Friday, 31 December 2010

War of the Worlds

Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds is, according to Wikipedia, on Cahiers du Cinema's list of the best 10 films of the Noughties. I can't say I agree, but like a lot of later Spielberg, it's an interesting film, if deeply flawed, and does put on show many of Spielberg's ongoing motifs and ideas.

War of the Worlds is the next Spielberg sf film after AI (2001) and Minority Report (2002), and, of course, has the same star as the latter film in Tom Cruise. These three films are significant revisions of the kind of visionary sf Spielberg essayed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) but continue that film's focus upon deficient fatherhood. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), the boy-man who leaves his family behind and takes to the stars in Close Encounters, escapes censure for his seeming irresponsibility (the cosmological imperative outweighs the familial), but Minority Report's John Anderton (Cruise), a broken man suffering the loss of his young son and subsequently the love of his wife, is redeemed in the course of the narrative. (Pre-Crime, in that film, is explcitly characterised as pathological, predicated on the errant desire to forestall trauma and loss.) The final shots of Minority Report show husband and wife reconciled, with the wife pregnant again, the familial more important than the social.

War of the Worlds has at its centre Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a stevedore from New Jersey who signally fails in his paternal duty when his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) come to stay. His relationship with his teenage son has broken down, and his daughter seems to have more life-skills than he does. When Bayonne, NJ is attacked by electrical storms and then death-dealing tripods, Ray runs (like Anderton), but not back to his children, but to the scene of destruction. Ray, it seems, is a bit dim; he is seen at the edge of the crowd, watching while asphalt cracks wide open and then a huge mechanical tripod emerges from the suburban street. He forms no plan to escape other than returning the children to Boston, and their mother; his route there, in a stolen car, leads to near-disaster at the Hudson Ferry. It's interesting to have a barely-competent protagonist at the centre of the narrative, but ultimately frustrating, particularly later in the film when he gawps at his son's attempts to join battle against the aliens while his daughter is almost snatched away by another (albeit benign) adult couple.

The images of Ray with his back turned, or concentrating his somewhat feeble mental powers on something else while his children wander into, or hurl themselves into danger are recurrent in the film, and are an index of his incapacity as a father. As in Minority Report, however, the narrative is one of redemption for Ray in that he delivers his daughter safely to Boston and is reconciled with his son. In a sense, the film is a rites of passage for another boy-man, just as with Roy Neary, but here the resolution is Earth-bound. Ray finally matches up to the life-skills of 'Tim', his ex-wife's husband, whose new SUV and prestigious house are shown to be in stark contrast to Ray's duplex and classic Ford Mustang. In a time of disaster, economic success is secondary to Ray's survival skills. 'Tim', the economically successful 'other man', is a recurrent figure in contemporary cinema: I was reminded of 'Don', the yuppie businessman in Night at the Museum who threatens Ben Stiller's relationship with his son (which is again redeemed in the course of the narrative - and Stiller plays an econonomically unsuccessful dreamer who takes up the blue-collar position of night guard). More pertinent again is Spielberg's own Hook (1991), in which the protagonist's yuppie 'other', who must be overcome to effect a reconciliation with his son, is actually himself (Peter Banning, who must become Peter Pan again).

Fatherhood, then, is a crucial concern in Spielberg's films, but in War of the Worlds the central conflict between father and son is displaced by the closeness (often physical, when Ray carries Rachel) between father and daughter. And here we can see the vital influence of spectacle and spectatorship in Spielberg's cinema: the narrative switches between Ray's and Rachel's point-of-view (we never see Robbie's: both the stealing of Ray's car, and his joining battle with the tripods, take place off-screen). Robbie is active, leaping onto the gate of the Hudson Ferry to help those trying to clamber aboard: Rachel watches. The film privileges her point-of-view because, of course, this is the cinematic apparatus that Spielberg's cinema is self-consciously a part of. As in Close Encounters, the wonder on the faces of the intra-diegetic spectators is meant to be matched by our own.

In the course of War of the Worlds, Ray is taught to see: at the end, he points out to an army commander that the force-fields are no longer working on a tripod, rendering it vulnerable to attack. Several times in the film the mise-en-scene shows a hole punched through glass - in a window of Ray's home, in a car windshield - through which Ray is seen. This 'tunnel vision', a visual enclosure, must be overcome. Rachel, by contrast, has her visison deliberately blocked on numerous occasions: on leaving Tim's house, destroyed by a falling 747; when she sees bodies floating down a river; when Ray kills the insane Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) to prevent them being discovered by the aliens.

Looking is even crucial to the active Robbie. When he attempts to run away from his father and join in the battle, he says, 'You've got to let me go. I need to see this'. Seeing, then, is crucial to rites of passage, to becoming an adult: Ray protects his daughter's vision because she is too young to enter this process. When Rachel is snatched up by a tripod and placed in a cage with other humans, Ray deliberately gets caught, to try to save her. When he reaches her, she is blank-faced, unseeing, traumatised: but Ray is soon able to recall her to herself. Considering how important it is to Minority Report (and that this is a definitively post-9/11 film) trauma plays a very small part for the main three characters: Rachel seems undamaged by her experiences, and Ray and Robbie 'grow' during the course of the film.

What remains with me from this film is gawping. Gawping is, of course, the Spielbergian response to spectacle, but here I think it has a rather more political or philosophical dimension. When the people stand around on the streets of Bayonne and watch some huge mechanical monster emerge from below the asphalt, the principle of gawping overcomes basic human motivation to flee (and I find the emotional and psychological motivation throughout this film deeply unconvincing). While a reviewer, Debra Saunders, writes that the message of the film is 'If aliens invade, don't fight back. Run', I think the last word should in fact be 'watch'. People don't run soon enough. They stand around and partake of the spectacle.

