“Late last year, in the dying days of the American presidential campaign, the World Wildlife Fund published its most recent Living Planet Report. Published biennially, these reports have long made sobering reading, but 2016’s took that to a new level, declaring that between 1970 and 2012 close to 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife had disappeared, and that without concerted action that figure was projected to reach 67 per cent by 2020. In other words, humans were close to having wiped out more than two thirds of the world’s wildlife in just half a century.
“As somebody who has spent most of their adult life thinking and writing about animals and the environment, I found this story physically distressing. As with last summer’s bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef it felt like a tipping point, a moment when it had become clear we could not continue down the path we are on, a moment when things would have to change.
“In fact the world’s media greeted the story with a collective shrug. A few articles here and there mentioned it — and then it was gone, swamped by the drama of Donald Trump’s terrifying rise to power.
“It is difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. The climatologist James Hansen once said being a climate scientist was like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall: being a writer concerned with these questions often feels frighteningly similar. Because although it is difficult to understand how one could not be writing about these questions, the ethical urgency one feels is tempered by a sense of the futility of the gesture in the face of such enormity, a feeling one’s tools are not fit for purpose. What is the point of stories in such a moment, one wants to ask. How can one poem or one song or one novel make a difference?” Read more at Sydney Review of Books
As I mentioned the other day, I’ve just finished Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love, which is one of the best books about the Beatles I’ve ever read (and I’ve read more of them than I probably should have). Not quite as good on the music as Ian MacDonald’s dazzling Revolution in the Head, and a bit less precise in its focus than it might be from time to time (I’m not convinced some of the detours into contemporary history are really necessary) but smart, suitably sceptical about some of their achievements and very usefully engaged with both the individual narratives and the wider picture against which they played out.
One of the problems for any study of the Beatles is the seemingly impenetrable mystery of how it all happened. How did four young men from Liverpool become the most famous people in the world in the space of a few short months, then, once they were famous, go on to dominate popular culture for a decade and produce a string of records that redefined popular music while also acting as one of the catalysts for the immense social change that swept through the western world in the 1960s? As Ruth and Martin on RAM Album Club put it in their hilarious piece about Help the other day (don’t argue, just read it), “The Beatles? It’s the maddest story I’ve ever heard”.
Confronted with this question a lot of writers fall back on handwaving about their extraordinary talent and singular personalities, or mystification about the unique psychology of Lennon and McCartney. But the problem with these sorts of arguments is that they simply beg the question: after all, as Gould’s book makes clear, in the early days they really were just another band (describing their infamous rejection by Decca in 1962, he notes rather dryly that “faced with an oddly named, oddly dressed and openly quarrelsome four-piece group playing a grab bag of outdated material, none of it too well, Decca did what any other well-run record label would have done: after a polite interval, it turned the Beatles down”). And while with the benefit of hindsight it’s possible to see the intersection of qualities that made their records so particular – the harmonies, George Martin’s production and preparedness to experiment, the interplay of Lennon and McCartney’s different sensibilities, the way Lennon’s tough guy exterior made the vulnerability of songs such as ‘Help’ and ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ so affecting, the humour and wordplay – it’s difficult not to allow the story we know to determine the weight we place upon those characteristics.
Gould by contrast offers a fascinatingly nuanced account not just of the social and political preconditions that made their sudden, unprecedented popularity possible, but of the particular personal elements that allowed them to sidestep the sorts of mistakes other acts made, an account that is complemented by a thoughtful and nuanced account of their creative evolution (and subsequent unravelling).
In respect of the former he has a particularly interesting argument about the way the band both internalised and transcended class distinctions, at least in Britain (Americans, less attuned to the complexities of the class system, responded differently), but he also makes clear the shift away from DJ-driven programming to top 40 formats in the aftermath of the payola scandal in the United States allowed the band to achieve national exposure in a way that had not been possible only a year or so earlier.
But he’s also very aware of the importance of Epstein’s unconventional management style, and his insistence the band should seek status over money (apparently Ed Sullivan’s producers were bemused by his simultaneous focus on the band receiving top billing on the show and lack of interest in their fee), and of the practical ways the band’s fame was manufactured, as his anecdote about the promoter of their 1964 concert in Carnegie Hall guaranteeing mayhem in the city by deliberately booking the show for a school holiday attests.
