Piqued Oil

energy-the-battle-to-keep-alaska-pipelines-flowing_66062_600x450[A version of this piece first appeared in Salvage]

On 28 September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell – suddenly and without warning – announced their withdrawal from exploratory drilling in the Chuckchi Sea. This decision will cost them, depending on who you ask, somewhere between $4-8 billion in terms of money already spent or contractually committed. Many have found reason to celebrate this announcement – especially when it was followed a couple of days later by Alberta’s governor, Rachel Notley, declaring that there was no long-term future for the province or Canada as a whole to be found in the continued exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands.

But for others, Shell’s press release – a bland technocratic utterance, an oleaginous misdirection, terse, wilfully oblique – was a cause for concern, a weird provocation.

What exactly has Shell done up there off the coast of Alaska? What have they found? Why are they not talking about it?

What haematophagic vegetal Thing from Another World did they accidentally defrost? What therianthropic congeries of cellular neo-liberalism? What ripe metaphor? What ravening alien maw?

How long until our skies are darkened by fleets of Nazi UFOs pouring out from the Hohlweltlehre’s Fourth Reich? How long until our lands are ravaged by their subhuman legions of Dero Sturmtruppen?

Did Shell really mistake that oozing nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence for oil? What rough shoggoth, its hour come around at last, is now slouching southwards to consume us? What Hyperborean sleeping abnormalities, what blasphemously surviving entities, have they disturbed? To the attention of what Elder Gods have their clumsy probings brought us?

Did they drill so deep into the crust that the Earth itself screamed?

Or have Shell, rather more mundanely, had a Mitchell-and-Webb epiphany? Did they stare into the abyss and find themselves staring back? Have they realised that they are the bad guys? Are they going to apologise? Are they going to shut down their chunk of the oil industry and devote future revenues from green energy to repairing the environmental destruction for which they are responsible? Does this retreat from the arctic mark the start of a new era that recognises the unsustainability of development? An era in which existing development will be radically redistributed?

If only.

This is not Armageddon. No plucky oilmen and hot-doggin’ roughnecks are going to divert the extinction event coming our way.

This is not The Abyss. Deep-sea drilling operations are not going to uncover some watery alien messiah.

This is not even On Deadly Ground. No possible blend of motivational-poster mysticism, misappropriated indigenous culture, pony tails and lardy kung fu can stop the oil companies.

Shell is clear on this. Like recent similar withdrawals by Exxon and Chevron, this is a temporary, strategic move based on the several variables. Their main concerns at this point are ‘the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska’. Their announcement must therefore be seen as a statement of intent: they will lobby and exert influence to get those regulations revised in their favour; they will develop and/or await the technologies that will sufficiently lower the cost of drilling, extraction and transportation; they will wait for global warming to make the Arctic more conducive; they will rely upon – and manipulate – oil demand and oil scarcity; and then they will return.

They say they will ‘cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future’. As if they do not foresee this one. As if this is not their plan.

Notley talks about weaning Alberta – and Canada – off fossil fuels over the next century. A timescale which, however well-intentioned, however inadequate, might just coincide with the oil in the tar sands running out anyway, as peak oil gives way to oil depletion.

So while this weird flight from the icy seas might seem like a turning point in the story of peak oil, it is, in truth, more about piqued oil.

The monotonous self-serving corporate drone of Shell’s statement is designed to conceal only one thing: they are just a little bit miffed.

But rest assured. They were already regrouping, strategising, shifting resources and priorities before they even said a word. And remember: they can’t be bargained with; they can’t be reasoned with; they do not feel pity or remorse or fear. And they will absolutely not stop, ever, until the last drop of oil is made profitable and then wrung from the planet.

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Spectacle, Apocalypse and the Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars

A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2010), 107–15.

Atlantis (August Blom Denmark 1913). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 20fps. Verdens undergang (The End of the World; August Blom 1916) and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars; Holger-Madsen Denmark 1918). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 17fps and 20fps, respectively.

For half a decade, beginning in 1910, Denmark was the most influential film-making nation in Europe after France. Of more than two dozen production companies, many of which lasted only long enough to make a handful of films, Nordisk Films Kompagni was the most successful.[1] Established in 1906 by cinema-owner Ole Olsen, it quickly became the second largest European production company, after France’s Pathé,[2] making, for example, over 140 films in 1915 alone. Indeed, Nordisk’s fame and influence was such that the Hungarian theatrical actor and film director Miháley Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz – visited Denmark to study their filmmaking systems and techniques.[3] Nordisk ceased to make films in 1917, and when production recommenced after World War One, its global position was lost. Its German market was undermined by the establishment of Ufa, Germany’s state-owned studio, and Nordisk’s increasing focus on literary adaptations proved a less-successful export strategy than Germany’s development of expressionism into a cinematic mode.

