Archives for posts with tag: science fiction

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Turning on the radio on Monday morning and hearing about David Bowie’s death was probably the first time I have been truly upset to hear about the death of a public figure. I have been listening to his music since I bought a cassette of Let’s Dance when I was 13, and his importance to me and to others was that this public figure represented a set of possibilities, holding open other, better, more interesting, but also frustratingly contradictory and excitingly uncertain ways of being. What is upsetting about his death is the sense that, with it, they have been closed off.

This sense of closure was underscored by the fact that it was only when I heard David Cameron talking about him on BBC Radio 4 that I realised Bowie had died. Under the guise of fiscal ‘austerity’, Cameron’s neoliberal government is engaged with the radically destructive  anti-democratic project of dismantling the welfare state and public services, raiding and selling off the country’s assets to private investors and foreign governments, and exposing every area of British society to the rapacious and devastatingly wasteful market. One of the immediate consequences of this disaster capitalism is greater poverty and accelerating inequality, and so there was a particularly sour irony in listening to this privileged, callous, intellectually limited man who is responsible for making the lives of many people much harder, and for shutting down the opportunity for millions of people to make better lives, affecting to care about the death of a man whose speculative work imagined and evoked utopian, optimistic, colourful and progressive futures.

I wrote a short piece for the academic blog, The Conversation, on Bowie’s distinctive work on screen as part of a suite of pieces they are publishing to mark his death. That piece can be found here.

This is a slightly longer edit of the piece with a number of additional links:

A rogue performer: Bowie on film

‘I’m not a film star’ – Blackstar, David Bowie (2015)

Although eclipsed by his music, David Bowie pursued a fascinating parallel career as an actor, appearing on stage, television, and in films by a diverse range of directors that includes Nagisa Ôshima, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Jim Henson, Julien Temple, Tony Scott, and Christopher Nolan in roles that range from the ‘Goblin King’ in children’s fantasy film, Labyrinth, a rapidly ageing vampire in Hunger, a captured British army officer in the war film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, through to Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ and Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

 

The critical response to his performances was generally mixed, but considered together they are of a piece with the restless, experimental, collaborative approach he applied to his music. They represent a consistent attempt to move beyond the medium in which he was comfortably successful, bravely exposing rather than concealing his limitations.

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His first significant role was as the extraterrestrial protagonist in the 1976 science fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth by British director Nicolas Roeg and it is the film that makes by far the best use of his performance style and played an important role in shaping his subsequent persona since images from the film were appropriated for his next two album covers, Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). Adapted from a 1963 novel, this bleak, beautiful, formally playful eco-film tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth in search of water to save his drought-ridden home planet. Despite struggling with the heat and stronger gravity of earth he is able to pass as human, and exploits superior alien technology to become extremely wealthy, setting up a global corporation in order to build spaceships that can travel between earth and his home world.

 

Roeg recounted that while he had initially wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton for the role, (since he, like the alien in the novel, was extremely tall), and also considered Peter O’Toole, he decided to offer Bowie the role, despite the musician’s lack of acting experience, after spotting him in a BBC documentary. It was undoubtedly a financially smart move to employ one of the most famous musicians on the planet in the lead role, and the casting cannily invokes the apocalyptic science fiction scenarios of his albums, Diamond Dogs and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. However, what drew Roeg to Bowie was the fact that he wasn’t a professional actor. In this film and others, when viewed alongside the confident, expressive, naturalistic performances of experienced screen actors, Bowie’s understated delivery of lines, approximation of accents and hesitant bodily presence can seem awkward and self-conscious, or even technically incompetent. It is an example of what Richard Maltby terms ‘autonomous performance’ – a performance that can make us aware that we are watching a performance – by contrast with an ‘integrated performance’ style in which a technically skilled actor is convincingly subsumed into a character. Watching David Bowie on screen, we are always watching Bowie playing a role, even when he is playing himself. Of course, it is also the case that when we watch actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale, we are always invited to study and admire their masterful displays of technically accomplished acting as well as the characters they portray, but for Roeg, who had previously worked with Mick Jagger in the brilliant, uncategorisable Performance, and went on to direct Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing, the attraction of a rock star is that they can act in a way that is simply impossible for a conventionally trained actor.

