The City in Fiction and Film, week 16: JG Ballard’s High-Rise, chapters 1-9

70256Week 15

This week we began to work on JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975; all quotations from pictured edition, London: HarperCollins, 2006), reading the first nine chapters and also watching William Klein’s Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (1977).

We began with some context, outlining the scale and nature of house-building and redevelopment in the UK in the postwar years, drawing largely on John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2013) and Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2008).

There was already a housing shortage in the UK between World Wars. The promise to ensure that soldiers returned from  WWI to a land fit for heroes (and thus stave off socialism) was never met – construction rates were too low and often the wrong kind of housing was being built in pursuit of the rather different goal of making private profit (Paul Rotha’s documentary Land of Promise (1946) is the classic film account of this issue and its history). During the war years of 1939-45 the UK population grew by one million per year – and during the same period four million homes were destroyed or damaged beyond repair by bombing (completely undoing the interwar construction efforts and significantly reducing housing stock in relation to total population).

Aneurin Bevan, the minister responsible for housing in the post-WWII Labour government, set a target of 300,000 new council houses per year – but rarely managed more than 200,000 – because the houses were to be spacious (90 square metres), brick-built with gardens. For him, such decent houses were not to be restricted to the privately-owning middle classes – they should be available to the working class, rented at lower than market rates from local councils. (One policy proposal considered but sadly never pursued was buying out all private landlords, thus monopolising the rental market and keeping down the cost of housing.)

When a succession of Conservative governments took office (from late 1951-64), they took up the challenge of 300,000 new houses per year – and succeeded in meeting the target. But they did so by reducing the size of the houses (70 square metres) and shifting from brick construction to speedier (but less durable) prefabricated structures, with no guarantee of gardens. And there was a shift to building blocks of flats rather than houses because they were cheaper and quicker to throw up from prefabricated materials. Ironically, because these blocks were typically set in parkland of some sort, the same number of people could have been housed in the same space with terraced housing.

In High-Rise, Ballard is fully aware of the economics determining such constructions:

All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants. (52)

Why were the blocks typically surrounded by parkland? Partly, it seems to be the influence of Le Corbusier, whose unrealised ville contemporaine (1922) plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work did so. Ballard does not pursue the scale of this scheme – Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) comes closer – but he does draw on Le Corbusier in other ways.

Le Corbusier advocated five principles when designing apartment blocks:

1 Lift the structure off the ground on reinforced concrete stilts (pilotis), enabling
2 a free façade (non-supporting exterior walls to allow the architecture freedom in his design) and
3 an open floor plan (interior could be configured without having to worry about supporting walls).
4 The free façade enables ribbon windows so as to provide clear views of surrounding gardens.
5 A roof garden compensates for the ground area covered by the building.

These principles are evident in his Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, often described as resembling a moored ocean liner, contains 337 apartments, with a floor halfway up the block devoted to public amenities, and a roof garden. It is also raised up on pilotis. It became a location of pilgrimage and an object to copy for a generation or two of architects, including many of those planning housing developments for British councils. It also provides the design for Ballard’s own high-rise (it even stands on pilotis, ‘concrete legs’ (19)), one of five spaced equidistantly on the eastern edge of an under-construction square mile development in London’s docklands (in this, the novel is proleptic of material we studied way back in week one of the module, The Long Good Friday and London’s Overthrow – as well as of what has actually happened to such spaces since Ballard wrote the novel).

The other context I introduced was about Ballard himself: his centrality to New Wave sf of the 1960s and 1970s; his early novels refiguring the conventions of disaster fiction, such The Drowned World (1962), which also introduce surrealistic images into narratives indebted to writer like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene; the thematic trilogy, including Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974), which concludes with High-Rise; the autobiographical fictions and the more mainstream respectability that came with Empire of the Sun (1984); and the return of his late novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), to transformations in bourgeois living environments.

Turning to the novel, we began by thinking about the names and characteristics of the three narrators, each of whom is associated with one of the three classes that emerge among the middle class residents of the building.

From the lower levels, Richard Wilder – physical, aspirational – he is the wildest and most overtly violent of the three and a frequent adulterer whose wife calls him Dick.

