The City in Fiction and Film, week five

Ratcatcher_filmWeek four

This week, a lot of people, mostly children, died.

That is, this week we watched Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay 1999) and read chapters 5-7 of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). And we did so through a (more or less) structuralist lens, so as to consolidate and build on the semiotic theory and terminology from the last couple of weeks.

So we began with revisiting the relationship between parole and langue, and thinking about how the latter structures the former. Borrowing from Lois Tyson’s not-entirely-accurately-subtitled Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (1999), we looked at how utterances such as

tree appears green
Susan is tall
dog runs happily
clouds roll ominously
wisdom comes slowly

share the same parts of speech

noun, verb and descriptor (adjective or adverb)

and the same rule of combination

subject and predicate

So we moved from surface phenomena with very different meanings to the structures that make them comprehensible. We then refreshed our memories about the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language, turning once more to an example from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Holmes is confronted by the word


scratched in the floor by the victim. To fathom its meaning he changes paradigm, trying other languages until he finds one in which it is a word (‘revenge’ in German). And then he returns to English and scrolls through another paradigm, letters that could be placed at the end of the sytagm to make a word, until he comes to L and spells


So once more, the relationship between surface phenomena and the (potential) structure(s) underpinning it are made clear. After which we returned to some key sentences from our Sherlock and ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ examples from last week

‘How did you know I had a therapist?’
‘This hat is three years old. These flat brims curled at the edge came in then.’
‘his wife has ceased to love him’

and reconstructed Holmes’s reading of connotations in terms of the codes on which they draw, the myths they reiterate and the ideology they construct/articulate. (For the time being we are leaving ‘ideology’ dangling a little, defined as nothing more complex than ‘knowledge in the service of power’, which is already turning out to be more complex than I thought this simple definition would be…). So again, we move from surface to structure.

Next we turned to some new material, beginning with a brief description of Vladimir Propp’s formalist analysis of Russian folktales in Morphology of the Tale (1928), which finds the same recurring structure of 31 narrative ‘functions’ and seven character types in all the tales in his sample. We also thought about some of the problems with such methodologies – the violence they do to the narratives under consideration by treating the surface level of detail as somehow irrelevant, the violence that is done to narratives to force them to fit a predetermined pattern imposed by the critic. (One student was quite familiar with Propp, having encountered him on A-level Film Studies and being required – to my quiet horror – to undertake  a Proppian analysis of Fight Club (Fincher 1999), which is of course structured exactly like a centuries old oral tale from another culture thousands of miles away. Others had  heard of Joseph Campbell and the monomyth – undoubtedly the fault of George Lucas – but fortunately it didn’t seem appropriate to get into it too much in class, because it would have taken a while to get through the fundamentally racist logic underpinning the method. Maybe next year, in the module on genre theory and fantasy.)

We then took a look at James Damico’s 1978 description of the structure of a film noir:

Either because he is fated to do so by chance, or because he has been hired for a job specifically associated with her, a man whose experience of life has left him sanguine and often bitter meets a not-innocent woman of similar outlook to whom he is sexually and fatally attracted. Through this attraction, either because the woman induces him to it or because it is the natural result of their relationship, the man comes to cheat, attempt to murder, or actually murder a second man to whom the woman is unhappily or unwillingly attached (generally he is her husband or lover), an act which often leads to the woman’s betrayal of the protagonist, but which in any event brings about the sometimes metaphoric, but usually literal destruction of the woman, the man to whom she is attached, and frequently the protagonist himself.

This structure – derived from James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1936), but already broadly familiar from, for example, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) and Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867) – can be found in Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944), The Woman in the Window (Lang 1945), Scarlet Street (Lang 1945), The Killers (Siodmak 1946), The Lady from Shanghai (Welles 1948), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett 1946), Out of the Past (Tourneur 1947), Pitfall (De Toth 1948) and Criss Cross (Siodmak 1949), and with variations in Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone 1946) and The Blue Dahlia (Marshall 1946). It mutates and collapses in In a Lonely Place (Ray 1950) and is anticipated by The Maltese Falcon (Huston 1941).

And since we watched the latter just a couple of weeks back, we were able to see how well – or poorly – it matches Damico’s narrative structure, and the violence that needs to be done to the film in order to make it fit.  Which was a useful exercise in reminding us that surface is as important as – if differently important to – structure. (Damico also gave us the opportunity in passing to think about how genre definitions work to privilege certain texts and marginalise others,  reorganising our understanding of groups of relatable texts rather than telling us some fixed truth about genre. But that was me wandering off topic a bit.)

