and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is not that no one seems to have beaten me to calling it La La Landroid or calling Ryan Gosling’s beautiful and puppy-eyed state-sanctioned murderer Pigolo Joe (the film becomes oddly like Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence at times), nor is it the unbelievably audacious line of exposition given to Edward James Olmos, nor is that they saved money making the film by just setting some of it in pompous evil hipster Jared Leto’s own house where he does all that weird shit anyway, nor is it that the digits in the title indicate when the film is set rather than enumerating which of Sir Diddly Squat’s re-edits it is, though that is a relief, nor is it that Hampton Fancher trolls Sir Diddly’s endless tinkering by beginning the sequel with a variant on a sequence he wrote for the original film but that could not be restored because it was never actually filmed, no, the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that as sequels-to-cult-classics-with-dates-in-their-titles go, and despite everything, including its flaws, longueurs, idiocies, nipples and truly devastatingly funny effort to capture the horror of orphan child labour in its full Dickensian aspect, it is not really really embarrassingly bad, it is not Blues Brothers 2000…
[yet another of those pieces I wrote for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]
Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pseudonyms under which C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, both already established sf authors, published collaborative fiction after their 1940 marriage until Kuttner’s death in 1958. The extent and nature of their co-authorship in any individual story is never clear. ‘Vintage Season’ is generally considered to be ‘probably a full collaboration’, drawing out both author’s ‘concerns’ in a ‘perfect blend of Kuttner’s logic, Moore’s emotional depth, and their combined irony and stylistic sophistication’ (Attebery 175).
In the final days of a glorious May, Oliver Wilson, who owns a run-down mansion overlooking a small-town, faces a dilemma. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco have rented rooms until the end of the month, but his fiancée, Sue, wants him to accept a mysterious, lucrative offer to buy the house.
There is something peculiar about the Sansiscos: ‘the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to’ and they speak ‘as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement’ (O’Donnell 264, 265). Their queerness – they are often described as effeminate, flamboyant and decadent – intrigues him; and others like them begin to appear in town. There is sadness in Kleph’s eyes when she looks at Oliver. She shows him marvels he does not quite comprehend, intoxicates him with euphoriac tea and seduces him. She is enraptured by a recording of an uncompleted three-dimensional, audio-visual symphonia about human suffering in the face of catastrophe, but it sickens Oliver ‘to the depths of his mind’ (286). He tricks her into revealing the truth: the tourists are time-travellers from an idyllic future, but there is more to their trip than merely visiting perfect seasons – they have come to watch a meteorite destroy the town.
Oliver wakes up several days later. The tourists have gone, replaced by Cenbe, who is observing the aftermath to help him complete his symphonia. He lets slip that the time-travellers were inoculated to prevent a virulent disease accidentally being taken back to their own time. Oliver, already infected by the meteorite-borne disease, leaves an account of all that he has learned so that time-travellers can be identified and thus future disasters averted. But his house is dynamited in ‘the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death’ (306). Cenbe’s symphonia is a ‘crowning triumph’ (306).
David Twohy’s directorial debut, intended for theatrical release as The Grand Tour, was instead released to US cable as Disaster in Time and straight to video as Timescape (it is also sometimes called The Grand Tour: Disaster in Time). It rather effectively reworks ‘Vintage Season’ as a tightly budgeted Frank Capra picture channelled through Steven Spielberg, but maintains a sufficiently dark edge to keep it from falling into the kind of sentimentalism typical of cable movies that combine problematic family relationships with fantastical elements.
Widower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is converting a mansion into a guesthouse. He has a young teenage daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards), a drink problem and recurring nightmares about the death of his wife Carolyn (Mimi Craven) in a car crash – he was seen fleeing the scene, but insists he was running for help. When the mysterious Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), a reworking of the pushy Hollia into Omerie’s role, arrives with half a dozen tourists, including the striking Reeve (Emilia Crow), as Kleph is renamed, Ben agrees to let them stay for a few days, despite the renovations being incomplete.
Whereas O’Donnell introduced the tourists’ strangeness by comparing them to foreigners and to people too wealthy to understand the ways of ordinary folk, Twohy depicts them as aloof, restricts their screen time, and reveals their unfamiliarity with everyday things through subtle touches, such as the bumbling Quish (David Wells) not understanding shoe laces. They claim to be from ‘south California’ and come across as European yuppies adrift in the American mid-west. Twohy also reduces the interaction between Ben and Reeve, sidestepping the demands that Kleph’s extravagant décor and advanced technology would have made on the budget; but his depiction of the initial attraction between them – Ben peers at the nearly-naked Reeve through the plastic sheeting over her doorway – looks like something from a straight-to-cable erotic thriller of the period. When Ben works out from Quish’s hints that the tourists are time-travelling ‘disaster groupies’ and moves to a hotel in town, Reeve seduces and intoxicates him to keep him from interfering in their plans.
Twohy focuses on Ben’s relationship with his daughter, and the bitterness of his dead wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock), who obtains a writ of temporary custody over Hillary. When the meteor hits, destroying the west end of town, Ben’s concern is entirely for her. Once she is safe, he joins the search for survivors. The tourists – Quish insists he is not a sightseer but a ‘retropologist’ – are busy taking it all in. Next day, while Hillary helps out at the emergency centre established in the school, Ben discovers that the tourists have relocated to a new vantage point from which to observe a gas explosion destroying the school.
