The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges 1974), adapted from Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972)

[another of those pieces written for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Narrated from the perspective of the doctors treating him, particularly psychiatrist Janet Ross, Crichton’s novel tells the story of divorced, thirtysomething computer scientist, Harold Benson. He suffers from blackouts during which he becomes extremely violent. Since orthodox medication has no effect on his Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome, he agrees to a radical surgical procedure, conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (NRU). Forty electrodes are inserted into the damaged section of his brain and a nuclear powerpack into his shoulder. A computer implanted in his neck will detect the onset of a seizure and abort it with a shock through one of the electrodes. Ross considers Benson, who believes that machines are ‘competing with human beings’ and will ‘ultimately … take over the world’ (15), is an unsuitable candidate for this procedure. Professor Manon is also opposed to the operation since it will do nothing to cure Benson’s psychosis, but the ambitious Dr Ellis justifies his decision to proceed on the grounds that it will at least stop Benson’s seizures and the accompanying violence. On the eve of the operation, a young woman called Angela Black visits Benson.

After the operation, Roger McPherson, head of the NRU, is troubled by Benson’s continued conviction about the machine threat. Monitoring Benson’s brain activity, Ross notices the increasing frequency of stimulations as he starts to ‘initiate seizures in order to experience the pleasurable shocks’ (131). Benson escapes from the hospital. A computer projection indicates that within hours he will be receiving almost continuous stimulations, making 1317932233_9him uncontrollably violent. The medical staff set out to find him. Shortly after the tipping-point passes, Angela is found murdered, her skull crushed and her body repeatedly stabbed post-mortem.

When Benson attacks Ross in her home, she uses her microwave to disrupt his powerpack, but Dr Morris, who tracks him to a hangar, is brutally beaten. While Ellis spins the story for the media, the LAPD’s Captain Anders discovers that Benson obtained plans for the hospital’s wiring system. Ross and Anders descend into the labyrinthine basement housing the hospital’s mainframe, and when Benson attemps to destroy it, Ross shoots him dead.

The selection of Mike Hodges – director of the quintessential British neo-noir Get Carter (1971) and the self-reflexive black crime comedy Pulp (1972) – to adapt Crichton’s novel might seem a curious choice. However, even if Hodges’ background in documentary (including ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action (1963–99) in the early 1960s) had not recommended him for the project, it certainly assisted him in crafting the most aesthetically (and least financially) successful Crichton adaptation. Crichton uses various techniques in an attempt to lend his potboiler a kind of documentary realism, including: the same title format for each chapter (e.g., ‘WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1971: Implantation’); a timeline of the history of psychosurgical therapy, culminating in an entry which reads ‘Harold Benson is operated on in Los Angeles’ (the October 23 1971 date of this introduction, like the chapter titles, implies that the novel is a record of something that has already happened); sundry computer outputs; facsimiles of LAPD crime and death reports; and a six-page bibliography. While Hodges’ documentarian skills might suit him to these and related aspects of the novel, his black humour and leftist political sensibilities are utterly at odds with Crichton’s distinctive reactionary blend of moralistic earnestness and hysterical technophobia.

Crichton presents his novel as a cautionary intervention into technoscientific developments and the failure of a purportedly democratic system to foster informed popular debate about key social issues and trends. Whatever degree of hucksterism this involves, it is presented as a genuine concern. However, although the novel does evoke concerns around the dehumanising potentials of technology, it fails to articulate a coherent position in relation to them. This ideological fuzziness, typical of Crichton’s work, may in part account for his phenomenal success.

The key contradiction shaping the novel is between linear and non-linear determinism, articulated through a dislike and simultaneous embrace of authoritarian structures, and through an equally muddled championing of individualism and moralistic disdain for the ways in which certain people ‘misuse’ their freedom. Crichton’s reactionary leanings often take on a pseudo-pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-big government tone (for example, substantial passages are devoted to characters arguing that violent behaviour results from physical brain damage, while no-one even contemplates any of the other potential causes suggested in all the ‘bad theory floating around, written by sociologists and paid for by good taxpayer money’ (41)), which completely contradicts his growing awareness of complex determinism.

1974terminalman01When Benson arrives at the hospital, Morris signs for him ‘as if he were receiving a package from United Parcel’ (8), a subjection to bureaucratic processes that resonates with the patient’s psychosis. McPherson later suggests that Benson has been turned into ‘a read-out device’ for the implanted computer, ‘as helpless to control the read-out as a TV screen is helpless to control the information presented on it’ (83; italics in original). The hospital computer refers to Benson as an ‘auxillary unit’ (120), while he describes himself as ‘an automobile in a complicated service station’ (125). Morris begrudges his pager, which keeps him perpetually networked into administrative systems, and at one point suddenly notices that computers monitor and predict LA traffic flows. Such ruminations are given a sense of inevitable – and detrimental – consequence through the linear determinism espoused by several characters and by the frequency with which futurological and computer projections are treated as inarguable: in 1967, McPherson surveyed the fields of ‘diagnostic conceptualization, surgical technology, and microelectronics’ and concluded that it would be possible to perform ‘an operation for ADL seizures in July of 1971’ (197), a prediction which proved too conservative by four months; and the positive progression cycle, in which Benson’s brain learns to trigger seizures, is plotted from just three points on a graph, predicting to within a couple of minutes when he will go into continuous stimulation. Consequently, when Morris is told about July 1969’s ‘Watershed Week’ – ‘when the information-handling capacity of all the computers in the world exceeded the information-handling capacity of all the human brains in the world’ – and that by 1975 computers will ‘lead human beings by fifty to one in terms of capacity’ (159-60), the novel succeeds in conveying a sense of menace. This is achieved by conflating a not unreasonable prediction of quantitative change with the implication that it must necessarily result in a threat to humanity – or at least to our human qualities (which consist entirely of small-town, middle-American values).

