The City in Fiction and Film, week five

Ratcatcher_filmWeek four

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

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

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

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

share the same parts of speech

noun, verb and descriptor (adjective or adverb)

and the same rule of combination

subject and predicate

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

RACHE

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

RACHEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we turned to Mary Barton.

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

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

But we have leapt ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week six

The City in Fiction and Film, week three

tumblr_l30hu35gF41qz6k9qo1_1280Week 2

One of the issues in designing a coherent new programme is working out at which level, in which module and when in that module (in relation to the other modules) to deliver certain kinds of material. When we designed the BA Film Studies twelve years ago, we decided to concentrate a lot of the film theory and critical theory in a compulsory level two (i.e., second year) module, whimsically entitled Currents in Film Theory. On the new BA Literature and Film Studies, in which students will encounter literary theory as well as film theory and critical theory, such a module seemed inappropriate, so part of our design process involved deciding what of this kind of material students needed to encounter and how best to divide it up between modules and levels.

All of which is a long way round to saying that today’s class involved an introduction to semiotics, ably supported by the first chapter of Jonathan Bignell’s Media Semiotics: An Introduction, still by far the best book of its kind – and I’m not just saying that because he used to teach me. (There will some structuralism, Marxism and feminism soon.)

By the end of the lecture, we had covered these terms/ideas from Saussure and Peirce:

Semiotics
diachronic vs. synchronic
langue and parole
the sign is arbitrary and conventional
sign = signifier + signified
the referent
syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic
symbol, icon and index
denotation and connotation

There was, as always, much exemplification through the medium of cats. (Back in the day, it was always trees, but over the last couple of decades this arboreal hegemony has fallen to a relentless feline insurgency – probably something to do with the internet and the ‘mind-control’ parasite Toxoplasma gondii.)

We’ll nail down these terms with a test at the start of class next week. A revision aid can be found here.

We looked at three texts this week – John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1940) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927).

The vagaries of timetabling mean that each week the screening comes before the lecture, which is normally not a problem, but the challenge today was to come up with screening questions that are basically asking questions about semiotics without using semiotic terminology. Such as:

What kind of man is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)? How do we know these things about him? How does he differ from Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)?
How do we know Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is gay?
How do we know Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot be trusted? Is he also gay? Is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) his lover?
How many roles does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) play? How does she imply these differences?
How does Brigid differ from Iva Archer (Gladys George)? How do they both differ from Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick)?
How do we tell Lt. Detective Dundy (Barton McLane) and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) apart? In what ways does Polhaus resemble Sam Spade? In what ways does he resemble Dundy?

Although we did not get to work through all these questions in detail, it became very clear very quickly how much information is conveyed by costume and manner. We were obviously in the realm of signs – of signifiers and signifieds, of denotations and connotations.

When Miles walks into the office and finds Spade interviewing Brigid, the contrasts between the two men are clear and shape our understanding of each of them in relation to the other. Spade is in a tailored suit with subtle stripes, buttoned up with a precisely knotted tie; his manner thus far has been similarly professional, slightly patronising. Miles, a taller and slightly gangly figure, wears a baggier suit, unbuttoned, his shirt and tie not as neat; he makes no effort to conceal his sexual interest in Brigid, seating himself on the edge of Spade’s desk. Archer’s desk faces the window, Spade’s the door. He lacks Spade’s composure, his air of competence; Archer’s death, then, comes as little surprise.

Joel Cairo’s card smells of gardenias. He is small and feminised, his costume dapper, his hair neatly oiled curls. He wears gloves to keep his hands soft; he fiddles nervously with his cane, constantly positioning it near his mouth, suggesting some kind of oral fixation. His accent is exotic, as are the overseas places he has visited – and his surname. It is difficult to tell how much of his ‘deviant’ persona from M, which had been a hit in the US, is carried over, but it is clear that The Maltese Falcon – like many American crime films – uses queerness to connote wrongness and villainy. Some of this is evident in the corpulent Gutman, too, with Wilmer just the latest in what appears to be a succession of young men he picks up to work as his henchmen (and catamites?). However, there is an intriguing countercurrent at work. Perhaps it is the appeal of the exotic, perhaps just the brilliant performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, but neither character is particularly loathsome – and both in various ways are quite likeable.

