The City in Fiction and Film, week 15. Urban alienation: machines for living in, living in machines.

Alpha_1024x1024.jpgWeek 14

This week we turned from the American suburbs to futuristic (that is, 1960s) Paris, with Alphaville (Godard 1965). But first we took a trip through the history of representations of the city in sf cinema, guided largely by Vivian Sobchack’s ‘Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film’ (1999).

We returned briefly to Metropolis (Lang 1927), with its vision of a metrocosm – a city with with no apparent exterior – in which verticality dominates: skyscrapers, aerial roads and railways, aeroplanes, and above them all the incredible building from which Joh Fredersen, at the centre of a web of communications technology, governs it all. The bourgeoisie live above the ground; beneath them lie the machines upon which the city depends; and beneath the machines live the workers. Here, verticality figures an oppressive class structure (not unlike the glass slabs reaching into the skies of present-day financial centres). In Just Imagine (Butler 1930), however, Sobchack suggests that verticality implies something different because there is no subterranean world, no marginalised working class, just structures leaping into the sky. Here, she argues, the city as expresses that most American of values (or ideological sleight-of-hand): aspiration. Individual personal planes that can also hover weave among the skyscrapers. (But in longer shots, they all follow rigid grid patterns, like the orderly automobiles on the streets below; this tension between individualism and conformity is played out through the protagonists’ resistance to state control over who marries whom.)

We took a look at the opening of the film, which imagines nineteenth century, 1930s and future version of New York – the wry tone of the sequence indicates the film’s broader ambivalence about the notions of progress it also, at times, seems to espouse.

Detouring from Sobchack, we spent some time looking at the incredible montage sequence, scored by Arthur Bliss, from Things To Come (Menzies 1936) in which, following decades of war and plague and petty dictatorship, the new Everytown is constructed. I mentioned how masculinist the film’s notion of progress is at this point – the Earth is some kind of womb full of riches, waiting to be torn out – but had completely forgotten quite how phallic some of the machines are. The whole sequence can be seen as technoporn, an erotics of mechanism, one in which the future is built on the scorched Earth of the past. In Things to Come, decades of war cleared the ground, but in the real world this was done – and continues to be done – quite deliberately. For example, in the US, the urban renewal programme that ran from 1949 to 1973 bulldozed 2,5000 neighbourhoods in 93 cities, dispossessing at least one million people. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) borrows the Filipino term ‘hot demolition’ to describe contemporary landlord arson of slums so as to clear land for redevelopments that are never intended to provide housing for the impoverished populations burned out of their homes.

Equally important for our purposes, though, is quite how abstract Things to Come’s the scientific manufacturing looks – we can see that proficient, technoscientific processes being signified while remaining more or less completely ignorant of what they are actually doing. This is important in thinking about the semiotic thinking of Alphaville.

 Film_660w_ThingsToCome_originalThe sequence ends with the revelation of the subterranean mall future, hints of mid-twentieth-century architecture’s International Style evident in buildings with set-back bases and non-supporting exterior walls. But before we get to the mall, there is a glimpse of a radiating landscape in the distance – of a Garden City.

The idea of the Garden City was espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898), significantly revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). In it, he outlines the attractions and repulsions of two existing magnets – the town and the country – and outlines the attractions of the third, proposed magnet he calls ‘town-Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard.jpgcountry’, or the Garden City. The idea was to build new towns from scratch that avoided urban poverty and squalor – overcrowding, poor drainage and ventilation, pollution, disease, lack of access to the natural world – by combining the pleasures/benefits of the country (nature, fresh air, low rent) with those of the city (opportunity, entertainment, good wages). The Garden Cities would be of limited size, preplanned, and owned by trustees on the behalf of the tenants – and thus also work to undermine private ownership and landlordism.

Letchworth Garden City commenced construction in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard’s ideas were taken up by Frederick Law Olmsted II in the US, influencing aspects of suburban development, and after WW2 also influenced British ‘New Town’ developments.

(Incidentally, and à propos of nothing relevant, Howard is the great-grandfather of Una Stubbs.)

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Disappearing City (1932) took pushed beyond Howard’s ideas even further, proposing the complete dispersal of urban centres into the countryside. Each family to be given an acre of land on which to build an ‘organic architecture’ homestead that used local materials, matched the contours of the land and opened up the interior of the building to the world outside. Unlike Howard, Wright prioritised private automobile ownership over public transport – though in illustrations, he also seems to imagine the car being replaced by varieties of helicopter. Wright ‘Broadacre City’ design was also an influence on US suburban developments.

Returning to American sf films, our next port of call was the short film showing of Norman Bel Geddes massive Futurama diorama, built for the General Motors exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It envisions an entire country organised around roads and automobiles – quel supris! – and urban centres that owe something to Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine (1922), which emphasised orderliness, symmetry, space and vistas in a plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work (which, if divided out evenly, would 125,000 people per building and approximately 2,080 per floor).

Sobchack draws on Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, to describe ‘the fantasy’, evident in 1950s US sf films, ‘of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (Sontag 44). In such films height and aspiration are brought low as tidal waves sweep through Manhattan (When Worlds Collide (Maté 1951)), when a reanimated dinosaur romps through New York (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié 1953)), when flying saucers crash into the Capital’s neo-classical government buildings (Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Sears 1956)) – and, in Japan, when Godzilla smacks down Tokyo. This concession to non-US cinema is telling. Gojira (Honda 1954) is a bleak film, critical of nuclear war and Cold War atomic escalation; when recut for US release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), all such material is carefully excised so as not to have to face up to it.

Sobchack also adds the category of films in which we are shown deserted cities. Five (Oboler 1951) shows us not destruction but the emptiness of all that aspiration (and is mostly filmed around a desert home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The remarkable The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MacDougall 1959) not only casts Manhattan’s skyscrapers as the tombstones of civilisation, but also, like Five, tries to discuss racial politics. Both films show that one of the few legacies of American civilisation that will endure into the post-apocalypse is the colour line – suggesting that it is not just an issue of individuals who are racist, but of the deepest structures of American society. Ultimately, both flinch away from their full implications, but they are among the relatively few films of the period trying to say something important about it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground returns in THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), replacing aspiration with oppression; fullness becomes overcrowding in Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973); and in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), the ‘brutalist’ architecture of postwar British developments – evoked here by the Thamesmead estate – becomes brutalising, or is at least blamed for brutalisation.

