Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The deep above

The film Gravity ends with a splashdown, as did the American Gemini and Apollo missions, whereas the Soviet space program opted for a dry, bone-rattling landing on the Russian steppe. For NASA, then, the space program is inextricably linked to the ocean. The launching grounds are, of course, on the Florida coast, at Cape Canaveral; astronauts train for zero-g EVAs in a large pool, to simulate weightlessness; and the discourse of space exploration recapitulates that of the maritime, from ‘voyages’ to ‘ships’ to ‘deep’ space to the very names given to NASA craft: Discovery, Endeavour, Atlantis. At the same time, deep-dive films often, perhaps unsurprisingly, echo the cramped, functional interiors of NASA vehicles: sweaty cabins crewed by hard-bitten professionals battling an inhospitable, indeed deadly external environment from within small pressurised canisters.

 In Sphere (1998) and in The Abyss (1989), where ‘non-terrestrials’ are discovered in the ocean deeps, this claustrophobic confinement is countered by the view out of the window (or porthole), the vast unknowable deeps which bring on a kind of (pardon the pun) sublime. These films, with denouements of ‘alien’ craft emerging from the ocean depths (a visual conceit repeated rather enjoyably near the beginning of Star Trek Into Darkness), make the connection between the depths of space and the depths of the ocean particularly explicit. As a further example, Arthur C. Clarke, author of that great deep-space fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), went to live in Sri Lanka and had a fascination with the ocean; the science-fictional connection between the ocean and the space beyond this sea-blue planet runs very deep indeed. (I also remember an Asimov short called ‘Waterclap’ in The Bicentennial Man (1976) – apparently itself begun as a treatment for film – which featured a submarine habitat called ‘Ocean Deep’ in strategic competition with ‘Luna City’, but the granddaddy of oceanic SF is of course Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1860): as I said, very deep indeed.)

Ian Sales’ intriguing new book, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Whippleshield, 2013), the third in his Apollo Quartet of alternate-history SF, is split into two distinct narratives, one of which is an alternative history of the Mercury/Gemini/ Apollo programs, in which an ongoing Korean War means that the NASA craft are crewed by female astronauts, and the other concerns a bathyscaphe dive to retrieve a spy-satellite film ‘bucket’ containing photographs of Sino-Soviet military build-up on the North Korean border. In the previous novellas Sales had used the technique of double narrative time-frames to focus his extrapolation of divergent post-war histories. In Adrift on the Sea of Rains (note the marine language), moonbase commander Peterson’s catastrophic error of judgement upon embarked on a mission to help rescue his marooned colleagues is, in part, rationalised by scenes of his role as a hawkish Cold Warrior; in The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (the title of this and the current book are derived from Apollo-themed quotations given as epigraphs) the narrative switches between 1979/80, when Bradley Elliott becomes the first man to walk on Mars, and 1999, when he travels to a far-distant exo-planet aboard a craft using the very alien technology that Elliott himself discovered on the surface of the red planet. In Then Will The Great Ocean, the two narrative threads seem distinct and separate worlds. 

Both the earlier novellas use appendix material to act as evidentiary matter for the alternative histories Sales proposes: in Adrift, an Apollo program that is appropriated by the US military and carries on into the mid-1970s to construct a moonbase, whose crew are stranded when Earth descends into a catastrophic nuclear war; and in The Eye, that Armstrong aborted the Apollo 11 landing, allowing the Soviet Union to land the first man on the Moon, precipitating a NASA ‘Ares’ program to be the first to land on Mars. The appendices are organised alphabetically, a kind of glossary or mini-encyclopaedia, re-articulating chronology in a textual form that opens up the novella in interesting ways. The appendices are at once a supplement (the narratives can be enjoyed without them) but are also central to Sales extrapolative method. The encyclopaedic form is a kind of extrapolation/ legitimation, working to deepen or expand the narrative world but also to make it more concrete as a historical extrapolation; at the same time, of course, as with all formal play with this kind of apparatus, the effect is also self-reflexive, to foreground the text as a text. I was reminded of Tony White’s method in Shackleton’s Man Goes South (published by the Science Museum), which intercuts fictional and non-fictional sections in a technique which is really ‘critical/creative’, appropriating the forms of British disaster fiction (and making explicit references to Michael Moorcock’s own re-writings of the form of the scientific romance in the Nomads trilogy) to make an explicitly political point about climate change.

