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 City in Fiction and Film, week five

Ratcatcher_filmWeek four

This week, a lot of people, mostly children, died.

That is, this week we watched Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay 1999) and read chapters 5-7 of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). And we did so through a (more or less) structuralist lens, so as to consolidate and build on the semiotic theory and terminology from the last couple of weeks.

So we began with revisiting the relationship between parole and langue, and thinking about how the latter structures the former. Borrowing from Lois Tyson’s not-entirely-accurately-subtitled Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1999), we looked at how utterances such as

tree appears green
Susan is tall
dog runs happily
clouds roll ominously
wisdom comes slowly

share the same parts of speech

noun, verb and descriptor (adjective or adverb)

and the same rule of combination

subject and predicate

So we moved from surface phenomena with very different meanings to the structures that make them comprehensible. We then refreshed our memories about the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language, turning once more to an example from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Holmes is confronted by the word

RACHE

scratched in the floor by the victim. To fathom its meaning he changes paradigm, trying other languages until he finds one in which it is a word (‘revenge’ in German). And then he returns to English and scrolls through another paradigm, letters that could be placed at the end of the sytagm to make a word, until he comes to L and spells

RACHEL

So once more, the relationship between surface phenomena and the (potential) structure(s) underpinning it are made clear. After which we returned to some key sentences from our Sherlock and ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ examples from last week

‘How did you know I had a therapist?’
‘This hat is three years old. These flat brims curled at the edge came in then.’
‘his wife has ceased to love him’

and reconstructed Holmes’s reading of connotations in terms of the codes on which they draw, the myths they reiterate and the ideology they construct/articulate. (For the time being we are leaving ‘ideology’ dangling a little, defined as nothing more complex than ‘knowledge in the service of power’, which is already turning out to be more complex than I thought this simple definition would be…). So again, we move from surface to structure.

Next we turned to some new material, beginning with a brief description of Vladimir Propp’s formalist analysis of Russian folktales in Morphology of the Tale (1928), which finds the same recurring structure of 31 narrative ‘functions’ and seven character types in all the tales in his sample. We also thought about some of the problems with such methodologies – the violence they do to the narratives under consideration by treating the surface level of detail as somehow irrelevant, the violence that is done to narratives to force them to fit a predetermined pattern imposed by the critic. (One student was quite familiar with Propp, having encountered him on A-level Film Studies and being required – to my quiet horror – to undertake  a Proppian analysis of Fight Club (Fincher 1999), which is of course structured exactly like a centuries old oral tale from another culture thousands of miles away. Others had  heard of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth – undoubtedly the fault of George Lucas – but fortunately it didn’t seem appropriate to get into it too much in class, because it would have taken a while to get through the fundamentally racist logic underpinning the method. Maybe next year, in the module on genre theory and fantasy.)

We then took a look at James Damico’s 1978 description of the structure of a film noir:

Either because he is fated to do so by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.

This structure – derived from James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), but already broadly familiar from, for example, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867) – can be found in Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944), The Woman in the Window (Lang 1945), Scarlet Street (Lang 1945), The Killers (Siodmak 1946), The Lady from Shanghai (Welles 1948), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett 1946), Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947), Pitfall (De Toth 1948) and Criss Cross (Siodmak 1949), and with variations in Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone 1946) and The Blue Dahlia (Marshall 1946). It mutates and collapses in In a Lonely Place (Ray 1950) and is anticipated by The Maltese Falcon (Huston 1941).

And since we watched the latter just a couple of weeks back, we were able to see how well – or poorly – it matches Damico’s narrative structure, and the violence that needs to be done to the film in order to make it fit.  Which was a useful exercise in reminding us that surface is as important as – if differently important to – structure. (Damico also gave us the opportunity in passing to think about how genre definitions work to privilege certain texts and marginalise others,  reorganising our understanding of groups of relatable texts rather than telling us some fixed truth about genre. But that was me wandering off topic a bit.)

From shared narrative structure we moved onto structuralist thinking about binary oppositions – and to run through this idea we left the city behind for a while and headed out west, as Jim Kitses’s Horizon’s West (1969) contains that fabulously useful (if problematic) discussion of the western in terms of the generative conflict between wilderness and civilisation (and 20 other related oppositions).

