And so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Walk (2015) – Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to turn thirty-five million dollars, the full cutting-edge apparatus of digital and 3D filmmaking, a talented cast and a thrilling story of a daring Gallic tightrope-walker who is also something of a dick, into a tin-eared, lumbering hodgepodge of edge-of-the-seat thrills and ballyhoo-dressed-up-as-self-reflexivity – is not the conjuration of a lost Paris that aims for the joyfulness of early Godard, would settle for the psychotic whimsy of Amélie (2001), falls short of Bertolucci’s genuinely godawful The Dreamers (2003) but just about achieves Team America: World Police (2004), nor is it the fabulously ridiculous haircut the as-always adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to sport, nor is it the ominous appearance of The Dread Red-Eyed Seagull of Doom, here manifesting as a badly drawn cartoon, no, the best thing about The Walk is the way it distracts from the otherwise and as-always excellent JGL’s woeful French accent by the cunning – nay, bravura – casting of Ben Kingsley, who can do neither a Czech nor a French accent, as a Czech with a French accent…
Last week, we used the first half of the novel to explore the ways in which Smith constructs London as a matter-of-fact multicultural city. Deep in the fabric of the place – and of the novel – is difference, constantly shifting and reorganising, but never monadic or monolithic. This week we focused on the ways in which class is just as deeply embedded.
The first part of the novel is told in third-person from the viewpoint of second-generation Irish immigrant, Leah. The opening scene of the novel establishes that, living in a basement flat four doors down from the council estate where she was raised, she has not quite escaped her working class roots, despite the middle class accoutrements of her daily life. She was the first of her family to go to university – and she chose to study philosophy among the privileged children of the wealthy bourgeoisie at Edinburgh University. She recalls the mortification of being a working class autodidact who spoke in class about ‘a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone’ (33); later, her friend Keisha (who will change her name to Natalie), recalls she and her boyfriend similarly ‘sound[ing] the T and the S’ in Albert Camus (193). I suspect if you’ve not gone through this you don’t get how agonising and confidence-destroying it can be – as a working class kid you often feel you do not really belong at university, and moments like this reinforce that anxiety. It is a measure of how material wealth is connected to cultural capital, and of what it is like to grow up in a culturally impoverished environment (and it is why the current government’s war on libraries and on state education is so iniquitous – and with so many politicians coming from money, they just fundamentally do not get it).
The different treatment different classes receive is also flagged up when, in part two (which is told from the viewpoint of Felix, who will become the victim of knife crime), when Felix’s dad’s neighbour Phil notes:
‘They always say “youth” don’t they? …Never the boys from the posh bit up by the park, they’re just boys, but our lot are “youths”, our working class lads are youths, bloody terrible isn’t it?’ (112).
This is reiterated in the first chapter of the novel’s third part, told from the viewpoint of Natalie (formerly known as Keisha). Remembering how she and Leah met thanks to a near-drowning in the outdoor pool in the park:
‘They had a guard up on the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.’ (173)
And again, when Nat reflects on the different educational experience of wealthy fellow student and later husband Francesco De Angelis, who looks ‘like he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’ (204):
Some schools you ‘attended’. Brayton [Leah and Nat’s school] you ‘went’ to. (206)
When Leah and Nat were growing up, neither of their mothers (Pauline and Marcia, respectively)
was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either. (177)
This sense of not quite belonging, of being trapped between identities, marks the lives of both women and their daughters in multiple ways (Smith explores this in terms of being between classes rather than between races/ethnicities/cultures – which is is common in British Asian cinema). While Leah and Michel do reach the middle class, there is an element of precarity to their lives; in contrast, Nat and Frank are comfortably well off, thanks to his family’s wealth and her career as a barrister, even more so after she moves from legal aid work defending working class people to practicing corporate law. Leah is acutely aware of the growing class gulf between them, which is highlighted every time she and Michel are invited to a dinner party, ‘where she and Michel … provide something like local colour’ (85). And Natalie and Frank often take over telling Leah and Michel’s stories:
Natalie’s version of Leah and Michel’s anecdote is over. The conversational baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of wider culture, debates in the newspapers. (86)
At one point, Frank jokingly asks Leah, ‘Why is it that everyone from your school is a criminal crackhead?’, to which she replies, ‘Why’s everyone from yours a Tory minister?’ (61).
Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough away to avoid it. (63)
Or take this scene, which captures so many of the insecurities and anxieties of not having come from money and now having a little:
On the way back from the chain supermarket where they shop, though it closed down the local grocer and pays slave wages, with new bags though they should take old bags, leaving with broccoli from Kenya and tomatoes from Chile and unfair coffee and sugary crap and the wrong newspaper.
They are not good people. They do not even have the integrity to be the sort of people who don’t worry about being good people. They worry all the time. They are stuck in the middle again. They buy always Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay because these are the only words they know that relate to wine. They are attending a dinner party and for this you need to bring a bottle of wine. This much they have learnt. They do not purchase ethical things because they can’t afford them, Michel claims, and Leah says, no, it’s because you can’t be bothered. Privately she thinks: you want to be rich like them but you can’t be bother with their morals, whereas I am more interested in their morals than their money, and this thought, this opposition, makes her feel good. Marriage as the art of invidious comparison. (80)
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, an extra layer is added by the narrator’s voice (which is of course not to be confused with Smith herself), which implies an omniscient perspective but which also sounds like someone from a different class background – the final sentence does not sound a lot like Leah. The narrative voice, sometimes right up close to the character, sometimes quite distant, here is rather slippery: is Leah ironically observing her own foibles, or is the narrator passing judgment on her?
Michel starts trading penny shares online,
dreaming of a windfall that will transport them to another urban suburb more to his taste, which means no more African, less Caribbean. (90)
This is part of the much larger logic of class mobility and of house prices in the city. When Nat and Rodney, her boyfriend from church whose mum was a dinner lady and dad a bus driver, are studying for their A-levels, the narrator tells us of their ambitions:
They were going to be lawyers, the first people in either of their families to become professionals. They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization. (202)
Around about that time, Nat recalls Leah’s mum’s enthusiasm about moving house:
‘It’s practically Maida Vale’ (197).
And when it comes to house prices:
The mistake was to think that the money precisely signified – or was equivalent to – a particular arrangement of bricks and mortar. The money was not for those pokey terraced houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell [the estate they came from]. (252)
Leah’s moment of crisis is finally brought about after she and Michel allow Nat and Frank to persuade them not to attend the Notting Hill carnival, but to instead go to a party in a flat overlooking the carnival. They watch rather than participate; the mass of people to which they used to belong are reduced to a spectacle for the wealthy, to their entertainment value, and are kept as far away as possible.