 

As Roeg explains in his autobiography,

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

 

The same is true of Bowie’s exceptional performance in this film. Placing his naked, pale, skinny body on display, he portrays the alien as a fragile, wry, anxious, lustful, polysexual and tragically lonely character who is steadily brutalised – brought down to earth and humanised – by an indifferent, paranoid, consumerist society. The producers at Warner Brothers were sceptical about the casting, but as Roeg explained to them, this was a film about an alien pretending to be human. In this respect, Bowie’s sometimes stilted performance was the perfect realisation of this character. However, what gives the unforgettable portrayal a greater poignancy is the sense that this figure stranded in a strange, confusing and hostile environment is really a description of Bowie himself. As Roeg recalled, ‘He wasn’t putting it on, it was who he was […] For example, Bowie has a marvellous laugh. It was just left of centre. It was like [Bowie had thought], “Isn’t that how they laugh on earth?”’

 

Reference:

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

 

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Introduction to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University) Dukes Cinema 5th Jan, 2015.

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of this film as part of the current season of SF films distributed by the BFI, ‘Days of Fear and Wonder’).

The Man Who Fell to Earth is the fifth feature film directed by the British film-maker, Nicolas Roeg who produced a series of remarkable films from the late 1960s onwards that extend from the horror film Don’t Look Now (1973) starring Julie Christie, a made-for-TV movie of Samson and Delilah (1996) starring Dennis Hopper, a version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1993), through to the children’s film The Witches (1990), his very dark adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel that starred Angelica Huston. Roeg is 86 now, but is still working – his autobiography was published in 2013 (taking its title from a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth) and his last feature film, Puffball, an adaptation of a Fay Weldon novel, was released in 2007. It’s a fascinating film, a strange supernatural fantasy about the Irish countryside, birth and women’s experience that starred Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham and Donald Sutherland. The Observer film reviewer Philip French described it accurately as ‘A curious mixture of Cold Comfort Farm, Straw Dogs and Rosemary’s Baby’, and it explores a number of themes that are present throughout his films – sexuality, subjective experience, the irrational – and has an immediately recognisable visual style, but sadly, it was never properly released in Britain and disappeared almost without trace (French 2008).

Although his films are marked by an interest in experimentation, Roeg’s route into film-making was quite conventional. At 17, after the war, he joined the army as a paratrooper and then left after two years to take up an apprenticeship in Marylebone Studios, a small production company in London where he made the tea and ran errands. Over the next few years he moved from one studio to another, working his way up from the bottom, learning about editing, producing, screenwriting, sound design, and the industrial process of commercial film-making. As he’s observed, at the time there were no film schools or books on how to make films, so the only way to learn was from the inside, picking up trade secrets and techniques from others in the business. He graduated to working with a camera crew at MGM first of all as focus puller, then camera operator and eventually rising to the position of director of photography (or Lighting Cameraman) – the woman or man whose job is to work with the director and production designer in devising the overall look of a film. He was Director of Photography on a number of striking films in the 1960s including Roger Corman’s lurid treatment of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s SF film, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), Richard Lester’s experimental melodrama, Petulia (1968), also working on David Lean’s epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Having worked his way up through the industry, Roeg was keen to move to directing, which he did in 1968 with the extraordinary film, Performance (1970). Roeg was approached by the film’s screenwriter and director Donald Cammell to work as Director of Photography, but negotiated a co-directing role, and since Cammell was a novice, he was happy with this arrangement. The film stars Mick Jagger as a wealthy, dissolute rock star, and was commissioned by Warner Brothers to exploit a new youth audience, but they were so unhappy with the resulting film, which is a queer, sexually explicit hybrid of British gangster film, European art-house film and psychedelic pop musical, that it was shelved for nearly two years and finally released with almost no publicity. Warner’s apparently threatened to sue Roeg and Cammell for failing to deliver the film they’d promised and a film reviewer in Life magazine described it as, ‘the most completely worthless film I have ever seen since I began reviewing’ (Preston 2013). However, their collaboration on the film seems to have been extremely important for both directors, who went on to make a series of distinctive, compelling films. Cammell was far less prolific, completing just another three films in an unhappy career in which he struggled for financing and control over his work, before shooting himself in 1996, but there are lots of parallels between their films. In formal terms, both directors’ films are often marked by a quite radically fragmented, non-linear narrative structure, vivid colour, and hallucinatory images that undermine the realistic elements of their films. Thematically their films are difficult to place within genres and are marked by a frank, unsensational depiction of sex, and a refusal to explain fully what is taking place.

