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: http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v3_3/) 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) (http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v3_3/lost_girls/eklund.shtml).

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 (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2864871032688882557#), 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.