We Are the Mutants

Eat the Rich: The Evolution of a Slogan

 Exhibit / February 13, 2020 

Patti Smith, New York, 1978. Photo by David Godlis

Notting Hill, London, 1977. Photo by Roger Perry

Object Name: “Eat the rich”
Maker and Year: Unknown
Object Type: Political slogan
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

As Talia Levin noted last year in an Esquire article, “eat the rich” has become a popular expression among a new generation of leftists who have inherited, among many other obscenities, the most extreme income inequality of the last 50 years. The phrase is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Adolphe Thiers’ 10-volume History of the French Revolution (1823-1827, English ed. 1838): “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” It is very likely a misattribution, as no version of the line appears anywhere in Rousseau’s written works. Thiers, who Marx called a “monstrous gnome” for sucking up to the bourgeoisie, claims it comes from a speech Rousseau made to the post-1789 revolutionary government—at which point Rousseau (Jean-Jacques, anyway) had been dead for more than 10 years. The truth is that it is probably a creative inversion of something else Rousseau said in his posthumously published and heavily embellished Confessions (1782): “At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied, ‘Then let them eat pastry!'” This became, of course, “Let them eat cake,” and was itself (purposely) misattributed to Marie Antoinette by French revolutionaries. Whatever the case, the “eat the rich” quote appears extensively in subsequent 19th century political and historical texts.

How it came to the American counterculture in the late ’60s or early ’70s is something of a mystery, but the answer may be a new edition of Thiers’ book that was published in 1971 by Books for Libraries Press, a popular (and populist) New York publisher reprinting significant historical and fictional works. I can’t find any evidence of the slogan being used in the Paris uprising of 1968, but in the summer of 1975 a group of young anarchists, inspired by Jean Baudrillard and the Situationists, staged a coup at the Detroit-based underground newspaper Fifth Estate, “[abolishing] all paid positions and [refusing] to take any paid advertisements.” They called themselves the Eat the Rich Gang. Forming the year before, they had already produced and distributed a cookbook/pamphlet—following the lead of 1971’s infamous The Anarchist Cookbook—called To Serve the Rich, which included recipes for Hearst Patty, Rocky Mountain Oysters Rockefeller, Justice Burger, Split Priest Soup, Bourgeois Bouillabaisse, Lenin Harangue Pie, and Pope-pourri. 1975’s The Eat the Rich Cookbook, published by The Workers Revenge Party, reprinted large sections of To Serve the Rich and sported a cover illustration of a skull and crossbones, the latter fashioned out of a knife and fork.

It was this cover (which may have been taken from To Serve the Rich) that directly led to the slogan’s entry into wider consciousness by means of, no surprise, the emergent East Coast punk scene. In 1978, a series of photos taken by David Godlis show Patti Smith at a New York record signing (for Easter) wearing a shirt that says EAT THE RICH (in one shot, she is very defiantly set against a background of Abba posters and standees). The illustration is different from the Eat the Rich Cookbook cover but exactly replicates the skull and knife/fork crossbones. The letters U.S.L.F. (United States Liberation Front?) appear below the image. A slightly different illustration, using the Fraktur font to great effect and minus the U.S.L.F., was produced around the same time: Dee Dee Ramone wore one, as did outlaw country singer-songwriter Terry Allen. Smith and her cohorts were anarchists of a different stripe: they didn’t give a shit about French theory, or any theory; instead, they agitated with amplified distortion and impudence, all the while struggling to survive in a decidedly more desperate and destitute urban reality.

Things were arguably grimmer in the UK. Photographer Roger Perry’s 1976 The Writing on the Wall documented London’s suddenly rampant dissident graffiti, just as Jon Naar and Norman Mailer had explored New York’s subway street art in 1974’s The Faith of Graffiti (Mailer argued that graffiti was not vandalism, but art and activism). The respective elections of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979) and President Ronald Reagan (1980) made life for the masses even more deplorable, and by the mid-1980s “eat the rich” was forever codified in pop culture and the popular lexicon, emblazoned on pinbacks, walls and bridges, album covers, and several more t-shirts, some of them making cameos in the films of the day. It was the name of a 1987 British comedy and a 1987 Motörhead single. P.J. O’Rourke, in his book Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics, claims that he “first saw the phrase on T-shirts worn by the Shi’ite Amal militia in Lebanon in 1984 or 1985.”

The expression became flaccid and flatulent in the ’90s, was resurrected by student debtors and summarily re-executed by Wall Streeters and their federal accomplices during Occupy Wall Street, and today simply represents the fury and terror of millions of souls who are tied to the tracks, the increasingly persistent bleat of a runaway train in the near distance.

The Hauntological President: Citizen Media, Analog Memory, and Bernie Sanders

Michael Grasso / February 12, 2020

bernie sanders burlington square mall goth punks 1988Over the past year of the seemingly interminable 2020 presidential campaign in the United States, the public political history of Senator Bernie Sanders has been fêted and castigated from both sides of the political aisle. An avowed democratic socialist throughout his life and political career, Sanders has taken the side of some very unpopular movements and causes during his time as an activist and Mayor of Burlington, Vermont before coming to Washington as an independent Congressman in 1991. But throughout his career in local and state-level politics, Sanders consistently possessed an ambivalent-yet-canny sense of the utility and power of mass media to shape the political conversation in America and to educate and raise the consciousness of the American working class. In Sanders’s love-hate relationship with broadcast television, we see a microcosm of a generation of activists’ ambivalence with the power of both corporate authority and American hegemony as embodied and reinforced by television. Our image of Sanders’s decidedly more radical political past is shaped by his appearances on, uses of, and critiques of mass media, film, and television. And Sanders’s clever détournement of these media during a deeply transitional period in the American media landscape—the 1970s and 1980s—makes him potentially America’s first hauntological President.

Some definitions are probably in order. Marxist philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, based on a series of lectures in which Derrida was asked to address the question “Whither Marxism” in the aftermath of the end of the USSR and Soviet bloc. Derrida returns to Marx and Engels’ vivid use of gothic imagery from the very first lines of The Communist Manifesto (“a specter is haunting Europe”) to explicate upon the “death” of international communism. Hauntings are warnings, Derrida implies, as he examines Marx’s well-attested love of Shakespeare and specifically how Hamlet’s father’s ghost embodies an historical warning from a vanished, better past. Derrida views Hamlet’s blind faith in following his father’s ghost, the ghost’s warning that “something [is] rotten in the state of Denmark,” and the so-called “victory” of liberal democracy and death of communism as elements of this schema of “hauntology.” If communism is dead, it can return from its grave; moreover, a specter cannot be killed, it can only return to its haunt again and again. “Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology.” This evocation of the paradox of simultaneous existence and non-existence, beginning and ending, is sealed with a pun: “hauntology” is a near-homonym for “ontology.”

Derrida’s admittedly cryptic and quasi-mystical evocation of ghosts, eternal return, and teleology/eschatology as they relate to the end of the Cold War, paired with the seeming eternal stability and final victory of liberal capitalism, deeply fascinated (and, in his words, “frustrated”) British cultural critic Mark Fisher, whose work I have previously reviewed in great detail. In his own formulation of “hauntology” from his 2014 Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures, Fisher offers a more solid definition of the term in a very specific cultural and artistic (as opposed to Derrida’s specifically political and ontological) context:

When it was applied to music culture—in my own writing, and in that of other critics such as Simon Reynolds and Joseph Stannard—hauntology first of all named a confluence of artists… What they shared was not a sound so much as a sensibility, an existential orientation… suffused with an overwhelming melancholy; and they were preoccupied with the way in which technology materialised music memory—hence a fascination with television, vinyl records, audiotape, and with the sounds of these technologies breaking down.

For those of us in the increasingly accurately named, all-but-forgotten Generation X, watching the analog media of our childhood crackle and fade away on a new planethe forever-archive of cyberspace—offers a combination of poignancy and lost opportunity. Fisher acknowledges in the opening essay from Ghosts of My Life, “Lost Futures,” that both Derrida and Jean Baudrillard saw before their deaths how the new media landscape was beginning to destroy history—how it had “radically contracted space and time,” in Fisher’s words—and was leaving us in an eternal neoliberal present where nostalgia and remember-whenning are strip-mined, commodified, and drained of their political possibility. Fisher identifies the synthesis within hauntological music—that it paradoxically contains both the past and the future—as crucial in hauntology’s startling political effect for those who grew up in an era of “popular modernism.” In reifying an extinct medium’s aesthetics (the crackle of vinyl, the faded colors of Polaroid film, the warp of an audiocassette) in a contemporary context, hauntology summons the ghost of the (at the time largely occulted) political struggle of the 1970s, of a hidden fight between a decaying Western social democracy and the oncoming libidinal freight train of globalist neoliberalism. Fisher notes the writing of Jeremy Gilbert, who said, “Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen… has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.” In Fisher’s mourning of a world where popular modernism diverted us from this inevitability of the end of history and an end to class struggle, he very clearly sees the dream that was taken from us: “But we shouldn’t have to choose between, say, the internet and social security. One way of thinking about hauntology is that its lost futures do not force such false choices; instead, what haunts is the spectre of a world in which all the marvels of communicative technology could be combined with a sense of solidarity much stronger than anything social democracy could muster.” This, I would argue, is the appeal of Bernie Sanders, trapped in the amber of public television and public access videotape from the 1980s, to the American hauntologist.

One clearly sees the dialectical synthesis between Derrida’s political-ontological formulation of hauntology and Fisher’s cultural one in what’s become one of the most famous pieces of Bernie video from the 1980s: the grainy videotape account of Mayor Bernie and his fellow Burlingtonians in the Soviet Union in June of 1988. As Gorbachev’s perestroika began to break down the physical and cultural barriers between East and West, a concomitant collapse of the Soviet Union, thanks to generations of American sabotage, mass murder, and assassination, was occurring. Mayor Sanders’s trip was occurring as the Baltic republics, victims of Stalinist/Soviet oppression and annexation since World War II, were beginning to rebel against Moscow, kicking off the end of the Cold War and the USSR itself. Bernie and his traveling companions traveled to Russia to establish a sister city in Yaroslavl (it was also a de facto “honeymoon” for Mayor Sanders and his new wife Jane). The American contingent, in their final days in Yaroslavl, participated in a traditional series of Russian activities at a workers’ recreational facility attached to an oil refinery—hot and cold saunas, then dinner, toasts, and shared songs late into the night. Sanders noted that two of the women on his trip saw that both Americans and Soviets were dissatisfied with elements of their societies, and the conclusion the Americans came to was, “Let’s take the strengths of both systems. Let’s learn from each other.” In their “congenial” reception in Moscow and Yaroslavl, in Bernie and the Burlingtonians’ singing of American socialist folk songs at a traditional Russian toast, we see the possibility of yet another lost future, one of brotherhood between a possible post-Reagan America and a resurgent, revitalized, and most importantly no-longer-Stalinist Soviet Union, a lost future captured forever on videotape and viewable endlessly in our own nether-realm after the end of history itself. 1980s Mayor Bernie—and Woody Guthrie, and Vladimir Lenin—are the ghosts haunting the parapets of our Castle Elsinore.

In postulating Bernie Sanders as the possible first hauntological President, we need to examine his entire life story around media, television, and their political uses. From the very beginning of his political activism, as part of the civil rights movement in the early ’60s, there was an awareness of the visuals around protest and civil disobedience, a leveraging of the new global mass media to effect sea changes in public opinion. As Bernie’s participation in direct action around improving the rights of African-Americans demonstrates, the movement organized by fellow democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that, while the new mass medium of television was used primarily to rehabilitate the existing hegemonic order, it could also be used to appeal to the better angels of white Americans’ nature. In spectacular events like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the Freedom Riders program, King and his hundreds of thousands of individual voices put forth a vision of an America unriven by racial strife—while simultaneously and dialectically forcing white America to vividly confront its own complicity in the centuries-old historical evil of white terrorism. Bernie’s 2020 campaign often uses an image of a young Sanders being dragged by cops at a protest in 1963 on the South Side of Chicago as a concrete portrayal of his more than half-century of activism and civil disobedience; it’s tremendously effective as a piece of media from a forgotten past many white Americans would prefer to forget. More ghosts, more haunting.

Bernie continued with organizing after graduating from the University of Chicago, but drifted from job to job, from Chicago to New York City and, eventually, like many members of the counterculture, out to the country of Vermont, unable to find a place or a job he felt comfortable with inside the dominant culture. His early 1970s political career with the Liberty Union Party prepared him for his eventual foray into politics in the ’80s, but his quixotic runs for governor and Senate left him jobless by 1977. It was at this time that sometime activist, carpenter, and third-party candidate Bernard Sanders decided it was time for him to be an educator.

In 1977, Sanders left his role as the Liberty Union Party’s perennial candidate and founded the Vermont-based American People’s Historical Society, a producer of filmstrips and educational media that focused on local Vermont and New England history. Its first releases are of a more traditional pedagogical and ideological bent for use in public schools: tales of the American Revolution and Vermont’s Presidents. But it was clear that Sanders sought to expand the horizons of students beyond these usual narrow educational avenues; filmstrips would soon include productions on New England women and the Amistad slave rebellion. The filmstrip itself is a powerful nostalgic symbol for those who attended American public schools between the 1960s and the 1980s. Offered to schools because of cheaper cost as compared to educational films on actual threaded film, they were an economical and practical medium that lacked the dynamism and excitement of actual film; one could easily consider them a socialist technological compromise. The tropes of the medium (warbly soundtrack, the trademark “beep” meant to remind the teacher or AV club member to advance the filmstrip) still live on, strongly, in the memories of late Boomers and Generation X-ers. But it was the APHS’s dramatic shift in 1979 to covering an explicitly socialist topic, the career of American labor organizer, socialist politician, political prisoner, and Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, that marked Sanders’s commitment to producing media that was an alternative to the predominant political and historical pedagogical discourse in American schools. In his announcement of the new line of video cassettes (which would of course soon supplant the filmstrip in schools) dedicated to “The Other Side of American History,” Sanders notes that the APHS wanted to present an educational account of “people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons.”

Sanders was long aware that conventional education (and media) had a hegemonic role to play in American society. Nowhere is this distaste for “profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material” clearer than in a Sanders opinion column from alternative publication The Vermont Vanguard Press in February 1979, titled “Social Control and the Tube.” Sanders wrote columns for left-wing publications throughout the 1970s, using the alternative media available at the time to spread unorthodox political ideas. In “Social Control and the Tube,” Sanders takes aim at broadcast television with fiery invective, calling the television’s role in American lives no better than “heroin” or “alcohol,” a numbing “escapist mechanism which allows people to ‘space out’ and avoid the pain and conflict of their lives—and the causes of those problems.” The monstrous chimera of television, which not only seeks to numb but also to assure corporate profits (through television advertising) and social control (through the limited range of acceptable political views seen on news and opinion programming) fulfills a centrally hegemonic role in America at the end of the 1970s, arguably the peak of broadcast television’s power before the coming of cable television. Television programs under capitalism can never be of good quality, Sanders asserts, because if they do increase in quality, the commercials will look ridiculous by comparison. What is Sanders’s solution for this monolith which hovers over the American body politic, turning viewers into consumerist morons and zombies? A release of the airwaves back into public hands from the grasping greed of the television networks and their corporate sponsors:

The potential of television, democratically owned and controlled by the people, is literally beyond comprehension because it is such a relatively new medium and we have no experience with it under democratic control. At the least, with the present state of technology, we could have a choice of dozens of channels of commercial-free TV.

At the moment serious writers are, by and large, not allowed to write for commercial television for fear they might produce something that is true and hence, upsetting to the owners of the media. Under democratic control people with all kinds of views could make their presentations, and serious artists would be encouraged to produce work for the tube.

Is this dream of a socially-conscious, democratically-controlled television in America merely the naive wish of a late-’70s socialist crank? Perhaps. Views like these about television have been pilloried and parodied again and again in pop culture (notably, on television) in the person of the character who is “too much of an intellectual to own a TV.” Still, Sanders respects the potential of the medium in the hands of the people. And one of the only existing venues in America at the end of the ’70s where a citizen could possibly participate in the medium as a citizen (apart from local TV stations) was through the Great Society experiment which, by the end of the 1970s, was beamed into millions of American homes and thousands of American nurseries and classrooms with a mission to educate, inform, and entertain the public in much the way Sanders details: the Public Broadcasting System.

(Above: audio version of Bernie Sanders’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs; courtesy Jacobin)

Other nations, like the United Kingdom, had long had governmental control of radio and television broadcasting. In America, a patchwork of disorganized local, nominally-public educational television stations had formed the PBS in 1970, changing the television landscape. Sanders sought the imprimatur of his local Vermont PBS affiliate, Vermont Educational Television (still known locally as ETV) in 1979 to broadcast his APHS video on Eugene Debs. ETV refused. Sanders subsequently gathered a citizen group to act as a watchdog for ETV’s programming, Concerned Citizens on ETV, to protest this refusal. Sanders was certain that ETV’s refusal was for the same political reasons he outlined in his APHS brochure and Vermont Vanguard Press piece; despite PBS affiliates’ nominal public funding, they were also by 1979 more and more dependent on private endowments and even corporate funding (Exxon, for example, was a longtime underwriter for a number of PBS series). The establishment of Concerned Citizens on ETV led to an eventual citizen council on programming at ETV; Sanders even appeared on ETV in 1980, before his election to the office of Mayor of Burlington, to introduce documentary segments on poor Vermonters living in the inner city, on Vermont’s Indian tribes, on working women, and the functionally illiterate. In his introduction, Sanders, sitting on an empty soundstage featuring an ETV video camera and a television monitor showing color bars, explicitly states—on ETV airwaves!—that the programming of ETV and PBS has not been serving the working class and poor population of Vermont up to this point: “We’re going to briefly discuss Vermont Educational Television—this station—and strongly suggest that Vermont ETV undergo a major transformation so that it begins to become relevant to the low-income and working people of this state who constitute the vast majority of our population but who presently watch ETV very rarely.” For a network in PBS whose high-toned programming included opera and stage plays, trying to make ETV into a true proletarian television station, democratically-controlled, was a fulfillment of Sanders’s beliefs as expressed in “Social Control and the Tube.”

After years of failure with the Liberty Union Party trying to achieve state-wide office, Sanders was elected Mayor of Burlington in 1981, shocking the staid Vermont political (and national media) establishment and surprising many political commentators to the point of public embarrassment. While in office, Sanders didn’t leave behind the idea of using broadcasting to both communicate his ideas and empower the working class. With the 1980s, a new form of public broadcasting was becoming popular throughout many cities and towns in the United States: cable public access. In the embryonic days of cable television, FCC regulations stated that all cable television systems with 3,500 or more subscribers would be required to host programs of local interest: in broadcasting terminology, for “public, educational, or governmental use” (PEG). Throughout the 1970s, as local cable systems grew their infrastructure with cameras and sets to host programs and broadcasts of interest to locals in individual towns, governmental requirements waxed and waned as the nascent cable industry fought back against the FCC provisions. In 1984, a compromise legislation was achieved (with the help of Barry Goldwater of all people), not requiring PEG programming at local cable systems but assuring that local authorities could mandate it for their local cable franchises outside of the interference of the federal government. Mayor Sanders used his local Burlington cable TV station, Channel 15, as a platform for his overall political program: to give the people of Burlington a voice in front of their fellow citizens.

burlington channel 15 community television ident

“Bernie Speaks to the Community” began on December 3, 1986 with a half-hour introduction to and interview with Bernie Sanders, now mayor for over five years, and the issues facing Burlington at the time. For the next two years, Sanders would shift into the role of host and programmer, introducing Burlington cable viewers to a dizzying array of issues and individuals, from taxes to police funding, from local arts and cultural events to nuclear power, from women’s and Native American issues to education and children’s issues. The show often takes the form of a bog-standard public affairs show, but it really shines when Bernie introduces ordinary citizens, engages in a conversation with them, and lets them do the talking. Most observers were likely introduced to “Bernie Speaks” by this piece in Politico, which presents the program as a series of possible contemporary political liabilities for Bernie, focusing on issues of international socialist import which Sanders continued to pursue as Mayor, such as improving relations with the Soviet Union and protesting against the U.S.-backed Contra atrocities in Nicaragua. Over the brief history of “Bernie Speaks” we can see an evolution occur in Bernie’s political demeanor: from an activist whose blunt affect and approach to politics was frequently direct and uncompromising to a politician with a deft human touch and an ordinary everyday schlub-ness (Bernie is almost always seen in a sweater vest that can’t help but recall Fred Rogers’s studied casualness) that makes him an effective human face for the alien idea (to many Vermonters and Americans) of democratic socialism. In many ways, “Bernie Speaks” had accomplished the dream he outlined in his “Social Control” essay: it turned local television, in some small way, into a democratic and interactive medium from the instrument of control it was on the national level.