He’s also pleasingly even-handed in both his approbation and his criticism. In contrast to Phillip Norman’s championing of Lennon in Shout! he’s sympathetic to McCartney, both as a composer and a human being, but that admiration doesn’t preclude criticising some of McCartney’s schmaltzier tendencies, In this regard his discussion of the way ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ demonstrates the way McCartney’s “workmanlike tendency to build on past successes had caused him to translate the genuinely charming novelty and subversive parody of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into a personal subgenre of songs that had devolved in the two years since Sgt Pepper into a form of musical schtick” is particularly well-judged (his praise of McCartney’s 1981 album, Tug of War, in the final chapter is a bit over the top though). Nor does he pull his punches when describing the band’s excesses and their occasional musical limitations (in one memorable image he says the two sides of Please Please Me, resemble musical bridges between the strong songs at either end and the progressively weaker material at their middles)
It’s also extremely well-written, at least for the most part, both at a line by line level and, more importantly, at an observational level. Describing the press conference when the four of them arrived at Kennedy Airport in 1964 for example he writes that “through it all, the four of them exuded an almost mysterious sense of solidarity and self-possession. They were their own show and their own audience”. Similarly his discussion of the albums is extremely thorough and perceptive, particularly in the book’s middle section (interestingly the book’s best sections relate to the albums from A Hard Day’s Night to Sgt Pepper) and his analysis of the film of A Hard Day’s Night is simply exhilarating. And he’s genuinely fascinating not just on the complex ways in which Dylan influenced the band after their famous meeting at the Delmonico Hotel in New York in August 1964, but on the rather less often acknowledged impact the Beatles and their success had on Dylan. Likewise he is admirably succinct in his analysis of the band’s various psychologies, and interesting about the way they shape the music and, ultimately, the band’s demise.
And then there are the fascinating nuggets of information scattered through the book: apparently the Stones chose the title of Let It Bleed after hearing the album that was originally called Get Back was now going to be called Let It Be, ‘The Continuing Saga of Bungalow Bill’ was Lennon taking the piss out of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (which he was obsessed with), ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ was at least partly an attack on Frank Sinatra, who had been very critical of the Beatles and used to call people “birds” all the time, and Brian Wilson used to lead the Beach Boys in prayer meetings in the studio to ask God to help them make a better record than Rubber Soul.
So while I think MacDonald’s book is still the gold standard when it comes to discussion of the music (and one of the best books of popular criticism written in the past few decades), the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years, Tune In offers the most exhaustive account of the band’s formation, and Pete Doggett’s wonderfully-titled You Never Give Me Your Money gives a better account of the band’s breakup and its aftermath, if you’re after a wide-ranging biography of the band that’s also attuned to the social context, sympathetic to the human side of the story and interesting in its analysis of the work, it’s absolutely the one I’d recommend.
I’ve just watched A Hard Day’s Night, which I haven’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s a film I have always had a soft spot for, mostly because I totally adored it when I saw it as a teenager (an experience that’s mirrored in the opening chapter of Dana Spiotta’s wonderful novel, Stone Arabia), so I was really interested to see how it held up.
The answer is surprisingly well: although the section on the train at the beginning is a bit long and slow (and the pacing in general is a bit slow by contemporary standard) it’s still funny and sneakily surreal and full of life. And though they’re all surprisingly good on camera, both John and Ringo are particularly good.
But what’s really interesting is that it’s not quite the film I remember. If nothing else they’re all much rougher and much more northern than I remember (and their accents are really thick) and despite the mugging and hijinks the film doesn’t attempt to disguise that. But it’s also very clearly a film about emancipation and possibility, with a surprisingly subversive satirical undercurrent (presumably because they chose the Liverpudlian playwright and screenwriter, Alun Owen, to write it, and there’s a lot of gleeful mockery of establishment figures, decorum and the pretensions of the middle classes (the sequence in the ad agency is particularly sharp). But at the same time there’s a lot of that slightly surreal mode of British comedy that delights in wordplay and absurdity that was perfected by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and others, in particular in scenes like the long “you look just like him” routine with John in the stairwell. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise: John and Paul were huge fans of the Goons, and that pleasure in punning and absurdity is visible in both The Beatles’ lyrics and their public personas.
Some other stray observations. Part of what makes the film so delightful is the lightness of director Richard Lester’s touch, and the playful way it shifts modes, jumping from slapstick comedy to playful parodies of the French New Wave and sequences that play with the conventions of James Bond films. It’s also startling to see how completely magnetic John is, although it’s a magnetism that’s made distinctly edgy by the sense he’s always on the verge of doing something unpredictable and dangerous (something the script plays up but is quite clearly there anyway). It’s also clear that part of what made John such a successful songwriter is the contrast between his tough guy image and the songs of male vulnerability he specialised in, in particular songs like ‘If I Fell’. Similarly, while I never really understood why George was such a sex symbol it’s surprisingly obvious when you see him on screen. And although the film doesn’t attempt to disguise the poverty and wreckage of post-war Britain everybody in it, and in particular all the girls, are incredibly beautiful, which whether deliberate or not, helps suggest a sense of renewal and possibility. But basically it’s a delight.
I know I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but I finally caught a session of Interstellar last week, and before it gets away from me I thought I might jot down a few (slightly spoilery) thoughts about it.