Such linear determinism seeps out into Crichton’s depiction of a dehumanised social world. As Ross drives around LA, she muses upon the ways in which an automobile-dominated culture ‘thwarted some deep human need to congregate, to be together, to see and be seen’ (147), producing a depersonalized society of ‘recent emigrants and therefore strangers’ (147) who lack traditional institutions and infrastructures. LA offers ‘freedom’, but no ‘supports’, and tends to attract ‘people with problems’ (148), a euphemism for homosexuals, who are equated in the same passage with loneliness and suicide. The novel’s homophobia is striking (for example, Ross bemoans a short-lease culture which results in apartment buildings ‘full of hookers, full of gays, full of drugs and transients’ (171)), implying that any alternative to heterosexuality is a form of deviance born of dehumanising modernity.

terminal-man-photo-1Curiously, though, Crichton also struggles at times to express a sense of the complex, non-linear determinism underpinning his trademark narrative about the failure of complex systems, best – if still rather clumsily – articulated through the chaos mathematics he invokes in Jurassic Park (1990). In The Terminal Man, it is most clearly developed through Gerhard’s computer programmes, called Saint George and Martha. Designed to interact with each other, they are capable of responding ‘with three emotional states – love, fear, and anger’ and of ‘produc[ing] three actions – approach, withdrawal, attack’ (99). Despite this system’s simplicity, it ‘produce[s] complex and unpredictable machine behavior’ (115). After running more than a hundred times, Saint George, ‘programmed for saintliness’, ‘is learning not be a saint around Martha’ (103), even threatening to kill her. This is presented as a value-neutral experiment, but the obvious gender stereotyping suggests that the dependence on initial conditions need not be that sensitive to produce this result. The implications of a later discussion, in which Gerhard and Ross contemplate the possibility that after twenty-four hours of stimulations Benson’s brain has become something radically different than the one on which they operated and thus beyond their capacity to predict, are likewise countered by the utter predictability of the plot.

A generous reader might construe the material about Saint George and Martha as Crichton’s commentary on his own deployment of blandly named, more or less indistinguishable characters. One might even see such characters, typical of Crichton’s fiction, as an elaboration upon his screeds against the anonymity of modern, urban life while working within an American popular fiction idiom which privileges the description of externalities from which the reader is to infer interiorities. However, Crichton does describe several characters’ interior lives, albeit perfunctorily, and just as the novel reads like the treatment for a screenplay, these formulaic passages seem like notes for the actors who might step in and bring them to life. A more conventional adaptation would undoubtedly have sought to animate them through the verisimilar and melodramatic strategies typical of Hollywood productions (such as Crichton himself deployed, with some success, in adapting Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) in 1978), but Hodges takes a rather different path. He transforms Crichton’s dyspeptic, incoherent jeremiad into a rigorous critique of totalizing institutions (here, medicine, combined with legal and penal systems, as well as the police and patriarchy) which can be understood as modelling the deeper logic of social, political and economic structures governing everyday life – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman 1975), but without its sentimental desire for heroism and redemption.

the-terminal-man-main-reviewThe film opens in pitch black night, the only light emanating from the cockpit of an insectile police helicopter facing the camera, the only noise that of its engines as it takes to the air; the helicopter will become an aggressively loud presence, signalling the powerlessness not merely of Benson (George Segal) to avoid it but of the audience in the face of the system it represents. The film cuts to a restaurant, in which doctors Ellis (Richard Dysart), McPherson (Donald Moffat) and Friedman (James Sikking) discuss Benson and ADL syndrome. Benson’s back-story is related, with impressive economy, through a series of photographs that the three men examine – Benson with his wife and daughter, Benson being arrested, the battered face of Benson’s wife – while planning the media coverage of the operation. To Hodges’ regret, he added this sequence to help allay studio concerns that ‘the film had no one to root for’ (personal email) rather than cutting 2013-03-22-1atermdirectly to the title sequence: a black screen with white credits, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25; footsteps approach in a corridor; a key chain rattles; there is a scraping sound, a peephole opens on the right of the screen and an eye peers through, looking out at the audience; the men in the corridor, functionaries of some institution, discuss Benson; the caption ‘tuesday’ appears, and the film cuts to Benson being delivered by the police to the hospital. Three more times during the film the screen goes to black, a peephole opens, and these anonymous, uneducated men – it is not clear if they are prison warders or asylum orderlies – discuss Benson. The film also ends with a version of this shot, in which one of the voices says, ‘They want you next’, to which the other responds ‘Quit kidding around’. These final words comically deflate the clichéd threat intoned by the first speaker; but beneath the end credits, the police helicopter descends through the night, coming full circle, yet instead of the deafening rotors there is silence, and then a cold wind howls. This hesitation – erasing then reinstating the film’s ominous implications – indicate Hodges’ wry amusement at the materials with which he is working and, simultaneously, a genuine sense that, despite their pulpiness, they can be utilised to critique contemporary social realities.