In a similar vein, Nat is agonisingly aware of how she is changing into someone else. When Frank blames Nat’s mum, brother and sister for their own poverty – Jayden could get a job, Cheryl could stop having children by various fathers – she stands up for them:
‘They don’t refuse to help me, Frank – they can’t!’ cried Natalie Blake, and launched into a passionate defence of her family, despite the fact she was not speaking to any of them. (228)
She realises, too, that she has turned Rodney, ‘in many ways himself a miracle of self-invention’ like her, ‘into a comic anecdote to be told at dinner parties’ (194).
Later, in a supermarket queue behind a working class mother trying desperately to find the money she needs to pay for her groceries, and having to ask the cashier to take back this and that item, Nat realises that she
had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand. (276)
To wrap up our discussion of class in the novel we took a look at a passage from part two of the novel, chapters 125–8 (pp.242–5), in which Nat joins her first law firm and runs into her cousin Tonya, to think about class signification, difference and experience.
A key part of the novel’s consideration of multiculturalism and of class is its emphasis on the flux and constant becoming of urban identity – that it is not monolithic and fixed, but like the city itself fluid and always in transformation, constantly emerging as something new. Keisha – who in her teens has not yet changed her name to Natalie – first realises how unfixed identity is, how prone to change, when Leah starts hanging out in Camden and developing a taste for
Baudelaire or Bukowksi or Nick Drake or Sonic Youth or Joy Division or boys who looked like girls or vice versa or Anne Rice or William Burroughs or Kafka’s Metamorphosis or CND or Glastonbury or the Situationists or Breathless or Samuel Beckett or Andy Warhol or a million other Camden things, and when Keisha brought a wondrous Monie Love 7-inch to play on Leah’s hi-fi there was something awful in the way Leah blushed and conceded it was probably OK to dance to. They had only Prince left, and he was wearing thin. (185)
This sudden change, and the accompanying dislocation of their friendship, leaves Keisha
wondering whether she herself had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television. (185)
Similarly, while transcribing a song she and her friend Layla are writing for their church group, Keisha looks in the mirror across the room:
Two admirable young sisters, their hair still plaited by their mothers, sat on the edge of a makeshift stage, one singing and the other transforming music into its shadow, musical notation. That’s you. That’s her. She is real. You are a forgery. Look closer. Look away. She is consistent. You are making it up as you go along. She must never know. (188–9)
As she and Leah drift further apart – as she loses the condition at school of ‘being Leah Hanwell’s friend’ and is ‘now relegated to the conceptual realm of “those church kids”’ (191) – Keisha plumbs the depths of adolescent angst:
She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness she now knew to be the one and only true reality of this world. (192)
At the end of a trip down from Edinburgh to visit Keisha – now called Nat – at Bristol university, Leah tells Nat ‘You’re the only person I can be all of myself with’, which makes her cry:
not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone. (208)
Soon, Nat breaks up with Rodney and becomes ‘crazy busy with self-invention’ (209). By the time she graduates and begins training to become a barrister, she has chased after experience, fashioned a self. But she never seems to realise that Leah – and everyone else – is caught up in self-creation, bound in various ways to their roots but also always headed into becoming. This is suggested when Frank, with whom Nat did not become involved at university, suddenly turns up, also training to be a barrister:
And there was indeed something intimate about the way they spoke to each other, heads close, looking out across the room. Natalie fell so easily into the role, she had to remind herself that this intimacy had not existed before tonight. It was being manufactured at this present moment, along with its history. (216)
Some years later, Nat is still not sure she is, and in rapid succession completely fails to recognise herself in three descriptions of her given by her brother Jayden (264), Leah (268) and Layla (277–8). This leads her to muse, in the single paragraph chapter 170 called In drag:
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (278)
Identity, it seems, is a collection of roles she plays, all partly pre-scripted by the expectations of others (or her anticipation of others’ expectations) and the signifiers of costume, demeanour, language and so on deemed appropriate. Perhaps she has being reading Judith Butler. She certainly has a well-developed sense of the quotidian performativity required by the complex urban environments she inhabits and through which she moves. Maybe that early intuition about being an accumulation and reflection of the socio-cultural realm is not so far wrong; maybe all subjectivity is is the chaotic non-linear determinism of constant becoming.
In the closing pages of the novel, as Nat roams north-west London in the company of Nathan Bogle – he was at school with her and Leah, he had an actual try-out for professional football team, but has long since drifted into a life of petty crime – it eventually dawns on her that he was involved in the fatal stabbing of Felix (with which the first and second sections of the novel ended). Twice Nathan comments on some of the bad things he does to get by, adding ‘you know that ain’t the real me. You know me from back in the day’ (305) and ‘You remember me. You know who I am’ (316). He clings to the image of a whole self, a true self, that once existed and somewhere beneath the mess of his life still exists. He is stuck in that combination of false memory and denial.
Frustratingly, this encounter leads her to tell the depressed Leah, who is wondering why she has the life she has, why she was one of the ones who succeeded in getting away from her working class roots, that
we worked harder. … We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of the things that you learn in the courtroom: people generally get what they deserve. (332)
It is a horrible, arrogant and self-deceiving speech, and it is hard to tell how much Nat believes it. It is certainly a change of tune. And by the novel’s own logic, this hardening of attitude (which echoes the opinions of some of the more privileged characters, with whom she has hitherto disagreed) is a deadly mistake. Just as Nathan was stuck in the past, so this speech’s performance of certainty seeks to draw a line under her past, to deny it, and thus to fix a monolithic identity in place.
Moments later Nat phones the police to inform on Nathan.
The final sentence of the novel – which might be addressed to the police, or to Leah about something else entirely – fortunately returns some uncertainty and ambiguity to her:
‘I got something to tell you,’ said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (333)
This was the final week of the module in terms of teaching – week 24, which I will not blog about, is devoted to final assignment preparation. All being well, I will next year blog about my new second-year module, Genre and the Fantastic, which I am starting to plan in the gaps between wrapping up this year’s teaching and marking.
Recommended critical reading
Banting, Keith, Will Kymlicka, Richard Johnston and Stuart Soroka ‘Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State: An Empirical Analysis’. Multiculturalism and the Welfare State. Ed. Banting and Kymlicka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 49–91.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: 2014. 87-122.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 191–251.
James, David. “Wounded Realism.” Contemporary Literature 54.1 (2013): 204–14.
Knepper, Wendy. “Revisionary Modernism and Postmillenial Experimentation in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 111–126.
Malik, Sarita. “The Dark Side of Hybridity: Contemporary Black and Asian British Cinema.” in Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds, European Cinema in Motion: Migrant Diasporic Film in Contemporaary Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010. 132–151.
Pope, Ged. Reading London’s Suburbs: From Charles Dickens to Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Especially 161–202.
