The Hands of Orlac, and its adaptations

[This is one of several pieces written for a book on adaptations that has never appeared]

Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac/The Hands of Orlac (1920), adapted as Orlacs Hände (Robert Wiene 1924), Mad Love (Karl Freund 1935) and The Hands of Orlac aka Hands of the Strangler (Edmond T. Gréville 1960)

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 A mad scientist replaces the badly injured hands of a concert pianist with those of a recently executed murderer, but the hands possess the pianist, turning him into a killer. As this typical, but inaccurate, synopsis suggests, The Hands of Orlac is one of those stories that everyone thinks they know but few actually do. This is not inappropriate, since Renard’s novel, and to a lesser extent its adaptations, are structured around the (mis)interpretation of events and the actions that flow from partial or mistaken knowledge.

474882320_8351e7b55cThe novel is the most difficult of the variants to synopsise. This is not because it is necessarily more intricate and nuanced than any of the adaptations – which would be hard to judge anyway. Maurice Renard is an infrequently and poorly translated author,[1] and neither of the translations of Les Mains d’Orlac (Florence Crewe-Jones (1929), Iain White (1981)) have a particularly good reputation. Orlacs Hände exists only in a truncated version, about 150 metres (two minutes) having been lost. After Mad Love’s initial release, MGM cut fifteen minutes of footage, including Isabel Jewell’s entire performance, which seems to have been lost. According to most sources, The Hands of Orlac, was released in France with a runtime of 104 minutes and in the UK of 95 minutes; there is also a US cut of 84 minutes, from which Donald Pleasance’s single scene as a sculptor is absent, although his name appears in the credits, and in which the admittedly brief performance of Sir Donald Wolfit as Orlac’s surgeon is reduced to a single line of dialogue. (I will discuss the English cut, but make some reference to a slightly longer French-language version which appears on the Spanish DVD and whose existence casts some doubt on whether there was ever a version as long as 104 minutes).

The difficulty of synopsising the novel arises from the nature of its composition and initial publication as a feuilleton in 58 daily instalments in the mass-circulation Parisian evening newspaper, L’Intransigeant (May 15–July 12, 1920). It was not uncommon for feuilletonists to write at great speed, and for instalments to appear within days or even hours. This often produced an improvisational style of fiction into which characters, events and ideas were mixed without the consequences necessarily being fully worked out, generating contradictions to be reconciled and loose ends to be tied up (or not). The Surrealists considered such frequently dreamlike fiction as a kind of automatic writing, especially when it was bizarre, fantastic or mysterious, or evoked Freudian themes (although there seems to be no connection between Mad Love and André Breton’s L’Amour fou (1937)).

Renard is little known to Anglophone readers, but ‘most European and French-Canadian sf scholars hold’ his work ‘in very high esteem’, and he has been described as the most important French sf writer of the first third of the twentieth century (Evans 380). Despite its pulpiness, Les Mains d’Orlac – with its play on perception and perspective, its self-reflexiveness about mass media and its shock-of-modernity concern with industrial catastrophe, dismemberment, somnambulism, automatism and the externalisation of the self through such semiotic technologies as handwriting, fingerprinting, typewriters and gramophones – should be considered alongside works by Daniel Paul Schreber, Winsor McCay, Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz in terms of its ability to capture something of the phantasmagorical nature of life in capitalist-industrial modernity. Indeed, it is unsurprising to find Friedrich A. Kittler fascinated by Renard’s ‘Death and the Shell’ (1907), which he describes as a ‘constellation’ of ‘phonography, notation, and a new eroticism’ (51) and as the first in ‘a long series of literary phantasms that rewrite eroticism itself under the conditions of gramophony and telephony’ (56).

Les Mains d’Orlac opens with a preamble in which the narrator excuses the novel’s artless construction, although the limited perspective – it is mostly told from Madame Rosine Orlac’s viewpoint and in strict chronological order – is absolutely essential to the effectiveness with which the reader is placed in a position of uncertainty about the nature of the events described. Are they supernatural or the product of sinister human agents? Is Rosine hallucinating, her reason becoming unhinged?

Awaiting her husband’s return from a concert in Nice, Rosine is filled with foreboding. His train crashes, killing many. Rosine finally finds him, buried beneath a corpse in the wreckage, with a fractured skull and other injuries. She races him back to Paris so that he can be treated by the famous Doctor Cerral. Athough she is warned that there is something unsavoury about Cerral, he appears to her as a kind of superhuman figure, saving Stephen’s life and apparently restoring his mangled hands. However, as Stephen convalesces, Rosine grows increasingly troubled. Since the night of the crash she has been haunted by a phantasm, whom she dubs Spectropheles. Anxious about Stephen’s restless sleep, she enters his room and sees one of his nightmares externalised, a montage of images floating in the air: Stephen’s hands are poised over a piano from which he draws a knife with an X carved in its handle; blood drips from the blade; the blade becomes that of a guillotine hanging over his head…

Stephen became a pianist against his father’s wishes. Subsequently, Edouard Orlac has refused to have anything to do with him and has fallen increasingly under the sway of his servants, Crépin and Hermance. His obsession with spiritualism is shared with Monsieur de Crochans, an impoverished artist who once had the potential to become a successful portraitist but instead turned to decadence, impressionism, and now ‘“psychic painting’ … ‘“portraits of souls” and “mental landscapes”’ (Renard 1981, 44). de Crochans, who has slowly been effecting a reconciliation between father and son, becomes Rosine’s confidant, explaining away the externalised nightmare as ‘Ideoplasty! … a fragmentary apparition of his astral body, that phantasm of the living’ (74).

13265_1_largeWhen Stephen is finally well enough to be brought home, they arrive to find an X-handled knife stuck in their apartment door (Rosine also sees Spectropheles). Already distraught, Stephen becomes increasingly depressed at his inability to play the piano. Cerral recommends courses of ‘massage, gymnastics, electrotherapy’ (90), as much for their psychological effect as for any likely success in making Stephen’s hands sufficiently flexible and dextrous to return to his career. Stephen adopts such treatments with a mania, and Rosine keeps to herself how deeply he is digging into their limited finances. It soon reaches the point when she must sell her jewels, but when she opens her locked jewel-box, they are missing, replaced by the calling card of La Bande Infra-Rouge. Is there a connection with Spectropheles? Does the X on the knife handles signal X-Rays? Is the Infra-red gang somehow using an invisible part of the spectrum to move through solids and get past locks? Rosine doubts her fevered hypotheses, but becomes increasingly anxious about their share certificates, whose value is plummeting due to a market slump. One night she intrudes upon a burglar (who cannot possibly be in their apartment), only to find that certificates safe and the jewels returned.