Roeg’s films have always hovered around the mainstream but they are characterised by a tendency towards ambiguity, which can make them perplexing and challenging experiences, but the intention is not to confuse or frustrate the viewer but to draw her or him in. He suggests in his autobiography that the problem with much film and TV is the tendency toward redundancy or over-explanation to ensure that viewers are engaged with the action. On the contrary, he argues, ‘the more you explain something, the less interested the audience. The less said, the better’ (Roeg 2013:44-45). One of the particular attractions of the medium of cinema for Roeg is its economy, its minimalism, the way that a complexity of meaning can be crystallised in a single image.

Also, in some ways cinema is the medium best suited to representing the experience of thought. Roeg has said, ‘My mind is drifting the whole time; various things are popping into my head’, and the films often reproduce this sense of ideas and associations cropping up unexpectedly by inserting shots into scenes without explanation (Roeg 2013:150). For Roeg, this is not a matter of gratuitous experimentation, or self-consciously avant-garde pretention, but rather it is an attempt to convey the way that in our heads we are continually jumping backwards and forwards rather than living purely in the present: ‘that’s how I always imagined how people feel about time, how they review their lives: moving between memory, the present moment and their hopes or fears of what’s to come’ (Roeg 2013:152).

So, although Roeg is a highly competent technician who understands a great deal about the craft and logistical challenges of commercial film-making with major studios, he is nevertheless fascinated by unconventional ways of assembling a film. As he explains, ‘There’s not a right way of doing something and a wrong way. There’s a right way – and another way. So let’s take a chance on the other way’ (Roeg 2013: 17). This comment may be the key to understanding his approach to film-making, that these films are exercises in doing things ‘another way’, in seeing things ‘in another way’, and also in examining characters who experience the world in another way.

The Man who Fell to Earth is adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, which were adapted into Paul Newman films. The novel tells the story of an alien who has travelled to earth from a dying planet, in search of a refuge his people can escape to. Although he struggles with the heat and the stronger gravity of earth, like an anthropologist he has studied earth’s culture from a distance by watching television and so is able to pass himself off more or less successfully as human. The film is a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation, and follows the narrative of the novel closely, foregrounding some of the book’s allusions to the second coming, to Greek myth, and to colonialism. It is a science fiction film, but like many of his films, it has quite a loose relationship to the established conventions of the genre. However, Nicolas Roeg’s style is perfectly suited to telling the story of a stranger in a strange land. The film is marked by startling, ambiguous images, including a number of mirror shots – an image of intimate exposure that Roeg says is ‘the very essence of cinema’ – an interest in bodies, desire and sexuality – something that is left implicit in the novel – sometimes disjointed editing, and a striking use of music and sound in conjunction with the images (Roeg 2013: 175). The experience of alienation and disconnection from one’s environment and from other people that is a constant preoccupation of his films is realised most directly in this film which attempts to depict another way of being in the world.

This is expressed perfectly through the casting of a rock star in the central role. As with Performance, and Bad Timing, which featured Art Garfunkel playing an obnoxious, narcissistic psychoanalyst, and which was described by the disgusted head of Rank, the distributors, as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’ (Preston 2013), this is no doubt partly dictated by commercial considerations; casting one of the most famous musicians on the planet as the lead was a financially smart move, but Roeg claims he chose Bowie because he thought he would suit the role. He had wanted to cast the novelist Michael Crichton after meeting him at a dinner party since Crichton, like the alien in the novel is extremely tall, and apparently Peter O’Toole was also considered, but after seeing a BBC documentary about Bowie, Roeg decided he’d be ideal for the role. Like those of Mick Jagger and Art Garfunkel, Bowie’s performance has an awkwardness and self-consciousness, which can come across as technical incompetence when placed alongside the confident, naturalistic performance style of a professional screen actor, but this difference is precisely what drew Roeg to working with him:

‘There’s a very fine line between actor and performer. Performers have to have an extraordinary gift of projection or personality. You can learn certain things like voice projection, or to always look at someone and then vary it but there’s something odd about the art of performance. In the Hollywood Bowl there were something like 60,000 people for Mick Jagger. How many straight actors have had 60,000 people turn up for a single performance? Mick gives a performance unlike anyone else. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting art’ (Roeg 2013: 119-120).

