Sunday, 18 December 2011

Cheating Death: Star Trek II and III

I watched the first three Star Trek movies back-to-back last night, tweeting as I went. I've always liked the first film for the things that it usually gets criticised for: its slow pace, 'transcendent' story, lack of 'action'. Its special effects by Doug Trumbull (with help from John Dykstra) are striking, with clear nods to 2001's Stargate sequence when the Enterprise penetrates V'ger's cloud, and the opening tour around the Enterprise in space-dock is so good that it's reprised at the beginning of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. This was partly for budgetary reasons, re-using the first film's footage, but the recognisability of some of the shots (as they pass the Enterprise's rear bay doors a man in an environment suit descends head-first; when the Enterprise gets under way, a worker in a suit stops to wave them goodbye) lends familiarity, a very literal sense that we've been here before.

Wrath of Khan trades on this familiarity. Its opening, with Chekhov and Captain Terrell landing on Ceti Alpha VI, a desert planet assailed by high winds, is straight out of a show from the original series (TOS): it's set-bound, the sand-storm effects are low-grade and when they find Khan and his remaining followers sheltering inside what appears to be a couple of shipment containers, we're definitely back on recognisable ground. Ricardo Montalban, of course, reprises the role of Khan from the TOS series 'Space Seed', again signifying recognition and familiarity. 'This is what you were expecting from the first film', Wrath of Khan tells us.

If Wrath of Khan is a sequel to 'Space Seed', then Star Trek III: the Search for Spock is a direct sequel to the second film, forming a mirrored pair within the sequence. Spock, of course, dies in saving the ship in Wrath of Khan, only for his 'soul' to be downloaded into McCoy's brain and his body resurrected on the planet Genesis in Search for Spock. There are strong parallels in the narratives of the two films. In both, a rogue antagonist springs a surprise attack on the Enterprise (Khan/ Commander Kruge, who is played by Christopher Lloyd with similar relish to Montalban); the damaged ship is abandoned while Kirk and others are stranded on a planet below; Kirk pleads for a mano-a-mano confrontation with the antagonist as a strategy, his passions at full tilt ('Khaaan!!'/ 'You Klingon bastard, you killed my son!'); Kirk triumphs by pulling off a kind of trick (the flight to the Nebula/ destroying the Enterprise).

Wrath of Khan begins with the 'Kobiyashi Maru' training simulation which, it is revealed, Kirk defeated in his own youth by re-programming the test before the event to allow him to rescue the damaged ship: 'I don't believe in no-win situations', he tells Saavik (Kirstie Alley). The 'Kobiyashi Maru' becomes the key to both Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock. In Wrath of Khan, it becomes an index of Kirk's problematic heroism, his unwillingness to yield, to 'lose': this means that he has never really faced death (this is instead, especially notoriously in TOS, visited on many a red-topped and expendable 'security officer'). He has never faced grief; he has always 'cheated death'. Spock's sacrifice ('But he'll die!' - 'He's dead already') causes an ethical re-alignment for Kirk, a means by which to re-assess his own heroism: the mission, this time, has been paid for 'in our dearest blood', and Kirk is contemptuous of a young crew-man's wish to have a homecoming parade. Although the end of Wrath of Khan was altered to more directly foreshadow the next film, it ends on a somewhat melancholic note, with a return to Earth and the loss of what Shatner will call 'the better part of me' in Search for Spock.

The third film, then, swiftly goes about inverting Wrath of Khan. Where the second film ends with death, the third one quickly enjoins the possibility of resurrection; where Kirk's tricky heroism was problematic, it becomes heroic once more in Search for Spock: as they stand on Genesis and watch the stricken Enterprise plummet through the atmosphere as a fireball, Kirk says: 'My God, Bones, what have I done?', to which McCoy replies: 'What you always do - turn death into a fighting chance to live.' Where Wrath of Khan was explicitly critical of Kirk's tendency to 'cheat death', Search for Spock unashamedly returns to Kirkian heroism, to the extent that he even defeats Kluge in a brawl, a real return to the double-fisted ethos of TOS. (Perhaps sacrificing the Enterprise is different from sacrificing an old friend, though even the ship is resurrected by the beginning of Star Trek V.)