Rosine discovers that Stephen has found more X-handled knives (which, when distressed, he throws into his studio door) and been receiving notes from La Bande Infra-Rouge, telling him that ‘The TEN … require blood’ (164). Does the X stand for ten? Are there ten members of the gang? Rosine conspires with de Crochans to speed Stephen and Edouard’s reconciliation by getting him to take an interest in spiritualism, and de Crochans decides to try to work a kind of psychoanalytical cure, using the tricks of fake mediums to dig into Stephen’s subconscious mind. On the eve of what he feels will be his certain success, de Crochans is murdered, apparently strangled by a life-size artist’s dummy into which he and Stephen had been summoning the spirits of murderers. The crime-reporter, Gaston Breteuil, who ostensibly narrates the novel, becomes Rosine’s new confidant.

mad_loveFinancial ruin looms. Stephen goes to beg for Edouard’s help, only to find him murdered with an X-handled knife. Inspector Cointre recognises the X-shaped wounds, made by plunging the knife in twice, as the work of Vasseur, a recently guillotined multiple murderer whose fingerprints are on the knife. Apparently, when Vasseur had been summoned during a séance, his luminous, knife-wielding hand killed Edouard, but Cointre suspects the fingerprints were planted there from a moulding on a rubber glove. Mysteriously, the calling card of La Bande Infra-Rouge is found in Edouard’s strongbox.

A stranger accosts Stephen, describing how Cerral had obtained the body of Vasseur fresh from the guillotine and transplanted his hands onto Stephen (who has known this for some time). The stranger describes how he has been manipulating Stephen: the externalised nightmare was a cinematographic projection; the Orlacs’ maid, Régina, has been planting the knives and messages, as well as using Stephen’s typewriter to produce notes that will incriminate him in his father’s murder. The stranger wants a million francs from Stephen’s inheritance to not reveal his ‘guilt’ – and as a payment for his hands. He claims to be Vasseur, his head reattached by Cerral’s assistant and his hands replaced with the crude metal prosthetics that crushed the life from de Crochans. Stephen agrees to pay up in exchange for the gloves with Vasseur’s moulded fingerprints.

b70-11028Stephen tells Rosine everything, and between them they manage to explain away all the mysterious goings on – for example, Stephen took the jewels so that he could secretly get his rings enlarged to fit his new hands – except for the appearances of Spectropheles (who she finally decides is an intermittently appearing form of scotomy, the image left on the retina after staring at a bright object). Rosine insists that they inform the police so that Vasseur can be recaptured, but when he is, he is revealed to be the criminal Eusebio Nera. Cointre realises that the rubber glove is at least two years old, which means that Vasseur was executed for murders he did not commit and that Stephen’s ‘hands are undefiled’ (301).

Even such a lengthy synopsis omits much of the concatenated material that gives the novel its distinctive texture – as do the adaptations. Orlacs Hände shifts the narrative focus away from Yvonne (as Rosine is renamed) and onto Paul (as Stephen is renamed). However, it does not do so until after she has recovered his mangled body from the train wreck. Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes the train crash as the exemplary experience of an industrial modernity that frequently renders the human body vulnerable by placing it in an environment of mass and speed. David J. Skal argues that the obsession with mutilation and amputation in horror movies of the 1920s and 1930s articulates the increased incidence, presence and visibility of such damaged bodies after World War One. The extraordinary first section of Renard’s novel – with its emphasis on speed, collision, dismemberment, agglomeration, confusion, the desubjectivation of corpses, the intermingling of the living and the dead – conjoins the battlefield with the everyday experience of modernity. Although Wiene’s film simplifies the action, it achieves a similar effect: Yvonne’s car races through a pitch-black night, its headlights making little impression on the darkness pooled around it, while the flaring of other lights add to the apocalyptic depiction of the wreckage, obscured by night, clouds of steam and milling crowds, which culminates in a diegetic spotlight that scans back and forth across the devastation becoming eye-like when pointing directly at the camera.

The shift of focus onto Paul transforms the film into a star vehicle for Conrad Veidt (Wiene had already directed him in two remarkable performances as a gaunt Indian priest and the somnambulist Cesare in, respectively, the little-remembered Furcht (1917) and the Expressionist masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)). Consequently, numerous handsoforlacincidents, including all the business with spiritualism and La Bande Infra-Rouge, and certain characters, including de Crochans, Hermance and Breteuil, were dropped, while Cerral becomes a genial, middle-aged man and the treachery of the maid, now called Regine, is revealed earlier and partially redeemed. The relationship between Paul and his father is reduced to a scene in which Yvonne begs from an aloof and monstrous figure who utterly rejects her pleas. Key incidents are reworked into single shots: rather than the jewel-theft shenanigans, Paul merely tries to put on his now-too-small wedding ring; the scene in which Rosine thinks she hears Stephen playing the piano, only to find him listening to a recording of an earlier performance, is replaced by one in which Paul briefly torments himself with the recording before smashing it. The externalised nightmare, retained so as to take advantage of its eerie spectacle, takes a rather different form. When Yvonne is trying to comfort Paul, he has a vision in which a head seems to be floating in mid-air – although it might just be someone looking in through the transom – but she sees nothing. Later, he has a nightmare about it. In a side-on long-shot, his bed is positioned in the lower left corner of the frame, suggesting the isolation and diminution of this once impressive figure. In the top right quadrant of the screen a cloud coalesces into the same disembodied head, giant-sized, and an enormous clenched fist reaches down diagonally across the screen towards the sleeping Paul, who wakes up screaming and finds a note telling him that he has been given the ‘hands of the executed robber and murderer Vasseur!’ (underlining in the original). The nightmare is externalised, but only for the audience, and as in the novel, it is done so through cinematic trickery.