Probably the most well-known and well-trafficked memes from Bernie’s local cable access show involve his interaction with the social and built landscape of the 1980s that those of us who were alive then remember so well. The episode where Bernie decides to talk to ordinary citizens at the Burlington Square Mall is, to the eyes of the typical Generation X-er, positively haunting. The architecture of the mall can’t help but evoke memories of similar shopping centers all across America in viewers of a certain age. It’s also clear by looking at the quality of the video throughout the run of “Bernie Speaks” that the Channel 15 crew is using camcorders that are barely better than consumer-grade models available in the mid-1980s, adding yet another layer of nostalgic hauntology to the series. And in Bernie’s conversations with high school students, security guards, Vermonters disappointed in Jesse Jackson’s poor showing on Super Tuesday in 1988, and probably most famously, a pair of young goth-punks who treat Bernie with a combination of bemused respect and surprisingly astute political engagement (they tell Bernie “to heck with society… I don’t like the way society is run, it’s a cop-out, everybody’s plastic…”), we see a politician whose sincerity (and whose own life experience in choosing to opt out of what society had expected of him) echoes across multiple generations, to those on the political fringe or those traditionally excluded from the political process. In the 2020 campaign, Bernie’s strategy has centered the slogan “Not me, us” and has used interviews nearly identical to those in “Bernie Speaks,” with Sanders handing the microphone to town hall attendees to tell their stories of six-figure hospital bills, of economic and social injustice, of a society whose ability and desire to take care of its most vulnerable members has corroded to its very bones.

The mainstream media aligned with both major parties has viewed the media history of Bernie Sanders as a goldmine for hit pieces, a 50-plus year documentation of the biography of a worthless Communist layabout, someone clearly who was on the wrong side of America’s great late-20th century conflict, the Cold War. A closer look and understanding of Bernie Sanders’s history in print and on the airwaves, however, says something different. It offers a parallel history of the dominant American political and media narrative of the 20th century. Through citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders built a life in activism, a political career, and a broad-based left-wing political movement. Through those same citizen and alternative media, Bernard Sanders leaves behind an afterimage full of ghosts of a better and different world, one where control was wrested from the incomprehensible behemoths of mainstream media and politics that have steered our nation’s history since the end of World War II. The ghost of ’80s Bernie appears before us in analog, on the warmth and familiarity of cable access videotape, from a strange alternative past that paradoxically offers us a bolder, better future. Bernie’s words and image, from Burlington to Yaroslavl, may haunt us, but the movement he remained faithful to—during the most broadly reactionary period in American history—is alive again: “repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time.” As Mark Fisher said, hauntology offers us the spectre of a different world. Bernie at the mall, Bernie in the Soviet Union, Bernie on video on an empty set in a PBS affiliate: these are not merely flickering images of a dead timeline, forever inaccessible to us. We don’t have to settle for a hollow, repackaged and reconstituted kitsch nostalgia for socialism, for a “left melancholy,” for the end of history and a haunted political landscape bereft of alternatives. While Bernie’s ghost still wanders the food courts of the mall, he yet emerges, large and real as life, no longer on warbling videotape or going school-to-school in Vermont pitching crackly filmstrips to our childhood selves. He is an historical force, part of a movement dedicated to workers’ solidarity. He is on the ballot in a state near you in the coming weeks and months. He is the past inside the present.

This piece is dedicated to Mary Sweeney.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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No Such Thing as a Good Billionaire: Hunting the Rich on Screen

Audrey Fox / February 11, 2020

Ready or Not, 2019

The ever-widening division between social classes has always been popular fodder in film and television. It seems as though few films that address class disparity can escape at least some oblique commentary that casts the wealthy elite in a negative light. From the early days of cinema with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to Wall Street (1987) to the brutal satire American Psycho (2000), film has rarely let the rich off easy. But 2019 turned hating the rich into a blood sport, with Parasite and Hustlers both finding new ways to strike back at the one percent. The year saw a remarkable amount of media that didn’t just criticize the structures of inequality that allow the rich to remain in power, but specifically targeted beneficiaries of inherited wealth.

The ultra-rich are frequently depicted at best as self-absorbed, entitled children who can’t do a thing for themselves, and at worst as immoral sociopaths. This presentation is unique in that it seemingly transcends political background. We’ve seen plenty of films that denigrate the policies of one party or another as being detrimental to the well-being of the general populace, but, according to many 2019 films, politics are a secondary factor in this criticism of the wealthy. They instead posit that there is a certain amount of wealth that one can acquire, particularly if it is inherited, that precludes moral behavior. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a good billionaire. That this is a message we see repeated again and again over the course of 2019 suggests an evolution of political commentary in popular culture.

The depiction of dynastic wealth over the past few decades has allowed the ultra-wealthy to take on a certain aspirational quality. Dynasty, Dallas, The O.C., and Gossip Girl are all examples of shows that portrayed this sort of vast wealth as a much envied lifestyle, where existence was not only easier and more glamorous but vastly more interesting. Not so since the Great Recession, and especially not so since the election of Donald Trump, himself the product of his father’s wealth. Many of the films and television series we’ve seen this year are openly contemptuous of the sense of entitlement characters who inherit wealth have, painting them as oblivious farces of the upper class, worthy of little more than derision. In Ready or Not, the family members of a board game dynasty are so convinced that they alone deserve prosperity that they’re willing to brutally hunt down and murder anyone who threatens their supposed birthright. The reveal of this violent action as a mechanism for their very survival reflects how they view the possession of wealth: if they can’t maintain their high social status, they may as well be dead.

Succession, 2019

In the first two seasons of HBO’s Succession, the overarching question is who is going to take control of the massive media conglomerate Waystar Royco in the wake of its founder Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) declining health. Regardless of whoever may have the most experience or be the most temperamentally fit to run such an organization, the Roy children are the only ones who are seriously considered for the position. It’s a race for one of the most powerful jobs in the world run by only three potential contenders. And the behavior exhibited by each of the Roy kids (excluding Connor, played by Alan Ruck) shows how much they think they’ve genuinely earned the largely ceremonial positions they’ve been given within the organization. The same idea stands in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones, the sillier version of Succession, where characters frequently declare “I’m a Gemstone” as the only justification as to why they should be allowed to do things or be given special privileges. We see an extension of this in Knives Out, where an entire family of freeloaders, all financially problematic in their own unique ways, cannot fathom their father’s fortune being given to anyone outside of the family. In their minds, they have earned this money, though by what means it’s hard to say.

These narratives fundamentally subvert the myth of the self-made man, which is especially prevalent in Knives Out. Each member of the Thrombey family could not have achieved success without significant financial help from their father, Harlan Thrombey (the actual self-made man, played by Christopher Plummer). Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a real estate mogul, but she never would have been able to start her company without her father’s initial funding. Walt (Michael Shannon) serves as CEO of his father’s publishing company, a position he was handed not through merit but because he was the oldest living son and first in line to the throne. And even then, despite his title, he’s not trusted with the power to license adaptations of his father’s work, which is where the real money is. Joni (Toni Collette) is a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque lifestyle guru, entirely dependent on an allowance from her father-in-law, and Ransom (Chris Evans) has nothing to bank on in life except for an anticipated future inheritance.

Based on the comments they make about one another to detectives during the investigation of Harlan’s unusual death, they seem to know that every member of the family (except themselves, of course) owes all their success to dad. But they consider themselves to be inherently deserving of wealth not because of the things they have done, but because of their surname. If this is their logic, it only stands to reason that if there are certain people who are entitled to good fortune by their very blood, so too there must also be people who are inherently undeserving. After all, if they were able to make something of themselves (which they truly believe they have done), there must be something wrong with those who can’t. It’s galling to see people extol the virtues of a meritocracy when they owe all their success in life to an accident of birth, and it highlights both the hypocrisy of this type of upper-class thinking as well as the mental gymnastics required to perpetuate a certain social order as they perceive it.

Knives Out, 2019

We find the meritocracy myth in Succession as well. Where Kendall and Roman are certainly aware of the fact that they would not have their lofty positions within Waystar Royco if they weren’t part of the family, daughter Siobhan chose instead to work in politics, which allows her the luxury of believing she got her job on her own merits. She’s shrewd and calculating, so she may have done well on her own, but one would have to be naive to ignore the role of her father’s influence in her career progression, as well as the appeal it would have for a politician to have an “in” at one of the world’s largest news outlets.

All of this is interesting, but not necessarily unusual for films and television shows that are critical of the ultra-rich. What is novel about the media released in 2019 is that it doesn’t seem to care whether the wealthy people in question self-identify as liberal or conservative. In the eyes of these filmmakers, the upper class is apolitical, because it has no primary political conviction other than maintaining wealth. Knives Out takes aim at the more conservative Thrombeys with a particular relish (they all insist that Marta is like family, yet none of them can remember which country she comes from, and the way that Walt forces her into a dialogue about immigration is unreservedly cruel), but it also suggests that the liberal members of the family are just as bad. No matter how much they signal a sort of performative “wokeness,” when push comes to shove and money is on the line, their loyalty is to their class, not their political beliefs. Joni is the stereotypical upper-class white liberal who knows how to say all the things that sound progressive, and her daughter Meg attends a left-leaning liberal arts college. But the pull of their inherited wealth and attachment to their class is so strong that they willingly attempt to manipulate a lower-middle-class immigrant into giving up an inheritance that is by rights legally hers just because—they somehow deserve it more? Even without their inheritance, they will still be able to lead a lifestyle well beyond the reach of most Americans, but they believe that they deserve their father’s house, his money, and the right to profit from all of his literary works. We see a similar situation play out in Succession with Siobhan, who chooses to work on a Democratic senator’s presidential campaign and by all accounts supports left-leaning politicians. But despite her personal political inclinations, she reliably acts to protect Waystar Royco, and by extension her own financial interests.

This very specific argument against the wealthy—so repeatedly on screen in 2019, not to mention Parasite‘s unprecedented run at the 2020 Oscars—is a reflection of a growing awareness that casts the ultra-rich as the true cause of our massive class divide, suggesting that those wrapped in power and privilege have pitted the rest of us against each other so that we’re too busy fighting for our lives to realize we’re being manipulated. Of course, it’s ironic when you think about the fact that these hyper-critical narratives are being bankrolled by and make a massive profit for the studios, which are themselves owned and operated by the wealthy class of people these films denigrate. The same applies to the mostly wealthy actors who play the wealthy characters. The Righteous Gemstones and Succession have the added effect of highlighting the misdeeds of large media empires, which one could assume would be a particularly unpalatable commentary for HBO, itself part of a massive media empire. Does this high-powered, ubiquitous corporate infiltration dilute the potency of such narratives? Regardless, that they exist at all showcases a shift in thinking that redirects anger towards those who actually hold real power and, worst of all, those who have done nothing to earn it.

Audrey Fox is an ex-film student, which means that she prefers to spend her days in the dark, watching movies and pondering the director’s use of diegetic sound. She currently works as an entertainment writer, joyfully rambling about all things film and television related. Patreon Button

“The Power of Music”: General Electric Stereo Commercial, 1985

 Exhibit / January 30, 2020 

Only in a decade as contradictory as the 1980s would one of America’s most respectable and historic companies spend nearly a million dollars on a commercial depicting new wave “adventurers” in a post-apocalyptic “third millennium” wasteland as part of a last ditch campaign to save its fatally outmatched consumer electronics line. The company was General Electric, and the commercial was aimed squarely, even obnoxiously, at the nascent MTV generation.

There were several different versions of the commercial, the longest a short film clocking in at two minutes. In all of them, our four Mad Max-garbed, shoulder-padded heroes come upon a city “imprisoned in silence,” whose princess is encased in a giant crystal (hilariously reminiscent of the alien cocoons in 1984’s This is Spinal Tap). Liking what he sees, the permed leader of the crew, his headphones curled suavely around his neck, signals for the boombox. A cassette is inserted, bad music rocks the cavern, and the people are freed from their “total audio block” helmets as the camera quick-cuts to various GE products (including a CD player in one version) no one ever bought. The crystal prison shatters, and hero and princess come together as the narrator intones: “The power of music. No one lets you experience it… like General Electric.”

The spot won a Clio award for best commercial in 1985 and was directed by Englishman Howard Guard, by this time well-known in the industry for his cinematic style. Guard had directed Roxy Music’s 1982 “Avalon” video (with then business partner Ridley Scott, who would soon set the benchmark in dystopian advertising), the 1983 “She’s In Parties” video starring goth legends Bauhaus, and a slew of commercials on both sides of the Atlantic, including a couple of impressive Maxell spots—one for blank cassettes, one for VHS tapes—featuring a smoldering Peter Murphy (Bauhaus’s frontman) and a host of ’80s aesthetic tropes: robots, ferns, lasers, prisms, neon, chrome, and… frogs?

The GE mini-epic sports obvious Cold War overtones, with the terse and swaggering warriors liberating the oppressed and repressed city with an arsenal of superior hair, superior tunes, and superior tech. The post-apocalyptic theme, which popped up in surprising corners of popular media throughout the decade, was even used in a print-advertised sweepstakes: grand prize was a 1986 Pontiac Fiero, and first prize was a trip for two to the ’86 MTV Music Video Awards. Alas, the good guys lost. GE’s consumer electronics division shuttered in 1986, soundly thrashed by another American Cold War nemesis: Japan and its bubble economy.

“A Closer Look”: HBO Feature Presentation Sequence, 1982

 Exhibit / January 29, 2020 

Object Name: “A Closer Look: Inside HBO’s City”
Maker and Year: Film produced and directed by Scott Morris; HBO intro bumper by Liberty Studios
Object Type: Short promotional film
Video Source: YouTube (archivefilms)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The pay-cable network Home Box Office grew out of the milieu of closed-circuit television in New York City. Charles Dolan, a pioneer in direct cable television in the New York metropolitan area, had already built closed-circuit TV infrastructure underground for use in Teleguide, a network that brought tourist information into New York City hotel televisions in the 1960s. Dolan sought to expand his offerings into actual programming brought by cable into individual consumers’ homes. With the skyscrapers of New York often obscuring over-the-air television reception, there was a desire there (and in other metropolitan areas) for direct cable TV, but there was a problem: exactly what programming could be sent to those homes, considering the major networks’ stranglehold on content production? Dolan got Time, Life, Inc., a company that was itself expanding into television production and distribution at the time, to take a flyer on his cable idea, and pilot systems were set up in two Pennsylvania cities—Allentown and Wilkes-Barre—to broadcast an array of movies and sporting events (Wilkes-Barre being chosen because it was outside of the Philadelphia 76ers “blackout” zone). The new channel’s name, Home Box Office, was meant as a temporary internal placeholder but remained in place after the network’s launch in 1972.

In the next ten years, as cable TV providers multiplied across the country in a rebuke of the long-perceived reluctance of American consumers to pay for a utility and medium that they’d long taken for granted as “free,” HBO’s new network backbone, powered by satellite relay, became a premier offering to entice new cable customers into the fold. Crystal clear reception was one thing, but a channel that could offer a variety of unedited films, live sporting events from outside the local area (including boxing matches, formerly a closed-circuit television staple and still one of America’s top sports attractions in the 1970s), turned HBO into a household name. By the beginning of the 1980s, HBO was running its programming 24 hours a day (at a time when most if not all over-the-air television channels still played the national anthem and a test pattern at the conclusion of their broadcast day) and starting to branch out more and more into original programming.

A large part of HBO’s dominance in the 1980s was an increased awareness of and attention to its branding. As a cable TV innovator with nearly a decade in the business, HBO understood the need to differentiate itself from a panoply of new nationwide cable competitors such as The Movie Channel, Showtime, and Ted Turner’s new pair of superstations out of Atlanta (WTBS and CNN), as well as local pay-TV innovators like ONTV in Los Angeles, PRISM in Philadelphia, Preview in Boston, and Spectrum in Chicago and the Twin Cities. HBO’s longer history, increased name recognition, and larger capitalization allowed the company to spare no expense in self-promotion, as can be seen in this mindblowing short film from 1982 documenting the making of the classic “HBO Feature Presentation” intro bumper used between 1983-1987, which should be familiar to anyone who had access to an HBO subscriber box at the time.

Earlier HBO idents had been relatively simple affairs, the kind of simply animated and crudely soundtracked bumpers you might see on your local UHF station’s movie revue. But this bumper—known here as “HBO Theater,” although it would eventually be titled “HBO Feature Presentation” when broadcast in 1983—combined live actors, models, motion control cameras, animation, and a full orchestra soundtrack. The spot begins in a family’s living room in a big city, and after the camera banks and turns out of the matted-in living room scene, it swoops down an intricate model of a busy city street resembling the channel’s New York City birthplace, full of model cars, buses, and pedestrians (as well as a marquee for the titular “HBO Theater,” a miniature of an old-school Golden Age of Hollywood movie house). But soon we are out into the leafy suburbs and the countryside, reproducing HBO’s own spread into all 50 states over the first ten years of its existence. We then head into outer space, where a giant shiny chrome set of HBO letters—a “space station,” the documentary narrator says—–leads us into a “Star Gate” sequence created using a combination of practical visual effects and computer animation, representing HBO’s presence across the satellite web now covering the United States. The final portion of the bumper, the colorful streaks of light inside the “O” of HBO, is created using a rig of multi-colored fiber optic cables, a relatively new technology in 1982.

One can’t help but be charmed by the extreme effort taken to produce this bumper—not to mention the ego it took to produce a ten-minute short film about the production of a ninety-second bumper. “Six craftsmen worked for over three months to create nearly 100 unique buildings for HBO’s City,” the narrator brags as we see tiny pedestrians, miniature potted plants on fire escapes, and actual working traffic lights and headlights. The craftsmen and effects specialists at Liberty Studios betray their New York roots as they discuss the supposedly idyllic city main street in this ostensibly family-friendly special. (One interesting note: the live-action actors sitting down in front of HBO in the original version of the bumper consisted of a young urban professional couple; in later versions of the “HBO Feature Presentation” bumper, the family had two kids.) In a hilarious, thick, only-in-New-York accent, director of special effects James Kowalski informs the viewer, “We threw a few extras in, seeing if people would spot ’em… we put a few bums on the street, a few hookers on the corner.” The mini-documentary portrays the animated portions of the bumper, on the other hand, in a much less earthy way, accentuating the high-tech computer guidance of both the animation and the motion control cameras.

This deluxe bumper expresses perfectly a liminal period between the physical and practical special effects era and the coming era of visual effects developed and produced on a video synthesizer or computer. It also presages the coming of HBO’s original programming, which would begin in the same year as this bumper’s debut (1983) with the TV movie The Terry Fox Story and the Jim Henson series Fraggle Rock.

Radiant Future: The Neon Tunnel at 127 John Street, New York

 Exhibit / January 28, 2020 

Object Name:  127 John Street neon tunnel
Maker and Year: Rudolph de Harak, Howard Brandston, 1971
Object Type: Corrugated iron tunnel
Image Source: Flaming Pablum, et al
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A rendering of the future in the form of a short stretch of corrugated steel, this neon tunnel that once greeted visitors to the foyer of 127 John Street in New York City feels innately familiar, even archetypal. Despite its appearance, the tunnel did not actually lead directly to a disconcertingly utopian future, but only to the elevators that ferried the building’s blue-collar workers up to their workplaces. Completed in 1971, 127 John Street was originally designed as a classic slab of second-wave International Style corporate office space by architecture practice Emery Roth & Sons. The building’s developers—brothers Melvyn and Robert Kaufman—were well-known for quirky decoration and the practice of turning ground level space into “plazas” that was not born simply out of generosity: forward-looking local construction ordinances offered floor space bonuses for their inclusion, encouraging developers to channel their greed into an engagement with public space. The Kaufmans employed graphic designer Rudolph de Harak to provide whimsical visual touches, which included a huge three-story digital clock and canvas covered scaffolds on the street outside to enliven the building’s otherwise bland frontage and foyer. 

Most of De Harak’s other contributions to the building’s appearance, however, feel as affected and dated as old greeting cards in comparison with the tunnel’s sleek glow. Accessible from the building’s entrance on Fulton Street, the corridor was illuminated by blue argon-gas-filled tubes, the work of architectural lighting expert Howard Brandston, with whom Harak had previously collaborated on the futurist Canadian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the American Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. As well as providing a generation of New Yorkers with formative experiences, the tunnel’s ready-made shorthand for futurism provided an eye-catching backdrop for photography, and was especially popular with musicians for promo shots, NY band The System actually filming part of their monster “You Are in My System” inside it and the building’s lobby.