Hodges’ damning depiction of the total institution depends upon four major strategies. First, there is the film’s remarkable production design, in particular its use of colour. The title sequence establishes The Terminal Man’s oppressive palette; it is as close as a colour film can get to a black-and-white production, with several shots among the most overtly expressionist to be found in Hollywood outside of classical film noir. The walls, floor and furniture of the hospital lobby are black, and its windows open onto utter darkness outside. Throughout the hospital, if walls are white, then doors and furnishings are black. The staff all wear white, except for when, off-duty, they wear black. If there is a source of light, everything around it is pooled in darkness. The only relief – slight that it is – comes from occasional blue-greys or flashing orange lights. Until the final stages of the film, there is no indication that daytime even exists, but once we are there, bright clear light and whiteness – from the walls of Dr Ross’s (Joan Hackett) apartment to Benson’s choice of suit – dominate, although black furnishings remind the audience of the night to come. Day or night, there is no escape from these carefully orchestrated constraints.

Second, there is Hodges’ meticulous shot-construction, perhaps the most significant aspect of which is his frequent partial obscuring of Ross. Marginalised by the medical establishment for being a woman, a psychiatrist (rather than a surgeon), and more concerned about the patient than the procedure, Ross is often pushed by Hodges to the edge of the frame or picked out, diminished in the distance, from between foregrounded the-terminal-man-_-joan-hackettsurgeons. While Crichton does acknowledge the sexism Ross faces, including incidents and passages of introspection, Hodges’ low-key spatialisation of patriarchal hegemony is far more effective. This spatialisation of gendered power is further emphasised during the sequence in which Ross’s discomfiture, when alone with Benson during the testing of his electrodes, is ignored by the male doctors observing them through one-way glass positioned high on the wall above them. The Foucauldian aspects of commonplace surveillance are even more clearly evinced during the lengthy surgical procedurals – articulated through an impeccable low-key precision, self-consciously devoid of the melodramatic imperatives shaping such sequences in Crichton’s E.R. (1994–2009) – as a crowd gathers around to observe the operation from above.

Third, there are the performances. Joan Hackett’s self-conscious awkwardness as Ross is essential to the critique of gender politics. The very different physiques, looks, mannerisms and accents of Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and, as Dr Morris, Michael C. Gwynne provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the senior medical staff than can be found in Crichton’s novel, but Hodges does not permit them to become more than components of the systems within which they function. An occasional line or gesture suggests that they are fuller human beings than their social roles allow, but such moments (for example, Ellis’s off-colour comment to McPherson about Ross, or Morris’ attempt to terminal-man-2flirt with Angela (Jill Clayburgh)) seem to bemuse the other characters. Retrospectively, George Segal seems an unlikely Benson. Despite a successful career as a dramatic actor on stage, television and film, by the early 1970s he was focusing on the kind of comedy roles with which he has subsequently become most closely associated. By effectively casting him against type, Hodges produces a soft-spoken, genial everyman who is overtaken by external forces (the pre-credits material is, indeed, a misstep, giving Benson too much specificity, and counteracting the effectiveness of a later scene in which a recording of his litany of suburban lifestyle elements and possessions plays on multiple diegetic screens). He is particularly effective when his actions – stabbing Angela, attacking the robot on which he had been working – become mechanical, taking control of his body.

the-terminal-man-1974-dvdrip-xvid-andrei-avi_snapshot_01-39-49_2011-12-22_17-52-47Finally, there is the revised ending of the story. Rather than seeing off Benson’s attack with her microwave, Ross, fearing he might attack her, holds out a knife towards him. In a moment of lucidity between stimulations, he walks onto the blade. Instead of launching an assault on the hospital computer, Benson then heads to a cemetery and descends into an open grave. The police close in and while Ross struggles to reach her patient, the police helicopter appears once more, bearing the sniper who will shoot Benson. People rush forward, and from the bottom of the grave we see them forced back by police whose vizored helmets recall not only those worn by the surgeons while they operated on Benson but also the brutally anonymous robot police of THX 1138 (Lucas 1971).

Thanks to Hodges’ stylistic innovations, The Terminal Man should be spoken of in the same breath as other films of the period in which Britons brought a European arthouse sensibility to American genre fiction, such as Point Blank (Boorman 1967) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg 1976). In terms of its political critique, however, it belongs alongside Medium Cool (Wexler 1969), Punishment Park (Watkins 1971), The Parallax View (Pakula 1974) and The Conversation (Coppola 1974). It is without question one of the most accomplished and important sf films of the 1970s.

References
Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man. London: Arrow, 1996.
Mike Hodges, personal email. 5 July 2009.