From the mid-levels, Robert Laing, whose name echoes that of the unorthodox psychiatrist RD Laing (1927-89), who saw mental illness as a product of social environments rather than as some kind of inward-driven deformation of the self, and who considered patients’ descriptions of their responses to their environments as valid in themselves rather than as symptoms of Freudian disorder. Opposed to use of antipsychotics to treat mental illness, he favoured recreational drug use and believed that mental illness could be a kind of transformative, shamanic experience. He also promoted primal scream therapy – most of the inhabitants of Ballard’s building seem to go through some version of it – and rebirthing therapy – foreshadowed for Robert Laing when he is surrounded by the threatening guests at the cocktail party to which he is not invited, with the whole novel constituting a kind of rebirthing for him.

From the very top floor, the architect of the building, Anthony Royal – a royal, the king of the place. Recently injured in a car accident, he suffers from a disability – and wears a distinctive costume – that makes him come across, one of the class suggested, like a Bond villain. Which enabled me to go, ah, funny you should say that…

I have long wondered whether having the architect of the building live in the penthouse was inspired by the fact that Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger lived for two months in an apartment on the top floor of Poplar’s 26-storey Balfron Tower (built 1965-67), which he had designed. He and his wife are said to have thrown cocktail parties to meet the other residents and learn their thoughts about his design so that he could incorporate criticisms and suggestions in his later building, such as the neighbouring 11-storey Carradale House (built 1967-70). Back in the 1930s, Goldfinger had been responsible for the demolition of some cottages in Hampstead to make way for three new houses, in one of which he would live. Ian Fleming was among those protesting the demolition. Twenty years later, Fleming would name a James Bond novel – and villain – after the architect. Ernő Goldfinger threatened to sue over Auric Goldfinger, to which Fleming reputedly responded, Okay, I’ll just rename him Goldprick. Ernő decided not to pursue the case.

Next we took a look at the opening paragraph, detailing how the design of Ballard’s building displays the influence of Le Corbusier and, in particular, Unité d’Habitation, and then looking at how it introduces patterns of imagery that will recur throughout the novel.

  • a post-apocalyptic sensibility that also suggests a descent into primitivism – Laing is calmly eating a dog (cf. Harlan Ellison’s New Wave story ‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1969) and LQ Jones’s 1975 film adaptation), and the building’s exterior is described as a cliff-face (cf. Henry Blake Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), possibly the first novel about skyscraper living, complete with domestic violence and an Oedipal struggle)
  • conflict – confrontation, violence and war imagery (there are skirmish grounds, raiding parties, provocations, retaliations, a buffer state, an interregnum, etc, but also some specifically WWII images – Royal’s ‘personal Dunkirk’ (69) and also, more ambiguously, the Blitz: a voice ‘calm and matter-of-fact, like that of a civilian in a war-torn city dealing with yet another air-raid’ (60) and, during the first blackout, the darkness providing conditions not just of sexual peril but also of consensual sexual adventuring (20))
  • the embrace of isolation, anonymity and alienation
  • apartments as prison cells (later, there will be news of a prison breakout (30), Wilder will be involved in filming a prison strike (42, 44), and his wife, Helen, will blandly observe that his desire to film in the apartment block will produce just ‘another prison documentary’ (45)) – this introduces the idea of the apartment block as what Erving Goffman called a total institution, like prisons and asylums (two of the psychosociologsist in Le couple témoin previously worked in an asylum) and even ocean liners (to which Unité d’Habitation has often been compared)

We then looked at the next section of the opening chapter (7-11), in which we learned more about the structure of the building and the docklands development of which it is a part, and the feelings it induces as a tripartite class structure begins to emerge among its bourgeois inhabitants. Highlights include:

  • indifference, giddiness, exhilaration, insomnia and, especially among female residents, boredom and nomadism; these troubling sensations will later develop into rifts that some think foreshadow or imply the mutation of the residents into a posthuman species (35–6; a similar idea is mooted in Silverberg’s The World Inside)
  • Steele’s anal obsession with garbage chutes
  • bigotry – people begin to talk dismissively and angrily about other floors as groups to be denigrated, abhorred (14, 24, 38) – Steele will compare ninth floor residents to ‘a traditionally feckless band of migrant workers’ (25), and the intensity of these emerging prejudices will be compared directly to ‘racial prejudice’ (32)
  • the relationship to London – which is somehow distanced in both space and time, a past of ‘crowded streets, traffic hold-ups, rush-hour journeys on the Underground’ (9), while the building belongs to an emerging future; in Ballard’s descriptions, time is transformed into space and vice versa
  • a grand Ballardian simile connecting the psychological to the urban, with a vague gesture to TS Eliot (he does this sort of thing a lot – never quite makes sense yet seems to imply immensities): ‘the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis’ (9)
  • the contradictions of the building – Laing’s sister says: ‘You could be alone here, in an empty building … Besides, it’s full of the kind of people you ought to meet’ (10); Laing will soon appreciate the way the place enables both proximity and distance, providing a neutral background for his potential affair with Charlotte, although he immediately questions whether this is really the case (16) – this idea is developed further when they do first have sex (38)
  • the ways in which the building design encourages its inhabitants to turn inwards, away from the city but also from each other