In Then Will The Great Ocean, the relation between narrative and ‘appendix’ (non-fictional) material that ‘explains’ the extrapolative method is different: more directly historical, even polemical, and also not bracketed off as a supplementary ‘appendix’, rather following directly from the narrative. Sales gives us the real histories of the ‘Mercury 13’ women who undertook the same physiological testing as the male NASA astronauts in a privately funded program; the 13 women passed ‘Phase I’ of the testing, and the only one to pass ‘Phase III’, Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’Cobb, is the narrative focus of the ‘Up’ (space) sections of Then Will The Great Ocean. He also outlines the career of the bathyscaphe Trieste/Trieste II, the submersible that features in the ‘Down’  (oceanic) sections, whose historical mission to retrieve a film ‘bucket’ from the Pacific Ocean in 1971 seems to be the model for the events narrated in the novella. The question is, why expose the historical basis of the extrapolation in this way?

The section on the female ‘astronauts’ is clearly polemical; at the very end, Sales notes that it was not until 1983 that NASA sent a woman crew-member into space (Dr Sally Ride), and not until 1999 that a NASA mission had a female commander (Eileen Collins). (What Sales does not state is that Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, aboard Challenger, and Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark, aboard Columbia, lost their lives on Shuttle missions. The fate of mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity is thought-provoking if read against these histories.)

Sales’ commitment to working towards establishing gender equality in SF (and restituting a ‘lost’ history of women writing SF) is demonstrated in his involvement in the SF Mistressworks project, and in Then Will The Great Ocean the focus on an alternative history where female astronauts are the norm seems an overt act of historical recuperation. The exclusion of women from the NASA program is revealed to be purely ideological, if a woman such as Jerrie Cobb is as physiologically, psychologically and technically capable of enduring the rigours of spaceflight as their male counterparts. Cobb is markedly different from either Adrift’s Peterson – whose violent action on seeing ‘our’ world’s Mir space station seems, upon re-reading, something like psychosis – or The Eye’s Bradley Elliott, who is very much a man alone, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Rather than the military man or career pilot (the two masculine avenues into the astronaut program), both implicated in an institutional and philosophical narrowness of mind, Cobb is religious as well as ambitious, full of wonder for the universe as well as inhabiting a burning will to succeed. Would the NASA program be different if it had been crewed by women? Then Will The Great Ocean's realistic answer is: perhaps not.

For Cobb, though, spaceflight is an encounter with God’s creation. On an EVA, Cobb is so intoxicated by the freedom of spacewalking and her sense that she is completing God’s purpose (as well as NASA’s mission) that she barely finds the will to re-enter the capsule. Sales politicises this sense of freedom by referring to Rosie the Riveter, and this admixture of a sublime sensibility and feminist politics lends Cobb a particular interest. McIntyre, the commander of the bathyscaphe, is, by contrast, a rather shrunken figure, who is immensely relieved to return to the surface. (He prefers diving in shallower waters.) Even though he imagines himself as Orpheus, descending into the underworld (mis-remembering the myth), it is Cobb, through her perception of the sublimity of even low Earth orbit, that ascends to an ‘epic’ grandeur of vision. (By contrast, Gravity’s Ryan Stone, battling disaster, says at one point: ‘I hate space’.) The fourth book in the Quartet will apparently be called All That Outer Space Allows , the reference to Douglas Sirk melodrama a rather tempting prospect with regard to revisions of gender representation in NASA/space fictions.