Spectacle
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In 1910, actor August Blom joined Nordisk’s 1700 staff as a director.[4] He soon became the studio’s leading director, shooting more than a hundred films by 1924. While Olsen preferred single reel films (up to sixteen minutes long), which had to sell about twenty prints before turning a profit, Blom wished to make longer films. After his racy three-reel melodrama Val Fœngslets Port (The Temptations of a Great City; Denmark 1911) became an international hit, selling nearly 250 copies, he increasingly got his way. Although largely forgotten nowadays, Blom was a major figure in the development of what we now think of as feature-length films, both in Denmark and internationally. He was best known for literary adaptations, including versions of Robinson Crusoe, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a Hamlet shot at Elsinore, and for social melodramas, which depicted temporary mobility between social classes before conservatively reasserting the natural order of social hierarchies (Mottram 135–6). In 1913, he adapted German Nobel prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel Atlantis, following its narrative very closely. It was a prestige production over which Hauptman retained considerable control; but despite the novel’s rather modern perspective, its story of the self-exiled, proto-existentialist Dr Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) resonated strongly with the melodramatic form Blom favoured. At eight reels (nearly two hours), it was the longest Danish film – and one of the longest films anywhere – to that date. It was another international hit, with prints prepared specifically for Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian language markets (there were two Russian versions, one with a much more tragic conclusion which is included as an extra on this DVD). For its US release, it was cut down to six-reels. According to Mottram, the excised scenes almost certainly included von Kammacher’s side trip to Paris and his brief shipboard affair with a Russian Jewess from steerage, and probably the two-shot sequence which gives the film its title and its few moments of more-or-less direct interest to readers of this journal: von Kammacher’s dream/vision of Atlantis.

Nearly halfway through the film, the overwrought von Kammacher retreats to his cabin on a liner crossing the Atlantic to the US. In his sleep, he meets a dead friend, with whom he walks through the streets of Atlantis. While Blom succeeds in giving this sequence an oneiric quality, the lost continent is rather obviously just a Danish town. This tension makes it appear oddly prescient of Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic use of Scandinavian settings in a film such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries; Sweden 1957), but it is profoundly at odds with the rest of the film’s realist aesthetics. In Blom’s defence, the equivalent brief passage in Hauptmann’s novel seems just as odd.

Perhaps, then, of greater interest than this fantastic element is the film’s investment in spectacle, which is increasingly treated as a defining characteristic of sf cinema. In addition to specially-filmed establishing shots of Manhattan, location shooting in Berlin (including striking material filmed from moving cars) and shots of magnificent landscapes and seascapes, there are three sequences that even more specifically evoke the cinema of attractions associated with early cinema.

First, when von Kammacher, distressed by the rejection of his revolutionary bacteriological research and by the need to commit his insane wife to an asylum, takes a holiday in Berlin, his friend Hans Füllenberg (Miháley Kertész) invites him to the debut of Ingergerd Hahlstrom (Ida Orlov). Her dance – a vaguely allegorical performance called ‘The Spider’s Victim’ – not only fills him with a desire for her against which he will struggle for the rest of the film, but also abruptly terminates narrative momentum in order to insert what is, in effect, a two-minute-and-forty-second butterfly dance film. Such short films, which featured the hypnotically swirling skirts and sleeves (often hand-painted frame by frame) of such performers as Annabelle Moore, were immensely popular in the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth century (various sources claim that they constituted between 30–80% of all films made before 1910).

In the second half of the film, von Kammacher’s fellow voyager, the armless performer Arthur Stoss (Charles Unthan), performs amazingly dexterous acts with his feet. Again, the action halts – for three minutes – to present a sequence that resembles a short film recording of a popular variety act: Stoss plays a trumpet; shuffles, cuts and deals a pack of cards; lights and smokes a cigarette; opens a wine bottle with a corkscrew, pours and drinks the wine; types a letter and signs it with a pen.[5]

August Blom - Atlantis.avi_003806250In between these two ‘attractions’ lies the film’s most spectacular sequence, in which the liner hits a derelict ship and sinks. Some sources state that Hauptmann’s novel was published four weeks before the Titanic disaster, others that the novel was inspired by it; but regardless of this, the film adaptation a year later again evokes a genre of the cinema of attractions: the record of a catastrophe (typically opportunistic, often reconstructed or otherwise fraudulent) and the specific cycle of films purporting to contain actual footage of the Titanic sinking. Blom’s resolutely unspectacular visual style lends a sense of greater realism to shots of barely-choreographed extras milling about on the ship, of others leaping twenty feet or more into the sea and of the actual sinking of a large-scale model/set of the ship.

