Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

A70-9170Last week I was invited to introduce a screening of Contact – a film I had seen twice in twenty years and then saw twice in the same week – as part of this series at Bristol Cathedral. (The last film I saw there was The Medusa Touch (1978), which was partly filmed in the cathedral. They sat us in rows where, in the film, the ceiling collapses on people sat in rows.)  This did not seem quite the right place to detail the film’s profound intellectual dishonesty, so this, more or less, is what I said:

When we think of science fiction, if we strip away all the space battles, alien monsters and big explosions, it might seem that we would be left with a genre that is profoundly secular and materialist, free from any concern with the supernatural or the spiritual. But sf is also part of our wider culture; it plays off it and builds on it in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2006) argues that one of the sources – or perhaps an early manifesation – of sf is a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debate, primarily Catholic but also taken up by Protestants, on the plurality of worlds. Could there be other worlds inhabited by other beings like us? Were they fallen races? Did Christ have to die again for each of them?

As Roberts writes, ‘unsupported by scriptural authority, the very notion of other inhabited worlds flirts with heresy, which lends the topic a dangerous flavour for more than 100 years’ (50). Both Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac wrote fiction in which the Moon is inhabited – but chose not to have these tales publish while they were still alive. Palingenius – real name Pietro Angelo Manzoli – was less careful. As Roberts states, in his ‘speculative cosmology … Zodiacus Vitae (‘Living Zodiac’), originally published in Italy in 1537’, Palingenius pointed out that some people considered every bright star to be a world, and supposes that their inhabitants count our dark planet as the least among all the heavenly bodies. Despite his circumspection in attributing such ideas to others, he was ‘classified as a heretic of the highest class in the Papal Index’ (50).

Leap forward into 20th century sf, and the same sort of questions are explored in CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), books I find hateful – the more mean-spirited they become, the worse the quality of the writing (and thinking). American writers also explore such questions, as in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958), Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998).

In a rather different vein – weirder and more horrific – HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of the 1920s and 1930s create a thoroughly non-supernatural universe the age and immensity of which renders alien species as kinds of mad, diseased gods.

Perhaps more interesting as a backdrop for Carl Sagan’s work is a tradition of atheist but nonetheless religious sf. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is overwhelmed with awe at the unbelievably vast magnitudes – both space and time – of the universe, itself just one cosmos among many, that in the end novel it copes with the sublime by imagining a kind of prime creative energy or force. Stapledon’s his successor in this tradition is of course Arthur C Clarke, especially in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both of which are set in quite rigorously material universes, but in which the possibility of transcendence remains – albeit as an evolutionary experience cast in in quasi-spiritual terms. (Clarke’s 2001 provides Sagan with the notion of hyperspace or wormhole travel as a kind of massive interstellar railway system; in the later stages of the film, John Hurt’s character increasingly resembles Clarke.) Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001 (1968) is much more oblique and ambiguous, skipping exposition in favour of a kind of overwhelming sensory experience – which Robert Zemickis’s Contact (1997) also attempts – as did films such as The Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before it. But all of them lack Kubrick’s cool, misanthropic tone – unsurprising with Zemeckis, who is kind of a Spielberg discovery.

Sagan’s own position seems to lie somewhere between Kubrick’s film and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel. In 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan said that

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

He would describe himself not as an atheist but as an agnostic. In a 1981 interview collected in Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006), he said that

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In his novel Contact (1985), protagonist Ellie Arroway makes the same point when questioned about her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

In one of my favourite passages, as she is driving through the early morning desert, her headlights sweeping ahead of her, she notices rabbits gathering on either side of the road. As each one in turn is hit by the beam of light, it stands up on its hind legs and watches until the light has past. This has obvious resonances with her team of radio astronomers – and by extension, the whole human race – picking up the alien transmission. But but she also explicitly wonders if, in that moment, each rabbit is having a religious experience.

It is one of many moments in the novel where religion, spirituality and awe are probed from various directions.

And it is worth recalling that the novel itself expresses grave concern – omitted from the film – with the growing power of varieties of dispensationalist, prosperity-gospel Protestant fundamentalism, whose influence of American public life – and the practice of science – has only increased since then.

