The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 15

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

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

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

 

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Crumbs (Miguel Llansó Ethiopia/Spain/Finland 2015)

crumbs-the-first-ever-ethiopian-post-apocalyptic-surreal-sci-fi-feature-length-filmUltimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population

slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.

Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol,[1] before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).

Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.

The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.

Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…

I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of  Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.

It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).

There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.

Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).

Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.

Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably  the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.

We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.

If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations.  That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.

[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]

Bibliography
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49. 
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.

[1] A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here  – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Baadasssss! aka How To Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (t’other Van Peebles 2003)

bigtmp_20824[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]

In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]

This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.

In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).

tumblr_m5vimzquPt1qf5ylso1_500Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.

‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.

But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:

sweetback_12

Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]

Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).

According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic

historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)

Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)

But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.

In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.

baadasssss-movie-poster-2003-1020233016Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.

In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.up-badass2_lg

As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.

At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,

Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.

The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.

Notes

[i]
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.

[ii]
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.

[iii]
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.

[iv]
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.

Eden Log (Franck Vestiel France 2007)

[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 3.1 (2010), 157–61]

edenlogEden Log begins in darkness.

Water drips into water.

Ragged breaths.

Flashes of light reveal a man (Clovis Cornillac), caked in mud, waking, staggering to his feet. (Later, much later, we – and he – will learn that his name is Tolbiac, but for now he has no idea who or where he is.)

He finds a torch on a nearby corpse and in its intermittent light he creeps and crawls and climbs up out of this cave into the lower levels of a seemingly derelict industrial complex. Cables and roots, difficult to tell apart, hang from the ceiling, industrial detritus devolving into, merging with, the subterranean-organic. On the wall behind him, a half-seen diagram describes a process which seems to involve humans descending below ground and then later ascending. He presses through heavy turnstiles and is greeted by projections of half a dozen women, immaculately clothed and coiffed, who address him in multiple languages. In the ominously bland idiolect of a corporate shill, one of them states,

The contract is fair. It is thanks to your work below that you will build your paradise above. Look after the plant and it will look after you.

This pun on plant, which works in French as well as in English, opens up one of the several fields of ambiguity in which this often elliptical film nestles. The plant is both a miraculous tree of vast proportions, its roots reaching far underground, and the industrial complex which extracts sap with ‘infinite energetic properties’ from the tree so as to power a city.

eden-log-clovis-cornillacAs Tolbiac ascends through underground levels – a trajectory that materialises the vertical integration upon which the Eden Log corporation’s gradually unveiled monopoly depends – he encounters various others from whom he begins to piece together the world and its story. One man, suspended from a wall, claims to have brought down the system, but it is not entirely clear where he ends and the plant (in either sense) begins. Tolbiac triggers a recording of the final confrontation between the technicians and the guards: when faced with an information leak over their corporate malfeasance, the nature and extent of which will only later become clear(er), Eden Log overrode all protocols about the relative autonomy of the subterranean levels and sent in guards to destroy the evidence and eradicate the threat.

1242613626_3The plant has been responding to its escalating exploitation by releasing a toxin that mutates the workers into strange, no-longer human creatures. Tolbiac’s struggle against transformation wavers when he finds an uninfected woman (Vimala Pons) and, suddenly abhuman, rapes her. He is appalled by what he has done, and what he is becoming. She elects to accompany him up to the surface, not knowing that he has infected her.

Eventually, having pieced together most of the puzzle, Tolbiac is recognised – and, at last, named – by the guards he used to command. Pretending to be himself, he cons his way past the guards and plugs himself into the plant, which has always been sterile, infecting it with life. It erupts, shattering the dome that contained it, and expands to take over the deserted city, transforming it into a beautiful – and colour-filled – landscape.