Apocalypse
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Of more direct interest to the readers of this journal is Blom’s Verdens undergang (The End of the World; 1916), in which a comet – or its debris – strikes northwest Europe. It was shot in Sweden and Denmark while memories of the 1908 Tunguska event (probably the airburst of a meteoroid or cometary fragments) and 1910’s two major cometary visitations – Halley’s Comet and the Great January Comet, also known as the Daylight Comet – were still relatively fresh, and while World War One was consuming men and matériel in unprecedented quantities. That a residual sense of such celestial phenomena being ill omens persisted is indicated by a New York Times article on the Great January Comet, which displaces such concerns onto other peoples: ‘its appearance is reported to have caused extreme terror among the Russian peasants, who regard it as the precursor either of a great war in the Far East or of the end of the world’ and ‘warnings have been issued as to the effect it is likely to have upon the populations of North Africa and India’ (Anon). However, despite Nordisk making a number of pacifist and explicitly anti-war films, Blom ignores the potential in his material to develop such a connection with the Great War. Instead, he chooses to construct another social melodrama, which escalates as the comet draws nearer (in this, it has much in common both with the overwrought familial and homosocial melodrama of Deep Impact (Leder US 1998) and Armageddon (Bay US 1998), and with the low-key mapping of social difference in Last Night (McKellar Canada/France 1998)).

When Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), a wealthy industrialist, comes to a remote town to inspect his mine, he promptly falls for Dina (Ebba Thomsen), one of the daughters of its manager, West (Carl Lauritzen). She feels stifled by the strictures of her conservative, religious father, and when Stoll declares his love for her, she abandons her home and her fiancé, a miner called Flint (Thorleif Lund), for a life of luxury in Copenhagen. Several years later, Stoll’s financial machinations have made him an even larger fortune on the stock exchange. When a comet is spotted approaching the Earth, he manipulates his cousin, Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), into revealing to him the Astronomical Society’s findings about the likelihood of a collision, which are supposed to be kept secret so as to avoid panic. Having already purchased stock at rock-bottom prices when news of the comet prompted a crash, Stoll forces a newspaper editor to print a false report that it will pass by harmlessly. Public confidence – and stocks – rise, enabling Stoll to sell at a massive profit before the truth comes out. He then returns with Dina to his mansion near her home town so as to shelter in the mines from the coming conflagration. On the eve of destruction, he – presumably not being familiar with Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – throws a party for his wealthy friends, instructing them ‘Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it will be we who will found the new world, and be its masters. We will salute the rush of the meteors towards the Earth with a feast. Tonight, when the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us.’ Meanwhile, Flint, intent on revenge 13081308083615263611459952against Stoll, incites the miners and townsfolk to riot. As flaming debris fall from the sky – the combination of model work and location shooting remains quite effective – and as Dina performs an erotic dance for Stoll’s guests, the common people, armed with tools and guns, converge on the mansion. Class warfare erupts (in one remarkable shot, the camera looks past the workers, through a hole they have torn in a door to where Stoll’s guests return fire). Stoll hustles the injured Dina through a secret passage into the mines, pursued by Flint. She dies from her wound; Flint and Stoll, overwhelmed by toxic gases released by the comet’s impact, die; in fact, everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, but Dina’s virtuous sister, Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen), rescued from the sea’s VerdensUndergang3inundation of the land by a priest (Frederik Jacobsen), who then disappears, and her fiancé, Reymers (Alf Blütecher), the only survivor of his wrecked ship. She makes her way through the post-catastrophe desolation to a church tower.[6] Reymers hears the sound of church bells ringing, and the lovers are reunited, a new Adam and Eve.

Blom’s visual style in Atlantis and Verdens undergang exemplifies – some might say typifies – the Nordisk look, which strongly favoured a single camera set-up and deep focus composition, with multiple planes of action. This not only enabled an entire scene to be filmed in a single long take, but also helped to produce a film grammar less concerned with montage (as in the US) than with composition and spatial relationships within the mise-en-scene. Blom reduces the theatricality often associated with such a style by offsetting the camera so as to reduce the sense of frontality – unless frontality could be used to emphasise a character’s sense of social or psychological confinement – and by adopting (limited) panning and tracking so as to follow the action. There is little cross-cutting to build tension or parallelism between locations, and the actors, usually in medium shot, eschew melodramatic gestures, actions and emotions in favour of a more restrained, naturalistic style. Sets are well-dressed, often with very solid-looking furniture, and Blom is careful to imply the existence of real spaces on the other sides of doors and walls. He is not afraid of cramming twenty or more actors into a shot, and he is fond of mirrors as a means of extending visible space. For example, in Verdens undergang, a tableau of the lascivious but bored Dina features a mirror angled so as to depict part of the room that is out of shot, and the haste of the scheming Stoll’s return from the stock exchange is captured by thus showing him burst into the room (in the mirror) before he bursts into shot. Slightly more mystifying – at first – is the mirror that dominates one wall of West’s dining room, seemingly angled outward at the top merely to display the rug on the floor. Its true purpose is only revealed when flood waters pour in through the window, treating the viewer to a sight of the rapidly rising tide that swirls around Edith’s legs, adding to the sense of her peril without having to alter the camera set up or edit the film.[7]