A few words about the film Contact.

In 1979, the production company Casablanca Pictures commissioned Sagan, who had recently won a non-fiction Pulitzer for The Dragons of Eden (1977) to develop a story for them to film. He was the most famous astronomer, possibly the most famous scientist, in America at that time, even though he had yet to make the PBS series Cosmos (1980). By the end of 1980, he and his co-author Anne Druyan had completed a 100 page story treatment. (Druyan was an author, who had also headed part of the NASA project about the golden discs of sound recordings that were attached to Voyager 1 and 2, in which Sagan was also involved, having previously designed the plaque for Pioneer. They married in 1981, his third and final wife, and she co-authored his later non-fiction books. She appears very briefly in the film on an episode of Crossfire debating Rob Lowe, who seems to be in the film for no reason other than to be pretty. Which is kind of his career.)

Casablanca took the project to Warner Bros, where it go stuck in development hell. So Sagan and Druyan wrote the novel (the extent of her involvement remains unclear; he alone is credited as the author). It attracted a $2 million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster, and became a best seller, selling 1.7 million copies in its first two years. This led to renewed interest in the film. Roland Joffe, fresh from Best Director Oscar nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), was initially attached to direct. When he dropped out and it was offered to Robert Zemeckis, who turned it down, then to George Miller, who had just made Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Miller was fired because he was taking so long, and it was offered to Zemeckis again, who this time accepted, having recently wrapped up the Back to the Future trilogy (1989, 1990) and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he’d won best director Oscar. Gump seems to have inspired the use of digitally altered footage of Bill Clinton (after Sidney Poitier turned down the role President) – footage which includes his serendipitous August 7 1996 press conference about the announcement that an Antarctic meteorite – almost certainly from Mars – seemed to contain microfossils of bacteria

Sagan died in December 1996, while Contact was still in production. Released the following June, it is dedicated to him.

Before we start, just a few words of warning. If there are any Matthew McConaughey fans here tonight, be aware you have to wait a full and seventeen and a half minutes for him to get his shirt off.

If it is any consolation, the first several of those endless, utterly unconscionable minutes contain what was in 1997 the longest continuous CGI sequence in film – a record it held for seven years.

It is, I know, no consolation (sotto voce: But such is the nature of the universe.)

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Free Fire (Ben Wheatley 2017)

free-fireand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Free Fire (2017), easily (though you might want to heed the ambivalence in this expression) the best men-with-guns-in-an-abandoned-factory movies since Walter Hill’s Trespass (1992), which I always somehow forget was written by the Bobs Gale and Zemeckis, probably because it is not a steaming pile of shit like the latter Bob’s films usually are, is not the sheer amount of talent (e.g., even Armie Hammer is good) visibly being frittered away on such a fundamentally frivolous project designed for teenage boys younger than the certificate, nor the occasional lines you are pretty sure you can hear Amy Jump insisting had to be in the script in order to preserve some measure of dignity, such as the 90 minute rule or Brie Larson’s exasperated ‘Men!’,  nor the fact that guns never need reloading until it becomes essential to the ‘plot’ that they do, nor even its nuanced and sensitive delineation of the Irish Republican struggle in the 1970s, no the very best thing about Free Fire is that everything would have been fine and dandy, and deadly violence would never have erupted, if Sam Riley hadn’t attempted to do an American accent, at least I think that’s what it was, I’m not sure, but whatever it was it made me want to shoot him, too…

RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis 2015)

walk_ver3And so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Walk (2015) – Robert Zemeckis’s attempt to turn thirty-five million dollars, the full cutting-edge apparatus of digital and 3D filmmaking, a talented cast and a thrilling story of a daring Gallic tightrope-walker who is also something of a dick, into a tin-eared, lumbering hodgepodge of edge-of-the-seat thrills and ballyhoo-dressed-up-as-self-reflexivity – is not the conjuration of a lost Paris that aims for the joyfulness of early Godard, would settle for the psychotic whimsy of Amélie (2001), falls short of Bertolucci’s genuinely godawful The Dreamers (2003) but just about achieves Team America: World Police (2004), nor is it the fabulously ridiculous haircut the as-always adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt is forced to sport, nor is it the ominous appearance of The Dread Red-Eyed Seagull of Doom, here manifesting as a badly drawn cartoon, no, the best thing about The Walk is the way it distracts from the otherwise and as-always excellent JGL’s woeful French accent by the cunning – nay, bravura – casting of Ben Kingsley, who can do neither a Czech nor a French accent, as a Czech with a French accent…