In the 1980s, white flight from the centre to the suburbs has given way to white flight to the off-world colonies. In films such as Blade Runner (Scott 1982), the urban core has been junked rather than redeveloped, and then exoticised and made cool by punks and ethnic others. The exhausted, colourful downtown seems to go on for ever – remember how improbable the flight to the countryside seemed at the end of the original cinema cut – and the city seems to have become all run-down centre. In contrast, the blast LA landscape of Repo Man (Cox 1984) is all exhausted, quirky margins, as if any kind of centre is impossible. Also, in films such as RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), Darkman (Raimi 1990) and They Live (Carpenter 1988), it becomes clear that property developers – and the financial interests they serve – are grasping, criminal, inhuman.

In the 1990s, Sobchack argues, the decentredness of the city gives way to the ungrounded or groundless city. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on pastiche in films such as Independence Day (Emmerich 1996) and Pleasantville (Ross 1998), in which very familiar sf images are repeated – flying saucers destroying the Whitehouse, a conformist smalltown invaded by alien others – but have no real connection to the cultures in which they are produced and consumed. And on the other hand, thanks largely to the development of CGI and other digital production technologies, there are films in which the city becomes a vertiginous, boundless space across which impossible trajectories are traced (The Fifth Element (Besson 1997), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Lucas 2002)) and, perhaps more interestingly, a space to be endlessly reshaped – and human identities along with it – by far from benevolent powers, as in Dark City (Proyas 1999).

Since Sobchack wrote her essay, the city in sf film since the 1990s has become primarily a post-9/11 space. It is subject to:

  • inexplicable alien attacks in Cloverfield (Reeves 2008), War of the Worlds (Speilberg 2005), Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
  • terrorist attack in Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams 2013)
  • emptying out in 28 Days Later… (Boyle 2002) and I am Legend (Lawrence 2007)
  • military occupation in 28 Weeks Later… (Fresnadillo 2007)

In Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), the city is reduced to an endless camp for remantn populations and dislocated people.

In Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015), the city as such has completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a brute vertical structure of violent oppression.

Turning to Alphaville, we began by outlining the dystopian elements of the future it depicts, some of which clearly develop ideas and themes we had already encountered last week in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These included:

  • centralised and totalitarian control (the extent to which the Alpha 60 computer and Alphaville are co-extensive is ambiguous, but arguably the inhabitants of Alphaville effectively also live inside the computer)
  • loss of emotion and flattening of affect
  • state-organised spectacle (swimming pool executions replacing books burnings) which is not so much about punishing perpetrators as reminding the rest of the population of the state’s potential to use disciplinary force
  • the ubiquity of modern commodities, which replace art, live music, poetry, etc
  • the degradation of language – if you remove words from the dictionary, people cannot feel or express the emotions/ideas they signify
  • the reduction of humans to the status of commodities (which, in Alphaville’s treatment of all(?) women as sex-workers does at least demystify the economics of normative heterosexual exchange)
  • the imminence of nuclear war
  • an architecture – here all cold reflective glass and marble – that establishes barriers between people
  • an emphasis on abstraction – signs and graphics, diegetic and otherwise – rather than on embodied human interconnection

This last point extends into the film’s emphasis on semiotics – how meanings are created and circulated. This is most obvious in the way in which, in Alphaville, nodding your head means ‘no’, and shaking it means ‘yes’ – semiotic signs, remember, are arbitrary and conventional.

The film foregrounds an array of intertextual connections – references to characters from pulps, comics and films (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, Heckel and Jeckel), to scientists and related institutions (von Braun, Fermi, Einstein, Heisenberg, Los Alamos, IBM), but does little if anything to explain them, leaving the viewer to fathom their presence, their signification – perhaps as a kind of pop culture primer to help us read the poetry of surrealist Paul Eluard that might save us.

The film plays with genre, casting Eddie Constantine, already familiar to French audiences from the actual Lemmy Caution films in which he has starred, and going out of its way to make the sex and violence and melodramatic music of crime thrillers awkward and absurd (as if desperate to find a way to both have the pleasures of mass culture and to distance itself from them). Such elements signify a genre to which the film using them arguably does not belong – at least not in any straightforward way.

Finally, the film levers open the gap between sound and image that conventional continuity editing tries to close down. Not only do we not know where Alpha 60’s voice actually comes from in the world of the film, we also often do not know its status in relation to the footage: can it be heard by the characters? is it a voiceover address to the viewer?

Next week, we turn in more detail to the International Style, the influence of Le Corbusier on British postwar developments, to brutalist architecture and its decline – and to the first half of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), accompanied by The Model Couple (Klein 1977).

Week 16

Core critical reading: Utterson, Andrew. “Tarzan vs. IBM: Humans and Computers in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.” Film Criticism 33.1 (2008): 45–63.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London:    Routledge, 2006. See Chapter 5, “From Postmodern Condition to Cinematic City.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Duarte, Fábio, Rodrigo Firmino and Andrei Crestani. “Urban Phantasmagorias: Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities.” Space and Culture 18.2 (2015): 132–42.
Easthope, Anthony. “Cinécities of the Sixties.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 129–139.
Hilliker, Lee. “The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.” Film Criticism 24.3 (2000): 1 – 22.
–. “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review 76.2 (2002): 318–29.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 6, “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities.”
Shaw, Debra Benita. “Systems, Architecture and the Digital Body: From Alphaville to The Matrix.” Parallax 14.3 (2008): 74–87.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
Utterson, Andrew. From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age. London: BFI, 2011.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yegeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are key dystopias concerned with modern built environments. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) is an ambivalent take on life in an arcology.

Recommended viewing
The design of the future city in Things to Come (Menzies 1936) draws on contemporary architectural debates.
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971) and Logan’s Run (Anderson 1976) are set in dystopian arcologies. World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johson 1984) looks at the future city designed by corporations for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Jacques Tati’s mechanised suburbia of Mon Oncle (1958) is matched by a hyper-modern Paris in Playtime (1967).

Spectacle, Apocalypse and the Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars

A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2010), 107–15.

Atlantis (August Blom Denmark 1913). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 20fps. Verdens undergang (The End of the World; August Blom 1916) and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars; Holger-Madsen Denmark 1918). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 17fps and 20fps, respectively.

For half a decade, beginning in 1910, Denmark was the most influential film-making nation in Europe after France. Of more than two dozen production companies, many of which lasted only long enough to make a handful of films, Nordisk Films Kompagni was the most successful.[1] Established in 1906 by cinema-owner Ole Olsen, it quickly became the second largest European production company, after France’s Pathé,[2] making, for example, over 140 films in 1915 alone. Indeed, Nordisk’s fame and influence was such that the Hungarian theatrical actor and film director Miháley Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz – visited Denmark to study their filmmaking systems and techniques.[3] Nordisk ceased to make films in 1917, and when production recommenced after World War One, its global position was lost. Its German market was undermined by the establishment of Ufa, Germany’s state-owned studio, and Nordisk’s increasing focus on literary adaptations proved a less-successful export strategy than Germany’s development of expressionism into a cinematic mode.