Similarly, what Bowie produces in this film is a very unusual performance but one that perfectly suits the character since, as Roeg pointed out to executives at Warner Brothers who were sceptical about the casting, this is a film about an alien pretending to be human. Thus, like many science fiction narratives about aliens and monsters, this film about what it is to be an alien, is in fact a film about the strangeness and implausibility of being human.

References:

Philip French (2008). ‘Puffball’. The Observer. 20 July 2008 (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/jul/20/drama2)

John Preston (2013). ‘Nicolas Roeg Interview: the director who fell to earth’. The Telegraph. 19 July 2013. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10185575/Nicolas-Roeg-interview-the-director-who-fell-to-Earth.html)

Nicolas Roeg (2013). The World is ever Changing. London: Faber and Faber

Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

Introduction to I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park, 2006) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 7th July 2008

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of this film)

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Park Chan-wook is undoubtedly the most famous Korean film director, both inside and outside South Korea although his status within South Korea is rather different from his international profile. Park’s fourth film, Joint Security Area, released in 2000, was a complexly plotted satirical account of a friendship that springs up between border guards on night watch on opposite sides of the bridge of no return that straddles the demilitarized zone running between North and South Korea. Although it draws on the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa organizing the story around flashbacks and red herrings, it was immensely successful commercially and has been seen by more South Koreans than any other film.

Outside Korea, Park’s reputation is rather different and he is primarily known as the director of excessive, ultra-violent thrillers. This reputation was cemented by his seventh film Oldboy (2003), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004. Oldboy is a highly stylized film based on a series of manga comics about a man who has been held prisoner in a room for 15 years without knowing why, and upon his release he sets out to get revenge on his captor. The film certainly includes some very violent fight sequences, although it also poses questions throughout as to how real the action we are watching is as opposed to being a fantasy of the delusional main character; however, what ensured the film’s notoriety was the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 in which South Korean student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people. Cho sent several photographs of himself to NBC on the day of the atrocity including one image in which he mimicked the pose of the protagonist of Oldboy.

I want to suggest however that this director’s reputation for making ultraviolent movies is slightly misleading for a couple of reasons and we need to be cautious about this association. One of the challenges of watching Korean films in the West is resisting the almost automatic association of these films with excess (which can verge on racist generalizations). A good example of this response is that of the distinguished American critic Andrew Sarris, whose contemptuous review of Oldboy asked, ‘What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?’

Of course, violence and excess has been a key means of marketing Asian films in Europe and the US for a long time. Those films that are most likely to make it to the screens of British art-house cinemas like this from Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, are those films that correspond to this expectation of excess.  Whatever the reason for this, whether or not it is due to Western orientalist stereotypes of South-East Asian cultures as inherently unhinged, tasteless, misogynistic, it means that what is distributed in the West is very selective and unrepresentative. Just as in Britain and the US, The Korean box office is dominated by romances, comedies and melodramas. In this respect, as a romantic comedy, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006) is more representative of Korean cinema than Park’s more well known films. Incidentally, for follow-up viewing there’s another recent Korean film, 3-Iron (2004) on BBC 4 this Wednesday – a very slow-paced romance by Kim Ki-Duk who, like Park, has also produced some barely watchable film violence.