Renard makes a couple of references to sleepwalking and frequently evokes the idea of automata, including a single-paragraph ‘mnemonic mirage’ (215) which alludes to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816), Prosper Mérimée’s ‘La Vénus d’Ille’ (1837), Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève future (1886), Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911) and real-life automata-makers Jacques de Vaucanson and Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. For Renard, the image of mechanized being is part of a broader critique of capitalist-industrial modernity which, to paraphrase Marx, makes subjects out of things and things out of subjects. This is emphasised when, on the morning after the crash, a broker arrives for an appointment to insure Stephen’s hands, just a few hours too late to do any good. In a similarly ironic vein, the Orlacs’ money always runs out at a slightly faster rate than Stephen’s hands recover, and a temporary slump in the market randomly devalues their property. Furthermore, in a proto-Frankfurt School critique of the culture industry, characters repeatedly compare their own actions and responses to those characters in fiction and film – at one point de Crochans begins to pat Rosine’s shoulder to comfort her, but just in time ‘he recalled that cinema actors never neglect the realistic detail … and, out of bashfulness, he ceased’ (60) – and at moments of heightened tension Rosine is often at least half-aware that she is struggling not to interpret fantastical events in the terms provided by pulp fictions and cinematic thrillers. Against a backdrop of such overdetermining powers, the living seem little different to the broken dead; and the hysterical pitch of Rosine’s narrative comes across as a frantic denial of such a reduction of human agency. Orlacs Hände displaces much of this critical potential onto its Expressionist aesthetics. Wiene utilises cavernous sets, often in long-shot, that are pooled in darkness and almost devoid of furniture apart from the occasional oddly diminished item. Other sets, dominated by statues or giant urns, resemble sketches of generic places, as if greater verisimilitude would distract from the inner turmoil of the characters. Indeed, some close-ups and medium shots eschew any background at all, the actor’s faces and torsos appearing against black backdrops. In one notable shot, Yvonne sits on a chair facing the camera, while standing behind her in a row are four more-or-less indistinguishable creditors, motionless apart from choreographed shakes of the head which refuse her requests for more time. Wiene’s paring down of mimetic places to abstract spaces dotted with signifiers creates a sense of puppet theatre, at the centre of which is Veidt’s performance.

222While some of his close-ups and medium-shots might seem overwrought by more contemporary conventions, Veidt remains compelling as a physical actor. When Paul wakes from his nightmare, his hands seem to take on a life of their own; and later, when he is agitated and impatient, they spasm and begin to play on tabletops as if they were keyboards, apparently without him commanding or even noticing them. When Paul goes to confront Serral (as Cerral is renamed), Veidt holds his arms extended, fingers splayed, his slightly shortened sleeves exposing hands that he is either pushing away from himself or being towed behind. His carriage often embodies the novel’s idea of a mannequin possessed by the spirit of a dead man. At several points, his body shrinks into a hollow inertia, an enfeebled appendage to his determined hands, which drag him around as if they are the only part of a puppet still held up by strings. Lotte H. Eisner describes his performance as ‘a kind of Expressionist ballet, bending and twisting extravagantly, [in which he is] simultaneously drawn and repelled by the murderous dagger held by hands which do not seem to belong to him’ (145), and as if to confirm its Expressionist credentials, in one shot, while the police investigate the scene of Orlac’s father’s murder, Veidt raises his hands to either side of his contorted face, the very image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893–1910).

Through its relative displacement of the economic and social determinants evident in the novel, Orlacs Hände emphasises – and radically transforms – Orlac’s psychosexual compulsions. Bubbling away in Les Mains d’Orlac is an anxiety about masturbation every bit as strong as that of the Dr. Seuss-scripted The 5,0000 Fingers of Dr. T (Rowland 1953). Rosine, who is sleeping in the room next to the convalescing Stephen, is ‘awakened by an agonised gasp’, listens ‘to the sleeper tossing and turning; and groaning … an unpleasant sound’, feels ‘a hateful sensation of wretchedness and defeat’ as she hears him ‘uttering muffled cries; and then … a hoarse, headlong, agitated breathing’ and then finds him ‘kneeling on his bed in an attitude of prostration’ (70–71). Once they are back at their apartment, he spends hours alone in his room, poring in secret over imported literature, obsessing over his hands with mysterious unguents and mechanisms, even sneaking out to snatch his wife’s jewels from her locked box. Orlacs Hände is less concerned with autoeroticism than with the intimacy of human contact, connections between sex and violence and fears of class pollution. As Yvonne waits for Paul’s return from Nice, she lingers over a note from him – ‘I will embrace you … my hands will glide over you … and I will feel your body beneath my hands’ (ellipses in original) – which perhaps lends a slightly different urgency to her demand that Serral perform surgical miracles. After surgery, she tells Paul that she loves his hair and his tender hands, but her heavy-lidded gaze seems to be directed as much at his crotch. Whenever Yvonne reaches out to comfort him, he cannot bring himself to touch her with the hands of a killer. However, Nera commands Regine to ‘seduce’ Paul’s hands, and in a peculiar scene, she crawls up to her nervously distracted employer and kisses his hand; he withdraws it, but then reaches down to caress and hold her head, as if her class difference renders such contact less offensive to him. She responds, though, by crying out, ‘Don’t touch me … your hands hurt … like the hands of a killer’ (ellipses in original). Devastated by how much Vasseur’s hands must be polluting him if even the maid can sense it, and already convinced that their influence is seeping into him – ‘along the arms … until it reaches the soul … cold, terrible, relentless’ (ellipses in original) – Paul demands, without success, that Serral amputate them.

In Mad Love, these sexual undercurrents become more explicitly Freudian. Produced by MGM, it is rather less well-known than the Universal cycle of horror movies from the 1930s, and like MGM’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), it does suffer from a certain stuffiness as its potentially tawdry material collides with a glamorous house style which – along with Gregg Toland and Chester Lyons’s luminous cinematography – makes it the most sumptuous of the three adaptations (the expressionist design of Doctor Gogol’s house and the sequence in which his mirror versions compel him to treachery are also visually madlove3impressive). The studio’s middlebrow norms are apparent in the reworking of the narrative into an admittedly rather peculiar drawing-room love-triangle, in which Colin Clive’s Stephen is all quivering stiff-upper lip chipperness in the face of the disaster that has befallen him. Even in his more demented scenes, he is closer to the tormented Captain Stanhope Clive played in James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930) than the shrill hysteric Whale unleashed in Frankenstein (1931). But his role is less central than was Veidt’s, since the film was designed as a vehicle for recent Austro-Hungarian émigré Peter Lorre. Already known in the US for his performance as Hans Beckert, the serial child-killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931), this was his first Hollywood film, and his presence required the transformation of the superhuman Cerral and the genial Serral into Doctor Gogol, whose sexual obsession with Yvonne Orlac drives the narrative. Lorre’s performance, switching effortlessly from compassionate and authoritative doctor to infant desiring approval, from passivity to anger, from melancholy to cackling madness, is every bit as potent as Veidt’s, and his disguise as Vasseur surpasses anything the other adaptations can offer.

tumblr_mlqd0v8hhj1rdst7zo1_1280The film opens at Le Théatre des Horreurs, where Yvonne is starring in a one-act Grand Guignol, which Gogol – who ‘cures deformed children and mutilated soldiers’ – has attended every night of its run. His fixation is obvious when, contemplating the life-like waxwork of Yvonne in the lobby, he reprimands a drunken patron for speaking to it in an overly familiar manner, but its full extent only becomes clear as the play reaches its climax. Bound and stretched backwards over a torture wheel by a husband who suspects her of infidelity, Yvonne’s character refuses to name her lover, but as a red hot fork is applied to her flesh – somewhere below the bottom edge of the mid-shot – and the smoke of burning flesh rises before her, she screams, ‘Yes! Yes! It was your brother!’ Her ecstatic performance is clearly intended to be sexual, and should we be in any doubt, it is framed by two shots of Gogol, watching from between his box’s partially drawn curtains, his face half in shadow: ‘The first shot tracks in on his … face as the torture begins, his one clearly visible eye focused with startling intensity on the woman stretched on the torturer’s frame. The second shot, at the performance’s end, shows us that same eye closing in a kind of orgasmic satisfaction as her screams of pain reverberate around the theatre’ (Tudor 189).