Perhaps the most striking shots in Verdens undergang come when Stoll scouts out a hiding place in the mine, and later when, pursued by TOP_D_2014_Findumonde4Flint, he tries to bear the injured Dina to safety there. Each time, the characters descend into utter darkness, with only a single candle to light the way. Blom’s ingenious use of what appears to be a chest-mounted lighting rig gives halos of light to otherwise invisible figures shot from behind, and of mobile lights out of shot at the feet of the advancing characters produces moving pools of light and shadow, emphasising the deeper darkness into which they descend. There is nothing like it in silent sf – perhaps in silent cinema – until Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) pursues/rapes Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a torchbeam in Metropolis (Lang Germany 1926).

Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars
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Alongside Blom, Nordisk’s other major director in the 1910s was Forest Holger-Madsen, another occasional actor, who shot forty-six films between 1912 and 1936. His Nordisk films include three overtly anti-war films: Ned med vaabne (Lay Down Your Arms; 1914), scripted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from a novel by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner; Pax Aeterna (1917), co-written by Nordisk-owner Ole Olsen, the poet, novelist and playwright Sophus Michaëlis and Otto Rung; and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars 1918), adapted by Olsen and Michaëlis from the latter’s novel of the same name.

In Himmelskibet, sea captain turned aeroplane enthusiast Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) yearns for a new and worthy venture, something that will further the human spirit and the cause of peace. He finds inspiration in the work of his father, the astronomer Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and commits himself to building a ‘bridge between the planets’ – to constructing a spaceship and flying to Mars. He is joined in this endeavour by his friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is in love with his sister, Corona Planetaros (Zanny Petersen). After two years, Avanti announces the completion of the Excelsior at a meeting of the Scientific Society. A cigar-shaped craft with a propeller at the rear and biplane wings above the front of the fuselage, it has a revolutionary power source[8] that will enable it to travel through interplanetary space at 12,000kph. Despite Avanti’s impressive presentation (he is dramatically lit at a lectern at the front of the darkened room, with footage of the spaceship matted in beside him as if it is a film being projected), he is ridiculed by the demoniacally-lit – and appropriately named – Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), who denounces the venture as madness rather than science and calls for common sense to prevail.

The contrast between Dubius and his friend, Professor Planetaros, is articulated, as one might expect, through mise-en-scene. Planetaros is a stable, bourgeois patriarch, his observatory uncluttered, his home spacious and dull, with immaculate furniture that could be decades old. Physically, he resembles one of Boris Karloff’s white-haired scientists of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but while he shares something of their melancholy, he possesses none of their madness. Dubius, with his pointed beard, shock of hair, pince-nez and cheroots, more closely resembles the owlish Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (Lang Germany 1922). Indeed, in his rather cluttered office, strewn with books and papers, he even sits beneath a giant stuffed owl, symbolising a knowledge more arcane than modern science. He lives alone with his housekeeper; his clothes suggest vanity and he is furiously envious of Avanti. When the press turn against the expedition, Professor Planetaros, fearing for his son’s safety, is driven into physical and psychological decline by Dubius’ constant taunting. (Dubius is eventually driven mad by the expedition’s success and is struck dead by lightning.)

Among the volunteer crew Avanti recruits from the Science Society, two figures are particularly noteworthy. One is an unnamed Japanese, played by an uncredited European in yellowface with spectacles and smoothed down hair, who retains an air of formal deference despite his western dress. The other is David Dane (Svend Kornbech), a stout American adventurer with the build of a young Fatty Abuckle. He is uncouth – he enters the meeting smoking a pipe and wearing a stetson, with his jacket draped over his arm, only for one of the stewards to remove his pipe and hat and make him put his jacket back on – and, it soon transpires, a secretive alcoholic. This depiction of a modern Japanese obviously owes much to Japan’s surprise victory in the 1904–5 war with Russia and to its significant role in World War One;[9] a similar blend of modernity and orientalism is found in the Japanese of Spione (Lang Germany 1928). In contrast, Dane combines frontier accoutrements with crass materialism, unhealthy appetites and a bully’s swagger that turns out to be a coward’s front. Six months into the voyage, it is not the oriental who turns treacherous, but the American. Driven to despair by the ‘brooding darkness’ of space, Dane no longer attempts to conceal his heavy drinking and begins to plot mutiny. Only Krafft and the Japanese remain loyal to their commander.