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s Dark Knight and Inception director Christopher Nolan’s new magnum opus, a science fiction epic that marries contemporary anxieties about societal and environmental decline to a nostalgia for the vision of the future’s possibility that drove the space race (and, not coincidentally, also underpins Kubrick’s 2001, a film to which it owes a great deal). Set a generation or two from now, it centres upon Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and trainee astronaut. Now widowed, Cooper is eking out a living as a farmer with his two children when a gravitational anomaly in his home leads him and his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), to what turns out to be a secret NASA installation.
Reunited with his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper discovers two things. The first is that the Earth is dying, and will soon be uninhabitable. But knowing that, Brand and his daughter, Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) have been studying a wormhole that has appeared in orbit around Saturn, and which connects our solar system to another galaxy. Having sent several scientists through twelve years earlier, Brand is now planning one last mission aimed at establishing whether any of those scientists found planets capable of sustaining life, and, by extension, of saving the human race.
Persuaded to act as the mission’s pilot, Cooper travels through the wormhole on NASA’s last spaceship, the Endurance, with Brand and two other scientists. At least at first his focus is on completing the mission as quickly as possible so he can return to his family, but before long their hopes of returning to Earth begin to fade, as relativistic time dilation severs them from their families and various misadventures, including a run in with a dangerously unhinged survivor of the first mission, Wolf (Matt Damon), cripple the mission, until, in the film’s final reel, Cooper is offered a glimpse of the temporal paradox he inhabits.
Nolan is often described as a cerebral director, but the truth is he’s not, unless the handwaving of Inception is your idea of philosophy. What he does have is a brooding visual style (especially when teamed with cinematographer Wally Pfisterer), and a line in the sort of speechifying that sounds deep but doesn’t bear too much close examination (“the human race was born on Earth, it wasn’t meant to die here,” etc etc). Given all that (and the reviews) I went in expecting Interstellar to be titanically stupid, but in fact despite one truly risible speech by Brand (apparently love is a force, like gravity, that transcends time and space, which we’d all know if it weren’t for the fact scientists haven’t discovered it yet) there’s surprisingly little of the overtly stupid philosophising that mars films like Prometheus.
Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway)
None of which is to say Interstellar is a smart film, or even a particularly slick one, but if you try not to think about it too hard it does have its own daft poetry. Some of that poetry is in the effects: the initial ride through the wormhole (and indeed the wormhole itself) is gorgeous, as are the waves on the first planet the crew visit, and there are any number of extraordinary vistas and images. But it’s also in its peculiar rhythms and weird, slightly dopey high-mindedness, even if it is marred by its absurdly intrusive soundtrack (which sounds like they commissioned the Abominable Dr Phibes to compose a series of variations on Philip Glass and then play them really, really loudly).
Of course you have to try pretty hard not to think about it too much, because as soon as you do the questions start multiplying like a game of whac-a-mole. Why does it take Endurance months to get to Mars yet once the ship is through the wormhole it suddenly becomes possible to fly between planets in no time at all? How come they need a multiple stage heavy lift rocket to get off Earth yet they’re then able to take off and land on other planets unassisted? And where is the sun in the system they visit? Surely it’s not the one that’s being consumed by the black hole? And (and I’m afraid this one’s a biggie) in what way is colonising a solar system with an enormous black hole in it a long term survival strategy? And that’s all before you begin wondering about things like how they could possibly not notice Wolf’s story about a surface with breathable air and organics is bunk (given they’ve seen the planet from orbit) or or how it is the spaceship technology hasn’t changed in a century despite the development of technology allowing us to construct vast space colonies. Or indeed why despite the dire warnings at the film’s beginning the threat of suffocation doesn’t seem to have transpired by the time Murphy figures out the riddle of gravity.
What’s interesting is that despite the film’s constant exhortations to go outwards and beyond, to remember a time when we invented things and embraced possibility, it’s not really about those things at all. Instead at some level its real preoccupation is loss and, more deeply, time.
In a way this isn’t surprising. Despite the glitter of the technology that surrounds us we live in a cultural moment in which we are beset by loss. A large part of that is environmental, something the film acknowledges in the opening sequences and the dust storms and blight that are slowly poisoning the Earth. But it’s also about a loss of faith in the future, a sense that we no longer know how to think about what comes next.
The factors behind this are complex. In part it’s a function of the failure of so many of the narratives of progress that have driven our cultures for so long. But it’s also at least partly a function of the triumph of capitalism and its capacity to crowd out the idea there might be alternative ways of structuring society. In this regard it was interesting to hear Ursula le Guin reversing the polarity of Frederic Jameson’s remark about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism when she said “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings” at the National Book Award ceremony last week.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)
But whatever its origins, this sense of grief pervades contemporary culture. You can see it in films like Interstellar, in TV shows like The Walking Dead, and in many, many novels.
What’s interesting to me is less the grief, which seems the only sane response to the conflagration surrounding us, but the fact trying to talk about it seems, almost inevitably, to lead us to a consideration of time. This is obviously the case in Interstellar, which plays overtly with the idea of time, relativity and the deep future, but it’s also also visible in a novel like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (a book I think has been roundly misunderstood by most critics), which despite its cast of murderous immortals and journeys toward the land of the dead, is really attempting to find a way to talk about deep time and survival.