Backstage, Gogol discovers that Yvonne is not only married but is quitting the theatre for good to be with her husband, beginning with their postponed English honeymoon. She evades the agitated doctor, who later seizes an opportunity to try to overwhelm her with his passion. On leaving the theatre, he buys the waxwork, proposing to be Pygmalion to its Galatea. Meanwhile, Stephen’s train stops to pick up Rollo, an American circus knife-thrower convicted of murder. Rosset, the chief of police, invites an American journalist, Reagan, to witness Rollo’s arrival and execution, so that it can all be played down for the American press. The presence of Ted Healy’s Reagan, the kind of fast-talking character played so brilliantly by Roscoe Karns in the 1930s, and May Beatty’s turn as Gogol’s drunken housekeeper, Françoise, along with roles for such character actors as William Brophy, Billy Gilbert, Sara Haden, Henry Kolker and Ian Wolfe, suggest the extent to which Mad Love attempts to emulate the model provided by James Whale’s horror films, which were packed with eccentric types. However, unlike Whale, Freund is unable successfully to weave their idiosyncracies into a more general delirium. Brophy’s Rollo is undoubtedly the most endearing murderer the Production Code Administration (PCA) ever allowed, and the tone of the comedy is mild, except for the business between Reagan and Françoise, which is simultaneously the most Whale-like in its excesses and the least effective.

Rosset, Reagan and Yvonne travel together to the scene of the crash, which despite being elaborately mounted lacks Wiene’s sense of apocalyptic disorientation. While Wiene’s editing of the sequence produced a sense of instability, Freund’s scene is subject to Hollywood’s standardised continuity editing – spatial relations are clearly established, and Yvonne’s discovery of Stephen in the wreckage is brisk, to say the least. Rollo also survives the crash, only to be guillotined. When Yvonne begs Gogol to save rather than amputate Stephen’s hand, he arranges with Rosset to obtain the corpse and secretly performs the transplant. This time it is Yvonne who has a troubling dream – a keyboard Stephen is playing becomes a railway track, along which a train rushes, its spinning wheel becoming Gogol’s face. The doctor himself retires to his study, where he plays an organ while watching Yvonne’s mannequin in a mirror, wishing it would come to life. He leafs through Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese (1850), reading passages aloud.

Six months later, it is time to unbandage Orlac’s hands, which Gogol massages and probes in a shot which Reynold Humphrey’s suggests is more than merely an image of masturbation but of ‘the son lovingly masturbating his father’ (92). Certainly, the scene in the theatre can be interpreted as a primal scene fantasy, in which Gogol simultaneously ‘identifies with the position of the victim as a mother figure’ and ‘with the sadistic husband deriving intense pleasure from having his unfaithful wife branded’ and is positioned so that he can ‘occupy the absent place of the wife’s lover’ – the husband’s presumably younger brother (92). Arrested in his Oedipal trajectory – Gogol later asks Yvonne is she cannot even find ‘pity for a man who has never know the love of a woman’ – he frequently becomes childlike in her presence, casting her as the mother he desires and Stephen as the father whom he must do away with in order to become her lover. In the masturbation scene, then, Orlac struggles with his libidinal desires while trying to identify with and placate the father he is challenging.

Mad Love restores the novel’s reasons for the Stephen’s split with Edouard (who is renamed Henry and transformed from a notary into a jeweller and also, suggestively but without explanation, from a father into a step-father): Stephen’s decision to become a pianist – and marry Yvonne – rather than take over the family business. The sign above the shop, which reads ‘Orlac et fils Joailliers’, indicates the extent of Henry’s petit-bourgeois bitterness at Stephen for simultaneously rising above his station and marrying below it. He taunts Stephen – ‘being a tradesman wasn’t good enough for you … that actress you married … could supplement her earnings, eh?’ – who, enraged, throws a knife at his father, and races off to see Gogol, despairing that his hands ‘have a life of their own. They feel for knives. They want to throw them, and they know how to. … They want to kill’. The film’s self-consciousness about psychoanalysis becomes apparent when Gogol explains away Stephen’s behaviour: his ‘disturbed mind’ made susceptible by the twin shock of the accident and of his altered hands have brought into play an ‘arrested wish fulfilment’. He conjures up a hypothetical image of childhood playmates, one of whom threw a knife so ‘cleverly’ that Stephen’s inability to emulate it has ‘festered deep’ in his ‘subconscious’, and suggests that if Stephen could ‘bring that forgotten memory, whatever it is, into consciousness’ he ‘would be cured instantly’. The scene Gogol evokes is like a dream image of boys comparing their penises, although it is not clear that Gogol recognises this latent content. In the next scene, he tells Doctor Wong that he told Stephen ‘a lot of nonsense’ he himself does not believe, adding ‘I didn’t dare to tell him his hands are those of a murderer. That would probably drive him [pause] to commit murder himself’. This is the moment at which Gogol concocts his plot to steal Yvonne away from Stephen, but without realising that, given the role that knives will play in his scheme, he has become the infant envious of another’s phallic mastery.

Gogol kills Henry and, disguised, persuades Stephen that he is Rollo, whom Gogol has returned to life, sewing on his head and providing him with prosthetic hands. Stephen is arrested. Yvonne pushes her way into Gogol’s house and discovers the mannequin, which Gogol has dressed in a negligee (the PCA were particularly anxious about Gogol’s ownership of the mannequin, with Joseph Breen writing to warn against ‘any “suggestions of perversion” between Gogol and the wax figure’ (Humphreys 93)). Gogol returns home, dementedly gleeful over the success of his scheme. Yvonne poses as the mannequin, but a cut on her cheek gives her away. Gogol thinks his Galatea has come to life, but the image of the perfect woman – his mother – suddenly active and sexually accessible, complete with bleeding wound, is too much for him. Reciting Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (1836), Gogol coils Yvonne’s hair around her neck so as to strangle her. In doing so, he takes on the role of the Grand Guignol’s cuckolded husband, with Yvonne gasping in sexualised agony beneath his hands. Stephen, brought there by the police, takes on both Gogol’s role of spectator as, through a grille, he witnesses his wife’s attempted murder, and that of the absent lover Gogol could not play. While Gogol merely collapsed in orgasmic bliss, Stephen throws the knife that kills Gogol, defeating his Oedipal challenge. Although Stephen’s hands kill, this life-taking is sanctioned by the law, and the heterosexual couple are reunited.