Why should a 250-foot stretch of corrugated steel sewer culvert decorated with neon piping constitute such a commanding and beguiling image of “the future”? Perhaps partly because of the optimism implicit in the the nature of tunnels themselves: like jet bridges and subway tunnels, they evoke passage, acceleration, the traversing of barriers, and perhaps even escape and transformation. Its cool visual temperature and paring down of space and perspective provided a sensation of propulsion that recalled TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), hinting that the gateway would catapult those traversing it to some other place—perhaps one less venal and prosaic. The tunnel’s streamlined forms and its lack of sharp right angles also gave it a strange sense of weightlessness—of being unmoored from the everyday—and the neon punctuation seems almost to draw the onlooker inside, similar to the contemporary installations of artists like Doug Wheeler and James Turrell of the Light and Space arts movement. Vector graphics—the computer-generated geometric lines used to create “wireframe” images—had been around since the mid ’60s, and the glowing geometric lines seen on the Orion III shuttle’s control panel in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may be one source of the tunnel’s inspiration, as perhaps was that same film’s “Star Gate” sequence—which itself took up motifs developed by artists and animators like John Whitney and Jordan Belson. The tunnel also reflected the hunger for experimental environments pioneered by architectural practices like Archigram and Archizoom that produced the same year’s Instant City.

The tunnel was eventually dismantled in 1997, when the office building was in the process of being converted to apartments as part of the wave of gentrification then investing the city. Several of the artists—including Howard Brandston—-involved in creating 127 John Street’s installations successfully sued the new developers under the Visual Artists’ Rights Act; unfortunately, the elements of the decor preserved by the settlement did not include the tunnel. The images that remain of it, though, show a powerfully ethereal, dreamlike space that is one more small reminder of how much more stimulating our built environment could be if only we were in a position to demand it.

Malthusian Horrors: The Dying Futures of ‘No Blade of Grass’ and ‘Z.P.G.’

Michael Grasso / January 23, 2020

zpg 1972 arrest sceneAt the beginning of the 1970s, a sense that techno-industrial man’s ongoing destruction of the environment would ultimately lead to global doom was widespread in the West. Married to these concerns was a parallel worry about the exponential impact of a population explosion due to these same 20th-century agricultural, medical, and scientific advancements. Dread warnings from philosophers and scientists representing the global technocratic establishment filled the airwaves. According to books such as 1968’s The Population Bomb and studies such as the Club of Rome‘s influential and infamous 1972 report The Limits to Growth, the writing was on the wall: the industrial world would soon meet its doom from a combination of demography and natural resource depletion. For audiences in our own “far-future” year of 2020, these ’70s anxieties probably live on most memorably in pieces of pop culture and entertainment. Films such as Soylent Green (1973), based on the 1966 Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room!, depicted a suffocating, overpopulated future where humans resort to a pair of extreme social taboos—mass euthanasia of the elderly and concomitant cannibalism—to simultaneously alleviate both the population and resource crises. Two lesser-known population crisis sci-fi films—No Blade of Grass from 1970 and Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) from 1972 (both available as part of the Criterion Channel’s “Seventies Sci-Fi” series during the month of January)—provide a fuller context for the countervailing hopes and fears of a Cold War-era society unsure of its formerly gleaming technological future: would we descend into brutality and barbarism as soon as the worldwide system collapsed? Or would our future require ever more intricate and intimate technocratic control over every aspect of our lives to ameliorate the very conditions that were created by technocratic control?

These “science fiction” tales of population collapse and its ensuing horrors, of course, have a long tradition in the West, specifically in Britain. At (and even before) the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, it became evident to some writers and natural philosophers that increased living standards and agricultural production could lead to longer lifespans, larger families, and associated labor “surplus,” and ultimately a nation (or planet) unable to support its population. In works as widely different as Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satire of the English colonization (and exploitation) of Ireland, A Modest Proposal, and English clergyman and economist Thomas Malthus’s more earnest exploration of the topic, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), thought experiments probe the demographic reality staring the British Isles in the face. Even Benjamin Franklin, like many American thinkers who would come after him, looked to colonization, expansion, and permanent settlement in the Americas as a cure for overpopulation in the home countries of white Europeans in his 1755 essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc. In all of these works, the problem of overpopulation is quantified as a combination of lack of useful work for laborers, and a lack of food able to feed a swelling population. Both of these factors in tandem lead inevitably to famine and social disorder. Malthus identified the factors that had historically conspired to keep human population under control. Either human factors take effect—economics forces people into accepting smaller families; social conditions lead to shorter, more brutal lives; or wars are waged over resources—or Nature, in the form of disease and famine (both helped along by the associated material conditions that come with overpopulation), does the job. Malthus indicated that human societies could take elective “preventive” measures to head off a population crisis; his clergyman’s mind, of course, wandered to ideas proper to his time and place, such as widespread postponement of marriage or voluntary celibacy. The roots of later 20th century proposed population solutions, such as availability of and education around birth control, statutory limitations on family size, sterilization, or elective (or compulsory) abortion, are present in Malthus’s calls for population checks.

the population bomb 1968As technology continued to enable larger families and longer lifespans throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the primary “positive check” counterforce identified by Malthus—war—itself became more and more mechanized. As the two great World Wars proved, geopolitical pressures would continue to impel empires to deadly conflict, consequently sending their “surplus” populations to trenches and early graves. But with the guarded optimism about a peaceful future for humanity and the efficacy of liberal internationalism that emerged after the end of World War II, the Western world sought, in some small way, to compensate for the population crimes that European colonialism had wrought over the past four centuries: modern agricultural technology was shipped to parts of the world which had seen widespread famine and privation in the past. This so-called “Green Revolution” was simultaneously meant to foster global stability and a political bludgeon, with the capitalist West seeking to impart agricultural “gifts” to nations—Mexico, Brazil, and India, for example—that might act as bulwarks against the spread of Communism. Mass-production agricultural techniques involving genetically-selected breeds of grains soon became widespread in parts of the world that had known mostly small-scale, indigenous methods of subsistence farming throughout their histories. At the same time, public figures in the West began citing these same developing nations’ population explosions as dangers to the balance of the world ecology and economy. As can be seen in the 18th century books mentioned above, bestowing the “gifts of civilization” (and thus building economic dependency) with one hand while taking away autonomy with the other is a tactic as old as colonialism itself.

These events set the stage for the aforementioned “population scare” films of the early ’70s. Paul and Anne (not credited) Erlich’s The Population Bomb exploded onto the scene in 1968, but the book was preceded by dozens upon dozens of postwar science fiction stories and novels that predicted an overpopulated, underfed future. The film No Blade of Grass was itself based on one of these, John Christopher‘s 1956 “cosy catastrophe” novel The Death of Grass, which used elements of the nascent Green Revolution as inspiration for its tipping-point event: a disease that begins wiping out grain species in Asia before migrating to the West. As mentioned, these Cold War sci-fi stories tended to split neatly into two categories: one explored modern society collapsing under the pressures of overpopulation, famine, and war into a worldwide barbarism, while the other posited the weird and brutal changes that an omnipresent global system would need to institute in order to simultaneously preserve both the population and a high standard of living. One unique example of population fiction from this period, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 The Wanting Seed, covers both territories. Burgess’s follow-up to 1962’s A Clockwork Orange is a Swiftian satire examining a society that has instituted futuristic Malthusian measures such as childbirthing limits and societally-encouraged homosexuality to head off the population crunch. But the precarious stability of a world-state patrolled by “the Population Police” collapses into the chaos of widespread cannibalism and, eventually, meaningless state-sponsored wars where casualties are chopped up and put into tins to feed the rest of the population. The implication at the end of Burgess’s novel is that the world will oscillate between these two extreme states, forever.

* * *

No Blade of Grass is hands down the most unrelentingly grim film it has ever been my displeasure to view. It is a nasty little piece of exploitation cinema mixed with weak and muddled agitprop, and it offers the viewer zero opportunity for ironic detachment or campy enjoyment to distract from its gleeful depiction of human brutality and horror. No Blade of Grass takes the old saw of “any society is nine meals from anarchy” to its extreme conclusion: postwar Britain turns from a cozy land full of brave ex-military men, sober scientists, and doughty gentleman farmers into a wild landscape of opportunistic murder, brutal rape, and the abandonment of those perceived to be weak and useless, virtually overnight. The plot of the film closely matches that of the book: a virus is killing all grasses and grains, beginning in Asia, and the protagonists, a family headed by architect and Korean War veteran John Custance (Nigel Davenport), must escape London and make it to Custance’s brother’s farm compound in the north of England before British cities are cordoned and quarantined (and either nerve-gassed or atom-bombed to cull the excess population). Accompanying Custance are his Canadian wife Ann (Jean Wallace), his 16-year-old daughter Mary (Lynn Frederick), and Custance’s young colleague (and Mary’s boyfriend) Roger Burnham (John Hamill), who was working on a cure for the grain disease when collapse occurred. No Blade of Grass begins with a montage of disturbing scenes of pollution and famine (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Godfrey Reggio’s montages of pollution and human misery in Koyaanisqatsi from a decade later) set to the warbling voice of folk singer Roger Whittaker (“When we were younger the earth was green/When we were children the ocean was clean…”) and somehow gets even more over-the-top from there. In flashbacks we see the year that led up to the collapse: Custance and Burnham and other well-off Britons enjoy ample food and drink while the television warns of the coming worldwide famine.

no blade of grass 1970 cars confiscatedAs Custance rounds up his family to save them from the coming chaos, we see the first in a series of “them or us” murders. Custance robs an acquaintance (a firearms dealer) of his weapons and the dealer’s apprentice, a Cockney named Pirrie (Anthony May), shoots his boss and strikes a deal with Custance to take him and his shrill wife Clara (Wendy Richard) to the North with them. As their journey continues, the dangers and brutality multiply as the film hammers the viewer over the head with repeated images of polluted streams, dead livestock, and flash-forwards to some of the more disturbing scenes yet to come. The gross awfulness peaks only a third through the film when Custance’s wife and daughter are both abducted by an Iron Cross-wearing biker gang who proceed to gang rape them; Custance, Pirrie, and Burnham come to the rescue and murder the remaining bikers, with Ann killing her own rapist herself. This scene hangs over the remainder of the film like a cloud of pollution, with both Ann and Mary displaying clear symptoms of post-traumatic stress. In this new barbaric landscape, women become nothing but mere bargaining chips; Pirrie himself cold-bloodedly murders his own wife for acting flirtatious towards Custance and takes Mary for his own as Burnham proves himself useless under the brutal “new law.” Glimmers of the former civilization pop up here and again as Custance becomes reluctant leader to a gang of refugees and tries to instill some of the “spirit of the Battle of Britain” in them. Forestalling racial strife in the group, Custance brokers discipline between a feuding pair of refugees—one white Brit and one Pakistani—by offering the Pakistani man, Surgit, the opportunity to strike his white harasser. Surgit lightly chucks him on the chin and all is soon forgiven. But by the end of the film, the refugee band has been decimated by encounters with both the biker gang (now larger and better-armed) and Custance’s own brother, David. David says he cannot support the refugees; in the Malthusian sense, they would be “surplus population,” unable to be useful even as drudges and serfs on David’s land. Custance then leads a raid on his brother’s compound, his loyalty to his chosen tribe now thicker than blood. Pirrie kills Custance’s brother before dying of a gunshot wound himself and the two groups eventually merge under Custance’s leadership, burying their shared dead under a flag of peace, offering prayers that they all might be forgiven for the awful things they have done. A shallow patina of civilization returns… or perhaps that’s all that “civilization” ever was.

It becomes clear upon watching No Blade of Grass with the benefit of half a century of hindsight that many of the trappings of the “cosy catastrophe” apocalypse so popular among British authors and audiences of the period are in fact festering fears over the crimes of colonialism come back to haunt that “green and pleasant land.” It’s no accident that both John Christopher and No Blade of Grass director Cornel Wilde accentuate the plague’s origins in East Asia. In the aforementioned restaurant flashback scene, the various wealthy and well-off white Britons feasting messily upon their bounty are alternately subtly and overtly racist towards the Chinese once it’s announced they may begin mass culls of their population (and once the rumors of cannibalism begin to spread). Within months, those “civilized” Britons are considering precisely the same measures. Custance picks up his son Davey at a boarding school early in the journey, accompanied by Davey’s school friend Spooks, and the two boys learn the brutal new rules of the road quickly. “Everything’s different now, boys. We have to fight to live,” Custance tells the lads. “Like in the Westerns?” Spooks asks. Later Davey and Spooks somewhat blithely compare the biker gang’s deadly assault on the refugees to “Custer’s Last Stand.” The spectre of white European colonization hovers over No Blade of Grass; a spectre of violent retribution and might-makes-right brought finally to the homeland of empire, with the Custance fratricide marking the culminating crime of survival: a fellow well-off, rationalistic white man—a literal brother—killed off in the faint hopes of survival.

* * *

After the endless misery of No Blade of Grass, the equally grim but essentially satirical far future of Z.P.G. practically felt like an amusement park ride. In Z.P.G.‘s future, the Earth is cloaked in “smog”: pollution has been left unchecked and has killed virtually all plant and animal life on Earth… aside from humans. Overpopulation is the clear culprit of these conditions, and in the opening moments of the film, the “President of the Society” (one of the only characters in the film who wears a 20th-century-style suit; his physical and vocal resemblance to a cross between Peter Sellers’s President Merkin Muffley and real-world Cold War eminence grise Henry Kissinger seems completely intentional) announces that the World Federation Council has decided that all human childbirth must be utterly eliminated for the next 30 years. The death penalty is instituted for any humans who reproduce; offspring will also be terminated. An outcry among the people quickly dies down as Malthusian control measures are put into place. Every home bathroom cubicle is equipped with an abortion device; informers who identify breeders are given additional ration cards; corporations market uncanny robot children to the baby-hungry populace. In this dystopia we’re introduced to the McNeils, Russell (Oliver Reed) and Carol (Geraldine Chaplin), a married couple who work at a historical museum that presents a parade of propaganda meant to remind humanity how they got into this mess in the first place: the overindulgence of their 20th-century ancestors. Taxidermied animals and rare plants in the museum remind citizens of the world of plenty that once existed. Overconsumption is systematically pilloried, and “leaders of industry, [and] political and religious leaders” are depicted at the museum in a “Gallery of Criminals.” At the museum, Russell and Carol portray middle-class citizens of the 20th century West during a live historical reenactment along with another couple, George and Edna Gordon (Don Gordon and Diane Cilento). The now-ancient era’s social and sexual hypocrisy (the two couples are depicted as dissolute and gluttonous 1970s swingers) and seething dysfunction are played for the edification (and amusement) of the museum-goers.

zpg 1972 statemuseum

The plot of Z.P.G. focuses on Carol’s desire to have a baby. She balks at the opportunity to get a mechanical “child” at Babyland and video-phones her therapist with the confession that she wants to become pregnant. Despite all her privileges as a member of the societal elite—extra space, plenty of oxygen, and her own vegetable garden—Carol is not happy. The psychiatrist uses futuristic therapy—a near-hypnotic assault of sound and visuals—to reinforce this society’s norms of non-reproduction (the scene also acts as a sharp satire of modern-day psychiatry, subtly expressing a suspicion widespread in the film’s own time that psychiatry is merely another instrument of social control). When Carol eventually does become pregnant and refuses to abort her baby, she is forced to hide from society, to “drop out” into an ancient fallout shelter adjoining her and Russell’s futuristic apartment. Lit by an old-fashioned light bulb and stacked with newspapers whose ancient headlines (“Los Angeles Killer Smog: 90,000 Dead,” “Famine Riots”) remind them of the price they could pay by reproducing, Russell sets Carol up to have the baby. He tells his co-workers that Carol has left him, straining his relationship with George and Edna. After Carol delivers the baby, a boy named Jesse, on her own, she realizes she needs outside help to keep the baby alive. Russell almost gets caught by the authorities while trying to access data files on “premature births”; meanwhile, Carol takes her baby to “Twilight City,” the home for senior citizens, to be treated by her own retired doctor who remembers a time before the anti-birth Edict. The conspiracy eventually envelops George and Edna: when Carol returns to work at the museum with her child wrapped in blankets as if he were one of the toy children at Babyland, Edna’s envy eventually consumes both couples in an eerie reflection of their museum historical reenactments of petty 20th-century bourgeois jealousies. As a public “execution chamber” suffocation dome descends upon the McNeil family, Russell—who has spent the film demonstrating his ability to survive both outside the bounds and between the cracks of the giant metropolis—springs into action, digging into a prearranged escape tunnel and leading the family to sanctuary in one of the few natural reserves left—which also happens to be the home of some decommissioned nuclear warheads from the old world.

Z.P.G.‘s satire is quite often broad and in spots derivative. Throughout the film one can see reflections of a bunch of very different dystopian narratives (Brave New World, the novel Logan’s Run, THX 1138, Beneath the Planet of the Apes). But there is something about how the film centers the very concept of “history” that is fascinating. The choice to make the central couple of this film historians—historians who are possibly more aware than anyone else in their society that overpopulation and overconsumption led to this grim and disturbing future—and to have those very same historians nevertheless choose to reproduce, speaks to just how much (or how little) people are willing to make lifestyle changes when their own right to reproduce is threatened. Because concerns over overpopulation most often involved the West’s fear of a perceived population explosion in the developing world, arguments for population control took on the complexion of yet more white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and ultimately eugenics. (Malthus himself believed that smarter breeding could create a better quality population, and Malthus’s writing was a substantial influence on Darwin’s theory of evolution). It was widely believed that the standard of living enjoyed by the Western bourgeoisie in the 1970s—gas-guzzling automobiles, jets to hundreds of different cities worldwide, fine dining, designer clothing, home ownership, all the comforts and luxuries seen in Z.P.G.‘s state museum and in No Blade of Grass‘s pre-collapse world—would simply not be possible if the entire world were allowed to enjoy the same amenities. Like Malthus’s warnings about a huge unemployed underclass or Benjamin Franklin’s warnings about allowing non-Anglo-Saxons into colonial America, the population crisis only becomes a crisis per se when populations deemed undesirable—either because of their race or their class—are perceived to be overbreeding.

* * *

We unequivocally support the contention that a brake imposed on world demographic and economic growth spirals must not lead to a freezing of the status quo of economic development of the world’s nations.

If such a proposal were advanced by the rich nations, it would be taken as a final act of neocolonialism. The achievement of a harmonious state of global economic, social, and ecological equilibrium must be a joint venture based on joint conviction, with benefits for all. The greatest leadership will be demanded from the economically developed countries, for the first step toward such a goal would be for them to encourage a deceleration in the growth of their own material output while, at the same time, assisting the developing nations in their efforts to advance their economies more rapidly.

—Point 9 from the Executive Committee’s Commentary in The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (1972)

In the same year that The Population Bomb was released, a group of academics, political scientists, economists, and computer scientists, gathered by Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, met at the Renaissance-era Accademia dei Lincei in Rome to discuss “the present and future predicament of man.” Four years later, in the same year that Z.P.G. was released, their report hit the bookshelves of the world. The Limits to Growth utilized then-cutting edge computer modeling as well as expertise from the fields of economics, geopolitics, agricultural and biological sciences, computer science, and sociology to predict what kind of global circumstances could be expected from then-current trends in demography and resource depletion. The conclusions and prescriptions arrived at were welcomed by few and heralded by even fewer. While The Limits to Growth used standard Malthusian arguments and science to explain the “world problematique,” their conclusions did not center the popular options of encouraging birth control or other methods of contraception, which they saw as merely preventing an inevitable end-point that would result from an over-polluted world. In summary, it was not population that was destroying the Earth, but overconsumption. Every computer model that used a Malthusian framework, even with mitigating factors like birth control, simply shifted the “end dates” for a global lifestyle of Western consumption: “The basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.” That inclusion of “capital” in the concept of “growth” is absolutely crucial. The Club of Rome’s solutions asked much more of the world than education or vague “lifestyle changes.” The core of the solution was convincing the peoples of the Western world to make real, tangible social and economic changes to avert both population disaster, resource exhaustion, and environmental collapse. The Club asked the rich nations of the world to share freely with their poorer brethren, to cease capitalism’s bottomless need for economic growth. In dedicating the First World to a concerted program of degrowth, the resulting bounty would then be shared with the Third World. While spurious accusations such as “world government” and “Communist control” were flung far and wide at the Club of Rome after the publication of The Limits to Growth, the authors’ conclusions were eminently reasonable and, in 1972, quite doable.