Spectacle
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In 1910, actor August Blom joined Nordisk’s 1700 staff as a director.[4] He soon became the studio’s leading director, shooting more than a hundred films by 1924. While Olsen preferred single reel films (up to sixteen minutes long), which had to sell about twenty prints before turning a profit, Blom wished to make longer films. After his racy three-reel melodrama Val Fœngslets Port (The Temptations of a Great City; Denmark 1911) became an international hit, selling nearly 250 copies, he increasingly got his way. Although largely forgotten nowadays, Blom was a major figure in the development of what we now think of as feature-length films, both in Denmark and internationally. He was best known for literary adaptations, including versions of Robinson Crusoe, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a Hamlet shot at Elsinore, and for social melodramas, which depicted temporary mobility between social classes before conservatively reasserting the natural order of social hierarchies (Mottram 135–6). In 1913, he adapted German Nobel prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel Atlantis, following its narrative very closely. It was a prestige production over which Hauptman retained considerable control; but despite the novel’s rather modern perspective, its story of the self-exiled, proto-existentialist Dr Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) resonated strongly with the melodramatic form Blom favoured. At eight reels (nearly two hours), it was the longest Danish film – and one of the longest films anywhere – to that date. It was another international hit, with prints prepared specifically for Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian language markets (there were two Russian versions, one with a much more tragic conclusion which is included as an extra on this DVD). For its US release, it was cut down to six-reels. According to Mottram, the excised scenes almost certainly included von Kammacher’s side trip to Paris and his brief shipboard affair with a Russian Jewess from steerage, and probably the two-shot sequence which gives the film its title and its few moments of more-or-less direct interest to readers of this journal: von Kammacher’s dream/vision of Atlantis.

Nearly halfway through the film, the overwrought von Kammacher retreats to his cabin on a liner crossing the Atlantic to the US. In his sleep, he meets a dead friend, with whom he walks through the streets of Atlantis. While Blom succeeds in giving this sequence an oneiric quality, the lost continent is rather obviously just a Danish town. This tension makes it appear oddly prescient of Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic use of Scandinavian settings in a film such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries; Sweden 1957), but it is profoundly at odds with the rest of the film’s realist aesthetics. In Blom’s defence, the equivalent brief passage in Hauptmann’s novel seems just as odd.

Perhaps, then, of greater interest than this fantastic element is the film’s investment in spectacle, which is increasingly treated as a defining characteristic of sf cinema. In addition to specially-filmed establishing shots of Manhattan, location shooting in Berlin (including striking material filmed from moving cars) and shots of magnificent landscapes and seascapes, there are three sequences that even more specifically evoke the cinema of attractions associated with early cinema.

First, when von Kammacher, distressed by the rejection of his revolutionary bacteriological research and by the need to commit his insane wife to an asylum, takes a holiday in Berlin, his friend Hans Füllenberg (Miháley Kertész) invites him to the debut of Ingergerd Hahlstrom (Ida Orlov). Her dance – a vaguely allegorical performance called ‘The Spider’s Victim’ – not only fills him with a desire for her against which he will struggle for the rest of the film, but also abruptly terminates narrative momentum in order to insert what is, in effect, a two-minute-and-forty-second butterfly dance film. Such short films, which featured the hypnotically swirling skirts and sleeves (often hand-painted frame by frame) of such performers as Annabelle Moore, were immensely popular in the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth century (various sources claim that they constituted between 30–80% of all films made before 1910).

In the second half of the film, von Kammacher’s fellow voyager, the armless performer Arthur Stoss (Charles Unthan), performs amazingly dexterous acts with his feet. Again, the action halts – for three minutes – to present a sequence that resembles a short film recording of a popular variety act: Stoss plays a trumpet; shuffles, cuts and deals a pack of cards; lights and smokes a cigarette; opens a wine bottle with a corkscrew, pours and drinks the wine; types a letter and signs it with a pen.[5]

August Blom - Atlantis.avi_003806250In between these two ‘attractions’ lies the film’s most spectacular sequence, in which the liner hits a derelict ship and sinks. Some sources state that Hauptmann’s novel was published four weeks before the Titanic disaster, others that the novel was inspired by it; but regardless of this, the film adaptation a year later again evokes a genre of the cinema of attractions: the record of a catastrophe (typically opportunistic, often reconstructed or otherwise fraudulent) and the specific cycle of films purporting to contain actual footage of the Titanic sinking. Blom’s resolutely unspectacular visual style lends a sense of greater realism to shots of barely-choreographed extras milling about on the ship, of others leaping twenty feet or more into the sea and of the actual sinking of a large-scale model/set of the ship.

Apocalypse
VerdensUndergangPoster
Of more direct interest to the readers of this journal is Blom’s Verdens undergang (The End of the World; 1916), in which a comet – or its debris – strikes northwest Europe. It was shot in Sweden and Denmark while memories of the 1908 Tunguska event (probably the airburst of a meteoroid or cometary fragments) and 1910’s two major cometary visitations – Halley’s Comet and the Great January Comet, also known as the Daylight Comet – were still relatively fresh, and while World War One was consuming men and matériel in unprecedented quantities. That a residual sense of such celestial phenomena being ill omens persisted is indicated by a New York Times article on the Great January Comet, which displaces such concerns onto other peoples: ‘its appearance is reported to have caused extreme terror among the Russian peasants, who regard it as the precursor either of a great war in the Far East or of the end of the world’ and ‘warnings have been issued as to the effect it is likely to have upon the populations of North Africa and India’ (Anon). However, despite Nordisk making a number of pacifist and explicitly anti-war films, Blom ignores the potential in his material to develop such a connection with the Great War. Instead, he chooses to construct another social melodrama, which escalates as the comet draws nearer (in this, it has much in common both with the overwrought familial and homosocial melodrama of Deep Impact (Leder US 1998) and Armageddon (Bay US 1998), and with the low-key mapping of social difference in Last Night (McKellar Canada/France 1998)).

When Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), a wealthy industrialist, comes to a remote town to inspect his mine, he promptly falls for Dina (Ebba Thomsen), one of the daughters of its manager, West (Carl Lauritzen). She feels stifled by the strictures of her conservative, religious father, and when Stoll declares his love for her, she abandons her home and her fiancé, a miner called Flint (Thorleif Lund), for a life of luxury in Copenhagen. Several years later, Stoll’s financial machinations have made him an even larger fortune on the stock exchange. When a comet is spotted approaching the Earth, he manipulates his cousin, Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), into revealing to him the Astronomical Society’s findings about the likelihood of a collision, which are supposed to be kept secret so as to avoid panic. Having already purchased stock at rock-bottom prices when news of the comet prompted a crash, Stoll forces a newspaper editor to print a false report that it will pass by harmlessly. Public confidence – and stocks – rise, enabling Stoll to sell at a massive profit before the truth comes out. He then returns with Dina to his mansion near her home town so as to shelter in the mines from the coming conflagration. On the eve of destruction, he – presumably not being familiar with Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – throws a party for his wealthy friends, instructing them ‘Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it will be we who will found the new world, and be its masters. We will salute the rush of the meteors towards the Earth with a feast. Tonight, when the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us.’ Meanwhile, Flint, intent on revenge 13081308083615263611459952against Stoll, incites the miners and townsfolk to riot. As flaming debris fall from the sky – the combination of model work and location shooting remains quite effective – and as Dina performs an erotic dance for Stoll’s guests, the common people, armed with tools and guns, converge on the mansion. Class warfare erupts (in one remarkable shot, the camera looks past the workers, through a hole they have torn in a door to where Stoll’s guests return fire). Stoll hustles the injured Dina through a secret passage into the mines, pursued by Flint. She dies from her wound; Flint and Stoll, overwhelmed by toxic gases released by the comet’s impact, die; in fact, everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, but Dina’s virtuous sister, Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen), rescued from the sea’s VerdensUndergang3inundation of the land by a priest (Frederik Jacobsen), who then disappears, and her fiancé, Reymers (Alf Blütecher), the only survivor of his wrecked ship. She makes her way through the post-catastrophe desolation to a church tower.[6] Reymers hears the sound of church bells ringing, and the lovers are reunited, a new Adam and Eve.

Blom’s visual style in Atlantis and Verdens undergang exemplifies – some might say typifies – the Nordisk look, which strongly favoured a single camera set-up and deep focus composition, with multiple planes of action. This not only enabled an entire scene to be filmed in a single long take, but also helped to produce a film grammar less concerned with montage (as in the US) than with composition and spatial relationships within the mise-en-scene. Blom reduces the theatricality often associated with such a style by offsetting the camera so as to reduce the sense of frontality – unless frontality could be used to emphasise a character’s sense of social or psychological confinement – and by adopting (limited) panning and tracking so as to follow the action. There is little cross-cutting to build tension or parallelism between locations, and the actors, usually in medium shot, eschew melodramatic gestures, actions and emotions in favour of a more restrained, naturalistic style. Sets are well-dressed, often with very solid-looking furniture, and Blom is careful to imply the existence of real spaces on the other sides of doors and walls. He is not afraid of cramming twenty or more actors into a shot, and he is fond of mirrors as a means of extending visible space. For example, in Verdens undergang, a tableau of the lascivious but bored Dina features a mirror angled so as to depict part of the room that is out of shot, and the haste of the scheming Stoll’s return from the stock exchange is captured by thus showing him burst into the room (in the mirror) before he bursts into shot. Slightly more mystifying – at first – is the mirror that dominates one wall of West’s dining room, seemingly angled outward at the top merely to display the rug on the floor. Its true purpose is only revealed when flood waters pour in through the window, treating the viewer to a sight of the rapidly rising tide that swirls around Edith’s legs, adding to the sense of her peril without having to alter the camera set up or edit the film.[7]

Perhaps the most striking shots in Verdens undergang come when Stoll scouts out a hiding place in the mine, and later when, pursued by TOP_D_2014_Findumonde4Flint, he tries to bear the injured Dina to safety there. Each time, the characters descend into utter darkness, with only a single candle to light the way. Blom’s ingenious use of what appears to be a chest-mounted lighting rig gives halos of light to otherwise invisible figures shot from behind, and of mobile lights out of shot at the feet of the advancing characters produces moving pools of light and shadow, emphasising the deeper darkness into which they descend. There is nothing like it in silent sf – perhaps in silent cinema – until Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) pursues/rapes Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a torchbeam in Metropolis (Lang Germany 1926).

Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars
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Alongside Blom, Nordisk’s other major director in the 1910s was Forest Holger-Madsen, another occasional actor, who shot forty-six films between 1912 and 1936. His Nordisk films include three overtly anti-war films: Ned med vaabne (Lay Down Your Arms; 1914), scripted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from a novel by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner; Pax Aeterna (1917), co-written by Nordisk-owner Ole Olsen, the poet, novelist and playwright Sophus Michaëlis and Otto Rung; and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars 1918), adapted by Olsen and Michaëlis from the latter’s novel of the same name.

In Himmelskibet, sea captain turned aeroplane enthusiast Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) yearns for a new and worthy venture, something that will further the human spirit and the cause of peace. He finds inspiration in the work of his father, the astronomer Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and commits himself to building a ‘bridge between the planets’ – to constructing a spaceship and flying to Mars. He is joined in this endeavour by his friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is in love with his sister, Corona Planetaros (Zanny Petersen). After two years, Avanti announces the completion of the Excelsior at a meeting of the Scientific Society. A cigar-shaped craft with a propeller at the rear and biplane wings above the front of the fuselage, it has a revolutionary power source[8] that will enable it to travel through interplanetary space at 12,000kph. Despite Avanti’s impressive presentation (he is dramatically lit at a lectern at the front of the darkened room, with footage of the spaceship matted in beside him as if it is a film being projected), he is ridiculed by the demoniacally-lit – and appropriately named – Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), who denounces the venture as madness rather than science and calls for common sense to prevail.

The contrast between Dubius and his friend, Professor Planetaros, is articulated, as one might expect, through mise-en-scene. Planetaros is a stable, bourgeois patriarch, his observatory uncluttered, his home spacious and dull, with immaculate furniture that could be decades old. Physically, he resembles one of Boris Karloff’s white-haired scientists of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but while he shares something of their melancholy, he possesses none of their madness. Dubius, with his pointed beard, shock of hair, pince-nez and cheroots, more closely resembles the owlish Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (Lang Germany 1922). Indeed, in his rather cluttered office, strewn with books and papers, he even sits beneath a giant stuffed owl, symbolising a knowledge more arcane than modern science. He lives alone with his housekeeper; his clothes suggest vanity and he is furiously envious of Avanti. When the press turn against the expedition, Professor Planetaros, fearing for his son’s safety, is driven into physical and psychological decline by Dubius’ constant taunting. (Dubius is eventually driven mad by the expedition’s success and is struck dead by lightning.)