Tew, Philip. The Contemporary British Novel. 2nd ed. London: Continuum, 2007.
–. Zadie Smith. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Wells, Lynn. “The Right to a Secret: Zadie Smith’s NW.” Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond. Ed. Philip Tew. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 97–110.
For other contemporary British Afrodiasporic fiction, try Two Fingers and James T. Kirk’s Junglist (1995), Andrea Levy’s Never Far from Nowhere (1996), Courttia Newland’s The Scholar: A West-Side Story (1997), Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock (1999), Courttia Newland and Kedija Sesay’s IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), Leila Aboulela’s Minaret (2005), Brian Chikwava’s Harare North (2010) or Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, The Magistrate and the Mathematician (2014).
Afrodiasporic British cinema includes Pressure (Ové 1976), Black Joy (Simmons 1977), Dread Beat an’ Blood (Rosso 1979), Babylon (Rosso 1981), Burning An Illusion (Shabazz 1981), The Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), Playing Away (Ové 1987), Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwwurah 1995), Dog Eat Dog (Shoaibi 2001), A Way of Life (Asante 2004), Bullet Boy (Dibb 2004), Kidulthood (Huda 2006), Life & Lyrics (Laxton 2006), Rollin’ with the Nines (Gilbey 2006), Adulthood (Clarke 2008), Shame (McQueen 2011) and My Brother the Devil (El Hosaini 2012).
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.
The 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-country’, 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).
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.
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.
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).
This 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).
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.
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).
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).
Returning from the holiday break, we picked up and built on some strands from the end of last semester – moving from the rubble of The Third Man and Passport to Pimlico to postwar urban development (foreshadowed in Bicycle Thieves), and extending our thinking about the relationships between built environments and individual/group psychology. For the first couple of weeks we are looking at US suburbs, this week in All That Heaven Allows (Sirk 1955) and next week in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – we might get some glimpses of Truffaut’s adaptation in later weeks, as we move onto postwar European and British development Alphaville (Godard 1965), The Model Couple (Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975).
We began with an array of statistics to get some sense of the extent of – and transformations wrought by – the US post-war economic boom as war-time industries retooled, the growth of the suburbs and related expansion of and easier access to credit, and the development of a new consumer and corporate culture. Some very broad strokes:
- In 1945, 40% of Americans owned their own homes; relatively few families owned a car; shopping was done in neighbourhood groceries; and aeroplane travel was for the military, the wealthy and the occasional businessman.
- In 1960, 60% of American owned their own homes; many families owned more than one car; groceries were bought at supermarkets in shopping malls; and TV had replaced films and radio as the major source of entertainment.
- Between 1947–1960, the rise in average real income was equal to that in the previous half century; GNP increased by 250%; and expenditure on construction increased ninefold.
- By 1960, per capita income was 35% higher than the boom year of 1945.
- By the mid-1950s, 60% of the population enjoyed a secure middle class income ($3000-10,000), twice as many as had done so 25 years earlier, before the Depression.
- In 1946, there were 6 TV stations in the US; by 1956, there were 442.
- In the mid-fifties, 66 % of US homes had a TV; by 1960, 87% (and 75% of American families owned their own car their own washing machine).
- At the height of European emigration to the US in the early years of the 20th century, 1.2 million arrived every year; during the 1950s, the same number of people moved out to the suburbs every year – 18 million in total – as 13 million new homes were built, 11 million of them in the suburbs.
- By 1960, a quarter of the American population lived in the suburbs.
- Suburbs were typically whites-only (and when racial segregation in housing was ruled illegal, other methods were developed to keep suburbs whites-only).
- Suburbs were generally arranged in a class hierarchy – the further away from the city, the bigger the lot/house.
- There was a boom in sales of consumer goods and domestics appliances – which saw electricity use triple during the 1950s, with advertising revenues increasing 400% between 1945 and 1960, three times the money spent on higher education.
- There was a massive increase in automobile usage, with the number of cars in the US increasing 133% between 1945 and 1960.
- There were also government road-building activities: in 1956 Congress appropriated $32 billion to build 41,000 miles of highway, and the Interstate system was developed.
All this affluence surely made people happy? Not really. Eisenhower’s placid decade was also a time typified by an array of deep-rooted anxieties. Again, in broad strokes:
- the cold war
- anti-communist hysteria
- nuclear dread
- the Civil Rights movement
- the Kinsey reports into human sexuality
- dull conformity: endless identical tract homes in the suburbs full of the same consumer durables; the need for men to ‘fit in’ in new corporate workplaces; women pushed out of the workplace in favour of returning veterans and into the home to raise nuclear families
- isolation: destruction or loss of extended kinship networks and communities in old urban centres, changes in access to urban resources
- increase in alcoholism, dependency on tranquilisers, psychoanalysis and a major revival in Protestant christianity – all of which can be seen as methods of coping with and adjusting to circumstances rather than trying to change them
These transformations – affluence and anxiety – can be observed in the culture of the time, as well as being evident in the ways the period is remembered (which includes being misremembered, consciously and unconsciously).
From this admittedly sketchy sketch of suburbs – William Chafe’s The Unfinished Journey, the source of many of my stats, is a good place to begin reading more detail about the scale and consequences of these transformations – we turned to the question of genre. More specifically, what is melodrama?
Melodrama emerged as a stage genre in the wake of the 18th century bourgeois revolutions – in France, America, Haiti – and with the rise of capitalism. As feudal structures/hierarchies were destroyed, so tragedy’s emphasis on people of rank – e.g., Hamlet, Othello, Lear – was replaced by the sentimental drama of the bourgeois family. But such sentimental stage dramas inevitably lack ‘heroic dimensions, overt excitement’, ‘cosmic ambition’ and ‘violence’ (Gledhill 17) – and made up for this deficit by taking on some characteristics from popular theatrical traditions of spectacle, performance and music to become melodrama (French: ‘song’ + ‘drama’). Theatrical melodrama also adopted Gothic fiction’s often Manichean outlook – in Europe, this typically pitted good bourgeoisie against evil aristocrats or good proletarians against evil bourgeoisie; in the US, which likes to pretend it doesn’t have a class structure, this opposition was more typically between good rural folk and evil city folk. Theatrical melodrama also increasingly emphasised ‘unpremeditated feeling as an index of moral status and social value’ (Gledhill 24).
