We Are the Mutants

Fractal Accidents: Attachment and Agency in Chris Shaw’s ‘Split’

Jonathan Lukens / June 3, 2021

As a young man, I felt that most people conceived of memory differently than I did, believing that failures of memory were errors of playback more than of recording. This idea, that memory works like a vinyl record in which everything we experience has its groove, supposes that it’s just a matter of knowing precisely where to put the needle down to replay the experience. In contrast, my younger self operated with the also erroneous belief that our memories are only hazy recordings of what we have somehow deemed worthy of recalling—that memory is like finding old semi-legible notes to ourselves written in an old notebook and trying to  figure out what they mean.

It was with this theory of memory in mind that I had begun to consider Split, a movie that I thought I remembered renting from a video store up the street from my childhood home sometime around 1990. For over a decade, my occasional recollections of the film, often spaced years apart, might prompt a web search with no results, which would then introduce a sense of disorientation: I could not experience the instant gratification of finding some online mention that might confirm that what I remembered was real. Was Split (that was the name, right?) just an Easter Egg written into the script of my past—some sort of Berenstain (sic?) Bears thing? After all, and with all due respect to the films’ creators: if my adolescent mind was going to fabricate a memory, this is the sort of thing it would have come up with. 

Originally released theatrically in 1989, and subsequently on VHS in 1991 by Futura Home Video, Split was reissued on DVD in 2018 by Verboden Video and is also available through Alamo Drafthouse’s streaming app, which is how I was able to confirm its existence and watch it again. Spoilers of the film follow, but only insofar as my synopsis is veridical to the plot—a nested disclaimer I wouldn’t need to make if the film were less fractured. Whether its cracked mirror nature is a deliberate mindfuck, the result of freshman filmmaking hamfistedness, or both, is not something I can tell you. 

The film opens with Starker, our hero, wandering the streets of San Francisco. His ripped jeans show his bare rear end, and he’s wearing the sort of jagged and discolored false teeth that might have been advertised in old comic books alongside fake vomit and squirting flowers. He walks through a parking lot full of city buses, suddenly looking directly at the camera and yelling, “Stop following me. Leave me alone.” At first, we believe he is addressing us, the viewers, and breaking the fourth wall, but the camera cuts to two men dressed in a mid-‘80s Ivy League casual style—like they just walked out of a JC Penny catalog shoot. One sits at a computer; the other, older and mustachioed, is framed over his right shoulder. The younger man was surveilling Starker, and, as the dialogue reveals, the populace more broadly. He rewinds a recording of Starker’s camera-facing monologue and consults with the older agent, who says Starker is just crazy, but capitulates to the younger agent’s desire for further observation.

They run a face recognition program, presented as a musical montage, in which we see Starker’s head rendered as a 3D model as the camera hops around a black and white grid of similar hairless heads looking for a match. The sequence is still enthralling and somewhat hypnotic after 30 years. This isn’t a real 3D scan of a human head; rather it’s a painstakingly created proof of concept showing us what the technology that would soon become ubiquitous might look like. It dances. We hear pitch-shifted human voices of the sort we might associate with Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” and they create a synthetic and escalating harmonic pattern as the facial recognition nears completion.

This is the first of a few similarly rendered and soundtracked scenes that make Split worth more attention than it will ever receive. Analog processes are used to pre-mediate future digital operations, and there is a lo-fi poetry to them. These skies are the color of the ancestors of our flat-screen TVs, their saturations and frequency roll-off the stuff of a time when there really were dead channels, and tuned-in heads bobbed to the tangible yet barely audible click that the phone made just before it rang. Different media have different dispositions, and I explain these in the hope of being descriptive, while mindful of any argument about the veracity of concepts of authenticity.

Jittering a bit and mumbling, Starker heads into a diner and has a seat at a booth. He orders coffee from a waitress we’ll meet again later while speaking in a hybrid of fake European accents. Making a mess while examining a ketchup bottle, then pouring a packet of artificial sweetener onto the table and snorting it up his nose like cocaine, he talks to himself as the surrounding patrons begin to grow nervous. One of them gets up, takes him by the shoulder and leads him outside. At one point the camera lingers for a moment—letting us know that a brightly colored fabric pouch that Starker has left behind means something. 

As the film progresses, we watch Starker give the agents surveilling him the slip. After being knocked out and having his jacket tagged with a tracking device, he discovers the device, removes his jacket, and changes clothes to elude his pursuers. To illustrate the process of his being tracked we are treated to a primitive color representation of a 3D vector map of the city. It’s like an isomorphic video game built of an extruded and pastel colored De Stijl painting that says, “Welcome to the control society. Now you’re playing with power.” The whole sequence provides a taste of the ‘90s to come, bringing to mind critiques of the automatic production of space and tactical media projects like the Institute for Applied Autonomy’s iSee and the performances of the Surveillance Camera Players.

Starker retrieves the brightly colored fabric pouch from the trash outside the diner. He dons a new—and more ridiculous—disguise: a stick-on mustache and goatee paired with wire-rimmed glasses, a brown turtleneck, and a beige corduroy sports coat. Setting the scene for an art gallery opening, a lovingly blocked shot of Starker creates the sort of recursion we would associate with a Magritte or Escher through a row of champagne flutes. The camera lingers over a series of paintings reminiscent of Basil Wolverton’s or Erol Otus’s more psychedelic work. Gallery patrons talk trash about the paintings and each other while Starker shoves food in his pockets—John Belushi in Animal House style—as a lovely minimal synth piece by Robert Shaw, the director’s brother and creator of the computer generated effects seen through the film, begins to warble and flutter.

Conversing with the fictional creator of these paintings (in reality those of writer/director Chris Shaw himself), a flat-topped New Waver wearing a mustard yellow dinner jacket over a t-shirt, our ludicrously costumed hero mentions preparing to “wake people up.” As they discuss the artwork hanging on the gallery walls, they stop to look at a storyboard—which we realize is the storyboard of the current scene. As the artist begins to realize the same truth, he becomes enraged. He screams, but none of the patrons seem to notice or care.

The film meanders for a while, if it was not already meandering. We see the junior and senior agents discuss an analysis that reveals no discernible patterns in Starker’s behavior, and they escalate their attempts to find him. Now at the artist’s apartment after the art opening, Starker is coaxed into revealing his plan: “All we have to do is change the program!” he says, later addressing the painter’s skepticism with, “I have the way. The way is here—in my package!” Removing the pouch from an inside coat pocket, Starker then opens it to reveal a white plastic disc approximately the size of his hand. The artist remarks that it resembles a urinal deodorizer.

Starker goes on a tear: “Science is a jealous god.” The mystical “separates us from robots.” “What I am holding is a mutant biological organism.” He almost immediately contradicts himself and says the substance is just a placebo because people require a scientific reason to believe in something and that that is necessary for “the dream” to have power. He explains that he is going to dose the city’s water supply with this substance and then it will spread around the world as people excrete it through their urine. Sort of an Amanita muscaria re-trip meets infrastructural schwerpunkt: The MacGuffin is Elan Vital as urinal cake.

A few meaning-laden but plot-insignificant scenes later, Starker heads back to the diner. After a scuffle in which he startles Susan (the waitress we saw earlier) and she kicks him to the ground, he pressures her to let him hide out at her place. Reasonably viewing him as a crazy and potentially dangerous creep, she declines his offer. But, after following her to her car, he convinces her to relent by claiming that he used to be a veterinarian and that he may be able to explain the lethargy of the cat in a carrier in her back seat. The absurdity of this caged animal suddenly appearing to move the plot along is rendered even more absurd when Susan later explains that she already understood that the cat was lethargic because she had had it sterilized earlier in the day. There is something so metaphorically overt about this detail that I can’t tell if it’s a bad joke or a catastrophic mistake. In any event, Starker seems no less concerned about going home with a woman that left a post-op feline in the back of a car all day than Susan is about bringing home a man who claimed he was being followed and sat in her place of business snorting Sweet and Low through a straw while ranting in a fake French accent.

I will omit a lot of interpersonal awkwardness, strange dialogue, and things that may be significant to alternate interpretations in revealing that Starker crashes at Susan’s place (Pop Tarts and chill). The time they spend together only serves to make her subsequent death at the hands of the Starker’s pursuers insufficiently tragic to motivate his subsequent attempt at revenge. Discovering her murder at the hands of the Izod-clad archons, Starker—now in drag and blackface—follows the agents back to their bosses’ HQ. They enter through a large circular metal door, and Starker, who they don’t realize is following behind, is unable to enter.

Their boss, perhaps too obviously referred to as the “Agency Director” in a film about agency panic, laments his “monstrous” newly installed cybernetic arm. In an abrupt spasm of the plot that seems to indicate that the Director’s body is deteriorating, a lab-coated flunky soothes him by explaining that he has created that ultimate mad-scientist expression of mind-body dualism: a machine that can transfer a mind into another body. The camera cuts to Starker, unseen on the Agency Director’s CCTV, who is loading a pistol. He tries to find a way to open the door while the minions inside hurry to find a body to receive the Agency Director’s mind. The agents open the door and grab Starker, having seemingly no idea that they have apprehended the very person they were relentlessly pursuing earlier. Starker drops his gun in the struggle, and they strap him to a chair and lower a brain transfer apparatus over his head.

“Let me out! It worked!” Starker says, but it’s not clear if the process was successful or if Starker is trying to convince the agents that it was. We’re left to wonder if this Camp Concentration-style mind transfer worked at all. It’s set up as a techgnostic climax that never happens, as if this cyberpunk yacht rock anthem makes it to the guitar solo just as the amp blows. The enraged Agency Director yells and tells his minions to get rid of “her.” They throw Starker out, not seeming to care that this random person just entered their secret bunker, and still not realizing that it was Starker himself. 

The final quarter of the film involves agents pursuing Starker while the Agency Director’s body is gradually replaced with a mechanical one. The music is great here and evokes both a sort of period instrumental soft rock call-center hold music and early Chrome. Someone with disposable income should release a proper soundtrack.

Now looking like a lo-fi Robocop or a reject from a Shinya Tsukamoto film, the Agency Director’s cybernetic augmentations (or too on-the-nose self-amputations) have endowed him with new powers. He accesses satellites while issuing abrasively vocoded directives that also appear on a camera-facing screen, perhaps to ensure intelligibility to the audience. Starker’s location is revealed on a map as crescendoing lo-bit sound effects accompany synth pads and drums. “Eradicate!” The Agency Director yells in a Davros-like moment. The camera cuts to Starker hopping over fences and traversing a roadside embankment, while the Agency Director seems to glitch out as he installs one last bionic eye into his head. 

Now fully metal-skinned and ambulatory, he walks over to a pool of water inside headquarters. Elsewhere in a meadow, Starker stumbles into a pool himself, grabbing the white disc he revealed earlier. Somehow, both pools have become a sort of fold in space—the Agency Director reaches through and grabs Starker. They struggle, each remaining primarily in their own physical location while their arms bend through each others’ space. Starker breaks free and releases the chemical in the white disc. White dust floats in the air.

The end credits roll (well, melt, actually) and no further explanation is given.

***

Ultimately, outside of the beauty of the graphics and soundtrack, the joy and frustration of Split is that we are confronted with something that we can’t quite classify. Foregrounds and backgrounds of plot and image oscillate and change places, but so do the cues we’d typically use to determine whether or not we approached the material as comic or tragic, accidental or deliberate, high brow or trash stratum.

Watching Split (had I really seen it before?) left me with the distinct feeling that I just missed five minutes of it without leaving my seat. Shaw never really makes it clear what we should focus on, and the director’s commentary on the DVD doesn’t provide much help. There Shaw describes the film as “a dream that doesn’t really explain itself.” He does, however, talk a bit about chaos—not just disorder, but the branch of mathematics we might associate with Lorenz, Mandelbrot, the butterfly effect, and fractals. While history might provide examples of minor perturbations in complex systems causing them to collapse or toggle into alternate states, it seems here that chaos is really just used as a sort of “magic” (in the same way that “science” is used in superhero comics) to attempt to explain how Starker has a capacity for action that exceeds that of the archons that surveil him.

Really thinking about agency as contingent and distributed means something quite different and perhaps far more unsettling. I’d like to tell you that Split reveals a negotiation between ideas of cowboy individualism on one end, and on the other an appreciation of the behavior of complex adaptive systems of which human “individuals” are both composed of and parts of. In reality, the film presents 20th century ideas of autonomy and individuality taken to such an extreme that they become a bit goofy. The film presents an inverse relationship between attachment and individuality. Take, for example, this dialogue between the two primary agents who discover and begin tracking Starker, in which the frustrated junior agent asks:

How can he make it? We all have something: our family, our friends, something, but he… he gets by on nothing. How can he be that free? No human needs, no weaknesses, no feelings, nothing.

As they discuss their pending report to the Agency Director, the senior agent explains that they will just have to tell it like it is:

       No recurrent behavior, no attachments, no soft spots: superman.