Among the volunteer crew Avanti recruits from the Science Society, two figures are particularly noteworthy. One is an unnamed Japanese, played by an uncredited European in yellowface with spectacles and smoothed down hair, who retains an air of formal deference despite his western dress. The other is David Dane (Svend Kornbech), a stout American adventurer with the build of a young Fatty Abuckle. He is uncouth – he enters the meeting smoking a pipe and wearing a stetson, with his jacket draped over his arm, only for one of the stewards to remove his pipe and hat and make him put his jacket back on – and, it soon transpires, a secretive alcoholic. This depiction of a modern Japanese obviously owes much to Japan’s surprise victory in the 1904–5 war with Russia and to its significant role in World War One;[9] a similar blend of modernity and orientalism is found in the Japanese of Spione (Lang Germany 1928). In contrast, Dane combines frontier accoutrements with crass materialism, unhealthy appetites and a bully’s swagger that turns out to be a coward’s front. Six months into the voyage, it is not the oriental who turns treacherous, but the American. Driven to despair by the ‘brooding darkness’ of space, Dane no longer attempts to conceal his heavy drinking and begins to plot mutiny. Only Krafft and the Japanese remain loyal to their commander.

Avanti self-consciously models himself on Christopher Columbus, talking to a portrait of the explorer that decorates his father home and copying its visionary subject’s heroic pose (Tolnæs’ overemphatic performance of heroic energy and messianic commitment is at odds with that of most of the rest of the cast; his excessive gesturality recalls Gustav Fröhlich’s often-criticised performance as Metropolis’ Freder Fredersen). And in an echo of the myth of Columbus’ voyage, it is just as the Excelsior is nearing Mars that the mutineers attempt to seize the spaceship. However, the Martian observers monitoring its approach accelerate the Excelsior to ten times its normal speed and land it safely on their planet.

imagesIt is on Mars that Himmelskibet’s pacifism comes to the fore. Martian civilisation combines elements typical of nineteenth-century utopian or lost-race fictions: pseudo-classical architecture, costume and customs; divine ancient wisdom; telepathy; social, psychological and physiological engineering, in this instance organised around a fruitarian diet; and a scattering of superscience technologies. Here, however, the emphasis is not on detailing eutopia’s radically different socio-economic structures but on the stately grace of the Martians, their social/religious rituals and the beauty of their landscape (which looks exactly like the Danish countryside, apart from the occasional ziggurat or giant flower). Premiering in February 1918, the film’s boldest move is overtly to transvaluate the God of War into the Planet of Peace.

The Martians greet the expedition with fruit, but disdain the wine they are offered in return and are repelled by cans of ‘dead meat’. Avanti shoots a bird from the sky to show the Martians that they, too, could easily add meat to their diet. The Martians, appalled by the sound of the first gunshot on the planet in thousands of years and by the murder of a living being, advance on the humans, and Dane throws a grenade, killing a Martian: ‘War and sin! Killing and blood!’ have come to ‘the planet of peace’, and ‘must be atoned for’.

Marya (Lilly Jacobson), the daughter of the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech), appoints herself the expedition’s defender as the humans subject themselves to Martian law, which punishes them by giving them self-knowledge. They are shown scenes from Martian history – of the ‘killing with fire and iron’ that prevailed until the Wise Man brought peace to their world – and thus learn that ‘Blood screams in even the smallest murder and sin opens its gates of hell/The source of life is but pure and good, woven from every strain of blood’. The humans vow never again to kill any living creature and even Dane surrenders his weapons. Then, to their amazement, the dead Martian is revived.

Many elements of Himmelskibet remain quite impressive: the dressing of its bourgeois sets and the chiaroscuro lighting effects; the Excelsior’s interior design, its rivets, gears and wheels prefiguring the spaceship interiors of Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and Flash Gordon (Stephani US 1936); and the blend of effects shots and actuality footage, including aerial views of Copenhagen, worked into the Excelsior’s launch sequence.

However, its attempts to depict a truly spiritual Martian people have fared less well. This is perhaps most evident in the rather curious courtship of Avanti and Marya. When he declares his love at ‘the tree of longing’ and then enters the ‘forest of love’ with her, it is impossible to tell whether these terms are supposed to have symbolic meaning within the diegesis, are part of an exegetic double-coding to make it clear that they are about to consummate their love, or just really unfortunate phrasing. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of Avanti fondling Marya’s breasts, especially as the rest of their interactions seem so chaste and this scene comes just after a comparison has been drawn between the Martian ‘dance of chastity’ and scenes of terrestrial debauchery and violence. Indeed, the only time the images manage to convey any sense of poetic harmony are a handful of shots depicting terrestrial workers in the early morning light of which Humphrey Jennings would have been proud.

14697181688_4dcbc8e4b7Marya joins the Excelsior on its return to Earth so as to propagate her father’s ‘message of enlightenment’. Professor Planetaros, whose suicide is narrowly averted by his son’s homecoming, welcomes her with these words: ‘In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich’.[10] This hopeful address to the future must have seemed bitterly ironic in the closing months of a war in which nine million combatants, most of them young people, were killed. It is, however, perhaps too much to suggest that, in such hierarchical and patriarchal sentiments, in Planetaros’ reduction of a ‘superior’ woman to a literal and symbolic womb, and in the film’s Aryan vision of superiority, its fascination with uniforms, technology and messianic heroism, that the outlines of the Next Great War can already be glimpsed.

Works cited
Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Anon. ‘Not Much is Known of Daylight Comet’, The New York Times (30 January 1910): C3. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9400E7D61730E233A25753C3A9679C946196D6CF.
Mottram, Ron. The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988.

Notes
[1] The longest continuously operating studio in the world, Nordisk still makes 10-15 productions and co-productions per year.

[2] The first decade of the twentieth century was the only time imported films have dominated the American screen. By the autumn of 1907, Pathé alone ‘was selling on the American market between thirty and forty million feet of positive film stock per year, nearly twice as much as all the American companies combined’ (Abel 87).

[3] He has a role in Atlantis, but there is ‘no documentation … to support [the] claim’ (Mottram 9) that he was also its assistant director.

[4] For an overview of his films from 1910-14, see Mottram.

[5] One cannot help but wonder whether this sequence inspired Tod Browning’s The Unknown (US 1927), in which Lon Chaney performs equally remarkable armless feats.