In relation to film, Linda Williams argues that melodrama – ‘a modality of narrative with a high quotient of pathos and action’ (51) – should not be regarded as a ‘specific genre’ but as ‘the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures’ (42):
the basic vernacular of American moving pictures consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value. This climax revealing the moral good of the victim can tend in one of two directions: either it can consist of a paroxysm of pathos (as in the woman’s film or family melodrama variants) or it can take that paroxysm and channel it into the more virile and action-centered variants of rescue, chase, and fight (as in the western and all the action genres). (58)
The meaning of melodrama has also changed significantly when talking about film. As far as Hollywood was concerned, until the 1970s:
‘melodrama’ meant action thrillers with fast-paced narratives, episodic story-lines featuring violence, suspense and death-defying stunts. Dastardly villains, heroines in peril and daring adventurous heroes populated these films … Cowboy films, gangster films, crime thrillers and horror movies were typically labelled ‘melodramas’ in the trade press. … what Film Studies has come to regard as ‘melodrama’ since 1970 are films with more words than action, inactive male protagonists, active and even domineering female characters, and anything but clear-cut and easily identifiable villains [and it is this version] of ‘melodrama’ that is now in general circulation, having been adopted by Hollywood filmmakers, reviewers and journalists since the 1970s. (Mercer and Shingler 6)
John Mercer and Martin Shingler also offer a useful discussion of the key characteristics of the Hollywood family melodrama (the kind of film made by Sirk, Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli that is now often conflated with the entirety of melodrama):
- a focus on the conflicts and tensions of a middle-class family, in which social and economic concerns are registered but are typically secondary to the focus on personal emotional trauma
- the audience is invited to sympathise with protagonist (who is often also cast as a victim) and to project their own fears/anxieties onto him/her
- the portrayal of a psychological situation will be pretty direct – there will be no recourse to monsters to express repressed material as in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or ghosts as in Festen (von Trier 1998)- and the viewer is likely to be able to identify with it from their own experience
- there will be evidence of Freudian repression, of psychoanalytic symptoms and of the return of the repressed – Freudian psychoanalysis was a familiar part of US popular culture well before the 1950s, and sometimes, as in All That Heaven Allows, its terminology is explicitly evoked
- the mise-en-scène will have a symbolic or coded dimension
- expressive music will be used to heighten the emotional impact
- the film will often culminate in a happy ending – but when it does, the happiness and/or the ending-ness of the happy ending will be unconvincing. In Stella Dallas (Vidor 1937), the working-class Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) is able to give her daughter an upper middle class life, but is shut out from it and will never see her daughter again. In All That Heaven Allows, middle-aged, middle-class widow Cary (Jane Wyman) is finally free of her (awful) children to be with the younger, working class Ron (Rock Hudson), but he is injured, reduced to an infantile state as someone she must care for as if she is his mother (despite the ‘erection’ under his blanket); outside the window, the yonic lake is frozen and the deer who wanders up as a potential symbol of new life is also clearly not a wild creature, independent and free, but one who has been domesticated by Ron (like Cary). Also, the society’s – and Cory’s awful children’s – disapproval of their relationship has not disappeared. Such ambiguous/ambivalent/double-coded endings seem to recognise that the problem/contradiction at the core of the film cannot be so easily resolved. They invite the viewer to read the film against the grain
As we mentioned Freud, we also quickly sketched in some very basic Freudian ideas (we will do more with this material in the level two module on genre and the fantastic):
- large parts of human thought remains unconscious
- the human mind expends considerable energy suppressing or repressing certain thoughts and ideas (particularly around sex and aggression)
- repressed thoughts and ideas often sneak out in dreams, nightmares, slips of the tongue and artistic activity (the return of the repressed)
- the unconscious, however, is not simply a ready-and-waiting place for repressed desire – it is produced by the very act of repression
- the tripartite mind: the ego as the fluid product of the conflict and tensions between the id (basic drives around sex and aggression, etc) and the superego (internalised social codes of behaviour); Dr Jekyll (ego) want to chemically realise the angelic part of human nature (superego) but unleashes instead the Mr Hyde (the id)
And then onto Douglas Sirk specifically – his background in interwar Berlin’s leftist creative community, his German and especially his Hollywood films (a contract director who had little choice over what films he made, but found ways to work against their clichéd material; the major melodramas with producer Ross Hunter at Universal), and his belated designation as an auteur in the 1970s (in part aided by his ability in interview to talk a strong leftist game in describing – or claiming – what he sought to achieve in his movies). Since his ‘discovery’, the following characteristics have been discerned in his films:
- he depicts the material American dream not to celebrate it but to critique it
- his visual style subverts his clichéd, conservative narratives
- he uses parody and excess, not for comedy value but to create a distance between the viewer and the film
- this distance is also the product of his preference for medium-shots and long-shots over close-ups so as to keep the viewer from getting too caught up in the characters’ emotions
- he also uses long-shots and creates frames within the frame to ‘stage’ events – to make them seem overtly theatrical and staged, thus working a low-key Brechtian alienation effect
- he uses sets, props and shot construction to create graphic effects
- he uses mirrors to double, distance and reveal – also uses windows and screens
- he uses colour and props expressively
The remainder of the class was devoted to discussing a series of questions posed before the screening.
- How does the film represent different spaces (e.g, suburb vs countryside, the country club vs the Andersons’ party, Carry’s house vs the Old Mill House)?
- What does the film say about: youth, maturity, respectability, class, duty, desire, convention, passion, romance, community?
- How does the film depict masculinity and femininity? What does it say about gender?
- How does the film use colour (especially reds/browns and blues) expressively?
- How does it use specific objects (spectacles, the TV, the teapot, screens, windows, the deer, Xmas trees, etc) expressively?
- Does it have a happy ending? What undermines the happiness of the happy ending?
One of the things we focused on was the use of colour. Cary’s decision to abandon her widow’s weeds for a red dress when she goes to the Country Club suddenly changes how other people see her – she is hit on by a married man. Her children – who are every bit as awful as the children in Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey 1937) and Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953) – struggle to cope with the idea of their mother having desires, being sexual. Her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) starts whom the film rather mocks for her book-learning and appeals to reason); significantly, once she falls in love with a boy and they get engaged she also wears red – even as she tells her Cary, who at this point has abandoned Ron for the sake of her awful children (who are awful), that at least she had not really loved him. As her awful child, dressed all in red, spouts blithely spouts this, Cary is framed by a bitterly ironic vase of red roses. (It is some small comfort to know that Gloria Talbott will just a few years later marry a monster from outer space.)
The film also uses a range of reds and browns to signal physical and emotional warmth. Domestic interiors are red/brown against the cold blue of the night outside – almost like the conventional tinting of a silent movie – except in scenes when Cary is being berated for her ‘inappropriate’ romance by her awful son Ned (William Reynolds). Then, Cary is always posed against a warm red backdrop while Ned stands in front of a cold blue backdrop – an expressive lighting scheme that makes no realistic sense in terms of the physical space, light sources, lightbulbs, etc.