Our predicament in 2020 is slightly different from those depicted in both the films examined here, as well as the computer models used by the Club of Rome. Certainly, pollution has led to our current predicament, and nothing as anodyne as the mere dry ice “smog” of Z.P.G., of course. (At one point in No Blade of Glass, Davey and Spooks, the two young schoolboys, eerily ponder climate change in the dueling possibilities of either global warming or nuclear winter as their world falls apart.) These films and the Club of Rome’s report forewarned and forearmed us nearly half a century ago with the inconvenient facts behind the irrational historical behavior of homo economicus. Not only have those facts and warnings gone unheeded, but they have been consistently and vehemently denied since the 1970s by the same people who profit from the world’s slowly baking climate. But the essential idea of degrowth as a possible solution to our global problems, of slowing the hamster wheel of endless, cancerous capitalistic churn, remains in the 21st century, even if our runway for change is much much shorter now. Whether it’s John Custance’s brutal Hobbesian British countryside or the McNeils’ radioactive Garden of Eden, each of the futures in No Blade of Glass and Z.P.G. depict the near impossibility of gently stabilizing a mechanized society that does not swerve from its obsession with eternal profit. “This supreme effort is a challenge for our generation,” said The Limits to Growth. “It cannot be passed on to the next… We are confident that our generation will accept this challenge if we understand the tragic consequences that inaction may bring.” We live in the midst of these tragic consequences, and will live in them for the rest of our lives. To ensure that our future never slips into either of the extremes depicted in these films—lives that are either nasty, brutish, and short or regulated by a dehumanizing panopticon—we will need to take up the difficult mantle refused by our forebears and the fools of our endangered present.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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The Love Bug: ‘How a Baby Is Made’, 1971

 Exhibit / January 22, 2020 

Object Name: How a Baby Is Made
Maker and Year: Per Holm Knudsen, Piccolo Books, 1973 (UK edition)
Object Type: Children’s book
Image Source: Author’s copy
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In 1973, construction toy Lego was joined on the shelves of British shops by another Danish product aimed at children—one which could hardly have been any more different in its aims, though which perhaps shared some of its underlying philosophy. How a Baby Is Made was the English language translation of Danish psychotherapist and “sexologist” Per Holm Knudsen’s children’s picture book Sådan får man et barn, published in Denmark in 1971. After winning the Danish Ministry of Culture’s children book prize in 1972, the rights were acquired in Britain where Piccolo Books, the children’s division of paperback publisher Pan, published it the following year. Using illustrations as gauche as they were explicit, and simple, straightforward text, How a Baby Is Made described exactly—and, given the age range of its intended readership, with remarkable thoroughness—what its title announced it intended to.

The book’s publication took place in the context of a UK that was trying to persuade itself it could be a low-rent version of its more urbane Scandinavian neighbors across the North Sea: we envied the “Scandis” their cool furniture, bold patterns, saunas, Abba, Volvos, Scania truck cabs, and laid-back approach to nakedness. Where we had drizzle, they had endless spring; and where we had seedy knee-tremblers in grotty bedsits, they had carefree sex under mulberry bushes or something equally healthy-seeming. How a Baby Is Made fell under the umbrella of this Scandiphilia, and its appearance also provided me with a a fleeting moment of junior school infamy. Both my parents were teachers, so the copy I was given in 1978 had presumably been passed on to them by some book company rep doing the rounds: given contemporary photographs of me, it seems unlikely that anyone would have splashed out hard cash on the possibility of me ever being in a position where I needed to know about conception. After studying How a Baby Is Made in my bedroom and learning with amazement about the mysteries of the human reproductive process, I guilelessly packed it in my satchel to show my friends at playtime the next day.

My classmates were intrigued, even though, as my friend Tracy pointed out, none of the mechanics on show made much sense and the book begged more questions than it answered—she said that she would be asking her older sister, the worldly Debbie, for further explanation that evening. Word spread among the mothers waiting at the school gates that someone had been flashing a “mucky book” around the playground, and the next morning several parents came in to see our teacher—the wonderful Mrs. White—to remind her that this was Doncaster, not Denmark, and to demand that any further ad hoc sex education be nipped in the bud. Mrs. White very tactfully told me that it would probably be better if in future I left How a Baby Is Made at home, and at hometime, I—now an accidental progressive-cum-sleazemonger—was subject to several stern glares and pitying looks from the parents waiting at the gates.

Unfortunately, though, the glimmer of kudos my time as a purveyor of filth had earned me from my peers faded rapidly, and How a Baby Is Made was soon forgotten. Forgotten but not gone, however: the book has continued to rear its strange head over the decades, though so saturated are we in postmodern irony these days that it’s almost impossible to mention it as anything other than a fucked-up freakshow of typical 1970s inappropriateness. And in fairness, it sort of is a fucked-up freakshow of typically 1970s inappropriateness; its blythe candor was pretty disconcerting, at least for this buttoned-up Brit. Beneath the patina of disconcerting oddness, though, there is something genuinely admirable: the intention to free children of their ignorance and fear and inform them in the least melodramatic, most straightforward way possible about something that parents down the ages have struggled, or totally neglected, to communicate: “We owe children honesty,” the book’s introduction says, and How a Baby Is Made takes it as read that children are capable of understanding the world around them if it is explained to them in a way that they can understand and without the filters of adult prudishness—and it presumes moreover that children have a right to know this stuff, however uncomfortable that might make adults still clinging to their schmaltzy Victorian ideas about childhood.

As fellow mutant Amy points out, by today’s standards How a Baby Is Made might appear a little reductive and essentialist in the way it conflates the act of reproduction with ideas about what should constitute a family, something that a modern version would need to take into account, but despite that, we agree there is something genuinely commendable about what it attempts to do and the way that it goes about it.

Quite a few of my schoolmates later ended up having unplanned kids when they were still very young, forcing them to abandon their educations and in some cases making their subsequent lives very difficult. While I’m not saying that youthful exposure to Sådan får man et barn would necessarily have changed that, growing up in an environment where open, honest discussion of sex, family planning, and pregnancy was a normal part of life certainly would have. It’s a mistake to fetishize other cultures and societies the way we Brits have a habit of doing, but a culture or society that attempts to reduce the amount of misinformation and misdirection all its children are fed about such basic human functions as reproduction (and birth control) is one we should already be living in.

Home of the Grave: Rene Daalder’s ‘Population: 1’

Eve Tushnet / January 21, 2020

“It is my dubious privilege to confirm the fact that man never invented anything that he didn’t eventually put to use.” That’s how Tomata du Plenty (played by the punk singer of the same name) describes the nuclear apocalypse that has left him the eponymous sole survivor in Dutch writer-director Rene Daalder’s 1986 film Population: 1, and in the scrawny, wiry actor’s voice there’s as much delectation as warning. Population: 1 is a short film that feels sprawling: it clocks in at just over an hour but manages to be a science fiction dystopia, an embittered tour of American history, a series of music videos hitting several points on the art-punk spectrum—and an ironic, ambivalent love letter to the Bomb.

The movie’s atmosphere can be guessed just from the cast list, full of names like Helen Heaven, Gorilla Rose, Tequila Mockingbird, and El Duce. Even the normal-named people include Penelope “Avengers” Houston, Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, and—wait for it—a teenaged Beck. The movie emerged from a collaboration between Daalder and the Los Angeles punk band the Screamers (fronted by Tomata), whose live shows were intended to become a series of music videos. They became this instead.

The film opens in black and white with tape hiss and synth, a half-dressed woman running through debris amid signs reading POST MORTEM and LAST HOPE. This is Sheela (Sheela Edwards, who performed IRL with Tomata), film-Tomata’s love interest. She’s a broken-toothed beauty and a howling chanteuse, screaming “I’m so alone!” just before the atomic sunrise. As Sheela lies abandoned at the edge of a lake, we cut to color film of Tomata in an underground bunker, promising that what we’re about to see will be a “tribute to my country and [its] good, fearless people.” Our hero, scrawny to the point of being skeletal, rattles off a disjointed series of patriotic quotations: “Purple mountains’ majesty… by the dawn’s early light… corn as high as an elephant’s eye.” The music scatters hints of “Star Wars” and “Dixie.” Eagles, flags, vultures circling the prairie schooners—an entire American history course unfurls in self-aggrandizing, performatively dumb couplets like, “The land of the brave/Is now my grave.” All of these elements were chosen to explain how we ended up in this bunker, the last of the Yankees, at home at the end of the world.

There are generational resentments in Tomata’s rant: “But when it was my turn to run the show, they nuked the place and took it away,” the cry of someone who believes he deserved power. He’s not a trustworthy narrator. Population: 1 gets its American history from television: cowboys and Indians, buffalo dying for entertainment. This isn’t exactly a political film. If anything, it’s a spiritual indictment; it’s about “the American character,” and the TV images of naked women on display or a black man carrying a tray on his head are presented purely as symptoms of the spiritual disease of the white American soul. This isn’t Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames, is what I’m saying. The movie replaces political theory and praxis with global thermonuclear contempt. Its hero is a stand-in for the resentful, defeated viewer: You’re probably just the kind of little cockroach, it says, who’d thrive in the nuclear dawn.

It’s a complicit movie, totally entertaining in its attacks on entertainment. As soon as we see the cameras watching Tomata in his hideout, the marathon dance competition on his TV (as soon as we see the TV, for that matter), we can guess that the film won’t spare arts and entertainment any more than it spares science, history, or consumer culture. Tomata capers around the bunker, chased by his appliances. He’s all alone and yet surrounded: by the people on the TV, by the cameras, by the dancing saxophone and hair dryer and shower head and electric toothbrush that hunt him through the bunker as he sings a paean to that most American ideal, “hard work to make a home sweet home.” This imagery of crowded domestic isolation could only be more contemporary if he addressed his hard-work song to Alexa. It’s a fantasy of servants who aren’t people (“Give your appliances the afternoon off,” he counsels, quoting a 1984 energy-conservation slogan from Southern California Edison). Tomata does his post-apocalyptic laundry in a home filled with “people” who are really projections of his own wants.

Population: 1 depicts America as a country defined by restless and relentless loneliness. This is why Hollywood became the entertainment capital of the world. Imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder as the prequel to 2015’s The Witch. Daalder’s film could’ve just as easily been titled “Little Bunker Under the Prairie.” And the movie enjoys the hell out of this violent, paranoid nation, a country whose laughter sounds like gunshots. There’s a carnivorous pleasure, a willingness to give us the very entertainment it condemns. It’s Savonarola cabaret.

Even the romance that shapes what passes for the movie’s plot is defined by entertainment and loneliness. Edwards is gorgeous in a stray-cat kind of way, and she can smolder as well as she can shriek. She takes her own American history tour through music, hitting the 1920s with a goth avant la lettre song called “Jazz Vampire” and the Depression with Rodgers and Hart’s taxi-dancer anthem “Ten Cents a Dance.” Tomata falls hard for her. “And then an idea struck me,” he reminisces, and the verb choice is apt: “The Punch and Judy show… escapist entertainment in which, for one fleeting moment, it would be me who took a beating from my own woman. I showed men that in weakness there lies strength, and encouraged women to show their teeth. And because of it, became the world’s favorite male role model.”

This whole episode is one of the places where Population: 1 is a lot smarter and twistier than it had to be. Nuclear apocalypse reveals both national and universal character, and here, one of the central human characteristics is a drive for self-immolating ecstasy. Sheela howls, “I wanna hurt!” as her man pleads in a cartoon swain’s voice, “I wanna love.” But their moth/flame romance is interrupted by World War II, and the movie returns to the more cliched tactic of playing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” over a montage of soldiers dying in flames. Still, the movie resists any political interpretation—any hope of an alternative—as we return to the devastated future. Tomata stumbles drunk through his bunker, holding a gun in one louche hand, at once underlining and undermining the film’s antiwar statement with slapstick. With the gun to his head, he muses, “But what is a man left alive to do but look himself in the eye and wonder where he got the power for so many things to go wrong?”

Sheela died in the atomic attacks, as we saw at the film’s beginning; Tomata was originally one of many survivors who retreated to an underground world ruled by fetishistic doctors and nurses in ’80s makeup. “We were a people who believed in fun, joy,” Tomata says, “yet here we were, knocked out of commission by a few man-made thunderclaps… We submitted to everything.” (A nice thing about nuclear war is that it makes your problems somebody else’s responsibility.) Tomata declares, “We never gave up on the pursuit of happiness, although the limits were many. For some reason, ecstasy always resulted in defeat and collapse.” He spits out recovery-culture slogans (“Easy Does It! One Day at a Time!”) while a sort of dance-riot plays out behind him. Huge swathes of the pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s tell the same story, of pleasure-seekers who discover that fun is bad. Those stories of chastening are themselves often both pleasurable and haunting, but Population: 1 denies itself the pleasures of being chastened; the defeat of fun is only prelude to the defeat of recovery.

The survivors mutate, of course, but for this movie the purpose of the mutations is to entertain us with their weirdness while also condemning us for being entertained: “They became the audience to their own midnight mutant movie,” Tomata says about his comrades, and about us. Life after war descends into a kind of Orgy on Dr. Moreau’s Island, and somehow Tomata ends up totally alone, “just as life starts with one individual sperm.” (That this isn’t how life starts—typically one does need an egg—is presumably part of the point.) With crazy eyes, in camo shorts and a Western shirt, Tomata declares his fealty to the American dream in lines laden with the movie’s heaviest sarcasm.

And then one last survivor bursts in on him! He isn’t alone! His lady love is dead, but perhaps there’s still companionship outside the television screen… Tomata shoots him. Capering and firing the gun, yelling more catchphrases (“A stitch in time. A tit for a tat. Jumpin’ Jehovah! … Long ago we would’ve been dead”), he shoots at the retreating camera and the rubble of the bunker closes him in. Roll credits.

A 2008 two-disc DVD release by Cult Epics includes an interview with Daalder, the usual trailers and stills, as well as many more music videos from the various performers involved with the movie, including previously unreleased material from the Screamers, Sheela Edwards solo, and Penelope Houston.

Eve Tushnet is the author of two novels, Amends and Punishment: A Love Story, as well as the nonfiction Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith. She lives in Washington, DC and writes and speaks on topics ranging from medieval covenants of friendship to underrated vampire films. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy.Patreon Button

“Believe the Fairy Tales”: Alan Garner’s ‘The Voice That Thunders’

Michael Grasso / January 16, 2020

the voice that thunders alan garner 1997The Voice That Thunders
By Alan Garner
The Harvill Press, 1997

Over the course of my many explorations of British hauntology of the 1970s over the past five years, I found myself enjoying a pair of television adaptations, produced a decade apart, full of deep mystical themes reaching back into the marrow of ancient Britain. In The Owl Service (1969) and Red Shift (1978), mythic emanations from the distant past return in our present, revenants who live again through the lives of young people in the postwar UK. These themes, echoed again and again in British fantasy dramas set in the contemporary era, hold a profound fascination for me, as an American cut off from a deep sense of magic, time, and place. One man was behind the novels upon which both these adaptations were based: British novelist, amateur archeologist and folklorist, and essayist Alan Garner. His 1997 collection of essays and lectures, The Voice That Thunders, lays bare the origins of his unique mode of storytelling. Garner’s upbringing suffused in the magic of Old Britain, his working-class family long-situated in one place (Garner’s home of Alderley Edge in Cheshire); and his early life marked by dual traumas—the Second World War and a brush with death thanks to childhood illnesses—gave Garner a unique insight into the borderlands between life and death, between the mythic and the material.

The Voice That Thunders consists of sixteen essays, prepared lectures, and newspaper columns that return to the mythic themes that Garner’s more than half-century of novels explore. The collection is in effect an expressionistic autobiography, where lectures on topics such as education, the state of children’s literature (Garner found himself long-characterized as a “children’s author” because many of his protagonists were young people), and linguistics circle back to the material conditions of Garner’s own early life. Like Nigel Kneale and his childhood home on the Isle of Man, or Alan Moore and his lifetime home of Northampton, or Mark E. Smith and his home and haunt, Salford, all of Garner’s universes, no matter how far afield over the British Isles they may roam, always seem to return, psychologically and mythopoetically, to Alderley Edge.

In the book’s first chapter, a lecture given in 1983, Garner spells out the specifics of his early life and the legends that populated Alderley Edge. While World War II rages outside the fairly idyllic grounds of “the Edge,” young Alan has his own battle against mortality, and an eye-opening, hallucinatory set of experiences in the “forest in the ceiling” of his room while he was recovering from his various childhood illnesses. The mystical road that led into this bedroom fantasyland is connected in some deep way to the Edge and to the various legends told to him by older relations: the faerie tree, once long ago clad in rags beside the Holy Well; an ancient Hero King slumbering in the ground. Garner tells a 1996 audience of headmasters and headmistresses in the book’s second essay that “I assure you that children are, by nature, spiritual beings, until we destroy through our example… A child knows, whether it be in the traditional structure of fairy tale, or the special use of an archaism, when the Mystery is engaged.” Surely we all recognize the impulse of childlike wonder at myths and folktales. But for young Alan, in his throes of illness, myth had a much more important, mature purpose. He managed to use the bits and pieces of myth entrusted to him by the very particular vibrations of locality, the genius loci of Alderley Edge, to deal with the possibility of his own incipient mortality by creating a mythological playground in his own ceiling, complete with symbols of shamanic journey (the road), safety (the wood) and the threat of young death:

Sometimes I would look up, and see no road, no forest, clouds or hills, but a plump little old woman with a circular face, hair parted down the middle and drawn to a tight bun, lips pursed, and small pebbled eyes…

The little old woman came only when my life really was threatened. She was a part of the plaster in the ceiling, not of my room but of my parents’ room, and I was taken there when I was too ill to be left alone. She was my death, and I knew it.

The mythic courses through both the marrow of the very landscape of the Edge and in Garner’s own family bloodline. It is mostly because of the Garners’ long family association with Alderley Edge that he has access to the myths that would inspire his Cheshire-set novels, including his 1960 debut The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequels. Garner’s knowledge of the area led him to a love of archeology from a very early age: his childhood realization that a shovel hanging in a teacher’s classroom might have a neolithic origin is confirmed almost fifty years later by an archeologist friend of Garner’s. Garner also considers the origin and meaning behind one of the folktales told around Alderley Edge and does some armchair ley line-plotting to determine its possible origins in pagan alignments of sun and landscape (all while remaining a bit dubious about possible “arcane conclusions” drawn by most amateur ley line enthusiasts). But Garner’s exploration of the physical landscape—with the complementary eye of a storyteller and straightedge of a mason—allows him to see the pagan Celtic memories thrumming under the local landmarks and place names. The Cheshire of hundreds of years ago is even imprinted on the very language of the inhabitants. The rural Cheshire dialect of his parents and grandparents had kept alive the poetic tongue of the medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: “My grandfather was an unlettered smith, but he would have not needed all these footnotes if a native speaker had read the poem to him aloud.” Garner’s ancestors were even carved into the very stone of the countryside; the moss-covered face on the cover of The Voice That Thunders was carved by his great-great-grandfather Robert, a stonemason. Garners were always “makers,” says Alan, his grandfather Joseph one of the last real blacksmiths and whitesmiths in the area, putting his skills to work for both local community and Empire (he made tens of thousands of horseshoes for the British forces in World War I).

But in each generation of craftsmen, Alan Garner writes, there was the undeniable sense of preternatural intelligence chafing at the class-based chains placed on the Garners since time immemorial. Robert had a head for mathematics that found its expression in stonemasonry and in music, as he was a vital member of local brass band; he heard music “listening to the zephyrs in the trees: always in the minor key.” Grandfather Joseph used his own prodigious mathematical mind to memorize London bus timetables, which came to great use during his one trip to London with Alan’s grandmother. Alan clearly saw the postwar British system of wider schooling and competency testing as his way out of a lifetime of manual labor he felt ill-suited for: “[My ancestors] had shaped the place in which I had grown; everywhere I turned, their hands showed me their skills; yet my hands had no cunning; with them I could make nothing, and my family despaired of me.” Garner soon finds that the masons and smiths that populate his mythic memory find expression in his ability to mortar and fuse together words: “[My unique quality] was staring me in the face. It was Robert’s wall. On it was carved his banker mark, the rune Tyr, the boldest of the gods.” Magic and language meet the dignity of manual labor and craftsmanship: all flow together in Garner’s mythic imagination. “One of the first things I discovered when I began was the esoteric meaning of ‘getting aback of.’ Whether it be building walls, mending kettles or writing a book, the activity is the same: it is the pursuit, through dedication, of the godhead.”