And (finally) this brought us to the series of oppositions I asked the class to think about while watching Ratcatcher:

city vs. country
urban tenements vs. suburb/new estate
male vs. female
adults/parents vs. children
rich vs. poor
English vs. Scots
freedom vs. confinement

The class were pretty quick to spot the ways in which most of these categories map onto each other, linking the urban tenement with varieties of confinement and the new estate out in the countryside with freedom: playing on piles of garbage vs. playing on a construction site; flats off shared stairwells vs. individual houses with interior staircases; outside loos and tin baths on the kitchen floor vs. fully plumbed inside bathrooms; the view out of the window onto a dirty dangerous canal vs. the view out of the window onto a rather improbably golden field; looking out of windows vs. climbing out through windows; etc – all  of which is peculiarly echoed in the odd digression about the mouse launched into space finding a new home safe from the cruelty of young boys among a community of mice (which is surely a Clangers homage).

And then there were the wealthy English represented by the received pronunciation of the television news reporters commenting on the dustmen’s strike and the filthy conditions the people of Glasgow endure vs. the actual characters whose lives disrupt this patrician colonial perspective upon them.

Then we turned to Mary Barton.

Chapter 5 begins with a passage that introduces two key oppositions: appearance vs. reality and the individual vs. the mass. Gaskell’s narrator describes the working class Mancunian men who defy middle class expectations (and the tendency to lose particularities when you homogenise people as members of a class) by being skilled mathematicians, botanists and entomologists (and should we doubt it, she invokes a partially-remembered record of botanist Sir JE Smith finding himself dependent on a porter and a hand-loom weaver for advice on a rare specimen he sought).

Margaret Legh brings her friend, Mary Barton, home to meet one such amateur natural historian, her father Jacob. It seems odd at first, but this encounter, focalised through Mary, throws out scientific imagery in favour of something more alchemical, comparing Jacob to a wizard, speaking of the uncanny, the cabalistic, the mysterious. Having just hinged the credibility of her fictional account around a real historical event, Gaskell switches genres, drawing on something closer to the gothic romance. Opposing science and superstition in this way reinforces the common cultural opposition of masculine rationality and feminine fancifulness. In the following pages, a recently widowed woman is described as lacking foresight when she borrows heavily so as to be able to bury her husband, and Margaret, who is losing her eyesight, faces a similar charge because she continues to take in sewing – especially since there are a lot of deaths this winter, which involves sewing black cloth with black thread, straining her eyes even further. Mary’s own romantic fantasies of marrying the wealthy mill-owner’s son (who is courting her but with no such honourable intention) in the hope of finally being able to provide properly for her own unemployed father is contextualised, at the end of chapter 7, in terms of reading too many cheap romances and is described with reference to the Arabian Nights and in terms of building castles in the air.

But we have leapt ahead.

On meeting Jacob, Mary is told the story of how one day he bought from a sailor a scorpion, apparently frozen to death, that when placed without thinking in front of the fire came to life (Jacob managed to kill it by putting it in a pan of boiling water, and then preserved the remains). This peculiar anecdote – for which the chapter up until that point is merely laying the groundwork – leads nowhere in narrative terms, but introduces further oppositions (fire and water, hot and cold, life and death, and once more appearance and reality). It also foreshadows events: the chapter will end with a perilous fire that burns down the mill, and in chapters six and seven Ben Davenport and Joe and Will Wilson die of cholera, burning up with fever.

Soon after the anecdote, there is a paragraph describing a winter so cold that it is impossible for poor people to find liquid water – the icy landscape is deathly, and it seems as if it will go on for ever, a kind of inverse of the scorpion story. And it is the cold that freezes the standing pipes which prevent the fire crews from being able to bring the blaze under control. This paragraph leads into conversations about mourning and death (and economics) and blindness and insight and darkness and light.

The crowd who gather to witness the blaze are described as a mindless, unruly mass – for all her sympathy for the poor, Gaskell seems terrified of the mob and despises working class political organisation and action. But a mass in which, once more, individuals are made to stand out – Magaret and Mary in particular. And there is a curious parallel between the crowd behaving as an unconscious mass, impelled here and there by a kind of mindless subordination to a collective desire for spectacle, and Mary, who in their midst faints – loses consciousness.

Chapter 6 returns to the crowd, when Mary’s father, John Barton, on a mission of mercy is made furious by the apparent unconcern of the people he passes. And yet at the same time, he recognises that he is being unjust, that he cannot tell the first thing about them or the realities of their lives just by looking at them.