Ben wakes up to find a new time traveller, the Undersecretary (Robert Colbert), investigating Quish’s death while saving Ben from the explosion. Before leaving, an apologetic Reeve slips Quish’s passport, which contains a time-travelling device, to Ben. He travels back to before the meteor impact, but is caught trying to sneak Hillary out of the judge’s house. Nobody will listen to his warnings, and he has to phone his pre-disaster self to break him out of jail. Two minor plot points – the reverend’s (Time Winters) attempts to get Ben to mend the church bells, which have not rung for eighteen years, and repeated references to Für Elise, which Carolyn used to play – come together as the two Bens bash out Beethoven’s familiar bagatelle with sledgehammers on the bells. People pour in from the west end of town to find out what is going on, and are thus saved. Ben convinces them not to use the school as an emergency centre. The Undersecretary returns the time-travelling Ben to where he belongs.
In a brief coda, Ben looks at photos of Carolyn. Hillary finds his chair empty and Quish’s passport on the table beside it. From the next room comes the sound of Für Elise, played perfectly on the piano. ‘Mom?’, she asks.
It is not uncommon to use a short story as a film’s opening act or sequence, deriving name recognition or kudos from the pre-sold property before finding ways to elaborate upon material that is too scanty to sustain an entire film. Timescape does not quite fit this pattern. Based on a substantial novella, which provides almost half of the film, it makes nothing of its source or authorship, which are probably too little known to be particularly marketable anyway. Twohy discards the O’Donnell’s selfish, bullying Sue, freeing Oliver to become less of a dupe as he is transformed – thanks to Jeff Daniels’ typically precise performance – into the loving and vulnerable Ben. While the film eschews O’Donnell’s sweetly detached, apocalyptic ironies, preferring to reassert the nuclear family and a safe domestic sphere, Twohy’s simple time-loop narrative results in a more persuasive vision of a man learning the error of his ways than the better-known Groundhog Day (Ramis 1993). The key scene comes after the prison breakout as the two Bens drive to the judge’s house to grab Hillary and flee the town. The pre-disaster Ben, on learning of the imminent catastrophes, accuses the post-disaster Ben of cowardice, just like when he – they – fled the car-crash rather than saving Carolyn. In this moment of heightened anxiety, Ben voices what he has known all along, and earns redemption by drawing on this self-knowledge to save others. It is not the kind of thing one finds in the fiction of Moore and Kuttner, individually or collaboratively, but in moving away from the substance and tone of their story, Twohy creates an affecting and genuinely science-fictional moment. It is unsurprising that his subsequent career as a writer and director of sf films has been pretty successful: while accommodating the demands of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, he continues to display kinds of sf thinking more typically associated with the literary tradition.
Brian Attebery. ‘C[atherine] L[ucille] Moore (1911–87)’. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 171–76.
Lawrence O’Donnell. ‘Vintage Season’. The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book Two. Ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss. London: Sphere, 1973. 263–30.
When I sat down to start thinking through the new second-year undergraduate module – called Genre and the Fantastic – I will be teaching next academic year, I realised that it was more than two-thirds of my life ago that I last read The Lord of the Rings. So even though I will not be teaching it, I figure I should probably give it another go. (I was bored stiff by the films – the only aspect of them I could admire was Sean Bean having the good sense to get out of them two films before I did – and just cannot bring myself to watch The Hobbit movies.)
My introduction to Tolkien came aged 11. We moved to Plymouth right at the start of 1980, when I had just two terms of junior school left to go. At my new school, Hyde Park Juniors, my teacher – Mr Willis, I think his name was – was already partway through reading The Hobbit aloud to the class, a little bit every day (memory tells me it was just before lunchtime, though I am sure there was a wider convention of reading aloud just before home time). I was immediately gripped, even though I had no idea who all those bleeding dwarfs were, and promptly got a copy from the small local library at Pounds House and read it in a couple of days.
Then – this was the real triumph – I persuaded the main librarian (who was an sf and fantasy fan, to judge by the stock) to let me take out all three hardback volumes of LotR (the white ones, with the fold-out bible-paper maps intact). These were the first books I ever took out from the adult section of a library. I had them for four weeks, and it took me until the last day to finish the last of the appendices (well before Mr Lewis had finished reading The Hobbit to the class).
I persuaded my new best friend, Stuart, that he should read them. This was a foolish thing to do as he did not read as quickly as me, and so I had to wait forever to borrow them again. (Actually, it was not quite that bad as I bullied him into returning each volume with me once he had finished it and took it back out myself.) I managed to read library copies three times that year, but only because I persuaded my mum to let me join the central library too. There was a fight with the main librarian there as to whether I was old enough to take them out, which I won by persuading my mum that Tolkien was a friend of CS Lewis (my parents approved of him because Aslan was Jesus) and so she came with me to convince the librarian.
(Later that year, I lost the battle with parents over seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or reading Campbell Black’s novelisation because they were obviously blasphemous. Fortunately, Stuart had a copy of the book I could borrow – and my parents had no qualms a couple of years later with me going to see the even more horrendously racist and notoriously violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which had required a whole new cinema certificate in the UK.)
I read The Hobbit three or four times in 1980 as well but right away began to find it too childish. I have not read it since 1981. I read LotR maybe once or twice a year for three years, but probably as early as 1981 I was beginning to find the opening chapters – until the Tom Bombadil nonsense is done with – childish and twee and tiresome. I also got through The Silmarillion a couple of times, only really enjoying any of it on the second go, and the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.
When I tried to read LotR near the end of 1983, I had grown to hate it.