The City in Fiction and Film, week 18

Boyz_n_the_hood_poster.jpgWeek 17

This week we turned to African-American cinematic representations of the city, from blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion group up to the New Jack Cinema and Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991). We were guided by Paula J Massood’s argument in Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film that:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American terrifying other was a generalized inner-city ghetto; in the 1990s, it became the young black man. (166)

Last week, we ended with Taxi Driver’s vision of an infernal Manhattan populated by a profoundly fallen humanity (Scorsese is nothing if not a Catholic director). It is an overtly stylised world, often seen through the windscreen of the vehicle which lends Travis mobility while separating him from the world outside. Typically, blaxploitation has a rather different sense of the city and explores it through different aesthetic choices. These points came up in our discussion of the opening sequence of Shaft (Parks 1971):

  • daylight shooting
  • long shots (and some long takes) using zoom lenses on frequently uncontrolled locations
  • concealed – or apparently concealed – cameras so as to not draw the attention of passersby unaware that they are being filmed
  • the city is shabby, run-down, collapsing, but also lively – and there is an everyday rather than demonic quality to the hustling
  • Shaft (Richard Roundtree) moves through the crowded streets with a confidence that Travis Bickle lacked, untraumatised it seems by his experience of being in the world, mixing freely with others both black and white as if by his sheer presence he can command a world without racism
  • different kind of soundtrack, and different relationship between soundtrack and image

Manthia Diawara argues that

space is related to power and powerlessness … those who occupy the center of the screen are usually more powerful than those situated in the background or completely absent from the screen. (qtd in Massood 173)

The opening of Shaft also points to this key factor in blaxploitation – for the first time since the threadbare and now mostly lost race movies of the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African-Americans (not just Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, etc) got to occupy centre (and sometimes pretty much the entire) screen of a significant number of movies, as well as working in numbers behind the scenes. Richard Roundtree strutting easily through Manhattan to the sound of Isaac Hayes was and remains so utterly cool that we can perhaps still get some sense, 45 years later and an ocean away, of how important that moment must have been (even if we might be even more inclined now to question the gender politics and Shaft’s tendency to extract himself from the African-American community).

According to Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Cinema in the 1950s, the ‘exploitation’ in ‘exploitation films’ refers to
1) the way in which a film was advertised and marketed to entice an audience into the theatre
2) the way in which the film endeared itself to its audience – content
3) and finally as a particular kind of film

This kind of “exploitation” became a cohesive production strategy with three elements:
1) controversial/bizarre/timely subject matter amenable to promotion
2) a substandard budget
3) a teenage audience
i.e., triply exploitative – exploiting sensational events for story value, their public notoriety for publicity value, and a teenage audience for box office value

This is also pretty much the sense in which the ‘xploitation’ in ‘blaxploitation’ is intended.

In the early 1970s, African Americans constitute 25-40% of Hollywood’s US audience. Following the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis 1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Shaft (Parks 1971), a low- and medium-budget production cycle helped to restore Hollywood profitability, but was then abandoned with the emergence of blockbuster cinema – Jaws (Spielberg 1975), Star Wars (Lucas 1977), etc – and of different modes of distribution and exhibition, a process aided by the closure and/or grindhousing and/or pornification of downtown cinemas and an increase in suburban cinemas.

Ed Guerrero argues in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film that blaxploitation was part of a larger ‘black film boom’ that saw ‘ninety-one productions’ in 1971-73, ‘of which forty-seven can be considered models of the Blaxploitation formula’ (95) – a fomula that .

usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city. These elements were fortified with liberal doses of gratuitous sex and drugs and the representation of whites as the very inscription of evil. And all this was rendered in the alluring visuals and aggrandized sartorial fashions of the black underworld and to the accompaniment of black musical scores that were usually of better quality than the films they energized. (94)

Blaxploitation had African American critics of this sort from the outset. The term was coined by Junius Griffin, the head of the NAACP’s Beverley Hills-Hollywood branch, when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter decrying such ‘black exploitation films’ as Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972). Within days, he resigned from his post and co-founded the Coalition against Blaxploitation (CAB), with the support of various of the more conservative civil rights organisations (e.g., CORE, SCLC). In ‘Black movie boom – good or bad?’ (The New York Times 17 December 1972), he argued that

If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people and to fairly recording the black experience, we shall have lost our money and our souls [and] have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope’ (D19)

Griffin was by no means representative of all African Americans. In the same The New York Times piece, Gordon Parks describes the audience’s response to a crowded 4am screening of his Shaft:

Everything was ‘right on!’ A new hero, black as coal, deadlier than Bogart and handsome as Gable, was doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning. (D3)

Parks says of the ‘so-called black intellectuals’ demanding an end to blaxploitation that:

it is curious that some black people, egged on by some whites, will use such destructive measures against black endeavors. … The most important thing to me is that young blacks can now … enter an industry that has been closed to them for so long. (D3).

In Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2002), blaxploitation star and occasional director Fred Williamson criticises NAACP and CORE for coining the implicitly derogatory term, asking

Who was being exploited? All the black actors were getting paid. They had a job. They were going to work. The audience wasn’t being exploited. They were getting to see things on their screens they had longed for.

Blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry adds,

the organizations failed to understand that the community was really in need of their own heroes and black movies.

And The Black Panther newspaper devoted the entire 19 June 1971 issue to Huey P. Newton’s review of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which concludes ‘We need to see it often and learn from it’ (in To Die for the People (San Francisco: City Lights,
2009) 148).

Many blaxploitation films have an original music soundtrack, including Earth, Wind & Fire on Sweetback Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Millie Jackson on Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973), James Brown on Black Caesar (Cohen 1973) and Edwin Starr on Hell up in Harlem (Cohen 1973). Sound itself is also often used in interesting ways – partly post-classical stylistic innovation, partly symptomatic of the films’ extremely low budgets which relied on shooting without sound and dubbing later. For example, the opening ten minutes of Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972) contains extended sequences of a couple of would-be muggers walking through New York streets, Super Fly driving through the streets, and then chasing one of the muggers through the streets, much of it to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack; there are several similar sequences later in the film, including on using split screen arrangements of still images. On one level, an economy-driven necessity, it becomes an aesthetics concerned with occupying the screen (and soundtrack) space, and key to an actualité-ish depiction of black urban life.