A second important point about violence in Korean cinema is that it emerges from a particular historical context that shifts its meaning. Korea’s history in the 20th century was extremely traumatic. Annexation by Japan in 1910 led to a systematic attempt to destroy Korean national culture. This was followed by the country’s participation in the second world war, the Korean war which ran from 1950-3 and which left millions dead, the subsequent partition of the country, the imposition of martial law in 1972, the assassination of the president in 1979, and the violent crushing of political dissent during this period. As a result, when censorship restrictions were lifted in the early 1990s, following democratic elections in the late 1980s, the response of many film-makers was to make films about anti-social, anti-authoritarian characters. In this context, the gangster or the criminal protagonist in many films can be understood as a rejection of this history. In this respect the cartoonish, exuberant, cinematic violence found in some Korean films can be understood, at least in part, as a celebration of new-found political freedoms, revelling in the opportunity for transgression.

I’m a Cyborg, But that’s OK is Park’s tenth film and is very different from the type of film with which we might associate him. He has explained that he made the film for his young daughter partly as an apology for having spent so much time away from her filming on location as she was growing up, and partly so that he had a film that was suitable for her to watch so that she could understand what her father does. He has also suggested that he himself wanted a break from making a run of unrelievedly dark films, and so turned to this rather lighter material. The film is a romantic comedy of sorts that focuses on the relationship between two patients in a mental hospital, one of whom, Young-goon, believes she is a cyborg, and the other, Il-sun, who believes he can steal people’s souls and who is afraid he is vanishing to a dot. The idea that Park made this for his daughter is curious and troubling as the central character is a self-harming anorexic whose cyborg fantasy speaks of an extremely uneasy relationship with her body. In so far as this is a romantic comedy it is one that has uncomfortable undertones.

However, it’s also a very accomplished film. Park is a supreme stylist, and his films are made with exquisite and self-conscious attention to visual detail, and this film is his first experiment in shooting with Viper ‘Filmstream’ HD digital cameras rather than on film, which is partly responsible for the hyper-real clarity of the images and the smoothness of the slow-motion sequences.

Park is a philosophy graduate who worked as a film critic before moving on to direct films and he is very ready to acknowledge influences.  He explained in an interview in 2004 that:

‘I decided to become a film director after watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo. During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head. If I don’t at least try to become a movie director I will seriously regret it when I’m lying on my deathbed! After that, akin to James Stewart when he was blindly chasing after some mysterious woman, I searched aimlessly for some kind of irrational beauty.’

He goes on to explain that although Hitchcock was a profound inspiration initially there is a broad a range of influences bearing on his films, these include ‘people like Sophocles, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, Austen, Philip K Dick, Zelazny and Vonnegut.’ This seems like a wildly grand claim but I think that Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut are very significant influences on this film with their interest in psychosis and confusion. Indeed one of the pleasures of Park’s films lies in identifying the sources. The credits sequence of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which shows the interior of some sort of machine and the opening scene of a factory staffed by robotic workers cites Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis; James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), the cyborg film par excellence, is also cited, while Tim Burton’s films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) are a clear influence upon the non-naturalistic sets and the rather uneven tone of the film which slides between child-like innocence and something more desperate and uncomfortable.

Film musicals are also a very important influence upon the style of this film. One of the key characteristics of Hollywood musicals is highly choreographed and mobile camera-work and you’ll see that there is barely a shot in this film in which the prowling camera isn’t tilting, arcing, craning, dollying, dancing around the actors, strapped to their bodies or simply viewing the action from extreme angles. One of the effects of this elaborate stylization is the sense throughout the film that what we are seeing is unreal or questionable, as if we are seeing events from the unreliable perspective of one the patients. Park explained that the initial premise for this film was to imagine what a mental hospital would be like if there were no staff and it was just occupied by patients. He suggests that it is like the 1995 animated film Toy Story in which the toys come to life when no humans are present. In many films from Sam Fuller’s 1963 thriller Shock Corridor through One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) to Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999), mental hospitals are depicted as hellish metaphors for society at large, microcosmic institutions that drive their patients to insanity through drugs, electro-shock therapy and conditioning. In Park’s film the mental hospital is a colourful and unreal psychedelic playground.

Park is often described as an auteur, a director like Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick (another key influence) whose work is characterized by a signature style or a consistent set of themes. He refuses this description of himself and says that he just takes each project as it comes. However, this film does develop further certain consistent preoccupations in his work – an interest in narratives that are focused on obsessive, deluded or insane protagonists, and an interest in the effects of confinement and isolation upon individuals. Thus, if the hospital in I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is a playground, it is not necessarily a pleasant place to find oneself.