So, the superman, the “free” man, is the man who cares about no one and has no routine. Attachment to others is presented in the same way that an ascetic might present an attachment to material things, but also as a commodity that the system of surveillance capitalism depicted in the film exploits. In the world of Split, one can either be “free” and thus detached from social forces one can’t actually detach from, or part of some sort of winkingly self-aware Matrix.

Many of the characters, including Susan, the painter, some street crazies, and the pursuing agents, seem to have some awareness that by participating in society they are being had. It’s as if they are wearing the glasses from They Live (1988) but realize that if they call attention to their alien overlords they will just be ignored anyway.

Shaw’s broader argument seems to be that as an “individual” who is truly “free,” Starker exists without a data-body; he’s an Übermensch who cannot be profiled or reduced to his so-called statistical self. As such, Starker stands outside of culture—the infrastructure of shared social and material substrates that both the one and the many call upon to act. But he still has the magic urinal cake, the fulcrum and lever by which he is super empowered.

Like a bad haircut, dosing the water supply with mutagenic hallucinogens seems cool in high school, when we are naive enough to dream that control is simply a matter of centralization and that shocking the dupes out of their somnambulism is something they will high five us for afterwards. But while portrayed as some sort of systems-disrupting black swan herald of a “new age,” maybe Starker—and the film itself—just represents a dance around the collapse of any sort of shared systems of meaning. After all, at the climactic moment when Starker releases the mutagen, the end credits roll. Were not shown what comes next—just the end of the now.  

Jonathan Lukens is a cultural worker from Atlanta. His work has been shown at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, played through omnifarious speakers, and published in The AtlanticDesign Issues, and The International Journal of Design in Society.

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Marrying the Monster: Apocalyptic and Utopian Impulses in 1950s Sci-Fi Cinema

Pepe Tesoro / May 26, 2021

If you are even mildly interested in science fiction criticism, chances are that you have bumped into Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” Written at the tail end of the long 1950s golden era of sci-fi film, the text is a bold and keen examination of a genre that wouldn’t receive serious criticism for quite a few years, especially in its cinematic form. Sontag, always motivated to engage with the marginal and seemingly worthless aspects of her culture, was one of the first voices to address the wild popularity of disaster and monster movies during an era that defines the genre to this day.

It may seem, though, that Sontag’s central insight was pretty trivial. These movies, for her, represented an expression of a historically specific transformation to a permanent human anxiety towards death, intensified to a qualitatively new level after the horror of concentration camps and the reality of nuclear weapons. This was the result of “the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century,” explains Sontag, “when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning.”

It is important to stress, especially today, that the intensification of the fear of extinction and global catastrophe was not just a matter of an increase in potential victims; it was also the new technological sophistication of the means of that destruction. After World War II it became clear not only that humans were able to destroy their own species in a matter of seconds, but also that the new menace of instant extinction was a direct result of human scientific inquiry and the advancement of industry.

This pretty much encapsulates the ambivalence towards science in 1950s science fiction. In these early genre movies, a scientific advancement or weapon test gone wrong almost always initiates the plot. In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), a monstrous prehistoric lizard preserved inside the ice is set free by a series of atomic tests in the Arctic. In an almost identical manner, the giant beast of the quintessential kaiju film Godzilla (1954) is awoken from a dormant state in the bottom of the ocean by the deployment of nuclear weapons. In both of these movies (and in many others, like 1954’s Them! and 1957’s The Amazing Colossal Man), collective destruction is the result of unpredicted consequences of human scientific development that awaken a deadly power that not only surpasses but also often precedes human existence, and which breaks down conventional power structures. Here human responsibility is diluted; there are no discernible culprits and everyone is equally a victim. But there is also the idea of a pre-existing geological determination of human extinction that eerily relates to today’s anxiety about our biological vulnerabilities in the face of environmental collapse.

Godzilla, 1954

There are many themes that can be extracted from 1950s sci-fi movies, from the early postwar tensions of gender dynamics in American society to a sometimes not-so-obvious subtext about racial inequality, to fear of revolution in the face of the decolonization of the Third World and, most prominent, the ghostly menace of communism. There is also a near ubiquitous obsession with depersonalization or, quite literally, “alien”-ation. As Sontag sees it, the mythology of possession has been historically related to animalistic traits, as an overdose of passion and animal instinct, but now it seems that the true fear “is understood as residing in man’s ability to be turned into a machine.” This is the case of productions such as 1960’s Village of the Damned or the fantastic Jack Arnold classic It Came from Outer Space (1953). In both these films (see also 1958’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space), some alien race or entity possesses human hosts or recreates human-like bodies to communicate with us—or to infiltrate our society. This trope (which had the added benefit of being budget-friendly) encapsulated the modern fear of losing human passions and emotions, such as love or solidarity, to the advancement of a cold, sober, and technocratic rationality.

This is, of course, the case of the much-discussed Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), mostly considered an anti-communist metaphor. But without disregarding the common interpretation around McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the film can also be explained as an expression of greater anxieties about modern dehumanization. As M. Keith Booker puts it, the anti-communist metaphor is available, but “is also perfectly consistent with the content of the film to read the interchangeable pod people as representative of conformist forces within American society itself.”

Countless interpretations are available in these particular visions of catastrophe, but I’d like to focus on the complicity of cinematic spectacle in defusing the threat of catastrophe itself. Sontag herself was wary of science fiction’s fascination with destruction and collective incineration, and appropriately points to the ways in which these films encapsulated the fear of collapse in a satisfactory hour-and-a-half-long narrative, where the good guys always win and the apocalyptic menace is symbolically defeated. Not only could you go on with your life without fearing the bomb, but you could also enjoy the mesmerizing spectacle of the bomb in the glow of a cinema’s film projector. These symbolic solutions more often than not include some form of technological messianism, because even when the problem is caused by science, the threat is almost always defeated by science (Godzilla, 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1956’s Earth vs. The Flying Saucers). 1950s science fiction was simultaneously fearful of unleashing scientific advances but also placed its utopian hopes in technology. We enjoy the spectacle of not just crumbling buildings and fiery towers but also of the dissolution of social hierarchies and the incursion of the extraordinary into the monotony of daily life. (The disaster movie genre originates in sci-fi, particularly 1951’s When Worlds Collide and 1953’s The War of the Worlds.) Because at the end, all returns to normal: the scientists save the day, the hero gets the girl, authority is restored.

But these films offer more than mere utopian aspirations focused on technology, or the naturalizing of spectacular violence. The depersonalization inherent in these films often leaves traces of a yearning not so much for technology but for human connection and solidarity. In this sense, I’m personally fascinated by an obscure and low-budget film (Roger Corman’s second sci-fi production) called The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), in which we are presented with a weird and ghostly ranch, inhabited by a stereotypical patriarchal family, in the middle of the spectral landscapes of the southwestern American desert. After the impact of an extraterrestrial artifact, the ranch is rapidly haunted by the incorporeal presence of an alien spirit that takes control of, first, the animals, and then attempts the same with the humans.

Once again, we are presented with the familiar theme of alien mind control, which turns humans into lifeless machines—no budget needed. But this time the alien encounters a surprising obstacle to its plan: it seems especially difficult to take control of humans when they are bonded by love. In an unexpected speech at the end, the father of the family tells the alien that the secret of human survival is quite simply love and connection, or, as the mother says: “you would never find a human alone.” Other details of the film point to this idea of care and solidarity. For example, the seemingly mute and terrifying servant of the family is revealed in the end to be a war veteran suffering from heavy trauma; the father, a fellow soldier, had taken this traumatized man under his protection from a society that mistakenly deemed him dangerous after feeding him to the machinery of war. 

The message is all-too-naive and corny to the modern eye. The question is, though, why do we deem positively portrayed examples of love and affection as something unbearably corny and naive? Speaking about our contemporary cultural sensibility at large and not merely about 1950s science fiction, it seems that today we are totally desensitized to the most extreme images of violence, but the mere representation of unconditional love might make us sick. The technocratic utopianism that runs through 1950s sci-fi cinema has infested not just our fiction about catastrophe, but our narratives of survival and endurance at large. In this sense, a weird oddity like The Beast with a Million Eyes can be seen as a genuine instance where apocalyptic destruction is resisted not by our machines, but by human connection.

These movies don’t necessarily contain a secret revolutionary agenda; we must remain skeptical about the potential of fiction to reconnect to any utopian desire, considering the widely differing receptions and political interpretations that different people bring to the same cultural products. But the overpowering cultural sensibilities that lead us to cynically dismiss messages of connection and solidarity as unsophisticated and credulous, our collective ways of reading fiction and art, can be inverted. I experienced this realization in a recent re-watch of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). Having seen the movie only once as a teenager, I thought about it as just another militaristic and frenzied spectacle of violence. All I remembered were burning buildings, bullets flying, and the splattering of giant bugs’ acidic blood, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a compelling tale about teamwork, motherhood, and love, where a bunch of nobodies and outcasts are able to overcome the terror unchained by mindless corporatism through cooperation and quite literally caring for each other. 

It goes without saying how pressing and important these attitudes towards violence and solidarity are for us today, in an especially dark and apocalyptic time. I don’t want to indulge in nihilism with an infinite series of examples that offers little to no hope that humanity’s utopian desires and survival instincts can be diverted away from delusional technocracy and towards an aspiration for greater mutual help and cooperation. But if movies about the end of times can be useful at what may be the end of the world as we know it, we may be required to reeducate ourselves and (re)train our sensibilities to forsake the scathing modern cynicism that excretes from this cult-like adoration of technology. We have to search for better answers, better utopias—based on working together and loving one another.  

Special thanks to David Sánchez Usanos.

Pepe Tesoro is a philosophy PhD student from Madrid. You can follow him at @pepetesoro.

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Between Mushroom Cloud and Monastery: Douglas Coupland’s ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture’

Eve Tushnet / May 12, 2021

I came to Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, thirty years after its 1991 publication date, expecting sharp sociocultural observation and maybe some economic critique. After all, Coupland, who said that his generation was “sick of stupid labels,” inadvertently coined the self-effacing generational moniker under which my cohort has labored.

But Generation X is something stranger than a novel of social observation. It is a scrappy, almost zinelike collage of images, marginal text, and patchwork narratives, making it feel like a back issue of a magazine that never quite existed. It’s full of incisive nouvelle slang: “McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Coupland provides all the expected pleasures: lostness, drifting, downward mobility, a surfeit of irony and anti-politics; and over it all the fading shadow of global thermonuclear war, which still haunts the imaginations of this last generation of Cold War kids.

But Coupland’s characters long more for sublimity than for 1950s-style industrial and familial stability. They’re haunted not just by the mushroom cloud but by the monastery. Reading Coupland’s debut novel, you’ll be reminded that seminal Gen X lit includes not just Jay McInerney’s moral tales but Donna Tartt’s 1992 divine-madness pulp masterpiece The Secret History.

Generation X is about three friends, Andy, Dagmar (a man), and Claire. Their platonic cuddling and aggressively retro aesthetic create an odd, lightly ironized, closety vibe. A novelist more concerned with our moral life would explain this atmosphere: perhaps through parental divorce, which played such a huge role in the national psyche of the ’80s and ’90s. Divorce defines the cultural landscape of Generation X. As one of the marginal comics by Paul Rivoche puts it: “Don’t worry, mother… If the marriage doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced.” The atmosphere of divorce, its ever present possibility, shapes these characters’ contingent and uncommitted life—but it doesn’t define their psychological backgrounds. Unlike in much Gen X fiction (including McInerney’s Story of My Life and The Secret History), our hero’s parents are still married.

In 2019, the divorce rate hit a record low, as did the marriage rate and the childbirth rate. Divorce and the experiences of “children of divorce,” which shaped so many books and movies in the 1980s and 1990s, play a much smaller role in our cultural landscape now that nobody’s getting married or having children in the first place. This shift has not exactly reduced the ambient level of instability and precarity. The covert intensity with which Andy and his friends cling to one another, the mingled hope and guardedness in their promise-free love, is if anything even more striking in our current relationship moonscape.

The place of gay people and gay longings has shifted in a far more significant way since 1991, and here Generation X does feel even more retro than it’s trying to be. But although there are clues to the narrator’s sexuality for those who would like clues (it’s no coincidence that Claire’s awful boyfriend calls him “Candy”), Coupland doesn’t pathologize the unspoken quality of Andy’s sexual longings. Andy’s reliance on dreams and hints suggests an extended adolescence; that’s part of the experience of the closet, but it’s also something he can share with his friends, opening him to them as well as limiting him.

Andy and his friends are bracingly aware that they won’t do as well as their parents. I remember answering the phone when I was in middle school and finding myself in a poll: “Do you expect to have the same level of financial security as your parents, or greater, or less?” I said, “Less,” of course, with a suppressed duh. Doesn’t everyone expect less? And yet Andy and his friends live in their own bungalows, right next to one another. (Andy’s from Portland but fled to tend bar in Palm Springs with Dag; Claire sells Chanel at a luxury department store.) They don’t need housemates. They have pets! Who do you know, who isn’t rich, who can afford their own rental and a pet? There’s a chapter in here titled “Quit Your Job.” I enjoyed that slogan, but thirty years on, in the middle of the gig pandemic, I also thought, Gosh, remember when people had “jobs”? Andy and his friends come from the middle class or higher, true; they’re also part of a generation that could feel the floor tilting under them—even if they hadn’t yet slid all the way off. They’re able to choose between the service industry and a soul-crushing job with health benefits. We should all be so lucky!