This reminds me inescapably of the ending of Robert Altman's Nashville, where an attempted assassination at a political rally is followed not by panic or chaos, but by the crowd standing around while Barbara Harris sings 'It Don't Worry Me.' I find this scene deeply dishonest and psychologically untrue, enforcing as it does Altman's misanthropic point about the affective failures of contemporary America at the expense of proper human motivation and response. This scene simply would not happen. And, in a sense, I feel the same way about War of the Worlds. For a film which draws on the invasion trope of human beings in conflict with alien others, it represents human activity as largely ineffective - and it is the Earth's biological environment which undoes the tripods in the end. While I'm happy to embrace post-human displacement in sf, I think War of the Worlds channels Altman in its depiction of people - especially in crowds - as stupid, and passive, and affectless. Where AI is truly moving in portraying the victims of human emotional failures (the fate of rejected Pinocchios), War of the Worlds is misanthropic and mechanical, and ultimately says about as much about human beings as its recto, the cartoonishly triumphalist Independence Day.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Thoughts on Lost Girls

For those of you who don't know, Lost Girls is a graphic tale by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie (who became life-partners during the making of the book), which re-writes the characters and histories of Wendy Darling (Peter Pan), Alice Liddell (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/ Through the Looking Glass) and Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz). The book is sexually explicit, offering a fantasia of couplings, flows and desires - it's positively Deleuzian in its representations of desiring machines - it's Sadean too, but we'll get back to that - and it is utopian, in that its re-coding of the latent sexual content of Victorian and Edwardian children's literature is released (orgiastically) from the structures of repression into a polymorphously perverse world of unrestricted desire and sexual pleasure. A special roundtable discussion of the online journal ImageText (which can be found at: does a good job of investigating the issues of sexuality and representation in the texts, but that's not my focus here.

I'm more interested in the politics of Lost Girls. It is crucial that the text takes place in the last few months before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and in fact the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo is depicted at the very end of Book 2. Lost Girls is then a retrospective belle epoque fiction, where the 'long Edwardian afternoon' is about to be plunged into dreadful night. As in Truffaut's Jules et Jim, also set in the 'innocent' years prior to 1914, a transnational male friendship is a crucial index of the text's critique of the Great War as the violent expression of a corrosive nationalism. While the German Jim and French Jules, close friends and two points of an erotic triangle with the beloved Catherine in belle epoque Paris, are able to maintain their friendship despite fighting on opposite sides (friendship transcending nationalism), in Lost Girls, this male homosociality is deficient. As Tof Eklund writes in his contribution to the ImageText roundtable, 'Lost Girls posits a uniquely male tendency to sublimate sex into violence as the cause of WWI. [Wendy Darling's husband] Harold and [Dorothy's 'boyfriend'] Rolf are judged harshly because each puts his national loyalty ahead of their mutual desire for each other' (paragraph 18) (

In fact, both Rolf and Harold are emblematically products of sexual repression (and thereby 'perversion'): Rolf is a shoe-fetishist who gets off on power-fantasies as well as literal jackboots, and Harold's deeply closeted homosexuality is connected with his job in armament manufacture and sales, and his investment in the 'manly' icon of the battleship. Where, for Wendy, Alice and Dorothy, the polymorphous perverse is utopian, for Rolf and particularly Harold the enjoyment of unrepressed sexual desire is temporary and abandoned in the face of the geopolitical narrative of national conflict. Their sexual 'liberation' is really an extension of their pre-disposition towards fascism. Rolf and Harold, when fucking, do so with an eye to power, to domination; their ineradicable phallicism is shunned by Alice, the 'leader' of the lost girls, whose desire is, until the very end, strictly lesbian - although she does wear a dildo, and it is when she is simultaneously penetrated by Wendy and Dorothy with similar strap-ons that she reaches her own epiphany, when she is able to let slip the reins of control. For Rolf and Harold, power holds sway over desire.

They, like the Red Queen of Alice's story, are Sadeans: the inflicting of pleasure on bodies is key. Desire is domination, and the possession of the mouth or vagina or asshole of the 'fuckee' is all that matters. As Alice's narrative demonstrates, this is ethically and emotionally corrosive: her sense of her own complicity in abusively transgressive sexuality leads her to the mental hospital, the emblem of her own 'lostness'. Alice is, in some sense, also a Sadean: the Austrian hotel in its final days of decadent, orgiastic sex inescapably refer to the Chateau de Silling in Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, the isolated castle wherein Sade's libertines conduct exhaustively repetitive sequences of sexual transgression. She is herself in as much need of 'liberation' from libertinage as Wendy Darling is from her sexless, prudish, up-tight hausfrau subjectivity.

The text ultimately recapitulates the correlation of female desire with fluidity, fecundity and the polymorphous, and masculinity with fascism, that we find critiqued in Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies, in which he investigates the fascist imaginary of German militiamen in the early 1920s, ex-soldiers who were recruited into the Nazi Party's SA organisation (the Brownshirts). Theweleit found that, in their diary writings and letters, these militiamen consistently imagined themselves as an armoured body, in mechanical phalanx with other 'hard-bodied' men, resisting the 'red flood' of female desire and communism (as pollution). In Lost Girls, this imagery is found when Dorothy has sex with the Tin Man, one of the worker's on her Father's farm. In a fantastical tableau, consisting of a single-page panel outside of the narrative diegesis (a device repeated in many narrative episodes told by Dorothy and Wendy), Dorothy is manacled and spread-eagled in a kind of abstract congress with a heavily robotic 'Tin Man', whose segmented metal phallus penetrates her vagina. It is a horrifying image, a violation unlike even the coercive or abusive sex found at points elsewhere in Lost Girls. The metal phallus, unlike the dildo, is a literal 'weapon'.