From shared narrative structure we moved onto structuralist thinking about binary oppositions – and to run through this idea we left the city behind for a while and headed out west, as Jim Kitses’s Horizon’s West (1969) contains that fabulously useful (if problematic) discussion of the western in terms of the generative conflict between wilderness and civilisation (and 20 other related oppositions).

And (finally) this brought us to the series of oppositions I asked the class to think about while watching Ratcatcher:

city vs. country
urban tenements vs. suburb/new estate
male vs. female
adults/parents vs. children
rich vs. poor
English vs. Scots
freedom vs. confinement

The class were pretty quick to spot the ways in which most of these categories map onto each other, linking the urban tenement with varieties of confinement and the new estate out in the countryside with freedom: playing on piles of garbage vs. playing on a construction site; flats off shared stairwells vs. individual houses with interior staircases; outside loos and tin baths on the kitchen floor vs. fully plumbed inside bathrooms; the view out of the window onto a dirty dangerous canal vs. the view out of the window onto a rather improbably golden field; looking out of windows vs. climbing out through windows; etc – all  of which is peculiarly echoed in the odd digression about the mouse launched into space finding a new home safe from the cruelty of young boys among a community of mice (which is surely a Clangers homage).

And then there were the wealthy English represented by the received pronunciation of the television news reporters commenting on the dustmen’s strike and the filthy conditions the people of Glasgow endure vs. the actual characters whose lives disrupt this patrician colonial perspective upon them.

Then we turned to Mary Barton.

Chapter 5 begins with a passage that introduces two key oppositions: appearance vs. reality and the individual vs. the mass. Gaskell’s narrator describes the working class Mancunian men who defy middle class expectations (and the tendency to lose particularities when you homogenise people as members of a class) by being skilled mathematicians, botanists and entomologists (and should we doubt it, she invokes a partially-remembered record of botanist Sir JE Smith finding himself dependent on a porter and a hand-loom weaver for advice on a rare specimen he sought).

Margaret Legh brings her friend, Mary Barton, home to meet one such amateur natural historian, her father Jacob. It seems odd at first, but this encounter, focalised through Mary, throws out scientific imagery in favour of something more alchemical, comparing Jacob to a wizard, speaking of the uncanny, the cabalistic, the mysterious. Having just hinged the credibility of her fictional account around a real historical event, Gaskell switches genres, drawing on something closer to the gothic romance. Opposing science and superstition in this way reinforces the common cultural opposition of masculine rationality and feminine fancifulness. In the following pages, a recently widowed woman is described as lacking foresight when she borrows heavily so as to be able to bury her husband, and Margaret, who is losing her eyesight, faces a similar charge because she continues to take in sewing – especially since there are a lot of deaths this winter, which involves sewing black cloth with black thread, straining her eyes even further. Mary’s own romantic fantasies of marrying the wealthy mill-owner’s son (who is courting her but with no such honourable intention) in the hope of finally being able to provide properly for her own unemployed father is contextualised, at the end of chapter 7, in terms of reading too many cheap romances and is described with reference to the Arabian Nights and in terms of building castles in the air.

But we have leapt ahead.

On meeting Jacob, Mary is told the story of how one day he bought from a sailor a scorpion, apparently frozen to death, that when placed without thinking in front of the fire came to life (Jacob managed to kill it by putting it in a pan of boiling water, and then preserved the remains). This peculiar anecdote – for which the chapter up until that point is merely laying the groundwork – leads nowhere in narrative terms, but introduces further oppositions (fire and water, hot and cold, life and death, and once more appearance and reality). It also foreshadows events: the chapter will end with a perilous fire that burns down the mill, and in chapters six and seven Ben Davenport and Joe and Will Wilson die of cholera, burning up with fever.

Soon after the anecdote, there is a paragraph describing a winter so cold that it is impossible for poor people to find liquid water – the icy landscape is deathly, and it seems as if it will go on for ever, a kind of inverse of the scorpion story. And it is the cold that freezes the standing pipes which prevent the fire crews from being able to bring the blaze under control. This paragraph leads into conversations about mourning and death (and economics) and blindness and insight and darkness and light.

