Jameson, serendipity and the Anthropocene unconscious of Joseph Conrad

lord_jim-leadSo there I was rereading Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act for the first time in twenty-odd years to help me firm up my theorisation of the Anthropocene unconscious, and Fred only blooming goes and quotes, albeit for different reasons, this passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I have not read in thirty years:

Above the mass of sleepers, a faint and patient sigh at times floated, the exhalation of a troubled dream; and short metallic clangs bursting out suddenly in the depths of the ship, the harsh scrape of a shovel, the violent slam of a furnace-door, exploded brutally, as if the men handling the mysterious things below had their breasts full of fierce anger: while the slim high hull of the steamer went on evenly ahead, without a sway of her bare masts, cleaving continuously the great calm of the waters under the inaccessible serenity of the sky.

Next up, if I can sort out the clips, the Anthropocene unconscious of Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe. (No, I am not joking.)

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Creator (Ivan Passer 1985), adapted from Jeremy Leven’s Creator (1980)

6a0mv5bmtqxmzm5ota0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0mzqxmde-_v1_uy1200_cr7706301200_al_[the penultimate piece written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Leven’s novel is presented as the notebooks of Harry Wolper, written during 1969 to record his ongoing efforts to produce a clone of his wife, Lucy, who died in 1936 – efforts he deludes himself are altruistic, since he believes that the human race is about to become infertile. The notebooks include recollections of his courtship and marriage, the experiments that led to his Nobel Prize, his discoveries that enabled the development of the contraceptive pill, and his illicit career as an abortionist before the pill became available. During 1969, Harry’s son, Arnold, schemes to have him committed; his friend, Paul, has a nervous breakdown; and Maury Halpern gets closer and closer to identifying the town’s secret abortionist, who he is determined to see prosecuted. While searching for a woman to carry Lucy’s clone to term, Harry becomes involved with Meli, a nineteen-year-old self-declared nymphomaniac, who wants to marry him.

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This is the edition I had. The egg shape is a cut-out, with image within it actually a frontispiece. Classy. All the way down.

The notebooks also chart Harry’s relationship with Boris Lafkin, a fictional character in the novel he is writing, increasingly lengthy extracts of which appear in the notebooks. Boris demands control over his own narrative – hitherto, a series of cruelly comical misadventures – and his life radically improves as he meets, fall in love with and proposes to Barbara. But then she suffers an aneurysm and slips into a coma. Boris finally agrees to turn off her life-support. The autopsy reveals that, with a little more time, she would have recovered from the seemingly irreversible brain damage.

Harry, who suffers from Mazel’s Syndrome, dies within a month of marrying Meli. The final journal entry is by Boris, who wonders why he ever needed to invent Harry in the first place. Just as his story has taken over the journal, so now he becomes the author of Harry – at least until Harry tries to have the final word.

Leven’s novel is an awkward patchwork of tones, ranging from pseudoscientific patter to cod-philosophising, from the clumsily lascivious (a feature also of his second novel, Satan, His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr Kassler, JSPS (1982)) to the tediously prolonged sentimental (Leven’s screenplays include The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford 2000), The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) and a draft of The Time Traveler’s Wife (Schwentke 2009)). The novel’s metaleptic play between ontological levels, hardly groundbreaking in 1980, is a victim of the increasing familiarity of such postmodern fictional techniques (which Leven was even able to deploy in his romantic comedy screenplay, Alex & Emma (Reiner 2003)). Its bawdiness repeatedly runs aground on the characters’ unlikeability, and its attempts at profundity keep running into the problem of not actually having anything profound to say.

MSDCREA EC001Ivan Passer’s film, scripted by Leven, jettisons vast swathes of material. It retains Harry’s (Peter O’Toole) private cloning experiment and relationship with Meli (Mariel Hemingway), and relocates Boris’ (Vincent Spano) story to the primary diegesis, where he is a graduate student Harry poaches from a rival scientist, Sid Kullenbeck (David Ogden Stiers). By locating both narratives on the same ontic level, it loses any self-reflexive edge; 6a0creator1rather than competing with and commenting upon each other, they become nothing more than strands in a poorly focused (rather than multi-centred) story. Just as the complexly layered and multi-accented novel is transformed into a mildly comic sentimental drama, so Harry is recast as a genial eccentric, given to impish misbehaviour and flouting authority. O’Toole’s beautiful laziness lends the character an otherworldly air, as if he were a saint or a fool, but Hemingway is merely annoying as Meli – a character one is supposed, presumably, to find kooky and charming, if only to allay any distaste at the substantial age gap between her and her lover. Similarly, as Boris and Barbara Spano and Virginia Madsen (and their director) struggle with a script that seems incapable of them as anything more than characters in a poorly conceived novel. It is difficult to tell whether a tear-jerking ending in which Barbara died would have been any more disastrous than the one Leven actually opted for, in which Harry uses his authority to buy Boris sufficient time to talk her – successfully and without lasting health problems – out of a coma. No trace of the camp cruelty with which the novel’s adolescent ironies break Boris survives.

A new subplot involves Harry’s rivalry with Sid Kullenbeck, who schemes to get Harry relocated to Northfield, an unfunded research centre, where elderly scientists are put out to pasture, so that he can gain control of the funding Harry commands. Kullenbeck does not realise that the money follows the recipient, rather than staying with the institution, so when Harry’s masterful presentation to representatives of a research-funding organisation attracts even more money, everyone relocates with him to Northfield. It is unclear, however, what this adds to the film, other than some gentle humour at the expense of Stiers’s familiar pompous persona.

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Ivan Passer, whose Intimni osvetleni/Intimate Lightning (1965) remains an important film of the Czech New Wave, has never seemed comfortable making films in America, despite emigrating there in the late 1960s. Indeed, his cult hit Cutter’s Way (1981) mostly succeeds as a character-driven crime thriller because of the piquancy of its angular failures. While Passer’s direction of Creator is never less than competent, it is rarely more than that. His attempts to make the film freewheeling and quirky repeatedly stall in the face of a screenplay that is incapable of imagining people or human emotion.

Dandies in the Underworld

fantomasA giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.

Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.

The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.

Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.

The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.

raffles-1917He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, da993b7bbe01f24bdfcf2ae6e48c04bbRonald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.

Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, raffles_tll10starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…

But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.

As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.

In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.

The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).

21129_Danger-Diabolik-05Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-raf_bun2dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.

This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no castgentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…

Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?

In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…

Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]