The_Model_Couple-652984484-largeWe closed with a brief discussion of Le couple témoin, William Klein’s film about an average couple who win a competition to live as test subjects in a new urban development – the experiment is ostensibly concerned with designing apartments to ensure that they meet the needs of such a couple, but it clearly is more concerned with engineering their consent and subservience. The psychosociologist experimenters – themselves hardly rational – subject Jean-Michel and Claudine to an array of absurd tests, frequently bullying and brow-beating them, passive-aggressively consulting at them, reinforcing the most conservative of gender roles. The tests become increasingly irrational and arbitrary – authority being exercised because it is authority, not for any greater end. As funding for the experiment withers, and viewing figures for the Big Brother-like media coverage slump, so a group of child and teen revolutionaries are hired to stage a hostage-taking…

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.

Recommended reading
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).

Recommended viewing
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).

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

Alpha_1024x1024.jpgWeek 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 16

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

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

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

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

The City in Fiction and Film, week 11: the city and modernity – ruins and rebuilding

the-bicycle-thief-movie-poster-1949-1020503611

week 10

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 RomaCittà 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 280px-Romaore11_fotoscenalooks) 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.

Recommended reading
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).

Recommended viewing
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.

The City in Fiction and Film, week 9: The Secret Agent, part one

41Pi137AB+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_week 8

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.

week 10

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.

Recommended reading
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).

Recommended viewing
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).

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley UK 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is completely the wrong choice.

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

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

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

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

The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Weiss US 2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Unknown: ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, BBC2 13 December 1965

JG Ballard
JG Ballard

Scriptwriter Stanley Miller and director Peter Potter, responsible for series opener ‘No Place Like Earth’, return with Ballard rather than Bradbury for an episode that is just as talky but overall rather more effective. This is in large part down to casting of British film and television stalwart – and one-time Moonbase commander (see Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks Moonbase 3 (1973)) – Donald Houston in the lead role of Francis. Always more likely to be a sidekick  than a leading man, he is reliably reliable, a curious mix of stolidity, occasional passion and uncertain humour.

13 OOTU ArticleBallard’s story, originally published in Amazing Science Fiction (April 1962), is set up as one of those generation starship stories in which people do not realise they are on a generation starship until they and you discover that they are – like Robert Heinlein’s 1941 ‘Universe’ and Brian Aldiss’s 1958 Non-Stop (unless you had the misfortune to buy it under the US title, Starship, which kind of gave the game away) and Syfy’s plodding Ascension (2014). There is also more than a hint of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 robot story ‘Reason’ – adapted in the second season as ‘The Prophet’ – to it.

tve91644-19651213-1718Abel, who is young and problematically smart, begins to work out what is going on, so Francis, the ship’s doctor tells him all about their mission to Alpha Centauri, commenced before Abel was born and not to be completed within his lifetime. Ballard’s extra twist, of course, is that Francis is lying – the mission is a simulation. The fake starship is housed in a dome on Earth, and its crew are under constant surveillance in order to see how an actual crew would fare during a real mission. It has been running for half a century, and following the failure of moon and Mars colonies, interest has waned and budgets are being cut. Under this increased pressure, Francis – who is secretly able to enter and exit the ship – elects to join the crew permanently so as to help them survive whatever method is found to curtail the ‘mission’. Like Kerans in The Drowned World, Ballard’s novel from the same year, Francis heads further in, embracing the catastrophe rather than fleeing from it. (Ballard’s solar imagery also plays a role in the story.)

Two further Ballardian twists occur.

05-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, Abel decides he wants to build an isolation experiment inside the starship, itself an isolation experiment – the kind of nesting of simulations within simulations found in some of Frederik Pohl’s short stories and in Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) before becoming a mainstay of unsurprisingly unsurprising surprise VR stories. (One of the nice, if unintentional, things in the episode is that when Francis exits the starship and descends into the dome housing it, the landscape depicted on the studio wall in the background is obviously fake, giving an uncanny frisson to it all by suggesting that the primary narrative diegesis is also a simulation. Who knows? This might even explain why the monitors’ uniforms are way more space opera-ish than those of the starship crew. (Except it doesn’t.))