The main oppositions in this chapter map class difference onto verticality (and reinforce it with warm/light/dry vs cold/dark/damp).

Barton is summoned by a friend to the aid of Ben Davenport, who has been out of work since the mill burned down. The mill-owners, the Carson family, talk about the need to tighten their belts, but frankly they are glad the fire happened – they are insured, their machinery was out of date and needed replacing, and as the market is not that good, they are relieved to not have any expenses, such as wages. The mill-workers, on the other hand, have nothing, and many are starving. Barton descends into the narrow well between the the filthy street and the housefrony, into which mud and sewage is leaking, and from there down another step into a cellar room that never gets much light (the windows are broken and stuffed with rags, anyway); the mud and sewage is also seeping up through the floor. There is no fire, nor is there any food for the children. Davenport is near death. His desperate wife, who still suckles one of her children even though he is too old and she is barely able to produce any milk, is repeatedly described as death-like, cadaverous. Davenport is spoken of as having sunk down in the world; later, he will sink into death.

Barton’s mission of mercy takes him first to a pharmacist – the night-time shop-windows are full of commodities, perfectly lit to make them seem even more desirable, and again there is a sense of a fantastical world parallel to all this misery – and then the next day to the Carson’s house, which is brightly lit, with blazing fires and plentiful food and drink.

Carson bemoans his loneliness – only the youngest of his daughters stayed home to keep him company the previous night, and this morning the others are all also late to rise after their late night out at the assembly rooms. The youngest daughter puts her hands over her father’s eyes, mocking Margaret’s impending blindness, just as Carson’s loneliness mocks the isolation of so many of the working class characters.

Although the Carsons’ house is above ground, there is no great emphasis on it being higher than the Davenport’s – as in the spatialisation of class evident in sf films such as Metropolis (Lang 1927) and Blade Runner (Scott 1982) – but its vertical distinction is, as already noted, made clear at the end of chapter seven. It is part of the castle in the air that Mary’s romantic fancy builds.

Recommended critical reading
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. See chapters on structuralism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell 1996. 79–109.
Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Routledge 1977.
Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.
Stam, Robert, ed., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part III , “Film Narratology,” especially 77–85.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. London: Routledge, 1998. See chapters on structuralist criticism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
–. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. London: Routledge, 2011. See chapters on Marxist theory and feminist theory.

Recommended reading
Novels concerned with urban poverty and class structures include Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1887), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Frank Norris’s McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) and Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933).
H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895) contains a science-fictionalised vision of class difference.
Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) combine autobiographical writing with sociological reportage about living in poverty.

Recommended viewing
There is a long tradition of British social realist films about working class and lower middle class life, often in provincial towns, including such British New Wave films as Room at the Top (Clayton 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz 1960), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger 1962), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962), Billy Liar (Schlesinger 1963) and This Sporting Life (Anderson 1963), all of which were adapted from novels or plays.
Later social realist films include Kes (Loach 1969), Nil by Mouth (Oldman 1997), Red Road (Arnold 2006) and Fish Tank (Arnold 2009).
A lighter tone can be found in Brassed Off (Herman 1996), The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997), Billy Elliot (Daldry 2000), Son of Rambow (Jennnings 2007), Made in Dagenham (Cole 2010) and Pride (Warchus 2014).
Groundbreaking television series that pushed the limits of social realism are Jim Allen’s Days of Hope (1975), directed by Ken Loach, and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, directed by Philip Saville.

Week six

The City in Fiction and Film, week two

really

lorrem

Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

Menschen am Sonntag/People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930)

People-on-sunday-poster[A version of this review appeared in Film International 22 (2006), 69–71.]