As mentioned, many of Garner’s speeches in The Voice That Thunders are delivered to educators, for whom Garner has both a deep respect and words of warning. In his musings on the Cheshire dialect that exists in medieval sources virtually unchanged over a half a millennium, Garner wonders if the standardization of English through formal education has not completely displaced an essential cultural legacy among the regions of Britain with their own traditions in literature and oral storytelling. Garner also tells of the letters he had received from his readers, both children and adults, noting quite strongly that the children who find his books on their own tend to be enchanted and drawn into the worlds he creates, while the children assigned his books as students invariably find them stultifying, boring, or confusing. As someone who owed so much of his own life to education, Garner is sympathetic to what teachers need to accomplish but devastatingly cold to the system that strips students of their imaginations. These letters, in Garner’s words, demonstrate “the headlong enthusiasm children can show for a book, if the reading of it has not been shackled by an adult.”

Which brings us to an aspect of Garner’s life story and The Voice That Thunders that initially simmers under the surface and finally bursts forth fully in a tale of his time on the set of the Granada TV adaptation of The Owl Service: Garner’s struggles with mental illness. Throughout his explications of deep time and of familial trauma and childhood shamanistic journeys, there is the sense that Garner’s gifts leave him on the outside looking in, vouchsafed to deeper truths and mythic realities unseen by most. In a lecture titled “Inner Time,” Garner explores the mental breakdown that occurred on set in Wales as his discomfort with the process culminates in a near-assault on one of The Owl Service cast because of the actor’s inability to take a scene seriously. He retreats from the set and finds himself in the office of a psychotherapist to explore this breakpoint more fully. Garner uses his case to wander through an exploration of the modern condition and how it has created a humanity utterly disconnected from spirituality. This in turn creates an inability to deal with hidden traumas, which Garner calls “engrams.” Garner offers the theory that his connection with myth through his work made him more sensitive to this disconnect: “A writer of fiction, willy-nilly, plants encapsulated engrams in his characters.” Garner’s further work with the therapist brings up a pair of deeply-buried childhood traumas around his childhood illnesses and a fearful first visit to the cinema as a three-year-old (where young Alan was filled with terror at the sight of the Wicked Queen in Snow White). Trauma, buried childhood memory, unaccountable anger, and the threat of death: all linked through the power of a child’s mythic imagination, a man’s attempt to grapple with his life-narrative through storytelling, and buried trauma’s sudden reappearance upon seeing those stories acted out in the real world.

As someone who’s only now, in middle age, begun to explore my own metaphysical associations around childhood and trauma, Garner joins other writers and explorers of the mythic in the role of teacher, fellow explorer—magician, for lack of a better word—who share a need to more deeply understand their lives, to finally see the invisible shackles laid upon us all by place, by family, by history, and by the exercise of political and economic power upon us. But the important lesson to be gathered from Garner’s tales and life story is that none of these shackles are eternal. The myth that is written in our histories is not destiny, and a dedicated “maker,” a runesmith of words and dreams, can craft new tales to deliver themselves out from under the weight of history. “Can we write the world?” Garner asks in “The Voice in the Shadow,” the highlight essay of the collection for me:

We can; if we are willing to pay. The problem with learning to read and being subject to the writing, is that it ends up by being our only way into constructive dreaming. But certain people have innate skills, and they are the visionaries, the poets, those who use language that is the great constructor when it is on the page. They release it into the subconscious by providing us, not with factual information of history, but with ambivalence and the paradox that enables us to interpret what is being said, and what we read, just as we would if we were dreaming. That is the way, via the poet, to the myth, to the truth.

In more succinct form, delivered in a single pair of statements at the beginning of this lecture by Garner: “Believe the fairy tales. What were fairy tales, they will come true.”

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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Imperial March: Dorfman and Mattelart’s ‘How to Read Donald Duck’

Ben Schwartz / January 15, 2020

The hectic, global nightmare of early 2020 seems like a good time to reappraise our perception of Disney, an increasingly powerful demigod in the media-saturated hellscape we live in. Outlets and organs of multiple disciplines put out breathless articles about the conglomerate’s “unprecedented” success last year. A brain-thudding stream of MCU, Star Wars, remakes, a streaming service, sequels, even the long-anticipated arrival of Kingdom Hearts III: it’s a constant content deluge that runs to hundreds of hours and billions of dollars. And this is the new standard, not a freakish exception. Disney continues to run unchecked, requisitioning more and more head- and life-space with gleeful juggernauting rapaciousness. Thus the recent-ish reappearance, in English, of How to Read Donald Duck (Para Leer Al Pato Donald) by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, couldn’t come at a better (worse) time.

Originally published in 1971 in Chile during the brief tenure of socialist Salvador Allende and the Unidad Popular government, How to Read Donald Duck scrutinizes the sociopolitical messaging in Disney comics disseminated throughout Chile by the US. The book was first published by Editorial Quimantú, a UP-owned publishing house focused on cultivating literacy and cultural awareness with domestic rather than imported media. Quimantú produced comics of its own, including Cabro Chico and La Firme, that attempted to depict authentic Chilean experience rather than promulgate a mediated American one.

Donald Duck exposes the culture of Disney comics as a quiet inculcation of imperialist doctrine. Disney characters like Donald Duck are imprisoned in a candy-colored vision of capitalist reality: a world full of isolated individuals, unconnected from one another but endlessly kinetic, rocketing from one situation into another—into jobs, feuds, foreign countries (inevitably portrayed as backwards)—in an attempt to grasp some nebulous brass ring that, inevitably, they lose in the extended gutter between the end of one comic and the start of the next.

Dorfman and Mattelart—the former was, at the time, a cultural advisor to Allende, and the latter a Vatican-appointed demographer turned media analyst—grok the “clast” in “iconoclastic”; there’s a destructive glee in Donald Duck, a cheerful violence lobbed at Disney’s insidious, facile world, which punctures many of the hilariously inflated conceptions about Disney. The “Uncle, Buy Me a Contraceptive…” chapter, for my money, murders once and for all the Parent Question. If you’re unfamiliar, the question is: why do so many Disney characters not have parents? You can find film historians, YouTuber film critics, and general Disneyphiles somberly attributing the answer to tragedies in Walt Disney’s own life, mythological reference, and/or attempts to create independent thinkers out of children. Dorfman and Mattelart see something much more sinister:

In Disney, characters only function by virtue of a suppression of real and concrete factors; that is, their personal history, their birth and death, and their whole development in between, as they grow and change. Since they are not engendered by any biological act, Disney characters may aspire to immortality: whatever apparent, momentary sufferings are inflicted upon them in the course of their adventures, they have been liberated, at least, from the curse of the body.

A Disney character comes ready-made, optimized to function eternally in the false worlds created for him. In the comics under examination, that world is a capitalist, imperialist vacuum. Capitalism is fundamentally prudish, obsessed with order, control, regulation. Rejection of biological origin neatly eliminates the messy reality of human interdependence and community. Imperialism inherently fears being beholden to someone or something external, precisely because that’s the relationship it imposes on everything around it. So, parentless as any product, Disney characters don’t owe anybody anything. They’re free to define themselves exclusively through their actions, however hollow those actions might ultimately be. This is one example among many in this slender little fulgurant. Donald Duck is literally packed with figurative explosives of equal brisance. For six chapters, Dorfman and Mattelart keep digging and dynamiting their way through the Disney mythos. Naturally, they attack the easy targets with scholastic thoroughness and writerly aplomb: the racism, sexism, and jingoism prevalent in Disney comics. But they go far beyond that and arrive at a diagnosis of the (very contagious) American Sickness:

The threat [of the comics to Chile] derives not so much from their embodiment of the ‘American Way of Life,’ as that of the ‘American Dream of Life.’ It is the manner in which the U.S. dreams and redeems itself, then imposes that dream upon others for its own salvation, which poses the danger for the dependent countries.

That dream is one of Innocence, a vision of eternal, misremembered childhood simplicity projected by prudish, frightened, powerful adults. The American impulse careers manically toward simplicity, a reduction of everything to Good or Bad, Positive or Negative, Profit or Deficit, Winner or Loser. And as an imperialist force, when its binary worldview doesn’t map onto reality, it’s the fault of the franchisee, not the franchiser. This, Donald Duck says, is the central falsity of Disney, as dangerous as a hundred other American fantasies: the Noble Loner, the War Worth Fighting, the Good Cop.

In Chile, Disney, like the US, is an invasive species. What crosses borders as an innocent entertainment is in fact a foreign contagion working to assimilate the local hosts. This happens literally as well as figuratively. Disney comics are subcontracted to domestic printers and writers. Thus, in 1974, a year after Pinochet’s junta took over, there was this explicitly pro-violence, anti-Allende Disney comic in the Chile Monitor:

As Dorfman and Mattelart point out, the messaging isn’t always this explicit, but it extends logically from the values instilled by US-made Disney comics. As How to Read Donald Duck’s English translator David Kunzleman says, “The native contributes directly to his own colonization.”

The domestic-undomestic Disney comic is a particularly ugly metaphor for the relationship between the US and Chile in the ‘70s. It’s no secret that American interests were firmly against an Allende presidency, and it’s a safe bet that US politicking and influence at the very least exacerbated the conditions that led to the Pinochet junta. From there it’s not a very long mental walk to some umbrageous extrapolations regarding the present-day situation in Chile and the protests and struggles going on there (already forgotten by the magpie US media).

Donald Duck is a timely book for this very ugly present moment. But too, it finds universality in its particularity. In its depiction of subsumed messages in Disney comics it reveals the threat of brain colonization facing any human consuming media. To some degree, this process is inevitable, involuntary. As an adult I hate Disney, hate everything it’s ever done and all of its glittering, superficial, asinine media properties. But after decades of exposure, much of it “willing” when I was a child, some residue remains inside me that reverberates to the sterile Disney fantasy: its cleanness, its simplicity, its comfort and ease.

So, among the lessons to be found in Donald Duck are: Everything Says Something; and also: Everything Leaves a Mark. Directly and indirectly, people are shaped by what they read, watch, hear, play. Indiscriminate consumption leaves wounds, and neglecting to consider the Hows and Whys of what we take in, whether that’s the latest curlicued Disney confection or the Kojiki is, in very real ways, socially and morally irresponsible. Discriminate consumption also leaves wounds, but if we’re conscious of what we’ve consumed, if we’re vigilant about what it can do to us and others, maybe we can, somehow, become better. As it was upon its initial release, How to Read Donald Duck is an exhilarating taste of sanity in an ugly, ugly time.

OR Books released How to Read Donald Duck in 2018 for first time in the US since the original 1975 edition was seized by Customs at the behest of Disney. It includes a new introduction by Ariel Dorfman in addition to the original preface to the English edition by Dorfman and Mattelart, as well as the introduction to the English edition by David Kunzleman. As mentioned above, Kunzleman did the English translation and it is excellent. A new appendix includes a piece by John Shelton Lawrence called “Donald Duck vs. Chilean Socialism: A Fair Use Exchange,” which is also well worth reading.

Ben Schwartz is a freelance writer working out of Ohio.



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Supersonic Fantasies: Celebrating the Mecha of Supermarionation

Fred McNamara / January 14, 2020

The sci-fi Supermarionation shows produced by Gerry Anderson’s AP Films/Century 21 Productions offer something for every generation, and contemporary celebrations of them focus on what made them popular in the first place: the painstaking and glorious depiction of futuristic, wildly imaginative mecha—space rockets, supersonic jets, submarines, tunnelers, all capable of breathtaking maneuvers and armed with explosive firepower—that effortlessly tapped into the minds of a generation rapidly being turned on to the visual thrills of science fiction in mainstream media.

These magnificent machines often walked a fine line between accuracy and fantasy. Much has been written, for instance, about the physics of the Thunderbirds and whether or not they could actually fly, reflecting the real-world influence these shows have. Young fans at the time, however, probably didn’t concern themselves with such thoughts but simply marveled at the aesthetic joy of the models—chiefly designed by Reg Hill, Derek Meddings, and Mike Trim—being flung across rolling backdrops or back-screen projections of otherworldly landscapes. These vibrant machines are a large part of the ongoing appeal of Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and Gerry Anderson’s other productions, so let’s examine their attributes in further detail.

A Wonderland of Monochrome (Supercar and Fireball XL5)

Despite the wonders that would explode onto our screens when the likes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet came along, the mecha of Century 21 had fairly primitive beginnings. Their first show to be promoted as being filmed in Supermarionation, Supercar (1961-1962), furnished the rough blueprint of all that would follow. With compact yet gaudy design by series producer Reg Hill, the titular vehicle’s abilities reflected the ambitions of Century 21 Productions, then known as AP Films, to create first-class entertainment. Though it was predominantly used as a form of aerial transport, Supercar possessed the ability to journey through the sky, outer space, on land, and under the oceans. Its quirky exterior appearance and cramped interior cockpit were less imaginative than later designs like Thunderbird 2 and the SPV, but the machine still plays an indispensable role in Supermarionation’s history. It paved the groundwork for what would follow.

Fireball XL5 was as much a leap in premise as it was in aesthetic. A bold, imposing design courtesy of Derek Meddings, Fireball had a degree of realism injected into it via the craft’s detachable, Space Shuttle-esque component Fireball Junior, which both complemented the series’ sense of adventure and, inevitably, augmented its merchandising potential. With its imposing cylindrical length enabling it to shoot across the stars like a dart, the craft looks infinitely more robust and evocative than Supercar, and, perhaps most important, it looked like it could actually fly. Enhanced by the outer space setting, the powerful aesthetic of Fireball XL5 captured young fans’ imaginations with cosmic aplomb. After all, the flagship security, rescue, and combat vessel of the World Space Patrol needs to look like it can do the job.

Stand by for Rescue (Stingray and Thunderbirds)

The Stingray, from the 1964 series of the same name, marked a progressive step forward for the chief mecha of Supermarionation. Designed by Hill, the craft’s perfectly formed amphibious appeal lay not just in its exterior, but in its interior too. The increased budget furnished by financial backer Lew Grade allowed AP Films to fashion an extremely chic, futuristic style for Stingray’s control decks, sleeping quarters, and relaxation areas, an aesthetic firmly entrenched in 1960s fashions. And Stingray was filmed in color. The swirling blue, yellow, and grey of Stingray’s exterior and its smooth, contoured shape give the craft a wonderfully distinctive vibe, effortlessly tapping into the aquatic themes of the show. The guest vehicles in the show also impressed. Some of the submarines themselves were clearly kit-bashed from other sources, such as the Big Gun from “The Big Gun,” clearly modeled on a tank, and the craft from “Sea of Oil” was quite obviously taken from a jet. With these vehicles often making an appearance in only a single episode, their interior designs were often redressed from craft to craft, with props culled from previous models.

Thunderbirds marked the point where Derek Meddings and cohort Mike Trim started working in tandem: Meddings designed much of International Rescue’s core craft, prioritizing sharp bulk and heft, while Trim took care of secondary/guest vehicles, producing more streamlined and sinuous craft. The aerial gymnastics of the sleek, supersonic first responder Thunderbird 1 starts the action of each episode, complemented by the lumbering, powerful Thunderbird 2, the most recognizable of all of the Andersons’ mecha and a craft that fills the screen whenever it takes off, soars through the skies, or lands in some danger zone. Thunderbird 3 is more of a curiosity, since we only ever see it in a handful of episodes, yet it remains another of Meddings’ fascinatingly gargantuan designs. The trim, squat Thunderbird 4 is everything Supercar should have been, while the immobility of space station Thunderbird 5 is at odds with its sophisticated, complex design and exposed mechanics.

The separate functions of each of the five Thunderbirds gives the show a visual depth and sense of scale. No one Thunderbird performs the same function, and that specialization enables International Rescue’s daring and eye-catching missions to be fully realized. Thunderbirds distinguished itself from past Supermarionation fare by not placing all of its toys in one sandbox: the aerodynamics of Thunderbirds 1 and 2, the space-based Thunderbird 3, the sub-aquatic Thunderbird 4, and the watchful, sentinel-esque role of Thunderbird 5 gave the series its panoramic sense of adventure.

Most Special Mecha (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and The Secret Service)

The post-Thunderbirds shows marked the rise of Mike Trim as the main designer of the vehicles tasked with communicating the action and energy of Supermarionation. With the more senior figures of Century 21 Productions chiefly concerned with expanding the company’s cinematic division, it fell chiefly to the younger staff to handle production of the TV series. By the time The Secret Service (1969) went into production, day-to-day operations were being supervised by Hill, with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson focusing their efforts on 1969 science-fiction film Doppelgänger.

With Captain Scarlet, for which Meddings produced Cloudbase, the SPV (Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle), and the Angel Interceptors, it was Trim’s responsibility to design the remainder of Spectrum’s wide variety of vehicles and guest mecha. Spectrum’s mecha reflect the military aesthetic of the series: gone are the vibrant colors and evocative names of the Thunderbird machines. In their place are stern, somber colors, chiefly greys and cold blues, with acronyms mainly used for naming conventions. The monolithic presence of Cloudbase, the grandest mecha of any Supermarionation show, now serves as a ubiquitous reminder of Spectrum’s watchful presence over the world.

Elsewhere, Spectrum’s core mecha veer between the bulky and the nimble. The tank-like SPV and the sorely underused MSV (Maximum Security Vehicle) further underline Spectrum’s hawkish vocation, yet even though the SPC (Spectrum Patrol Car), SPJ (Spectrum Passenger Jet), and the Angel Interceptors are far slicker, more agile vehicles, all evoke perfectly the darker attitude of the show, especially when compared to Thunderbirds. Like the guest vehicles he designed for Thunderbirds, Trim’s other mecha for Captain Scarlet continue the streamlined shapes from before, helping to give the futuristic setting of the series a visual immediacy.

Compared to the fleets of vehicles found in Thunderbirds and Stingray, Joe 90 (1968-1969) boasted a far more limited array of core mecha, Professor Mac’s car and Sam Loover’s saloon being the only vehicles that regularly appeared in the show. Mac’s car is a marked departure from past designs. Here, Meddings takes a significantly experimental approach, producing a vehicle that harks back to the days of Supercar: a cumbersome mecha characterized by exposed components, easily the least elegant thing he ever produced. Professor Mac’s car is either delightfully quirky or off-puttingly clunky, depending on your point of view. Fortunately, Trim delivers a further batch of handsome companion vehicles throughout the series that are very similar in flavor to the mecha of Captain Scarlet.

The Secret Service (1969) took things to extremes by not featuring a core vehicle of a futuristic design at all. A re-fashioned 1917 Ford Model T, Gabriel is the furthest departure from the retro-futuristic visions the Andersons were famous for producing. Again, more companion vehicles do appear scattered throughout, but the limited number of episodes for the series—a grand total of 13—meant that the blade fell prematurely on the reign of Supermarionation, and with it the eye-popping display of ingenuity and creativity of the company’s vehicle department. The Century 21 team would continue to entertain viewers with the live-action productions Doppelganger and UFO (1970-1973), but the evocative, sometimes nearly anthropomorphic designs that had defined the visual action of the puppet shows would end here.

Tomorrow’s Cross-Sections Today

Beyond the style of the craft, then, what exactly has been written about their functionality? Some basic details of the craft’s capabilities and mechanics had been mapped out by Anderson, but it would fall to those at Century 21 Publishing to flesh these details out. One of the many arms that Century 21 Productions grew as the company blossomed in commercial success, the publishing division’s in-depth cross-sections were produced to delight readers and published in both the TV21 comic and annuals produced to tie-in with each series.

Fascination with these mecha remains strong 50 years on, and book-length collections of cross-sections exist almost as a distinct subculture within Anderson fandom. As revivals of Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet have come and gone since the 1990s, fresh interpretations of Anderson mecha have been produced, and books that collect past material continue to sell, as do original works, such as the pair of ever-popular Haynes Manuals written and drawn for Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Packed with in-depth examinations of the functionality and interior of the shows’ respective craft, these books are testament to the imaginative response the vehicles of Supermarionation continue to inspire.

Fred McNamara spends an immeasurable and unhealthy amount of time overthinking indie comics, cult television, and retro sci-fi. He co-edits the superhero/indie comic book hub A Place To Hang Your Cape. He’s also the author of Spectrum is Indestructible, the unofficial celebration of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. He’s game for watching anything involving puppets.