Blaxploitation was often immensely profitable across the budgetary scale, especially in terms of box-office to outlay ratios. MGM budgeted $1.2 million each for Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft; the former grossed over $8 million domestically, the latter over $10.8 million in its first year of distribution. Low-budget Cinerama Releasing Corporation spent $200,000 on The Mack (Campus 1973), which grossed over $3 million, and AIP spent $500,000 on Coffy (Hill 1973), which grossed $6 million. The independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song cost an estimated $500,000 and took $4.1 million on its initial domestic release, dislodging Love Story (Hiller 1971) from number one at the US box office, and eventually grossed $10-15 million.

The soundtracks were also often successful. The soundtrack albums for Shaft and Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Super Fly, the first entirely black-financed film to be released by a Hollywood Studio, and the first to employ an almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican crew (mostly drawn from Third World Cinema Corporation, a Harlem-based collective co-founded by Ossie Davis in 1971), had an estimated budget of $100,000 but took $6.4 million during its initial run, eventually grossing over $12 million. Controlled and released by his own publishing company and independent record label, Curtis Mayfield’s singles ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ sold over 1 million copies each; the soundtrack album sold 12 million copies, earning him over $5 million. (See Eithne Quinn, ‘“Tryin’ to get over”: Super Fly, black politics, and post-civil rights film enterprise’. Cinema Journal 49.2 (2010): 86-105.)

Next, we moved from East Coast to West, to take a look at the sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song after Sweetback beats the cops to death and goes on the run. Van Peebles’s stylisations are even more overt than those of Scorsese, layering images, saturating them in psychedlic hues, and cutting with the rhythm of the music, which itself often seems to be improvised in conjunction with the images. Los Angeles is a disjointed, ruptured wasteland, more or less devoid of humanity. It is low and close the ground in contrast to New York, and seems to stretch on forever. Others might escape by plane, but all Sweetback can do is run and run and run.

And then we moved from blaxploitation – a category in which Sweetback does not always seems to fit easily, despite its massive importance to the cycle – to the LA Rebellion group. This network of African-American filmmakers, who studied at UCLA from the late-1960s onwards, made films that set out to resist Hollywood – and blaxploitation – norms, embracing the influence of Italian neo-realism and other European art cinema, and of politicised and postcolonial Latin American and African filmmaking. They made experimental and documentary shorts, documentary features and, later, videos, but the easiest of their work to access is their fiction features, including: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978); Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991); Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979); Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993); and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983).

We took a look at an early sequence from Killer of Sheep, in which African-American kids throw stones at each other and play in the wasteland between railroad tracks. While the landscape itself seems familiar from Sweetback, the grainy – but often beautiful – black-and-white photography (another intersection of budget and aesthetics) contrasts with Van Peebles’s restless (and desperate) innovations. It recalls, in different ways, a number of films we have already watched on the module (Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Passport to Pimlico, Cléo from 5 to 7, Ratcatcher).

The soundtrack is likewise naturalistic, just voices and sounds of the city, creating a rather different effect than blaxploitation’s commitment to cutting edge soul and funk (and to Bush Mama’s more experimental layering of fragmentary voices on its soundtrack).

The New Jack Cinema ran from roughly 1989-95. Its key filmmakers and films were
Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000)
Bill Duke: A Rage in Harlem (1991)
Matty Rich: Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)
John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997)
Mario Van Peebles: New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995)
Leslie Harris: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)
Allen and Albert Hughes: Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999)
Ernest Dickerson: Juice (1992), Blind Faith (1998)

As with the more or less simultaneous New Queer Cinema, it had a strong focus on male experience, and made efforts to diversify representation without reiterating stereotypes or insisting on ‘positive’ images. Its primary focus on African American urban experience was influenced by blaxplotiation’s and the LA Rebellion’s use of actual locations, but was also intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop culture over the preceding decade and more. The New Jack Cinema often depicted gang life, violence, misogyny and drug use in negative terms, but frequently also succumbed to the spectacle such things offered. There were also strong elements of melodrama and liberal handwringing, and a championing of education and middle class lifestyle choices. Unlike Beverly Hills Cop (Brest 1984), New Jack movies tend not to take a single black protagonist out of his own community and relocate him in a white community – a strategy also deployed by many post-New Jack movies, such as Training Day (Fuqua 2001) – but instead builds a picture of an ethnically, culturally, linguistically and generationally diverse neighbourhood, with a history

It is important to bear in mind bell hooks’s comments on the historical, political, economic, cultural and social context of gangsta rap:

The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (Outlaw Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 116)

Like blaxploitation, the New Jack Cinema was often extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in 12 days for $175,000 and took over $7 million in the US alone. (It is relatively unusual in being woman-centred, but is problematically centred on a woman whose choice to have multiple sexual partners is repeatedly eroticised and spectacularised.) Do the Right Thing cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US, with two Oscar nominations (best screenplay, supporting actor). Newspapers worried its ambivalent conclusion would lead to riots. Just Another Girl on the IRT was shot in 17 days for $100,000, took $500,000 at US box office (again relatively unusual, not only in that it focuses on female experience, but on teen female experience and was made by a woman). Like Boyz N the Hood, it ends in blood, but not a drive-by or gang-killing. Instead, it culminates in a long scene of protagonist Chantel’s (Ariyan A Johnson) agonising premature childbirth – she is in denial about and has concealed her unwanted pregnancy, and thus is completely unprepared. Boyz N the Hood cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US alone; 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for best director and best original screenplay Oscars.