The connection between masculine phallicism and war is sealed in the final pages of part 3. Wendy, Alice and Dorothy, having told their stories and 'healed' their lostness, leave the empty hotel. Their room is subsequently occupied by the advancing German soldiers, some of whom build a bonfire in their room and smash Alice's abandoned mirror. The panels follow the smoke to the battlefield, where we find a soldier, legs propped apart, leaning back against the rim of a bomb-crater. This, it seems, is Rolf. His boots have been blown off and lay in the foreground, on the lip of the crater - as does something else. For Rolf has been emasculated, his genitalia blown to the other side of the crater, and a gaping wound tears him from crotch to sternum. Visually, what we have here is an invagination, a monstrous perversion of the imagery of the opened vulva that stands for the utopian possibilities of polymorphous sexual desire (aligned with the female body) throughout the text.

This, of course, is the terminal image of lost innocence in Lost Girls, and is, in a sense, what the text is really all about. The 'lost innocence' of Wendy, Dorothy and even Alice is recuperable on the old Freudian stage of storytelling and unrepressed sexual desire, but it is not so for Rolf. His fascist body-armour is undone by a bursting shell, his body exploded by the very military phallicism that seemed to armour it. While Alice can leave her mirror behind, having found a kind of wholeness, Rolf's dead eyes stare sightlessly into the dark future, his body fatally dis-integrated. These last few pages, leaving the reader not with the narrative of utopian female sexuality but the end-point, the self-rupture of male phallicism makes this a much less one-dimensional text than some of the contributors to the ImageText roundtable had supposed.

In 'MCMXIV', Phlilip Larkin wrote:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

'Never such innocence again': can the same be said of the graphic novel after Lost Girls, which Moore proclaimed to be 'pornography' before the fact? Does Lost Girls enact a kind of de-flowering of the comic book, a leaving behind of childhood and childish things? If it is, I think Moore's critical point here is political rather than sexual. Children's literature, he seems to say, is no 'secret garden', but a literature of trauma and acting out; the belle epoque is no 'age of innocence', but produced monsters of its own. Just as his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen uses the forms and characters if the Imperial Romance and Scientific Romance to investigate colonialism and power and ethical complicity, so Lost Girls uses the forms and characters of classic children's literature to interrogate the corrosive power of fantasia. And it is we, the readers, who should never inhabit such innocence again.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

V for Vendetta

Some ten years ago now, I was due to give a paper at the University de Alacala, near Madrid, at a conference that considered the influence of George Orwell. At the very last minute, I was unable to go, but I had planned and written a paper on Alan Moore and David Lloyd's graphic novel, V for Vendetta. This narrative had a curious publishing history: it had first appeared in Warrior, a short-lived monthly British comic that was intended to provide British writers and artists with the same measure of artistic control and expressive freedom as was available in the American comic book industry. As it turned out, this proved to be a false hope: Warrior, published by Quality Communications (and edited by Dez Skinn, who had worked for Marvel UK) was subsidised by the turnover from Quality's retail outlet, folded after 25 issues, when many of the writers and artists – some, like Alan Moore, disillusioned with the British comics scene – were recruited by US comics publishers to work on their titles. Moore, as is well-known, was asked to revitalise Swamp Thing for Marvel. V for Vendetta, which had run without pause in all issues of Warrior from 1982 to 1985, was caught up in an indefinite suspension of the narrative, in the middle of Book 2.

I bought Warrior (on order) every month until, one day in 1985, it ceased to arrive at the newsagents. It was not until I was browsing in the comics department of the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, some few years later, that I stumbled upon the continuation of the comic. It had finally transferred to DC Comics in the States, with the same writer and artist, although the stark monochrome of the Warrior art (the financial limitations of black-and-white comic-book reproduction in the early 1980s exploited fully by David Lloyd to create a chiaroscuro world that drew both upon film noir and upon the visual texture of postwar British cinema) had been overlaid with a subtle wash of colour, and the format of the comic had reduced from A4 down to trade-paperback size, But there they were, the missing episodes of Book 2 and then Book 3; and finally, the whole thing republished in 'graphic novel' format by Titan Books in the UK (mine is a Canadian Warner Communications imprint located online some time later).

One of the reasons I had loved V for Vendetta (and there are many) was that I had been long fascinated by dystopian fictions, and in fact went on to complete my PhD in that very area. (I loved the artwork, I loved the 'realistic' characters, I loved the range of literary, filmic and pop cultural reference – one of the very few verbatim quotations I have in my head from Shakespeare is a long speech from early in Macbeth in which the Thane of Cawdor is praised for his violent dispatching of a rebel, a speech used ironically by Moore in the first episode of V as a kind of commentary, spoken by the rebel V himself, as he rescues Evey Hammond from a group of secret servicemen who are about the gang-rape her. V kills all but two of them.) In the Madrid paper, I explicitly compared V for Vendetta to the kind of formal dystopia or anti-utopia, strongly influenced by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, that I had studied for my doctorate.