Even if it were not a remarkable film, People on Sunday (1930) would still have a place in film history because of the subsequent fame of its makers, all of whom sooner or later left Germany for America. It is based on an original story by Curt Siodmak, who later wrote and directed a number of horror and exploitation movies in Hollywood, but is probably best known as the author of Donovan’s Brain (1942), filmed several times. He developed the screenplay with his brother, Robert, who became one of the major directors of American film noir, and Billy Wilder, who became one of the major Hollywood directors full stop. Robert co-directed the film with Edgar G. Ulmer, who directed numerous Hollywood films, mainly for poverty-row studios, including The Black Cat (1934) and Detour (1945). Their cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan. A decade older than the others, he was already an established figure in German cinema, probably best known for the special-effects process which he invented for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and which still bears his name (because of union disputes, his Hollywood career is largely uncredited, although he did eventually win the cinematography Oscar for The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)). Schüfftan’s camera assistant was Fred Zinnemann, who later directed such films as High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953). People on Sunday, the project that brought all these talents together right at the start of their careers might well have been remembered for this reason alone. However, it is much more than a mere curiosity or apprentice piece. It stands – alongside Berlin, ein Symphonie einer Grosstadt (Ruttman, 1927), Berliner Stilleben (Moholy-Nagy, 1929), M (Lang, 1931) and Kuhle Wampe (Dudow, 1932), alongside Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and the writings of Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Siegfried Kracauer – as a key document of the late Weimar period.

plakat-menschen-am-sonntag-1933-werner-labbeSubtitled ‘A film without actors’, it cast five non-professional actors as young Berliners, each character with the same name and job as the person playing him or her. The taxi-driver Erwin lives with the model Annie. On Saturday evening, his friend, the travelling wine salesman Wolfgang, picks up the film-extra Christl, and arranges to go out with her the following day. He invites Erwin and Annie along, but next morning Annie sleeps in, so Erwin goes without her. Christl brings her friend, the record-shop salesgirl Brigitte, with her. The foursome travel out into the countryside, swim in the lake, picnic, listen to records and nap. Christl rejects Wolfgang’s advances and becomes jealous when he switches his attentions to Brigitte. At the end of the day, they all go their separate ways. Next morning, it is back to work, back to everyday life – four million Berliners all looking forward to next Sunday.

When I have taught this film, my students have generally been surprised by its casual attitude towards sex and struck by Wolfgang’s laddish preference to go to a football match with Erwin the following weekend rather than on the date he has made with Brigitte. Others are impressed by the energy and mobility of the camera – an example of the enfesselte Kamera (unchained camera) that was so central to the Kammerspielfilm (chamber play film) and Milieutonfilm (milieu talkie) traditions with which Robert Siodmak’s later Weimar work is associated. What I find most interesting about People on Sunday, though, is the way in which it blends together actuality footage and undressed (and uncontrolled) location shooting with events staged on location (some of which are presented as actuality footage) and on the film’s single set (Erwin and Annie’s apartment). It begins, like a city symphony film, with montages of Berlin’s streets and buildings, eventually selecting Christl and Wolfgang from its countless bustling inhabitants. Throughout the film are interspersed similar prolonged actuality sequences, cutting away from the characters to real Berliners as they too undertake workday labour or pursue Sunday leisure activities. Pedestrians weave through horse-drawn and motorised vehicles; streets are swept and hosed down; elevated trains race past ubiquitous advertising; people swim or boat or play field hockey (or a strange schoolboy spanking game); they eat and sleep; they play with their children; they visit memorials or listen to bands; they relax – while shop-window mannequins are left with nothing to do, no actual function, when the stores are closed and the streets deserted. And then, next day, Berlin goes back to work.

resolveIn the late 1920s, Germany’s left-wing intelligentsia formulated an array of artistic-political movements, including activism, expressionism and new objectivism (Neue Sachlichkeit). People on Sunday, along with Erich Maria Remarque’s fiction, is a prime example of the latter, which Walter Benjamin attacked in his essay ‘The Author as Producer’ (1934). He argued that, whereas Dadaism framed collages of picture fragments, ticket stubs, cotton reels and cigarette butts, thus demonstrating how the picture frame destroys time, new objectivist photomontage is ‘incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish-heap without transfiguring it … It has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment’ (Benjamin 1973: 94–95). Or, in Esther Leslie’s memorable explication of his critique, ‘The world is beautiful, it gushes, and [new objectivism] shows its skill by lavishing any soup can with cosmic significance, while unable to grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists’ (Leslie 2000: 59). While this might be true of the movement more generally, I think it is hard – or, perhaps, with the passage of time has become harder – to dismiss People on Sunday in this way. Without doubt, its images are pristine and its methods if not modish then at least cutting edge. But its blending of types of footage does weave its characters into a broader social and economic fabric than is common, and the images of contemporary Berlin form such a major part of the film that they are more than mere scene-setting, positioning the characters as typical rather than exemplary. This typicality is captured by non-actors Erwin and Annie destroying each other’s photos of movie stars. This scene – shot, ironically enough, on the film’s only set – announces the film’s sense of its own difference from dominant forms of cinematic realism, and critics have been quick to describe it as an influence on Jean Renoir’s films of the 1930s, Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, the British Free Cinema movement, and others. It certainly raises lots of questions as to what we mean by ‘realism’.