We also noted the importance of transience and anonymity again in the representation of the city: Brigid goes by three names and at least that many personas; no-one knows their neighbours or lives in a discernible community; the closest thing to a friendship we see is between Spade and Effie (boss and employee).

Walter Benjamin says that Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’

is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.

We began with the moment in which the narrator first spots this mysterious man – whose appearance is a parole (speech-act) which the narrator struggles to filter through the available langue (sign system):

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental powers, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of supreme despair.

And then we took a step back to the start of the story, in which the narrator describes looking out at the crowd on a London street, abstracting himself from it, presenting himself as some kind of disembodied neutral observer, who fantasises about his ability to see without being seen. For two pages, he divides the crowd into distinct groups, and distinguishes between them by their costume, demeanour and behaviour, producing a catalogue of types, descending from the respectable professional classes down through clerks and swells, gamblers and pickpockets, prostitutes and drunks. The narrator reads the character of these people from their appearance; and the author persuades us of its accuracy and truthfulness through his careful selection of signs (words) for their denotative and, perhaps more importantly, connotative powers. No wonder, then, that ‘the man of the crowd’ comes as a shock, an epistemological limit that might undermine the certainty with which the narrator has described everyone else.

We also had a think about the following:

How does the story express the anonymity of life in the city?
How does it contrast day/night, different districts, different social or economic classes?
Who is the man the narrator follows?
What does the ending mean?

Virginia Woolf’s essay does some similar things. We thought about the connotations of the place names she includes:

the area between Holborn and the Strand
Oxford Street
Mayfair
Brixton
Waterloo Bridge
Barnes
Surbiton

Some of them retain similar connotations; others, such as ‘Brixton’, which then evoked a middle class suburb with green spaces, connotes something very different now. (Next semester we will look at some Windrush era and post-Windrush representations of London.)

Woolf begins by talking about the very personal connotations of items in one’s own room, where

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

But there is an important slippage between this investment of personal meanings in a bowl or a stain on the carpet, and the connotations for readers. For the narrator, the bowl recalls the holiday in Mantua where is was purchased. For the reader, the buyer’s fond memory of the woman who sold it reeks of English class condescension, and the bowl connotes wealth, because who but the well-off could afford to spend a summer in Italy?

There is a curious passage also when the narrator visits a shoe store. A female dwarf, accompanied by two regular-sized women, reveals her perfect, full-sized, ‘arched and aristocratic’ foot. Its revelation alters her demeanour, and thus that of the people in the store. At the same time, the narrator is infected by the fantastical imagery of dwarves and giants (the regular-sized companions), and this spills over into her phantasmagorical description of the often-foreign working class denizens of the area around Seven Dials and Covent Garden. It is as if she cannot bring herself to directly describe this area and the people there. And, like Poe’s narrator, Woolf’s narrator is suddenly shocked by the appearance of a stereotypical Jew, with all the long and terrible anti-semitic baggage that evokes.

Woolf also fantasises about seeing without being seen – she describes herself as stripping away the shell of her home and becoming like the pearl in the oyster, which promptly transmutes into a giant eye, capable of observing the surfaces of things, the plane of signification. As a consequence of which, I now imagine Virginia Woolf looks like this:

Untitled-1

 

I also had the opening of chapter 25, ‘A Tie With a Windsor Knot’, from Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) to hand, but time as always was our enemy – will probably kick off next week’s class with it. (My colleague teaching the Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption module will be doing some work on James Bond in the coming weeks, so it will make a nice crossover; she has been working on Sherlock Holmes this week, so I will be building on that next week.)

Recommended critical reading
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See chapter 3, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax.”
Stam, Robert, ed. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part II, “Cine-Semiology,” on how semiotics was developed in relation to film.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 3, “Film Languages.”