It’s possible I’m a bit obsessed on this last point – loss and time and how we think about them are written deep into the fabric of my new novel, Clade, which is out early next year – but I don’t think I am. Because finding the emotional and intellectual tools we need to think our way out of our current predicament clearly requires us to find new ways of thinking about the future and own relationship to it.
What’s surprising about Interstellar is that despite its desire to map out a space for this kind of thinking, its solutions are unreflectively technological and technocratic. This unreflectiveness is visible in NASA’s back-up plan in case the Endurance’s mission fails, plan that will see tens of thousands of human embryos hatched and then auto-raised by computers, allowing a new society to be built from nothing. As Abigail Nussbaum has noted in a slightly different context, it’s a plan that’s nothing short of grotesque, but it’s also of a piece with the film’s suggestion that the solution to Earth’s environmental problems will be to leave Earth and live in orbital colonies.
As Nussbaum points out, neither of these are plans that hold up to any real scrutiny. They’re also contradicted by the film’s unintentional subtext, which is that even allowing for the intervention of extra-dimensional beings with the power to control space and time, space doesn’t want us, meaning we really have no alternative but to find ways of living here on Earth that won’t ruin the planet.
In the end though, these science fictional elements are only really window dressing, because at its heart Interstellar’s real nostalgia is as much for another era of filmmaking as another era of human possibility. Its debt to 2001 is large and explicit, and many of its best bits (the ride through the wormhole, the long sequence in the infinite library, the talking computers) are borrowed from Kubrick’s masterpiece. Yet where 2001 deliberately denies the viewer the tools to interpret what they are seeing, forcing them to find their own meaning (in a very real sense the film of 2001is the monolith, and it is our own reflection we see in it) Interstellar is a more gimcrack creation, one part homage, one part digital masterpiece, one part awkward, almost naive high-mindedness, a combination that lends it moments of surprising beauty and even power, and which almost allows it to transcend its own absurdities.
The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).
But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.
There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.
Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).
Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.
A little after the fact, but if you get a chance you might want to check out Episode 154 of the Coode Street Podcast, which features me chatting with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe about subjects ranging from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Paul McAuley’s Quiet War series to Margaret Atwood, Tolkien and the future of science fiction.
I’m a big fan of Coode Street, which I think is necessary listening for anybody interested in science fiction or fantasy, so it was great fun to be a part of it. You can download the episode from Podbean or from iTunes.
If you’re interested I’d also very much recommend taking the time to check out M. John Harrison’s recent appearance on the show (available via Podbean and iTunes), in which he demonstrates he’s exactly as brilliant in person as on the page, and the conversations with Graham Joyce (whose new book, The Year of the Ladybird, is a delight (again, Podbean, iTunes)) and Ursula Le Guin (Podbean) from a while back.
I’m 46 tomorrow. Perhaps because of that I’ve spent a lot of the past couple of years working my way back through a lot of the books and music I loved as an adolescent. For the most part that’s been a fascinating and often genuinely exciting process: rediscovering The Beatles after 25 years was magical, as was working my way through the backlists of New Wave writers such as Robert Silverberg (if you haven’t read Downward to the Earth, run don’t walk).
But one of the most unexpected – and joyous – moments was watching Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey again as research for a piece for The Australian.
Like many people I’ve seen 2001 a number of times, and each time it’s been a different film. The first time, as a 13 year-old in Adelaide in 1980, I found it majestic but baffling, the second, in my late teens it seemed dated and odd, the third, about 15 years ago (when I sat next to George Miller at the Cremorne Orpheum) I thought it was a boring and portentous exercise in 1960s faux-profundity.
Yet this time (or times, actually, since I ended up watching it three times) I found myself transfixed and astonished, right from the first moments. As I half-understood 15 years ago what I was seeing was very much an artefact of its times, but it was also much, much more than that. The music, the imagery, the strange plasticity of the environments, Keir Dullea’s brilliantly minimal performance, the wonderful, nested imagery of eyes and observation, Ligeti’s shimmering music, all seemed part of a seamless whole. Even the pacing, which I had mistaken for an exercise in Kubrickian perversity seemed visionary, an attempt to push past everything we know about the rhythms of cinema and demand we see again (to be honest I suspect the pacing is also Kubrickian perversity, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive). And although I’ve mentioned its effect on films like Prometheusbefore, it was also startling to be reminded how deeply it has influenced science fiction film and television over the past four and a half decades.
All of which is a long-winded way introduction to my piece about the film, which I’ve just posted in the Non-Fiction section. You can read a little bit below, alternatively just hop over and read the whole thing.
And since I’ve completely failed to write the piece I meant to write about David Bowie’s The Next Day I’m going to take a moment and point you to the Bowie2001 project, which mixes footage from the film with remixed version of a series of classic Bowie tracks. You can download the remixed tracks, the mixtape or torrent the movie from the Bowie2001 website. Alternatively I highly recommend Rick Moody’s encyclopaedic article about The Next Day.