V for Vendetta remained a particular, even cultish pleasure, for a time. However, in the mid-2000s, it was revealed that the Wachowski Brothers were to produce a film adaptation of the comic book, with Hugo Weaving as V and Natalie Portman as Evey. Though it was set in Britian, the film was ultimately lensed through an American sensibility and is, I think, something of a failure.

Now I find that the mask is everywhere, a sign of resistance to the UK government’s neo-liberal prescription of spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit caused by under-regulated British banks and their financial speculations. Particularly, the masks are worn by Anonymous, a group of ‘cyber-hackers’ who recently ‘took revenge’ on PayPal, Visa and other financial institutions who had succumbed to US government pressure to cease providing services to WikiLeaks. The masks are from the film, rather than the comic book, but re-code the image of Guy Faulkes: no longer does the rhyme ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November’ refer to ‘treason’, but to resistance to the state. Back in 2000, when I wrote the conference paper, I had thought that an Orwellian dystopian text drew upon a rather outdated model of the operations of state power. Today, when police officers threaten 12-year-old schoolboys who plan to picket the surgery of the Prime Minister because their youth club is being closed down; or when the Chief Constable of the Met implies that his officers showed commendable restraint in not shooting demonstrators; or when mounted police charge a crowd of teenage students; the faces of state repression are coming into clearer focus. The masks are going on; the masks are coming off.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Nuclear Armageddon

I've been reading a lot of nuclear fictions, as I'm writing a book chapter on Nevil Shute's classic novel On The Beach, wherein the last survivors of a global nuclear war, eking out a last few weeks in Melbourne (the southernmost major city), inhabit a slow entropic drift down into death. It's a wonderfully moving book, with several characters taking their own (and their loved ones') life with the onset of radiation sickness. Having watched Peter Watkins's suppressed 1965 BBC film The War Game (, I realised that, although it's very moving in its depiction of a quiet decline into death, Shute's narrative effaces the full horror of nuclear war, and its domesticity verges on the sentimental. The War Game is clearly lensed through Dresden and Hiroshima and doesn't spare the viewer images of radiation burns, children blinded, and the euthanising of casualties who cannot be treated. (In fact, that is a euphemism: armed police officers comfort the terminal patients then shoot them in the head.)

Shute's text does contain a rather Ballardian sequence, however, when a scientist and several racing enthusiasts decide to stage one last Australian Grand Prix, which ultimately involves the deaths of quite a few qualifiers and participants. It's a kind of suicide, but accompanied by a black, almost nihilistic humour. The scientist needs a transporter to carry his damaged Ferrari home for repair: a fellow competitor points him to a lorry, whose owner has been killed on the track. 'He won't be needing it any more,' he says. The seeming callousness, which accompanies Shute's own deadpan enumeration of the violent deaths of several racers, opens up a Ballardian lack of affect and a bracingly cruel strreak of humour which leavens the emotional freight of the narrative.

I also read David Graham's Down to a Sunless Sea this week, which is in a much more heroic vein but with an astonishing sequence as the crew of a super-jumbo jet realise that war has broken out when they're over the Atlantic - radio contacts disappear with large flashes on the horizon. It's very effective in transmitting a kind of dislocated horror, though the ending - where they make it to McMurdo base in Antarctica, and the heroic pilot falls for his female Russian counterpart, is a bit glib, to say the least.

It's all taken me back to the early 1980s, when I was in CND, went on marches to airbases and London, and felt the shadow of the Bomb. Little wonder I did my PhD on American dystopian fiction, which often had nuclear war built into its textual fabric (as a kind of fictional history or break from the past). It's strange: with the 'war on terror', Iraq and Afghanistan military adventurism, and the break-up of the old Soviet Union (with now Russia staging the World Cup in 2018!), we've lost sight of all those nuclear missiles that are still out there.

That is, of course, until WikiLeaks revealed that Middle Eastern Arab states would not be too put out if Israel attacked Iranian nuclear installations, just as they did against Syria in 2007 and against Saddam's Osirak site in 1981. And how does nuclear war begin in Down to A Sunless Sea, published in 1981? An Israeli nuclear attack on Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. Some things seem not to change, much.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Android Rock

The connection between science fiction and popular music isn't always a pretty one. For every Sun Ra or Parliament/ Funkadelic (and watch out for an Afro-Futurism post soon) there's Rush's 2112 or 'Cygnus X-1', not to mention the rather odd legacies of 'space rock' (Hawkwind and early Pink Floyd).

Much as I am a fan of Mike Moorcock, I don't really have that much interest in his involvement in Hawkwind (he wrote the lyrics for much of the classic album 'Space Ritual') except as an odd cul-de-sac in his career. I'm no fan of prog. I do, however, quite like psychedelia, and I very much like repetition. Circular, looping, hypnotic 'indie' rock of the 1980s - Spacemen 3, Loop - is very much my thing. But both these bands are clearly drawing as much upon the American garage tradition of The Stooges and the MC5, and the early electronic punk of Suicide, as they are upon English space rock.

Rather than rock or pop that explicitly has science fictional lyrical elements, I've been considering rock music that sounds 'futuristic' in some way, even if it was recorded in the 1970s. I don't mean the Beach Boys' use of the Theremin on 'Good Vibrations', nor Joe Meek's 'Telstar' (nor his 1960 concept album, 'I Hear A New World: an outer space music fantasy'!), but music that sounds out of its own time, and out of our own. Albums produced by Martin Hannett (Joy Division's 'Closer' and 'Unknown Pleasures', for instance) always have this feeling, to me; so do both Bowie's 1977 'Berlin' LPs, 'Low' and 'Heroes', produced by Brian Eno.