The most powerful image of the precarity of these characters is not their withdrawal from romance or their bartending jobs. It’s nuclear war. When the novel was released, in March 1991, the Soviet Union still existed. It’s set in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall fell. The old game of brinksmanship was rapidly changing its rules, and nobody knew how it would end. Dag is obsessed with the mushroom cloud; he accidentally covers Claire’s bungalow with radioactive rocks; he closes one of his many “end of the world stories” with “the silent rush of hot wind, like the opening of a trillion oven doors that you’ve been imagining since you were six.” Nuclear war is an ever present memento mori: a reminder that you’re a target, that political forces you can’t hope to affect may turn you and everybody you know into glass. 

But nuclear war also offers the promise of a totally different future. Maybe things won’t just keep going the way they have been. Maybe apocalypse will bring revelation. Dag’s vision of the mushroom cloud ends in communion and a kind of confession. His nuclear fantasies express deep-rooted fears, but also a longing for the ecstatic shattering of the self. Nuclear war would not just crack open the self-protective carapace of irony: the persona. It would not only be the ultimate shared experience in an atomized and alienated world (“We Will All Go Together When We Go,” as Tom Lehrer reminds us). It also represents the white-hot moment when loss becomes total. And it’s in this loss, a kind of mutually-assured asceticism, that Coupland’s characters hope to discover some form of transcendence. That’s vague, and it’s vague in the novel; maybe it has to be vague, because, having left the ornament and doctrine of religions behind, Andy and Dag and Claire have little idea what other shape transcendence might take.

We see this in their stories. One of the unexpected delights of Generation X is the way it turns the postmodern obsession with narratology into a game. The three friends constantly tell each other “bedtime stories,” with various rules and conventions. This is part of their self-protective irony (it’s not me, it’s not my heart). It’s part of the zine aesthetic of the novel, and it fits the characters’ directionless lives; no individual plotline can be sustained for very long. But Coupland makes this shared storytelling feel loving and genuinely communal. It’s a sincere statement that they may view their own lives as pointless and meaningless, but they want to hear their friends’ stories. There’s an uncynical lightness to the storytelling, which lets these characters reveal their secret desires as if at a slumber party, flashlights under their chins.

And so we get Claire’s fairy tale of the spaceman who persuades a girl stuck on the backwater planet of “Texlahoma” to give her life so he can get back to Earth. He’ll revive her, he promises. Her sisters know it’s a lie. But they still let her go to her ecstatic death: “And together the two sisters sat into the night, silhouetted by the luminescing earth, having a contest with each other to see who could swing their swing the highest.” This is a tale of deadly romance, appropriate for the sex-kills era. It’s a tale of economic marginality. But it’s also suffused with longing for the unknown, even if the journey into that black, star-studded expanse will kill you. And it’s a hint that death, at least symbolic death, may be necessary in order to touch the stars.

Claire is also the one who tells the most direct parable of asceticism. She tells this story soon after her sketchy grifter friend, nicknamed Elvissa, runs off to be “a gardener at a nunnery.” Dag says, “I don’t buy it”; but Claire retorts, “It’s not something you buy.” Generation X, in Generation X, shelters neither in the certainties of the ’60s revolt nor in the post-Great Recession certainties of the millennials, but in irony and delay. Elvissa’s flight suggests an unsheltered alternative. Not the convent—that’s too much certainty or the wrong kind—but something convent-like: some ascesis, some mystery, some intelligible loss and unintelligible gain.

Right after Elvissa leaves, Claire tells a story called “Leave Your Body,” about “this poor little rich girl named Linda.” Linda’s parents break up when she’s a kid; she becomes a “charmed but targetless” woman, restless and unhappy. And then in the Himalayas she learns about “a religious sect of monks and nuns… who had achieved a state of saintliness—ecstasy—release.” Linda accepts the sect’s strict rules (though it’s important to the generational portrait that they’re not the rules of kashrut or the catechism) and begins seven years of fasting and meditation. She misunderstands. She makes what is literally a fatal error, due to her ignorance of the Himalayan discipline. And yet that doesn’t mean she fails. The ultra-American’s quest ends not in humiliation but in mystery: even in her folly, she found the doorway.

This is Coupland’s attitude toward all his characters’ longings. He lavishes attention on their bright and curlicued foolishness, but he never holds their hopes in contempt. He suggests that they may someday find whatever it is they’re seeking, even if they never understand it. This is an unfinished book; it defined a generation by our unfinishedness.

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

Fire Islanders: The Myth-Making Geography of ‘Boys in the Sand’

Sam Moore / April 28, 2021

One of the first, most potent images in Wakefield Poole’s groundbreaking 1971 adult film Boys in the Sand is that of Casey Donovan emerging from the waves before making his way onto the beach. The image feels like a queering of a common cultural touchstone: a figure of great beauty surrounded by water, as if the waves and sea came together to create it. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Ursula Andress in 1962’s Dr. No (subverted decades later by Daniel Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale), there’s something about the water as a site of (re)birth that’s full of power and myth. This idea of a loaded geography, at once physical and representative of something greater, runs deep in the DNA of Boys in the Sand; the film wouldn’t exist without the Fire Island locale that it calls home. 

Poole’s film explores both the reality and mythical unreality of New York’s Fire Island, a place that’s taken a heightened place in queer art and culture for decades now—a kind of sanctuary, a place of freedom, one made all the more tempting by the fact that it isn’t available for everyone. In the director’s commentary for Boys in the Sand, Poole says that when it came to Fire Island, “a lot of people had heard of it, but never seen it.” Boys is a kind of strange travelogue, capturing both the island’s reality—how elemental it is, the heat and the water—and also imbuing it with a kind of magic, helping to turn the place into a myth. The film is a perfect escapist fantasy: there are no straight people, there’s no violence, all the men are beautiful, and the sex is plentiful. It becomes something utopian, the kind of gay-only place that people might normally have only dreamed of. The nature of queer life at the time, the extent to which it was something that had to be kept secret, is one of the things that’s gone on to make Fire Island such a staple of queer culture, an iconic part of its history. This idea—attractive men bathed in a sunlight so bright that it seems almost unreal—is echoed in a lot of art that explores the Fire Island milieu, perhaps most explicitly in the images detailed in Tom Bianchi’s 2013 Fire Island Pines: Polaroids 1975-83. 

Bianchi’s images echo the aesthetic of Boys in the Sand, and looking at Donovan in the film alongside some of the men who appear in Bianchi’s Polaroids, it becomes clear that they share the same approach to Fire Island: both artists echo the same Arcadian myth of the pines. A certain type of body populates the vast majority of the snapshots: buff, gym-going, masculine, tanned—the tan lines on Bianchi’s subjects, in fact, are often vivid in contrast to their sun-kissed bodies. Poole’s actors fall into a similar camp, and this creates the sense that Fire Island is a place that’s by and for a narrow group of people within queer communities: conventionally attractive men. The prevalence of these images inverts similar ideas in a straight tradition: tempting women on distant islands, stretching all the way back to the sirens in The Odyssey. From a queer perspective, this idea is both new and old all at once; while it changes the ways in which male bodies are viewed—and challenges mythical traditions that often only frame female bodies in this way—it continues to show that only certain kinds of bodies are worth immortalizing via images. 

For all of the possibility in the air, the bodies that occupy these spaces make it clear that the Fire Island that exists in queer art is a place to showcase a certain type of body, a way to look and a way to live that’s the price of admission for this very specific utopian escape. Boys in the Sand finds power in these bodies as objects of desire—a magical pill literally causes a boyfriend to materialize out of thin air in the film’s “Poolside” section—the currency with which the place is navigated. This is echoed in some of the queer art that comes in the wake of Boys in the Sand. The Andrew Holleran novel Dancer from the Dance (which uses one of Bianchi’s Polaroids as a cover photo in a recent reprint) is obsessed with the mythical image of Fire Island, populating it with characters who exist through gossip and assumption as much as through their own lives, much like the island itself, so it makes sense when Holleran writes: “we queens loathed rain at the beach, small cocks, and reality, i think, in that order.” None of these things exist in the images of Fire Island put forward by Poole and Bianchi; the sun is always out, and the real world is always on the other side of the water. 

How one stayed at Fire Island is one of the other great dividers of the place. Poole himself acknowledges this in his Boys commentary, where he argues that the economics that defined much of the island came down to whether you came in on the ferry or owned your own boat. None of Poole’s characters seem to be on the lower end of the economic spectrum; the houses they stay in are nice, and the integration of domesticity—a lot of the characters in Boys want relationships beyond a sexual fling, and there’s an air of loneliness that exists in a push-and-pull dynamic with the possibility inherent on the Island—carries with it the idea of a kind of ownership that not everyone can afford. The idea of loneliness—both on and beyond Fire Island—is echoed in an interesting way in Bianchi’s Polaroids: it’s rare for any of his subjects’ faces to be seen, as if the specter of the world beyond the island stops them from revealing all of themselves to the camera. 

This is one of the things that makes Fire Island such a strange, liminal place in queer art. It exists in a singular way, unlike anywhere else, and also unlike a real place. There’s a scene in Boys where a door is opened to seemingly nowhere, a sort of non-space that’s divorced even from the rest of the island. The episodic structure of the film—”beachside,” “poolside,” and “inside”—break the place down into a series of fragmented landscapes, at once connected and not connected to one another. This is never a place that people will stay in for the long-term, we know. Even if the domestic moments suggest some kind of future, it isn’t a future that’s possible here.​

​And yet, queer art keeps returning to Fire Island, this place that’s at once impermanent and inescapable. For Poole, much of the drama in Boys is the act of cruising itself: the slow-moving camera that follows the movements of his lonely lovers, the immediacy and intimacy that’s only available on Fire Island. For Bianchi, it’s a bright escapism, even if his images don’t always show all of their subjects—that incompleteness allows viewers to fill in the blanks, imagining their own dream man.

Holleran’s novel makes for a fascinating contrast with both Poole and Bianchi. He seems more willing to engage with the idea of the myth, where the others, knowingly or not, contributed instead to the act of myth-making. The echoes of Fire Island also echo some of the problems inherent in the ways that queer culture is understood. There’s a reason that the bodies across all these different media are so uniform, and one of the strangest, most compelling parts of the Fire Island myth is how explicit it is about the fact that freedom and joy won’t be offered to everyone who arrives. The thing that most clearly, most viscerally ties together the film, the photographs, and the novel are these bodies—their conventional, masculine attractiveness serving as a kind of shorthand for the acceptable face/facelessness of Fire Island, a small sample of the kind of men who are most likely to be accepted here. Even though the entrance to Fire Island is restricted—by how you look, by how much money you have—the return, season after season, still seems inevitable. It makes sense. All of these people, fictional or otherwise, escape here because the island offers them something that the real world won’t.

Sam Moore‘s writing on queerness, politics, and genre fiction in art has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Little White Lies, Hyperallergic, and other places. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, most recently in the Brixton Review of Books. If their writing didn’t already give it away, they’re into weird stuff.
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A Floating Black Feather: Ján Kadár’s ‘The Angel Levine’

Noah Berlatsky / April 14, 2021

The Angel Levine was greeted with irritation, befuddlement, and a good amount of indifference upon its release in 1970. Organized and produced by Harry Belafonte, the movie is an allegorical discussion of Black-Jewish relationships using a mix of realism and fantasy that managed to appeal to neither Black nor white audiences. A contemporary New York Times review labeled it “a failure of major proportions.” The Black press barely covered it, despite Belafonte’s fame and standing as one of the leading Black entertainers of the time. After the DVD release in 2002, a mostly sympathetic critic admitted, “the best that can be said about it is that it doesn’t quite come together.”

Watching the movie now, it’s clear the film is not exactly ahead of its time. Even post-Get Out (2017), with interest in Black speculative fiction on film at a historic high, it’s difficult to imagine The Angel Levine finding much of an audience. The fact that the movie continues to alienate seems significant, though. Truly egalitarian cross-ethnic solidarity remains difficult for creators and audiences to imagine. 