Second, it becomes clear that, at some unspecified point in the story, Abel has discovered and embraced the true truth of his situation but also that he is not the first on the starship to have done so. These are precisely the kind of thing one now expects from a Ballard story that must have been stunning at the time – they certainly wobbled my world a little when as a teenager I first read the story.

thirteen_leadThe story also always reminds me of The Prisoner (1967–68), the quintessential British sf tale of simulacral societies, isolation experiments, conditioning, paranoia and indeterminate realities. Ballard’s story is likewise an ambivalent tale of countercultural youth rebellion that doesn’t really like youth or the counterculture or rebellion, that is rather priggish and authoritarian, and that features a protagonist (or two) with whom it is impossible to empathise, difficult even to sympathise, but whose travails you nonetheless follow with interest.

The episode makes two significant alterations.

04-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, with its opening scene of Captain Peters’ funeral it introduces a religious undercurrent into proceedings, from the crew’s dubbed singing of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to a religious monomania that possesses Abel – or at least becomes part of the rhetoric he introduces into the experiments in conditioning he performs on Francis.

Second, while Ballard’s story concludes on an ambiguous note, with Francis discovering that Abel and probably Captain Peters knew that the starship was a fake, the adaptation ends with the suggestion that Abel, who, like Satan, would rather reign in hell, has completely broken Francis, who now believes he really is part of a mission to Alpha Centauri.

The adaptation, however, is no more capable than Ballard of clarifying exactly who are the thirteen of the title.

In Ballard’s story, at one point a slip of Francis’s tongue reveals that he considers himself one of the 14 en route to Alpha Centauri – although there only 13 people in the crew, plus himself as an observer who knows the truth. After Peters’ death, there are 12 plus one, or possibly 11 plus two, which is how things stand at the end of the story (although the revelation that Peters’ had also known what was going on demands a further recount). In the adaptation, the early disposal of Peters forces Miller’s script to change these numbers. Francis implies he counts himself among the 13, although there are only 12 left plus himself as an observer. At the end of the episode, Abel knows they are going nowhere but Francis seems to have been conditioned into believing they are en route to Alpha Centaurus. So there remain 12 believers and one observer. But in Francis’s closing exchange with Abel, there is talk of Abel controlling the 13 people on the ship – but for that to add up, Abel must be one of the 13 Abel is controlling.

Though to be honest, having just worked all that out, I am not entirely sure I care.

 

The Mad Maxathon, part one: Mad Max (1979) mostly

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Part two, part three, part four

Waking up in post-apocalyptic Britain last Friday, and with only a week to go until Mad Max: Fury Road, it was time to get back up to speed. Thus did the Mad Maxathon commence!

Back in my Plymouth teens, one of the local free papers had a competition to win cinema tickets and related goodies. Most weeks I entered and – not having enough pocket money or, later, paper-round wages to waste on a postage stamp – would deliver it in person (in a reused envelope) to their offices. The only things I ever won were a pair of tickets for a double bill of Ghoulies and Trancers (I suspect no one else entered that competition) and, a year later, a pair of tickets for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film my girlfriend did not want to see, especially after the preceding year’s fiasco. Oh, and along with the tickets came a Thunderdome t-shirt, which I had to collect in person and, being poor, could not just throw away despite the embarrassment of advertising a film I hated. It became a winter garment, always worn under something else, until eventually it faded and fell apart. This may well be the origin of my dislike for clothing with writing on it. And of white t-shirts.

I forget when or where I first saw the previous movies – presumably on video at a friend’s house. So something good did come of those free tickets. They enabled me to reassess my opinion that Mad Max, despite holding the world record cost-to-profit ratio for twenty years, was the weakest film in the series. (The Road Warrior was always, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘punk’s Sistine Chapel’.) While I have watched the first two multiple times over the years, I have only seen Thunderdome twice – and not since it was first broadcast on television. So how do they hold up?

MAD MAX -1979...BKBKRH MAD MAX -1979

Mad Max starts off as a properly sleazy ozploitation flick: a tubby copper in leather spies through rifle sights on a couple having sex in a field; an insane car chase ensues. There will be more bare bums in the franchise (and car chases).