Primer (Shane Carruth USA 2004)

primer-movie-poster-2004-1020241222[A version of this review appeared in Foundation 98 (2006), 152–6]

From a garage in Dallas, four men run a business in their spare time, using scavenged components and their knowledge of physics, computers and engineering to devise patentable tweaks to existing technology in the hope of getting rich. Two years, fourteen patents – and the best they have managed is disenchantment with each other and a marginal mail-order business selling JTAG cards. However, while experimenting with superconductors, Aaron (Shane Carruth) stumbles upon something peculiar – the system they have built puts out more energy than they put into it. He and Abe (David Sullivan) keep it secret from Phillip (Anand Upanhyaya) and Robert (Casey Gooden). They realise that ‘the easiest way to be exploited [is] to sell something they did not understand’ but also, over following weeks and months, that they are ‘out of their depth’. Until one day, Abe takes Aaron step-by-step through what he has learned – they have actually created a kind of time machine. If they switch it on at time A and enter it later at time B, they can return to time A; but this also means that between times A and B there are two of each of them coexisting. Abe is anxious to avoid messing around with causality, but things start to go awry when the much less cautious Aaron begins to fantasise about getting revenge on an investor who messed them around: Aaron imagines assaulting him and then going back in time to tell himself not to do it. He dreams of acting with impunity, of becoming so rich that he is above the law.

Actually, things go awry much sooner (or possibly later) than that: Aaron grasped the machine’s potential more quickly than Abe realised and has been deceiving him, carrying out his own agenda. Aarons and Abes multiply, attacking other versions of themselves. Disagreements escalate. Aaron and Abe appear less frequently in the same shot, and when they do they are often separated not just by distance but by the vertical lines of background architecture or ominous black shapes.

Placing all that has passed under erasure, the story ends – I think – at some point between the start of the film and Abe’s first use of the time machine. An Abe is sabotaging the machine while the original Abe (or possibly the same Abe, only earlier) is building it, in the hope that he will give up (read backwards, his surname, Terger, provides a clue). An Aaron, somewhere overseas and apparently with corporate or state backing, is constructing a much bigger machine, while the original Aaron (or possibly the same Aaron, only earlier) continues to live with his family. I think.

Writer-director-editor and co-star Carruth (he was also responsible for casting, production design, sound design and the film’s original music) is rumoured to have shot a scene in which everything is explained, but if so, he was wise to cut it – and not only because it must have contained long and stilted dialogue (and probably lots of diagrams). The film is effective because of its refusal to clarify what we see and hear. Fresh but often elliptical information demands that we, like the protagonists, revise our understanding of earlier scenes, which in turn alters our understanding of the information. Multiple viewings are required for those who wish to figure it out, but, like Videodrome (1983), I am not certain it can be – and this renders it probably unique among American time-travel fictions. For example, unlike the Back to the Future ( 1985–90) and Terminator (1984–2003) trilogies, it is not easily reducible to an oedipal primal scene fantasy; and however much their final reels might prattle about the future not being fixed, they lack Primer’s more thoroughgoing destabilisation of temporality, duration, narrative, memory and identity. This contingency of meaning and self-conscious ambiguity is more akin to modernist European time-travel fantasies like La jetée (1962), L’anné dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Je t’aime, je t’aime ( 1968) (Primer’s womb imagery, aural rather than visual, seems to allude to the latter in particular).