The movie is based on a short story by Bernard Malamud, “The Angel Levine,” which was originally published in Commentary in 1958. Malamud was one of the postwar Jewish writers who took advantage of diminished antisemitism to celebrate his ethnic identity as a storytelling resource. His stories were often set in the Yiddish New York of the ‘20s and ‘30s, even as they dealt with contemporary themes. “The Angel Levine” is the story of Manischevitz, a Jewish tailor cursed with multiple catastrophes: his shop burns down, his insurance is insufficient, his back goes out, and his beloved wife Fanny becomes deathly ill. Burdened beyond endurance, he is startled one day by a Black man who appears unannounced in his apartment. The man says his name is Alexander Levine, and that he is an angel. Manischevitz doesn’t believe him, and the man leaves. But as Fanny grows worse, Manischevitz becomes desperate. He goes to Harlem, tracks Levine down, and finds him drinking and dancing in a very un-godly manner. Nonetheless, he tells the angel he believes in him. The angel returns to Manischevitz’s door, grows wings, and flies into the sky in a fluttering of black wings. Manischevitz enters his house and finds his wife has been cured.

Malamud’s story has Black people in it, but it’s told from a white Jewish perspective. Manischevitz is the main character, and the third person narrative is in his head; you see only what he sees, and he is the only character whose thoughts you know. The story is about the need to believe in others, and about welcoming Black people into the circle of Jewish ethical commitment. “Believe me, there are Jews everywhere,” Manischevitz says to Fanny in the story’s last line. But it is white Jewish people doing the welcoming. Levine merely waits to be summoned.

Belafonte was a singer who drew on a broad array of musical traditions, and who saw connections between working class struggle across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. He was drawn to a story about mutual faith as a foundation for solidarity and transformation. But he didn’t want to follow Malamud in presenting that story entirely from a white perspective. Instead, he carefully assembled an interracial group of creators to work on the film. Slovakian Ján Kadár, who had been interred in a Nazi work camp, was brought on as director. Zero Mostel plays the lead, renamed Morris Mishkin, and Polish actress Ida Kamińska took the part of Fanny. But Belafonte also brought on writer Bill Gunn, who would later create the much-admired Ganja and Hess (1973). Gunn was specifically tasked with expanding the character of Alex Levine. There’s also a role for Levine’s girlfriend, Sally (Gloria Foster). Finally, Belafonte created an apprenticeship program so that young Black and Puerto Rican filmmakers, mostly excluded from the film industry, could get paid to work on set, contribute their talents, and gain experience for their own projects.

In short, Belafonte wanted Black experience to be at the center, rather than the periphery, of the filmed The Angel Levine. He accomplished this in part simply by appearing in the film himself.  Belafonte is an enormously charismatic presence, who effortlessly steals scenes even from a character actor as accomplished as Mostel. It’s impossible to see Belafonte as a figure in someone else’s drama, or as a kind of comical enigma. His smile manages to be both beatific and lived-in; you want to know more about him, because you know he has his own story to tell.

The movie, contra Malamud, takes pains to tell that story. Levine, in this version, is a small town hood who is killed by a car while trying to escape with a stolen fur. When he got to heaven, he says he was told to turn around and come right back. (“Every white mother” went right on to heaven, he says bitterly, “but me they put on probation.”) He is tasked with getting Mishkin to believe in him. That belief will allow him to miraculously heal Fanny, and become a full angel in heaven. In the meantime, though, he has his own unfinished business. He wants to reconcile with his long-suffering girlfriend Sally, apologize, and tell her he loves her.

Giving Levine a narrative of his own creates a clash of genres. In accord with the Malamud story, Mishkin is still the main character in a white ethnic Jewish tale about endurance, suffering, and empathy, told in a sentimental register.  But Levine’s story draws on the social realism of Black protest genres. His angry soliloquies (“Nothin’! Nothin’! A whole lifetime with nothin’ to show for it!”) and his quick rage at Mishkin’s casual racist slurs (“You call me a schvartze one more time and I’ll knock you on your ass!”) echo the inchoate, yearning despair and simmering righteous violence of Richard Wright’s 1940 Native Son.  

The film uses its magical elements to try to bridge these contrasting narratives. Levine simply appears in Mishkin’s kitchen, through uncertain means, and the two must then elbow around each other in the cramped set, their bodies and stories squashed in together for better or worse.  Mishkin bustles around and tries to make his wife comfortable while Levine in the next room embraces Sally in an effort to overcome her skepticism. Repeatedly, Mishkin looks through the window in the kitchen, or through a door jam, gazing at Levine just as the movie audience gazes at Levine. Those who came to see a white Jewish drama are encouraged to see, with Mishkin, another story. “Mr. Levine, you have meaning for me,” Mishkin says. That’s a demand not just for understanding, but for interest, investment, and a recognition of relevance across difference and across genre.

Being in one another’s stories should in theory provide a common ground for solidarity. The movie makes numerous efforts to show intersections of Black and Jewish experience, and to suggest that the story of one can be the story of the other. In an early scene, Mishkin applies for welfare to a Black woman caseworker—a reminder that, despite racist messaging to the contrary, it’s not only or primarily Black people who sometimes need state aid. Later, during Mishkin’s final trip to Harlem, he drops in to ask for directions in a Black tailor’s shop, looking for help from a member of his own profession.

The most obvious appeal across Black and Jewish communities, though, is the fact that Levine belongs to both. This is an approach that should resonate more solidly now than at the time of the film, more even than at the time of Malamud’s story. In 1955, Malamud could write that Manischevitz “had heard of black Jews but had never met one.” In the ‘70s, Black Jewish people still did not have much public visibility; James Baldwin doesn’t mention Black Jewish people at all in his famous 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” Some five decades later, however, intermarriage has substantially increased the number of Black Jewish people in the United States, and Ethiopian Jewish immigration to Israel has been a topic of international discussion. Levine in 2021 isn’t just a symbol, if he ever was only that. He’s a screen representation of people who are rarely portrayed in mainstream Hollywood films. 

Mishkin’s attitude towards Levine in 1970 is one of incredulity; he demands that Levine recite the blessing over the bread and, in a hugely inappropriate move, asks if he’s circumcised. Again, Black Jewish people are significantly more prevalent now, but Mishkin’s racist notion that Jewishness is linked to skin color persists. Sandra Lawson, a Black rabbi, wrote at the Forward that she’d “never been in a Jewish space where I wasn’t questioned.” Black Jewish Texan Tracey Nicole says that she always introduces herself to a new police officer at her place of worship because “I am the only Jew of color at our synagogue. So when I walk into situations like that, I’m wondering if people will acknowledge that I belong.”

Malamud’s story, which is rooted in Jewish experience, imagines shared suffering and marginalization as a path to renewal and resurrection. And that’s not completely fantastic; many Jewish people did work prominently for Black civil rights in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and some even died for it. But Mishkin’s racism, and the way it is still echoed in white Jewish treatment of Black Jews, should make viewers hesitant about taking away a too hopeful message. Belafonte himself approached his film about faith with a good deal of skepticism only two years after the assassination of his friend Martin Luther King Jr. “For me, the miracle in America was Martin Luther King,” he said in a press interview about the film. “In the years that King and SNCC were coming to the people with love, the people didn’t believe. They finally believed when it was too damn late.”

The difficulty in crafting a white Jewish story and a Black story simultaneously is underlined in one of the film’s most telling exchanges. Levine, distraught, has gone to the roof. Mishkin follows him and tries to comfort him by referencing white Jewish experience of assimilation and waning antisemitism. “They’re not very nice to you now, but tomorrow they’ll be ashamed of themselves and do better,” he says with complacent assurance. To which Levine responds, “Bullshit.” Black people have been in America a good bit longer than white Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Time brought them not apologies, but the opportunity to be exploited by a broader ethnicity of white landlords. When Mishkin suggests he wants to draw Levine into the orbit of white Jewish ethics and experience, it’s meant to be beneficent altruism. But it could also be a self-serving lie. How can you create solidarity without flattening difference? How do you make another’s story your own when it isn’t yours to own?

Malamud’s “The Angel Levine” mostly ignored those questions, which is why it feels finished and coherent, if slight. The film version, in contrast, tries to answer them, and seizes up in the process. It obviously doesn’t know how to wrap up its runtime. As the New York Times review says, it keeps “stopping and starting up again.” It finally dead-ends in melancholy ambiguity, with Fanny hovering between life and death back at the apartment while Mishkin stands in Harlem, reaching up to try to catch a floating black feather that eludes his grasp. He fails, and the movie largely fails as well. Belafonte was trying to rework a Jewish idiom into a Black one to create a story about universal solidarity that retained particularity without condescension. More than half a century later, American cinema, to say nothing of American society, is still unsure how to do that. It’s not even sure it wants to try.

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

The Greatest Shōwa on Earth: 1962’s ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’

Alex Adams / March 25, 2021

Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla is perhaps the most widely praised Kaiju film ever made. A special effects masterpiece at the time, the monochrome mother of all monster movies had bleak, fume-laden visuals, a gloomy, mournful tone, and an unambiguous anti-nuclear message. Even its conclusion, in which the pained Dr. Serizawa unleashes his hyper-toxic Oxygen Destroyer to finally rid Japan of its avenging lizard king, sees no redemption, as the weapon that banishes the beast also irreversibly poisons the Earth. Godzilla is rightly remembered as a serious, somber, and politically insightful cinematic monument with a powerful message and internationally historical significance. Its first dozen or so sequels, however, are quite another matter—a different beast, you could say.

For Godzilla would not remain an icon of manmade devastation for long. In the course of the next two decades, Godzilla would grow from a nightmarish God of Destruction into mankind’s dependable, child-friendly ally. “The dragon has become St. George,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby on the 1976 US release of Godzilla Vs. Megalon, in which Godzilla defends the Earth against the giant cockroach Megalon and his sinister ally, the buzzsaw-chested robot chicken Gigan. Godzilla’s role as the bane of modern Japan would be assumed by the many Kaiju successors he confronted, and the beast who had once embodied the apocalypse would now stand heroically between his antagonists and their desire to destroy the Earth.

Varying wildly in tone, the corpus of movies from the Shōwa era of the Godzilla series veers vertiginously between family-friendly entertainments—such as All Monsters Attack (1969), Son of Godzilla (1966), and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1964)—and the more adult tone evident in the environmentalist psychedelia of Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971) or the WrestleMania spectacles of Destroy All Monsters (1968) and Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974). These movies are fondly remembered by fans for their rough and ready practical special effects, their cartoonish, preposterous pugilism, and their deliriously inventive storytelling, which could use anything at all as the pretext for a monster battle—from an insect invasion of the Earth to a 24-hour dance competition.

Nevertheless, their lack of the thematic seriousness and visual restraint so evident in Honda’s first film means that they are often looked down on as a silly dilution of the original movie, a goofy world cinema novelty of interest only to kids, nerds, or the sort of weirdo who used to load up on caffeine and stay up late to watch men in rubber suits wrestling on cheaply painted sound stages. Naturally I, as just such a weirdo, think that this sneering, while understandable, underplays a great deal of the sophistication and interest of these wacky, silly, excellently distracting films. Not simply the impoverishment of a once-grand icon in the pursuit of ever-dwindling box office returns (although Toho has certainly never been shy of ruthlessly commercially exploiting Godzilla), Godzilla’s evolution from cosmic punishment to benevolent savior also makes him one of the most interesting, flexible, and dynamic popular cultural icons of the Cold War years.

Rumble in the Jungle: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

King Kong vs. Godzilla is perhaps the best remembered of the Shōwa-era Godzilla movies, after the original Godzilla. The first time either creature would be seen in color, it remains the most successful and popular Godzilla movie to this day, in terms of ticket sales at least, perhaps due to the way in which it was marketed—almost like a high-stakes boxing match or wrestling bout. The genius of its combination of two iconic monsters at a time when both of them still remained fearful beasts, rather than comic or heroic figures, was powerful enough for the movie to remain a genre high-water mark for years to come.

This double-headliner structure, in which two A-list monsters were brought together in order to double the appeal of the movie, would initiate a run of versus battles that would last for over a decade. From 1964 onwards, Toho produced at least one Godzilla movie every year until the financial failure of Terror of Mechagodzilla drew the franchise to a screeching halt in 1975. Though Godzilla had fought against the Ankylosaur Kaiju Anguirus seven years earlier in Godzilla Raids Again (1956), it would be King Kong Vs. Godzilla that truly cemented the formal template for the many monster clashes to come: on some pretext or other, Godzilla would face off against invading life forms from outer space, such as his arch-nemesis King Ghidorah, or against creatures with more Earthly origins, such as the mysterious and oddly beautiful Mothra, the sea-monster Ebirah, or, indeed, the American myth King Kong.

At the same time as it is great knockabout fun at face value, the “versus movie” format also provides a tremendously flexible and rich conceptual palette for filmmakers to engage with social and political ideas. In his extraordinary book of mini-essays Mythologies (1957), French critic Roland Barthes observes that amateur wrestling is a kind of broad-brush theater in which good and evil battle for symbolic supremacy. “In the ring,” he writes, “wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” The very simplicity and crudeness of the drama, he writes, is what makes these bouts transcendent. Further, he claims, its ramshackle nature—and the foundational role of the audience’s gleeful suspension of disbelief—also means that its value as symbolic play is brought to the forefront: “There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations.”