I was fifteen. Already a sophisticated man of the world.
So anyway, over the next couple of months, I will be re-reading The Hobbit (in fact, I just finished the first chapter, which is hilarious) and The Lord of the Rings (I just got through all the various notes on the text and Tolkien’s foreword to the second edition yesterday when I figured I should probably read The Hobbit first), and I will post about the experience occasionally as I go.
The Tookish part of me is curious about undertaking such an adventure through dimly remembered lands; the Baggins part knows I will probably regret it.
This week we turned to African-American cinematic representations of the city, from blaxploitation and the LA Rebellion group up to the New Jack Cinema and Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991). We were guided by Paula J Massood’s argument in Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film that:
In the 1960s and 1970s, the American terrifying other was a generalized inner-city ghetto; in the 1990s, it became the young black man. (166)
Last week, we ended with Taxi Driver’s vision of an infernal Manhattan populated by a profoundly fallen humanity (Scorsese is nothing if not a Catholic director). It is an overtly stylised world, often seen through the windscreen of the vehicle which lends Travis mobility while separating him from the world outside. Typically, blaxploitation has a rather different sense of the city and explores it through different aesthetic choices. These points came up in our discussion of the opening sequence of Shaft (Parks 1971):
- daylight shooting
- long shots (and some long takes) using zoom lenses on frequently uncontrolled locations
- concealed – or apparently concealed – cameras so as to not draw the attention of passersby unaware that they are being filmed
- the city is shabby, run-down, collapsing, but also lively – and there is an everyday rather than demonic quality to the hustling
- Shaft (Richard Roundtree) moves through the crowded streets with a confidence that Travis Bickle lacked, untraumatised it seems by his experience of being in the world, mixing freely with others both black and white as if by his sheer presence he can command a world without racism
- different kind of soundtrack, and different relationship between soundtrack and image
Manthia Diawara argues that
space is related to power and powerlessness … those who occupy the center of the screen are usually more powerful than those situated in the background or completely absent from the screen. (qtd in Massood 173)
The opening of Shaft also points to this key factor in blaxploitation – for the first time since the threadbare and now mostly lost race movies of the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African-Americans (not just Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, etc) got to occupy centre (and sometimes pretty much the entire) screen of a significant number of movies, as well as working in numbers behind the scenes. Richard Roundtree strutting easily through Manhattan to the sound of Isaac Hayes was and remains so utterly cool that we can perhaps still get some sense, 45 years later and an ocean away, of how important that moment must have been (even if we might be even more inclined now to question the gender politics and Shaft’s tendency to extract himself from the African-American community).
According to Thomas Doherty’s Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Cinema in the 1950s, the ‘exploitation’ in ‘exploitation films’ refers to
1) the way in which a film was advertised and marketed to entice an audience into the theatre
2) the way in which the film endeared itself to its audience – content
3) and finally as a particular kind of film
This kind of “exploitation” became a cohesive production strategy with three elements:
1) controversial/bizarre/timely subject matter amenable to promotion
2) a substandard budget
3) a teenage audience
i.e., triply exploitative – exploiting sensational events for story value, their public notoriety for publicity value, and a teenage audience for box office value
This is also pretty much the sense in which the ‘xploitation’ in ‘blaxploitation’ is intended.
In the early 1970s, African Americans constitute 25-40% of Hollywood’s US audience. Following the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Davis 1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Shaft (Parks 1971), a low- and medium-budget production cycle helped to restore Hollywood profitability, but was then abandoned with the emergence of blockbuster cinema – Jaws (Spielberg 1975), Star Wars (Lucas 1977), etc – and of different modes of distribution and exhibition, a process aided by the closure and/or grindhousing and/or pornification of downtown cinemas and an increase in suburban cinemas.
Ed Guerrero argues in Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film that blaxploitation was part of a larger ‘black film boom’ that saw ‘ninety-one productions’ in 1971-73, ‘of which forty-seven can be considered models of the Blaxploitation formula’ (95) – a fomula that .
usually consisted of a pimp, gangster, or their baleful female counterparts, violently acting out a revenge or retribution motif against corrupt whites in the romanticized confines of the ghetto or inner city. These elements were fortified with liberal doses of gratuitous sex and drugs and the representation of whites as the very inscription of evil. And all this was rendered in the alluring visuals and aggrandized sartorial fashions of the black underworld and to the accompaniment of black musical scores that were usually of better quality than the films they energized. (94)
Blaxploitation had African American critics of this sort from the outset. The term was coined by Junius Griffin, the head of the NAACP’s Beverley Hills-Hollywood branch, when he was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter decrying such ‘black exploitation films’ as Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972). Within days, he resigned from his post and co-founded the Coalition against Blaxploitation (CAB), with the support of various of the more conservative civil rights organisations (e.g., CORE, SCLC). In ‘Black movie boom – good or bad?’ (The New York Times 17 December 1972), he argued that
If black movies do not contribute to building constructive, healthy images of black people and to fairly recording the black experience, we shall have lost our money and our souls [and] have contributed to our own cultural genocide by only offering our children the models of degradation, destruction and dope’ (D19)
Griffin was by no means representative of all African Americans. In the same The New York Times piece, Gordon Parks describes the audience’s response to a crowded 4am screening of his Shaft:
Everything was ‘right on!’ A new hero, black as coal, deadlier than Bogart and handsome as Gable, was doing the thing that everyone in that audience wanted to see done for so long. A black man was winning. (D3)
Parks says of the ‘so-called black intellectuals’ demanding an end to blaxploitation that:
it is curious that some black people, egged on by some whites, will use such destructive measures against black endeavors. … The most important thing to me is that young blacks can now … enter an industry that has been closed to them for so long. (D3).
In Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema (2002), blaxploitation star and occasional director Fred Williamson criticises NAACP and CORE for coining the implicitly derogatory term, asking
Who was being exploited? All the black actors were getting paid. They had a job. They were going to work. The audience wasn’t being exploited. They were getting to see things on their screens they had longed for.
Blaxploitation star Gloria Hendry adds,
the organizations failed to understand that the community was really in need of their own heroes and black movies.
And The Black Panther newspaper devoted the entire 19 June 1971 issue to Huey P. Newton’s review of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which concludes ‘We need to see it often and learn from it’ (in To Die for the People (San Francisco: City Lights,
Many blaxploitation films have an original music soundtrack, including Earth, Wind & Fire on Sweetback Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Millie Jackson on Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973), James Brown on Black Caesar (Cohen 1973) and Edwin Starr on Hell up in Harlem (Cohen 1973). Sound itself is also often used in interesting ways – partly post-classical stylistic innovation, partly symptomatic of the films’ extremely low budgets which relied on shooting without sound and dubbing later. For example, the opening ten minutes of Super Fly (Parks Jr 1972) contains extended sequences of a couple of would-be muggers walking through New York streets, Super Fly driving through the streets, and then chasing one of the muggers through the streets, much of it to Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack; there are several similar sequences later in the film, including on using split screen arrangements of still images. On one level, an economy-driven necessity, it becomes an aesthetics concerned with occupying the screen (and soundtrack) space, and key to an actualité-ish depiction of black urban life.
Blaxploitation was often immensely profitable across the budgetary scale, especially in terms of box-office to outlay ratios. MGM budgeted $1.2 million each for Cotton Comes to Harlem and Shaft; the former grossed over $8 million domestically, the latter over $10.8 million in its first year of distribution. Low-budget Cinerama Releasing Corporation spent $200,000 on The Mack (Campus 1973), which grossed over $3 million, and AIP spent $500,000 on Coffy (Hill 1973), which grossed $6 million. The independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song cost an estimated $500,000 and took $4.1 million on its initial domestic release, dislodging Love Story (Hiller 1971) from number one at the US box office, and eventually grossed $10-15 million.
The soundtracks were also often successful. The soundtrack albums for Shaft and Cleopatra Jones (Starrett 1973) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Super Fly, the first entirely black-financed film to be released by a Hollywood Studio, and the first to employ an almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican crew (mostly drawn from Third World Cinema Corporation, a Harlem-based collective co-founded by Ossie Davis in 1971), had an estimated budget of $100,000 but took $6.4 million during its initial run, eventually grossing over $12 million. Controlled and released by his own publishing company and independent record label, Curtis Mayfield’s singles ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead’ sold over 1 million copies each; the soundtrack album sold 12 million copies, earning him over $5 million. (See Eithne Quinn, ‘“Tryin’ to get over”: Super Fly, black politics, and post-civil rights film enterprise’. Cinema Journal 49.2 (2010): 86-105.)
Next, we moved from East Coast to West, to take a look at the sequence in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song after Sweetback beats the cops to death and goes on the run. Van Peebles’s stylisations are even more overt than those of Scorsese, layering images, saturating them in psychedlic hues, and cutting with the rhythm of the music, which itself often seems to be improvised in conjunction with the images. Los Angeles is a disjointed, ruptured wasteland, more or less devoid of humanity. It is low and close the ground in contrast to New York, and seems to stretch on forever. Others might escape by plane, but all Sweetback can do is run and run and run.
And then we moved from blaxploitation – a category in which Sweetback does not always seems to fit easily, despite its massive importance to the cycle – to the LA Rebellion group. This network of African-American filmmakers, who studied at UCLA from the late-1960s onwards, made films that set out to resist Hollywood – and blaxploitation – norms, embracing the influence of Italian neo-realism and other European art cinema, and of politicised and postcolonial Latin American and African filmmaking. They made experimental and documentary shorts, documentary features and, later, videos, but the easiest of their work to access is their fiction features, including: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978); Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991); Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979); Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1976) and Sankofa (1993); and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983).
We took a look at an early sequence from Killer of Sheep, in which African-American kids throw stones at each other and play in the wasteland between railroad tracks. While the landscape itself seems familiar from Sweetback, the grainy – but often beautiful – black-and-white photography (another intersection of budget and aesthetics) contrasts with Van Peebles’s restless (and desperate) innovations. It recalls, in different ways, a number of films we have already watched on the module (Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Passport to Pimlico, Cléo from 5 to 7, Ratcatcher).
The soundtrack is likewise naturalistic, just voices and sounds of the city, creating a rather different effect than blaxploitation’s commitment to cutting edge soul and funk (and to Bush Mama’s more experimental layering of fragmentary voices on its soundtrack).