So far, then, so interesting. But when Sales, in his Acknowledgements, reveals that writing Then Will The Great Ocean was ‘much more of a challenge than I’d expected’, my feeling that this novella didn’t work quite as well as the previous two began to crystallize. The timelines of both ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ narratives of the novella are different, and very obliquely managed indeed, so getting a sense of when and how the events take place becomes a kind of puzzle. While the 1969 dive of the Trieste II in ‘Down’ returns photos of the Sino-Soviet build-up, presaging war to come, in the Cobb narrative the Korean War is drawing to a close in the final section, which again seems to be in 1969, but a rather different one.

The rationale for the female astronaut crews – that all the male pilots are on combat duty in Korea – seemed to me not very watertight; after all, the Gemini and Apollo missions took place while US military involvement in Vietnam was ongoing (particularly at its height during Gemini). And would the Korean War have lasted 16 more years? Unlike the asymmetric, guerrilla nature of much of the Vietnam conflict, Korea was much more of a conventional war to begin with, and then became a kind of stalemate; it’s difficult to think that, even in this manner, it would have ground on for so long. After his election in 1952, indeed, Eisenhower visited Korea to investigate what might bring the war to a close.

Interestingly, Sales plays around with the historical timeline, and it seems that Ike is President from 1956-63, as Kennedy is the ‘new’ President in 1964. So who won the 1952 election? Truman (who declined to run after performing badly in the Democratic primaries)? Adlai Stevenson (who was well beaten by Eisenhower in ’52)? Another Republican? It’s a gap that piques my interest, as it’s clearly deliberate, but I can’t quite diagnose the reason for it. As all the different timelines in the Quartet refract each other, rather than intersect, I can’t see this be ‘explained’ in the closing book.

What is clear, though, is Sales’ critique of the structural implication between the NASA space program and US militarism. In Adrift, the seeming inescapability of the Cold War mentality leads Peterson to an act of (self-)destruction; in Then Will The Great Ocean, the recovery of the film ‘bucket’ augurs global war. Not only the Cold War, but a very hot one, looms over all of the Apollo Quartet novellas published so far.

In Gravity, it is the debris from a Russian spy satellite – incompletely  destroyed by the Russians themselves – that precipitates the ‘Kessler syndrome’ (or ‘ablation cascade’ of runaway collisions that create an orbiting field of debris) which causes the disastrous loss of several spacecraft and Ryan Stone’s attempts to survive and get back home. In Gravity and in Sales’ novellas, the dreams of ascension to the plane of sublimity, to be in a wondrous free-fall, are fragile indeed, hemmed in as they are by militarism, and are as fragile as the technology that propels the (male and female) astronauts out of the Earth’s atmosphere and protects them from cold, hard vacuum. Gravity’s astonishing transitions from inside to outside, from outside to inside of spacecraft and environment suits emphasise that technological fragility at the same time as the 3D CGI provides an intense technological sublime. In the case of Then Will The Great Ocean’s Jerrie Cobb, as in the case of Ryan Stone, and for all Sales’ hard-SF terminology, these space fictions assume a kind of spiritual outlook, emphasising a coming to terms with the universe. Cobb and Stone do not attempt to ‘conquer’ the void nor simply look out of the porthole. The necessity is to encounter space, in all its terrifying and wondrous sublimity.    

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Musicals, Michael Bay and Utopia

I met my friend and colleague Bruce Bennett yesterday, and the subject of Michael Bay came up.  Bruce is interested in the excessive hyper-kineticism of Bay’s work as diagnostic of contemporary American culture, and in the course of our conversation, Bruce mentioned Bay’s interest in the musical.  This made a lot of sense to me: spectacle cinema tout court, as is well known, has strong structural affinities with the musical, in its generic ability to ‘suspend’ the narrative and enter into different conditions of cinematic time and space, privileging spectacular and/or performative elements (a song or dance routine, or sfx sequence).  What makes these affinities particularly striking is the spectatorial affect: viewers do not (if trained in the genre’s visual grammar) ‘pop out’ of the cinematic experience when the films shifts into song or dance or effects spectacle, and in fact the ‘wow factor’ of bodies doing impossible or extraordinary things in space is one of the pleasures of this type of cinema.