So it is in the Kaiju clash film, that unique brand of spectacle cinema that shares many formal and thematic traits with wrestling as well as other Japanese cultural forms such as anime and manga. The bold, lurid language of gesture, the vivid play of symbol and myth, and their open environmentalist and anti-nuclear ethical commitments make them a kind of powerful moral theater, at once sublime and ridiculous, at once ostentatiously silly and deathly serious. Crucially, it is equally redundant to point out that the special effects are unconvincing in King Kong Vs. Godzilla as it is to point out that wrestling is “not real” or that a play is made up (or indeed, that your Extreme Noise Terror record features a lot of shouting—what exactly did you expect?). What matters is not verisimilitude, or even a coherently sequential narrative, but the experience of grand moments of sensory power, scenes of epic destruction and wrenching pathos, and the realization of overwhelming visions of primal, fantastical worlds previously not imaginable.

You don’t, after all, go to a film about wrestling monsters expecting subtlety. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that they are without content. Even the original Godzilla derives its power from its total commitment to the enactment of one broad, bold idea.

The Meaning of Monstrosity

Toho’s first Godzilla film had such a potent social and political message that the creature would always be thought of in semiotic terms, always interpreted as a metaphor for the pressing concerns of the time. The subsequent Shōwa films, though, are chaotically flexible in this regard, and Godzilla cannot be read consistently as any kind of fixed or coherent symbol from film to film. More often, it is his foes who “embody” some social or political force against which the Earth needs to be defended, whether it is arms-race militarism (Mechagodzilla), pollution (Hedorah), renewed atomic testing (Megalon), or intergalactic imperialism (King Ghidorah, Gigan). Most of all, though, in his initial incarnation at least, Godzilla represents the unstoppable force, the mute, brute power of nature, the principle of sheer indestructibility.

This characterization of Godzilla remains, for many, the most compelling. Shusuke Kaneko, director of Millennium-era fan favorite Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), famously commented that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Hollywood interpretation of Godzilla was disappointing in part because of its fear of American ordnance. “Americans seem unable to accept a creature,” he said, “that cannot be put down by their arms.” (Rather than an adaptation of the Toho legend of the mysterious force of nature, Emmerich’s version recalls nothing more than the climax of the previous year’s Jurassic Park: The Lost World, in which a T-Rex runs amok in San Diego.) Godzilla is at his most attractive when he is at his ugliest, when he embodies a total disaster that can be momentarily deflected but never truly defeated.

In “Mammoth,” the 74th essay in Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno writes that “the desire for the presence of the most ancient is a hope that animal creation might survive the wrong that man has done it, if not man himself, and give rise to a better species, one that finally makes a success of life.” Adorno’s reflections on the appeal of prehistoric beasts have more than a little relevance to Toho’s reptilian colossus. Very often Godzilla is conceived of as the resistance or revenge of the natural world, an embodiment of nature’s apocalyptic judgement upon mankind, a kind of demonic scourge unleashed by the obscure yet vengeful conscience of the wronged planet. He retains this character in King Kong Vs. Godzilla—when he bursts out of an iceberg at the start of the movie, nobody is pleased that he has arisen from his slumber to save the day, as would happen in later films. Here, he is a wild, unpredictable cataclysm that cannot be stopped, a symbol of the natural world’s dominance over us and its indifferent ability to survive us.

Kong, too, is no stranger to social and political interpretations. There is a long and distinguished critical tradition of reading King Kong as a problematic and racist engagement with themes related to slavery, imperialism, and moral panics about Black masculinity and sexuality. Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original, which draws heavily on the representational traditions of lost world adventure fiction, is widely considered to be an allegory of slavery and imperial exploitation, a tragic parable of man’s ruthless, irreverent, and self-involved abuse of the world’s majestic wildness. John Guillermin’s 1976 US version would more explicitly locate the story in the context of petropolitics, as the colonizing expedition to Skull Island is motivated not by a desire to capture a mythic beast but, more prosaically perhaps, to drill for oil. When Peter Jackson remade the movie in 2005, he made it a satire of the entertainment industry, casting Carl Denham as a roguish, self-destructive genius, an Orson Welles figure whose visionary talent threatens to destroy all of those near to him, and whose pledges to complete his work in the honor of the people who died in its course recalls the increasingly desperate dedications of documentarian-cum-unintentional-murderer Remy in 1992’s Man Bites Dog. For Jackson, Denham is like Kong, an unstoppable and doomed force of nature who destroys by loving.

Every Hollywood version of the original story, though, however sophisticated, simultaneously exploits the persistent racist panic about Black male desire for white women that is embedded into the fabric of the story. King Kong is, at its heart, a story about the violent death that inevitably looms at the horizon of Kong’s love for human women, a fable that has always been read as a racist allegory of the tragedy and illegitimacy of Black men’s supposedly insatiable appetite for the love of white women.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla is no exception here, as Kong’s storyline fuses critique of corporate colonialism with a problematic representation of Black desire. The characters’ extractivist plunder of Kong’s home island—changed from the enigmatic and unlocatable Skull Island to Pharaoh Island, a fictionalized landmass among the Solomon Islands—is the incident that prompts the confrontation between the two legendary beasts, and the Pacific Pharmaceutical execs who exploit Pharaoh Island for its pleasantly intoxicating fruit are shown as single-minded, hubristic buffoons as they capture Kong with the insane intent of using him to advertise their company. The clash of titans still makes time for a comedic critique of the ruthlessness of the capitalist advertising industry; so too does it retain Kong’s fascination with human women, as he scales a government building while clinging to a beautiful young woman he has captured.

The natives of Skull Island, too, are always a problem for these films. From Cooper’s original painted tribe of Kong-worshippers, to Jackson’s violent brutes (who recall the Uruk-Hai orcs from his Lord of the Rings trilogy), to the noble savages of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island (who recall Kurtz’s sinister and silent tribe in 1979’s Apocalypse Now), the human inhabitants of Kong’s home are routinely represented in extraordinarily dehumanizing ways.  

Once again, King Kong Vs. Godzilla follows suit. The tribe of Faro Island is portrayed by actors in full-body blackface, and the Pacific Pharmaceutical employees bribe them with a transistor radio and tobacco. This patronizing bargain, in which they steal the island god in return for habit-forming poison and toys, is part of the film’s critique of exploitative capitalism; it is also, however, played for laughs. No matter how progressive the themes, a film that features dehumanizing ridicule like this is irredeemably racist. It is interesting, too, that the first major development in the Godzilla franchise’s relationship with its US audience foregrounds anti-Black racism, as though one of the safe territories on which the US and Japan could rebuild their relationship was the imperialist dehumanization of Black people.

For King Kong vs. Godzilla is historically and politically significant most of all because it was an international co-production between Japanese and American filmmakers. Where the original Godzilla is a fable of the nuclear suffering that the US inflicted upon Japan, made only two years after the conclusion of the post-war American occupation, King Kong vs. Godzilla is a symbol (and product) of the renewed Pacific alliance and the reestablishment of geopolitical cooperation between the US and Japan. Ishiro Honda returned to direct the original Japanese version for Toho, released in 1962, and John Beck helmed the adaptation of the US version for Universal Pictures, which was released the following year. This collaboration would fuel a monster movie franchise that endures today.

“This is UN reporter Eric Carter with the news”

Prior to Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, every time a Godzilla movie appeared in Western markets it would be bowdlerized in some way. The movies were often retitled, recut, or given comically bad English dubbing; some of them, such as the original Godzilla and Godzilla 1985, were reshot, with American stars retroactively given focalizing roles in order, it was thought, to make the films more appealing to American and European audiences. Many of the recuts were extraordinarily unforgiving—the NBC screening of Godzilla vs. Megalon, for example, savagely streamlined the movie down to just 48 minutes, cutting out almost half of the movie in order to accommodate commercials and a Godzilla-suited John Belushi’s accompanying skits.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is unique in the way it is recut. A great deal of Honda’s original is brusquely shaven off and replaced, not with dramatic scenes featuring American actors, but with newscast-style footage of a reporter, Eric Carter, explaining the events of the plot directly to the audience. There is an amusing irony here: in the Japanese version, Pacific Pharmaceutical needs to use Kong for advertising because their own TV show is “dull, boring, and without imagination.” Carter’s broadcasts are almost as dry as the output of Pacific Pharmaceutical’s fictional TV network, as clumsily direct and awkwardly literal an expository device as you are ever likely to see in any film. Carter, the voice of the movie, is the antithesis of “show, don’t tell,” sometimes dictating not only the events but the way we should feel about them, too.

This clunkily oratorical exposition may be dramatically flat, but it has the virtue at least of being swift. One of the enduring problems of the Shōwa Godzilla series is the grinding slowness of some of the utterly turgid exposition, so it is in a way gratifying for an audience to be simply given the facts rather than having to yawn through interminable dialogue. And Carter’s scenes are also, sometimes, wonderfully comic. The scene in which he invites a paleontological expert into the studio to explain Godzilla’s origins and anatomy, for instance, features this expert—purportedly from New York University—using a child’s illustrated guide to dinosaurs as a visual aid.

And this formal oddness did nothing to stop the film’s popularity, as it was a hit on both sides of the Pacific. Strangely, though, given the film’s walloping success, Godzilla and Kong would never meet again until this year’s Godzilla vs. Kong, produced as part of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which will be released almost a full sixty years after the movie it pays homage to. This seems odd, given that Toho retained the rights to Kong long enough to make King Kong Escapes in 1967, and that Toho was keen to make Godzilla face off against certain foes repeatedly—notably Mothra (four times), King Ghidorah (six times), and Mechagodzilla (five times).

The original was also uniquely difficult to acquire on home video for years, which meant that King Kong Vs. Godzilla became something of a myth, a legendary “lost” movie, particularly in my wet corner of Tory England. It was rarely if ever screened on British TV (not even in the small hours of the morning), and when a series of affordable VHS releases of Shōwa classics was released to coincide with Emmerich’s Hollywood Godzilla, King Kong Vs. Godzilla was nowhere to be seen among them, much to my adolescent disappointment. The US version was unavailable on DVD before 2006, and until the release of the 2019 Criterion Shōwa Blu-Ray box set, one of the only ways to get hold of the Japanese cut of the film was through obscure mail-order catalogs or DVD-R bootlegs.

Its iconic success, its lack of repetition, and its unavailability led to the attachment of a quasi-mythological status to this singular and mysterious film—a film that for many years of my pre-internet youth I couldn’t even confirm existed. Tantalizing half-truths and outright falsehoods circulated among fans like whispered playground rumors, further distorted in the retelling. The most enduring of these claimed that the two versions ended differently, with Kong winning in the US version but with Japanese audiences seeing Godzilla emerge victorious.

Perhaps inevitably, when I saw the film for the first time it was extraordinarily disappointing. The US cut is far less coherent than the Japanese, with characterization, comedy, and subtext stripped out; the Godzilla suit looks tired; and the Kong suit is almost unbearably goofy (despite what I said about special effects not being important, it still smarts to see them be quite so poor). But such is the unpleasable nature of fans: nothing, no matter how spectacular, could have lived up to the King Kong Vs. Godzilla in my head, nurtured by years of feverish daydreaming and speculation.

In the final analysis, what is perhaps most striking about this movie is that its legacy—the structuring principle of the Kaiju battle film—saturates every Godzilla film to come. The natives of Infant Island, home of Mothra, bear a striking resemblance to the natives of Faro Island, and the franchise as a whole is more than a little indebted to the problematic Kong mythos, not least in its representations of monster-infested lost world islands that seem to have avoided the great extinctions. This movie, and the trans-Pacific alliance of which it is so powerful a product, is in some ways the distilled essence of all the Shōwa Godzilla films: goofy, imperfect, but magically suggestive.

Alex Adams is a cultural critic and writer based in North East England. His most recent book, How to Justify Torture, was published by Repeater Books in 2019. He loves dogs.

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“Beyond Human Conjecture”: Charlton Comics’ ‘Creepy Things’

Mike Apichella / March 24, 2021

From Creepy Things #1, July 1975. Art and script by Tom Sutton

Today’s sophisticated communications infrastructure did not emerge fully formed as totalitarian surveillance. Its annihilation of privacy was merely the price we had to pay for an unprecedented level of reliability within an endless array of applications. The drive to eliminate the slightest material discomfort and provide instant gratification is nothing new—air conditioning and central heating technology first became widely available in the early 1900s, home refrigerators in the 1940s, TV and transistor radios in the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century, millions of people were immersed (billions still could not afford to be) in a world where technology could manage or minimize any kind of deprivation, danger, or imperfection.

Nature’s unpredictability was marginalized, and this new marginalization bore new phobias. Horror comics like Swamp Thing, Heap, and Man-Thing, films like The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972), Frogs (1972), Jaws (1975), and Prophecy (1979), and novels by Guy N. Smith, John Halkin, and James Herbert presented situations that spilled out beyond the control of modern society. These narratives were set in places where technology was hard to come by, rural areas steeped in folklore, far from the reach of telephone service, big electrical grids, broadcast signals, and synthetic environmental conditioning. Charlton Publications’ acidic title Creepy Things embodied this new fear of technological deprivation.  