The crowd who gather to witness the blaze are described as a mindless, unruly mass – for all her sympathy for the poor, Gaskell seems terrified of the mob and despises working class political organisation and action. But a mass in which, once more, individuals are made to stand out – Magaret and Mary in particular. And there is a curious parallel between the crowd behaving as an unconscious mass, impelled here and there by a kind of mindless subordination to a collective desire for spectacle, and Mary, who in their midst faints – loses consciousness.

Chapter 6 returns to the crowd, when Mary’s father, John Barton, on a mission of mercy is made furious by the apparent unconcern of the people he passes. And yet at the same time, he recognises that he is being unjust, that he cannot tell the first thing about them or the realities of their lives just by looking at them.

The main oppositions in this chapter map class difference onto verticality (and reinforce it with warm/light/dry vs cold/dark/damp).

Barton is summoned by a friend to the aid of Ben Davenport, who has been out of work since the mill burned down. The mill-owners, the Carson family, talk about the need to tighten their belts, but frankly they are glad the fire happened – they are insured, their machinery was out of date and needed replacing, and as the market is not that good, they are relieved to not have any expenses, such as wages. The mill-workers, on the other hand, have nothing, and many are starving. Barton descends into the narrow well between the the filthy street and the housefrony, into which mud and sewage is leaking, and from there down another step into a cellar room that never gets much light (the windows are broken and stuffed with rags, anyway); the mud and sewage is also seeping up through the floor. There is no fire, nor is there any food for the children. Davenport is near death. His desperate wife, who still suckles one of her children even though he is too old and she is barely able to produce any milk, is repeatedly described as death-like, cadaverous. Davenport is spoken of as having sunk down in the world; later, he will sink into death.

Barton’s mission of mercy takes him first to a pharmacist – the night-time shop-windows are full of commodities, perfectly lit to make them seem even more desirable, and again there is a sense of a fantastical world parallel to all this misery – and then the next day to the Carson’s house, which is brightly lit, with blazing fires and plentiful food and drink.

Carson bemoans his loneliness – only the youngest of his daughters stayed home to keep him company the previous night, and this morning the others are all also late to rise after their late night out at the assembly rooms. The youngest daughter puts her hands over her father’s eyes, mocking Margaret’s impending blindness, just as Carson’s loneliness mocks the isolation of so many of the working class characters.

Although the Carsons’ house is above ground, there is no great emphasis on it being higher than the Davenport’s – as in the spatialisation of class evident in sf films such as Metropolis (Lang 1927) and Blade Runner (Scott 1982) – but its vertical distinction is, as already noted, made clear at the end of chapter seven. It is part of the castle in the air that Mary’s romantic fancy builds.

Recommended critical reading
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. See chapters on structuralism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell 1996. 79–109.
Hawkes, Terence. Structuralism and Semiotics. London: Routledge 1977.
Scholes, Robert. Structuralism in Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975.
Stam, Robert, ed., New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part III , “Film Narratology,” especially 77–85.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. London: Routledge, 1998. See chapters on structuralist criticism, Marxist criticism and feminist criticism.
–. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. London: Routledge, 2011. See chapters on Marxist theory and feminist theory.

Recommended reading
Novels concerned with urban poverty and class structures include Émile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1887), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Frank Norris’s McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) and Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933).
H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine: An Invention (1895) contains a science-fictionalised vision of class difference.
Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903) and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) combine autobiographical writing with sociological reportage about living in poverty.

Recommended viewing
There is a long tradition of British social realist films about working class and lower middle class life, often in provincial towns, including such British New Wave films as Room at the Top (Clayton 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz 1960), A Taste of Honey (Richardson 1961), A Kind of Loving (Schlesinger 1962), The L-Shaped Room (Forbes 1962), Billy Liar (Schlesinger 1963) and This Sporting Life (Anderson 1963), all of which were adapted from novels or plays.
Later social realist films include Kes (Loach 1969), Nil by Mouth (Oldman 1997), Red Road (Arnold 2006) and Fish Tank (Arnold 2009).
A lighter tone can be found in Brassed Off (Herman 1996), The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997), Billy Elliot (Daldry 2000), Son of Rambow (Jennnings 2007), Made in Dagenham (Cole 2010) and Pride (Warchus 2014).
Groundbreaking television series that pushed the limits of social realism are Jim Allen’s Days of Hope (1975), directed by Ken Loach, and Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, directed by Philip Saville.

Week six


The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)