One of the things that the musical, or indeed spectacle/sfx cinema is able to produce is a kind of cinematic jouissance (as Roland Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text), a kind of ecstatic en-joy-ment of the cinematic technology itself, a joy which is produced by the shifting appreciation of the visual spectacle (excitement produced by a chase sequence for instance) AND of the imaging technologies that bring it to the screen (starships zooming about in ‘free’ space); of story and technology, to put it simply. This jouissance could then be differentiated from the ‘pleasures’ (plaisir) of classical Hollywood cinema (akin to those Barthes identifies with the ‘readerly’ text of bourgeois realism in S/Z), the musical excepted. The concept of jouissance would help explain the rather gleeful, playful tone of Michael Bay’s work, its knowing or parodic strategies, the performance styles of Bay’s actors (think of Steve Buscemi’s turns) and the excessive or overflowing energies of its hyper-genetic editing which, I must confess, tend to make my head sing.

One of Bay’s more unusual films is The Island, which starts off as a classical utopia, with mise-en-scène clearly indebted to 1970s dystopian films such as George Lucas’s THX1138 (1970) or Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976).  After about an hour, with the escape of the protagonists from the dystopian Island of the title, the film generically and topographically overflows and becomes a chase film, only finally returning (spatially) to the utopian/dystopian paradigm for the narrative closure. What is particularly interesting about The Island is its multiple occlusions of the machinery of utopia: the true nature of the utopian society is hidden from the protagonists; the society is itself hidden from the real world, buried in underground bunkers in the American Desert; the protagonist becomes hidden in the identity of someone else; and towards the end the very plots mechanism – when Scarlett Johansson is ‘recaptured’ by the corporation – is hidden from viewers.  The idea of hidden machinery is a recurrent one in science fiction of course, and in the techno-utopian imagination (such as in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards from the Year 2000) the very structures of utopian society itself are enabled by the smooth running of a technologically-advanced machinery which are largely runs ‘in the background’ (or literally underground).

The rhetorical strategies of ‘the hidden’ would seem to run counter to the imperatives of spectacle, of joyful visibility, that one finds in sfx cinema and in the musical.  However, the appearance of effortless mobility is always produced by a hidden labour.  This is most overt in music and dance sequences, when ‘spontaneous’ eruptions of dance and song are, of course, built upon the hard labour of choreography, rehearsal and direction.  In the musicals of Fred Astaire, the hidden labour of the dance routine is most striking. Astaire, with his elegant, effortlessly persona, his dance style which seems barely to touch ground at all, is a body in space (a material thing: he is clearly doing the steps himself), but one which appears weightless.  This gossamer connection to the real conditions of space, work and weight is exemplified in the famous sequence in Royal Wedding where, through the pro-filmic trickery of a rotating room, Astaire defies gravity by dancing on the ceiling. In the service of cinematic jouissance, the joy of the dance, the multiple machineries are hidden.

If Astaire is weightless, then Gene Kelly is all materiality, all masculine physicality. (Not for nothing does he wear tight-fitting trousers, unlike Fred Astaire’s elegant line of leg.) Kelly is, of course, associated with the so-called ‘integrated’ musical produced by MGM in the late 1940s and 1950s, directed by Vincente Minnelli or Kelly himself (with Stanley Donen), produced by the Arthur Freed unit.  The high-water mark of this mode is, in my mind, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), an extraordinary compendium and playful articulation of the film of musical’s own history.  In an early sequence, where Don Lockwood (Kelly) speaks to a crowd outside a film premiere, the film undercuts Lockwood’s voice track (a sentimentalised version of the ‘rise to stardom’) with shorter vignettes which showed his and Cosmo Brown’s (Dennis O’Connor) ‘real’ history, the machinery of labour which lionises Lockwood’s tagline, ‘dignity, always dignity’.  While seeming to offer the ‘truth’ of Hollywood’s productive machinery (don’t forget that Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds, is ‘hidden’ behind the curtains at the film’s conclusion, singing for Lina (Jean Hagen)), Singin’ in the Rain in fact offers a cinematic sleight of hand where the machinery is still hidden (completing the ‘gag’ of Kathy singing for Lena, it is actually Betty Noyes' voice singing on the soundtrack ‘for’ Reynolds).