By 1975 Charlton had reached the peak of its creative powers. The company boasted a large, diverse roster of anthology titles that usually contained non-serialized content, and they offered artists and writers more creative freedom than any other mainstream American comic publisher. Some of their biggest sellers were horror comics; no less than eleven different mid-’70s horror titles carried the bold Charlton bull’s eye logo. Many of the Charlton’s comics adhered to an eccentric house style that favored post-impressionistic art paired with stories that were sometimes so limited in narrative content and character development that they bordered on absurdity.

Themes explored were standard genre fare: zombies, vampires, ghosts, and other undead monsters; werewolves and other lycanthropes; wizards, witches, and various ominous mystics; aliens, robots, and other sci-fi terrors; a menagerie of giant wild animals, swamp monsters, killer insects, slime creatures, and deadly plants. These latter beasts were often the subject for stories by Tom Sutton, one of the ’70s most prolific and innovative creators. Sutton’s Charlton material pushed representational art to abstract extremes. Conversely, his scripts were more nuanced than those of most other Charlton writers. In many ways, Sutton’s work epitomized the distinct tone of Creepy Things, which debuted in July 1975. In place of a fan mail page the first issue ran a bizarre manifesto that summarized the new series:

What do you think of when you read the title CREEPY THINGS? Snakes? Spiders? There are ants, rats, wriggly things in the mud when you go swimming, things you find under rocks… We neglected to mention the creepiest creep of all. Lest we forget, the deadliest species on planet Earth is Man! And, when Man gets a little twisted, spaced out, or peculiar, he can do some mighty funny things. You find sadists, psychos, killers, and all kinds of weirdos all over the place.  

This cynical outlook proved to be one of Creepy Things’ biggest narrative tropes. A powerful element of that anti-human fervor was the title’s host, Mr. Dee Munn. All Charlton horror titles featured wisecracking Crypt-Keeper-type narrators decked out in scary costumes that recalled the classic style of Universal monster films and Hammer’s sexy goth chillers. While he did have pointy elven ears and plentiful one-liners, Dee Munn didn’t look much like the other ghost hosts. He gave off the aura of a mafioso with his fine tailored pinstripe suit, neatly trimmed devil beard, and tinted cop shades. He chomped on cigars and kept a pet raven by his side at all times. Paunchy and balding with slicked back hair, he certainly looked creepy, but not in a Bela Lugosi way; more like some sketch bag who’d be lurking around at your seedier local gambling den or red light district.    

Even in stories that were literally flooded with slimy amorphic monsters, nothing was scarier than the series’ main human antagonists. These were nasty degenerates who brought cruelty and neglect to children, the disenfranchised, romantic rivals, pets, and livestock. Their tendency to prey upon the vulnerable and their lust for control stood as symbols of the cold-blooded authoritarianism that’s infected world progress since civilization’s earliest days. For the swamp mutants and supernatural globs of Creepy Things, brutal violence often functioned as a kind of vigilante justice doled out in order to keep “the creepiest creep of all” in line.    

“The Grass Is Always Greener” was the cover story of Creepy Things no. 3, one of a small but powerful selection of Charlton horror tales written by Mike Pellowski. Here we are introduced to Rud Pangley, an obnoxious alcoholic living in a swamp in America’s Deep South. After a “hard” day avoiding work and soakin’ up corn liquor, Pangley stumbles upon a cherubic community of “green folk” frolicking in a cool glade. Clad in bikinis and loin cloths made from tropical blossoms, the hairless, lime-skinned beings enjoy a utopian existence—until one of them strays unwittingly into Rud’s grimy clutches. Overcome by greed and distorted ambition, the sloppy drunk quickly puts together a crude side show that exploits his green captive, whose curious presence, up until this point, was considered to be nothing more than local myth.

It turns out the green folk can only survive on a plant-based diet and not the meat and potatoes that Rud tries to force feed his prisoner. The little green meal ticket promptly dies—starving behind bars in a makeshift cage before a noisy audience of angry hecklers. It’s a moment that emboldens a view of humanity as a nexus for all things selfish and callous. Abandoning the dead creature’s carcass, Pangley scampers back through the brush, hot on the trail of another hapless victim. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and artist Mike Vosburg renders this fateful twist with tenderness. The painful sequence makes Rud seem almost as victimized as the green folk.

Two other Creepy Things standouts come from the title’s second issue, an oozing tour de force by Nick Cuti and Tom Sutton called “Slimes, Slogs, and Glumps,” and the anti-classist Joe Gill/Rich Larson yarn “A Spell Of Misery.” The former tale centers around yet another community of surly swamp folk. The main character is a young boy fond of bringing home all kinds of swamp critters and keeping them as pets in his family’s shack. The kid’s father is a loudmouth control freak who wants none of it. With flagrant disrespect for the sanctity of life, the dad’s short fuse incurs the worst consequences for all involved.

Some of Creepy Things’ horrific locales possessed a remoteness caused by human negligence. The NYC ghetto setting of “A Spell Of Misery” is a prime example. In conditions nearly as miasmic as the swamp from the previous tale, we find the impoverished residents of a shambolic low-income housing complex struggling to survive, until slumlord Edmond Ruggles falls victim to the magic of benevolent local voodoo priestess Mama Carafino. Ruggles’ wretched indifference is matched by the horror of voodoo born monsters, gigantic versions of the dangers that plague the tenants daily (i.e., rats, roaches, fire, etc.). The landlord’s wife Ethel comes off as a shallow materialist unphased by her husband’s gross mismanagement. The elderly couple are depicted as snarling malcontents dissatisfied with themselves and each other despite their comfortable, antiseptic, and well-fortified suburban mansion far from the unfortunates whose rent checks bank roll their luxury.    

The 1970s witnessed the rise of what is known today as folk horror, and Creepy Things was one of the first comic book series to represent the genre, which works by contrasting the modern world’s scientific arrogance to the timeless forces of magic and mysticism. “The Star Of Siva,” an action packed Joe Gill/Rich Larson work from Creepy Things no. 6, presents a deadly clash where earthly strategies are no match for divine neutral chaos. Three greedy criminals (a French drug pusher, an AWOL American soldier, and a Viet Cong deserter) invade a Southeast Asian religious site with intent to steal a priceless treasure trove of artifacts. The deeper they go, the closer they get to their own destruction. Their hateful blasphemy is only surpassed by their disrespect for each other, culminating in the story’s grisly conclusion. With fierce energy, Larson’s depiction of the mercenaries’ meeting in a sleazy, smoke-infested metropolis stands in stark contrast to the jungle tranquility of the sacred enclave’s surroundings. The site’s rugged charm is preserved within a bubble of obscurity, much like the agrarian paradise Summerisle, fictional setting of 1973 folk horror touchstone The Wicker Man.      

You can’t talk about Charlton Publications without mentioning the company’s biggest superstar freelancer, Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko. One of Ditko’s greatest Charlton works was “Where Do They Flee?,” which ran in Creepy Things’ third issue. Yet another Joe Gill-penned folk horror parable, this one was partially inspired by real accounts of the strange beings who haunt abandoned British mines. It also boasts a complex sub-plot involving labor politics—Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. hit theaters shortly after the issue’s publication. The film follows the Brookside Strike, a violent labor uprising that occurred in a remote Appalachian town in southeast Kentucky. Tragedies connected to the strike and its impoverished proponents had been making headlines since the early ‘70s, so it’s easy to understand how these incidents could’ve impacted Gill’s script.

“Where Do They Flee?” melds archaic folklore with a politicized empathy for the desperation of miners and others suffering through the decline of the labor industry (a cultural development ingrained in many ‘70s and ‘80s historical narratives). Resembling a cross between zombies, ghosts, and mole people, the hollow-eyed, supernatural main characters secretly reside in squalid conditions hundreds of feet beneath the rubble of a decrepit Welsh mining tunnel (this locale could be a nod to another iconic artifact of the labor struggle, Idris Davies’ tragic poem “Gwalia Desert XV” aka “The Bells Of Rhymney“). The inhuman presence is just the right jolt needed in a confrontation between a close knit group of rural miners and their greedy boss, whose crimes against humanity bear close resemblance to those of the Brookside protesters’ arch enemy the Duke Power Company.  

Perhaps the most striking visual element of Creepy Things were the lavish cover paintings. Most of these were done by Sutton, with two exceptions: issue five’s cover featured a Rich Larson/Tim Boxell piece exploding within a dense zip-a-tone fade; the sixth issue brandished a moody, teal-soaked nightmare by Mike Zeck, who later became a mainstay at Marvel and popularized vigilante character The Punisher. The third issue’s Sutton cover is the major visual expression of Creepy Things’ philosophy. A distillation of “The Grass Is Always Greener,” it shows Rud Pangley overpowered by Lilliputian green folk. As they descend upon the grizzled opportunist all they can see is a threat that must be eliminated; the sanctity of human life isn’t even an afterthought. Surrounded by wilderness, impotence and terror etched upon his face, he’s paralyzed by the horror of an uncontrollable environment, pushed beyond the limits of science, immersed in a world where civilization is meaningless.

Mike Apichella has been working in the arts since 1991. He is a writer, multimedia artist, musician, and a founder of Human Host and the archival project Towson-Glen Arm Freakouts. Under his real name and various pseudonyms, his work has been published by Splice Today, Profligate, Human Conduct Press, and several DIY zines. Mike currently lives in the northeast US where he aspires to someday become the “crazy cat man” of his neighborhood.Patreon Button

“A Train to the Astral Plane”: The Cosmic Folk of Jim Sullivan and Judee Sill

Annie Parnell / March 10, 2021

Originally released one month after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Jim Sullivan’s psych-folk hidden gem UFO (1969) is characterized by a drifting kind of hopefulness. Over the floating strings and upbeat horns of The Wrecking Crew, who famously backed The Beach Boys and Phil Spector, the album’s lyrics consider alien abduction and psychic links with loved ones with a curiosity tinged with despair. Sullivan weaves these unearthly themes together with transitory imagery of highways and train stations, a cosmic American landscape that calls to mind Gram Parsons, who he is frequently compared to. Throughout, he searches earnestly for connection, in “Whistle Stop” asking, “Do you know the feeling? Can you love someone you’ve only met a while ago?”

UFO paints love as an otherworldly link with another person who can “hear what I am thinking,” and the album’s title track extrapolates this idea further to consider the notion of divine love. Sullivan, who was raised Irish Catholic and is described by his son Chris as having grown up in an “age of exploration,” wonders in the song if the Second Coming of Christ might arrive by UFO, an idea that’s since been amplified by his better-known space-rock contemporary David Bowie. Jim, however, is no Ziggy Stardust—where Bowie’s odes to an alien messiah are jubilant, “UFO” is inquisitive and a little guarded, with a refrain that insists that he’s only “checking out the show.” For Sullivan, it’s not only hard to comprehend the seemingly telepathic sense of connection that true love offers—on both an interpersonal and a godly scale, it’s almost impossible to believe in it.

It’s a potent sentiment, and Sullivan’s idiosyncratic, wandering lyrics parallel the mystery that surrounds his life. Chris Sullivan explained to the New York Times in 2016 that Jim resented “the idea that he might have to be a square and go work for someone else,” but despite attracting the attention of Playboy Records and celebrity fans like Farah Fawcett and Harry Dean Stanton, his music career failed to pick up steam. This struggle between the talent he so clearly possessed and the recognition that stayed out of his reach is preternaturally visible on his debut album: in the song “Highways,” Sullivan is both dogged and lost, clearly stuck but stubbornly rebuking a world that refuses to let him live by his own rules. 

Six years after UFO’s release, Sullivan decided to drive cross-country to try and catch a break in Nashville. Along the way, he checked into a hotel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, bought a bottle of vodka at a local liquor store, and disappeared without a trace. His Volkswagen Beetle was found abandoned at a nearby ranch. In the passenger seat were his wallet, his guitar, and a box full of copies of both his sophomore release Jim Sullivan (1972) and UFO. The latter’s listing on the label Light in the Attic’s website describes a conversation in which he claimed that if he ever had to disappear, “he’d walk into the desert and never come back.” Others point to a stop by police near Santa Rosa, which, as Chris notes grimly in an interview with FLOOD Magazine, has “a way of making people disappear.” A short documentary made by Light in the Attic touches on another theory: that he was abducted by aliens. Regardless, as his son points out, Jim was “great at what he did,” and the music on UFO is as intimate as it is enigmatic, asking questions about existence, the universe, and our place in each.

Sullivan’s quip in “UFO” that “too much goodness is a sin today,” as well as his gaze towards the stars for salvation, might have resonated with Judee Sill—another unsung singer-songwriter whose debut album Judee Sill (1971) is stuffed with references to aliens and the paranormal. A former church organist, she mixes these occult images more explicitly than Sullivan with Christian spirituality, crafting an intimate assortment of lyrical confessions that she once described as “Country-Cult-Baroque.” On “Crayon Angels,” the album’s opener, she sings gently that she is “waiting for God and a train to the astral plane.” Throughout the album, Christ continues to appear to her in a variety of far-out forms, including an “archetypal man” who’s “fleeter even than Mercury” and whose “moon mirage is shining.” 