The Hands of Orlac is the last and by any reasonable measure the least of the adaptations. Presumably intended in some way to cash in on the succèss de scandale of such films as Et Dieu…créa la femme (Vadim 1956) and Les Amants (Malle 1958) and the related perception of French cinema as possessing greater sexual frankness, it certainly features the most passionate embraces of the adaptations. Moreover, it is repeatedly made clear that Stephen (Mel Ferrer) and Louise (as Yvonne is renamed) are sexually active while only being engaged. Indeed, Louise’s uncle does not think twice about lending the unchaperoned couple his villa. The film also features a low-rent cabaret act, in which the Eurasian Li-Lang, performs a burlesque routine involving a spangly bikini and a long feather boa; and she is instructed to seduce Stephen. While a vague eroticism hovers over Stephen and Louise’s more intimate moments, especially when his attempt to strangle her during lovemaking fleetingly evokes asphyxiophilia, the film’s overtness robs it of the psychosexual potential that the other variants exploit so well. In its place, we are left with a thriller that is more incoherent than thrilling and wastes its most interesting potential innovation.

After his plane crash, the ambulance rushing Stephen to hospital is stopped by the police since the road is closed for the transportation of Vasseur to his place of execution. Louise pleads with the police to let them through, since Vasseur’s hands ‘will never strangle again but the hands of Orlac can still be saved’. Stephen, barely conscious overhears this exchange. Later, in a delirium, he sees the (animated) headlines on side-by-side newspaper stories become jumbled and transposed. The panned-and-scanned television format crops the ends of the headlines, but the sequence goes (roughly) like this: LOUIS VASSEUR PAIE SES CRIMES and STEPHEN ORLAC PERO SES MAINS, which become LOUIS VASSEUR LOSES HIS HEAD and STEPHEN ORLAC LOSES HIS HANDS, then LOUIS VASSEUR WILL STRANGLE NO MORE and STEPHEN ORLAC WILL HE PLAY AGAIN? and then LOUIS VASSEUR WILL HE PLAY NO MORE and STEPHEN ORLAC WILL STRANGLE AGAIN and then THE STRANGLER GETS THE KNIFE and THE STRANGLER STEPHEN ORLAC GETS NEW HANDS. Finally, the second headline fills the screen, becoming STEPHEN ORLAC GETS THE HANDS OF and then LOUIS VASSEUR THE STRANGLER. One of the least satisfactory aspects of the novel and first adaptation is the sudden revelation of Vasseur’s innocence. This jars because it resolves the tension between the two possible explanations – either Orlac is possessed by the transplanted hands of a killer or he is going mad – by abruptly introducing a third for which no adequate groundwork has been laid and which upsets any moral order concerning just rewards. Surely Orlac should be even more troubled that his hands are those of an innocent man wrongfully executed? Mad Love avoids this problem inasmuch as Rollo was actually a killer, but that instead leaves a shadow over Orlac’s future – he has the hands and skills of a killer! – which the film forestalls by ending as swiftly as possible. The Hands of Orlac’s headline sequence suggests that the film might overcome such clumsy conclusions by ultimately revealing that there has been no surgery, and that Stephen’s fears and actions are the product solely of his traumatised imagination. This possibility lingers for a while, lending effectiveness to the sequence of scenes that begin with Louise protesting that he will bruise her arms if he holds them so tightly when they kiss. Orlac then tries out a fairground strength machine, which shows his grip to be unnaturally strong. Returning home with his prize, he listens to a recording of an earlier concert but cannot play along with it on the piano. In quick succession, he discovers that a ring no longer fits, that his gloves are bursting at the seams and that his handwriting has changed. Distraught, he tries to telephone the surgeon, Volcheff, and the assistant who takes the call refers to Orlac’s ‘new hands’. His fingers, resting on a table edge, seem to take on a life of their own, playing along to the recording. Distracted and distressed, he unintentionally pulls the head off the doll he won at the fair. Sadly, however, the film soon loses interest in following this potentially intriguing revision (ultimately La Sûreté reveal to Scotland Yard that the real killer has confessed and Vasseur was innocent), and instead clumsily reworks the Nera/Gogol blackmail plot.

image1Although a pet cat shies away from his hands at Louise’s uncle’s villa (in the French version, Stephen, strangely troubled by a picture of a guillotine execution, wakes in the night and goes on to the balcony, where the cat again flees him), Stephen seems to be recovering, until the cat is found with its neck broken. The maid is quick to blame it on gypsies, but the gardener suspects Stephen, who, furious, attacks the old man. After nearly strangling Louise in a moment of passion, Stephen takes up pseudonymous residence in a seedy backstreet hotel in Marseilles (on the streets of which he encounters a prostitute, who recoils from the touch of his hands). Neron (Christopher Lee), a fellow guest and nightclub magician, calculates that this newcomer must be rich, and orders his assistant, Li-Lang, to seduce him, intending to burst in on them in a compromising position. She is less than willing – ‘You made me a slut’, she protests; ‘Made?’ Neron replies, ‘My dear, I couldn’t stop you. You were born a slut and will always be one. It is I who have lowered myself’ – but Neron compels her. (He is several times shown with a collection of marionettes, one of which, a skeleton used in his stageshow, alludes to a figure in de Crochans’ apartment, but despite giving insight into Neron’s perception of himself as a consummate puppet-master they lack the critical Expressionist effect of Veidt’s puppet-like movements.) However, before the honey-trap can be played out, Louise traces Stephen to the hotel. Overhearing Stephen explaining his fear that his hands are those of a killer, Neron drastically revises his scheme – to one which makes no discernible sense.