The film’s title song is justly famous for its jouissance, its inhabitation and representation of joy, and the wonderfully integrated cinematic means by which this is presented (in terms of movement, editing and soundtrack).  When I teach film, I usually find a reason for showing this scene, if nothing else to demonstrates the expressive and affective potential of Hollywood cinema. The scene itself shifts in its use of space subtly as the song progresses.  After Don kisses Kathy goodnight on a ‘real’ street set, music begins on the soundtrack and Kelly begins to sing and dance.  From continuity-style time and space, the film shifts fluidly into longer takes (to give time for Kelly’s expressive choreography) and, as Kelly dances past the storefronts, orients a front-on, to-camera, proscenium-style performance space familiar from an older style of on-stage musical (one which is still present in the later form, but which is literally integrated into a broader range of technical and spectacular strategies). This scene, in a sense, plays with ‘dimensionality’: sometimes the space is perspectival, ‘3-D’, and sometimes it is shallow, stage-like.

The point at which hair stands upon my head, and a smile always appears on my face, is when the song moves to a crescendo, the full orchestra comes flowing in, and Kelly dances circles in the wide street, the umbrella held like a dance partner.  At this point, Kelley abandons the shallow ‘stage’ of the sidewalk, and to emphasize the spatial shift, the film uses a crane shot, moving vertically and looking down on Kelly gyrating in ‘free’ space.  This shift back to three-dimensionality is meant to impart, I think, that ‘this is real’: the performance space has been broached, boundaries overflowed, jouissance spills out of the screen itself into the ‘real’. It is temporary, of course; the appearance of the beat cop re-establishes behavioural bounds (and the sequence ends).  But the moment is expressive and emotional centre of the film, and epitomises the capabilities of the musical like no other.  That it takes place in the rain, in the element of flow and overflow, is a symbolic bonus.

In a sense, I feel this moment is the most utopian in cinema, because the jouissance is willed, fabricated, achieved by the hidden machinery and labour that brings it to the screen.  It seems the most ‘natural’ thing on earth, but is, of course, multiply artificial. It offers the most benign, joyful view of human beings, one in which love reigns o’er all. The dream to live in that moment is properly utopian. This is, perhaps, the imperative behind the kinetic spectacle of Michael Bay’s films: they want to express that hair-raising moment, to stretch it out for two hours or more, which can ultimately be wearying. Going back to The Island, when the two protagonists escape from dystopia and enter Bay’s territory, the kinetic chase film, they are not escaping into the ‘real’ (as the freed clones seem to do at the end of the film); instead, they are escaping into cinema, for it is that which is the true expression of Michael Bay’s utopian dreaming.

*Bruce has alerted me to the half-unconscious debt this piece owes to Richard Dyer's essay 'Entertainment and Utopia' in its connection between utopian desire and the musical; I should also say that the brilliant work of Steven Cohan on Gene Kelly should be acknowledged as a deep influence. 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Ball of Confusion