[6] A Danish audience would presumably have recognised this as the Buried Church in Skagen, the most northerly point of Jutland, which was lost – with much metaphorical commentary – to the encroaching sands during a period of desertification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[7] Such attention to the contents and spatial organisation of the frame may have influenced Curtiz’s own distinctive mise-en-scene, perhaps best exemplified by the interiors of Casablanca (US 1942) and Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

[8] Although its engine room seems to contain only a small five-stroke motor.

[9] After the war, Japan was awarded a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and Saionji Kinmochi was seated with David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando at the Versailles Peace Conference, although his attempts to include a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty failed.

[10] Rather unfortunately for the Anglophone viewer, this sentiment is followed by an ‘End’ caption in Swedish, which is ‘Slut’.

The City in Fiction and Film, week six

modern-timesWeek five

This week we watched Modern Times (Chaplin 1936), read a recent article on it by Lawrence Howe (which contains some useful contextualisation for the film, even though I am not wholly convinced by its argument), had a brief introduction to Marxist ideas about capitalism and the class society it produces, and then spent quite a while discussing some basic essay writing skills.

As described by Frederick Engels, in his ‘Preface to the English Edition of 1888 of The Communist Manifesto’, Marx’s ‘fundamental proposition’ concerning history and class is that

the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 48.)

Starting with this broad sweep ties back to the work we did on historical periodisation in week 2 as we started to think about ‘modernity’, but more importantly gave me an opportunity to include a picture of the lovely late Andy Whitfield on the spartacus1powerpoint slide explaining classical slave societies (Feudalism had to make do with a picture of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.)

Capitalism, Marx argued, is defined by the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class), who own and control the means of production (from factories to financial instruments), and the proletariat (or working class), who sell their labour for a wage which is worth less than the value created by their labour. All that extra value they create is used to pay for raw materials, plant, etc; and all that is left over from that – surplus value, in Marx’s term – is taken by the capitalist. Although there might be small individual and partial exceptions, the capitalist will always look to increase production of surplus value – by introducing ‘rationalised’ production processes and increasing automation, by lowering or freezing wages, by extending the working day (including reducing breaks), by offering productivity bonuses, by resisting unionisation of the workforce and health/safety legislation, by casualising the workforce, by not paying the costs of pollution, by relocating to countries with weaker unions/workplace protections/ environmental laws, and by avoiding/evading taxes and manipulating political systems.

Before discussing Modern Times, we took a look at several short sequences from Metropolis (Lang 1927), a film I really wanted to include on the module but which is too long for the screening session (and perhaps in that respect a bit cruel as an introduction to silent cinema – although next week we will be watching Man with a Movie Camera, so I am not sure where the greater cruelty lies).

Lang’s film spatialise class relations in a manner that will become common in dystopian visions, and also in the real world. Here the spatial division is vertical, recalling the literal and figurative descents into poverty in Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The garden in which the city’s wealthy youths play is somewhere high up and pristine. Freder’s father’s office – as controller of the city – is also elevated above all, symbolising his pan optical powers (making him an important figure when we dip our toes into a little de Certeau in a few weeks). Then there is the magnificent metropolis itself, beneath which are the machines which sustain it. And beneath the level even of the machines, as Lang’s opening sequence shows, is the city of the workers.

We also took a look at some of the machinery in the film: the 10-hour shift clock and 24-hour clock over which the shift change is announced (we have already seen Lang’s obsession with clocks in M), the rather abstract machine which overheats and transforms, in Freder’s eyes, into a barbaric ancient idol into whose maw the workers are fed; and the even more abstract clock machine that Freder undertakes to operate so as to free an exhausted worker, only to become a kind of knackered Christ figure himself as he struggles to keep up with its incomprehensible demands for repetitive motion.

Some of this imagery is picked up on directly in Chaplin’s film, which also begins with the image of a clock and workers trudging to the factory like lambs to the slaughter.

Before the screening, I suggested some possible binary oppositions that could be used to try to think through the logic of the film:

capitalist and worker
surveiller and surveilled
employed and unemployed
production and consumption
lack and plenty
work and leisure
human and automaton
conformity and difference
law and lawlessness
order and chaos
authority and resistance
propriety impropriety
male and female
adult and child

As ever, a lot of these terms sort of overlap or seem to be describing the same things from different angles.

The boss using the giant screen in the bathroom to berate Chaplin on his break establishes that the relationship between capitalist and worker is a power relationship (we have already seen the boss goofing off, doing a jigsaw and reading  the funny pages – Flash Gordon, if I am not mistaken, since the visible page is Tarzan?) – and that this power relationship includes bullying and surveillance (which includes workers having to clock-in and clock-out, even for bathroom trips). Furthermore, the fact that the boss even contemplates subjecting his works to the Billows Automatic Feeding Machine so that can they be fed lunch without needing to leave the production line indicates the extent to which he does not think of them as human beings but as mere parts of a technical apparatus, as cogs in a machine. (It is also an example of trying to increase productivity through automation so as to increase surplus value, or profit, at the expense of the worker.)

Such control systems or disciplinary structures as the factory represents also provide most of the other key locations of the film: asylum, prison, orphanage, department store, restaurant.

Talking about the department store – designed to move customers through the space in such a way as to organise and prolong their experience within the retail environment (think about how IKEA has no windows or clocks and only one route through the warehouse – and, at least according to one of the class, blocks cell phone reception) – also facilitated a way to think about the interconnections of production and consumption.

Chaplin and the gamin (Paulette Goddard), of course, are disruptive forces of chaos in all this. Chaplin’s derangement by the repetitive labour of the production line shows how poorly we all, as humans, fit the environments created to maximise the extraction of our labour power for other people’s profit. The gamin’s initial gender-blurring – posing like Peter Pan, providing food for the family when her father is unemployed – and her refusal to be subordinated to state systems (the law around property, the orphanage to which her younger siblings are sent) betoken a similar energy. Both she and Chaplin are often positioned as childlike, and their attempts to find a space in the adult world are endearing parodies of that world: the dream vision of a suburban home Chaplin imagines, the run-down shack the gamin crafts into the image of a suburban idyll, the way they play and dress up in the department store. (And they are not alone in not fitting in this world: the prim and severe vicar’s wife whose stomach nonetheless gurgles when she drinks tea; the scarcely glimpsed ‘gay’ prisoner, who minces out of the dining hall and into his cell; the unemployed men forced to break into the department store because they are starving; and so on.)

Then it was time for a break, for the grand unveiling of the essay questions, for reminders to do the library quiz online within 24 hours, and for essay-writing advice.

The latter is especially tough, I find, to do for a whole group, none of whom have yet submitted any work. Makes it hard to know where to begin, what particular strengths and weaknesses each student has. So we did some very basic stuff.