Avanti self-consciously models himself on Christopher Columbus, talking to a portrait of the explorer that decorates his father home and copying its visionary subject’s heroic pose (Tolnæs’ overemphatic performance of heroic energy and messianic commitment is at odds with that of most of the rest of the cast; his excessive gesturality recalls Gustav Fröhlich’s often-criticised performance as Metropolis’ Freder Fredersen). And in an echo of the myth of Columbus’ voyage, it is just as the Excelsior is nearing Mars that the mutineers attempt to seize the spaceship. However, the Martian observers monitoring its approach accelerate the Excelsior to ten times its normal speed and land it safely on their planet.

imagesIt is on Mars that Himmelskibet’s pacifism comes to the fore. Martian civilisation combines elements typical of nineteenth-century utopian or lost-race fictions: pseudo-classical architecture, costume and customs; divine ancient wisdom; telepathy; social, psychological and physiological engineering, in this instance organised around a fruitarian diet; and a scattering of superscience technologies. Here, however, the emphasis is not on detailing eutopia’s radically different socio-economic structures but on the stately grace of the Martians, their social/religious rituals and the beauty of their landscape (which looks exactly like the Danish countryside, apart from the occasional ziggurat or giant flower). Premiering in February 1918, the film’s boldest move is overtly to transvaluate the God of War into the Planet of Peace.

The Martians greet the expedition with fruit, but disdain the wine they are offered in return and are repelled by cans of ‘dead meat’. Avanti shoots a bird from the sky to show the Martians that they, too, could easily add meat to their diet. The Martians, appalled by the sound of the first gunshot on the planet in thousands of years and by the murder of a living being, advance on the humans, and Dane throws a grenade, killing a Martian: ‘War and sin! Killing and blood!’ have come to ‘the planet of peace’, and ‘must be atoned for’.

Marya (Lilly Jacobson), the daughter of the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech), appoints herself the expedition’s defender as the humans subject themselves to Martian law, which punishes them by giving them self-knowledge. They are shown scenes from Martian history – of the ‘killing with fire and iron’ that prevailed until the Wise Man brought peace to their world – and thus learn that ‘Blood screams in even the smallest murder and sin opens its gates of hell/The source of life is but pure and good, woven from every strain of blood’. The humans vow never again to kill any living creature and even Dane surrenders his weapons. Then, to their amazement, the dead Martian is revived.

Many elements of Himmelskibet remain quite impressive: the dressing of its bourgeois sets and the chiaroscuro lighting effects; the Excelsior’s interior design, its rivets, gears and wheels prefiguring the spaceship interiors of Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and Flash Gordon (Stephani US 1936); and the blend of effects shots and actuality footage, including aerial views of Copenhagen, worked into the Excelsior’s launch sequence.

However, its attempts to depict a truly spiritual Martian people have fared less well. This is perhaps most evident in the rather curious courtship of Avanti and Marya. When he declares his love at ‘the tree of longing’ and then enters the ‘forest of love’ with her, it is impossible to tell whether these terms are supposed to have symbolic meaning within the diegesis, are part of an exegetic double-coding to make it clear that they are about to consummate their love, or just really unfortunate phrasing. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of Avanti fondling Marya’s breasts, especially as the rest of their interactions seem so chaste and this scene comes just after a comparison has been drawn between the Martian ‘dance of chastity’ and scenes of terrestrial debauchery and violence. Indeed, the only time the images manage to convey any sense of poetic harmony are a handful of shots depicting terrestrial workers in the early morning light of which Humphrey Jennings would have been proud.

14697181688_4dcbc8e4b7Marya joins the Excelsior on its return to Earth so as to propagate her father’s ‘message of enlightenment’. Professor Planetaros, whose suicide is narrowly averted by his son’s homecoming, welcomes her with these words: ‘In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich’.[10] This hopeful address to the future must have seemed bitterly ironic in the closing months of a war in which nine million combatants, most of them young people, were killed. It is, however, perhaps too much to suggest that, in such hierarchical and patriarchal sentiments, in Planetaros’ reduction of a ‘superior’ woman to a literal and symbolic womb, and in the film’s Aryan vision of superiority, its fascination with uniforms, technology and messianic heroism, that the outlines of the Next Great War can already be glimpsed.

Works cited
Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Anon. ‘Not Much is Known of Daylight Comet’, The New York Times (30 January 1910): C3. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9400E7D61730E233A25753C3A9679C946196D6CF.
Mottram, Ron. The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988.

