The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week 10: The Secret Agent, part two

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week 9

This week we continued with Conrad’s novel, and also took a look at Hitchcock’s adaptation of it as Sabotage (Hitchcock UK 1936). Our first step was to pick up on a reading exercise left over from last week: in what ways and to what extent do the Professor’s views of society/life (54-6) differ from or coincide with those of Inspector Heat (73-74) and the Assistant Commissioner (82)? [All page references to the current Penguin edition.]

The Professor imagines a world governed by social convention, from which he has separated himself because he is superior to the mass of humankind. To him, society is ‘a complex organised fact’ which orders their lives – even the lives of policemen and anarchists/terrorists, who are similarly bound by it. He describes how Chief Inspector Heat has always to worry about countless things – his bosses, reputation, legal process, being paid, publicity – whereas he himself is capable of focusing on just one thing: building the perfect detonator. He is misanthropic, and has cut himself off from others and, as far as he can, from the needs of his own body.

Heat recognises this social order – he understands thieves. They, like other workers, labour, choosing to risk imprisonment rather than to risk the ‘ankylosis, or lead-poisoning, or fire-damp, or gritty dust’ that come with working ‘in potteries, in coal mines, in fields, in too-grinding shops’ (73). There is a certain honesty to their dishonesty. They are subject to the same morality as him, to the same conventions and demands: ‘Products of the same machine, one classed as useful and the other as noxious, they take the machine for granted in different ways but with a seriousness essentially the same’ (74).

The Assistant Commissioner, who misses the active life of being a copper in the tropics, is discontented with his job (he does not like sitting behind a desk, or having to rely on the underlings he manages) and with his life (his wife, who is from a higher class, insisted on living in Britain). Each night, on the way home, he plays whist at his club with the same three acquaintances, none of whom really know each other – they are ‘co-sufferers’, plagued by the indistinct ‘secret ills of existence’ (82). The club, the game, is a safe haven, a semblance of friendship.

All three accept the existence of a less than satisfactory social order: the Professor would destroy it; Heat is content with it, as long as everyone stays in their assigned place and plays their ascribed role; the Assistant Commissioner does his duty in preserving it, regardless of personal feelings. This is the universe that that iron knitting machine knits without pause or consideration.

Stephen Bernstein’s ‘Politics, Modernity and Domesticity: The Gothicism of Conrad’s The Secret Agent‘ describes the novel in terms of its ‘gothic paranoia and ‘the omnipresence of gothic gloom’’: ‘Everything is ghostly, haunted’ (286) and ‘haunting … is a condition of existence’ rather than merely an isolated location or single individual (287). With this in mind, we looked for gothic imagery of: death, burial, gloom, misery, impoverishment, ill-health, sleepwalking, funerals, existential despair (and clocks).

Verloc’s house is ‘in a shady street behind a shop where the sun never shone’ (205), where the ‘dull brown shelves’ of ‘shady wares’ seem to ‘devour the sheen of the light’ (169). It is in a street where the distant cries of newspaperboys ‘expired between the dirty brick walls without reaching the threshold of the shop’ (162) – indeed, in the ‘darkness and solitude of Brett Street … all sounds of life seemed lost as if in a triangular well of asphalt and bricks, of blind houses and unfeeling stones’ (219). Winnie, when courting another, had imagined marriage as ‘a voyage down the sparkling stream of life’ (191); but when circumstances prompted her to marry Verloc in stead, she found ‘there was no sparkle of any kind of the lazy stream of his life’ , and ‘domestic feeling’ turns out to be ‘stagnant and deep like a placid pool’ (193). Verloc, after Stevie’s death, longs for prison, which ‘was a place as safe from certain unlawful vengeances as the grave’ (186), while Ossipon, on the run with Winnie, curses ‘insular Britain’, which might as well be a prison.