On stucture, taking Strunk and White’s advice: ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.’ So a brief introduction to what is going to be discussed, probably somewhere between 5 and 8 paragraphs, each devoted to making, developing and supporting a single idea in a chain of ideas/paragraphs, and a short conclusion tying it all together. For a 1200 word essay, the introduction and conclusion should probably need no more than a sentence or two each. Revise the introduction once the essay is completed so as to ensure it describes what the essay actually does, rather than what you intended to do (the initial introduction can also be used to help think through revisions to early drafts). No new ideas to be introduced in the conclusion – and never end with a quotation (it is supposed to be your conclusion).

Using spell-check (make sure it is set to English UK; remember it won’t catch certain kinds of errors, such as typing ‘form’ when you mean ‘from’). Use grammar-check sparingly, as typically you need to understand grammar in order to make sense of its recommendations. Instead, concentrate on becoming a better writer (obligatory plug for the genuinely excellent kids’ book, The English Repair Kit by Angela Burt and William Vandyck).

We covered rules about laying how to quote and paraphrase and reference (MLA-style).

Finally, we thought about writing in a more formal academic style, but how that did not necessarily mean writing in long sentences. Focus on short, clear sentences, and work in length-variety where necessary – focus on the connection between what you want to say and the best way to say it clearly.

And then wrapped it all up with another quotation from Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

week 7

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 2, “Urbanizing Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Jenkins, Henry. “Looking at the City in The Matrix Franchise.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 176–192.
Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: BFI, 2006.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.

Recommended reading
By imagining future cities, sf often highlights contemporary concerns about the city. See, for example, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014).

Recommended viewing
The same is true of many sf films, such as Metropolis (Lang 1927), Things to Come (Menzies 1936), Alphaville (Godard 1965), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Blade Runner (1982), Akira (Ôtomo 1988), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Minority Report (Spielberg 2002), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), District 13 (Morel 2004), Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), La Antena (Sapir 2007) and In Time (Niccol 2011).

Modern Times was partly inspired by À Nous la Liberté (Clair 1931).

 

The Mad Maxathon, part two: The Road Warrior (1981) mostly

M-0005_Mad_Max_2_The_Road_Warrior_one_sheet_movie_poster_lPart one, part three, part four

Road Warrior might be punk’s Sistine chapel, but it is not without problems.

To be punk at all it has to have problems.

Many of them come from its dependence on colonial adventure narratives, particularly Westerns. There is an enclave of ‘white’ civilisation in the wilderness – a fortress, circled wagons – surrounded by aggressive and highly mobile ‘savages’, who are darker and more ‘tribal’ (some even sport Mohicans), and who rape and murder one of the ‘white’ women.

And as if this racial othering is not enough, many of them also dress as sexual dissidents.

To be honest, I am not sure whether it is because I have cherished this movie since adolescence that I tend to overlook these problems, or whether it is genuinely more complex than this reductive account suggests. Certainly such colonial imagery can be used in different ways. For example, when Starship Troopers (1997) uses the fort under siege scenario, it does so to parody imperialist military aggression. Unlike, say, Zulu (1964), in which post-imperial melancholy works hard to mythologise yet another shabby episode in the history of British imperialism. And unlike the final section of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), in which Brett Ratner, once more putting the idiot into idiot savant, slanders San Francisco’s queer counterculture.

And Road Warrior does do some interesting things with its colonial set-up.

RoadWarrior_066PyxurzThree of the key ‘white’ people are so white as to become parodic, including their bleached blond leader Pappagallo (Mike Preston, who back in the late 50s recorded ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Whispering Grass’, long before The Pogues and Windsor Davis/Don Estelle). This excess at least suggests a self-consciousness at work, and although it might not be very articulate, it is far more convincing than the post-hoc claims that the Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty (in that film from the following year about the police flying around over Los Angeles deciding who counts as human) is some kind of ‘ironic Aryan’. (The absence of any actual Aboriginal people helps deracinate the situation, I guess.)

MadMax_VernonWellsRelated to this is the transition from Mad Max’s Tom of Finland coppers to the accoutrements of sexual dissidence worn by the ‘natives’: the studded leather pants, wristbands and harness of The Humugus (Kjell Nilsson), and his Jason Voorhees take on an enclosure mask; the buttocks-flashing chaps of Wez (Vernon Wells) and the cutaway bondage gear of his bleached boytoy, etc, etc. However, I think this works a little differently to Toecutter’s stereotypically jealous (but, come to think of it, not really demonised) blond second-in-command in Mad Max.

it does not mean they are really fond of camping
it does not mean they are really fond of camping

Yes, the ‘natives’ are queer (except perhaps for the misleadingly credited ‘Tent Lovers’), but they are also charismatic and alive in a way the ‘white’ folks are not.

In Doomsday, the natives’ Glaswegian equivalents – and who would have thought that thirty years after the zombie apocalypse there would be quite so much pristine bondage gear stockpiled in Glasgow? – bear a very specific resonance, as evidenced by the music Sol (Craig Conway) plays to the crowd before they cook and eat Sean Pertwee. Adam and the Ants’ ‘Dog Eat Dog’, the Fine Young Cannibals ‘Good Thing’, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Spellbound’ and Areil Rechtshaid’s knock-off of Bad Manners’ ‘The Can-Can’ are all part of the anti-Thatcher eighties, and so it comes as no surprise that during the Road Warrior-like climactic chase, we get Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’. Displaced into the future, this is a culture of political and sexual dissidence being celebrated.

In Road Warrior, the celebration is perhaps less clear, but the film does not despise its ‘natives’. Miller, like Milton, is secretly of Satan’s camp.

And the opposition between the ‘civilisation’ and ‘natives’ is not as secure as one might think. Max lives in the wilderness and only crosses into ‘civilisation’ so he can leave again. The same is true of the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence). He eventually chooses to stay, but only as ‘civilisation’ begins its long trek through the wilderness. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty) is raised in ‘civilisation’ but looks like one of the ‘natives’, grunts and growls a lot and behaves like some kind of monkey-dog; his finger-slicing boomerang is as close as we get to Aboriginal culture. And of course the opening narration turns out to have been spoken by him in his old age, long after the events of the movie, when he has become the chief of the Great Northern Tribe – a rank and social structure that suggests some retreat from ‘civilisation’.

MCDROWA EC002The bondage gear also provides Humungus’s motivation for besieging the fortified refinery. Clearly, from the way his crew race around everywhere, they are not short of fuel. But in that dry hot sandy environment, leather and rubber are gonna get uncomfortable. They’re gonna chafe. So it is not gasoline Humungus is after. It is some other petroleum-based product. Like, I dunno, vaseline.