Two final points to note with regard to this film. The first is that the main male character Il-sun is played by a Korean popstar whose stage name is Bi (which translates as ‘Rain’). He is very successful – the South-East Asian equivalent of Justin Timberlake – and this was his first film. Park has explained quite candidly that he cast him as a big box-office draw, and in one of the most delightfully arbitrary sequences in the film he sings a superb version of Frank Ifield’s famous song, ‘She taught me to yodel’, to Young-goon, when they are put in solitary confinement in neighbouring cells. He was also chosen because he wasn’t a professional actor and Park suggests that his inexperience means that he conveyed a strong sense of awkwardness and innocence. He is working on developing this parallel career as a filmstar and has appeared most recently in the film Speed Racer (2008) by the Wachowski brothers.

A second point is that, in spite of this casting, Park regards this film as a box-office failure. Although it was number one on the weekend of its release it was quickly withdrawn and grossed less than $2.5m. Whereas the monster movie The Host (Bong, 2006), which was also screened at the Dukes cinema, broke Korean box office records with 12.3 million tickets, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK sold a relatively paltry 780,000. For the director of Joint Security Area, the film that has been seen by more South Koreans than any other, this is both frustrating and amusing.

Introduction to Metropolis (Lang, 1927) – Dukes cinema, Lancaster, 16 Jan 2010

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University UK)

(This is the introductory public talk I gave for a screening of a print of the definitive 2010 restoration of this film)

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Premiered in Berlin on January 10th, 1927, Metropolis was the most expensive film produced in Germany up until that point. With 36,000 extras, 200,000 costumes and costing 5m Reichsmarks it was the Titanic (Cameron, 1997) or the Avatar (Cameron, 2009) of its day. The film was intended to challenge the commercial and aesthetic international dominance of American cinema that had continued from the First World War onwards, and its director, Fritz Lang, contended that German culture could imbue the technology of modern cinema with a spirituality and significance that American films lacked.  Metropolis, which is about the seductive marvels (and dangers) of industrial technology, is thus also a film about the marvellous industrial technology of cinema. It was intended to demonstrate that technically sophisticated, mainstream cinema could also be deeply moving and thought-provoking.

The stylistic influence of Metropolis is quite profound. It developed an epic visual vocabulary in its depiction of a technologized society that has served as a template for the imagined futures of twentieth century science-fiction cinema. Familiar images of future cities as vast, labyrinthine spaces from which nature has been expunged in films like Logan’s Run (Anderson, 1976), Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982), Brazil (Gilliam, 1985), The Fifth Element (Besson, 1997), and The Matrix (Wachowski, Wachowski, 1999) are derived, at least in part, from Metropolis.

Despite its influence, however, the film’s critical reception has been quite ambivalent.

A standard critique of Metropolis has been that its visual inventiveness is not matched by an equally sophisticated narrative. The American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, however, that a key reason for the sceptical response to the film is a failure to understand it as allegory, a symbolic narrative rather than a realistic hypothesis of a possible future. As a result, the film has tended to be regarded as simplistic. When HG Wells reviewed the film for the New York Times, he famously dismissed Metropolis as ‘the silliest film’ partly because of his belief that science fiction’s responsibility was scientifically rigorous prophecy (and partly because he felt it was plagiarising his own work). However, unlike Blade Runner, say, Metropolis is not an attempt to present a convincingly realistic depiction of a possible future, but instead is a mythic narrative. Lang’s two previous films, both very successful and visually rich, were of stories from Der Nibelungen – German mythology – and we might understand Metropolis as a continuation of this preoccupation with mythic storytelling – a futuristic folk-tale, or modern myth. In the preface to the novel, from which the film was adapted, Thea von Harbou writes, ‘This book is not of today or of the future. It tells of no place…It has a moral grown on the pillar of understanding’. The film too should be seen as a moral tale but, the American film historian Tom Gunning suggests, this has made the film confusing for film viewers who are used to analysing layered, realist films whose themes and messages are hidden and elusive. ‘It is the over-explicit nature of this film’, he writes, ‘that makes many viewers, trained to hunt out subterranean meanings and organic symbols, so uncomfortable’.