 

Or we could take Winnie as a key example of the range of deathly imagery applied to characters. When Verloc fails to comprehend the extent of her grief over Stevie, her heart ‘hardened and chilled into a lump of ice’ and ‘her features [set] into a frozen contemplative immobility addressed to a whitewashed wall with no writing on it’ (191). The next page recalls her traumatic childhood, in which she had to protect her younger brother from being beaten by their drunken father, a broken brute of a man. Haunted by these memories, she ‘heard [his] words again in a ghostly fashion’ (192). When she replies to Verloc, ‘it was as if a corpse had spoken’ (196). When she has put on a hat and veil to go out, he complains that it is impossible to ‘tell whether one is talking to a dummy or to a live woman’ (203). She even becomes an inanimate object in a suddenly abstract scientific space:

The veiled sound filled the small room with its moderate volume, well adapted to the modest nature of the wish. The waves of air of the proper length, propagated in accordance with correct mathematical formulas, flowed around all the inanimate things in the room, lapped against Mrs Verloc’s head as if it had been a head of stone. (206)

She looks at the clock ‘mechanically’ (212) – some time earlier, Verloc was described as an automaton:

Mr Verloc obeyed woodenly, stony-eyed, and like an automaton whose face had been painted red. And this resemblance to a mechanical figure went so far that he had an automaton’s absurd air of being aware of the machinery in side of him. (156)

Fleeing the house, terrified of being executed and thus intent on making her way to the Thames to commit suicide, Winnie finds, ironically, that ‘The fear of death paralysed her efforts to escape the gallows’ (214):

She was the most lonely of murderers that ever struck a mortal blow. She was alone in London: and the whole town of marvels and mud, with its maze of streets and its mass of lights, was sunk in a hopeless night, rested at the bottom of a black abyss form which no unaided woman could hope to scramble out. (214)

When Ossipon becomes embroiled in her escape attempt, he takes on the appearance of his own death mask – ‘with a face like a fresh plaster cast of himself after a wasting illness’ (232) – while she becomes like death: ‘all black – black as commonplace death itself, crowned with a few cheap and pale flowers’ (234), and when she lifts her veil, ‘out of [her adamant] face the eyes looked on, big, dry, enlarged, lightless, burnt out like two black holes in the white, shining globes’ (235). Ossipon, who is looking to justify robbing and abandoning her, suddenly see her resemblance to Stevie and, recalling Lombroso’s ‘criminal anthropology’,  begins to catalogue her degenerate features. He thus traps her once more in a system beyond her control – like marriage and family and money and class.

Against the broad backdrop of gothic paranoia found in such examples, we turned to chapter eight. The careful reader will have guess already that Stevie died in the explosion, but as chapter eight starts, he seems to be alive and well.

I remember when I first read The Secret Agent (I would have been maybe fifteen, and had already read Heart of Darkness (1899) to try to figure out  Apocalypse Now (Coppola US 1979), which I had sneaked into the cinema to see, and not understand, when I was 11, on the same day that I saw Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise US 1979). Ah! my precocious and misspent youth!). I was absolutely caught up by the suspense of wondering whether it was indeed Stevie killed in the bomb blast, and then was completely thrown by chapter eight and most of chapter nine, which do not signal that they are set in between Verloc’s meeting with Vladimir and the bombing. For the longest time I hated those chapters – it felt like Conrad was cheating, just like the bit with the doorbell at the end of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme US 1991) – but now I see them rather differently. Yes, on one level, it remains a cheap trick; but it also effectively extends that pervading sense of death-in-life as Stevie is consigned, like Schrodinger’s cat, to a limbo existence, hovering between life and death. And chapter eight in particular is fabulously rich in conveying Conrad’s gloomy entombing London populated with grotesques.

The hackney carriage driver is ‘maimed’, his left hand replaced with an iron hook; his giant ruddy face, ‘bloated and sodden’ (125), almost lights up the ‘muddy stretch of … street’ (124). He is stubbly, dirty, with ‘little red eyes’ and ‘big lips’ that have a ‘violet tint’ (126). His intellect has ‘lost its pristine vivacity in the benumbing years of sedentary exposure to the weather’ (126). His horse is ‘infirm’ (124) and emaciated, its ‘ribs and backbone’ visible (132). The carriage itself is not much better (124). The streets through which he drives Winnie and her mother are so narrow that they can look in the passing windows, which shake and rattle as the carriage goes past, sounding as if they might collapse. Jammed ‘close to the curbstone’, their ‘progress’ is insignificant (126).

When Stevie jumps down from the box to lighten the horse’s burden, Winnie is as ‘white as a ghost’ (125) – later, Verloc will look at her ‘as though she had been a phantom’ (139) – but under the gaslights of the ‘early dirty night’ (126), her cheeks take on an orange hue (127). Her mother’s naturally bilious ‘predisposition’ gives her a yellow complexion – only blushing might turn her cheeks orange (127). The almshouse to which she is moving – barren, unfurnished, just ‘bare planks and cheaply papered bricks’ (123) – has such narrow dimensions that it ‘might well have been devised in kindness as a place of training for the still more straitened circumstances of the grave’ (127).