In “Enchanted Sky Machines,” a gospel-influenced ballad near the album’s close, Judee is especially hopeful, blending salvation and spacecraft in a way that distinctly evokes “UFO.” On the live album Songs of Rapture and Redemption, she explains candidly that this song is “a religious song about flying saucers coming… to take all of the deserving people away.” Her Live in London BBC recordings reveal a deep-seated belief, explored through this alien metaphor, that “deserving people will be saved.” Unlike Jim Sullivan’s passive and cautious “checking out the show,” however, Judee’s hope for an alien, ’70s-style rapture is yearning, open, and at times deeply anxious. Early on, she admits—to God or to us?—that she “could easily love you if you’d just let me feel”; by the second chorus, she begs the titular “sky machines” to “please hurry.”

This urgency behind Sill’s search for space-age saviors seems intrinsically tied to the adversity she faced during her life on Earth. Sill began her career after spending time in jail for forgery and narcotics possession; a letter she sent along with her demos to Asylum Records detailed the ways her struggles with addiction had informed her music. She died at age 35 of an apparent drug overdose that was controversially ruled a suicide. A musing note about life after death that was found on the scene has been contended by those who knew her as a misinterpreted diary entry, or else the first draft of a song. 

Just as there’s more to Jim Sullivan than his disappearance, though, Judee Sill’s music goes well beyond a reflection of her personal tragedies, and her transformative ideas about God, love, and the universe are intrinsic to her work. Openly bisexual, she had public relationships with both men and women, and once described to Rolling Stone a fluid vision of gender, sexuality, and religion drawn from Carl Jung’s masculine force of the “animus” and feminine force of the “anima.” Her music is preoccupied with radical philosophical senses of redemption and acceptance, each with its own unearthly tint. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” for instance, delves into the grueling process of forgiving a former lover, written while she read Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” portrays her searching for answers among the stars, all the while insisting serenely to her listeners that “however we are is okay.” 

Outer space seems to suggest some of the same possibilities to both Sullivan and Sill: acceptance, transcendence, the possibility of leaving behind a flawed world where good and deserving people who chafe against societal norms are punished for it. Turning to the universe for solace when the world rejects you is an intrinsically reclamatory act—not only does it argue that the bindings of normative society are escapable, it also suggests that they’re not inherently natural or inborn. Jim Sullivan’s search for love and freedom within a repressive capitalistic framework is perhaps most zealous on “Highways,” when he insists that “my world is real, yours a dream,” while Judee Sill’s earnest belief in a better place is clearest on “Enchanted Sky Machines,” as she reassures the listener (or herself) that it “won’t be too far away.” 

This idea of a futuristic alien society more accepting than our own is certainly not a foreign one. In fact, it’s now a hallmark of the way that science-fiction themes have been explored in modern music, from Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist android-centric concept albums to The Butchies’ audacious queer punk anthem “The Galaxy is Gay.” Sullivan and Sill’s metaphysical pickings, however, came long before the social justice crossroads currently faced by modern country music, a realm that’s historically been considered a bastion of American conservatism. Like fellow ’70s trailblazers Lavender Country, UFO and Judee Sill not only call this characterization into question, but turn it on its head, using interplanetary imagery to imagine an open-minded world of country and folk decades before Nashville’s Music Row began to catch up with them. The holy connections each artist makes lend an additional layer of sanctity to the search—Sullivan and Sill suggest that not only is it natural and acceptable to diverge from the prescribed earthly norm, but it’s also righteous, sacred, and true.

In the decades since its original release, Jim Sullivan’s UFO has gone on to inspire folksy indie darlings like Okkervil River and Laura Marling, who have carried his ruminations to a new millennium of listeners. On the 2016 collaboration album case/lang/veirs, artists Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs paid tribute to Sill with “Song for Judee.” Another tribute album, Down Where the Valleys Are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill, is due to come out this month. The modern resonance of these artists’ messages, half a century after they slipped into relative obscurity, is both tragic and hopeful. We certainly haven’t reached the utopia of Jim Sullivan’s UFOs and Judee Sill’s sky machines, but perhaps their songs provide their own kind of deliverance—a soothing, abiding prayer that a better world may be out there after all.

Annie Parnell is a writer and student based in Washington, D.C. who hails from Derry, Maine.

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Ghostly Messages: Australia’s Lost Horror Anthology, ‘The Evil Touch’

Andrew Nette / February 17, 2021

In a June 2017 article in Fortean Times, the British magazine concerned with strange and paranormal phenomena, writer and broadcaster Bob Fischer discussed how the sensation of not being exactly sure what you were watching on television, or not being able to recall the details with any precision, was a common experience in relation to consuming visual culture in the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of streaming, DVD, and VHS. This sense of “lostness”—of incomplete and unverifiable experience—is also what makes these memories such powerful nostalgia prompts.

The television viewing experience that most encapsulates this sense of lostness for me is a little-known, American-backed, Australian-made horror anthology series, The Evil Touch, that debuted on Sydney screens in June 1973 and in Melbourne a month later. Largely forgotten now, American critic John Kenneth Muir referred to the show in his 2001 book, Terror Television: American Series 1970-1999, as the “horror anthology that slipped through the cracks of time.” The Evil Touch has never had an official DVD release, although poor quality versions of some episodes can be found online, or as bootleg editions originally copied from television on VHS. It is not even known who now owns the rights. But the program was significant in many ways.

From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Australian television programming was dominated by cheap to purchase overseas productions, mainly from the United States. While the balance started to shift starting in the mid-1960s, when demands for more Australian-made content grew louder, American product still dominated, and few Australian shows were sold overseas. The only Australian-made television show sold to the United States during this time that I am aware of is The Evil Touch. Produced in Sydney specifically for the American market, it was shot in color on 16mm film at a time when local television was still black and white; the first color broadcasts in Australia did not occur until 1974, and color did not roll out nationally until 1975.

The Evil Touch was also unusual for being the only locally produced entry in the once highly popular canon of horror anthology television. The anthology horror format, in which each episode is a different story with a new set of characters, originated in the 1950s, increased in popularity in the 1960s with programs such as The Outer Limits (1963-1965) and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964), and peaked in the 1970s. Debuting in 1970, Serling’s Night Gallery, a series of one-off stories with macabre and supernatural plots, was the beginning of modern horror television. Numerous shows followed in America, and anthology horror also proved popular in Great Britain, most notably the 1976 series Beasts, written by Nigel Kneale (who had scripted earlier science fiction television series and films featuring the scientist Bernard Quatermass), consisting of six self-contained episodes, each with a recurring theme of bestial horror.

The central figure behind The Evil Touch was silver-haired expatriate American television director and producer Mende Brown. Brown formulated the idea for the series, produced all 26 episodes, and directed 15. According to his 2002 obituary in Variety, he was born in New York, started in radio after World War II, and his first directing credit was a 1953 episode of the popular radio show Inner Sanctum Mystery, produced by his brother Himan. Working in film and television throughout the ‘50s, his first feature directing job was The Clown and the Kids in 1967, noteworthy for being shot entirely on location behind the then Iron Curtain in Bulgaria, with the cooperation of the country’s state film body.

Variety’s obituary dates Brown’s move to Australia as 1971, but other sources suggest he arrived in 1970. Either way, he soon set up his own company, Amalgamated Pictures Australasia, operating out of an office in Sydney’s then vice quarter Kings Cross, which at the time also played host to a large number of American service personnel on R&R during the Vietnam War. From this base of operations, Brown oversaw a number of projects prior to The Evil Touch. He directed and produced Strange Holiday (1970), based on Jules Verne’s 1887 novel A Long Vacation, and Little Jungle Boy (1971), a made-for-television children’s film shot in Singapore. In 1973, Brown also wrote and produced And Millions Will Die. Made in Hong Kong, the story pitted popular American television actor Richard Basehart, best known for playing Admiral Harriman Nelson in the science-fiction adventure television series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), as a secret agent battling a Nazi germ warfare expert who threatens to unleash a lethal gas on the British territory. 

The Australian Women’s Weekly described Brown as “An American TV producer and director who has decided that Australia is a good place to make films.” Emanuel L. Wolf, president and chair of Allied Artists Picture Corporation, which backed The Evil Touch to the tune of A$250,000, put it more bluntly when he visited Sydney to discuss possible film and television deals in August 1972. He told journalists there was a great advantage to making films in Australia because the costs were substantially lower, and the work restrictions were considerably less than those enforced by entertainment unions in America. At the cost of A$30,000-40,000 per episode, The Evil Touch was a glamorous, big budget affair by local standards, and a host of American television/film actors travelled down under to star in, and sometimes direct, episodes. “Never has Australia been so inundated with so many top name American movie stars,” declared the Australian magazine TV Week on August 4, 1973. In reality, most of these individuals were long past the peak of their careers; but in Australia, which was only just developing a domestic film industry of its own, they remained big names due to the continuing proliferation of American shows on local television. Many of them were also desperate for work, given the economic difficulties facing the American film and television industry in the early 1970s. “American actors are happy to come here, both for the money and the work,” Brown told a press conference to announce The Evil Touch in Sydney in October 1971. “They’re delighted to work anywhere they can get it.”

Brown milked the publicity generated by his overseas cast for all it was worth. Australian magazine and newspaper coverage from the time records a steady drum beat of fascination with visiting stars: Leslie Neilson; veteran actor Leif Erickson, familiar to Australian audiences as a cast member of the TV western High Chaparral (1967-71); Ray Walston, known as the Martian in My Favorite Martian (1963-66); and Vic Morrow, star of Combat (1962-1967). Others included Darren McGavin, US child model turned actress Carol Lynley, Susan Strasberg, Robert Lansing from Gunsmoke (1965-1969), and Julie Harris, whose career stretched back to the late 1940s and included a role in Robert Wise’s eerie 1963 ghost film The Haunting.

One lesser-known international actor to feature in The Evil Touch was Mel Welles. After appearing in television series and B movies in the US in the 1950s, Welles spent much of the 1960s in Europe, where his directing credits included the now infamous 1971 Italian horror Lady Frankenstein, a weird exploitation riff on Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic novel. The early 1970s saw him in Japan for a small role in a local science fiction action series, after which he found himself in Australia, where he appeared in one episode of The Evil Touch, “Wings of Death,” about an Australian family whose son disappears while they are travelling in an unspecified Latin American country. Welles plays a sleazy cop who heads up the local death cult that, unknown to the parents, has kidnapped the child. Having discharged his obligations to Brown, Welles spent his time organizing the only Australian showing of Lady Frankenstein, at Kings Cross’s Metro Cinema. To accompany this, he organized a live stage show titled “Orgy of Evil,” a self-styled history of nudity, violence, and torture. An advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 1973 billed the show as “A live stage presentation of evil, terror and horror beyond the mortal imagination.” It reportedly cost a fortune to mount, attracted the unwelcome attention of the city’s vice squad, and closed after only a week, at which point Welles fled the country.

In addition to American acting talent, American writers penned all but three The Evil Touch scripts. One of those writers was Sylvester Stallone, who was then trying to break into Hollywood. According to IMDb, he scored his first writing credit on an episode of the show under the pseudonym “Q Moonblood.” The US-centric nature of the show landed Brown into trouble with local entertainment unions, who threatened an international campaign against The Evil Touch. Brown was forced into negotiations, Variety reporting in early 1973 that his company reached an “entirely equitable agreement… Basically that is that one American star can be imported for each episode, with one Australian player to be co-starred and others featured.” As a result, the show played host to a plethora of local actors who went on to become major names in home-grown film and television.

The Evil Touch screened throughout America in late 1972 and, according to Variety, rated well. Australian viewers were far less taken with the show, however, and it lasted only a few episodes on Channel 9 before being dropped from the schedule. Heavy-handed censorship meant that horror was not a genre with particularly deep roots in local television or film, so audiences were possibly unaccustomed to it. Yet in Australia, as elsewhere, the 1970s were the era when Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? was a staple of many bookshelves, when the occult became a suburban preoccupation, and when mysteries such as the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster were popular tabloid fodder. As such, The Evil Touch’s lack of success probably had more to do with its main competitor, the soap opera Number 96, which screened at the same time on rival Channel 0 (now 10). This featured the salacious goings on in an inner-Sydney block of flats, complete with ground-breaking television depictions of nudity and sex, including Australian television’s first gay kiss.

The Evil Touch continued to turn up regularly on late night television in Australia throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when I am fairly sure I saw my first episode, most likely left unsupervised with the television in someone’s den during one of the many boozy dinner parties my parents attended. The few grainy episodes I caught haunted me for years, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I had seen. Indeed, until I started researching the show for a film festival presentation in 2016 and found some old episodes on YouTube, my memories of The Evil Touch were so blurred and uncertain, I wondered whether I’d just imagined it.