One of the major early debates in film theory was about whether to consider the frame as a window opening on to a world that extends unseen into off-screen space or as a border which, like a picture frame, is an absolute limit, with meaning determined solely by the enframed image’s composition. The former position is typically associated with André Bazin, the latter with Jean Mitry. Curiously, for all the championing of People on Sunday as realist, the sequence most frequently recalled is one in which the filmmakers most decisively intervene in what we see. thenewyorker_movie-of-the-week-people-on-sundayPhilip Kemp describes it as ‘the famous shot where, as two people start to make love in a sylvan glade, the camera pans tactfully away – to a nearby rubbish tip’. The camera in fact performs a complex figure-of-eight pan-and-tilt movement, taking us away from Wolfgang and Brigitte as they recline onto the dirt. It moves away and up into the air, past phallic fir trees which also connote the naturalness of sex while suggesting some kind of transcendent experience, and then down to reveal garbage scattered on the forest floor. It then moves back across the forest floor, up past more trees until it reaches the tallest fir, again connoting the phallic as well as an orgasmic climax, and then down to find Wolfgang, fully dressed, standing over Brigitte.

This elaborate camera movement – there is a cut in the middle, but it is unclear whether it is deliberate, connoting the passage of time, or an ‘invisible’ cut we are not supposed to register, or a case of missing frames1 – goes right to the heart of the debate between Bazin and Mitry. Through its duration it reveals the world extending beyond the frame, while each individual frame does precisely the opposite. Likewise, its complex set of meanings is achieved not through the composition of the individual frame but through movement and duration, the juxtaposition of different frames some seconds apart from each other and, equally significantly, through activating and playing with fiction conventions. In the shots immediately preceding this one, Wolfgang takes on the air of a melodramatic villain about to force virginal Brigitte into despicable acts. That she responds to the kiss he forces on her is a cliché familiar from rape fantasies, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) onwards. But as her willing surrender reconstitutes rape as lovemaking, the pan away should be to a roaring fireplace or a moonlit window or, bearing in mind their location, animals frolicking. And the camera movement initially works in this way, if only then to make the deflationary comparison with the garbage heap more effective. However, the shot does not end there. Instead, it makes quite compelling comparisons between the camera and the phallus, technical virtuosity and (male) sexual climax, before returning us to a scenario which is both comically deflationary – Wolfgang’s sexual prowess does not seem to include either duration or repetition – and potentially melodramatic: for a brief moment it looks as though he is standing over Brigitte’s corpse, and in the subsequent pair of shots of her she at least seems to have swooned. Her subsequent assumption that their lovemaking is a meaningful prelude to a relationship is depicted as a dewy-eyed romanticism, which even Wolfgang’s calculated indifference does not shatter.

The introduction of any new cinematic technique intended more realistically to capture the world inevitably draws attention to itself. By breaking with convention – even in order to make film more transparent – artifice announces itself. While People on Sunday might initially seem to compile elements that merely open up the debates around how the realist image of the world is to be regarded, this sequence, like the destruction of the photos, argues for a somewhat different position than those associated with Bazin and Mitry. The frame is neither a window nor a border, and realism is not about capturing the ‘real world’ or organizing it so as to ‘reveal’ its immanent truth. Realism is ultimately an argument, not about the world but about its representation. Regardless of whether People on Sunday overcomes new objectivism’s general failure to grasp human connections, it does question the place of representation in the world. And as the world it depicts is that of capitalist modernity, it warns, long before postmodernism, of capital’s colonization of both nature and the unconscious.

References
Benjamin, Walter (1973), Understanding Brecht (trans. Anna Bostock), London: New Left Books.
Leslie, Esther (2000), Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism, London: Pluto.

Notes
1 This is the fullest extant version of the film, reconstructed from several prints to 1837 of its original 2014 metres.

The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles 1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are of course generalisations.[i]

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

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

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

He argued that

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

and that the

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

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

In reality, few sf texts do this.

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

Actually-existing cinema is likewise conservative.

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

This structural meshing of genres occurs in The Perfect Woman.

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

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

leia-emotes

Delany argues that the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a woman who can’t work.