In ‘the seclusion of the back bedroom’ of Verloc’s house, she had ‘reflected stoically that everything decays, wears out, in this world’ (128); she know she will die soon, and so she must ensure Stevie’ s future by abandoning him prematurely, and this decision – to move south of the river! – seems to be at one with the entropic decline of the cosmos. Later, it will be noted that ‘it may be said that [,] having parted for good from her children [she] had also departed this life’ (135) – and she certainly departs the novel, returning only as a memory, someone who must be told of Stevie’s death yet who seems to Winnie to be so far distant as to be utterly inaccessible.

The cab meanwhile rattles on, jolting so violently as to obliterate ‘every sensation of onward movement’ and create the impression of ‘being shaken in a stationary apparatus like a medieval device for the punishment of crime or’ – and this is a brilliant, deflationary touch, ‘some very new-fangled invention for the cure of a sluggish liver’ (129). A similar ironic tone – evident throughout the novel – can be seen when the cabman examines his payment:

pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil. … he talked to Stevie of domestic matters and the affairs of men whose sufferings are great and immortality by no means assured. … A silence reigned, during which the flanks of the old horse, the steed of apocalyptic misery, smoked upwards in the light of the charitable gas-lamp. (131, 132, 132-3)

The continual disjunction between epic phrasing and commonplace life seems simultaneously to say that people should matter this much and clearly do not, and that such illusions might make life bearable, but they are nonetheless illusions.

(This ironic disjuncture exposes the hypocrisy and cant of those who chatter about the ‘dignity of labour’ and ‘heavenly rewards’ by drawing attention to the meagreness of lives here and now and the constraints under which they are lived. Part of me admires that the apolitical Conrad, who believes there is no possible solution to the exigencies of life in a godless universe, never looks for one, and that he refuses to offer any platitudes; but on the other hand, it also frees him from the responsibility of trying to find temporary and partial solutions to real suffering, which kind of annoys me. In this context, Stevie becomes the kind of model liberal subject, incoherently moved to pity and incomprehension – all ‘sensations’ (133), ‘immoderate compassion’ and ‘innocent but pitiless rage’ (134), he cannot comprehend that it is not somehow the job of the police to right such wrongs, but rather in Winnie’s words to ensure ‘that them as have nothing shouldn’t take anything away from them who have’ (138). This is undoubtedly one of those things that, she profoundly feels, ‘do not stand much looking into’ (141). The irony will escalate in the closing chapters of the novel as Conrad gives us insight first into Verloc and Winnie, as their mutual incomprehension grows, and then Winnie and Ossipon, as they talk at cross-purposes, neither perceiving the other, just imputing motives to them.)

The departing cab seems

cast out into the gutter on account of irremediable decay. … Its aspect was so profoundly lamentable, with such a perfection of grotesque misery and weirdness of macabre detail, as it if were the Cab of Death. (135-6)

After Winnie and Stevie return home, the pensive Verloc goes for an aimless walk, leading ‘a cortège of dismal thoughts along dark streets’ (141). On returning home, he stares at Winnie with ‘a somnambulistic, expressionless gaze’ (141) – perhaps like that of Cesar, who we saw in a clip from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari a few weeks ago; later, Inspector Heat will also be described as a ‘somnambulist’ (176). Verloc thinks of his mother-in-law in terms of ‘rats leaving a doomed ship’ (141), and then undresses

with the unnoticing inward concentration of a man undressing in the solitude of a vast and hopeless desert. For thus inhospitably did this fair earth, our common inheritance, present itself to the mental vision of Mr Verloc. All was so still without and within that the lonely ticking of the clock on the landing stole into the room as if for the sake of company. (142)

Conrad moves from sarcastic commentary on Verloc’s melodramatic self-presentation of his situation to the delightful image of the animated ticking of the clock – that would not be out of place in either a Fleischer cartoon or a volume of Marx (who often animates inanimate objects in their relation to human life). The clock will become a recurring image in the later stages of the novel – just a couple of pages later, Winnie will ‘let the lonely clock on the landing count of fifteen ticks into the abyss of eternity’ (144) before responding to her husband, and a couple more pages later we will learn of Stevie’s discomposing habit of sitting in the dark at its foot (147). In Winnie’s dullness after killing Verloc she will be puzzled by the ticking of another clock, one that does not actually tick, and then slowly realise it is the sound of his blood running out (209, 210). She will look at the clock again, assuming it must have stopped since time is passing much more slowly than she thought (212); and she will fear it, half-believing that ‘clocks and watches always stopped at the moment of murder for the undoing of the murderer’ (213). (We have already seen the importance of clock imagery to Fritz Lang’s vision of the modern city in both M and Metropolis.)