Stephen and Louise reconcile (the French version extends this sequence) and marry. However, just before his first performance in a new tour, he receives a package containing a pair of gloves, with Vasseur’s name stamped inside. As he plays, he sees his hands transform into those of the gloved killer, causing him to flee the stage mid-concert. The following day, a sculptor, Graham Coates, asks if he can use Orlac’s hands as the model for those of Lazarus, stretching out from the tomb (in the French version, he also tries to hand a ball back to a young girl playing in the park, but she too is terrified of his hands). Soon after, Li-Lang, disguised as Vasseur’s widow, visits Louise and tells her that the spirit of her husband cannot rest until Stephen returns something that belongs to him. Suspecting that Volchett did indeed perform a hand transplant, Louise flies to Paris to question him, only to discover that he has just collapsed from a cerebral haemorrhage (in the novel Cerral died at sea just when his testimony was most needed). An increasingly paranoid Stephen discovers that Louise and her uncle have lied about her whereabouts. In the middle of the night, Stephen wakes to find the hook-handed and corpse-like Vasseur looming over him – but then, promptly and quite mystifyingly, Neron removes the disguise and warns Stephen that Louise and her uncle intend to have him committed. (It is impossible to work out how Neron intends to make money from this, but presumably it has something to do with the sample of Stephen’s handwriting that Li-Lang – for reasons that are never explained – stole from the Orlacs’ apartment.) Louise, her suspicions aroused, tracks down Li-Lang. Neron overhears his assistant telling her to bring the police to the club that night. Later, Stephen overhears a conversation between Louise and her uncle which seems to confirm their plan to commit him. That night, Neron murders Li-Lang during the course of their act. Stephen attacks him, delaying his escape until the police arrive. It is revealed that Vasseur was not a killer, leaving Stephen free to return to his wife and career.

Unfortunately, the incoherence of The Hands of Orlac – which seems as much a consequence of its screenplay and conditions of production as of its subsequent editings-down – never achieves the dreamlike or hysterical qualities of either the novel or the earlier adaptations. The most severely amputated of the variants, it fails to take on a life of its own.

hqdefaultNotes
[1]
Since I wrote this, Brian Stableford has translated five volumes of Renard for Black Coat Press.

References
Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1973.

Arthur B. Evans, ‘The Fantastic Science Fiction of Maurice Renard’, Science-Fiction Studies 64 (1994): 380–396.

Reynold Humphries, The Hollywood Horror Film, 1931–1941: Madness in a Social Landscape. New York: The Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Maurice Renard, The Hands of Orlac, trans. Iain White. London: Souvenir Press, 1981.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993.

Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

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The City in Fiction and Film, week six

modern-timesWeek five

This week we watched Modern Times (Chaplin 1936), read a recent article on it by Lawrence Howe (which contains some useful contextualisation for the film, even though I am not wholly convinced by its argument), had a brief introduction to Marxist ideas about capitalism and the class society it produces, and then spent quite a while discussing some basic essay writing skills.

As described by Frederick Engels, in his ‘Preface to the English Edition of 1888 of The Communist Manifesto’, Marx’s ‘fundamental proposition’ concerning history and class is that

the whole history of mankind … has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles. (in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by David McLellan (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 48.)

Starting with this broad sweep ties back to the work we did on historical periodisation in week 2 as we started to think about ‘modernity’, but more importantly gave me an opportunity to include a picture of the lovely late Andy Whitfield on the spartacus1powerpoint slide explaining classical slave societies (Feudalism had to make do with a picture of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood.)

Capitalism, Marx argued, is defined by the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class), who own and control the means of production (from factories to financial instruments), and the proletariat (or working class), who sell their labour for a wage which is worth less than the value created by their labour. All that extra value they create is used to pay for raw materials, plant, etc; and all that is left over from that – surplus value, in Marx’s term – is taken by the capitalist. Although there might be small individual and partial exceptions, the capitalist will always look to increase production of surplus value – by introducing ‘rationalised’ production processes and increasing automation, by lowering or freezing wages, by extending the working day (including reducing breaks), by offering productivity bonuses, by resisting unionisation of the workforce and health/safety legislation, by casualising the workforce, by not paying the costs of pollution, by relocating to countries with weaker unions/workplace protections/ environmental laws, and by avoiding/evading taxes and manipulating political systems.

Before discussing Modern Times, we took a look at several short sequences from Metropolis (Lang 1927), a film I really wanted to include on the module but which is too long for the screening session (and perhaps in that respect a bit cruel as an introduction to silent cinema – although next week we will be watching Man with a Movie Camera, so I am not sure where the greater cruelty lies).

Lang’s film spatialise class relations in a manner that will become common in dystopian visions, and also in the real world. Here the spatial division is vertical, recalling the literal and figurative descents into poverty in Gaskell’s Mary Barton. The garden in which the city’s wealthy youths play is somewhere high up and pristine. Freder’s father’s office – as controller of the city – is also elevated above all, symbolising his pan optical powers (making him an important figure when we dip our toes into a little de Certeau in a few weeks). Then there is the magnificent metropolis itself, beneath which are the machines which sustain it. And beneath the level even of the machines, as Lang’s opening sequence shows, is the city of the workers.

We also took a look at some of the machinery in the film: the 10-hour shift clock and 24-hour clock over which the shift change is announced (we have already seen Lang’s obsession with clocks in M), the rather abstract machine which overheats and transforms, in Freder’s eyes, into a barbaric ancient idol into whose maw the workers are fed; and the even more abstract clock machine that Freder undertakes to operate so as to free an exhausted worker, only to become a kind of knackered Christ figure himself as he struggles to keep up with its incomprehensible demands for repetitive motion.

Some of this imagery is picked up on directly in Chaplin’s film, which also begins with the image of a clock and workers trudging to the factory like lambs to the slaughter.

Before the screening, I suggested some possible binary oppositions that could be used to try to think through the logic of the film:

capitalist and worker
surveiller and surveilled
employed and unemployed
production and consumption
lack and plenty
work and leisure
human and automaton
conformity and difference
law and lawlessness
order and chaos
authority and resistance
propriety impropriety
male and female
adult and child

As ever, a lot of these terms sort of overlap or seem to be describing the same things from different angles.

The boss using the giant screen in the bathroom to berate Chaplin on his break establishes that the relationship between capitalist and worker is a power relationship (we have already seen the boss goofing off, doing a jigsaw and reading  the funny pages – Flash Gordon, if I am not mistaken, since the visible page is Tarzan?) – and that this power relationship includes bullying and surveillance (which includes workers having to clock-in and clock-out, even for bathroom trips). Furthermore, the fact that the boss even contemplates subjecting his works to the Billows Automatic Feeding Machine so that can they be fed lunch without needing to leave the production line indicates the extent to which he does not think of them as human beings but as mere parts of a technical apparatus, as cogs in a machine. (It is also an example of trying to increase productivity through automation so as to increase surplus value, or profit, at the expense of the worker.)

Such control systems or disciplinary structures as the factory represents also provide most of the other key locations of the film: asylum, prison, orphanage, department store, restaurant.

Talking about the department store – designed to move customers through the space in such a way as to organise and prolong their experience within the retail environment (think about how IKEA has no windows or clocks and only one route through the warehouse – and, at least according to one of the class, blocks cell phone reception) – also facilitated a way to think about the interconnections of production and consumption.