Clearly, Bowie and Eno had picked up on the developments on the 'motorik' sound of 1970s German rock, known now as 'Krautrock'. 'V-2 Schneider', from the instrumental second side of 'Heroes', is a tribute to Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, and throughout the two albums one can hear echoes of the repetitive, driving guitar sound of the group Neu! and their albums 'Neu!' and 'Neu! '75'. I'm listening again to the track 'Heroes' as I write, thinking of the opening of Chris Petit's 1979 black-and-white road movie Radio On, which uses the track in a very bold, minutes-long tracking shot through an empty London flat.

What makes this song 'futuristic?' There's a lot of atonality here, from Robert Fripp's endlessly-sustained guitar lines, to feedback, phasing effects, and electric organ sounds; and it has that steady motorik rhythm that Kraftwerk used on 'Autobahn', which celebrates the rhythm of driving down the A555 (the first autobahn) between Koln and Bonn. Driving is crucial to Krautrock, and to the Berlin albums: one of my favourites tracks on 'Low' is 'Always Crashing The Same Car', which has strong Ballardian overtones. (U2's Zooropa album, which has a similarly 'futuristic' feel - much more so than Achtung Baby, which was partially recorded in the same Hansa Berlin studios in which Bowie recorded the 1977 albums - has a track called 'Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car'. No coincidence.)

And now I come to the most futuristic of 1980s electro/synth-pop artists, and one about whom people remain quite sniffy: Gary Numan. Watching a video of a live performance of 'Are Friends Electric?' on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it's quite clear where Numan is coming from: Bowie intonations and mannerisms, motorik rhythms, repetition/ circularity, analogue synths and overdriven guitars. It's also clearly sf, sf about alienation, urban ennui, and the android. It's overtly influenced by Philip K. Dick and comes from a 1979 album called Replicas. This album is itself a kind of dystopian concept-album but what strikes you is the cover: Numan stands stiffly in an empty room with a bare light bulb, dressed in black with bleached hair, next to a darkened sash window (complete with nen sign of what seems to be a nightclub: 'The Dark'). His sightlines are off: he does not look out of the window but to one side in a kind of attention-vacuum, as though on some kind of regressive programming loop or shutdown. His reflection in the window is also non-natural, the alignment altered so it appears to be looking in to the room. The theme of the double, the replicant, is suggested visually on the album cover.

And this was 1979: three years before Blade Runner.

Numan's most famous track is, of course, 'Cars'. This is the epitome of android rock, fusing synth-pop sequencing (of the Minimoog and Polymoog synthesisers, largely) with live (acoustic) drumming and an iconic video. The lyrics are again about alienation, being trapped in the car, feeling isolation as well as security. The arpeggiated sequences are wonderfully catchy and uplifting, but there's still a blankness there. On the cover of the album The Pleasure Principle, which features 'Cars', Numan sits alone at an onyx table, dressed in charcoal double-breasted suit (and with heavy application of dark eye make-up), staring somewhat cautiously at a small glowing red pyramid on the table-top. The cover of the single of 'Cars' is even more arresting: Numan is framed to the right of the sleev, arms rigidly out to grasp an imaginary steering-wheel, his eyeline way up out of the top of the picture. The effect of both is businessman-as-mannequin or android, an sf parody of the sharp '80s business suits (symbolising right-wing entrepreneurship) that are the focus of a different kind of satire on the cover of Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement.

Numan seems to be suggesting here that the icon (or ideal) of the businessman in the 1980s is non-human: alienated, decorticated, a literal machine.

Of course, most of these artists and tracks are machine music, of a kind, using the newly-developing electronic instruments produced by Bob Moog and others to give a texture quite unlike the music of the 1960s (or the later 1980s, come to that). In the connections between driving, the machine, urban alienation, reeptition, and the emotional blankness of the 'android', we find that motorik music is intensely Ballardian, a kind of iteration of the kinds of social and cultural formations that Ballard was investigating from the late 1960s.

The strange thing is is that this music still sounds like the future. How can this be? I think it is because the sounds of analogue synthesizers bear little relation to the tonal qualities of 'real world' sounds, and the history of the synthesizer is one of increasing timbral complexity and approximation (and ultimately sampling and re-sampling) of 'real' sounds and instruments. When 1980s electronic-pop artists started to use the Fairlight and the Emulator, there was a move away from the kind of sounds produced by the Minimoog and ARP: sounds produced electronically, by oscillators making a sine, or saw-tooth, or square wave and processed through a rack of different filters and modulators. Despite this multiple processing, these sounds are still machine sounds, and I think we hear them differently (even now) than we do organic, 'natural' waveforms.

There's a kind of purity about 'Cars' (or Depeche Mode's 'New Life', another wonderful arpeggiated synth-pop track, where even the 'real' drums are replaced by a drum machine, the snare drum by processed white noise) that's produced by the technology used in creating it: Numan's trick is (like Kraftwerk's) to implicate the human 'pop star' into the new machinic assemblage of synthesizer and drum machine. Android rock is where machinic reality, in Ballard's words, 'beckons' to us from outside the window.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

James Bond's science fiction imaginary

By any standard, even by the standards of other Bond movies, Moonraker is a bad film. Though Roger Moore was yet to truly descend into his immobile, parodic, geriatric mid-1980s self, Moonraker carried on the flatulent, throwaway feel of The Spy Who Loved Me, an overlong bore of a film that traded on the curio attraction of Richard Kiel's 'Jaws' villain, the underwater Lotus Espirit and Ken Adam's grandiose sets (the interior of the sub-swallowing supertanker was one of the most expensive and largest sets ever constructed on a sound stage).