In the key scene, when the awful Ned walks out on his mother, the expressive use of props is also evident. Ned strides to posture in front of the fireplace, wittering on his patriarchal nonsense in front of a wall that has already been compared to an Egyptian mausoleum in which Cary is entombed (Cary has just suggested he put a screen in front of the fire, as if to block her passions). He leans on the mantlepiece where his father’s trophy used to be displayed (there has already been a row about Cary referring to it as part of the clutter she has taken down to the basement – a good place for repressed material to be stored). Throughout their conversation before and after this moment, the strong vertical lines of a screen has separated the film screen, with one of them either side of it, cut off from each other. Going even further, when Cary asks ‘let’s not this come between us’ (meaning her relationship with Ron) this is what the shot actually looks like:
Expressive mise-en-scène or what?
Core critical reading:
Mercer, John and Martin Shingler, Melodrama: Genre, Style and Sensibility. London: Wallflower, 2004. 38–77.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 4, “Cynical Modernity; or the Modernity of Cynicism.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 250–333.
Fishman, Robert, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. New York: Basic, 1989.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. London: Gollancz, 1963.
Gledhill, Christine. ‘The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation’. Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill.London: BFI, 1987. 5-39.
Hapgood, Lynn. Margins of Desire: The Suburbs in Fiction and Culture, 1880-1925. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Hilliker, Lee. “Hulot vs. the 1950s: Tati, Technology and Mediation.” Journal of Popular Culture 32.2 (1998): 59–78.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Nicolaides, Becky and Andrew Weiss, eds. The Suburb Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006. Especially Chapter 10, ‘Critiques of Postwar Suburbia’.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.
Williams, Linda. ‘Melodrama Revised’. Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 42-88
Probably the first satire on suburban life is George and Weedon Grossmith’s *The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
The struggle to live in the suburbs and the meaninglessness of suburban living is central to James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961), John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (1964), J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971), Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967) is set in Manhattan but nonetheless offers a feminist critique of the gender relations more normally associated with the suburbs.
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), based on her own family’s experience, is about the desire to move from the overcrowded, run-down city to the suburbs – and the lengths to which suburban Americans went to keep out people of colour.
There are film versions of Mildred Pierce (Curtiz 1945), A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie 1961), The Ice Storm (Lee 1997) and Revolutionary Road (Mendes 2008). Suburban alienation and dysfunction is also explored in The Reckless Moment (Ophuls 1949), Rebel without a Cause (Ray 1955), Bigger than Life (Ray 1956), The Graduate (Nichols 1967), The Swimmer (Perry 1968), Targets (Bogdanovich 1968), Safe (Haynes 1995) and American Beauty (Mendes 1999).
Far from Heaven (Haynes 2002) reworks Sirk’s film, introducing questions of race and sexuality that films of the 1950s could not deal with directly; Todd Haynes also directed a television adaptation of Mildred Pierce (HBO 2011).
More comical visions can be found in Mon Oncle (Tati 1958) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes 1986).
This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.
It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing
a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)
It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.
Very broadly, then:
Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.
In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).
There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party. On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).
It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.
Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).
To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).
There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.
Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.
So the other first neorealist film is Roma, Città aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,
its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.
For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a
need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.
In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.
In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.
Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:
The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)
He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda
Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)
Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?
No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.
Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that
It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)
Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills looks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’. And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.
Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.
Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?
I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?
Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?
And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?
In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)
There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.
This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).
Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.
Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.
We started this week with the material on the Situationists and the dérive that we did not have time to cover last week, before turning to the first half of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – which to be honest I was a little anxious about, given the events in Beirut and Paris last weekend – and a very quick discussion of The Third Man (Carol Reed UK 1949), which we watched in the morning.
The Situationist International (SI) was a group of primarily Paris-based anti-Stalinist Marxists influenced by Dada and Surrealism, which existed from 1957-1972. Their key theoretical activity was to develop Marx’s ideas on alienation and commodity fetishism, broadly arguing that capitalism had become so extensive and intensive that life was no longer experienced directly but through commodities; and that it was necessary to find ways to shatter the commodified spectacle of everyday life. They brilliantly and correctly called for automation to be developed not so as to maximise profit but so as to liberate everyone into lives of freedom and leisure and creativity. And of greater relevance here, they developed a number of theorised practices or ways of critically intervening in the city, including détournement – turning the spectacle against itself through pranks, culture jamming, reality hacks – and such psychogeographical experiments as the dérive.
Differing from the journey (which has a clear destination) and the stroll (which is typically aimless), the dérive is concerned with movement through urban space with a kind of double-consciousness. On the one hand, it is about allowing the ‘attractions of the terrain and the encounters’ found there to organise your movement and experience of the varying ambiances of the city space. On the other hand, it requires a conscious attention to the effects this drifting and these shifting environments have on you. The dérive is both planned – you know your starting point, who your companions (if any) might be, you do not have a specific destination but you do have a broad aim – and unplanned, since you cannot know in advance precisely where your feet will be drawn and who/what you might meet. It can seem random, but the structures of the city also play a determining role, deliberately and accidentally guiding you through its ‘constant currents, fixed points and vortexes’ – physical routes and barriers, but also psychological ones. (It is instructive that Abdelhafid Khattib, the Algerian Arab who was part of the SI and one of the early psychogeographical experimenters was arrested by the police for activities his white French colleagues could undertake unchallenged.)
Returning briefly to Cleo from 5 to 7, we could see ways in which Cleo – who last week we considered as a potential flâneuse – might be thought of as underaking a dérive, more obviously in the second half of the film when an overheard conversation in a café reminds her of her friend, the model Dorothée, which leads her through different aspects of and locations in Paris and various unanticipated encounters. (We will return to some of these issues in a couple of weeks when we focus on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (De Sica Italy 1948).)
But this was obviously the point to clumsily segue into a brief introduction to Joseph Conrad, sketching in some biography, his early association with Impressionism (see the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897)), his omnivorous consumption and reworking of raw materials (autobiography, people he met, fiction he read – which lead to charges of plagiarism in Poland – and real news events – including the French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s presumed attempt to blow up the Greenwich observatory on 15 February 1894, which inspired The Secret Agent).
Conrad is typically considered one of the first British modernist novelists, particularly in regard to his ironic style and the sense of scepticism, melancholy, pessimism, constraint and doom that looms over his fiction (putting him somewhere between Dostoevsky and Kafka).
To help establish this mood or tone, we took a look at this fabulous passage in a letter he wrote to Cunninghame Graham in December 1897 (if I was the kind of person who sent out a family newsletter with Xmas cards, I would be tempted to adopt this). Conrad says that the universe
evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold! – it knits. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. I feel it ought to embroider – but it goes on knitting. You come and say: “this is all right; it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. Let us use this – for instance – celestial oil and the machine shall embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold.” Will it? Alas no. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself; made itself without thought, without conscience, without foresight, without eyes, without heart. It is a tragic accident –and it has happened. You can’t interfere with it. The last drop of bitterness is in the suspicion that you can’t even smash it. … it is what it is – and it is indestructible!