Like many film-makers and critics of the silent period, Lang had an idealistic notion of cinema’s social role and he felt that film could comprise an international language that would allow complete communication between cultures. He wrote in the 1920s that ‘The internationalization of film language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages’. This claim rests on an understanding of cinema as a primarily visual medium and so it is important to recognize that Metropolis was not conceived as a literary film, or as an art film for a small audience of connoisseurs, but as a film that addresses as broad an audience as possible by exploiting the capacity of cinema to produce rich, complex, narrative images.

This is a film about a society organized entirely around the requirements of capitalism and industry. Metropolis, whose name identifies it as a generic city, rather than a specific place, is a dystopia in which the workers have been reduced to cybernetic components of the giant machines that power the city. They live like animals in underground caverns and, as we see in the opening scenes, even their physical movements have become machine-like – they are robotic figures. Thus, although this is a society that has been transformed by radical technological expansion and the rationalized efficiencies of Taylorism and Fordism, industrial technology has not emancipated the workers but has dehumanized them. The city is an architectural manifestation of these repressive class divisions so that while the workers live underground ‘in the depths’, the elite live and work above ground in modernist skyscrapers entertaining themselves in decadent nightclubs, sports arenas, lecture halls, theatres, pleasure gardens and brothels. Gender roles are also extremely traditional in this supposedly advanced context, with women occupying the roles of mothers and saintly madonnas on the one hand, and prostitutes and seductive vamps on the other.

The class conflict that results is explored through the invocation of Christian myths. Metropolis is ruled over by a patriarch, Joh Frederson, who uncovers a burgeoning, illicit religion forming among the workers around a woman called Maria who preaches to them about the coming of a messianic figure called the ‘mediator’, (der Mittler), who will bring the classes together. Meanwhile, Frederson’s son, a playboy named Freder has become infatuated with Maria and has disguised himself as a worker in order to travel to the worker’s underground city to meet her. Frederson asks the crazed scientist, Rotwang to turn the robot he has built into a replica of Maria, so that they can use the robot to disrupt this potentially seditious underground movement. It transpires, however, that Rotwang resents Frederson because years earlier, Frederson married the woman he loved, so in revenge he programs Maria to cause havoc and she leads the workers to destroy the city. Rotwang, who sports a robotic hand and whose workshop is decorated with a pentangle, represents the irrational, uncontrollable dimension of technology.

So, the film explores the social impact of technological progress and capitalist exploitation. It also explores the way in which religion functions both as consolation and as a vehicle for political resistance.  Despite its dramatization of class struggle and the violent inequalities produced by capitalism, the film has often been seen as, at best, politically ambivalent. The workers remain de-individualized and framed as bodies rather than rational intellectual figures, and the liberal narrative resolution which favours reconciliation rather than resistance and confrontation is abrupt and somewhat unconvincing: ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ The film has often been read as fascist while the studio producing the film felt that it displayed Communist sympathies.

But of course, Metropolis’s significance is not that it offers an insightful narrative examination of class politics, or a progressive political programme, but that, through the medium of a big-budget action film, and a mythic tale of an alternative reality, it gives us images of the effects of advanced industrial capitalism, which depends upon the subjugation, depersonalization and invisibility of labouring bodies. It also offers us spectacular and threatening images of a society organized around principles of rationality, efficiency, surveillance and control. It is a distorting mirror, reflecting back to audiences of the 1920s an exaggerated, grotesque image of contemporary reality. This is crystallized in a sequence in which a shot of a massive exploding generator dissolves into a shot of a sacrificial furnace into which ranks of uniformed workers, who are identified by number rather than name, are being marched. It is an image that captures the relentless, indifferent violence of modern industrial capitalism in which humans are simply another resource, and also the horror of rationalized, assembly-line genocide that was to follow just a few years later.

The version of Metropolis released in January 1927 was around 2½ hours long and was received with little enthusiasm. As a result the distributor, UFA, cut about a quarter of the film out. The American distributor, Paramount, made even more severe cuts, handing the film to a playwright and critic, Channing Pollock, who reframed the film as a Frankenstein-derived story about an inventor attempting to replace humans with robots. Pollock changed the names of characters and rewrote the intertitles, cutting out entire subplots and characters as well as the crucial back-story of the longstanding rivalry between the inventor and the head of the city, and he also altered the running order of the story. Consequently, the shortened versions of the films were incoherent and perhaps because of this, the film was a disastrous commercial failure that almost bankrupted the studio.