As the film series wanders through the successful The Voyage Home (IV), the execrable The Final Frontier (V), and the solid The Undiscovered Country (VI) - the last also directed by Nicholas Meyer, who directed Wrath of Khan - it becomes apparent that the most pressing problem for the crew of the Enterprise isn't death, but ageing: even in Wrath of Khan, Kirk had opined that he was getting to old to be warp-driving around the galaxy. There's no way out of this battle, no trick to be pulled off (except in the ludicrous body-double shots Shatner uses to film 'himself' as Kirk climbing a mountain at the beginning of the fifth film, the outrageousness of which simply re-inforcing that which was meant to be hidden). While the title of the last film to feature the original cast in its entirety refers to Hamlet, and his pondering on what-comes-after, the final line of the film really indicates where it's coming from. Asked by Sulu, for a final time, what heading he should pursue (in Wrath of Khan, Spock says, unexpectedly, 'indulge yourself'), Kirk tells him: 'Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning.' The destination for the crew isn't the 'final frontier', in their dotage, but Neverland. Perhaps, when he gets there, Kirk will engage his lost boys and girls in unending battles with the Pirates, and face off once more with Hook, who is played by Ricardo Montalban.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I read Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth over the summer. At the beginning of the novel, as in the film, a man walks out of the American desert into a dusty town. There, he pawns a solid gold ring for cold cash. Outside the town, he checks both a roll of cash, and a hundred more gold rings: this is his 'stake', so to speak, his means by which to operate in 20th century America. He buys food and returns to a camp outside the town. In a following scene, he seeks out a patent lawyer and asks him to act as an agent; the basic patents he shows the lawyer would net him a further $300 million - which 'isn't enough'.

Enough for what? The man who fell to Earth is Jerome Thomas Newton, a literal alien from a drought-stricken planet, who finds that not only does he have gold rings and technology to sell America, he is an excellent businessman. Soon he accrues a large fortune and control of a major corporation; so major, in fact, that it begins to attract ths attention and suspicion of the US government. Strangely, the story of both film and play is a classic American immigrant story, a Horatio Alger myth: arriving with little, he becomes a financial success story.

Nic Roeg's film, which casts David Bowie as Newton, plays on both Bowie's languid effeteness (his androgyny too) as well as his British accent to mark out his alienness. (When he sells the gold ring, Bowie brandishes a fake British passport as proof of his bona fides.) It's a film very much like Roeg's prior Walkabout, in which two very English Australian schoolchildren are abandoned in the Outback by their father, who kills himself. Their 'walkabout' is a journey across the desert accompanied by an Aboriginal lad (David Gulpilil, an actor used in Australian cinema in the 70s and 80s as a go-to presence when an Aboriginal actor was required, from The Last Wave to Crocodile Dundee, to even Rabbit Proof Fence). The sense of alienation from an unknowable Australian landscape, a classic motif of Australian cinema (Picnic at Hanging Rock, the aforementioned Crocodile Dundee, or in parody, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), is repeated in the literal alien figure of Newton, who relocates to the American South-West so the film can engage the imagery of desert, one that reflects the parched and desiccated dune-scapes of Newton's own world.

Roeg's film is itself disjunctive. Where Tevis's novel takes leaps forward in time to indicate Newton's longevity, but also the accelerated pace of expansion of his business empire, Roeg's film incorporates commercialised Country songs on the soundtrack, unexplained shifts in time and space, and curious scenes of Bowie's body, fitted inside a kind of white-grey stillsuit, being hurled acrobatically through (cinematic) space. If not joky, there's a kind of flatness or affectlessness in Roeg's film which not only inhabit's Newton's psychology, but the landscape of television that he comes to find impossible to resist. In a sense, the film is about addiction, to tv, to booze, to dreams or fantasies; the hardest of all for Netwton to give up is the dream of returning to his own world. He attempts to build a starship to take himself there and return his dying kinfolk; but his plan is interrupted by the US government.

Here, post-Watergate paranoia intrudes in the film (it was released in 1976). Where, in the novel, Newton is made prisoner and experimented on by the government, and eventually blinded by x-rays (accidentally), in the film it is the human contact lens that Newton wears to hide his own more cat-like native pupils that are bonded irretrievably to his corneas, ending, in a way, his literal alienness. His boozy numbness, also inhabited by human lover/ helper Betty Jo (Mary Lou in the film, played by Candy Clark) and the scientist Nathan Bryce (played with off-kilter intensity by Rip Torn), indicates not his alien peculiarity but a kind of 'human condition'. The final scene in book and film sees Bryce locate Newton in a bar, having discovered that Newton had made some recordings of language from his planet. In the final shot of the film, Newton succumbs to drunkenness, his head falls on to his chest, and all we see as titles roll is the wide-brimmed hat that Bowie wears. In the book, the hat falls on to the table, and Newton sobs; Bryce, in a gesture of human contact and communication largely absent elsewhere, moves around the table to put his arm round Newton's shoulders, saying that the man needs help. (Don't we all?) Roeg's evacuation of this empathic, even sentimental moment leaves us only with blankness.