And here’s the introduction to the piece itself:
“Even 45 years after its release it is difficult to know what to make of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Is it, as polls such as Sight & Sound’s recent survey of the greatest films of all time declared, one of the most important cinematic works ever created? Or is it, as Pauline Kael, who described it as ‘monumentally unimaginative’, and Rock Hudson – who surely spoke for a great many when he leapt to his feet at one early screening and demanded ‘Will somebody tell me what the hell this is about?’ – believed, a baffling, over-long exercise in directorial hubris?
“The answer, of course, is that it is both. Stretching from the dawn of time to (what was then) the future, from the Earth to the moons of Jupiter and (as the title of its dialogue-free fifth and final section, asserts) ‘Beyond the Infinite’, it is a film that demands the viewer give away many of their assumptions about what they are watching and how to watch it, to surrender themselves to its rhythms and its mysteries. It is a point Kubrick himself made in an interview at the time of the film’s release, when he ‘You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film – and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level – but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.'” Read more …
And finally, here’s the extraordinary scene in which the Monolith on the Moon communicates with its twin in orbit around Jupiter.
On Friday night I caught a preview of Ridley Scott’s much anticipated Prometheus, and since despite the slightly OTT security they didn’t make me sign anything agreeing to an embargo, I thought I’d record my thoughts about this flawed, frustrating but intermittently brilliant film.
The first thing to say is that you should ignore the misinformation about it not being a prequel to Alien, because it is, quite explicitly (and sometimes to its detriment). Indeed if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve probably got the basic idea: trail of archaeological clues lead humans to distant planet, hope turns to terror, horrible secrets consume them.
The film opens on a suitably epic note, with aerial images of a stark, volcanic landscape. The sense we are watching a sort of creation is powerfully evoked, partly by the stirring music, partly by the manner in which the landscape itself echoes the deep structure of biology. Eventually the camera moves in on a figure, which then casts off its cloak to reveal a figure both alien and familiar: a luminously pale, bald, over-muscled giant, who then decoheres, and is absorbed into the thundering water beside him.
In a way it’s a moment that sets the scene for all that follows, combining as it does the visual majesty and brilliance of the film as a whole and the disappointingly unadventurous set of ideas at its centre. Yet the viewer has only a few moments to think about it before the scene shifts to an archaeological dig on the Isle of Skye 70 years from now, and the discovery of what is revealed to be the latest in a series of ancient paintings depicting giant figures gesturing to a particular celestial formation, and then again to a ship en route to a moon orbiting a ringed planet around the stars shown in the painting.
It’s a narrative sequence that explicitly invokes 2001, a reference that is underlined both by the design of the ship and by the scenes of Michael Fassbender’s android character, David, moving through the empty ship, as Keir Dullea’s David Bowman and Gary Lockwood’s Frank Poole do in Kubrick’s film.
These scenes with Fassbender are masterly. As David moves restlessly through the ship, bouncing a basketball, monitoring the crew in cryostasis, studying ancient languages, we glimpse both his solitude and his slightly unsettling self-containment, a combination that is made the more disturbing by a pair of scenes in which he watches the dreams of Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist, Elizabeth Shaw and rehearses the voice of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia.
As ever Fassbender is completely magnetic. Given his capacity to project complexity and intelligence yet remain opaque, he is perfectly cast as the amoral David, yet in a way it’s his physical performance, from the oddly off-kilter squeaking of his slippers on the spaceship floor in the opening scenes (itself a playful reference to the sticky slippers of the space hostess in 2001, as well as a piece of pleasingly Kubrickian weirdness, I suspect) to the way his bleached hair and stick-insect delicacy seem to channel not just O’Toole’s Lawrence but David Bowie’s performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth that are most memorable.
Yet like much else in the film, and the brilliance of Fassbender’s performance notwithstanding, David is a creation that gestures towards greatness without ever quite achieving it. Partly that’s because despite several great scenes (one in which he asks whether the humans might be disappointed to discover their alien creators, the “Engineers”, made them for the same reason they made him – because they could – is particularly impressive) his intentions and agenda are never really clear.
But it’s also because like so much in Prometheus it’s difficult not to feel we haven’t seen this before. Despite the brilliance of Fassbender’s performance, David feels like an ambulatory reworking of HAL, or indeed any number of unreliable, out-of-control androids in fiction and film.
Archaeologists Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) explore the alien installation with the android, David (Michael Fassbender).
This sense the film is reworking extant themes is partly deliberate. As the title suggests it is a film grounded in other texts, some classical, some filmic. As well as the repeated invocations of the story of Prometheus (the story of the expedition, the story of the fate of the alien Engineers, the creation of David and David’s quest for knowledge) there are references not just to Old Testament sources and other religious sources (and indeed the work of Erich von Daniken, which draws upon both), the now-extensive mythology surrounding the original Alien and its sequels and spin-offs, films such as 2001 and finally to Scott’s own oeuvre (the opening scenes of the film, together with the brooding reminders of the mystery of the afterlife seem to speak to the scenes of the wind on the wheatfields and Russell Crowe’s monologue about the same in Gladiator).