Notes
[1] The longest continuously operating studio in the world, Nordisk still makes 10-15 productions and co-productions per year.

[2] The first decade of the twentieth century was the only time imported films have dominated the American screen. By the autumn of 1907, Pathé alone ‘was selling on the American market between thirty and forty million feet of positive film stock per year, nearly twice as much as all the American companies combined’ (Abel 87).

[3] He has a role in Atlantis, but there is ‘no documentation … to support [the] claim’ (Mottram 9) that he was also its assistant director.

[4] For an overview of his films from 1910-14, see Mottram.

[5] One cannot help but wonder whether this sequence inspired Tod Browning’s The Unknown (US 1927), in which Lon Chaney performs equally remarkable armless feats.

[6] A Danish audience would presumably have recognised this as the Buried Church in Skagen, the most northerly point of Jutland, which was lost – with much metaphorical commentary – to the encroaching sands during a period of desertification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[7] Such attention to the contents and spatial organisation of the frame may have influenced Curtiz’s own distinctive mise-en-scene, perhaps best exemplified by the interiors of Casablanca (US 1942) and Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

[8] Although its engine room seems to contain only a small five-stroke motor.

[9] After the war, Japan was awarded a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and Saionji Kinmochi was seated with David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando at the Versailles Peace Conference, although his attempts to include a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty failed.

[10] Rather unfortunately for the Anglophone viewer, this sentiment is followed by an ‘End’ caption in Swedish, which is ‘Slut’.

Transformers (Michael Bay US 2007)

Transformers_w1_7spar[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 1.1 (2008), 163-167. Which seems a very long time ago.]

It all began with Barbie dolls and Gene Rodenberry. In 1964, noting the success of the former (launched by Mattel in 1959), Hasbro designed the G.I. Joe dolls for boys, inspired by characters from the Rodenberry-produced series The Lieutenant (1963-64). In Japan, Takara’s success with Combat Joe, licensed from Hasbro, led them to develop another line of dolls, launched in 1972, called Henshin Cyborg, with visible internal atomic power units and cybernetic systems. A spin-off line called Microman, smaller and less expensive to produce, featured robots who ‘disguised themselves as toys’ (they were released in the US as Micronauts). Their component parts were interchangeable, and some of them could be shapeshifted into vehicles. In 1984, Hasbro bought the rights to the latter variety, combined them with another line of Japanese toys (Takara’s Diaclone, which featured human-piloted robots and vehicles, including Car-Robots), and brought in Marvel Comics to help produce a narrative universe for their new line: The Transformers. There followed toys, comics, a television cartoon series (1984-87), an animated movie (1986), more toys, more comics, more cartoon series (the Canadian and Japanese Beast Wars spin-offs (1996-99 and 1998-99, respectively), the Japanese Robots in Disguise (2001)), some novels and video games, some cross-overs with the American G.I. Joe and British Action Force comics, three seasons of Japanese/American co-produced cartoons (2002-06), more toys, more comics…

Alternatively, it all begins on the planet Cybertron, devastated by a war between two kinds of giant, metamorphic robot: the Decepticons, who are evil because they look that way, and the Autobots, who are not evil because they do not (and when they get to Earth, they transform into down-home, good ol’ boy muscle cars, semis and monster trucks). The Decepticons are led, by the genocidal Megatron, the Autobots by the pompous Optimus Prime. During the war, something called the Allspark (or The Cube) was lost. Its exact nature and purpose are unclear, but both the Decepticons and Autobots have been searching the galaxy for it, so it must be really really important. It is, of course, on Earth.

Back in the 1930s, The Cube (you can hear the capital letters when people say it) was discovered on the border between Arizona and Nevada, prompting President Hoover to order the construction of a giant dam on the Colorado river in which to conceal it. Three decades earlier, in either 1897 or 1895 (the film gives both dates), polar explorer Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard) accidentally discovered Megatron, frozen beneath the arctic ice. It is unclear what happened in the interim, but once Hoover Dam was under construction, the US government (somehow) transported the giant robot there, where it has been kept in ‘cryo-stasis’ (somehow) and mined (somehow) for a range of reverse-engineered technologies. But most of the backstory comes later. Once the introductory narration about the Transformer war and The Cube is over, the film starts in Qatar (which mysteriously has mountains), with an attack on a US military base by a Decepticon intent on infiltrating US Defence systems. Only a handful of soldiers, who seem to be in both the airforce and the army, escape. The film also starts in Nevada (if we pay attention to geography) or in California (if we pay attention to licence plates), with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouff), the explorer’s hapless great, great grandson (or great grandson – the film keeps losing count), who is desperate to get a car so he can get a girl, specifically Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). He ends up buying a battered yellow-and-black Camaro, specifically Autobot-in-disguise Bumblebee, who has in fact sought him out. These lines converge at the Hoover Dam. The audience is fastidiously introduced to all of the Decepticons – unlike many of the human characters, they all have names – and then the humans lure them to a busy intersection in Mission City (which seems to be both 20 miles away and in California, with parts of a Los Angeles skyline and at least one building from Detroit) for a final showdown with the Autobots.