Ramshead uncertainly responds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Lady Mary dismisses the waiter, saying

You needn’t wait.

He mournfully replies

That’s what I’m for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penelope asks her uncle

why did you make it like me?

He replies

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

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

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

Roger and Ramshead nod approval.

Earlier, Belmon says that Penelope is

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

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

Silvia Federici argues that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

120 years of sf cinema, part four: 1955-64

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

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-1934), part three (1935-54)

1955
journey-to-the-beginning-of-time
Cesta do Praveku/Journey to the Beginning of Time (Karel Zeman)
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest)
Revenge of the Creature (Jack Arnold)
This Island Earth (Joseph Newman)

1956
Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
Not of this Earth (Roger Corman)
Plan 9 from Outer Space (Edward D. Wood, Jr)
X the Unknown (Leslie Norman)

1957cushing-in-close-up
The Abominable Snowman (Val Guest)
Chikyu Boeignu/The Mysterians (Ishirô Honda)
The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold)
Quatermass II (Val Guest)

1958
I Married a Monster from Outer Space (Gene Fowler, Jr)
The Revenge of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher)
Vynalez Zkazy/The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (Karel Zeman)

1959
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall)
Les yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju)worldfleshdevil7

1960
Der Schweigende Stern/The Silent Star (Kurt Maetzig)
Die Tausend Augen des Dr Mabuse/The Thousand Eyes of Mr Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)

1961220px-Amphibian_Man
L’Anée dernière à Marienbad/Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
Chelovek Amfibia/The Amphibian Man (Guennadi Kazansky and Vladimir Chebotarev)
The Damned (Joseph Losey)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Mosura/Mothra (Ishirô Honda)

1962
Gritos en la Noche/The Awful Dr Orloff (Jess Franco)
Planeta Bur/Cosmonauts on Venus (Pavel Klushantsev)
The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)

1963
Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader)
Ikarie XB-1 (Jindrich Polak)
La Jetée (Chris Marker)
King Kong Tai Gojira/King Kong versus Godzilla (Ishirô Honda)
Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook)
Matango/Attack of the Mushroom People (Ishirô Honda)
The Mind Benders (Basil Dearden)
X-The Man with X-Ray Eyes (Roger Corman)

matango_1963_01

1964
Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick)
Fail Safe (Sidney Lumet)
Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer)

part five (1965-74)

120 years of sf cinema, part two: 1915-1934 (links galore!)

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the second 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

1915
Les vampires (Louis Feuillade)

1916
Verdens Undergang/The End of the World (August Blom)
20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Stuart Paton)

1917
Ever Been Had (Dudley Buxton)

1918
Himmelskibet/A Trip to Mars (Holger-Madsen)

1919
Die puppe/The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch)
Die Spinnen/The Spiders (Fritz Lang)

1920
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (John S. Robertson)
One Week (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)
Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam/The Golem (Paul Wegener and Carl Boese)

1921
L’Atlantide/Queen of Atlantis (Jacques Feyder)

1922
The Electric House (Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton)

1923
Paris Qui Dort/The Crazy Ray (René Clair)

1924
Aelita (Jakov Protazanov)

1925
Orlacs Haende/The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene)
The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt)

1926
The Magician (Rex Ingram)

1927
Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
Sur un Air de Charleston/Charleston (Jean Renoir)

1928
Spione/Spies (Fritz Lang)
Alraune (Heinrich Galeen)

1929
Frau im Mond/Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang)
The Mysterious Island (Lucien Hubbard)
High Treason (Maurice Elvey) – silent and talkie versions on pay per view at BFI player

1930
Just Imagine (David Butler)

1931
Frankenstein (James Whale)
A Connecticut Yankee (David Butler)

1932
Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton)
Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian)
F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht/F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (Karl Hartl)

1933
King Kong (Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)
The Invisible Man (James Whale)
Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Der Tunnel (Curtis Bernhardt) – French version

1934
Gold (Karl Hartl)

Part three, 1935-54

Dandies in the Underworld

fantomasA giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.

Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.

The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.

Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.

The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.

raffles-1917He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, da993b7bbe01f24bdfcf2ae6e48c04bbRonald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.

Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, raffles_tll10starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…

But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.

As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.

In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.

The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).

21129_Danger-Diabolik-05Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-raf_bun2dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.

This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no castgentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…

Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?

In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…

Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]