We focused primarily on the kinds of spaces the film depicted and how they were shot. There is none of the excessive stylisation of Scorsese, no attempt to depict South Central as infernal. There is no attempt to depict the area as a crumbling ruin, as in the views of Manhattan in Shaft and Super Fly, or as an urban wasteland, as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Killer of Sheep. In fact, the ‘natural’ daytime light and often pastels palette imbues the hood with the sense of a potentially idyllic suburb of evenly spaced houses in a variety of styles, each set in a neat little garden. Unlike Fahrenheit 451 and despite the ubiquity of television, people still sit on their porches, chatting and whiling away the time. This is countered, to some extent, by the high walls around the backyards and fence around some front yards; by the invisible but nonetheless affectively tangible walls around neighbourhoods and the city; by the role of mass unemployment and limited future prospects in all that porch-sitting; by the eruptions of gang violence and police violence; by the junkie mother who cannot look after her children (even if everyone else in the neighbourhood watches out for them); and by the almost constant nocturnal sound of police helicopters patrolling the skies above.

While Sweetback can at least run past LAX (and run), Boyz begins with a stop sign (while a jet climbs into the sky behind it). Such entrapment – such limited mobility in a city built for cars – is central to the film.

(As, rather more problematically, is its focus on the need for fathers to raise sons as real men so as to end ghetto immiseration and violence, since this involves constantly blaming mothers – reiterating a strong current in the period’s far from progressive political discourse. This goes so far as to undermine its own advocacy of such middle class values as education, responsibility and property ownership by finding fault with aspirational black women.)

Week 19

Core critical reading: Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 145–74.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 8, ‘An Alternative Modernity: Race, Ethnicity and the Urban Experience.”
Bausch, Katharine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 257–76.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (1991): 121–41.
Farred, Grant. “No Way Out of the Menaced Society: Loyalty within the Boundedness of Race.” Camera Obscura 12.2 (1995): 6–23.
Gormley, Paul. “The Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 180–199.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Liam. Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Chapter 3, “Between Pathology and Redemption.”
Massood, Paula J. “City Space and City Times: Bakhtin’s Chronotope and Recent African-American Film.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 200–215.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 7, “Ghettos and Barrios.”
Mukherjee, Roopali. “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films.” Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 599–629.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Watkins, Craig S. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.

Recommended reading
African-American, Latino/a and Chicano/a ghetto fiction can be traced back at least as far as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s *The Sport of the Gods (1902), Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and more autobiographical work, such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).
It also draws on the pulp crime fiction of Chester Himes (e.g., A Rage in Harlem (1957)) and Donald Goines (e.g., Dopefiend (1971)), on blaxploitation cinema, New Jack cinema and hip-hop culture.
Contemporary examples include Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (1993), Sapphire’s Push (1996), Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) and Gary Phillips’s The Jook (2010), and such autobiographical works as Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993) and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993).

Recommended viewing
Key blaxploitation films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971), Shaft (Parks 1971) and Superfly (Parks Jr 1972).
The LA Rebellion group’s more neo-realist depiction of black urban life can be seen in Killer of Sheep (Burnett 1978) and Bush Mama (Gerima 1979).
Key New Jack cinema films include Do the Right Thing (Lee 1989), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Harris 1992) and Menace II Society (Hughes brothers 1993).
Depictions of ghetto life have become a significant part of world cinema, including such films as La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), City of God (Meirelles and Lund 2002), Jerusalema: Gangster’s Paradise (Ziman 2008) and Attack the Block (Cornish 2011).

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

Alpha_1024x1024.jpgWeek 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 16

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

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

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

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

The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).

 

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

Eden Log (Franck Vestiel France 2007)

[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 3.1 (2010), 157–61]

edenlogEden Log begins in darkness.

Water drips into water.

Ragged breaths.

Flashes of light reveal a man (Clovis Cornillac), caked in mud, waking, staggering to his feet. (Later, much later, we – and he – will learn that his name is Tolbiac, but for now he has no idea who or where he is.)

He finds a torch on a nearby corpse and in its intermittent light he creeps and crawls and climbs up out of this cave into the lower levels of a seemingly derelict industrial complex. Cables and roots, difficult to tell apart, hang from the ceiling, industrial detritus devolving into, merging with, the subterranean-organic. On the wall behind him, a half-seen diagram describes a process which seems to involve humans descending below ground and then later ascending. He presses through heavy turnstiles and is greeted by projections of half a dozen women, immaculately clothed and coiffed, who address him in multiple languages. In the ominously bland idiolect of a corporate shill, one of them states,

The contract is fair. It is thanks to your work below that you will build your paradise above. Look after the plant and it will look after you.

This pun on plant, which works in French as well as in English, opens up one of the several fields of ambiguity in which this often elliptical film nestles. The plant is both a miraculous tree of vast proportions, its roots reaching far underground, and the industrial complex which extracts sap with ‘infinite energetic properties’ from the tree so as to power a city.

eden-log-clovis-cornillacAs Tolbiac ascends through underground levels – a trajectory that materialises the vertical integration upon which the Eden Log corporation’s gradually unveiled monopoly depends – he encounters various others from whom he begins to piece together the world and its story. One man, suspended from a wall, claims to have brought down the system, but it is not entirely clear where he ends and the plant (in either sense) begins. Tolbiac triggers a recording of the final confrontation between the technicians and the guards: when faced with an information leak over their corporate malfeasance, the nature and extent of which will only later become clear(er), Eden Log overrode all protocols about the relative autonomy of the subterranean levels and sent in guards to destroy the evidence and eradicate the threat.