This sort of textual overdetermination is common in SF, helping underpin not just the sorts of strategies of estrangement it employs but the extremely fertile and generative ways it relates to reality. Yet in Prometheus it often seems to do exactly the opposite, suggesting not new understandings but gesturing towards old ones, whether in the form of the repurposing of the plot of 2001 (ancient artifact, trip to stars, crazy computer, impossible secrets), or the reminders of Blade Runner,Alien and Aliens (psychopathic androids, greedy corporations etc etc). Even the soundtrack keeps sounding like it’s suddenly going to break into ‘The Flying Sequence’ from Superman: The Movie or the opening credits of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
This is a pity because so much of the movie is so good. Not only is it visually stunning, there are moments of pure horror (the first alien death isn’t something you’ll forget in a hurry) and – perhaps more importantly – a real sense of wonder and transcendence lurking between the banal debates about faith and origins (the scene in which David watches Elizabeth’s memories of a Hindu funeral is particularly well-judged in its subtle reminder not just of fire and death, but the many-faced nature of belief). This combination of genius and muddle (and indeed the preoccupation with death and transcendence and the afterlife) is present in a lot of Scott’s films, even the more successful ones like Gladiator, but it’s particularly evident in Prometheus.
But the real problem is that the ideas at the centre of the film just don’t measure up to the filmic firepower brought to bear on them. It’s not just that many of them aren’t very well-developed (I was fascinated by the suggestion all human languages were rooted in an alien tongue we could track back to, for instance). Or even that when you think about it the plot doesn’t make much sense: (comments invisotexted to hide spoilers – just highlight to read) why did the Engineers build the Aliens? To destroy us? But if they’d created us surely there were easier and safer ways of doing that? And why point us to the moon in the film if they only meant to destroy us? And more importantly, if the facility on the moon was destroyed 2,000 years ago, why are they pointing to it in 35,000 year-old paintings? Surely it didn’t take the Engineers 33,000 years to create the Aliens? Instead it’s that the set of questions the film is investigating are so utterly banal.
It’s a problem that’s obvious in the whole conception of the Engineers and our reaction to them. We’re told several times over the quest to find them is about understanding where we came from. But is that really the most interesting thing about discovering we are the products of an alien genesis? The film might be making a point about human solipsism here, but surely the most important thing about aliens is that they’re, well, alien? Isn’t contact with another species a more important and transformative possibility than discovering we are their progeny?
More deeply though, the alien Engineers aren’t very alien. Some of their tech is incredible – the navigation device David triggers in the starship is a remarkable creation – but there’s something both banal and slightly dispiriting about the fact the Engineers, once we see them, are basically large, over-muscled soldiers of some kind.
I assume this is partly about reinforcing the notion that they’re Titans in a Promethean sense (presumably the presence of Saturnian rings around the planet the moon orbits is meant to reinforce this as well), as well as some kind of Old Testament, Giants in the Earth kind of thing, but it also reveals a real paucity of imagination.
In a way this isn’t surprising to me, especially given the film was written by Damon Lindelof. Lindelof – who together with J.J. Abrams created Lost and helped produce Star Trek – is one of the wunderkind of contemporary Hollywood, not least because he’s revealed over and over again he, like Abrams, has a real knack for creating the sort of mind-bending situations that made Lost so tantalising, at least in its early stages.
I think it’s fair to say Lindelof, like Abrams, is an artist of the ephemeral. His worlds are ungrounded and ultimately meaningless because they don’t seem to connect with deeper images and archetypes. It’s a problem that’s very apparent in Lost, although perhaps more obviously in a film like Star Trek, in which an entire planet is destroyed and it barely resonates, either with the characters or the audience, but it’s also very evident when one compares a show like Fringe to The X-Files and sees the way the latter drew so much of its power from its capacity to tap into deep anxieties about surveillance and the uncanny. Time and again, in both Lindelof and Abrams’ films and shows, we see worlds that are constructed out of secondary sources, geektastic assemblages of gimmicks and references to other films that never exceed their source material (Cloverfield Super 8, a film that is designed not just to mimic the plots but the look and feel of E.T. and Close Encounters is particularly guilty on this score).
Equally important is the fact that Lindelof is much better at creating situations than resolving them. Almost every show he’s been involved with, from Lost to Once Upon a Time, has a brilliant set-up that is gradually revealed to be considerably less interesting than it promised to be (I’d exempt the unfairly-maligned and rather brilliant Cowboys and Aliens from this argument).