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“Unity, Precision, Thrust”: The NASA Graphics Standards Manual, 1975

Exhibit / January 9, 2020

Object Name: The NASA Graphics Standards Manual
Maker and Year: Danne & Blackburn, 1975 (official publication date January 1, 1976)
Object Type: Graphics standards manual
Image Source: NASA
Description (Michael Grasso):

In the mid-1970s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was in a period of transition. The final manned Apollo mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, had returned to Earth in December 1972; no further Moon landings were planned. NASA had recently kicked off their Skylab experiments in short-term orbital space station living (and détente-inspired collaboration with the Soviets), as well as announcing a reusable fleet of Space Shuttles, and were simultaneously planning a series of unmanned probes to the other planets of the solar system in the latter half of the ’70s. In this era of NASA’s shift from moonshot-style Cold War political statement missions to a more sustainable and diverse set of mission profiles, the organization underwent a massive rebranding, one driven in part by an overarching federal initiative to bring federal agencies into the 1970s by standardizing their graphic and visual design.

The Federal Design Improvement Program (FDIP) was an outgrowth of the Nixon-era National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), impelled by a 1971 Nixon directive for federal agencies to “direct your attention to two questions: first, how, as a part of its various programs, your agency can most vigorously assist the arts and artists; second, and perhaps more important, how the arts and artists can be of help to your agency and to its programs.” The wildfire growth of American public television in the early 1970s, as well as programs like the Environmental Protection Agency’s DOCUMERICA, showed that these statements of federal backing for the arts and humanities were not merely empty gestures on the part of the Nixon Administration. The NEA’s chief at the time, Nancy Hanks, initiated the FDIP, which not only included a graphic design-oriented Federal Graphics Improvement program but also programs using art to beautify federal buildings as well as upgrading government buildings through a Federal Architecture Project. NASA was not the only federal agency to take up the FDIP’s offer of redesign. The U.S. Postal Service also set out its own program for modernizing the design of stamps, Post Office signage, and branding; the Department of Transportation’s “Symbol Signs,” developed in 1974 by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, became international standard; and the National Park Service hired famed New York City subway designer Massimo Vignelli to initiate a “Unigrid” set of standards for park and museum signage design that is still used to this day.

The 1976 NASA Graphics Standards Manual was the product of New York design firm Danne & Blackburn. Richard Danne was a longtime commercial designer for the film industry who designed the iconic poster for 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby; Bruce Blackburn’s background was in corporate branding and in 1971 he had won one of the first FDIP-related government contracts for the official logo for the American Bicentennial. Danne and Blackburn’s effort to modernize NASA’s visual design put them up against a conservative agency still very much attached to a militaristic design aesthetic (influenced in part by the sleek rocketships on the covers of midcentury science fiction novels) throughout the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era. Danne and Blackburn’s futuristic “worm” NASA logo, their use of Helvetica throughout (a favorite of European designers like Vignelli), and their preference for sleek, spare standardization conveyed “a feeling of unity, technological precision, thrust and orientation toward the future,” in the words of NASA Administrator Richard Truly in the Manual foreword. Indulgences were allowed for the older, more bespoke design style of the Space Race-era agency. Mission patches, often designed in part by the participating astronauts themselves, were yet another legacy of astronauts’ backgrounds in U.S. Cold War military service, and were preserved by the Standards Manual: “They should occupy their own visual space, separated from official NASA identification. In this way, the two elements are noncompetitive and the mission patch can achieve the emphasis it deserves.” The old NASA “meatball” logo was also reserved for “award presentations or formal events and activities which are ceremonial or traditional in nature.” The modernizing impulse of Danne and Blackburn recognized that in NASA’s culture, the pull of military tradition was still very strong. The Manual provides some interesting insights into NASA missions of the late ’70s and beyond, with the Space Shuttle Discovery making a prominent appearance to show off what the new NASA visual design would look like on a real spacecraft, as well as schematics demonstrating the new NASA branding on earthbound vehicles and on crew uniforms. Ultimately the NASA Graphics Standards Manual does reflect a profound institutional change. The quasi-military Space Race glories of the 1960s are to be respected but enshrined, segregated, put behind glass. A new NASA—one arguably consisting of more scientists than cowboys—took the agency into the futuristic era in the 1980s.

In 2017, a Kickstarter initiated by the publishing house Standards Manual (founded by designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth) funded a re-publication of the Danne and Blackburn NASA Standards Manual that included bonus material from Danne and supporting documents from the design proposal process. Reed and Smyth had previously brought out a modern coffee-table version of the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, and recently have published versions of the 1970s EPA Graphic Standards System as well as a retrospective catalogue of the work of midcentury design firm Chermayeff & Geismar (where Blackburn had worked in the 1960s), responsible for the iconic modern NBC Peacock, the PBS “P-Head” logo, and Pan-Am’s corporate logo, among many other familiar pieces of Cold War-era corporate identity.

More Things in Heaven: Fred Scharmen’s ‘Space Settlements’

Reviews / January 8, 2020

Space Settlements
By Fred Scharmen
Columbia Books on Architecture and the City (2019)

You’ve seen the images before: interiors of massive cylindrical and spherical space habitats, where posh-looking off-world colonists attend catered cocktail parties and sip coffee on their (seemingly) tilted verandas; where space-suited construction workers navigate through zero-g miles above an immaculate suburbia, complete with backyard swimming pools; where elongated ribbons of verdant frontier alternate with windows admitting both sunlight and views of the looming Earth and Moon. Given the apocalyptic witlessness of our current politics, it’s hard to imagine that these brazenly idealistic renderings are anything more than cover art for an old series of Heinlein paperbacks, but in fact they are conceptual designs commissioned by NASA in 1975 “to assess the human and economic implications as well as technical feasibility” of space colonies. They pop up every year on various sites and publications, discovered anew with expressions of bewildered glee and filed under what we now call retrofuturism. But in Space Settlements, Fred Scharmen ventures far beyond the surface appeal of these enduring artifacts, exploring how they “mediate anxieties about the American city, about technology, and about the changing role of human beings within space and architecture more generally.”

The story begins with Princeton professor Gerard O’Neill, who, in 1969, invited his best students to question whether planetary surfaces were “the right place for an expanding technological civilization.” Things did not seem to be going well on Earth, after all, and young people, even young Ivy Leaguers, increasingly viewed science as a tool of destruction and subterfuge owned and operated by the military and political establishment. (Theodore Roszak makes this skeptical attitude central to the same year’s The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, where he defines technocracy as a “paternalism of expertise… which has learned a thousand ways to manipulate our acquiescence with an imperceptible subtlety.”) O’Neill and his students worked on the engineering and physics of rotating orbital habitats, and O’Neill, at least, decided that space might be a better fit for us—some of us, anyway—and that he was on to “something very important.” The leading scientific magazines and journals did not immediately agree, repeatedly rejecting O’Neill’s paper on the subject; it wasn’t until four years later that he saw any progress—a grant from Merry Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand. This resulted in two conferences at Princeton (May 1974 and May 1975), which led to the 1975 NASA Summer Study at Stanford University. Although hundreds of schematics and illustrations pepper 1977’s summary report, Space Settlements: A Design Study, it’s the 13 large paintings illustrated by American artists Don Davis and Rick Guidice that frame Scharmen’s narrative (and appear in detail throughout the book, along with hundreds of photos and a lengthy appendix of never-before-seen sketches from the personal libraries of Davis and Guidice).

The idea of orbiting space colonies, and the visualization thereof, did not emerge from a vacuum. Scharmen discusses in compelling depth the architectural and philosophical foundations of the “inside-out planets,” as Brand called them, including (this is not a complete list) an 1883 sketch by Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky that Scharmen remarks is “the earliest known visual depiction of humans living in free-fall,” John Bernal’s 1929 pamphlet The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, in which the Bernal sphere is postulated, Le Corbusier’s landmark The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (1929) and his “ideal” Radiant City, Wernher von Braun’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” articles for Collier’s in the early ’50s, Space Race-fueled futurist depictions of hollow asteroid colonies capable of supporting up to a million intrepid souls, and, of course, NASA’s short-lived Skylab. Scharmen contrasts these predecessors with fictional models like the Death Star and Space Station V from 2001: A Space Odyssey and contemporary megastructures like the International Space Station and Apple Park, always with an eye to exploring “the relationships between architecture and speculative disciplines.”

Although O’Neill and the study participants instructed Davis and Guidice on the visual designs meant to “sell” the space settlement concept, the artists (Scharmen interviewed both extensively) brought their own touches and notions to the final product, culled largely from the increasingly popular science fiction genre (one of Davis’s pre-Summer Study paintings had been inspired by Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld) and the counterculture’s ecological experiments with modular and communal living: Scharmen notes that in one of Davis’s paintings, which appeared on the cover of a 1977 Whole Earth Catalog book (edited by Brand) called Space Colonies, a Golden Gate Bridge stand-in runs parallel to the axis of a cylinder habitat designed to emulate the San Francisco Bay Area (where Davis was raised); in the lush foreground, parents and their children sunbathe, cavort in a stream, and play Frisbee, their solar-powered, dome-like cabin nearby. O’Neill himself claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that he hadn’t been influenced by sci-fi (the “stories,” he said, provided “no useful ideas contributory to a practical scheme for space colonization”), and probably came to resent the influence of Brand and his acolytes, though he seemed to understand that buy-in from both communities was necessary.

For O’Neill, and for many others inside and outside the Summer Study bubble, the space settlements were “part Eden, part Ark,” Scharmen says—“the frontier without hardship and the city without difference.” They thus represent a distinctly American brand of utopianism—Carl Sagan called O’Neill’s proposals “America in the skies,” one of “the few places to which the discontent cutting edge of mankind can emigrate”—that has cropped up and fizzled out in communities from New Haven to New Harmony to Drop City to Zuccotti Park. O’Neill wrote in 1974 that “we have now reached the point where we can, if we so choose, build new habitats far more comfortable, productive and attractive than is most of Earth,” and in his 1977 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, he made a bolder claim: these new frontier settlements also would solve a “nonmaterial problem… not to be reckoned in dollars: the opportunity for increased human options and diversity of development.”

O’Neill may have been bright-eyed and full of blue sky, but he was also canny. In July 1975, as the Summer Study got going at Stanford, he testified before the House Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications about the possibility, logistics, and strategic advantage of American colonies in space. Against the backdrop of the energy crisis, turmoil in the Middle East, deepening recession, fear of imminent overpopulation (O’Neill’s project was partly a “refutation” of and solution to the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth, a report concluding that the world’s human inhabitants would consume the resources needed to sustain themselves within a few decades), his pitch was couched in a language of entrepreneurship and nationalism that Congress could understand: we would build a “beachhead in space” that would soon grant the US “energy independence” through production of profitable synthetic fuels, as well as room to breathe and grow. “Earthlike human communities” in space represent “a product for which there is a big market, and which satisfies a need.” For a small initial investment (the “Spartan” tier cost $33 billion, while the “Luxurious” tier needed $200 billion), there would be a “direct-dollar” return, and, in 25 years or so, “total payback.” Utopia, it seems, just like everything else, can be bought.

Although a good part of Scharmen’s book is necessarily devoted to the technical concepts of space science and urban design (it’s to his credit, not mine, that I was able to follow along on feedback systems, spin gravity, Cartesian skyscrapers, and so on), Space Settlements is at heart a book about “the necessary investigations into the political and social agendas embedded” in the Summer Study’s particular “acts of design”—embedded in all acts of design, really. “If the environment is designed,” Scharmen writes, “then the population is designed.” Nearly all depictions of future space habitats and future living from the Cold War era feature a certain type of human: white, young, thin, manicured, lively, happy; one young black woman appears in the Summer Study paintings (at the cocktail party), likely based on a model from Guidice’s stock art collection. Both Carl Sagan and Stewart Brand recognized that the very idea of a space “colony,” of a new “frontier” or “settlement,” carried with it “language… hard to extricate from a history of violence, expropriation, and displacement”—but ultimately “colony” is what stuck. Was O’Neill’s project ultimately “about the creation of an inclusive, or exclusive, space?” Scharmen asks. “Who is invited into the rooms where these future spaces will be designed? Who is the space for?” It’s a timely question, given that the richest man in the world plans to build and run his own O’Neill cylinder, given all of these millionaires and billionaires reserving private flights to the Moon, given all this talk of mining Mars while, here on the old Blue Marble, our cities rust and our wilderness and wildlife burn.

To me, the Summer Study imagery recalls not so much an idealized future, but a mythical past. After so many wistful viewings over the course of the years, it occurs to me that the best of the paintings have something in common with classical landscapes (O’Neill instructed Guidice to make the habitat in his first illustration look like the “French countryside”). In the work of Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin and hundreds of others, tiny foreground figures cavort, bathe, trade, play, work, and rest, engulfed by the indifferent grandeur of divine nature and, at times, the looming Greek and Roman temples and towers—the advanced technology—of a bygone Golden Age. The scenes are fantasy: imaginary places and mythopoetic expressions designed to instill in the viewer a sense of harmony and order and humility. The difference in Davis and Guidice is that technology has conquered nature, finally, and there is nothing left to fear. What is grander or more implacable or closer to heaven than the endless void of star-flecked outer space? And what is more comforting and idyllic than the first-generation colonist in his white tennis shirt basking in the garden sunshine refracted from the translucent skin of his cylindrical womb? Here there is no decay, no disease, no disparity, no privation, no regrets, and no way for the huddled masses to get in. What is so heartbreaking about O’Neill’s “islands in space” is not that we don’t have them, but that we shouldn’t need them.

UFOs Vallee 1977K.E. Roberts is Editor-in-Chief of We Are the Mutants. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and the longest cat any of them have ever seen.


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Mutating Empire: Britains’ ‘Space’ Toys

 Exhibit / January 7, 2020

Object Name: Space toy line
Maker and Year: Britains’ Toys, 1981-1987
Object Type: Toy catalogs
Image Source: Hobby DB, Golob the Humanoid
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Of all the weird remnants to have filtered down into British popular culture of the late 20th century, the toy soldier was one of the most pervasive. The British Army had long been an important element—read facilitator and enforcer—of the country’s imperialist culture, and the total war mindset programmed into us by the First and Second World Wars was still very much a part of the psychological and physical landscape until well into the 1980s. At the beginning of the decade, newsagents still sold multiple weekly and fortnightly war story comics for children, Sven Hassel books were as ubiquitous as ashtrays, TV was still full of war films, and it was not considered in any way peculiar for a 9-year-old school friend to turn up to a fancy-dress party in a surprisingly accurate Wehrmacht uniform (well, maybe a bit strange—my mum did ask what his German stepdad did). And a large range of toy soldiers depicting the various fighting forces of World War II was still standard stock in toy shops: what better way to accustom children to the idea that war wasn’t something terrible and only to be entered into when absolutely necessary? That it was natural—just another game?

Founded in 1893 and famous for the accuracy and detailing of its products, stuffy British toy company Britains (I know) was the most establishment of the country’s toy producers. It had revolutionized the national toy industry with the invention of the hollow casting process, which allowied its lead figures to break the German stranglehold of the lucrative toy soldier market, and it continued to produce lead figures until costs and safety concerns forced a shift to plastic (produced in Hong Kong) on heavy metal bases in the late 1960s.

Britains’ soldiers were prestige toys to be collected, placed on a shelf, and admired for their craftsmanship—not set on fire with lighter fuel or buried in the back garden. Neither I nor any of the other children I knew in the consumerist ’70s had any, because, for the price of two Britains figures (which you would probably have had to go to a special “posh” toy shop to get), you could get a whole squadron of unpainted, injection-molded Airfix British Tommies, or an entire army in a plastic bag from one of the less accuracy-minded toy companies. To those of us less concerned with unsightly flanges of molding flash than with the thought of having an entire platoon at our command, Britains’ toys barely registered. But then, we were not their quarry. It’s clear from a glance at the company’s catalogs over the years that its target audience must have been the children of the nation’s wealthy farmers: at least, it’s hard to imagine why the hell else eight of the twenty pages of the 1980 catalog were dedicated to farm animals and, even more confusingly, farm equipment. Britains’ farm line had been introduced after the First World War when the nation was, understandably, looking for a something that didn’t remind them of the vast numbers of corpses that littered the continent. As undeniably beautiful as the models are, though, it’s hard to imagine any child of 1980 who had not been raised in Britain’s (the country, not the toy maker) most frightening cult—middle-class farmers—asking Santa for a 1:32 scale Vicon vari-spreader. Appropriately, one of Britains’ (the toy maker) rare forays into the populist cesspit of licensing (another was the 1924 Nestlé World Cow) was a model of Worzel Gummidge, the nation’s favorite TV scarecrow, as played by ex-Doctor Who Jon Pertwee. Throughout the postwar period, then, Britains’ business model had been based on two of the pursuits that have shaped and enslaved the human race over the millennia: farming and war—capitalism and imperialism, if you like.

By the end of the 1970s, American products had forced their way into the British market, and a dated domestic industry found it was struggling to retain kids’ affections and obtain their cash. Now add to that a movie called Star Wars. Global behemoth Lego had released its Space range in 1977 and the other big UK toy companies had already come out with their own ripostes to the changing landscape: Matchbox with the Adventure 2000 series and Corgi with its doom-laden X-Ploratrons. In 1981, Britains evidently decided that it could no longer afford to ignore the laser blasts shaking the heavens and embarked on its belated, ill-omened attempt to seize the thrashing tail of the zeitgest. What emerged was an unexpectedly joyous eruption of plastic that felt as though the warehouse-coat-clad bods usually charged with creating photo-accurate 1:32 scale diecast baling machines had done a load of mushrooms while reading a pile of sci-fi comics and listening to Hawkwind.

The relativism and lack of perspective implicit in calling a range of plastic space people transcendently beautiful, as I did above, doesn’t escape me, but in this case I feel as though it’s to some extent merited. Originally given a name whose uninspiring nature was fully in keeping with Britains’ reputation for dull worthiness—“Space”—the range’s strange cosmology posited an unexplained army of space soldiers clad in beautifully-designed bright yellow spacesuits, their feet anchored, like all Britains figures, to unwieldy metal lozenges for stability. Arrayed against them, for no clear reason, were their nemeses, the “Aliens.” The unexplained antagonism between the two sides was made even stranger by the fact that they shared exactly the same bodies, though the aliens’ suits were black and, in place of helmets, their heads took the skull-motif of the Cylon helmet to its extreme conclusion and colored it blood red.

The figures were alluringly idiosyncratic even by the standards of other space toys, and, incredibly, given their origins, some of the figures were even women—women who seemed almost to be in a position of equality with the men. In the world of 1980s British toys, women who wore unisex uniforms, carried weapons, and competently piloted vehicles were very much the exception. And stranger yet, there were female aliens too. Was it a genuine nod to sexual equality? Who knows. “Space”, of course, still existed in the realm of childish Manicheism: the (white) humans were the goodies, the be-tendrilled weirdos were the baddies. And as the range grew, more baddies were added, first among which were the Mutants (ahem). Surely one of the strangest of all the toys produced in the UK over this particularly fecund period, the Mutants in particular seemed almost a slap in the face to the tight-lipped Protestant worthiness of Britains’ other toys, a demented explosion of tentacles and forms that even now looks inexplicable, as though decades of repressed imagination were erupting through them. Obviously, the “Space” range also included its own line of distinctive spacecraft and accessories, all beautifully designed (initially) examples of Britains’ precision craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, British kids—drunk on years of heady backstories and manipulative advertising campaigns—were not impressed. Britain’s Space fitted into no greater marketing narrative: it was just there, in all its glorious weirdness. It’s hard to imagine how children could not have been immediately entranced by the grotesque forms, but Britains’ toys remained prohibitively expensive and available in a relatively limited number of outlets. Presumably in response to the lack of interest, the range underwent increasingly bizarre mutations over the following years, becoming Stargard and Star System and god knows what else, and adding cheaper- and cheaper-looking accessories before eventually disappearing from Britains’ annual catalogue altogether in 1988. I never managed to get my hands on any: my one attempt, which involved sending away six empty packets of Outer Spacers snacks, was doomed to failure, the 19½p in change I’d enclosed to pay for postage presumably snaffled by some venal postal worker before it ever reached its destination.

With its incongruous egalitarianism and its grotesque mutations, did Britains’ Stargard mean anything, in the wider sense? I doubt it. It was a daft toy that represented a tiny bubble of creativity and absurdity that ran completely counter to the company’s reputation as a purveyor of sturdy, well-crafted, establishment-supporting dullness. Yet there it now sits, its peculiar beauty somehow burnished even more by its complete and absolute triviality. And in some strange way, Britains’ Space, or Stargard, or Star Force, or whatever the hell it ended up being called, evokes the UK’s own recent history: the dream of an explosively egalitarian future sabotaged by a grotesque reflux of farmers and generals hacking, plowing, and shooting their way back into the past.

