a way which counter the film’s affect. Suffice to say, there is not just Lovecraft here, but also a Lynchian suspension of meaning, the surgical/gynaecological horror of Cronenberg, a hint of del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo but without the boys adventure literalness of his ghost story, and of The Wicker Man‘s odd local customs, and even of Brian Yuzna’s Society but without the comical excesses. (There is nothing comical about this film.) Hadzihalilovic has also mentioned in interview the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.

For a while near the end you start to think it does not know how to end, but then its final shot reframes all that has gone before as a document of the Anthropocene.

It is probably the creepiest, weirdest-on-first-viewing film I have seen since Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June, and easily the best thing I have seen in a cinema this year.

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley UK 2015)

highrise2After the varying degrees of self-importance, humourlessness and bloat Spielberg, Cronenberg and Weiss brought to their respective Empires, Crashes and Exhibitions, the very first thing screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley get right with their High-Rise is that Ballard is a comic writer.

A master of the modestly proposed deadpan preposterous, his dry technician’s prose fakes repression, barely concealing the glee with which he drones shock and flattens affect. This is pretty much impossible to reproduce in film. Cronenberg attempted it with Crash, and failed (Shivers got a lot closer, and is still the best version of High Rise that is not actually a version of High Rise).

Jump/Wheatley’s humour is much more their own, and they are sufficiently confident about it to have some fun with Ballard. There is, for example, a nicely played moment when Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) says something to Royal (Jeremy Irons) which is precisely the kind of impossible-thing-for-a-real-person-to-say that a character in a Ballard novel would say, prompting bemusement and discomfort in them both.

The second major thing Jump/Wheatley get right is to not update the setting of the film. Instead, we get a slightly different version of the 1970s, as if the decade went on a little bit longer and somehow became as attractive to look at as it clearly – and mistakenly – thought it was.

But this also reveals a problem with the film as an adaptation (as a Jump/Wheatley film, it is second only to Sightseers).

Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments was transforming from merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom (typically and conveniently forgetting that for many people moving from the slums to the new developments was headily utopian – indoor plumbing!). It was written when councils were withdrawing maintenance from post-war housing projects, and their residents were being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. It was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – you know, like in Our Friends in the North).

And so whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it, but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre. The closing moments of the film do nod to Thatcher, and it is certainly the case that she – conveniently forgetting that many of the worst post-war developments were built by private companies, not by the state or local councils – drew on this myth to drive through her ideological war on council housing, thus creating the ongoing housing crisis in the UK.

But the conditions in which Ballard’s novel was written no longer exists, and the film – despite the way it captures middle-class social sadism – lacks that element of specificity that would provide a vital resonance. Consequently, Ballard, who should be shocking the bourgeosie, is suddenly heritage cinema, and that is just plain wrong.

Probably the most telling moment for me in this regard comes in the sequence when Richard (Luke Evans), slowly making his battered way up the building to exact his revenge, assaults Charlotte (Sienna Miller). A montage, which includes her timidly serving him a tin of dog food for breakfast the next day, plays out to Portishead’s cover version of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’. It is a beautiful version, transforming the pop song into a languid, mournful piece of music, as self-consciously ‘serious’ as one would expect from them. And in all kinds of ways it works brilliantly.

But it is completely the wrong choice.

They should have gone with the original version; not because it is better, but because the last thing the film needed was to fall into such clichéd caution. This is not to say that rape, even if only implied rather than depicted, should be treated frivolously; but rather that the film loses something by choosing to treat this particular moment as so very exceptional. At least using ABBA’s version might have been sufficiently inappropriate to shock audiences out of their complacency. But that was never going to happen. Despite all the potentially offensive material the film contains, it also wants to be respectable, and that is budget speaking, not art.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s an enjoyable film, and full of nice little touches, from sets which bring the brutalist concrete inside the apartments to an unexpected nod to Aladdin Sane and some great dancing.

But you know the way The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s static camerawork makes it not so much an expressionist film as a film of expressionist sets and performances? So High-Rise is a film of a Ballard novel, not a Ballardian film.

[Thanks to Mark Cosgrove for blagging me into the preview after the ticketing fiasco.]

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).

 

The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Weiss US 2001)

51K5H8KCA5LAssuming it is even possible, to what extent and in what ways should adapta­tions remain faithful to their sources? All manner of possibilities emerge when the adaptation is free of the constraints of respectability, accessibility and banal fidelity that a studio budget tends to entail, and when the source is supposedly ‘unfilmable’, as is the case with Weiss’s independently financed adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel.

Ballard’s and Ballardian prose is recited in voiceover and by carefully pos­itioned actors – affectless mannequins in static tableaux. The camera is locked or tracks slowly. Interspersed is footage of Hiroshima survivors, crash test dum­mies, nuclear tests, Kennedy’s assassination, plastic surgery, the Challenger dis­aster, the war in Vietnam, penetration, Marilyn Monroe. A voiceover posits that the film was shot by Dr Travis (Victor Slezak), misappropriating the institution’s equipment and funds, as therapy, but is uncertain for whom.

Often, however, this mixture of stock footage and re-enacted scenes feels more like a high-end BBC documentary profile of Ballard, with the talking heads and explicatory arc excised. Some shots are strikingly composed, particularly when situating humans among architecture, but they lack the clinical precision of Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Crash (Canada/UK 1996) and never achieve the gor­geous insanities of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (1995–2002). The static set-ups and slow tracks suggest Tarkovksy, but lack his attention to rhythm, to sculpting in time. While the film is never as torpid as, say, a classical Hollywood adaptation of Hemingway, its languor is strangely at odds both with Ballard’s surrealist prose montage and the media landscape he dissected. Imagine what Godard or Tsukamoto could have done with such material.

Several times Weiss tilts his camera upwards from the ground at his feet to an object further away, opening up a wider perspective. This tension between the detail and the whole pins Weiss and his film in the angle between two depths of field. Take for example the long shot of Karen Novotny (Anna Juvander), being fucked from behind while leaning out of a car window, naked apart from a picture of Ronald Reagan strapped over her face. The camera tracks in slow­ly, the music on the soundtrack adding a sense of respectfulness rather than juxtaposition. Before we can make out the image over her appropriately bored face, we know it will be of Reagan. All the elements are there, but somehow together they become less than their sum. The sequence only comes alive when old movie footage of Reagan, apparently looking askance at these shenanigans, is briefly inserted. This captures something of Ballard’s impish absurdism but nothing that might shock, however fleetingly, the bourgeoisie.

 The Atrocity Exhibition is not so much an adaptation as an ambiguous memoriali­sation, turning Ballard into a suburb of European art cinema.

A version of this review originally appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television, 1.2 (2008), 359–60.

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.