Eden Log actually begins not in darkness but with a quotation:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis 3:23)

Tolbiac’s initial emergence from the mud might be taken as a reworking of the creation of Adam in The Bible: In The Beginning… (US/Italy 1966), replacing John Huston’s achingly – and thus camply – tasteful images of an inspirited wind blowing aside yellow sand to reveal the first man with birthing imagery that is rather more fecal, fluid and feminine. Eden Log certainly invites psychoanalytical readings: its setting recalls the maternal interiors of Alien (Scott UK/US 1979), the rape carries strong overtones of a primal scene fantasy, and Tolbiac’s ascent into realms of language and control, the realm from which he fathered himself, plays out an Oedipal entry into the Symbolic.

The biblical quotation can also be interpreted as Vestiel’s announcement of his transition to directing feature films. Previously, he had directed three episodes of the French cop show, Central Nuit (Night Squad 2001– ), and gathered assistant director credits on numerous films, including Blueberry (Renegade; Kounen France/Mexico/UK 2004), adapted from Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s bande desinée, and Ils (Them; Moreau and Palud France/Romania 2006). Such experience undoubtedly prepared him well for shooting a film in the dark, in confined spaces[1] and with an elusive – some have claimed incomprehensible – narrative with religious overtones.[2] Many of the reviews of Eden Log struggled to make sense of a film with the narrative structure of a Paul W.S. Anderson video game adaptation but stripped of his prolonged action sequences and clearly-defined (if one-dimensional) characters, motives and goals. Struggling to make sense of their disappointed expectations, reviewers typically drew fairly insubstantial comparisons with THX 1138 (Lucas US 1971), Le dernier combat (The Last Battle; Besson France 1983), Cube (Natali Canada 1997), Pi (Aronofsky US 1998) and Primer (Carruth US 2004), among others – often for no better reasons than Eden Log being a first film, French, black-and-white (sort of), low-budget, visually striking and/or elliptically plotted.

A more productive comparison might be drawn with Tsukamoto Shinya. Although Eden Log lacks the viscerality of Haze (Japan 2005), in which a man likewise drags himself through a mysterious subterranean location, Vestiel shares Tsukamoto’s eye for post-industrial landscapes – for once-essential components mutating into something almost-organic – along with his taste for apocalyptic rebirth and a posthuman otherness that defies eutopian-dystopian binaries.

Vestiel’s decision to begin the action in overwhelming darkness, with intermittent flashes of light that reveal less than they show, recalls the opening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper US 1974), with which Eden Log shares an energy crisis narrative about the dehumanising effects of capital. But it also announces that Eden Log is self-consciously a film. Garrett Stewart argues that

cinema exists in the interval between two absences, the one whose loss is marked by any and all photographic images and the one brought on by tossing away each image in instantaneous turn. (xi)

For him, the presence of still photographs within the diegesis functions as a reminder of the photogram, the still image that is held in front of the viewer for a twenty-fourth of a second as the film is projected but which is never seen or experienced as a still image. Vestiel’s prolonged stretches of darkness between each flash of light work in a similar manner, to remind us of the unseen dark absence which replaces each photogram in succession.

This filmic self-consciousness is further developed by the projection of images within the diegesis. For example, in the sequence in which Tolbiac replays the recording of the final attempt at negotiation before the guards invaded the subterranean levels, he must scurry to raise into the air a variety of surfaces so that the recorded dialogue can be accompanied by images projected onto these détourned screens, rematerialising a profilmic moment that is no more and reminding us that the

filmic medium is the once having been there of the represented spaces themselves, absented by necessity to make possible the materiality of their moving image on the track. (Stewart 5)

Later, a wizened figure, attached to the plant but slumped as if dead, is eerily animated as an earlier recording of him is projected onto his unmoving face. This play between the inanimate and the animated – which resonates strongly with the decision to strip the film stock of all colour, apart from the occasional revenant touch of red and green[3] – confronts us once more with the interplay between the substrate and the surface of the filmic experience itself. As Stewart notes,

photography engraves the death it resembles, [whereas] cinema defers the death whose escape it simulates. (xi)

Vestiel’s striking use of light and darkness, his flickering between presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, is matched by a refusal fully to explicate the world of the film or the narrative. By adhering to Tolbiac’s amnesiac perspective as he pieces together information from the thinnest and most elusive of expository clues, Vestiel situates the viewer in the space between obscurity and illumination. Even those adept in the relevant genre conventions will find themselves frustrated by Vestiel’s grimly playful evasion of specificity – a strategy clearly announced in the rape scene.