It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.
(Which always makes me think of The Clangers – and of that moment of sheer existential terror when the fabric of the universe rips apart in that episode of Button Moon. (I am so street! I am so down with the kids!))
In Conrad’s own description of the origins of the novel he describes how
the vision of an enormous town presented itself, of a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was enough room there to place any story, depth enough there for any passion, variety enough there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.
And our treatment of the city in the novel will largely focus on this depiction of London as a monstrous, indifferent and cruel place; as a dark grave in which its inhabitants are buried; as an exemplar of modern anonymity; as claustral and carceral; as somewhere that blurs the distinction between home and work; as an amoral structure inhabited by spectral, untethered characters trapped in death-in-life existences; as a place of darkness, secrecy, mechanisation, hierarchy and control.
[Page references are to the current Penguin Classics edition.]
The first passage we looked at, though, was the one in which Mr Vladimir outlines his rationale for targeting the Greenwich Observatory in the faked anarchist bomb outrage. He begins by dismissing the assassination of a head of state, because such actions are now so commonplace that they are no longer spectacular enough. Attacking churches would just muddy the waters with claims that such attacks are religiously motivated; attacking a theatre or restaurant would be passed off as a ‘non-political passion: the exasperation of a hungry man, an act of social revenge’ (26). Of the latter two options, Vladimir notes – with a timeliness the students also noted – that ‘every newspaper has ready-made phrases to explain such manifestations away’ (26).
Instead, Vladimir favours an attack that defies such easy narrativisation – it must be something so irrational-seeming as to defy our capacity to explain it away. You could attack art – plant a bomb in the National Gallery – but the only people who would cause a fuss would be ‘artists – art critics and such like – people of no account’ (26). But if you could find a way to attack science – ‘any imbecile with an income believes in that. … They believe that in some mysterious way science is at the source of their material prosperity’ (26-7). And if you could find away to attack the purest, most abstract-seeming of science – ‘if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics’ (27) – it would be so ‘incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable’ as to be ‘truly terrifying’ (27).
Attacking the Greenwich Observatory is not just an attack on astronomy, the next best option after maths, but also on the global order. It is an attack on the Greenwich meridian, on the military and commercial imperial web imposed upon the world. It is an attack on the seat of power.
And it is a plan conceived from the lofty view, the god’s-eye perspective, we discussed last week in relation to the de Certeau observing New York from the top of the World Trade Centre. The remainder of Conrad’s novel is set down on street level, in the grubby poetry written by his characters transiting through, and pausing to rest in, the city.
Next we took a look at the way in which Conrad depicts the anarchists: the fat, pasty, wheezing, resigned martyr, Michaelis; the grim, giggling, toothless, balding, goateed, dry-throated, deformed-handed, malevolent-eyed Karl Yundt, whose ‘worn-out passion’ resembles ‘in its impotent fierceness the excitement of a senile sensualist’ (34); and the ethnically ambiguous Comrade Ossipon, who has a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the negro type’ and ‘almond-shaped eyes’ that leer ‘languidly’ (35).
Conrad’s descriptions draw upon cultural codes, familiar from popular fiction, yellow journalism and elsewhere, to construct images of unsavouriness and thus to link physical appearance to morality. This is not restricted to the anarchists; later, he describes Sir Ethelred, the government minister, in similarly grotesque terms. Indeed, most – if not all – of the characters in the novel are grotesques. They are the undead adrift in the city, trapped and deformed (physically and morally) by it.
At the end of the section in chapter 3 when the anarchists are described, Ossipon finds the idiot-boy Stevie obsessively drawing, as is his wont, circles. Alluding to Lombroso’s pseudo-science of ‘criminal anthropology’, Ossipon describes young Stevie as a perfect example of degeneracy. Verloc seems sceptical.
It is a curious moment. Conrad seems to be declaring that it is erroneous to make categorical judgments based on appearances even as he relies on his readers doing precisely that. Characters are trapped by their appearances into playing certain roles, just as the city entraps them, constraining and channelling them, serving them up to their fates.
We will return to the novel next week.
In closing, we had a very few minutes to talk about The Third Man. It is set in post-war Vienna, a city which was divided until 1955 into four zones, each governed by a different Allied nation (UK, US, France, USSR), with the international zone in the centre governed by all four powers. As with The Secret Agent, it makes apparent the complex governance structures of a particular which, as in M, is doubled by an underground that seeks to evade those overlapping, panoptical administrative structures. These representations can also help us begin to see the structuration of all cities.
Looking backward, the famous scene on top of the Ferris wheel, in which Harry Lime (Orson Welles) tries to persuade Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) of the statistical insignificance of individuals so as to justify his own monstrous crimes, recalls the view from atop the World Trade Centre that de Certeau talks about. Looking forward, it is a film set amid the rubble – a Trümmerfilm. It signals the ongoing presence of trauma and the urgent need for reconstruction that we will consider in relation to Bicycle Thieves and Passport to Pimlico (Henry Cornelius UK 1949) before the end of this semester, and which will inform our study of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard France/Italy 1965), Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein 1977) and JG Ballard’s High Rise (1975) next semester.
Recommended critical reading
Anderegg, Michael A. “Conrad and Hitchcock: The Secret Agent Inspires Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 3.3 (1975): 215–25.
Bernstein, Stephen. “Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” CLIO 32.3 (2003): 285–301.
Harrington, Ellen Burton. “The Anarchist’s Wife: Joseph Conrad’s Debt to Sensation Fiction in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 36.1–2 (2004): 51–63.
Kim, Sung Ryol. “Violence, Irony and Laughter: The Narrator in The Secret Agent.” Conradiana 35.1–2 (2003): 75–97.
Leitch, Thomas. “Murderous Victims in The Secret Agent and Sabotage.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.1 (1986): 64–8.
Mathews, Cristina. “‘The Manner of Exploding’: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Men at Home.” Conradiana 42.3 (2010): 17–44.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 5, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut.”
Shaffer, Brian W. “‘The Commerce of Shady Wares’: Politics and Pornography in Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” ELH 62.2 (1995): 443–66.
Sinowitz, Michael. “Graham Greene’s and Carol Reed’s The Third Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 53.3 (2007): 405–33.
Stape, J.H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1991) is often seen as a companion novel to Secret Agent.
Novels of urban underworlds include Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1925), Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (1938) and The Third Man (1950), Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City (1938), Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949), Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953) and Hubert Selby, Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).
The criminalisation of sexual dissidence led to an often autobiographical fiction of queer underworlds and marginal urban existence, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), John Rechy’s City of Night (1963), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), Alan Hollinghhurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1993) and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin (1995).