Like these nouvelle vague films, Primer is also a meditation on cinema itself. Although it is a coincidence that the Lumière brothers ‘invented’ cinema in the same year that Wells published The Time Machine: An Invention (1895), there is a complex interconnection between time-travel and motion pictures that goes beyond the Wells/Paul patent for a never-constructed fairground ride/exhibition space that reconstructed the Time Traveller’s voyage. The projected representation of past moments, undercranking and overcranking the camera so as to produce fast- and slow-motion, editing out frames or editing them together – these are all experiments in altering time, reconstructing it so as to be experienced differently. (And it is worth recalling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script for Marienbad was inspired by Aldolfo Bioy Casares’s neglected sf novel La invención de Morel (1940), whose title nods to Wells but whose story of a man who falls in love with an unattainable woman in a virtual projection of a recorded past was itself inspired by the author’s fascination with silent movie actress Louise Brooks.) Early in Primer, when the garage door rolls shut, the inventors remain visible through four windows in it: the image looks like four frames of film unspooled across a black background. In several scenes footage overlaps, repeats from the same and different angles, the action apparently stuttering; perhaps a consequence of shooting insufficient coverage, it nonetheless disrupts and thus becomes instructive about the ways conventional editing creates the illusion of continuous time and space. Elsewhere, jumpcuts compress time, to similar effect. Reality becomes subject to multiple takes, events can be revised and erased; a key incident is ‘reverse-engineered into a perfect moment’.

Technical errors during filming left much of the sound recording unusable; the post-synchronised dialogue and ambient sound often just don’t sound quite right, further alienating the viewer, especially during scenes dominated by hard-sf speak. The film contrives to hold the viewer at a distance while its characters do little to evoke a sympathetic response, making it something to scrutinise rather than wallow in – not that one would want to: the world it creates is far from appealing (shot on super-16mm, and blown up to 35mm via a digital intermediary, it is dominated by sickly greens and yellows), and not just in terms of its appearance.

Roger Luckhurst argues that the figure of the heroic scientist – whether Ralph 124c41+ or Thomas Edison – emerged in popular culture just as the real-world efforts of the latter and his ilk were industrialising and commodifying the processes of technological innovation, effectively removing it from the realm of the individual creator. Just as La invención de Morel explores capital’s colonisation of the unconsconscious in terms of the articulation of desire through the commodified image of an actress, so Primer sees the logic of capital spread into every aspect of its protagonists’ being. They work 30 hours per week in the garage on top of their day jobs. Robert proposes a project which might be fun, but Aaron and Abe dismiss it because it is unlikely to reach a marketable stage. Alienated from their labour and from whatever pleasure they derived from tinkering with things in the garage, all they want to do is produce the tweak that will make them rich. They have instrumentalised their skills and desires, and compartmentalised their lives. Unable to produce a profitable device, they instead use time-travel to pick up information on stocks and shares. The fantasy of free energy (and self-replication) turns into the fantasy of immaterial capital boundlessly reproducing itself. By explicitly rejecting the lottery in favour of the stock market they throw themselves into capital’s annexation of our future.

That their experiment is doomed is suggested throughout by the sense that life cannot be compartmentalised, that causation is complex rather than linear. At one point, Aaron ‘accidentally’ reproduces his cell phone, and when it rings he has to work out whether the network will contact both identical phones or just search grid by grid until it finds one of them. Elsewhere, inexplicably, the father of a girl they know suddenly appears with two or three days of facial hair despite being clean-shaven just a few hours earlier. ‘There’s always leaks,’ Abe tells Aaron, and consequences seem to come not in chains but webs which reach in all directions.

Ultimately, this is where Primer differs from nouvelle vague time travel fantasies. They are primarily backward-looking, concerned with memory and the props which secure bourgeois identity. Primer looks to the future, but instead finds a complex present already out of control. Its garage inventors resemble the utopian writers described in Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005), but unlike them Aaron and Abe are unable to imagine change, the radical break – the first negation – that makes utopia possible. They are so woven into the fabric of late-capital that they can only conceptualise using this fabulous new technology to leave everything – apart from their bank balances – exactly the same. The market might pretend it is homeostatic, orderly and inevitable, but a fragment of hope can be found in how thoroughly Aaron and Abe are made to learn that the status quo is complex, dynamic and riddled with contradiction.