This, of course, is all too true to the persona Bowie himself inhabited prior to making The Man Who Fell to Earth. Lost in America, Los Angeles a hell of cocaine, black magick and bad vibes, the covers of two successive albums make reference to Jerome Thomas Newton: Station to Station and Low. Where Station to Station was self-confessedly an album informed by Bowie's magical readings and dabblings while in LA, matched his soul/ funk stylings of Young Americans to the motorik beat of Krautrock, and has a shot of Bowie entering Netwon's spaceship (a soundproofed room), Low marks his return to Europe, and is the first of the 'Berlin trilogy'. Though recorded largely in France, it marks the beginning of his collaboration with Brian Eno and an embracing of both the energies of punk and the sonic possibilities of synthesized sound. Low, as is well-known, has a first side with short, Krautrock-inflected songs including 'Sound and Vision'; the second side is 'ambient', atmospheric, cinematic. On the cover, a profile shot of Bowie as Newton, collar turned up, against a lowering orange sky. (For more on this album and all of Bowei's work up to Tonight, so far, see the brilliant blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame.) Here, the alien is subject to a very Earthly anomie.

Newton is a man who, ultimately, finds himself trapped by the delusive energies of the America he had come to use for his own ends. Bowie, however, escaped, with a sequence of brilliant albums to come. The Man Who Fell to Earth is, as its title suggests, in some senses a tragedy, about the fall of an ethical being when confronted with the addictive corruptions of Earth. For Bowie, the film was yet another transition point, and Newton another character, another persona, to be added to the gallery.

Writing Shiva

Over the past two weeks I have been publishing a twitternovel called 'Shiva' (@SciFiBaker), in 14 parts, 10 tweets per 'set'. I wrote it partly because of my interest in the literature of constraint, such as that prouced bhy the OuLiPo group (Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and others) who devised arbitrary constraints (Perec's A Void lacks the letter 'e') or mathematical processes as compositional tools: the constraint itself was intended to be generative, to produce an imaginative response.

This was the way I approached writing the text. I had been writing an article about science and literature using the idea of 'bifurcations' found in dynamic systems in physics, an idea drawn from the work of Ilya Prigogine. I originally used this back in my MA dissertation in the early 1990s, in writing about William Gibson's 'Sprawl' trilogy of cyberpunk novels, but returned to it after I found references to Prigogine in the work of Manuel de Landa, who sutures together Prigogine's ideas about far-from-equilibrium systems with Deleuze and Guattari's concepts about bodies and flows.

Deleuze and Guattari are taken up by Mark Amerika in his remixthebook, a rather ecstatic paean in praise of the potentialities of new media for remixing as a cultural practice. I found the writing of remixthebook exhilarating, as it becomes a kind of Whitmanesque prose-poem, full of repetitions and hallucinatory recombinations, and seemed to offer an original path for critical writing that parallelled by own experiments in 'Iterative Architecture'. However, I still remain unconvinced by the political/ resistance potential offered by remix practices.

The question that struck me as I was writing the article, part of which considered 'literature machines', was: what if HAL narrated 2001: A Space Odyssey? In his essay 'Cybernetics and Ghosts', Italo Calvino tries to think what an Artificial Intelligence would produce as a writer, and suggested that it would eventually begin to challenge traditional literary forms and produce new ones of its own. This informed what I tried to do with 'Shiva'.

In writing it, the 140 character limit for Twitter proved to be a generative constraint: in trying to narrate from the point-of-view of an intelligent machine (one who acts in loco parentis), the text resolved itself as a series of Imagist 'poems', the connections between them not always narratively driven but through association, memory, thought/ emotion. Form and content became interconnected; the disjunctive, spare writing it produced was generated by the need to strip away all redundancy, to use each word carefully. It made me think differently about writing, and about how poetic effects (and forms) could be used even in critical writing. For me, it was a very interesting critical/ creative experiment, and I hope to do more with it (a 'graphic novel drawing upon Tom Phillips's A Humument, perhaps).

'Shiva' is available here as an archived 'book'.

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