The New Jack Cinema ran from roughly 1989-95. Its key filmmakers and films were
Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Girl 6 (1996), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998), Bamboozled (2000)
Bill Duke: A Rage in Harlem (1991)
Matty Rich: Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)
John Singleton: Boyz N the Hood (1991), Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997)
Mario Van Peebles: New Jack City (1991), Posse (1993), Panther (1995)
Leslie Harris: Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992)
Allen and Albert Hughes: Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), American Pimp (1999)
Ernest Dickerson: Juice (1992), Blind Faith (1998)
As with the more or less simultaneous New Queer Cinema, it had a strong focus on male experience, and made efforts to diversify representation without reiterating stereotypes or insisting on ‘positive’ images. Its primary focus on African American urban experience was influenced by blaxplotiation’s and the LA Rebellion’s use of actual locations, but was also intertwined with the emergence of hip-hop culture over the preceding decade and more. The New Jack Cinema often depicted gang life, violence, misogyny and drug use in negative terms, but frequently also succumbed to the spectacle such things offered. There were also strong elements of melodrama and liberal handwringing, and a championing of education and middle class lifestyle choices. Unlike Beverly Hills Cop (Brest 1984), New Jack movies tend not to take a single black protagonist out of his own community and relocate him in a white community – a strategy also deployed by many post-New Jack movies, such as Training Day (Fuqua 2001) – but instead builds a picture of an ethnically, culturally, linguistically and generationally diverse neighbourhood, with a history
It is important to bear in mind bell hooks’s comments on the historical, political, economic, cultural and social context of gangsta rap:
The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. (Outlaw Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 116)
Like blaxploitation, the New Jack Cinema was often extremely profitable. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in 12 days for $175,000 and took over $7 million in the US alone. (It is relatively unusual in being woman-centred, but is problematically centred on a woman whose choice to have multiple sexual partners is repeatedly eroticised and spectacularised.) Do the Right Thing cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US, with two Oscar nominations (best screenplay, supporting actor). Newspapers worried its ambivalent conclusion would lead to riots. Just Another Girl on the IRT was shot in 17 days for $100,000, took $500,000 at US box office (again relatively unusual, not only in that it focuses on female experience, but on teen female experience and was made by a woman). Like Boyz N the Hood, it ends in blood, but not a drive-by or gang-killing. Instead, it culminates in a long scene of protagonist Chantel’s (Ariyan A Johnson) agonising premature childbirth – she is in denial about and has concealed her unwanted pregnancy, and thus is completely unprepared. Boyz N the Hood cost $6 million, and took $60 million in the US alone; 23-year-old John Singleton was nominated for best director and best original screenplay Oscars.
We focused primarily on the kinds of spaces the film depicted and how they were shot. There is none of the excessive stylisation of Scorsese, no attempt to depict South Central as infernal. There is no attempt to depict the area as a crumbling ruin, as in the views of Manhattan in Shaft and Super Fly, or as an urban wasteland, as in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Killer of Sheep. In fact, the ‘natural’ daytime light and often pastels palette imbues the hood with the sense of a potentially idyllic suburb of evenly spaced houses in a variety of styles, each set in a neat little garden. Unlike Fahrenheit 451 and despite the ubiquity of television, people still sit on their porches, chatting and whiling away the time. This is countered, to some extent, by the high walls around the backyards and fence around some front yards; by the invisible but nonetheless affectively tangible walls around neighbourhoods and the city; by the role of mass unemployment and limited future prospects in all that porch-sitting; by the eruptions of gang violence and police violence; by the junkie mother who cannot look after her children (even if everyone else in the neighbourhood watches out for them); and by the almost constant nocturnal sound of police helicopters patrolling the skies above.
While Sweetback can at least run past LAX (and run), Boyz begins with a stop sign (while a jet climbs into the sky behind it). Such entrapment – such limited mobility in a city built for cars – is central to the film.
(As, rather more problematically, is its focus on the need for fathers to raise sons as real men so as to end ghetto immiseration and violence, since this involves constantly blaming mothers – reiterating a strong current in the period’s far from progressive political discourse. This goes so far as to undermine its own advocacy of such middle class values as education, responsibility and property ownership by finding fault with aspirational black women.)
Core critical reading: Massood, Paula J. Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003. 145–74.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 8, ‘An Alternative Modernity: Race, Ethnicity and the Urban Experience.”
Bausch, Katharine. “Superflies into Superkillers: Black Masculinity in Film from Blaxploitation to New Black Realism.” Journal of Popular Culture 46.2 (2013): 257–76.
Dyson, Michael Eric. “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.” Cultural Critique 21 (1991): 121–41.
Farred, Grant. “No Way Out of the Menaced Society: Loyalty within the Boundedness of Race.” Camera Obscura 12.2 (1995): 6–23.
Gormley, Paul. “The Affective City: Urban Black Bodies and Milieu in Menace II Society and Pulp Fiction.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 180–199.
Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Kennedy, Liam. Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Chapter 3, “Between Pathology and Redemption.”
Massood, Paula J. “City Space and City Times: Bakhtin’s Chronotope and Recent African-American Film.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 200–215.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 7, “Ghettos and Barrios.”
Mukherjee, Roopali. “The Ghetto Fabulous Aesthetic in Contemporary Black Culture: Class and Consumption in the Barbershop Films.” Cultural Studies 20.6 (2006): 599–629.
Tarr, Carrie. Reframing Difference: Beur and Banlieue Filmmaking in France. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012.
Watkins, Craig S. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999.
African-American, Latino/a and Chicano/a ghetto fiction can be traced back at least as far as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s *The Sport of the Gods (1902), Rudolph Fisher’s The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure-Man Dies (1932) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and more autobiographical work, such as Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967) and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967).
It also draws on the pulp crime fiction of Chester Himes (e.g., A Rage in Harlem (1957)) and Donald Goines (e.g., Dopefiend (1971)), on blaxploitation cinema, New Jack cinema and hip-hop culture.