1242613626_3The plant has been responding to its escalating exploitation by releasing a toxin that mutates the workers into strange, no-longer human creatures. Tolbiac’s struggle against transformation wavers when he finds an uninfected woman (Vimala Pons) and, suddenly abhuman, rapes her. He is appalled by what he has done, and what he is becoming. She elects to accompany him up to the surface, not knowing that he has infected her.

Eventually, having pieced together most of the puzzle, Tolbiac is recognised – and, at last, named – by the guards he used to command. Pretending to be himself, he cons his way past the guards and plugs himself into the plant, which has always been sterile, infecting it with life. It erupts, shattering the dome that contained it, and expands to take over the deserted city, transforming it into a beautiful – and colour-filled – landscape.

Eden Log actually begins not in darkness but with a quotation:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis 3:23)

Tolbiac’s initial emergence from the mud might be taken as a reworking of the creation of Adam in The Bible: In The Beginning… (US/Italy 1966), replacing John Huston’s achingly – and thus camply – tasteful images of an inspirited wind blowing aside yellow sand to reveal the first man with birthing imagery that is rather more fecal, fluid and feminine. Eden Log certainly invites psychoanalytical readings: its setting recalls the maternal interiors of Alien (Scott UK/US 1979), the rape carries strong overtones of a primal scene fantasy, and Tolbiac’s ascent into realms of language and control, the realm from which he fathered himself, plays out an Oedipal entry into the Symbolic.

The biblical quotation can also be interpreted as Vestiel’s announcement of his transition to directing feature films. Previously, he had directed three episodes of the French cop show, Central Nuit (Night Squad 2001– ), and gathered assistant director credits on numerous films, including Blueberry (Renegade; Kounen France/Mexico/UK 2004), adapted from Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s bande desinée, and Ils (Them; Moreau and Palud France/Romania 2006). Such experience undoubtedly prepared him well for shooting a film in the dark, in confined spaces[1] and with an elusive – some have claimed incomprehensible – narrative with religious overtones.[2] Many of the reviews of Eden Log struggled to make sense of a film with the narrative structure of a Paul W.S. Anderson video game adaptation but stripped of his prolonged action sequences and clearly-defined (if one-dimensional) characters, motives and goals. Struggling to make sense of their disappointed expectations, reviewers typically drew fairly insubstantial comparisons with THX 1138 (Lucas US 1971), Le dernier combat (The Last Battle; Besson France 1983), Cube (Natali Canada 1997), Pi (Aronofsky US 1998) and Primer (Carruth US 2004), among others – often for no better reasons than Eden Log being a first film, French, black-and-white (sort of), low-budget, visually striking and/or elliptically plotted.

A more productive comparison might be drawn with Tsukamoto Shinya. Although Eden Log lacks the viscerality of Haze (Japan 2005), in which a man likewise drags himself through a mysterious subterranean location, Vestiel shares Tsukamoto’s eye for post-industrial landscapes – for once-essential components mutating into something almost-organic – along with his taste for apocalyptic rebirth and a posthuman otherness that defies eutopian-dystopian binaries.

Vestiel’s decision to begin the action in overwhelming darkness, with intermittent flashes of light that reveal less than they show, recalls the opening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper US 1974), with which Eden Log shares an energy crisis narrative about the dehumanising effects of capital. But it also announces that Eden Log is self-consciously a film. Garrett Stewart argues that

cinema exists in the interval between two absences, the one whose loss is marked by any and all photographic images and the one brought on by tossing away each image in instantaneous turn. (xi)

For him, the presence of still photographs within the diegesis functions as a reminder of the photogram, the still image that is held in front of the viewer for a twenty-fourth of a second as the film is projected but which is never seen or experienced as a still image. Vestiel’s prolonged stretches of darkness between each flash of light work in a similar manner, to remind us of the unseen dark absence which replaces each photogram in succession.

This filmic self-consciousness is further developed by the projection of images within the diegesis. For example, in the sequence in which Tolbiac replays the recording of the final attempt at negotiation before the guards invaded the subterranean levels, he must scurry to raise into the air a variety of surfaces so that the recorded dialogue can be accompanied by images projected onto these détourned screens, rematerialising a profilmic moment that is no more and reminding us that the

filmic medium is the once having been there of the represented spaces themselves, absented by necessity to make possible the materiality of their moving image on the track. (Stewart 5)

Later, a wizened figure, attached to the plant but slumped as if dead, is eerily animated as an earlier recording of him is projected onto his unmoving face. This play between the inanimate and the animated – which resonates strongly with the decision to strip the film stock of all colour, apart from the occasional revenant touch of red and green[3] – confronts us once more with the interplay between the substrate and the surface of the filmic experience itself. As Stewart notes,

photography engraves the death it resembles, [whereas] cinema defers the death whose escape it simulates. (xi)

Vestiel’s striking use of light and darkness, his flickering between presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, is matched by a refusal fully to explicate the world of the film or the narrative. By adhering to Tolbiac’s amnesiac perspective as he pieces together information from the thinnest and most elusive of expository clues, Vestiel situates the viewer in the space between obscurity and illumination. Even those adept in the relevant genre conventions will find themselves frustrated by Vestiel’s grimly playful evasion of specificity – a strategy clearly announced in the rape scene.