In closing, we briefly considered the differences between Hitchcock’s Sabotage and Conrad’s novel, noting among other things how Hitchcock of seems to take small items of inspiration. When the Assistant Commissioner leaves his office, ‘his descent into the street was like a descent into a slimy aquarium’ (117); in the film, Verloc meets his paymaster in the subterranean aquarium at Regent’s Park Zoo. When Hitchcock seems to play up Oscar Homolka’s resemblance to Bela Lugosi, this might also be based on vaguely vampiric imagery in the novel – the comparison of Verloc arriving back from the continent like the influenza (Dracula as a European infection), and the revelation that Ossipon basically conducts his business by night to sleep during the day, and so on. The aquarium, of course, also plays into Hitchcock’s imagery of caged birds and animals – exemplifying gothic entrapment, the snare of circumstances.

Hitchcock also has a rather different, if also black, sense of humour. He shows up the absurdities of common people through attention to the details of mundane life, whereas Conrad’s ironic distancing from his characters often seems like sarcastic mockery of their aspirations and illusions.

week 11

Recommended critical reading – see week 9
Recommended reading – see week 9
Recommended viewing – see week 9

Crimson Peak (del Toro 2015)

MV5BNTY2OTI5MjAyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTkzMjQ0NDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Pretty much all the commentary so far has been about one of two things.

Critics have been unanimous in their praise of how gorgeous the film looks, from its gothicky design to its fabulous frocks and sumptuous colour palette (it also has some nice irises and cunning wipes).

Or they have echoed del Toro’s own point that it is not really a horror movie so much as a gothic romance, full of echoes and allusions, including: Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; the several versions of Jane Eyre and Silence of the Lambs; Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious; Medak’s The Changeling; The Haunting, and Wises’s; King’s The Shining, and Kubrick’s; the Coen’s Barton Fink; del Toro’s own Devil’s Backbone; and so on.

All of these critics are right, and yet without exception they overlook del Toro’s major accomplishment.

Somehow, he manages constantly to keep this astonishing overblown confection of evil aristocrats, ghosts, forbidden rooms, gramophone cylinders, automata, letters, keys, ghosts, murder, incest, idiosyncratic grim-up-north grimness, peculiarly hardy Cumberland moths, violent assaults and revolutionary mining technology just this side of hilariously funny. And somehow he makes it a constant delight, grand guignol at its most operatic, all logic subordinated to production design.

But it would take just one person in the auditorium to start laughing, and it could all go disastrously wrong.

It is not the first time del Toro has walked this particular line. Much as I enjoyed them, Hellboy II and  Pacific Rim edge along a similar tightrope, and are rather less successful in keeping it together.

Early in the film, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) explains of a story she has written that it is not so much a ghost story as a story with ghosts in it, and that her ghosts are actually metaphors for the past. With the kind of New Weird chutzpah that China Miéville once championed, del Toro’s film takes completely the opposite tack. His ghosts are ghosts, not metaphors.

However, the logic of Miéville’s argument meant that while one should be absolutely committed to treating monsters as monsters rather than as metaphors, this should nonetheless leave their metaphorical potential open and even make for more effective metaphoricity. But with del Toro’s pastiche late-Victorian setting lacking the historical resonances of Devil’s and Pan’s Labyrinth‘s (not unproblematic) Spanish Civil War settings, there is nothing really for his ghosts to gain metaphorical purchase, even if they were so inclined. There is some stuff about aristocrats as parasites, and a whole Blut und Boden thing lying around should anyone want to make something of it, but no one does. And del Toro seems utterly uninterested in the gendered restrictions and sexual repression that seem so fundamental to gothic romance.

It is a film of many layers, all of them on the surface.

On the other hand, I loved every deliriously silly minute of it, and you get the impression del Toro did, too.