Contemporary examples include Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl (1993), Sapphire’s Push (1996), Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever (1999), Nina Revoyr’s Southland (2003) and Gary Phillips’s The Jook (2010), and such autobiographical works as Luis J Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993) and Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993).
Key blaxploitation films include Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971), Shaft (Parks 1971) and Superfly (Parks Jr 1972).
The LA Rebellion group’s more neo-realist depiction of black urban life can be seen in Killer of Sheep (Burnett 1978) and Bush Mama (Gerima 1979).
Key New Jack cinema films include Do the Right Thing (Lee 1989), Just Another Girl on the IRT (Harris 1992) and Menace II Society (Hughes brothers 1993).
Depictions of ghetto life have become a significant part of world cinema, including such films as La Haine (Kassovitz 1995), City of God (Meirelles and Lund 2002), Jerusalema: Gangster’s Paradise (Ziman 2008) and Attack the Block (Cornish 2011).
This week we turned from the American suburbs to futuristic (that is, 1960s) Paris, with Alphaville (Godard 1965). But first we took a trip through the history of representations of the city in sf cinema, guided largely by Vivian Sobchack’s ‘Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film’ (1999).
We returned briefly to Metropolis (Lang 1927), with its vision of a metrocosm – a city with with no apparent exterior – in which verticality dominates: skyscrapers, aerial roads and railways, aeroplanes, and above them all the incredible building from which Joh Fredersen, at the centre of a web of communications technology, governs it all. The bourgeoisie live above the ground; beneath them lie the machines upon which the city depends; and beneath the machines live the workers. Here, verticality figures an oppressive class structure (not unlike the glass slabs reaching into the skies of present-day financial centres). In Just Imagine (Butler 1930), however, Sobchack suggests that verticality implies something different because there is no subterranean world, no marginalised working class, just structures leaping into the sky. Here, she argues, the city as expresses that most American of values (or ideological sleight-of-hand): aspiration. Individual personal planes that can also hover weave among the skyscrapers. (But in longer shots, they all follow rigid grid patterns, like the orderly automobiles on the streets below; this tension between individualism and conformity is played out through the protagonists’ resistance to state control over who marries whom.)
We took a look at the opening of the film, which imagines nineteenth century, 1930s and future version of New York – the wry tone of the sequence indicates the film’s broader ambivalence about the notions of progress it also, at times, seems to espouse.
Detouring from Sobchack, we spent some time looking at the incredible montage sequence, scored by Arthur Bliss, from Things To Come (Menzies 1936) in which, following decades of war and plague and petty dictatorship, the new Everytown is constructed. I mentioned how masculinist the film’s notion of progress is at this point – the Earth is some kind of womb full of riches, waiting to be torn out – but had completely forgotten quite how phallic some of the machines are. The whole sequence can be seen as technoporn, an erotics of mechanism, one in which the future is built on the scorched Earth of the past. In Things to Come, decades of war cleared the ground, but in the real world this was done – and continues to be done – quite deliberately. For example, in the US, the urban renewal programme that ran from 1949 to 1973 bulldozed 2,5000 neighbourhoods in 93 cities, dispossessing at least one million people. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) borrows the Filipino term ‘hot demolition’ to describe contemporary landlord arson of slums so as to clear land for redevelopments that are never intended to provide housing for the impoverished populations burned out of their homes.
Equally important for our purposes, though, is quite how abstract Things to Come’s the scientific manufacturing looks – we can see that proficient, technoscientific processes being signified while remaining more or less completely ignorant of what they are actually doing. This is important in thinking about the semiotic thinking of Alphaville.
The sequence ends with the revelation of the subterranean mall future, hints of mid-twentieth-century architecture’s International Style evident in buildings with set-back bases and non-supporting exterior walls. But before we get to the mall, there is a glimpse of a radiating landscape in the distance – of a Garden City.
The idea of the Garden City was espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898), significantly revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). In it, he outlines the attractions and repulsions of two existing magnets – the town and the country – and outlines the attractions of the third, proposed magnet he calls ‘town-country’, or the Garden City. The idea was to build new towns from scratch that avoided urban poverty and squalor – overcrowding, poor drainage and ventilation, pollution, disease, lack of access to the natural world – by combining the pleasures/benefits of the country (nature, fresh air, low rent) with those of the city (opportunity, entertainment, good wages). The Garden Cities would be of limited size, preplanned, and owned by trustees on the behalf of the tenants – and thus also work to undermine private ownership and landlordism.
Letchworth Garden City commenced construction in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard’s ideas were taken up by Frederick Law Olmsted II in the US, influencing aspects of suburban development, and after WW2 also influenced British ‘New Town’ developments.
(Incidentally, and à propos of nothing relevant, Howard is the great-grandfather of Una Stubbs.)
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Disappearing City (1932) took pushed beyond Howard’s ideas even further, proposing the complete dispersal of urban centres into the countryside. Each family to be given an acre of land on which to build an ‘organic architecture’ homestead that used local materials, matched the contours of the land and opened up the interior of the building to the world outside. Unlike Howard, Wright prioritised private automobile ownership over public transport – though in illustrations, he also seems to imagine the car being replaced by varieties of helicopter. Wright ‘Broadacre City’ design was also an influence on US suburban developments.
Returning to American sf films, our next port of call was the short film showing of Norman Bel Geddes massive Futurama diorama, built for the General Motors exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It envisions an entire country organised around roads and automobiles – quel supris! – and urban centres that owe something to Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine (1922), which emphasised orderliness, symmetry, space and vistas in a plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work (which, if divided out evenly, would 125,000 people per building and approximately 2,080 per floor).