Director Michael Bay brings to the film precisely what one would expect: images which seem to take place behind a brittle veneer; sometimes shockingly poor taste in music and broad comedy; the inability to imagine women (or, actually, people); the homoeroticism; the barely concealed homosexual panic; the jingoism; the cynical patriotism; the racist stereotypes; the world that consists almost entirely of the US; the version of Manifest Destiny which allows for occasional distrust of big government and secret agencies; the passion for really cool pieces of kit, especially guns and other military equipment; the bloated running time; the box-office success. As one imdb user commented, although probably not in the way I read it, ‘To me this film is the imagination of a little kid put to screen’.

Such features of Bay’s films require little explication – for the most part, they are not even subtextual (at last, a WMD in a Middle Eastern desert!). Rather, as my nitpicking suggests, I am interested in considering here a rather different aspect of the film: its use of digital technologies (digital editing, image manipulation and CGI effects), for which Bay’s Transformers themselves provide a compelling metaphor.

The film’s teaser trailer, released in Summer 2007, depicts the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. After the probe lands (‘we were told it crashed’, a caption tells us), its rover rolls out onto the surface, broadcasting the view from its camera eyes (‘its final transmission was classified top secret’). A shadow falls where no shadow should be; a giant robot, silhouetted against the sky, slams down its fist; static (‘it was the only warning we would ever get’). As a hook narrative, it was very effective, building suspense and ending with a flash of revelation which functioned simultaneously as a refusal of revelation (the shot of the silhouetted Decepticon is almost too quick even to register).

The film, of course, cannot be so coy. It has nothing to reveal. Vehicles transforming into giant robots and slugging it out with other giant robots are, as narrative and spectacle, its sole raison d’être. But somehow it gets it badly wrong. Part of the brilliance of Neill Blomkamp’s 2004 advert for the Citroën C4, in which a car transformed into a robot and danced to the music playing on its stereo (it and its successors can be found on youtube), was that the transformation happens at a pace and on a scale that the viewer can follow: you can see where the tyres or the end up in the design of the final robot. In contrast, Michael Bay’s Transformers change impossibly quickly, going through multiple intervening iterations and shifts in mass at the blink of an eye, retaining in their final form only stylised fragments of mechanism.

If this merely represented a loss of the clunky charm of the toys and the comic and cartoon characters, it would not necessarily be a bad thing. However, during the climactic battle between Decepticons and Autobots, it is often impossible to tell which robot is which. Because it has nothing to reveal, the film obscures its visual spectacle – it all happens too quickly, in disconnected fragments – so that it can occasionally puncture this digital blur with some rather more effective shots of the robots in graceful slow-motion. It is a programmer’s aesthetic, performing impenetrable feats before slowing everything down to the comprehensible, the workstation’s-eye view. It revels in the detail of the individual frame, as played back, rewatched and marvelled over during its production.

But, of course, this is deceptive. Watched on frame-advance, the actual still images are filled with motion-blur so as to avoid the stop-start effect of traditional frame-by-frame stop-motion animation; and in the transformation scenes, the recognisable bits of the vehicles mostly do just disappear from view.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a digital-era Transformers movie, with a production budget of US$150 million, would go this way: the Transformers themselves, like digital technologies, offer a powerful fantasy of mutability. This is evident not just in the computer-generated imagery, but also in the manipulation of digital images (removing safety wires in action sequences, and so on) and in digital editing (because every cut is reversible, none of them carry weight). In this sense, what the Transformers actually reveal is the extent to which digital filmmaking on this scale has produced a regime in which signification is more important than coherence: the primary function of a city intersection, or foreign land, is to look like an intersection or a foreign land, and only the money-shot characters need to have names. It is more interested in parts than in wholes, and fantasises complete control over outcomes. Which, it turns out, is not unlike the imperialist project for which Bay’s films cheerlead.

The Mad Maxathon, part four: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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Part one, part two, part three

Let there be no doubt. Mad Max: Fury Road is without question the very best film I saw yesterday (the other one was La momia azteca contra el robot humano (1958)).

It is also the very best Mad Max movie since Road Warrior. And like Road Warrior, it needs to be seen on the big screen (albeit for slightly different reasons, which I will get into below).