120 years of sf cinema, part five: 1965-74

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the fifth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964)

1965tumblr_ltx4g62J531qjfr7so1_r1_1280
Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Jean-Luc Godard)
Giperboloid Ingenera Garina/Engineer Garin’s Death Ray (Alexander Gintsburg)
It Happened Here (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo)
Sins of the Fleshapoids (Mike Kuchar)
Terrore nello Spazio/Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava)
The War Game (Peter Watkins)

1966
Daikaiju Gamera/Gamera (Noriaka Yurasa)
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut)
Gamera Tai Barugon/Gamera versus Baragon (Shigeo Tanaka)
Konex Sprna v Hotelu Ozon/The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Jan Schmidt)
Seconds (John Frankenheimer)
Sedmi Kontinent/The Seventh Continent (Dušan Vukotić)
Tanin no kao/The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
Ukradena Vzducholod/The Stolen Dirigible (Karel Zeman)

1967danger_diabolik
The Craven Sluck
(Mike Kuchar)
Diabolik (Mario Bava)
Je t’aime, je t’aime (Alain Resnais)
King Kong No Gyakushu/King Kong Escapes (Ishirô Honda)
Privilege (Peter Watkins)
Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker)
Week End (Jean-Luc Godard)

1968
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Brasil Anno 2000 (Walter Lima, Jr)
Mister Freedom (William Klein)
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)
Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Wild in the Streets (Barry Shear)

1969
Change of Mind (Robert Stevens)
Gladiatorerne/The Peace Game (Peter Watkins)
Scream and Scream Again (Gordon Hessler)
Stereo (David Cronenberg)
Yakeen (Brij)
Zeta One (Michael Cort)

1970
The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise)
Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg)
Na Komete/On the Comet (Karel Zeman)
THX 1138 (George Lucas)

1971713792kramerice
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
Glen and Randa (Jim McBride)
The Hellstrom Chronicle (Walon Green and Ed Spiegel))
Ice (Robert Kramer)
Punishment Park (Peter Watkins)

1972
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson)
Death Line (Gary Sherman)
Solyaris/Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

1973nuits rouges 3
The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook)
The Crazies (George Romero)
Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrisey)
Una gota de sangre para morir amando/Murder in a Blue World (Eloy de la Iglesia)
It’s Alive (Larry Cohen)
Kala Dhandha/Black Mail (Vijay Anand)
Nippon Chinbotsu/Japan Sinks (Shirô Moritani)
Nuits rouges (Georges Franju)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
La planète sauvage/Fantastic Planet (René Laloux)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon)
Yilmayan seytan/The Deathless Devil (Yilmaz Atadeniz)

1974
The Cars that Ate Paris (Peter Weir)
Dark Star (John Carpenter)
The Parallax View (Alan J Pakula)
Space is the Place (John Coney)
The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes)
Terminal Man (Mike Hodges)

2013-03-22-1aterm

120 years of sf cinema, part three: 1935-1954

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the third part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons), and there are a few years where there is little to recommend for any reason.

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-1934) – both of which have lots of links to actual films rather than just occasional pictures…

1935Bride-of-Frankenstein1
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
Kosmitchesky Reis/The Space Ship (Vasili Zhuravlev)
Mad Love (Karl Freund)

1936
The Devil Doll (Tod Browning)
Flash Gordon (Frederick Stephani)
The Invisible Ray (Lambert Hillyer)
The Man Who Changed His Mind (Robert Stevenson)
Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies)

Flash-Gordon-1936-great-old-show-to-watch-on-a-saturday-night1937
Q Planes (Tim Whelan, Arthur Woods)

1938
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (Mitchell Leisen)

1939
The Man They Could Not Hang (Nick Grinde)
Return of Dr X (Vincent Sherman)

1940
Before I Hang (Nick Grinde)
Black Friday (Arthur Lubin)
Dr Cyclops (Ernest B. Schoedsack)
The Man with Nine Lives (Nick Grinde)
Son of Frankenstein (Rowland Lee)

1941
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Victor Fleming)

1943
The Mad Ghoul (James P. Hogan)

1944
Time Flies (Walter Forde)
The Man in Half Moon Street (Ralph M. Murphy)

1949The_Perfect_Woman_FilmPoster
The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles)
Siren of Atlantis (Greg Tallas)

1950
Destination Moon (Irving Pichel)

1951
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
Five (Arch Oboler)
The Man from Planet X (Edgar G. Ulmer)Gort
The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
The Thing (from another World) (Christian Nyby)

1952
Monkey Business (Howard Hawks)

1953
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Eugene Lourié)
Four-Sided Triangle (Terence Fisher)
Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies)
It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold)

1954creature-from-the-black-lagoon
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold)
Gojira (Ishirô Honda)
Them! (Gordon Douglas)

Part four (1955-64)

Gojira

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]