Sobchack draws on Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, to describe ‘the fantasy’, evident in 1950s US sf films, ‘of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (Sontag 44). In such films height and aspiration are brought low as tidal waves sweep through Manhattan (When Worlds Collide (Maté 1951)), when a reanimated dinosaur romps through New York (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié 1953)), when flying saucers crash into the Capital’s neo-classical government buildings (Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Sears 1956)) – and, in Japan, when Godzilla smacks down Tokyo. This concession to non-US cinema is telling. Gojira (Honda 1954) is a bleak film, critical of nuclear war and Cold War atomic escalation; when recut for US release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), all such material is carefully excised so as not to have to face up to it.
Sobchack also adds the category of films in which we are shown deserted cities. Five (Oboler 1951) shows us not destruction but the emptiness of all that aspiration (and is mostly filmed around a desert home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The remarkable The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MacDougall 1959) not only casts Manhattan’s skyscrapers as the tombstones of civilisation, but also, like Five, tries to discuss racial politics. Both films show that one of the few legacies of American civilisation that will endure into the post-apocalypse is the colour line – suggesting that it is not just an issue of individuals who are racist, but of the deepest structures of American society. Ultimately, both flinch away from their full implications, but they are among the relatively few films of the period trying to say something important about it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground returns in THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), replacing aspiration with oppression; fullness becomes overcrowding in Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973); and in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), the ‘brutalist’ architecture of postwar British developments – evoked here by the Thamesmead estate – becomes brutalising, or is at least blamed for brutalisation.
In the 1980s, white flight from the centre to the suburbs has given way to white flight to the off-world colonies. In films such as Blade Runner (Scott 1982), the urban core has been junked rather than redeveloped, and then exoticised and made cool by punks and ethnic others. The exhausted, colourful downtown seems to go on for ever – remember how improbable the flight to the countryside seemed at the end of the original cinema cut – and the city seems to have become all run-down centre. In contrast, the blast LA landscape of Repo Man (Cox 1984) is all exhausted, quirky margins, as if any kind of centre is impossible. Also, in films such as RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), Darkman (Raimi 1990) and They Live (Carpenter 1988), it becomes clear that property developers – and the financial interests they serve – are grasping, criminal, inhuman.
In the 1990s, Sobchack argues, the decentredness of the city gives way to the ungrounded or groundless city. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on pastiche in films such as Independence Day (Emmerich 1996) and Pleasantville (Ross 1998), in which very familiar sf images are repeated – flying saucers destroying the Whitehouse, a conformist smalltown invaded by alien others – but have no real connection to the cultures in which they are produced and consumed. And on the other hand, thanks largely to the development of CGI and other digital production technologies, there are films in which the city becomes a vertiginous, boundless space across which impossible trajectories are traced (The Fifth Element (Besson 1997), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Lucas 2002)) and, perhaps more interestingly, a space to be endlessly reshaped – and human identities along with it – by far from benevolent powers, as in Dark City (Proyas 1999).
Since Sobchack wrote her essay, the city in sf film since the 1990s has become primarily a post-9/11 space. It is subject to:
- inexplicable alien attacks in Cloverfield (Reeves 2008), War of the Worlds (Speilberg 2005), Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
- terrorist attack in Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams 2013)
- emptying out in 28 Days Later… (Boyle 2002) and I am Legend (Lawrence 2007)
- military occupation in 28 Weeks Later… (Fresnadillo 2007)
In Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), the city is reduced to an endless camp for remantn populations and dislocated people.
In Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015), the city as such has completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a brute vertical structure of violent oppression.
Turning to Alphaville, we began by outlining the dystopian elements of the future it depicts, some of which clearly develop ideas and themes we had already encountered last week in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These included:
- centralised and totalitarian control (the extent to which the Alpha 60 computer and Alphaville are co-extensive is ambiguous, but arguably the inhabitants of Alphaville effectively also live inside the computer)
- loss of emotion and flattening of affect
- state-organised spectacle (swimming pool executions replacing books burnings) which is not so much about punishing perpetrators as reminding the rest of the population of the state’s potential to use disciplinary force
- the ubiquity of modern commodities, which replace art, live music, poetry, etc
- the degradation of language – if you remove words from the dictionary, people cannot feel or express the emotions/ideas they signify
- the reduction of humans to the status of commodities (which, in Alphaville’s treatment of all(?) women as sex-workers does at least demystify the economics of normative heterosexual exchange)
- the imminence of nuclear war
- an architecture – here all cold reflective glass and marble – that establishes barriers between people
- an emphasis on abstraction – signs and graphics, diegetic and otherwise – rather than on embodied human interconnection
This last point extends into the film’s emphasis on semiotics – how meanings are created and circulated. This is most obvious in the way in which, in Alphaville, nodding your head means ‘no’, and shaking it means ‘yes’ – semiotic signs, remember, are arbitrary and conventional.
The film foregrounds an array of intertextual connections – references to characters from pulps, comics and films (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, Heckel and Jeckel), to scientists and related institutions (von Braun, Fermi, Einstein, Heisenberg, Los Alamos, IBM), but does little if anything to explain them, leaving the viewer to fathom their presence, their signification – perhaps as a kind of pop culture primer to help us read the poetry of surrealist Paul Eluard that might save us.