Conrad’s novel was filmed as Sabotage (Hitchcock 1936), which we will watch next week, and The Secret Agent (Hampton 1996).
Ambiguous underworlds appear in a vast array of films, including The Informer (Ford 1935), Pépé le moko (Duvivier 1937), Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947), The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950), Night and the City (Dassin 1950), A Generation (Wajda 1955), Canal (Wajda 1957), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda 1958), À bout de soufflé (Godard 1960), Hell is a City (Guest 1960), The Yards (Gray 2000), We Own the Night (Gray 2007) and Killing Them Softly (Dominik 2012).
Films about marginalised urban sexualities include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Working Girls (Borden 1986), Paris is Burning (Livingstone 1990), Young Soul Rebels (Julien 1991), The Wedding Banquet (Lee 1993), Exotica (Egoyan 1994), Beautiful Thing (MacDonald 1996), Nowhere (Araki 1997), Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Moodysson 1998) and Mysterious Skin (Araki 2004).
This week we watched Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda France/Italy 1962) as a way to begin thinking about human movement in, across and around the city. The plan was to consider the ideas of the flâneur/flâneuse and flânerie, the dérive (with a hint of le Parkour and le traceur) – but some ad hoc essay-writing support took up part of the class, which meant more detailed work on Guy Debord and the dérive had to be bumped to next week’s class.
Our starting point was the opening of Michel de Certeau’s essay ‘Walking in the City’, which begins with an elaborated contrast of viewing New York from the top of the World Trade Center and living at street level. He describes the city, seen from on high, as ‘a texturology in which extremes collide’ – a visual field made up of, on the one hand, the new structures that constantly irrupt into the scene, reeking of ambition, blocking out the rest of the city and challenging the future, and on the other hand, ‘yesterday’s buildings’, degraded, turned into trashcans, their accomplishments discarded. One intriguing phrase – ‘brutal oppositions of races and styles’ – fuses the architectural diversity of the city (buildings so different from each other that they might belong not just to different styles but to different races) with the racial segregation of the city created by generations of concentrated white wealth and privilege even when de jure segregation is illegal.
To bring this all a little closer to home, we looked at some recent photographs of London’s skyline – the new buildings that tower over St Paul’s cathedral (the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Lingam, the Carbuncle Award-winning Walkie Talkie), and in the distance Canary Wharf, and over the Thames the Shard. Precisely the kind of urban perspective that reveals ‘a city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs’.
de Certeau makes his first move from thinking of the city as a texturology to thinking of it as a text when he describes New York’s monumental buildings as ‘the tallest letters in the world compos[ing] a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production’.
Rising to the top of the WTC is ‘to be lifted out of the city’s grasp’, to be liberated from the encounters with others, with difference, with the peril and stress of the streets. It is to be separated out from the masses, the supposedly threatening mob. It is to become Icarus, soaring above the labyrinths constructed by Daedalus. (Given Icarus’s fate, this seems at first like a rather odd allusion, and one that is oddly proleptic – like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (US 1983) – of the fate of the WTC. Maybe I should have rewatched Der Himmel über Berlin/Wings of Desire (Wenders West Germany/France 1987) in preparation – or at least subjected the class to some Nicolas Cage from City of Angels (Silberling Germany/US 1998)).
The height of the building distances the viewer from the city and other people, and in a vaguely messianic mode transfigures him into a god-like being, liberated from the ‘bewitching world’ and all its fleshy entanglements. From the perspective of such a deity the city is now merely a text to be read. This consummation represents ‘the exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive’ to see and to know. Attaining such perfect knowledge (or, rather, the ‘fiction of [such] knowledge’) is the consequence of a ‘lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more’. Here, lust is a wonderfully embodied term with which to describe the drive for a disembodied seeing and knowing – it reveals the contradiction underpinning it all: the material can never become immaterial, reason can never exist outside of the flesh that reasons.
(This prompted a further digression into our unexpected parallel module on the history of art, describing the development of perspectival art, with the aid of Tintoretto – not Dom from the F&F movies – and Cannaleto; and some gesturing towards the notion of Cartesian space.)
King Kong – especially the poster for the 1976 version, in which he bestrides the WTC with Manhattan spread out behind him as in some of the photos we looked at – brought us back to de Certeau, who asks ‘‘Must one finally fall back into the dark space where crowds move back and forth…?’ In brief, yes. It is why the tallest building always gets the giant ape, why the presence of this simian embodiment of white supremacist fears/stereotypes of black masculinity (clutching a white girl snatched from her bed) – and, some argue, though less persuasively, of bourgeois dread of the impoverished mob – is such a scandal. There are too many ways in which Kong and all the things he represents just do not belong there (which is also what makes him so cool). If, to achieve his perfect vision/knowledge/power, the ‘voyeur-god … must disentangle himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviors and make himself alien to them’, then damn right we want the big monkey dragging him back down. Gotta love us some primate insurrection. And ape it.
de Certeau contrasts the voyeur-god (associated with the city planner, and other modes of top-down power that seek to surveil, know and control urban space) with the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city … “down below”’ – that is, those of us do not rise above the streets but walk them. For de Certeau, our perambulations constitute an alternative city, an ‘urban text’ written by walking. And although, lacking a god’s-eye perspective, we cannot read this text, our paths make up ‘intertwining, unrecognized poems’:
The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other. … a migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.
Which is all a little abstract, if rather beautiful, so we took a look at the first parkour sequence from Banlieue 13/District 13 (Morel 2004), in which we are introduced to David Belle’s dissident traversals of segregated urban space – a tactics of renegade mobility that counters strategies of urban control and nurtures existence in the the cracks of the world-machine.
Jump back 150 years to the Parisian arcades and to the actual and literary phenomenon of the flâneur (and flâneuse) – the stroller, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Balzac described flânerie as ‘the gastronomy of the eye’. And Baudelaire, in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, describes the flâneur thus:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world … a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito … the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
An intriguing figure, the flâneur obviously recalls Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ and Woolf’s narrator in ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (which we studied in week three) but also perhaps Hans Becker, the serial killer in Lang’s M (which we studied in week two). He also combines the two identities that de Certeau separates out – he is in the crowd but not of the crowd, he keeps himself sovereign and separate, an observer more than a participant. Because of this detached attitude, he is never overwhelmed by the urban spectacle he observes, and he is able to invest imaginative power in the most banal of sights. And his very existence is threatened by the speed of urban circulation, the exhausting intellectual activity it requires to defeat the boredom of the city, the intoxication of commodities, and the imposition of rationality and order on the city.
Which brought us to Cléo de 5 à 7.