Moonraker, released in 1979 in the wake of the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, doubled-down on the spectacle and tried to avert our eyes from the plot holes. The film begins with a Space Shuttle being transported to Britain on the back of a 747, echoing NASA publicity footage of the late 70s (before the Shuttle's first orbital mission in 1981). The Shuttle was made by Drax Industries, and when the 747 crashes (but no trace of 'Britain's shuttle' can be found) Bond is sent to the United States to investigate Sir Hugo Drax, played by Michael Lonsdale as a man so consumed by dyspepsia and ennui that he transplants a French chateau to the American desert in order to shoot quail (in deerstalker and cape), and has cultic dreams of wiping out humanity and replacing them with a hand-picked group of new Adams and Eves. (Is he one? It's never made quite clear.)

Fleming's Moonraker is a different animal altogether. Set in Britain, Drax is an industrialist whose company makes the 'Moonraker', a nuclear missile. Bond investigates some goings on and discovers that Drax (who cheats at cards - always the sign of a villian, like Goldfinger) is in fact an ex-German Army commando officer who is bent on revenging the Third Reich by using the Moonraker to destroy London.

The Moonraker is essentially an upgraded V-2 rocket, and the shadow of Peenemunde is long over the Cold War and Space Race. It was Wernher von Braun, of course, the famous former V-2 rocket scientist, who was the architect of NASA's post-war ambitions to journey into space, and both Americans and Soviet military and scientific establishments co-opted former Third Reich rocket scientists into their own missile programs. The American Rocket State, as Dale Carter named it, was driven by V-missile technology.

Very different, then, to the 1979 film. For Britain in the late 1950s, remaining a player in the changing geo-political landscape of superpower conflict and Cold War (and low-intensity combat theatres) was contingent on the prestige and status accorded a 'nuclear power'. Britain obtained and detonated a nuclear device in 1952, but the dreams of an independent nuclear deterrent (along the lines of the French 'force de frappe') were laid to rest with the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile in 1960. Fleming's Moonraker missile is a clear analogue of the Blue Streak, and the narrative surrounding it in his novel attests to his usual mixture of geo-political adventurism and the anxieties attendent on the withdrawal from Empire, ongoing throughout the 1950s.

Cold War missile imagery, in Fleming's Moonraker, therefore has a political urgency entirely absent from the film. What exactly would the British government do with a Shuttle? They couldn't launch it. It becomes a status symbol ad absurdum, an entirely redundant piece of technology that could only be piggy-backed around airshows on a converted 747. By 1979, Britain's imperial dreams are reduced to the image of an orbital plane which could most usefully be deployed as a giant paperweight. Little wonder that in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, which deliberately cut back on the gadgetry despite Moonraker's big box office, the technological MacGuffin that Bond searches for is a missile command system that fits into a briefcase.

The plot of the Moonraker film deteriorates into outright absurdity towards the end. It is revealed that Drax has a huge launch complex hidden away in the Amazonian jungle, from which he has constructed a huge orbital space station: which no-one knows is there. It has, Bond says, radar-jamming technology. Clearly military intelligence, NASA, astronomers and so on did not record the number of space-flights needed to transport the materials from Earth into orbit in the first place, so no suspicion arose. And what happened to 'our' Shuttle? Drax faked the crash so he could steal back the Shuttle that his own corporation had built, sold and was delivering to the British! Why? Why didn't they build another, or even put off the British (who are used to long delays in the delivery of major military contracts)? Lonsdale almost seems to shrug his shoulders at this point. It's Bond villain as Homer Simpson-with-beard: 'I dunno.'

Of course, the spectacular finale has Bond and American astronauts (who seem to have formed a kind of NASA SEAL unit) battle it out with Drax's minions with laser rifles in orbit, and the Yanks win. It all seems much like the underwater battles in Bond films like Thunderball, whose overall effect is somewhat underwhelming. Instead of harpoon guns, substitute lasers; instead of frogmen, substitute astronauts in tin-foil spacesuits; instead of Curt Jurgens's underwater lair in The Spy Who Loved Me, substitute a massively expensive space station set.

Speaking of massively expensive sets, 1967's You Only Live Twice is the first truly Space Race Bond, where Donald Pleasance as Blofeld launches Mercury-capsule-eating rockets from a hollow volcano somewhere in Japan. (As in Moonraker, with all the tracking devices at work, you'd think someone in Intelligence would have noticed.) Bond's ascent into space is halted at the door of the capsule, in this film: Blofeld is suspicious and recalls the disguised would-be astronaut. While this film is curiously dominated by helicopter shots (and has an autogyro/ helicopter dogfight), it stays pretty much Earth-bound.

The first Bond film to really use NASA imagery is 1971's Diamonds Are Forever. This film is largely set in Las Vegas: the testing grounds of Groom Lake, and Edwards Air Force base, are close at hand. This is why, perhaps, along with the desert imagery that often accompanies NASA-inspired films (The Right Stuff, Capricorn One), that Bond in Diamonds Are Forever breaks into an aerospace facility, trespasses across a mock-up lunar landscape (while dodging 'moonwalking' men in environment suits) and finally steals a kind of moon buggy, outrunning security cars and trike-riding goons in his getaway across the dunes.