“Spacy Spheres and Funky Shacks”: The Otherworlds of 1971’s ‘Domebook 2’

Exhibit / December 12, 2019

Object NameDomebook 2 
Maker and Year: Pacific Domes, 1971 (Lloyd Kahn, editor)
Object Type: Building publication
Image Source: Archive.org
Description (Michael Grasso):

“The thing about zomes is,” Riggs with a desperate grin, “is they can act as doorways to other dimensions. The F-105s, the coyotes, the scorpions and snakes, the desert heat, none of that bothers me. I can leave whenever I want.” He motioned with his head. “All I have to do is step through that door over there, and I’m safe.”

“Can I look?” said Doc.

“Better not. It’s not for everybody, and if it’s not for you, it can be dangerous.”

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

In the spring of 1971, it seemed everyone on the fringes of mainstream society in North America was trying to build geodesic domes: soaring gridwork domes made of plastic and steel, of wood, of concrete. Inspired by technocratic engineer-turned-counterculture guru and geodesic dome evangelist R. Buckminster Fuller, hundreds of back-to-the-land hippies sought to use his elementary architectural example of solid geometry as the basis for their homes and gathering places. One of the many venues that helped dome aficionados figure out how to build their own domed spaces was a guidebook assembled by a group of students and facilitators at a freeform California high school. Inspired by their own experimentation with building geodesic structures, and directly assisted by the runaway success of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, these dome-builders and educators released a pair of “Domebooks” in 1970 and 1971 for sale to the general public. While Domebook One was more of a straight-ahead how-to construction guide, Domebook 2 acted as a clearinghouse for correspondence from a panoply of counterculture builders, along with material specifics on dome-building, ruminations on the geometry behind geodesics, a lengthy interview with Fuller, and a plethora of intriguing diversions illuminating the state of the counterculture in the early 1970s.

Buckminster Fuller’s conception (and subsequent U.S. patenting) of the geodesic dome does owe quite a bit to German engineers and architects of the interwar period, but during Fuller’s tenure immediately following World War II at the renowned experimental Black Mountain College near Asheville, North California, he struck upon the idea of building domed structures around regularly repeating three-dimensional geodesic frameworks. They would be strong and cheap, ideal for quickly assembling structures with a minimum of materials. Postwar developments in lightweight construction materials, such as aluminum and petrochemically-derived plastics, would provide the ideal building blocks for geodesic structures, just as they were already being used everywhere from suburban homes to designer furnishings. The U.S. government, specifically the defense establishment, immediately saw the value of these domes for structures that needed to withstand difficult climactic conditions, including radomes on the U.S. Air Force’s Distant Early Warning Line built in the Canadian arctic. Fuller’s patented domes were therefore fully integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex prior to their adoption by the counterculture. Fuller’s emergence as an unlikely countercultural guru culminated with the release of his seminal 1969 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but his eccentric futurist visions had intrigued independent thinkers throughout the 1960s. Fuller’s own life was full of such contradictions: a man born into old Yankee WASP privilege, his own lifelong nonconformist ethos and mystical epiphany in 1927 were always at the heart of his humanitarian inventiveness and intellectual creativity.

The Domebooks themselves emerge, just as the geodesic dome did at Black Mountain did a quarter-century earlier, from the lengthy tradition of American experimental schooling arguably begun with the work of John Dewey in the late 19th century. Domebook 2 tells the tale of Pacific High School, a “free school” founded in 1961 in Palo Alto and designed to center the students’ experiences over formal instruction, hierarchies, or explicit supervision from adults. Field work was common at Pacific, as well as trips abroad. By 1965, the school had received 40 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which the students first commuted to and eventually decided to live on, sharing responsibilities for food, shelter, and maintenance. Inspired by the domes that were popping up in locations like Big Sur (the location of countercultural retreat Esalen) thanks to dome-builders like Lloyd Kahn, the students tried their hands at dome construction. Like many of the student-directed experiences at Pacific High School, the domes met with frequent failures, but by the time of the first Domebook‘s release, more than a half-dozen domes made from different kinds of building materials with differing levels of success were standing on the grounds of the school.

Domebook 2 differs from the marginally more staid Domebook One in its patchwork ‘zine-like appearance; while both Domebooks used Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog publishing facilities (and Domebook One definitely apes the Catalog in its sleeker modernist visual design in spots), Domebook 2 has a much more homemade feel to it, with whimsical cartoons, sometimes-baffling asides, imaginatively-designed photograph inserts, and hand-drawn subject headers all over the document. The purely mathematical and practical portions of Domebook 2—illustrations of geodesic shapes, listings of angle calculations for various dome structures, and the like—possess that very peculiar aesthetic combination of hard technocratic science and near-mystic wonder that some have called “hippie modernism.” In explaining the five Platonic solids, Domebook 2 offers images of microscopic plankton that adhere to the geometry of said solids, showing that Fuller’s designs adhere to the ancient esoteric maxim of “as above, so below.” Domebook 2 is definitely meant to inculcate a geodesic “state of mind” in the reader; before building a dome, Domebook 2 advises every prospective dome-builder to get their hands on modeling materials and physically build a model of their desired dome: “Don’t try to build a dome without first making and studying models.” One can easily imagine even a dilettante with no interest in building their own domed home simply buying the Domebook to stare at the endlessly repeating geometries within; Domebook 2 even outright states that making a geodesic sphere model will allow you to “trip out on the different patterns.”

That variety of building materials evident in the Pacific High School projects was multiplied greatly in the photos and written contributions by the far-flung correspondents to Domebook 2. Each of these small groups of dome-builders—some of them families, others communes, some eccentric wealthy individuals, professional conferences, and even a few universities—had their own unique challenges in building and maintaining geodesic dome structures. The Pacific High School “campus” located in the woodlands of Northern California was situated in a temperate, if wet, climate. But within the pages of Domebook 2, builders from all across North America, from the frozen plains of Alberta to the deserts of New Mexico to the high mountains of Colorado to the snowy backwoods of Vermont, explain their own unique local challenges to dome-building, from temperature variations to precipitation to the incursions of porcupines. Correspondents to Domebook 2 accentuate the wisdom to be found in native populations and traditions—“for practical as well as spiritual reasons,” as one correspondent from New Hampshire says in a letter—such as using hand-split cedar shake shingling in the Pacific Northwest. Disagreements among the contributors on whether to use organic renewable building materials like wood or non-renewables like metal, concrete, or products of the “petroleum sucked from the earth” like plastic and foam insulation occasionally get heated; recommendations for how many Douglas fir seedling plantings would pay Mother Earth back for one’s dome are included in one sidebar. Tales of recycling and outright scavenging materials abound in the letters: “Use as little ‘money’ as possible. Recycle waste as much as possible. Manufacture our own parts as much as possible. Keep it clean as much as possible.” A Digger-like group that recycles urban waste for building and living materials goes further, cannibalizing old condemned structures; as they say, “The only growing resource is trash.”

Which brings us to the social and political aspects of the various dome projects seen in Domebook 2. The majority of these experimental builders, like Pacific High, reject many of the traditions of conventional mid-century American society. Dropping out and living by their self-professed ethos, many of the builders not only calculate the costs to Earth for their building materials but try to ditch the “square” mentality entirely in the process of building: “The most important thing we learned building this dome is that women baking bread while ‘dudes’ build domes is sexist bullshit,” says one of the Red Rockers commune in Colorado. “We dig science and futuristic stuff,” say the Red Rockers about their 60-foot wide central dome. “We wanted our home to have a structural bias against individualism and for communism; we like doing big things together.” But the pages of Domebook 2 are full of references to authority figures among the “straight” world who seek to take away the autonomy of dome-builders, usually through the use of building inspectors. The Pacific team itself tells of difficulties with the local authorities as they attempt to be open with the building inspectors and thus manage to remain “half-way within the law”: “Through maneuvers over the months, some good human beings in Santa Cruz county department, we somehow become semi-legal.” Several of the commune groups also cite intense police interest in their communities and, given that many of these letters were written in the previous year (1970), the spectre of the state-sanctioned violence at Kent State hovers over the many submissions to Domebook editors. One particularly hair-raising account depicts county inspectors in Topanga, California siccing police helicopters on a dome-building community; comparisons to the war in Southeast Asia are naturally made. And occasionally, the geodesic dome’s established place in the military-industrial complex peeks through the overall handcrafted and hippie vibe of Domebook 2; many of the tables, calculations, and illustrations that help a dome-builder figure out the geometry of a geodesic dome are present in Domebook 2 thanks to the computer-aided calculations of a NASA researcher named Joseph Clinton.

Probably the most poignant thing about Domebook 2 is what’s made clear by so many of the stories from the field: that ultimately the domes aren’t really keeping their inhabitants all that warm and dry. “Probably the main reason there are not more dome homes,” says the “Sealing” section of Domebook 2, “is the problem of leakage.” The Domebook writers even admit that their next book will cease focusing on domes and their cousins, zomes, and instead fall under the more general banner of “Shelter.” The lack of a Domebook 3 would end up removing a major venue for dome-builders and inhabitants to socially network about repairing and maintaining their structures. But among all the letters and photos, and throughout all the narrative streams, what shines through is that the domes themselves are helping people imagine a different future, one that looks and feels radically different from the North American suburbia that most of these young builders grew up in, a world of people taking charge of their own housing and electing to form their own communities. Whatever mundane problems that rain and snow and cops and building inspectors might present to the dome-builders, that vision of “other dimensions” on the other side of the zome doorway, of a new path forward that “trips out on the different patterns,” of a possibility for living outside what seemed like an omnipresent and oppressive system, remains.

“When Seconds Count”: Reader’s Digest’s ‘What to Do in an Emergency’, 1986

Exhibit / December 11, 2019

Object Name: What To Do In An Emergency
Maker and Year: Reader’s Digest, 1986
Object Type: Book
Description: (Richard McKenna)

The world is a dangerous place, and nowhere is this more true—subjectively speaking—than in its safest, most fortunate corners. I’ve spoken before about how the postwar UK seemed sometimes to be living in a traumatized fugue state of danger and threat. Here, then, is the bible of that particular belief system: the Reader’s Digest‘s 1986 What to Do in an Emergency, a 400-page compendium of Anglo fears, running from the most mundane (“gravy stains, removal of…. p.180”) to the surprisingly obscure (“caves, lost in… p.310”), which allowed every Briton to writhe in pleasure at the thought of the many nightmarish injuries, deaths, and degradations that might await them should they step from the path of righteous behavior.

In 1986, Britain was still eleven years away from two events—the election victory of Tony Blair’s New Labour and the death of Lady Diana—which would spark a mutation in, or perhaps simply bring into sharp focus, its psychology, triggering the evaporation of the last remaining remnants of the country’s previous approach to existence. Contrary to any naive assumptions about British “good manners,” it ought to be stated for the record that much of what made postwar Britain function was facilitated not by any innate civility but by a series of behaviors that had been drilled into us since childhood, with origins in the regimented lives ingrained in our parents and grandparents back when we were a total war economy Airstrip One-ing our way through World War II. That and the real risk of physical violence for infractions such as jumping queues and insulting other drivers ensured a Pavlovian comportment that turned boarding a bus or joining a dual-carriageway into almost devotional rituals. Given what has taken the place of this conditioned, vaguely collectivist pseudo-altruism as it has decayed under the pressure of individualist right-wing ideology, I think we can perhaps be forgiven a brief twitch of nostalgia for said collectivist pseudo-altruism, for all its faults.

Reader’s Digest was an American general interest magazine containing condensed articles and devised by Dewitt Wallace while recovering from injuries obtained during the First World War. Despite its progressive attitude towards sex, the Digest was also fond of promoting reactionary values and anti-Communism, often printing smear stories leaked to it by the C.I.A. and F.B.I. The company was also famed for its series of “condensed novels”—each plastic-tooled volume of which contained abridged versions of four popular bestsellers of the moment (Wallace was fond of saying that his epitaph should read ”The final condensation”). The books Reader’s Digest published in the UK were available either from the “Reader’s Digest centres” dotted around the nation’s cities (where customers could “examine and buy” them) or directly through the post by mail order, and the company had a particular hold over people without easy access to bookshops and those who were perhaps not comfortable entering them—because they could be intimidating places—and felt they needed a guide. This guidance was trafficked through the pages of the magazine, amidst its strange mixture of real-life “I fell into a cement mixer” horror, advice on removing stains, and excruciating joke columns like “Laughter, the Best Medicine.”

As well as producing guides like the Reader’s Digest Family Medical Adviser and The Reader’s Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual—a two-volume tome so enormous that it came in its own ICBM launch-codes-eque slipcase—part of the remit of Reader’s Digest‘s publishing arm was to address the output of whichever gland of the zeitgeist happened to be secreting in that particular moment, hence books like 1976’s dip into the paranormal Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. What, then, does it tell us that alongside more sedate products like Success with House Plants and Creative Cooking and Entertaining, the Reader’s Digest publication roster for 1986 also included What to Do in an Emergency? Remaining safe and avoiding harm for ourselves and our loved ones is obviously a priority for most people, but What to Do in an Emergency also feels very much like it is tapping into something else—an almost perverse need to feel proximate to risk, to feel that our lives aren’t quite as safe and dull as they appear. It’s a truism oft repeated that one of the wellsprings of the aggressive energy of British punk was the flat-out boredom of British life, especially in the provinces. Perhaps What to Do in an Emergency was responding to that same need, which, across the Atlantic, was being answered by the delusions of a generation of survivalists. Of course, British survivalism was never going to take the same form as its pumped, bullish and locked-n-loaded US cousin, with its pecs oiled and its buttocks tightly clenched: our buttocks were tightly clenched alright, but for very different reasons. Plus, we didn’t have guns; we had umbrellas—well, if we were soft Southerners we did.

Perhaps it was also a reaction to the cognitive friction between the narrative then being pushed by the right-wing Thatcher government—that the world was a dangerous place and that the Tories were the party to make it safer—and the knowledge that thanks to Tory policies it actually was becoming a more dangerous place (albeit gradually, for most) and that people were going to have to start looking out for themselves as the strings of the welfare state’s safety nets were gradually snipped away. In some way, What to Do in an Emergency feels as though it was responding to these multiple stimuli—a need to feel that life wasn’t as dull as it seemed and at the same time a genuine fear that life risked becoming far less dull than it seemed.

In case potential buyers were unsure of the book’s contents, or emergency-tackling owners were worried about being able to identify their copy in haste as they attempted to save someone struck in the head by the yardarm of a yacht or scalded by a hot drink, What to Do in an Emergency featured a cover in innovative hi-visibility yellow with EMERGENCY emblazoned upon it in a clashing magenta, an ensemble clearly meant to evoke the livery of the British emergency services and confer upon it a pseudo-institutional aura of gravitas. To emphasize the tome’s vocation as a vital piece of lifesaving equipment, the book begins with a “rapid action guide” called “When Seconds Count” that covers primary existential threats to Brits—including, natch, chip pan fires, as well as children eating poisonous plants—before the book proper begins. The nine chapters that follow, from first aid and medical emergencies to drink and drugs, contain a number of illustrations so mind-bogglingly vast that only a corporate behemoth like Reader’s Digest could possible have afforded to fund. These are the book’s true heart and raison d’être.

Counterintuitively, the interior illustrations don’t take up the cover’s dramatic tones, adopting instead a washed-out, vaguely surreal photorealist style presumably intended to be reassuring and undramatic but in fact conferring to their subjects an eerily dreamlike quality. The scene for each chapter is set with a full-page image whose hazy tones, slightly more vivid than those used for the bulk of the illustrations, only lend their nominally innocuous subject matter an unsettlingly elegiac quality: a child on a bike, an old lady being given a cup of tea, a group of friends enjoying a picnic—tranquil scenes of everyday life whose very inclusion in the book imbues them with a sense of foreboding about what form the implicit emergency is going to take: will the poor old lady be scalded by tea, or is it the kind young man who is at risk? Are the carefree holidaymakers about to be attacked by wasps, or will they be struck by lightning? The pictures illustrating the chapters themselves share the mannered and vaguely camp style common to many Reader’s Digest self-help books—an uncanny fetishistic quality that makes them feel almost like some obsessive work of religious mania. In fact, the whole of What to Do in an Emergency feels like a dimly understood metaphor for something troubled and profound, and the stiffness of the posed images only adds to the disconcerting yet compelling atmosphere of gloom. In fact, What to Do in an Emergency almost seems like a vast, metastasized airplane safety card.

The book’s index—where “blood stains, removal of” sits next to “blocked lavatories” and “vomit stains, removal of” sits beside “volcanic eruptions”—reads like some crazed Oulipolian metafiction. In fact, you could probably make a case for What to Do in an Emergency being one of the more successful modernist horror novels of the 1980s. As well as covering standard British fears like blocked toilets, our ubiquitous chip pan fires, and the quicksand that, to judge by the amount of attention it got throughout the ’70s and ’80s, you would have been forgiven for imagining covered much of the mainland instead of a corner of a small beach in Grange over Sands, What to Do in an Emergency trots out a mindbending litany of horrors: “Menaced by a hitchhiker,” “A sleeping bag can become a dangerous trap,” “poisoned by a crop sprayer,” “Trapped in a bog,” “If you are falsely accused of shoplifting,” “TV fires,” and “If you are swept along by a crowd,” to name but a few. The emphasis is firmly focused on the less spectacular emergencies—surviving a plane crash is given less space than propping up a collapsed tent, for example—and each entry is written in the same voice: superficially calm and in control, but with a terse undertone that hints the writer is struggling to repress a panic attack. It’s not just the entries that are incredible, though—everything about What to Do in an Emergency is incredible, including the names of the illustrators, most of whom sound like people writing local scene reports for late-’80s Maximum Rock’n’Roll: Andrew Aloof, Dick Bonson, Charles Chambers, Ivan Lapper, A.W.K.A. Popkiewicz. The contributing writers are no less remarkable, any random selection of them—say, Dr. Birdwood, Frank Eaglestone, Anthony Greenbank, Basil Booth, and Pippa Isbel—sounding like characters from some half-remembered sitcom.

It would be churlish not to admit that what What to Do in an Emergency does, it does excellently, and its advice is always clear and to the point. The book’s genesis is obscure, but the illustrations and list of contributors indicate that it was commissioned by the British arm of Reader’s Digest and only later published in other countries: was it perhaps a fix-up compendium of material cobbled together from other Reader’s Digest self-help books? I can’t be arsed to find out, to be honest. But even if it is, it still feels in some way symbolic of its time and of what was to come. As I said at the beginning, the world can look like a dangerous place when you live in the safest parts of it. People there have farther to fall, as well perhaps as a suppressed semi-awareness that their peace of mind is simply an unearned accident of birth that was at least in part paid for by the sufferings and hard work of other less fortunate people around the world whose countries we’d invaded and whose economies we’d put to our own use.

For a long time, us Brits were fucking lucky, let’s face it: unemployment benefits, free healthcare, free dental care, free and affordable housing, free schools. The quality might occasionally have been as uneven as the teeth British dentistry provided to most of us middle-aged Brits, but at least you didn’t have to worry that there wouldn’t be a system there to provide help if you encountered an emergency. The seeds of the demise of our good fortune, though, were sown right there in the same furrow: given the decades of privilege and social security, many of us had forgotten that a world without such things was not just possible but the way most of the world lived. We thought being safe was the birthright of humanity—just something everyone got. Familiarity with the welfare state bred complacency and indifference, and when the spivs started trying to privatize it, we didn’t even realize it needed defending.

In times of uncertainty, safety and security start to prey on people’s minds. We’ve been watching it happen for years now in the UK as the political party most responsible for actually making Britain a more dangerous place—the Tories, natch, though Tony Blair’s New Labour did a lot of the groundwork and UKIP continues to stoke the fires—has used the anxieties its own policies continually frack up from beneath the psychic shale to fuel the engines of its own self promotion, promising they’ll be the ones to restore the beige stasis of what many consider to be English (as opposed to British) life. We’ll see over the next few years what new emergencies that typically English (as opposed to British) bit of shallowness leads us to.