Having raced together into a room-sized elevator, Tolbiac removes his unknown companion’s helmet, revealing that she is a woman. With increasing passion – and apparently in flashforward – they begin to make love. This is soon intercut with another image stream in which the sex is reconfigured as Tolbiac violently raping the woman, and with a third in which he seems to be looking on in disgust at himself. The scene ends with Tolbiac slumped against a wall in dismay, and with the woman curled up in a corner, crying; and yet when he finds a way out, repeating to himself, ‘It’s not me, it’s not me’, she accompanies him.

While it remains unclear what has actually happened between Tolbiac and the woman, the frequent complaint in online commentary that the scene is gratuitous and that it makes no sense for the woman to follow her rapist indicates the extent to which generic framings can override the indeterminacy of the specific. This troubling conjuncture of community and violence, the flicker between affective intersubjectivity and aggressive domination, between what might be and what is, is at the core of the film’s critique of contemporary power.

Eden_LogThe Eden Log corporation’s circular logo which reappears throughout the film contains a diagram of tree as an intricate network, branching out in all directions. This potentially rhizomatic image is disrupted by the corporation’s name, which bisects the circle horizontally, turning the network into a tree with branches above ground and roots below. It forces verticality and thus hierarchy onto the image. The tree, as Deleuze and Guattari argue,

plots a point, fixes an order (7)

even as the rhizome that this tree places under erasure

expose[s] arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. (8)

Indeed, the film’s working title, Network Zero, suggests the point at which vertical hierarchy severs and deforms lateral multiplicity. The plant – both the tree and the factory housing it – is a synecdoche for the Eden Log corporation which owns it, part of the biopolitical order that, according to Michel Foucault, extends and veils the disciplinary sovereign power of the state to

make live and let die. (241)

In the closing minutes of the film it is revealed that Eden Log has promised immigrants who labour in the plant will be rewarded with citizenship, and concealed from the citizens that the plant is feeding on its workers. Eden Log has a vision of ‘a new social order’ built upon this ‘integration’ of non-citizen outsiders into ‘our civilisation’, and believes that when the truth is revealed that ‘our citizens will accept what our needs impose on these populations’. This exemplifies the manner in which biopolitical governance moulds populations to serve the economy. It can be seen as the logic of the Holocaust, in which the

death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier. (Foucault 255)

But it is also the logic of the supposedly free market.

And to this sovereign power Eden Log counterposes zoē, the

simple act of living common to all living beings (Agamben 1)

which is shared by the abhuman not-death-but-continuation of the mutated workers and the plant-human-machines, and by the climactic, uncanny efflorescence of computer-generated nature.

Notes
[1]
Eden Log was shot in a damp, freezing ten-acre mushroom bed sixty feet below ground, as well as water decontamination stations and sewers.

[2]
Vestiel co-authored the screenplay with Pierre Bordage, co-writer of Marc Caro’s less-than-coherent Dante 01 (France 2008), on which Vestiel also worked as assistant director.

[3]
There are two other bursts of (rather artificial-looking) colour when, courtesy of CGI, the plant effloresces. Stewart suggests that

in the second half of this century, science fiction has continued, more and more vividly, to imagine the technologies that would outdo it, do it in. In the digital era, however, futurist cinema has for the first time mobilized rather than merely evoked its own self-anachronizing upgrades. Engineered by computer enhancements, the super-annuation of a suddenly hybrid medium has become manifestly planned obsolescence, performed from within rather than simply foreseen. (222)

Works cited
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone, 1988.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

120 years of sf cinema, part six: 1975-1984

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

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74)

1975
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)

1976mrblack
Dr Black Mr Hyde (William Crain)
God Told Me To (Larry Cohen)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg)
Queen Kong (Frank Agrama)
Rabid (David Cronenberg)

1977
Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
Izbavitelji/The Rat Saviour (Krsto Papic)
The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
Star Wars (George Lucas)

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Coma (Michael Crichton)
Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufmann)
It Lives Again (Larry Cohen)
Jubilee (Derek Jarman)
The Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston)
Piranha (Joe Dante)
Test Pilota Pirx/Pilot Prix’s Inquest (Marek Piestrak)

1979
Alien (Ridley Scott)
The Brood (David Cronenberg)
‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ hotel/Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Grigori Kromanov)
Mad Max (George Miller)
Sengoku Jietai/G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)

1980flash_gordon_ornella_muti_mike_hodges_022_jpg_biqb
Altered States (Ken Russell)
The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Scanners (David Cronenberg)

1981
Alligator (Lewis Teague)
Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Gosti iz Galaksije/Visitors from the Galaxy (Dušan Vukotić)
Mad Max 2 (George Miller)

1982Liquid-Sky-Large
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
Chronopolis (Piotr Kamler)
Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman)
Les maîtres du temps/Time Masters (René Laloux)
The Thing (John Carpenter)

1983
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg)

1984
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter)
The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles)
Dune (David Lynch)
Forbrydelsens Element/Element of Crime (Lars von Trier)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
Threads (Mick Jackson)

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part seven, 1985-94