Diamonds Are Forever is a rotten film in many ways (in the way that Hunter Thompson would use the word 'rotten' about Las Vegas), but there's a gaudy vulgarity and even perverseness to it that I find quite entertaining. It was released while the Apollo missions were still ongoing, of course, and while the 'old' Las vegas of the Mob and the Rat Pack still stood, and Diamonds Are Forever - very much an American film - feels like the decadent days of a grand power going to ruin. The grand power is no longer Britain, and its narrative of post-imperial 'decline', but the USA.

Moonraker, by comparison, is a vapid bore. The entire film seems a set-up for the final, devastating double-entendre: disturbed in zero-g, mid-coitus, by a live satellite feed meant to congratulate him, shocked politicos ask what Bond thinks he is doing. 'Attempting re-entry, sir', says Q.

While Fleming's novel negotiates the science fictional imaginary also traversed by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (V-2s, the Space Programme, the legacies of WW2), the film of Moonraker ascends to a hyperbolic realm where British post-imperial geo-political anxieties are articulated in a manner so palpably absurd, so science fictional, that they no longer seem meaningful. And that's the point of the film, really.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

At the beginning of the film, I thought to myself. 'Why 1957?' With Indy the subject of a barely-credible FBI investigation of Reds Under the Bed, and the author of a barely-credible escape from a nearby H-bomb test in a lead-lined Fridgidaire, I wondered why the film wasn't set earlier in the 50s (despite Ford's apparent superannuation). In the hallowed phrase of Toy Story 2's Stinky Pete: 'Two words: Sput Nik.'

Where the original Raiders conjured with World War 2 films and adventure serials with the Nazis as villains, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays with an amusing series of Cold War science-fictional pop-mythologies: the so-called 'Area 51' at Groom Lake, Nevada (where it transpires that the Ark of the Covenant is stored, revealed in a visual aside); the Roswell crash; the Soviet experiments in parapsychology, ESP, psychokinesis and so on; von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods; and of course the 'Rooshians' as ubiquitous baddies and competitiors in the Space Race.

Of course, the Indiana Jones franchise has always played its colonial adventurism (cum archaeological investigations) against some kind of threat, the Nazis in films 1 and 3 or (more problematically) the Thuggees in Temple of Doom. What's interesting about the fourth film isn't its father/ son dynamic (mirroring that between Indy and his own father in The Last Crusade), or rather creaky chase structure, or Cate Blanchett's campy, black-bobbed turn as the over-reaching and amoral Soviet scientist Irina Spalko: it's that the film stitches Close Encounters onto the Indiana Jones franchise by way of George Lucas, who co-wrote the film. It's a 'sci-fi' Indy, complete with real flying saucer at the end, but this film insists on the perils of seeking knowledge of the transcendental, rather than the wonderment experienced by Roy Neary in Close Encounters.

The ending, which reveals that the aliens aren't tourists or invaders but inter-dimensional archaeologists, collecting artefacts from ancient Terran cultures, is the ultimate validation of Indiana's expeditions in search of 'lost civilizations' and their artefacts. It's not exploitation, but the pursuit of 'knowledge' that is key, disinterested, benign, and NOT imperial. Indiana is not only set against Blanchett's hubristic desire to 'know everything', but also against the venality of former friend and double-agent Mac (Ray Winstone). Both antagonists come to an inevitably sticky end while Indy is rewarded with marriage, a son and the restoration of his fortunes.

Science fiction is used in the film as an ideological alibi for the archaeological/ ethnographic discourses of the First World scientists abroad (the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, South America). While we have the old chestnut that Blanchett would use the parapsychological power of the alien crystal skulls as the ultimate weapon in order to differentiate her from Indy, in fact very little seems to separate them: they both place the acquisition of knowledge above material or political concerns. Indy knows when to look (or run) away, however.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, in many ways, a very silly film, full of narrative non sequiturs. What happens to the FBI investigation? There is no-one to tell the story of the defeat of Spalko except Indy, his son, wife-to-be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) and fellow archaeologist Oxley (John Hurt), and all evidence is destroyed in a flood. What puts Indy back in good odour with the FBI and the University of Chicago? Who knows. The ending is sealed with a marriage, and the suggestion that the son will follow in the footsteps of the father, just as we saw in the third film. The really transsformative knowledge in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that 'Mutt Williams' is really Henry Jones III, and the son's aspirational, conservative path is beginning to be mapped out in his change from biker garb to preppy slacks and sports jacket. The quiff stays in place: but it's probably held there with hair pomade rather than Coca-Cola.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Me, James Bond and hyper-mobility

Coming soon, an essay on Casino Royale and mobility, in Revisioning 007: James Bond and Casino Royale, edited by Christoph Lindner, with Wallflower Press.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Star Wars (Marvel Comics)

I've been watching a lot of Star Wars recently. My nearly-5-year-old daughter had massive thing for the Clone Wars, and now watches the films themselves repetitively, though she favours three strongly: Star Wars (A New Hope), Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. After reading Will Brooker's excellent BFI Classic essay on Star Wars, which made the prequel trilogy seem a lot more interesting and thoughtfully constructed, I've been thinking about the films as well as enjoying the elements of spectacle and world-creation again (and again and again).

I was also sent, by a good friend (thankyou Andy), an omnibus edition of the Marvel Star Wars comics that were produced from 1977 to 1986, in monthly format in the USA and in weekly editions in the UK. The early episodes, including a multi-part comic book adaptation of Star Wars itself, was drawn by Howard Chaykin, who would have a notable later career as a writer/artist on titles such as American Flagg!.