Mad Max’s key cinematic innovation was setting the racing cameras so close to the ground. Road Warrior added a couple more things to the language of contemporary cinema.

First, is the long final action sequence. Films did not used to do that, and now they do. Without Road Warrior, the runway during the climax of Fast and Furious 6­ (2013) – a runway so long you begin to suspect they are just gonna drive all the way to the destination airport – would have been a whole lot shorter and much less would have happened on it.

Second, is the radical electro-surgery George Miller performed on the muscles under Mel Gibson’s face, so that in this film it actually moves. Sadly, this experimental procedure was not entirely successful, dooming Gibson to decades of shit-eating glibness and peculiar gurning.

One time it even turned his face blue.

120 years of sf cinema, part three: 1935-1954

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the third part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons), and there are a few years where there is little to recommend for any reason.

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-1934) – both of which have lots of links to actual films rather than just occasional pictures…

1935Bride-of-Frankenstein1
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
Kosmitchesky Reis/The Space Ship (Vasili Zhuravlev)
Mad Love (Karl Freund)

1936
The Devil Doll (Tod Browning)
Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani)
The Invisible Ray (Lambert Hillyer)
The Man Who Changed His Mind (Robert Stevenson)
Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies)

Flash-Gordon-1936-great-old-show-to-watch-on-a-saturday-night1937
Q Planes (Tim Whelan, Arthur Woods)

1938
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (Mitchell Leisen)

1939
The Man They Could Not Hang (Nick Grinde)
Return of Dr X (Vincent Sherman)

1940
Before I Hang (Nick Grinde)
Black Friday (Arthur Lubin)
Dr Cyclops (Ernest B. Schoedsack)
The Man with Nine Lives (Nick Grinde)
Son of Frankenstein (Rowland Lee)

1941
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Victor Fleming)

1943
The Mad Ghoul (James P. Hogan)

1944
Time Flies (Walter Forde)
The Man in Half Moon Street (Ralph M. Murphy)

1949The_Perfect_Woman_FilmPoster
The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles)
Siren of Atlantis (Greg Tallas)

1950
Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)

1951
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
Five (Arch Oboler)
The Man from Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmer)Gort
The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
The Thing (from another World) (Christian Nyby)

1952
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks)

1953
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Eugene Lourié)
Four-Sided Triangle (Terence Fisher)
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies)
It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold)

1954creature-from-the-black-lagoon
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold)
Gojira (Ishirô Honda)
Them! (Gordon Douglas)

Part four (1955-64)

Gojira

So what would have made Jupiter Ascending work?

It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.
It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

Since posting my single-sentence review last week literally (and very precisely) more people than I can count of the fingers of one hand have asked me this question. I would have thought the answer obvious, given the content of my review and the cunning way it replicated the film’s structure by interminably concatenating random elements until it was finally time to just give up and end on a damp squib.

In reply, I could go on about the ill-thought-through galactic setting, undoubtedly made even more incoherent by frantic pruning so as to enable one or two more screenings per day during the opening weekend before bad word of mouth completely killed any box office. I’m not asking for the well-argued space opera universe of Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and I’m actually quite fond of the really dumb single-climate-planet ‘moons of Mongo’ style of sf universe if you give me some reason to give a damn about what happens on them. But it’s not unreasonable to want something at least as good as The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy 2004).

I could go on about the stupid plot, also undoubtedly pruned to even greater stupidity, but plot has never been a Wachowski forte. Neither has pacing, as the swimming-through-cold-molasses Matrix films amply demonstrate.

I could even suggest that film really needed – I don’t say this lightly – to be longer. A little less rushing around might have given those cgi worlds, the main characters and the even-thinner ciphers surrounding them the chance to take on substance and identity. Fore-ordained plot functions might have developed into something resembling characters and relationships. Which might even have led to jeopardy and thus suspense.

Lumbering Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) with each other was a major casting error. At no point is there a trace of chemistry between them – not even early on when he sweeps her up in his arms, and absolutely everybody in the cinema got a little bit swoony. (I am mildly appalled and thoroughly delighted by my own swooniness at that juncture. It was, for all its embossed supermarket romance paperback cover illustration claptrap, the one moment in the film that for me possessed a genuine affective charge – and not just because I have always loved dogs.)

One could respect Jupiter for not falling for such claptrap if it had been part of some sort of consistent characterisation about resisting sex/gender norms. But it wasn’t. Last year both Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow possessed a strong female character – Zoe Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and especially Rita (Emily Blunt) – who was more interesting than the male lead but not permitted to be the protagonist (there is a far more brilliant version of Edge of Tomorrow to be made with Rita as the viewpoint character). With Jupiter Ascending we at last have a stupidly expensive blockbuster sf movie with a female protagonist – and her main functions are: a) clean toilets for rich people; and b) repeatedly step aside to let the male lead become the protagonist. And rescue her. Again and again and again.

But what really makes Jupiter Ascending suck is its humourlessness. It pushes the gaming aesthetic to a new level, linking sequences of fight-and-flight kinetic spectacle with passages of connecting narrative as leaden and joyless as the worst cut scenes.

Sure, it does have one witty moment, which also makes Jupiter briefly credible and likeable as she explains the injured Caine’s good fortune in stealing a woman’s car, and it has four other amusing moments (which I won’t describe because I really can’t remember what they were).

But that is all.

I am not one of those people who thought that Guardians of the Galaxy’s lightly comic tone was a major development, but it certainly helped. Nor am I demanding every space opera be a work of camp genius, such as Flash Gordon (Hodges 1980). I would even have welcomed all that witless lumbering around if Jupiter Ascending had been as absurdly certain of its own significance as is Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or Dune (Lynch 1984) or even Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise 1979). At least then Eddie ‘The Whisper’ Redmayne’s moment of metalepsis, when he steps out of the narrative to explicate the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anticapitalist subtext, would have generated the hoots of derision it deserved.

But a little humour would certainly have transformed the relationship between Jupiter and Caine, a genetically-engineered human/dog hybrid, into something less painful to watch and far more credible.

Why does he fall for her? Because dogs are easily won over by attention and affection. Because dogs are loyal. And because dogs are often really really dumb.

Why does he keep rescuing her? Dogs love retrieving things – sticks, balls, princesses, whatever – and are often really really dumb.

And just imagine being in that audience when Caine did good and the camera swooped round behind him to reveal – to laughter and cheers and applause – his little tail wagging.

I for one would have swooned all over again.

Still more on Jupiter Ascending here.