I can see George Miller’s pitch even now: Ice Cold in Alex (1958) meets Pumzi (2009), but faster. And we’re gonna steal all that crazy shit about pregnant women and bags of seed from The Ultimate Warrior (1975). And just one more thing from Island of Lost Souls (1932). And Dune (1984) was set on a desert planet, too, so we’ll throw in some of the unsavouriness of the Harkonnens, but without the obvious homophobia.

And, the executives asked, will there be an unexpected homage to Duran Duran and fellow ozploitation alumnus Russell Mulcahy?

You betcha, said George.

But even more unexpected than that there will be, when Max comes to desert after the big sandstorm scene, a tribute to Derek Zoolander’s friends who died in a freak gasoline-fight accident.

Except with supermodels.

Pregnant supermodels.

And water, not guzzle-een. We’ll save the tanks of wet-nurse milk for later. When Max has to wash blood off his face.

But don’t worry, it’s not his blood.

There has been a lot of commentary about how Fury Road gets it right by mostly eschewing CGI in favour of actually staging the action with real vehicles and actual stuntmen. Which is both true and a little misleading. There is quite a bit of CGI, albeit more judiciously deployed than one would expect in a $150 million movie, and there is an awful lot of compositing and post-production digital enhancement. (This is why you need the big screen – not so much for the profilmic car-crunching of Mad Max and Road Warrior, but for the setting of similar action in massively spectacular landscapes.)

There is also – and this is what most people seem to be missing – a lot of attention paid to classical conventions of spatial construction. Unlike in a Christopher Nolan movie, spaces actually make coherent sense, and thanks to John Seale’s camera being held that little bit further from the action and Margaret Sixel’s less-rapid editing you can, unlike in a Michael Bay movies, always tell who is doing what to whom and where they are in relation to each other and their setting.

75Don’t get me wrong, this coherence does not necessarily lead to suspense – Fury Road is no Wages of Fear (1953) or Hell Drivers (1957) or even, though it pains me to say it, Duel (1971) – but it is able to produce an awful lot of tense moments. And this tension stems from the careful thinking-through of the action sequences, from the small scale stuff (Max fighting Furiosa, while he is chained to both a broken-off car door and the unconscious Nux and suffering from the interference of the pregnant supermodels) upwards.

maxresdefaultIs it one long chase sequence? Not exactly. There are moments of pause, moments when the audience can catch their breath, but Miller does something inspired with them. They are character scenes, but so perfunctory – so hilariously badly written, so utterly lacking in the cheesy charm of the Fast and Furious movies – that you are happy for these layovers to be shortened and the chase to start back up again.

The only thing missing is Jerry Reed singing ‘East Bound and Down‘.

Is it the feminist movie those “Men’s Rights” folks seemed so terrified of? (Assuming all that bullshit wasn’t an ingenious piece of viral marketing.)

The answer really depends on how you define feminism. I think it passes the Bechdel test, but there is so little conversation in the movie it is hard to tell. 75.0Charlize Theron, an actress who normally makes me go meh, is implacable as Furiosa and handles a big share of the action every bit as well as the always adorable Tom Hardy. The pregnancy/supermodel/ lactation/seeds conjunction recalls something of that old school hippy female-essentialist feminism. The ageing desert warrior women are just plain brilliant – not exactly 70s lesbian separatists but, in a future where all the men are such dicks, who wouldn’t be in favour of a little wimminz separatism? There is also at times a curious overlaying of female voices, often too quiet to make out many of the words, which made me think of the Kristevan chora –‘Although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definively posited: as a result, one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form’ – which seemed to be pointing towards something interesting to do with desert spaces and, in this company of women, the pre-symbolic (and to pick up on Max’s traumatic flashback instants to events similar, but not identical, to things that happened in the trilogy).

Do these things make it feminist?

Frankly, you’re having a laugh. It is just less intolerant of women than many other movies made on this scale.

But they do give the movie some powerful and intriguing cross-currents and textures. I will have to see it a few more times to even begin to figure it out.

Does Max have a mullet? That would be spoilers.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.

Especially if you can dodge the inflation of ticket prices by distributors/exhibitors manipulating 2D and 3D screenings. My local cinema only had the 3D version at £15+ a ticket. The big-ass fancypants cinema in town was charging less for 3D, but had put the 2D version in the “director’s hall”, which made tickets even more expensive than the local 3D. Fortunately, the third-rate cinema in town was showing the 2D at a price which meant two of us could see it for a fraction more than one of us could have seen the local 3D or the fancypants 2D. It is like a temporally-compacted version of classical Hollywood’s system of ‘runs’ is being reintroduced.

And sadly the cinema we saw it in was just a sanitised pathetic relic of its former self, rather than the grunge pit in which ozploitation, however gussied up, should be seen.