“A Matter of Good Breeding”: The Shape-Shifting Elite in Brian Yuzna’s ‘Society’

Noah Berlatsky / December 10, 2019

The elite is an amorphous clotted blob of parasitic greed and hate. Its tendrils extend with slimy stealth into every orifice of society—which makes its precise outlines difficult to see. Are the elite contemptuous coastal liberals and academics? Are they hedge fund managers and tech billionaires? Are they infiltrating globalists or capitalist pigs? Are they your bosses? Or are they your neighbors sneering at your MCU films and your fast food diet? Or are they all of these people and more, gelatinously fusing into a suffocating, boundaryless mass, conspiring in the dank corners of the hierarchy to feed upon and absorb your labor and your soul?

Brian Yuzna’s 1989 schlock horror film Society slides its moist appendages around the concept of the elite, queasily exposing its power and its vile plasticity. Squeezing into the paranoid horror genre at the very end of the Cold War, Society contorts itself away from the communist menace to focus on the evil assimilating rituals of a boneless capitalism. In doing so, though, it inadvertently shows how difficult it is, with the tropes of terror we have, to tell communism and capitalism apart. The two dissolve into a single two-headed, or multi-headed, or faceless mass, impossible to pin down or define, and therefore impossible to escape.

Society‘s protagonist is Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock), a wealthy Beverly Hills teen and star basketball player running for student body president. Everything seems to be going well for him. And yet, “If I scratch the surface, there’ll be something terrible underneath,” he tells his therapist, Dr. Cleveland (Ben Slack), just before biting into an apple and seeing it squirming with (hallucinatory?) maggots. The worm in Bill’s Garden of Eden is his family. His parents Nan (Connie Danese) and Jim (Charles Lucia) are much closer to his sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) than they are to him. He suspects they don’t love him; he worries he is adopted. Soon, though, he has cause for even more serious alarm. His sister’s ex-boyfriend David Blanchard (Tim Bartell) secretly bugs Bill’s parents and sister; on the tape the three of them reveal that Jenny’s debutante coming out party is a bizarre incestuous group sex ritual. When Bill tries to share the evidence, the tape disappears, and Blanchard is killed in a car crash. The wooden acting and incoherent plot tremble between B-movie incompetence and sweat-drenched fever dream as the conspiracy begins to engulf everyone from Bill’s rival, Ted Ferguson (Ben Meyerson), to his new girlfriend Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez), to his doctor, his parents, and the police.

In the film’s infamous conclusion, we learn that Bill was in fact adopted, and his parents and their friends are part of a shape-shifting species that devours humans in a bizarre group feeding sex ritual called the “shunt.” The last twenty minutes of the runtime are an oozy apocalypse courtesy of special effects guru Screaming Mad George: flesh dissolves, mouths turn into clotted rubbery tendrils, and Bill literally reaches up through Ted Ferguson’s anus to pull him inside out in a climactic battle, ending Ted’s life and Bill’s hopes of a Washington internship. Clarissa is so in love with Bill that she betrays her own species, and she, Bill, and Bill’s buddy Milo (Evan Richards) escape the clutches of the elite, whose members have to satisfy themselves with eating Blanchard, saved from his apparent death by car crash for an even more awful fate.

Society is a decadent, absurdly sodden and febrile extension of the body horror genre of the ‘70s and ‘80s, taking The Thing (1982), 1985’s Re-Animator (which Yuzna produced), The Blob (1988), and The Fly (1986), and adding even more K-Y Jelly and quivering sexual innuendo. It can also be seen, though, as a reversal of those late Cold War-era films, reaching through the back end to grab hold of the eye sockets from the inside to pull out the wet, pulsing innards. Just as the Berlin Wall was falling, Society revealed that the fear of the Soviets was fear of the wealthy elite all along.


Anti-communist paranoia in Cold War horror often centers on deindividuation and dehumanization. Ronald Reagan was channeling films like 1954’s Them!, with its giant, mindless insect invaders, when he described Communism as an “ant heap of totalitarianism.” The 1958 The Blob features a figurative Red menace: a clump of gelatin fallen from space that absorbs all those in its path, dissolving discrete persons into a single jelly-like mass. 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers imagines alien seed pods falling to earth, from which gestate repulsively fibrous duplicates. They drain human appearance and personality when, in a metaphorical excess of failed vigilance, their targets fall asleep. “Love, desire, ambition, faith—without them life’s so simple,” a pod person explains to the horrified protagonists, sketching a vision of a world enervated by a lack of human warmth and capitalist moxy. Significantly, one of the first signs of the pod invasion is a dual leeching away of business initiative and consumerist impulses. Dr. Miles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy) first notices something awry when he sees an abandoned roadside vegetable stand. Later, when he takes Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) out to dinner, the restaurant is almost abandoned. Pod people neither sell nor buy; the hive mind, possessed of invisible tendrils, does not require an invisible hand.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) are “born again” in the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Communism doesn’t just eat through commercial relationships in these films; it eats through domestic ones. Removing consumer desire also removes traditional sexual and romantic impulses, leaving behind monstrous abomination. Science-fiction author Jack L. Chalker neatly summarizes the anti-communist logic in his 1978 novel Exiles at the Well of Souls, in which humans have created Comworlds where “The individual meant nothing; humanity was a collective concept.” To advance that group good, the Comworlds retool sexual biology itself: “Some bred all-females, some retained two sexes, and some, like New Harmony, bred everyone as a bisexual. A couple had dispensed with all sexual characteristics entirely, depending on cloning.” In one of the most quietly ugly moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a working mother prepares a pod for her own baby, noting in a monotone that soon it won’t cry. Plants replace wombs just as outsourced childcare replaces homemaking, and maternal feelings dissolve into a grey, ichorous, proto-feminist puddle.

The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers further teases out the bleakly kinky implications of mind-controlled interference in the reproductive process. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) falls asleep in a field, and, as her personality is sucked from her, her body cracks and crumbles like a rotten pumpkin. Nearby, she rises up in her new form, “born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety, fear, hate”—and also free of clothes. Pod Elizabeth is completely nude, and the film’s stark gaze willfully conflates desire and terror. In fact, the terror is precisely that she is both fully available and completely unavailable, a desirable body in thrall to some inhuman mass will.

Society takes that body and molds it to different ends. The communist infiltration is replaced with a festering class divide. Good, upstanding businessmen, mothers, and citizens are not infected with an alien ideology. Instead, as the maniacal Dr. Cleveland explains, “No, we’re not from outer space or anything like that. We have been here as long as you have. It’s a matter of good breeding, really.” The parasitic infection is not foreign, but native. No one has been changed; rather, the paranoid revelation is that the evil ones were here all along, squatting wetly in those mansions, and sliding hideously into prestigious internships. No blob or pod or thing needs to take control of the judges, the police, the hospitals, and the student presidency. The blob/pod/thing is already here, salivating. “Didn’t you know, Billy boy, the rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you,” Ted Ferguson sneers, before rolling out an impossibly long tongue to sloppily lick his prey.

Ted’s tongue slides around various kinds of appetite; the rich are hungry not just for deviant power, but for deviant erotics. Just as communism in horror films disorders sexuality, so in Society the rich are marked as evil in large part because of their hypocritical flouting of family values. “We’re just one big happy family except for a little incest and psychosis,” Bill tells Dr. Cleveland nervously, and it’s truer than he knows. His parents and sister share improbably pliable group sex. In a polymorphously perverse primal scene, Bill walks in on them, discovering his mother lying back with her legs turned into arms, and sister Jenny’s head sprouting from her genitals. “If you have any Oedipal fantasies you’d like to indulge in, Billy, now’s the time,” Jenny shrieks gleefully—vapid ‘80s high-class party teen revealed as demonic sexual reprobate.

Billy does have uncomfortable fantasies. Earlier in the film, before he knows what he’s dealing with, he walks in on Jenny in the shower. What he sees is one of the strangest erotic images in film history: through the glazed glass, his sister is facing him from the waist up, her breasts clearly visible. But below the waist her butt is towards him. Bill is frozen in confusion and desire at the sexual grotesque, a literally twisted incestuous spectacle. This erotic narrative stasis is something of a motif in the film. The plot slows down to catch Bill’s wide-eyed reaction during the student president debate, when Clarissa in the audience opens her legs, foreshadowing Sharon Stone’s more explicit move in Basic Instinct (1992) a few years later. Bill similarly comes to a staring halt while watching his parents inspect a phallic, writhing slug in the garden—and then again on the beach, when he is crawling to try to recover some fallen suntan lotion stolen by a couple of mischievous kids. Clarissa, entering stage right, picks up the lotion, and, leaning over him, sprays his face, a move that mimes ejaculation in a phallic role reversal. Finally, when Bill actually has sex with Clarissa, the expression on his face is one of distress and horror as much as pleasure—perhaps because at the height of passion, her left hand slides down sensuously over her back and then down her right arm, as if it’s been cut loose from her body and has wandered off on its own.

The movie itself mirrors Bill’s conflicted gaze, simultaneously fascinated and sickened. The climax is a special effects money shot in multiple respects. The scene is exuberantly concupiscent, with group sex, incest, porn movie tongue kisses, and indeterminate bodily fluids all slickly fusing. The leader of the shunt, Judge Carter (David Wiley), mutters greedily about Blanchard’s beauty mark before devouring him with his mouth, and shoving his hand up his anus. Homosexuality is framed as the ultimate decadence—a terrifying embodiment of penetrative lust that makes you recoil, laugh, and feel things you don’t, or do, want to feel.

The shunt is the Communist blob, with joy added. Judge Carter, Ted, and Jenny all obviously love the shunt. “It’s so fun to see how far you can stretch,” one of Jenny’s fellow shunters tells her. “The hotter and wetter you get the more you can do. It’s great!” The wealthy elite should be opposed to the depersonalization of Communism, but instead they leap in, eager and willing. They’re the enthusiastic audience for all those Cold War films, cheering for the goopy appearance of the Blob.

If all those capitalist viewers loved consuming the Blob, was the Blob ever really a Red Menace in the first place? The problem with seeing Society as an inversion of Cold War anti-communist narratives is that those Cold War anti-communist narratives were often torso-twisted replicas of themselves anyway. The 1988 Blob, for example, replaces the invading goop from space with a biological weapon created by the U.S. government; the shapeless metaphor for communist invasion heaves and bulges and becomes a shapeless metaphor for capitalist invasion.

John Rieder, in 2017’s Science-Fiction and the Mass Culture Genre System, points out that the anti-communism of Invasion of the Body Snatchers can also be read as a terror of capitalism, alluding to the economic signifiers I mentioned earlier.

One of the first signs of the invasion is the closure of a small farmer’s produce stand. Later we see a restaurant losing its business. Finally a group of aliens conspires behind a Main Street-type storefront after one of them grimly turns the sign on the door from Open to Closed. What these emptying-out and closures signify is an economy bent entirely on the production and distribution of seed pods. The colonizing economy is not attuned to the local needs that a produce stand responds to, but rather focuses solely on the single-minded propagation and export of its one and only crop.

The machinations of the body-snatching elites hollow out the town of Santa Mira, just as the society feeds on Blanchard—or just as the vampire feeds in 1922’s Nosferatu. Bram Stoker’s decadent, parasitic aristocrat was robbing helpless victims of their will and individuality via debased, incestuous, homoerotic sexual rituals long before the Cold War seedpods split open. Anti-communism spawned anti-elitism, and anti-elitism spawned anti-communism. Rieder argues that the real danger of the pods is “monopolistic corporate capitalism,” not communism. But which take is the true reading is less important than the way anti-communism is an indistinguishably parasitic replication of anti-capitalism, and vice versa. The tropes of anti-elitism and of anti-communism are grown from one bloated pod. Both dissolve personality, virtue, ambition, love, and sex into a repulsive muck that lives only to eat and perversely reproduce.

Left: Nosferatu (1922); right: They Live (1988)

Perhaps the best example of how radical and reactionary horror tropes sprout from one another is John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live. In the movie, John Nada (Roddy Piper), a virtuous, optimistic, working-class protagonist, discovers that cadaverous aliens are living among us, controlling us with television messages that turn us into obedient, consuming drones. The movie is widely considered a critique of Reagan-era neoliberalism, and it is that. But it’s also a story about the virtues of genocide. A white guy discovers aliens who don’t look like him living in his town, and his first impulse is to murder them. Foreign shape-shifting immigrants, like vampires, are a standard anti-Semitic stand-in for Jews, and They Live can be read as a fascist conspiracy theory, in which brave working Americans finally recognize their racial oppressors, and respond with righteous cleansing violence.

Actual neo-Nazis have in fact read the film in exactly this way. Director John Carpenter insists that this was not his intention, and there’s no reason to disbelieve him. But tropes, like pod people, have minds of their own. When a creator assembles signs that signal “anti-elitism,” those same signs exude a duplicate, indistinguishable signal that is “anti-communism” or its frequent partner on the right, “fascism.” This is certainly the case in Society, a film in which Judaism is as slippery as sexuality. David Blanchard, we’re repeatedly told, is not the right kind of boy to date Jenny. That’s in part, we learn, because he’s Jewish. After his car accident, he has an open casket funeral in a synagogue. The problem is that Jewish people don’t have open casket funerals. Blanchard, whose corpse is faked by the society, is, it turns out (and unbeknownst to the film creators), a fake simulacra of a Jew.

If Blanchard isn’t really a Jew, it follows that the group that rejects him is made up of fake gentiles. And indeed, the vampiric, endogamous, shape-shifting vampires of the society are a not-very-buried anti-Semitic caricature. “You’re a different race from us, a different species, a different class. You’re not one of us. You have to be born into society,” the creatures tell him. This is a statement about the insularity, privilege, and snobbishness of the hereditary rich. But it’s also a racialization of class that is uncomfortably congruent with anti-Semitism. When the rich are horned devils feeding on the blood of your progeny, that could mean they’re not the rich at all, but the usual scapegoat.

Society expresses its disgust for the elite through the visceral, loathsome, oily imagery of homophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-leftism. Class critique in the popular imagination draws parasitically on the stigmatization of marginalized people, and on tropes of deindividuation and sexual disorder sucked up from anticommunism. This is in part why it’s been so easy for the right over the last half century and more to position itself as the defender of working people. We have built the rhetoric of anti-elitism and the rhetoric of fascism from the same putrid, writhing flesh. If we don’t find a better way to imagine resistance, and soon, society will consume us too.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.Patreon Button

Metal Renaissance: Garry Sharpe-Young’s Album Cover Art, 1983 – 1987

Exhibit / December 5, 2019

Object Name: Heavy Metal LP Cover Art
Maker and Year: Garry Sharpe-Young, 1983-1987
Object Type: Artwork
Description: (Richard McKenna)

Though active for only a brief period of time, artist Garry Sharpe-Young created a series of LP covers that provide a thrilling miniature survey of the mental landscapes of the British heavy metal music scene of the 1980s. The covers—all produced between 1983 and 1987—capture the lurid euphoria of a particular period of metal’s history when, revitalized by the energy of punk, the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal—known to metallers by the sacred and unpronounceable acronym “NWOBHM”—brought an injection of creativity and excitement to a genre many considered moribund, suffocated under the flaccid weight of its own juvenile clichés. Assisted by a DIY approach that was also borrowed from punk, the NWOBHM arrived in the late ’70s with its own thrilling grab-bag of juvenile clichés, or in the worst case took a hungry new approach to those that already existed.

The motifs in Sharpe-Young’s covers will be familiar ones to anyone versed in metal’s preferred leitmotifs—post-apocalyptic wastelands, science fiction, sword and sorcery slop, the occult, war and battlefields, technology and death—but just as the NWOBHM headbangers brought a new prole ferocity and rawness to their music, Sharpe-Young approached his subject matter with a fresh and exciting garishness and spontaneity that clearly displayed the influence of comics and fantasy art (Frank Frazetta, notably), as well as of the artwork flooding out of the nascent video game industry. And what the illustrations might have lacked in slick professionalism they more than made up for with the brute force of their hugely enjoyable silliness.

Despite the relatively slight size of his visual oeuvre (he was apparently inspired by the sight of one of the many particularly awful album covers scattered throughout British fortnightly metal bible Kerrang), it possesses a distinctive aesthetic that, uniquely, doesn’t really resemble anyone else, and its combination of naiveté, technical flair, and all-out punkish chutzpah gives it a vividness and freshness that raises it above most of its peers. And if we can judge by these twelve covers, it seems fair to note that—by the admittedly low standards of the metal scene of the time—Sharpe-Young’s artwork is surprisingly un-sexist, as the intimidating huntress on the cover of Chinawite’s Run for Cover testifies. Something about his creations hints that the late Sharpe-Young was more self-aware than many of his peers in the ’80s, and in fact he went on to became a prominent journalist of the international metal scene.

“Makes the Perfect Christmas Gift!”: The Television Ads of Ronco

Exhibit / December 4, 2019

Object Name: Ronco advertisements
Maker and Year: Ronco Teleproducts, Inc./Ronco, Inc., 1970s-1984
Object Type: Television advertisements
Video Source: starbond6/YouTube
Description: (Michael Grasso)

During broadcast television’s heyday in the 1970s, the American airwaves presented a series of advertising strata over the course of the broadcast day. The mornings and early afternoons would see household and kitchen products meant to appeal to housewives; toys and snacks and sugary breakfast cereals appeared once the kids got home from school; cars and medicines and other products with broad appeal would show up during prime time. As for late nights and overnights, no one haunted the cheap television commercial breaks quite like Ronco. For two decades—from 1964 to 1984—the company, founded by second-generation gadget salesman Ron Popeil, zapped countless catch phrases into the brains of the American TV-viewing audience. Presenting its array of multi-purpose household gadgets in a breathless, urgent style to fit into a half-minute or full-minute commercial slot, Ronco set the standard for the late-night direct mail sales pitch.

This type of TV ad came directly from Ron Popeil’s experience as an in-person hawker of the kitchen vegetable slicers that his father Sam and uncle Raymond had invented. Ron sold the slicers everywhere in his twenties: from the counter at Woolworths locations in Chicago to county and state fairs throughout the Midwest. By the early ’60s, Ron saw the potential of doing demonstrations on television, and bought cheap airtime on regional stations in Tampa, Florida and the Midwest in 1964, branding his father’s and uncle’s choppers as the now-legendary Veg-O-Matic, giving pop culture the first of many Ronco catchphrases: “It slices! It dices!” The Veg-O-Matic was only the beginning. By the early 1970s, Ronco Teleproducts had dozens of products on offer, none of which had a price point higher than $19.99.

The video above is an internal product reel featuring the kinds of products that Ronco presented from its 1970s heyday right up until the company’s first bankruptcy and dissolution in 1984. Many of these ads are Christmas-themed, as the modest Ronco price points made their products “great Christmas gifts.” The “Ronco Gift Center” (with its “As seen on TV” legend) featured in the first ad demonstrates that while Ronco made a good chunk of its sales through direct mail thanks to its TV ads, the company also used brick-and-mortar discount outlets to replicate the “impulse buy” mood that its TV ads so expertly cultivated. The consumer electronics revolution in the mid-to-late 1970s allowed Ronco to supplement its purely mechanical gadgets (such as the Ronco inside-the-eggshell Egg Scrambler and the “amazing no-spill” all-temperature Ronco AutoCup) with more and more electronic items. The gradual turn against public smoking in America in the ’70s led to the design and sale of Ronco’s various air purifiers like the Ronco Smokeless Ashtray, and no Ronco electronic toy is better known than “Mr. Microphone,” a low-power radio transmitter in a hand-held microphone that allowed the user to broadcast their voice out of a nearby FM radio. America’s love of home entertainment equipment in the late ’70s also allowed Ronco to capitalize by carving out a niche of gadgets for your gadgets, like the Ronco Battery Tester and the Ronco Record Vacuum.

The second half of this commercial reel features Ronco’s various music compilations on LP records; the array of artists and songs on offer (a mix of disco and funk hits, easy-listening hits from long-haired sensitive songwriters, and occasional hard rockers) show that Ronco’s music division, like its gadgets, peaked in the late 1970s. Like its rival K-tel, Ronco bought the rights to recent middling hit singles and put them all on one themed LP, making sure the consumer knew these were no sound-alikes (“Original hits by the original artists!”).

With the rise of cable television in the 1980s, Ronco’s approach of buying cheap late-night commercial time on over-the-air stations became diluted. The decision to expand into electronics also had an effect, as Ronco gadgets like the CleanAire air purifier didn’t match up to similar products on offer from big electronics makers. As mentioned above, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1984. But Ron Popeil himself and countless imitators would find new homes on the late-night airwaves during the rise of the full-length half-hour infomercial in the early 1990s, as well as on dedicated home shopping cable networks.