The film plays with genre, casting Eddie Constantine, already familiar to French audiences from the actual Lemmy Caution films in which he has starred, and going out of its way to make the sex and violence and melodramatic music of crime thrillers awkward and absurd (as if desperate to find a way to both have the pleasures of mass culture and to distance itself from them). Such elements signify a genre to which the film using them arguably does not belong – at least not in any straightforward way.
Finally, the film levers open the gap between sound and image that conventional continuity editing tries to close down. Not only do we not know where Alpha 60’s voice actually comes from in the world of the film, we also often do not know its status in relation to the footage: can it be heard by the characters? is it a voiceover address to the viewer?
Next week, we turn in more detail to the International Style, the influence of Le Corbusier on British postwar developments, to brutalist architecture and its decline – and to the first half of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), accompanied by The Model Couple (Klein 1977).
Core critical reading: Utterson, Andrew. “Tarzan vs. IBM: Humans and Computers in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.” Film Criticism 33.1 (2008): 45–63.
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See Chapter 5, “From Postmodern Condition to Cinematic City.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Duarte, Fábio, Rodrigo Firmino and Andrei Crestani. “Urban Phantasmagorias: Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities.” Space and Culture 18.2 (2015): 132–42.
Easthope, Anthony. “Cinécities of the Sixties.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 129–139.
Hilliker, Lee. “The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.” Film Criticism 24.3 (2000): 1 – 22.
–. “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review 76.2 (2002): 318–29.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 6, “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities.”
Shaw, Debra Benita. “Systems, Architecture and the Digital Body: From Alphaville to The Matrix.” Parallax 14.3 (2008): 74–87.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
Utterson, Andrew. From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age. London: BFI, 2011.
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yegeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are key dystopias concerned with modern built environments. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) is an ambivalent take on life in an arcology.
The design of the future city in Things to Come (Menzies 1936) draws on contemporary architectural debates.
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971) and Logan’s Run (Anderson 1976) are set in dystopian arcologies. World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johson 1984) looks at the future city designed by corporations for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Jacques Tati’s mechanised suburbia of Mon Oncle (1958) is matched by a hyper-modern Paris in Playtime (1967).
This 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).
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.
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).
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).
After the varying degrees of self-importance, humourlessness and bloat Spielberg, Cronenberg and Weiss brought to their respective Empires, Crashes and Exhibitions, the very first thing screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley get right with their High-Rise is that Ballard is a comic writer.
A master of the modestly proposed deadpan preposterous, his dry technician’s prose fakes repression, barely concealing the glee with which he drones shock and flattens affect. This is pretty much impossible to reproduce in film. Cronenberg attempted it with Crash, and failed (Shivers got a lot closer, and is still the best version of High Rise that is not actually a version of High Rise).
Jump/Wheatley’s humour is much more their own, and they are sufficiently confident about it to have some fun with Ballard. There is, for example, a nicely played moment when Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) says something to Royal (Jeremy Irons) which is precisely the kind of impossible-thing-for-a-real-person-to-say that a character in a Ballard novel would say, prompting bemusement and discomfort in them both.
The second major thing Jump/Wheatley get right is to not update the setting of the film. Instead, we get a slightly different version of the 1970s, as if the decade went on a little bit longer and somehow became as attractive to look at as it clearly – and mistakenly – thought it was.
But this also reveals a problem with the film as an adaptation (as a Jump/Wheatley film, it is second only to Sightseers).
Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments was transforming from merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom (typically and conveniently forgetting that for many people moving from the slums to the new developments was headily utopian – indoor plumbing!). It was written when councils were withdrawing maintenance from post-war housing projects, and their residents were being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. It was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – you know, like in Our Friends in the North).
And so whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it, but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre. The closing moments of the film do nod to Thatcher, and it is certainly the case that she – conveniently forgetting that many of the worst post-war developments were built by private companies, not by the state or local councils – drew on this myth to drive through her ideological war on council housing, thus creating the ongoing housing crisis in the UK.
But the conditions in which Ballard’s novel was written no longer exists, and the film – despite the way it captures middle-class social sadism – lacks that element of specificity that would provide a vital resonance. Consequently, Ballard, who should be shocking the bourgeosie, is suddenly heritage cinema, and that is just plain wrong.
Probably the most telling moment for me in this regard comes in the sequence when Richard (Luke Evans), slowly making his battered way up the building to exact his revenge, assaults Charlotte (Sienna Miller). A montage, which includes her timidly serving him a tin of dog food for breakfast the next day, plays out to Portishead’s cover version of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S.’. It is a beautiful version, transforming the pop song into a languid, mournful piece of music, as self-consciously ‘serious’ as one would expect from them. And in all kinds of ways it works brilliantly.
But it is completely the wrong choice.
They should have gone with the original version; not because it is better, but because the last thing the film needed was to fall into such clichéd caution. This is not to say that rape, even if only implied rather than depicted, should be treated frivolously; but rather that the film loses something by choosing to treat this particular moment as so very exceptional. At least using ABBA’s version might have been sufficiently inappropriate to shock audiences out of their complacency. But that was never going to happen. Despite all the potentially offensive material the film contains, it also wants to be respectable, and that is budget speaking, not art.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s an enjoyable film, and full of nice little touches, from sets which bring the brutalist concrete inside the apartments to an unexpected nod to Aladdin Sane and some great dancing.
But you know the way The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘s static camerawork makes it not so much an expressionist film as a film of expressionist sets and performances? So High-Rise is a film of a Ballard novel, not a Ballardian film.
[Thanks to Mark Cosgrove for blagging me into the preview after the ticketing fiasco.]