Chaplin and the gamin (Paulette Goddard), of course, are disruptive forces of chaos in all this. Chaplin’s derangement by the repetitive labour of the production line shows how poorly we all, as humans, fit the environments created to maximise the extraction of our labour power for other people’s profit. The gamin’s initial gender-blurring – posing like Peter Pan, providing food for the family when her father is unemployed – and her refusal to be subordinated to state systems (the law around property, the orphanage to which her younger siblings are sent) betoken a similar energy. Both she and Chaplin are often positioned as childlike, and their attempts to find a space in the adult world are endearing parodies of that world: the dream vision of a suburban home Chaplin imagines, the run-down shack the gamin crafts into the image of a suburban idyll, the way they play and dress up in the department store. (And they are not alone in not fitting in this world: the prim and severe vicar’s wife whose stomach nonetheless gurgles when she drinks tea; the scarcely glimpsed ‘gay’ prisoner, who minces out of the dining hall and into his cell; the unemployed men forced to break into the department store because they are starving; and so on.)

Then it was time for a break, for the grand unveiling of the essay questions, for reminders to do the library quiz online within 24 hours, and for essay-writing advice.

The latter is especially tough, I find, to do for a whole group, none of whom have yet submitted any work. Makes it hard to know where to begin, what particular strengths and weaknesses each student has. So we did some very basic stuff.

On stucture, taking Strunk and White’s advice: ‘Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.’ So a brief introduction to what is going to be discussed, probably somewhere between 5 and 8 paragraphs, each devoted to making, developing and supporting a single idea in a chain of ideas/paragraphs, and a short conclusion tying it all together. For a 1200 word essay, the introduction and conclusion should probably need no more than a sentence or two each. Revise the introduction once the essay is completed so as to ensure it describes what the essay actually does, rather than what you intended to do (the initial introduction can also be used to help think through revisions to early drafts). No new ideas to be introduced in the conclusion – and never end with a quotation (it is supposed to be your conclusion).

Using spell-check (make sure it is set to English UK; remember it won’t catch certain kinds of errors, such as typing ‘form’ when you mean ‘from’). Use grammar-check sparingly, as typically you need to understand grammar in order to make sense of its recommendations. Instead, concentrate on becoming a better writer (obligatory plug for the genuinely excellent kids’ book, The English Repair Kit by Angela Burt and William Vandyck).

We covered rules about laying how to quote and paraphrase and reference (MLA-style).

Finally, we thought about writing in a more formal academic style, but how that did not necessarily mean writing in long sentences. Focus on short, clear sentences, and work in length-variety where necessary – focus on the connection between what you want to say and the best way to say it clearly.

And then wrapped it all up with another quotation from Strunk and White:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

week 7

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 2, “Urbanizing Modernity: Utopia/Dystopia and the City of the Future Past.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Jenkins, Henry. “Looking at the City in The Matrix Franchise.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 176–192.
Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: BFI, 2006.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.

Recommended reading
By imagining future cities, sf often highlights contemporary concerns about the city. See, for example, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953), Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (1999), Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) and Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014).

Recommended viewing
The same is true of many sf films, such as Metropolis (Lang 1927), Things to Come (Menzies 1936), Alphaville (Godard 1965), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973), Blade Runner (1982), Akira (Ôtomo 1988), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Minority Report (Spielberg 2002), Code 46 (Winterbottom 2003), District 13 (Morel 2004), Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), La Antena (Sapir 2007) and In Time (Niccol 2011).

Modern Times was partly inspired by À Nous la Liberté (Clair 1931).

 

Jack London’s The Iron Heel

This wasn’t due to go up until tomorrow, but with the fucking Tories somehow re-elected this morning…

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FHCMEP0MLFirst editions: New York: Macmillan, 1907; London: Everett, 1907
Edition used: Edinburgh: Canongate Books (Rebel Inc. Classic), 1999

The Iron Heel is the incomplete memoir of Avis, written in 1932, on the eve of the Second Revolt. It recounts how, in 1912, she and her wealthy father met the revolutionary socialist, and her future husband, Ernest Everhard, and were won to his cause. Within a year, their lives are in disarray as the capitalist interests who dominate institutions and an increasingly tyrannical government seize complete control of America. This plutocratic oligarchy – dubbed ‘the Iron Heel’ by Ernest – forces the socialists underground. The novel ends with horrific descriptions of the destruction of Chicago in the failed First Revolt, and breaks off abruptly, leaving no account of the subsequent fifteen years. The memoir is introduced and edited by Anthony Meredith, writing in the year 409 B.O.M. (Brotherhood Of Man), the socialist era that follows three centuries of the Iron Heel.

6e75ede3299bc0149a0073dba92eb6d6In the first issue of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback described the sf story as ‘a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision’. To his list of exemplars – Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe – Gernsback could have added Jack London. The Iron Heel reworks the ‘guided tour’ typical of the utopian novel: Avis, her father and Bishop Morehouse enter a new world – that of the immiserated, impoverished working class – and Ernest, their guide, explains in detail its logic and inner workings. The novel also anticipates the hard-sf which emerged from the pulp tradition (and which can still, arguably, be defined in Gernsback’s terms). The science in question is not, however, physics or astronomy but London’s idiosyncratic version of scientific socialism. The near-future events of the novel are predicated on a (vulgar) Marxist analysis of the process of capital accumulation and the cyclical crises it inevitably produces.

London’s extrapolative premises and technique are most obvious in the chapter ‘The Mathematics of a Dream’. Beginning with the ‘ABCs of commerce’ (108) – the production of value by labour and the extraction of surplus-value (profit) by the capitalist – Ernest takes his audience step-by-step through the logic of capital accumulation which leads to periods of overproduction and mass unemployment. His satiric proposal – that destruction of surpluses would be an effective way to deal with cyclical over-production, as in Frederik Pohl’s ‘The Midas Plague’ (1954) – is dismissed as absurd. But in a world in which, for example, agricultural subsidies are paid for deliberate underproduction to stabilise prices and ‘surplus’ crops are routinely destroyed (while people elsewhere starve), The Iron Heel’s prophetic value is difficult to ignore.

A curious aspect of the novel, and of its socialism, is the treatment of the all-but-absent proletariat. Avis’s conversion commences with an investigation into the fate of Jackson, a man who lost his arm in an industrial accident. The machine that maimed him is revealed to be part of a much larger apparatus, an economic and social system which – through coercion, collusion, corruption and conspiracy – denies him justice and subordinates and perverts other ‘slaves of the machine’. Years later, Avis meets a foreman who dishonestly testified against Jackson in order to protect his own job and provide for his family, and is now a member of a group of fanatical assassins. This is not to avenge his dead wife and daughters, he declares, but

‘’tis revenge for my blasted manhood’. (206)

Thus Avis’s career as a revolutionary is circumscribed by images of castrated workers. And when she describes one worker who has been a socialist for over twenty years, it is as

phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him at all … He could obey orders. (198)

a4fa9708a0f91a712cdf60581558931aThis denial of agency to the working class is indicative of the peculiar type of socialism, blended with aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Herbert Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ misunderstanding of evolution, advocated by London (who puts at least one of his own speeches/essays, ‘Revolution’, into Ernest’s mouth).