Recommended reading
The opening and closing pages of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) capture the bustle and variety of a modern city street.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) repeatedly leaps from the mind of one character to another as they walk across London.
John Huston’s film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Recommended viewing
Women take on the role of detectives and attempt to make sense of the city, solve crimes or discover their own identities in Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman 1985) and In the Cut (Campion 2003).

Week four

 

 

Eden Log (Franck Vestiel France 2007)

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

edenlogEden Log begins in darkness.

Water drips into water.

Ragged breaths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

plots a point, fixes an order (7)

even as the rhizome that this tree places under erasure

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

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

make live and let die. (241)

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

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

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

And to this sovereign power Eden Log counterposes zoē, the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Unknown: ‘The Fox and the Forest’ BBC2 22 November 1965

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Ray Bradbury

This is the first episode not to have survived (apart from its credits sequence). It is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, originally published in Collier’s as ‘To the Future’ but collected in The Illustrated Man (1951) as ‘The Fox and the Forest’.

By 1965, Bradbury was already probably the sf writer most adapted for television, and he had begun to branch out into film and television writing: he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick OOTU Fox LISTING(Huston 1956) and, uncredited, the narration for King of Kings (Ray 1961); and for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) he adapted stories by himself and others and wrote an original script, too. This familiarity with the industry might explain why, in addition to the $1000 he was paid for rights to the story, his contract stipulated he would be paid the same every time it was repeated (typically, authors received only 50% for reruns). It might also explain why it was never repeated and thus, maybe, how it did not survive.

It was directed by Robin Midgley, primarily a stage director, although he had already notched up a number of television credits, including several episodes of Z Cars.

Irene Shubik initially commissioned a 75-minute adaptation for Story Parade, but struggled to find the right writer. It was offered to Ken Taylor, and then to Ilona Ference, who turned in an unusable script that had failed to take account of the economics and logistics of shooting a television drama. Next, Terry Nation produced a script that Shubik found vulgar. It was offered to Michael Simpson to revise, but he turned it down. Finally, Meade Roberts, who scripted the previous week’s ‘Sucker Bait’, shortened the teleplay to Out of the Unknown’s 60-minute run time and rewrote Nation’s dialogue.

Bradbury’s name was undoubtedly a draw, and Shubik even at one point considered ‘The Fox and the Forest’ as a potential season opener, but it is difficult to work out why she thought there was an hour of television drama in Bradbury’s story (let alone 75 minutes).

130438The story opens in Mexico in 1938. A tourist couple, William and Susan Travis, seem a little disoriented by it all. Which is not surprising because, it is quickly revealed, they are actually Ann and Roger Kristen, on the lam from an unbearable future. They were born in the middle of the 22nd century,

in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and the sea into radioactive flame and madness. (189)

A time-travel technology has been developed that allows inhabitants of this dismal world of the permanent warfare state to take holidays in the past. Ann and Roger, determined not to return, have gone into hiding. But a Searcher is on their trail. They evade him, and walk right into the rather obvious twist/trap laid for them.

43437By the standards of almost any other sf writer of the period, it is pretty slim. The opening is quite atmospheric, if in that rather vague way Bradbury has; the future world from which the protagonists are fleeing is every bit as vague, just a concatenation of phrases from Bradbury’s usual shorthand dystopianism (nuclear threat, totalitarianism, book-burning); the cat-and-mouse thriller element is not particularly suspenseful, and the action scenes no less perfunctory.  Apparently, the episode follows the story rather closely, but extends it by adding on an opening section in which the protagonists kill the first Searcher sent to track them down. According to the Guardian, the opening quarter of an hour was difficult to follow, while Television Today suggested it was ‘one of the most convincing produced plays in the series’ (Ward 110).

A pre-Alf Garnett Warren Mitchell is in it.

Previous episode, ‘Sucker Bait
Next episode, ‘Andover and the Android

Sources
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Fox and the Forest’, The Illustrated Man (London: Harper Voyager) 184-208.
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)