The film famously opens with colour footage of a tarot reading, shot from directly above the table on which the cards are spread out, before cutting to conventional black-and-white close-ups for inserts of Cléo during the reading; the rest of the film, much of which is spent prowling Paris streets, is also in black-and-white. This resonates strongly with de Certeau, especially as the god’s-eye view of the table is of a tarot reading that gives us a broad outline of the film’s story. Authoritative and transcendent – colour! – it knows everything; but is in such broad strokes that we need to get down onto the level of the streets and the people who walk them to know the story. We need to be immersed in the grasp of the city.
Later, this metatextual commentary is developed in the film-within-the film – in which Jean-Luc Godard, playing a Harold Lloyd figure, chooses between black and white versions of his lover. Inevitably he chooses blonde Anna Karina, after the black one has died. (And Cléo will not die of cancer but find love, or at least a lover.) The association of blackness with death has already been established when Cléo, looking out of a cab, twice starts at seeing African masks displayed in shop windows. This obviously problematic connection fits into the broader opposition between circulation and stasis that structures the film, and is also played out in the oppositions between image and reality.
This is a film full of mirrors and reflections (and great technical virtuosity in terms of how infrequently you can glimpse any sign in the reflecting surface of the film crew). A lot of this is organised around Cléo’s vanity or insecurity or sense of mortality, whatever it is that prompts her to look at her own reflection quite so often (as she becomes less self-obsessed and more open to the world around her, so reflections disappear from the film). It is picked up on in the allusions to fairy-tales (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White), the protagonists of which both spend time in a deathlike condition. And it is there when Cléo’s friend Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck), an artist’s model, explains why she has no problem posing nude: the sculptors do not see her, they see an idea. And it is there in the film-in-the-film, when women are explicitly compared to dolls or puppets.
In contrast to this material about image/stasis/death, we have long sequences of Cléo, alone and in company, walking or being driven around Paris – part of the intertwining, unrecognized poem of the city. Does this make her a flâneuse?
In some ways, yes. For most of the film she is in the crowd but not of it, holding herself at a distance – perhaps best captured in the sequence in the second half of the film which intercuts between her point-of-view shots (including memories) and those of the pedestrians walking towards her. She also clearly wants to be noticed, to have her distinctiveness acknowledged by others, as in the café sequence when she puts one of her own records on the jukebox and wanders around, hoping that someone will at least recognise her.
But in some ways no. Perhaps most especially in the delirious hat shop sequence, in which she utterly succumbs to the commodity spectacle (and demonstrates her amazing superpower – to make any hat, no matter how ridiculous it looks when on display, appear fabulous the moment she puts it on.)
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 1 “Industrial Modernity: the Flaneur and the Tramp in the Early Twentieth Century City.”
Mazlish, Bruce. “The Flâneur: From Spectator to Representation.” The Flâneur. Ed. in Keith Tester. London: Routledge, 1994. 43–60.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 3, “The City of Love: Paris.”
Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan. Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2104. On Cléo, see 77–89.
Scalway, Helen. “The Contemporary Flâneuse.” The Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 164–71.
Weihsmann, Helmut. “Ciné-City Strolls: Imagery, Form, Language and Meaning of the City Film.” Urban Cinematics: Understanding Urban Phenomena Through the Moving Image. Ed. François Penz and Andong Lu. Bristol: Intellect, 2011. 23–41.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Invisible Flâneur.” New Left Review 191 (1992): 90–110.
Wolff, Janet. “The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 1990. 34–50.
–. “Gender and the Haunting of Cities (or, the retirement of the flâneurThe Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Ed. Aruna D’Souza and Tom McDonough. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. 18–31.
James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) are the great modernist novels of walking in the city. Other poetry. fiction and non-fiction about flânerie and about traversing the city by tactical means include Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869), Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (1930–43), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938), Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959), Raymond Queneau’s Zazie in the Metro (1959), Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), Edmund White’s The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris (2001) and Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (2014).
Films about wandering around the city or traversing the city by tactical means include Zazie dans le metro (Malle 1960), Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki 1966), After Hours (Scorsese 1985), London (Keiller 1994), District 13 (Morel 2004), Adrift in Tokyo (Miki 2007), Enter the Void (Noé 2009) and Holy Motors (Carax 2012).
Assuming it is even possible, to what extent and in what ways should adaptations remain faithful to their sources? All manner of possibilities emerge when the adaptation is free of the constraints of respectability, accessibility and banal fidelity that a studio budget tends to entail, and when the source is supposedly ‘unfilmable’, as is the case with Weiss’s independently financed adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel.
Ballard’s and Ballardian prose is recited in voiceover and by carefully positioned actors – affectless mannequins in static tableaux. The camera is locked or tracks slowly. Interspersed is footage of Hiroshima survivors, crash test dummies, nuclear tests, Kennedy’s assassination, plastic surgery, the Challenger disaster, the war in Vietnam, penetration, Marilyn Monroe. A voiceover posits that the film was shot by Dr Travis (Victor Slezak), misappropriating the institution’s equipment and funds, as therapy, but is uncertain for whom.
Often, however, this mixture of stock footage and re-enacted scenes feels more like a high-end BBC documentary profile of Ballard, with the talking heads and explicatory arc excised. Some shots are strikingly composed, particularly when situating humans among architecture, but they lack the clinical precision of Cronenberg’s adaptation of Ballard’s Crash (Canada/UK 1996) and never achieve the gorgeous insanities of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (1995–2002). The static set-ups and slow tracks suggest Tarkovksy, but lack his attention to rhythm, to sculpting in time. While the film is never as torpid as, say, a classical Hollywood adaptation of Hemingway, its languor is strangely at odds both with Ballard’s surrealist prose montage and the media landscape he dissected. Imagine what Godard or Tsukamoto could have done with such material.
Several times Weiss tilts his camera upwards from the ground at his feet to an object further away, opening up a wider perspective. This tension between the detail and the whole pins Weiss and his film in the angle between two depths of field. Take for example the long shot of Karen Novotny (Anna Juvander), being fucked from behind while leaning out of a car window, naked apart from a picture of Ronald Reagan strapped over her face. The camera tracks in slowly, the music on the soundtrack adding a sense of respectfulness rather than juxtaposition. Before we can make out the image over her appropriately bored face, we know it will be of Reagan. All the elements are there, but somehow together they become less than their sum. The sequence only comes alive when old movie footage of Reagan, apparently looking askance at these shenanigans, is briefly inserted. This captures something of Ballard’s impish absurdism but nothing that might shock, however fleetingly, the bourgeoisie.
The Atrocity Exhibition is not so much an adaptation as an ambiguous memorialisation, turning Ballard into a suburb of European art cinema.
A version of this review originally appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television, 1.2 (2008), 359–60.
In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]
This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.
In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).
Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.
‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.
But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:
Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]
Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).
According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic
historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)
Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)
But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.
In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.
Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.
In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.
As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.
At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,
Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.
The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.