I was given the latest of Tony Benn's published diaries, indeed the last, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, for Christmas, and it dovetails well with my pre-holiday reading, Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. Both are texts that inhabit a sense of political defeat, the defeat of leftist parties and organisations, or in Benn's case, dictated at the time of Brown's tenure as PM in the last Labour government, a kind of self-betrayal. It's strange to read Benn's entries for that time, a period when I was personally deeply unhappy and struggling with difficult things in my personal life, and see how conflicted Benn is. On one hand, he despises New Labour, and is happy to see its defeat; yet  he is far-sighted enough to know that the economic crisis of 2008 would have long-lasting effects, that prognostications of a 'two-year' recession were optimistic at best (delusory at worst), and that the fall-out might well be a shift to the right and a coalition government. Benn struggles to keep up his punishing schedule of speeches and events in the face of declining health, advancing years, and intimations of his own mortality. Regularly his entries express contentment if death were suddenly to visit him; the flame of life, of political struggle, of hope, lingers, but a sense of the necessity to have some kind of reckoning with his own life, and to manage the end of it, seems increasingly urgent.

It's the only book of Benn's diaries that I have read, but it has whetted my desire to go back and look at the earlier ones, especially when he was in the political thick of it (rather than having become a 'national treasure', something about which he is clearly deeply ambivalent). But, just like Orwell, amidst the wreckage of defeat, Benn retains hope in the potential for human beings to come together, to achieve political ends that improve the lot of the majority of people rather than just a privileged few. When he cites that Labour manifesto on 1945, its simplicity and directness rings across the years: 'The nation wants food, work and homes. It wants more than that - it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour - saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them'. (The whole text can be found here.) In an age of foodbanks, unemployment and yet another housing price bubble caused by a shortage of housing, it's troubling to realise just how much remains to be done even to bring that vision into permanent being; indeed, protect it against those who wish to roll back the massive social gains of the immediate post-war years, in terms of the NHS or in education.

I'm close to finishing a project that has been hanging over my head for longer than I would care to confess, and in doing so, I'm returning to an old theme: utopia and dystopia. I've always been attracted more to dystopias (and in fact wrote my doctoral thesis on American dystopias), like most. For someone of my generation, it suits the tenor of my times: coming to voting age in the 1980s, growing up in Thatcherite Essex that I felt deeply uncomfortable with, in another period of political defeat for the left, the world painted in dystopian colours is one that I recognised all too easily. Yet, as I've grown older, the necessity for utopia, of being able to imagine a future better that what we live through today, has come to seem to me absolutely crucial. That, I would say, is the great victory of the Right in today's world: being able to imagine and articulate the other of this fractured, anxious, 'austerity'-ridden place and time has become increasingly difficult. You only have to listen to BBC Radio 4's Today programme (or the storm-in-a-teacup that followed PJ Harvey's guest editorship of the programme over Christmas, where voices of dissent were actually given airtime) with half a critical ear to diagnose a pro-business, pro-establishment, conservative consensus that simply ignores what is politically inconvenient. (Benn notes the BBC's omissions with a kind of glee: 'twas ever thus.) Voices that might have something else to say, such as the admirably vocal and energetic Owen Jones, have to fight to be heard.

Sometimes, of course, I look back to the future, particularly to the 1960s, as a resource, as a means of generating hope (rather than succumbing to nostalgia for the future). Over the last few days, a lot of psychedelic soul has been rattling around my head, and in particular The Temptations' brilliant 'Ball of Confusion'. Though the lyrics seem full of anxiety - ‘So round and around and around we go/ Where the world's headed, nobody knows/ Great googamooga! Can't you hear me talkin' to you?/ Just a Ball of Confusion/ That's what the world is today’ - the music is driving, uplifting, inspiring. The band doesn't just play on: it makes you want to get up, to sing, to shout. To make your voice heard. So, struggling with that sense of defeat, of confusion, of the hopelessness of dystopia, I return once and again to those things that bring me up, to give me energy and hope.

Our Christmas tree has come down today, and I'm not looking forward to getting back to work with much sense of excitement or anticipation. But I'm determined that I'm going to lend my voice and any other powers to try, in 2014, not to give in to despair, to continue to hope and work for a better future, to enlist myself on the side of utopia. 'Great googamooga!', as George Orwell would undoubtedly not have said.