Mad Max was one of the first Australian films to be shot using widescreen anamorphic lenses but George Miller’s real innovation was to mount the cameras on speeding cars and motorbikes so very close to the ground. It does not sound like a lot, but it was, and remains, breathtakingly perilous to watch.

mm4Accounts of the film often take note of Miller’s work as an emergency room doctor, and of several incidents during the OPEC crisis when – in full Ballardian mode – regular folks queuing for fuel violently turned on each other. Clearly some kind of autogeddon was in the ozploitation air (see also: Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), one of the earlier Australian films to use widescreen anamorphic lenses, whose spikey Volkswagen is homaged in Fury Road; Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction (1980), which stars Mad Max‘s Steve Bisley,  Hugh Keays-Byrne and, as an uncredited bearded mechanic, Mel Gibson; Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (1986), based on Peter Carey’s story;  and, in a slightly different vein, Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981)).

I was not surprised to hear that for Fury Road, George Miller presented Tom Hardy with a 300-page ‘comic’ made up of storyboards, rather than a conventional screenplay because Mad Max – with its generic mix of AIP biker movie, backwoods Straw Dogs/Deliverance rape-revenge narrative, lone gunfighter/sheriff/samurai seeking revenge/justice, rogue cop brought out of retirement one last time and this time its personal – comes across increasingly like a 2000AD strip. This connection with the other Sistine chapel of punk comes full circle, first in Neil Marshall’s underrated Doomsday (2008), which riffs off The Road Warrior but also in its final shots gives Rhona Mitra a Carlos Ezquerra/Mike McMahon big boots look, and then in Fury Road, co-written by Brendan McCarthy, who started working on 2000AD in the late 70s and then, inspired by Road Warrior, co-created the post-apocalyptic surfer comic Freakwave (1983). Some consider Freakwave to have been plagiarised by Waterworld (1995), which was dubbed ‘Road Warrior on water’ back in the day. ‘All at sea’, more like.

Mad Max’s melodramatic transitions in particular have something comic-book about them – foreshadowing Sam Raimi’s more obviously comics-inspired Darkman (1990) – and, to be honest, much of the dialogue would probably work better as speech bubbles. The stand-out dialogue scene is the one in which Mel Gibson, with his oddly immobile face, emotes, trying to say something incomprehensible to his wife about his feelings for her in terms of feelings he had for his dad but never expressed. Or something like that. Wisely, to shut him up, she kisses him. And considering how unwise kissing Mel Gibson actually is, we should thank her. She may be overly taken with the idea that running right down the middle of the road is the best way to flee murderous bikers, but right then, at that snoggy moment, she takes one for the team.

mad-max-wifeMad Max is only Gibson’s second film and, although he has yet to become completely insufferable, the construction of his image of physically battered masculinity – the shirtlessly electrocuted resistant-to-electrocution Martin Riggs getting his ass handed to him by the mighty Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon (1987), the shot-to-pieces Martin Riggs annoyingly not dying in Danny Glover’s arms in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), the hammer-to-the-toes justifiably tortured hardly-Lee-Marvin of Payback (1999), culminating in all those unpleasant things people do to Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004) – is already gearing up as he (somewhat ineptly) wreaks his revenge.

Given Gibson’s occasional homophobic outbursts, I vividly recall being delighted to discover that, at least in the olden days, he used to have a big enough gay following to provide one of the case studies for Michael DeAngelis’s Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom: James Dean, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves (2001). I am however quite mystified as to the source of this, or indeed any hetero, attraction. Sure, in Mad Max, he is young and pretty and wears tight black leather and does not yet have a mullet. Is it that? Or is it his later tendency to be as shirtless as Matthew McConaughey while wrestling in the rain with Gary Busey or otherwise taking physical punishment? A suffering that in some ways maps onto his Judy Garland-like life of dislocation and addiction and abuse (although admittedly he is the abuser, not the abused)? Please tell me it is not the mullet.

Oh, and Main Force Patrol? Come on, people, that is not what MFP stands for.

Solving Jeremy Clarkson

jeremy-clarkson-cartoonApparently Danny Cohen, the BBC Director of Television, is struggling to work out the fate of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. He has already described those defending Clarkson as being like those who covered up Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic predations. The Mail, in its typically confused manner, has implied today that Cohen accused Clarkson of paedophilia.

Obviously, this cannot go on.

It is tedious beyond belief, and Clarkson should have been sacked years ago.

But Top Gear is ‘the most-watched “factual” programme in the world’, and a huge money-spinner. No wonder Cohen knows what to do but cannot manage to do it.

It seems to me the answer is clear.

The BBC should take Clarkson back, but return Top Gear to the format originally proposed by JG Ballard.crashbangwallop

Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.