What primarily struck me about the comic, after the initial adapted episodes, was the fairly universal failure to adequately convey the worldness that Lucas was able to construct in Star Wars, and which is probably the lasting achievement of the original trilogy: a used world, full of detritus, people wearing working clothes in grubby environments, ships held together with fuse-wire and retrofitted parts. ('Futurologist' Syd Mead, who designed the 'retrofitted' world of Blade Runner, must surely have taken notes from the world(s) of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.)

The Marvel comics largely abandon this aesthetic, and it is in the absence of Lucas's highly-wrought detail that the texture of the Star Wars films truly becomes apparent. In the first story that follows the conclusion of the Star Wars film narrative, the comic takes Han and Chewbacca off to transport their 'reward' to Tatooine, to pay off Jabba's bounty. On the way, they meet a 'space pirate', one Crimson Jack, who sports a red beard and a kind of all-in-one wrestler's leotard that shows off his bare legs to great advantage. He is a red-headed, before-the-fact version of Brian Blessed's Prince Vultan in the 1980 Flash Gordon. The references to pirate narratives and to the cliches of Golden Age sf indicate that the writers and artists don't really know where to take the narrative in terms of a consistent universe; a later story has Luke marooned on an oceanic world where another crew of pirates or 'wreckers' cruise the seas in nothing less than a three-masted wooden man o'war.

Perhaps here we can see the influence of the Star Trek tv series, where Kirk and the crew would end up in alien worlds that resembled Nazi Germany, or the Wild West. The Western influence can be seen again in a story where Han and Chewie, forced to land on the backwater world of Aduba-3. There, in an overt recapitulation of The Magnificent Seven, Han is enlisted to help out a community who are menaced by one 'Sergi-X', a local bandit shown in a large splash-panel as a two-fisted Mexican outlaw, complete with scar, unshaven chin and nasty leer.

Even more curious is the group of fighters Han recruits. One, called Don-Wan Kihotay (nudge-nudge), lives a waking fantasy of being a Jedi Knight; another is a man-size green carnivorous rabbit with outsize ears called Jaxxon. Clearly here we're in the space of parody, but it's jarring nonetheless. Not only because this rabbit is a hard-boiled, ass-kicking, wise-cracking street rabbit, but through the absurdly cavalier way with world-creation. How can Star Wars have a rabbit in it, that Han Solo calls a rabbit? Star Wars itself is marked with an extremely careful mapping out of alien biologies and ecologies. Banthas might look a bit like shaggy elephants, but they're never called elephants. How would Luke know what an elephant was? He knows a swamp-rat, and can bulls-eye it, but whatever the creature is it surely isn't like a Terran rat.

So, not only do the comics reveal the density of texture in the films through absence, but also the very careful way Lucas imagines his alien world (Tatooine) in Star Wars. Lucas's conceptualisation of politics may be revealed in the prequel trilogy as niave in the extreme, but he does have a good eye for social, biological and spatial ecologies.

A final note: the Marvel Star Wars is much more heroic even than A New Hope. Luke is a jut-jawed, fist-clenched action hero; Obi-Wan a grizzled warrior, still very mcuh the Jedi Knight; Chewbacca is about twice the breadth of Peter Mayhew and is much disposed to violence; Threepio is lantern-jawed; and even Leia, swannning about in her white dress, wields a blaster with aggressive gusto. The key word, in terms of characterisation and the style of artwork, is aggression, with strong inking, garish colour and a regular six-panel page with plenty of white gutter. This is definitely Star Wars Drawn The Marvel Way, and the oddness of having Luke in his Tatooine white wrapped-around jacket, or Leia in her white dress whatever the narrative or place indicates that dress is conceptualised as a kind of uniform or costume in the comics, as much as it is for Iron Man, or Thor, or Spider-Man.

It's a retro-kick for me, reading these comics now. I was definitely a 2000AD kid, but bought Star Wars alongside it for quite a few years - I remember a story called 'Pariah' that wasn't published until 1982 (thanks Wookieepedia), after Empire was released and serialised, for instance. And thinking about it, one thing that is definitely missing from most of the stories in the first Omnibus is the Empire itself: Stormtroopers, TIE fighters, Imperial destroyers, Darth Vader. No wonder the worlds of the comic feel like generic Golden Age sf: the recognisable icons are largely left unused. The reason? A desire to keep clear of politics? The need not to interfere too much with the film continuity (though all stories were cleared pre-publication by Lucasfilm)? Whatever it is, it does leave the book feeling very far, far away from what we know now as the Star Wars universe.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Available Publications | University Of Chester

Meanwhile, available now, a collection of essays on screen adaptation, edited by myself (and containing an essay by me on the adaptation of PKD's 'The Minority Report'):

Available Publications | University Of Chester

After the hiatus

So much for new beginnings. After I started this new blog, which was meant to accompany a period of study leave, myself and my daughter succumbed to what seemed like months of low-level illnesses, infections, and so on, which meant all my plans came to nought. And then back to work in April, and exam season, which for me is a descent into the maelstrom...

But I have returned!

Planned or possible upcoming posts:

Anna Kavan
Christine Brooke-Rose
James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)
Hunter S. Thompson (as science fiction)
SF and music (dub, space-rock, Afrofuturism, electronic/ scanning, the android, Krautrock)

and more...

Check back shortly.

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