I’ve written before about this problem, which is at least partly a function of the way conventional narratives demand resolutions that are at odds with the possibilities they create, something that’s very true with Prometheus. Here the problem is compounded by the need to connect the film to the original Alien (and set up a new franchise) and the manner in which that connection’s explicitness undermines the film’s resolution by locking it into a plot-driven resolution. But it’s also a function of the film’s inability to find a deep, archetypal foundation for the sorts of questions it wants to explore.
This isn’t a problem for Prometheus alone. American film and television seems increasingly to fall back on asinine arguments about faith and belief when confronted with big ideas. “It’s what I choose to believe” the characters in Prometheus say more than once, as if this somehow answers any challenge to their beliefs, or is a meaningful answer to the somewhat sizeable question of what happens to us after death. But quite aside from the question of whether any scientist worth their salt would say something so stupid, this sort of declaration reveals the inanity of the sort of faith-based solutions being proposed. Belief isn’t enough on its own, and neither are the unanchored ideas of spirituality that recur in American film and television.
I suspect this inanity is partly about the manner in which consumer capitalism has decoupled culture and traditional religion. Despite its religiosity American culture has largely given away the symbols and narratives that underpin traditional religion. This might seem an odd thing to say given the rise in fundamentalism, but in fact the two aren’t incompatible: what matters isn’t the narratives but belief, not just in God but in America. A threat to one becomes a threat to the other.
The culture of Hollywood may be less religiose, but in many ways it’s part of the same phenomenon. Severed from the traditional narratives of religion, writers and filmmakers fall back on the inane language of personal growth and faith, a language and discourse that is incapable of plumbing deep because it’s essentially ungrounded. In place of the deep symbols of religion we have exhortations to belief and faith, as if these were ends in themselves.
It’s not helped by the weight of expectation and marketing behind Prometheus. I sometimes think there’s an argument to be made that SF, especially on film, works better when it’s essentially subversive: certainly films like Alien work at least partly because they’re so unexpected, a quality that is much rarer in the lumbering, carefully calibrated studio SF produced by contemporary Hollywood.
But either way it’s difficult to escape the feeling that unlike a film like Alien (or indeed Aliens) which remains fresh today at least partly because it’s so spare and direct and uncalculated, Prometheus pretends to a significance it doesn’t possess. Not just because when you strip away the brilliance of the craft and visual imagination that’s been brought to bear on it the ideas are, frankly, a bit naff, but because it’s so obviously a vehicle designed to set up a sequel, and to connect to the existing films. In doing this it certainly doesn’t damage the originals in the way George Lucas’ horrible and horribly misjudged Star Wars prequels did, but it does make the viewer uncomfortably aware that what they’re watching isn’t really a work of the imagination but the central plank in a vast marketing machine, and, because of that, essentially hollow.
Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.
I’ve not seen Oceans, the most recent documentary from Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, the creators of Travelling Birds, but after seeing the two videos below I think I need to. The first is of sleeping whales, and is just luminously beautiful, while the second is of one of the strangest creatures I’ve ever seen, the Blanket Octopus (while we’re on the subject of octopi, you might also want to check out Sy Montgomery’s fabulous piece about octopi in Orion).
And in case it’s driving you crazy, that very sexy voice you can hear is Pierce Brosnan’s.
As I’m sure many of you did, I spent yesterday evening watching the season finale of Breaking Bad. As season finales go it was one of the great ones, not least because it managed the often difficult trick of concluding a long and suspenseful narrative arc without either seeming too neat and convenient or fumbling the ball at the last moment. But it also contains one of the most gruesome – and the most exhilarating – scenes I’ve seen on television in a long while.
What follows is going to be at least technically spoiler-free, since I’m not going to describe the scene, but if you’d like to go into the episode completely free of information you should look away. But basically it’s a moment of sudden and surprising violence involving one of the central characters.
The scene was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One was how brilliantly orchestrated it was. Despite all the scheming and mind games part of the strength of this season of Breaking Bad has been the growing sense of chaos surrounding Walt, and the manner in which his actions have disrupted the operations not just of his family but Gus and the cartels in increasingly dangerous and unpredictable ways. Certainly it’s been difficult not to be aware of the steady escalation of the risk to Gus and his operations as the DEA (or at least Hank) gradually became aware of the possibility that Gus might not be quite what he seems to be. Yet as the final episode revealed, the season has also been incredibly tightly plotted, not just in the narrow sense of Walt having a plan, but in the larger, narrative sense of tracing out arcs and story lines that converge in a manner that’s both inevitable and surprising (to borrow Cocteau’s formulation).
But what also struck me was the sheer delight of the moment I’m talking about. When it came I quite literally jumped in the air and cried out, not once but twice. And despite the absolute horror of what had happened my reaction wasn’t disgust, it was exultation.