As his name suggests, Ernest Everhard possesses a phallic intensity of focus and purpose. He physically overwhelms Avis. When she first mentions him by name, he is linked to images of penetration, engorgement and assimilation (6). Her fantasies and desires are ripe with the language of domination (22). Her feelings pulsate with attraction and repulsion, until she is swept off her feet

by the splendid invincible rush of him. (55)

She conceives of him as a messiah – he is an eagle, a lamb, a lion, ‘the spirit of regnant labour’ (63), Christ – and longs to melt before him, to merge her ‘life completely into his’ (138). When they are on the run, Avis learns to take on a completely different appearance through controlling her body whereas Ernest requires cosmetic surgery to transform him: she is fluid, he is hard.

Avis, then, despite her origins, exemplifies what London’s socialism requires of the working class, ‘the People of the Abyss’.[1] In the Chicago uprising, they are not only depicted as dumb beasts but as an inundation, a surging fluid mass. Without form or identity, they are to be shaped or sacrificed by the revolutionary party.

TheIronHeelCapitalV.Labour565This system of images – rigidly armoured male bodies; women and the feminised masses as a threatening flood – is typical of the literature produced by the German Freikorps in the 1920s, many of whom later played significant roles in the SA and SS.[2] And so at the heart of this ‘small folk Bible of scientific socialism’ we find a form of fascism.

Or perhaps not.

London’s novel depicts failed revolutions. This suggests an anxiety about the revolutionaries’ terroristic vanguardism, and the novel does not claim that the final revolution is of that ilk. Rather, the post-revolutionary editorial framework emphasises Ernest’s relative insignificance, Avis’s ‘errors of interpretation’ (1), the ‘equal futility’ of the First and Second Revolts and the

many Revolts, all drowned in seas of blood, ere the world-movement of labor should come into its own. (4)

North America and Asia are beneath the Iron Heel of the Oligarchs for 300 years, but as early as 1912 a wave of socialist revolutions swept the world, inspired and empowered by the general strike which prevented a war between the US and Germany. Perhaps it is such collective action and international solidarity that leads to the Brotherhood of Man.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
This expression, which London also used as the title of his 1903 book of reportage on the London poor, is borrowed from HG Wells’s Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901).

[2]
See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (1977; trans. 1987) and Male Fantasies, Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (1978; trans. 1989).

The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles 1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are of course generalisations.[i]

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

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

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

He argued that

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

and that the

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

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

In reality, few sf texts do this.

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

Actually-existing cinema is likewise conservative.

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

This structural meshing of genres occurs in The Perfect Woman.

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

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

leia-emotes

Delany argues that the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a woman who can’t work.

Ramshead uncertainly responds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Lady Mary dismisses the waiter, saying

You needn’t wait.

He mournfully replies

That’s what I’m for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penelope asks her uncle

why did you make it like me?

He replies

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

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

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

Roger and Ramshead nod approval.

Earlier, Belmon says that Penelope is

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

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

Silvia Federici argues that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to Be a God (German 2013)

its-hard-to-be-a-god-trudno-byt-bogom.28440Hard to Be a God takes the bare armature of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name – human observers embedded among the population of an alien world, which resembles the terrestrial middle ages and in which the first traces of a Renaissance are being brutally expunged – and does something remarkable with it.

At times it reminded me of Andrei Rublev, of Aguirre, Wrath of God, of Seven Samurai, of Come and See,  of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring, of Tetsuo, of Erasherhead, of Jodorowsky, of A Field in England, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is not remotely like them, or like anything else.

As early as the 1960s, Aleksei German was the Strugatskys’ director of choice, and it only took him half a century to make the film. His earliest attempt was halted when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, since a film about a fledgling Renaissance being crushed by an invading totalitarian power was deemed untimely. (German was also briefly involved in Peter Fleischmann’s disastrous 1989 adaptation.) In 2000, he finally began what would become a six-year-long shoot (partly in the Czech Republic), but he died in 2013, leaving his filmmaker son, Aleksei German, Jr., to finalise the edit and the soundtrack.

hardtobe6The Strugatskys’ often comic tale poses a series of ethical questions around the (im)possibility of humanitarian intervention akin to those with which Star Trek’s prime directive narratives feebly wrestle. Are there circumstances in which violence can be used to cut short the violence of others? Is it more cruel passively to observe than it is to step in with an overwhelming force that will turn a society on its head? What is the ethical cost to the observer/intervener? The Strugatsky’s novel can also be understood as an expression of anxiety about the re-emergence of Stalinism as the Khruschev-era Thaw drew to a close.

German transforms this material into something marvellously different.

A black-and-white world of rain and mud and shit and piss and snot and blood. Of raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Of grotesquery and deformity. Of violence and death. Of the idiocy, as Marx might say, of feudal life.

istoriya-arkanarskoy-rezni-aleksei-german-ultimo-film-01The frame is frequently crowded. Depth of field is constantly destabilised. Fog and smoke and pouring rain obscure the distinction between earth and sky, clouding out the horizon and disrupting perspective. Objects repeatedly cross the frame inches from the camera, blocking our view of what we might otherwise assume to be the subjects of the film. Characters repeatedly look straight at the camera, not to break the fourth wall but as if it is not there. Or as if the camera cannot be permitted to be in the world without being part of the world; and in this the camera is like the terrestrial observers. They are not permitted to stay, like a Federation away team, separate from the world they visit. They are immersed in it. Mired. And so are we.

It is like reading Rabelais, or reading Bakhtin’s reading of him; and in its relentlessness, Hard to Be a God is really funny.

The few Anglophone reviews of the film I’ve seen complain about the absence of a clear plot. But narrative obliquity is the point. Life doesn’t have a plot or narrative arcs. We are just in the middle of all this stuff going on all the time. And it is comical and absurd and messy and always in our faces.

If I’d been watching it alone, I’d have turned off the not-that-helpful subtitles.

maxresdefaultHard to be a God is obsessed with the odours of the world it can only disclose  indirectly, and with the textures of the world. It continually uses the limitations of the medium – the gulf between the tactile and the visual – to undercut the fiction of the neutral, uninvolved observer. Despite the often troubling content of the image, the pristine cinematography is often too beautiful to bear. Don Remata’s spotless white clothes and handkerchieves function in a similar manner – in their absurdity, they are reminders of the full and unavoidable intersubjectivity of being in the world.

Hard to Be a God might not be your cup of tea. That is your loss.