Having raced together into a room-sized elevator, Tolbiac removes his unknown companion’s helmet, revealing that she is a woman. With increasing passion – and apparently in flashforward – they begin to make love. This is soon intercut with another image stream in which the sex is reconfigured as Tolbiac violently raping the woman, and with a third in which he seems to be looking on in disgust at himself. The scene ends with Tolbiac slumped against a wall in dismay, and with the woman curled up in a corner, crying; and yet when he finds a way out, repeating to himself, ‘It’s not me, it’s not me’, she accompanies him.

While it remains unclear what has actually happened between Tolbiac and the woman, the frequent complaint in online commentary that the scene is gratuitous and that it makes no sense for the woman to follow her rapist indicates the extent to which generic framings can override the indeterminacy of the specific. This troubling conjuncture of community and violence, the flicker between affective intersubjectivity and aggressive domination, between what might be and what is, is at the core of the film’s critique of contemporary power.

Eden_LogThe Eden Log corporation’s circular logo which reappears throughout the film contains a diagram of tree as an intricate network, branching out in all directions. This potentially rhizomatic image is disrupted by the corporation’s name, which bisects the circle horizontally, turning the network into a tree with branches above ground and roots below. It forces verticality and thus hierarchy onto the image. The tree, as Deleuze and Guattari argue,

plots a point, fixes an order (7)

even as the rhizome that this tree places under erasure

expose[s] arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. (8)

Indeed, the film’s working title, Network Zero, suggests the point at which vertical hierarchy severs and deforms lateral multiplicity. The plant – both the tree and the factory housing it – is a synecdoche for the Eden Log corporation which owns it, part of the biopolitical order that, according to Michel Foucault, extends and veils the disciplinary sovereign power of the state to

make live and let die. (241)

In the closing minutes of the film it is revealed that Eden Log has promised immigrants who labour in the plant will be rewarded with citizenship, and concealed from the citizens that the plant is feeding on its workers. Eden Log has a vision of ‘a new social order’ built upon this ‘integration’ of non-citizen outsiders into ‘our civilisation’, and believes that when the truth is revealed that ‘our citizens will accept what our needs impose on these populations’. This exemplifies the manner in which biopolitical governance moulds populations to serve the economy. It can be seen as the logic of the Holocaust, in which the

death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier. (Foucault 255)

But it is also the logic of the supposedly free market.

And to this sovereign power Eden Log counterposes zoē, the

simple act of living common to all living beings (Agamben 1)

which is shared by the abhuman not-death-but-continuation of the mutated workers and the plant-human-machines, and by the climactic, uncanny efflorescence of computer-generated nature.

Notes
[1]
Eden Log was shot in a damp, freezing ten-acre mushroom bed sixty feet below ground, as well as water decontamination stations and sewers.

[2]
Vestiel co-authored the screenplay with Pierre Bordage, co-writer of Marc Caro’s less-than-coherent Dante 01 (France 2008), on which Vestiel also worked as assistant director.

[3]
There are two other bursts of (rather artificial-looking) colour when, courtesy of CGI, the plant effloresces. Stewart suggests that

in the second half of this century, science fiction has continued, more and more vividly, to imagine the technologies that would outdo it, do it in. In the digital era, however, futurist cinema has for the first time mobilized rather than merely evoked its own self-anachronizing upgrades. Engineered by computer enhancements, the super-annuation of a suddenly hybrid medium has become manifestly planned obsolescence, performed from within rather than simply foreseen. (222)

Works cited
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone, 1988.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.