The material cut from the film was ordered to be destroyed, and so it was assumed that the original version was lost for good, but in 2008 an almost complete copy of the 1927 edit was found in an Argentinian film archive. That print was very badly damaged, but it provided restorers with most of the missing scenes and the correct running order. There are still one or two missing passages but of the five or six versions of Metropolis I’ve seen, this is the first that makes sense and it raises the question of whether the film might have had a different reputation if it was known in this version. There is a clearer motivation for characters’ behaviour and there is also a certain amount of comedy that wasn’t evident in earlier versions.

This is a film that was designed to be viewed on big screen, a much bigger screen than this, accompanied by a symphony orchestra playing the specifically commissioned score, but watching it on a cinema screen of any size, also allows us to see the subtleties of the performances, the nuanced hand gestures and facial movements, as well as the intricacies of the production design. 1927 was the year in which sound film became commercially viable with the release of the Jazz Singer, and for many critics and film-makers of the time, the pedestrian realism of synchronized sound film destroyed the poetry and allusiveness of cinema, as well as its capacity to cross language barriers. It meant that the primarily visual medium of cinema was superseded by an audio-visual medium, which required film-makers and audiences to engage with a new aesthetic regime. So, Metropolis is a film from the summit of silent cinema, one of the last and one of the most refined, ambitious, expensive and mature works of the silent period.

References:

Thomas Elsaesser (2000) Metropolis. London: BFI

Tom Gunning (2000) Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI

Image

Most of the SF novels I’ve read have been battered copies borrowed from libraries or bought from second-hand book-shops and charity shops and there is something especially appropriate about this temporal contradiction. These novels, that are frequently imaginings of possible anachronistic futures, belong to the past – scuffed, yellowed, foxed relics that sit in a ‘time out of joint’ (to cite Philip K Dick [citing Shakespeare]).

One of the particular generic pleasures of these ageing SF novels is the cover art which is exemplified by these two novels, picked up in an Oxfam book-shop at the weekend. It often seems that the cover illustrations of SF novels have little to do with the content of the books – one wonders how much these artists knew of the specific stories they were providing the key image for, and what the authors thought of the covers to their books – and so the cover imagery has a separate status. It is not an illustration of the story but takes the brief (to design an attractive and arresting cover for a particular story) as a springboard for an independent art-work with an often tenuous relationship to the book. There are certain visual tropes that recur again and again as seen in these two covers – depopulated surrealist landscapes on the one hand (sometimes rendered in collage or photomontage), and excessive reliance upon the airbrush on the other to depict the smooth surfaces of skin, clothing and spacecraft.

These are not especially beautiful images. They are both functional and visually striking, but whereas there are some artists whose work is immediately identifiable – such as Bruce Pennington, Chris Foss, Jim Burns, Chris Moore, James Marsh, Ian Miller –  these images (by Miss Moss and Adrian Chesterman) are rather more generic. So, this not a matter of nostalgia for the lost art of the novel as a physical object, nor an ironic pleasure in kitsch imagery, but simply a reflection upon the richness of the worlds glimpsed beneath the titles and text on the covers of SF paperbacks.

As it happens the two novels also appear to exemplify one of the principal preoccupations of SF writing and SF imagery, which is with gender and sexuality. According to the blurb, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a feminist classic from 1962 about a female scientist – a ‘communications expert’ – who explores her own sexuality while becoming entangled with the ‘strange and unnerving life forms’ she is studying. If Mitchison’s novel is about femininity and female sexuality, The Demolished Man, on the other hand, (which is by Alfred Bester author of a superb, timelessly cinematic novel from 1956, The Stars My Destination) is clearly a novel about masculinity: ‘One man sets himself against the whole sophisticated paraphernalia of twenty-fourth century crime fighting, conducted by the peepers – trained telepathists with a strict code of ethics’, explains the blurb.

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