It’s a reaction you only normally get in dramatic forms like film, television and theatre (although there’s a scene in Deborah Moggach’s novel, Tulip Fever, which tends to generate the same response). There are several such moments in The Sopranos (Tony picking the tooth out of the cuff of his pants while talking to AJ’s psychiatrist, Paulie’s mother’s friend catching Paulie in her house, Ralphie’s head falling out of his toupee), but there’s also the lawnmower scene in Mad Men and any number of such scenes on film (oddly the one that come to mind immediately is the moment the shark grabs Samuel L. Jackson in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, but there’s also the much-imitated scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy shoots the swordsman by the plane).
What’s fascinating about all of them is that they’re moments in which the violence or grostesquerie comes as a surprise, and is often designed to elicit something like humour. Yet the sort of surprise they depend upon is often one that goes beyond the surprise that comes with the revelation of something unexpected: instead it’s the sort of surprise that subverts our expectations about the conventions of the genre. We don’t expect that shark to grab Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea because he’s in the middle of giving the big “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech every action movie needs (and the fact Jackson is a big star and a major character). Likewise the lawnmower scene in Mad Men doesn’t just involve the eruption of violence in a show that’s largely about the workplace, it involves the maiming of a character we’ve been led to believe will be significant. And while the scenes in The Sopranos are less overtly subversive, they exist within the framework of a show which often used violence to remind us of the randomness and chaos of the world as a whole.
But they’re also fascinating because they’re not just about doing unexpected or unpredictable things. Just maiming people at random simply doesn’t work as storytelling, however subversive it might seem. Whether it’s the scene from last night’s Breaking Bad or the shark chomping on Samuel L. Jackson, such scenes tend to jolt our expectations and assumptions within the narrative as well, by revealing the plot is not quite (or not at all) what we’d been assuming.
It’s this part of the process that’s particularly tricky. The director of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh, is also a playwright, and the author of a series of remarkable (and remarkably violent) plays which depend at least in part upon eruptions of violence that are at once shocking and hilarious. Of these the second in his Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara, is particularly interesting. The plot centres on a gravedigger charged with clearing out an overcrowded graveyard, and involves a subplot about his murdered wife, although as becomes clear later on, none of this is really the point. Instead the point is the bones – and more particularly the skulls – the gravedigger keeps accumulating, and the question of what is to be done with them, a question that’s answered very graphically towards the end of the play when, in an explosion of violence, the gravedigger begins to smash the skulls to pieces with a mallet.
It’s an extraordinary scene, and an incredibly liberating and exhilarating one. The sheer anarchy and release of it is hard to describe. But part of what makes it so exhilarating is precisely that sense of release, of knowing, at some intuitive level, that whatever you may have assumed this moment was the point all along.
The scene in last night’s Breaking Bad shares this quality, because it’s also the moment you realise things have not been what you’d assumed. Yet by releasing the tension that’s built up over so many episodes in such an unexpected way, it transforms something that should be horrible into something that’s exciting and even grotesquely funny. Anthropologists talk about liminal moments, points in time when the assumptions that govern our interactions are suspended, and we enter a state of possibility, and change, and I suspect that beneath the gruesomeness there’s an element of that at play in these moments too, a sense in which the ordinary rules are suspended, and we glimpse something of the possibility of change and transformation that is embedded in the heart of all narrative. And, paradoxically, where our extremely sophisticated awareness of the cultural conventions of genre and narrative (because without that awareness the subversion couldn’t work) also makes it possible for us to encounter the most uncritical feelings of wonder and release that narrative depends upon.
(Diehard Breaking Bad fans might like to check out the first part of AV Club’sfour part interview with the show’s show runner, Vince Gilligan)
Apologies for the late notice, but if you’re a NSW Writers’ Centre member, you’re in Sydney and you’re at a loose end tonight, you could do a lot worse than heading out to the NSW Writer’s Centre for tonight’s Writing Genre: is it all about the rules? which features Margo Lanagan, P.M. Newton and myself kicking the genre can around. The event is members only (though I’m not going to claim to know how rigorously that rule is enforced) and bookings can be made by emailing the Centre.
The new Richmond Fontaine album, The High Country(which interestingly seems to be a single narrative, thus further closing the gap between Willy Vlautin’s songs and his fiction) is due out in September, but in the meantime, live versions of two of the tracks have popped up, together with the news Willy’s first novel,The Motel Life, has just been turned into a motion picture directed by the Polsky Brothers and starring Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson.
I’m in the throes of finally finishing my edits (more on that soon), but in the meantime, here are two amazing pieces of time lapse photography. The first comes via NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, and is by amateur astronomer and photographer Alex Cherney, who compiled twelve months of footage of the movement of stars and clouds across the southern coast of Australia into one very beautiful, and very haunting video. I have a personal affection for this video because I’ve actually been using one of Cherney’s images as the background on my computer for the last six months, but in a way what’s most striking is the way the video serves as a reminder of how different southern skies and landscapes are to those in the Northern Hemisphere. Be sure to embiggen for the full effect.
The second comes via io9, and features images of water in slow motion (set to music by electronica act, Team Ghost). It’s a thing of strange, almost alien beauty.
I’ll be back online properly next week. Catch you all then.