The one image I always remembered from The Evil Touch was its prologue. Each 25-minute episode followed the basic structure and tropes of 1970s anthology horror television. This included a mysterious host, in The Evil Touch’s case British actor Anthony Quayle. To the jazzy lounge music score of Australian composer Laurie Lewis, each episode opened with Quayle walking forward through swirling, multi-colored smoke (produced by holding a lit cigarette just below the camera) to briefly introduce the story. He would appear again at the episode’s end with some concluding remarks and an ominous farewell: “Until next week this is Anthony Quayle, reminding you there is a touch of evil in us all.” He would start to walk away, stop, and turn back and mischievously say, “Pleasant dreams.”

Host Anthony Quayle

Muir links the popularity of the anthology horror format in America in the early 1970s to several factors, which were echoed in Australia: the relaxation of censorship standards, which allowed shows to get away with more explicit horror and violence; advances in make-up and special effects; and the shift in the national mood due largely to the shocking prime-time news footage coming out of the Vietnam War. “Vietnam and Watergate were two turbulent and controversial public events which America had to digest,” he writes, “and horror television responded with a cathartic form of entertainment that acknowledged national fears yet reinforced positive values.” If there is a thematic strand running through 1960s/1970s anthology horror television, it is the sense of an otherworldly moral judge and jury operating to punish murderers, adulterers, and greedy businessmen for crimes they would otherwise get away with. The Evil Touch ran the gamut of genres, from science fiction to mystery murder tales, to horror, but nearly all the episodes utilize this punitive narrative form.

Less characteristic of the television anthology horror genre was The Evil Touch’s surreal, dream-like quality, and its deliberately non-linear storytelling style. With the exception of Quayle’s omniscient and enigmatic introductions and conclusions, the characters and events in each episode are given little context and there is usually no sense of narrative closure. The strange ambience of The Evil Touch is also the product of its generic setting, a deliberate strategy on Brown’s part to maximize its appeal to American audiences. While mostly shot in or around Sydney, landmarks and characteristics that could have been recognizable are de-identified. As TV Times put it in 1973: “The Evil Touch was made in Australia, but unless you recognize familiar faces among the bit players you might not suspect this, for by using cunning devices such as reversing film negatives, producer-director Mende Brown shows right hand drive cars belting through Sydney on the wrong side of the road.” To a local watcher, the overall effect is unnerving: Australia rendered largely anonymous for American viewers, almost a fulfilment of fears, dating back to the 1920s on the part of local left- and right-wing critics, that Australia would be subsumed by American popular culture. A particularly vocal critic was The Age’s television critic John Pinkney who, in a July 1973 column, lambasted the show’s American dominated look and feel, in particular the fact that Australian actors were required to speak with US accents. “Evil Touch conjures the Commonwealth of Oz into the status of a non-county,” he wrote.

In the aforementioned episode “Wings of Death,” outer Sydney stands in for a nameless Latin American republic. In “They,” an academic and his young son are vacationing in the Cornish countryside (most likely the cliff tops overlooking Sydney Harbour). The son gets lost on “the moors” and runs into a malevolent cult of ghostly children led by a creepy young woman, who he has already seen in his dreams. In what is undoubtedly a comment on the new forms of youth culture that were sweeping much of the world by the early 1970s, the group she leads has given up the “Old Ones”—anyone over the age of 15—and is also responsible for a string of deaths in a nearby town. “The Fans,” set in the American deep south, sees Vic Morrow as a cynical horror movie star who visits two elderly female fans as a publicity stunt. They drug him, dress him in his screen vampire persona, and imprison him in the basement of their large manor house in an attempt to drive the devil out of him. “The Trial” involves a rapacious property developer (Ray Walston) being pursued through an abandoned carnival ground (Sydney’s Luna Park) by a pack of circus freaks led by a discredited brain surgeon who lobotomizes him, in what feels like a macabre homage to Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic Freaks.

The only episode obviously shot outside Sydney, “Kadaitcha Country,” is possibly the strongest. Leif Erikson plays a washed-up Christian preacher, who it is inferred has significant mental health issues. Given one last chance at redemption by his church, he is sent to a remote outback mission, where he clashes with an Aboriginal shaman (the “Kadaitcha Man”) who has the power to play with reality. While English spellings of the name vary (either “Kurdaitcha” or “Kurdaitcha”), it appears to refer to a type of shaman/sorcerer who lived among the Arrente people near Alice Springs in central Australia. There are also records of the term “Kadaitcha” being used to refer to Aboriginal law keepers. The episode was directed by Brown and written by Australian Ron Mclean, one of only two local writers to work on the show. The story fuses Indigenous myth (or at least a white director’s interpretation of it) with folk horror tropes in a way that would not be seen on cinema screens until Peter Weir’s The Last Wave in 1977. Not only does the episode rank as an early depiction of the clash between Indigenous spirituality and invading Christian faith, it also featured an Indigenous actor: Lindsey Roughsey, one of the traditional custodians of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the episode was filmed, played the Kadaitcha Man. This was something of a breakthrough, as it was not uncommon, well into the 1970s, to have white actors play Indigenous parts in black face.

Mende Brown would go on to produce one further film in Australia, a little-known hardboiled thriller, On the Run (1983), about an orphaned boy sent to live with his uncle (an aging Rod Taylor), who unbeknownst to the boy is a ruthless assassin. It was never released theatrically. Brown returned to the United States in 1991 and died in 2002. Episodes of The Evil Touch continued to rerun on television throughout the 1990s, from America to Japan and Malaysia, like ghostly messages relayed from a long-abandoned outpost of 1970s popular culture.

Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He can be found at www.pulpcurry.com.

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“Left A Galaxy of Dreams Behind”: Joe Banks’ ‘Hawkwind: Days of the Underground’

Richard McKenna / February 9, 2021

Hawkwind: Days of the Underground
By Joe Banks
Strange Attractor, 2020

Disclosure: Joe Banks is a We Are the Mutants contributor.

I don’t really remember anybody actually mentioning Hawkwind in my youth. You just seemed to absorb an awareness of them from the landscape by osmosis, the same way you absorbed knowledge of the locations of short-cuts, haunted houses, and the more dangerous potholes. Cognizance of these archetypes stalking out from the mists—lead singer and guitarist Brock the stroppy-looking, vaguely Asterix-ey Celt chieftain, even his name sounding like something out of the pulps; Stacia, mad-eyed unafraid galactic goddess; Calvert the seer, consumed by the voltage of his visions; Nik Turner, crazed sax druid; Lemmy the pagan barbarian; and all the other assorted weirdos, bruisers and flakes, equal parts disconcertingly familiar and reassuringly alien—somehow assembled itself in your brain of its own accord from fragmentary exposure like a sub-language. Shards of an aesthetic, like the weird Art Nouveau-ish t-shirt worn by the girl at the youth club, the truncated roar of “Silver Machine” coming from the open door of a pub, a friend’s older brother’s odd-smelling bedroom, all pointing to the existence of this thing: Hawkwind.

For a period, I didn’t even realize that Hawkwind was a band, having intuited that it was a TV program along the lines of Catweazle, and by the time I was a teen in the mid-’80s, Hawkwind were so violently out of fashion in the milieus I frequented that it wasn’t even necessary to choose not to like them—not liking them was the default position. Perhaps, along with a widespread post-’77 mistrust of hippies (ironic, seeing as it was often hippies-turned-punks who were punk’s most dedicated propagators), it was this sense of them more as an aspect of the environment than a rock revelation that contributed to the relative neglect the band long enjoyed in their native island. And yet they remained eerily omnipresent and potential, like a seam of strange metal running through everything that you did like, and biding their time until the moment you noticed them and the electricity started to flow. 

For those that have managed to avoid the knowledge, Hawkwind are a British band who played—and in fact continue to play—an unappetizing-sounding cocktail of hard rock, hippy sludge, psychedelic rock, prog, and a kind of Ur-punk. Over the top of the chippy rhythms, DIY electronics, and gloomy melodies sits the crazed lyrical world the band have gradually accreted around themselves over the years, where genuinely inspired SF poetics collide with off-their-face ramblings pulled from the last SF pulp someone read. All this somehow coalesces into what’s often seen as the UK’s equivalent of Krautrock. It’s often referred to as “space rock,” a concoction they’ve stuck with for decades. See? You’re already sneering. But that’s only going to make you feel even more of a tit several years down the line when you feel compelled to play “Orgone Accumulator” five times in a row every time you’ve had a drink. Because Hawkwind technology works, and when that electricity starts to flow, you will feel the irresistible cosmic boogie blasting through your body.

Hawkwind: Days of the Underground takes upon itself the task of lasering away the galactic cobwebs obscuring the sleek form of starship Hawkwind, waking its crew from suspended animation and firing up its thrusters. In it, author Joe Banks shows how transformative Hawkwind were from a musical, political, and maybe even sociological standpoint, their stubborn refusal to become part of the machine hardwired into the instruments of their mission. He contextualizes them in the various musical scenes they warped through and reminds us of their DIY vocation, highlighting how much more they perhaps have in common with an entity like CRASS than they do with their nominal peers. It’s in their shared aggro-hippie roots in free festivals and pagan whatnots, artwork-as-intrinsic-part-of-the-package philosophy, quasi-military collective presentation, relentless beat, guitar rhythms that feel like they’re hacking away at something, and even in the prole-patrician tensions implicit in the contrasting vocal stylings of Hawkwind’s Brock and Calvert and CRASS’s Eve Libertine and Steve Ignorant.

Like the idiot I am, I avoided Hawkwind like a time-plague for much of my youth, so the revelation when it came that they were not in fact some embarrassing 12-bar club band but a paradigm-blasting mindfuck was even more shocking, and this is the feeling that Days of the Underground captures: that moment of protracted excitement when you realize something is great. It’s also the perfect book for anyone like me who has a dread of books about bands and the deadening effect too much information can have (at least for me) on the daft power of rock ‘n’ roll. Practically every time I’ve read a book about a band it’s felt a bit like watching a beautiful stage set be dismantled by well-meaning yet stolid roadies whose main interest is in the kinds of screws holding the props together, or what’s going to be on the catering table.

Days of the Underground isn’t like that. It’s a book written by a fan in the best possible meaning of that phrase, in the sense that it communicates its author’s deep passion about and desire to share something transformative and, in its way, profound. The book is rammed with insightful commentary, informed analysis, and detailed information about every aspect of the band (and their endless internal crew disputes), but despite that it somehow never lets the momentum slack or allows fannery to drown out the driving Cosmic rhythm. I came away from it feeling excited and galvanized—not just wanting to re-listen to every Hawkwind LP (though I definitely did) but also wanting to actually do things: not read another rock book but pick up a guitar, draw a picture, write a story, go into suspended animation and let the automind pilot me outside of time. It’s a read that feels more like an actual exciting thing than it does a book about an exciting thing, if that makes any sense. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater compliment.

McKenna AvatarRichard McKenna grew up in the visionary utopia of 1970s South Yorkshire and now ekes out a living among the crumbling ruins of Rome, from whence he dreams of being rescued by the Terran Trade Authority.

Shooting Straight: ‘Blade Runner’ and Queer Notions of Selfhood

Annie Parnell / February 3, 2021

The irony of the Voight-Kampff test, an analysis that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) performs to identify “replicant” androids in 1982’s Blade Runner, is that it does not actually prove that his subjects are replicants. Instead, by observing and establishing various responses as “not human,” it proves what they aren’t. By asking suspected replicant Rachael (Sean Young) a series of questions while monitoring her verbal and physical responses with a machine, Deckard is able to quantify precisely how inhuman she appears to be; through noting the absence of what Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkell) describes as “the so-called blush response” and “fluctuation of the pupil,” the Voight-Kampff test produces a kind of “human-negative” response that isn’t even disproven in Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles when Rachael produces childhood photographs as positive proof of her humanity.

This strategy of collecting data that prove what the self is not connects inversely to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, a series of short films from the Pop Art movement that depict subjects attempting to stay motionless and hold eye contact with the camera for three minutes, each inevitably failing to not blink or twitch. Jonathan Flatley, for the art journal October, describes these films as revealing “each sitter’s failure to hold onto an identity” of performance, and links the Screen Tests to Warhol’s exploration of queer attraction and selfhood, describing the ways that the intimate series blends desire and identification with another. The Screen Tests form a kind of queer collection of humanities, emphasizing the viewer’s kinship with the series’ subjects through slight, unique movements that contradict the roles ascribed to them, while the Voight-Kampff test forces a sense of self by negation of the other upon the observer. The questions it uses rely on whether or not the subject makes a correctly “human” response, determined by rules of “human” performance that society has projected upon its members. The parallels to queerness are obvious here: in addition to tracking the dilation and contraction of her pupils, one of Deckard’s questions for Rachael asks if she would be sufficiently jealous to discover that her husband finds a picture of a woman in a magazine attractive. Humanity, in Blade Runner, is boiled down to whether or not you conform to a particular, heteronormative pattern of behavior; fail to live up to that pattern, and you are cast out.

In fact, Blade Runner makes repeated references to queerness, both for comedic and dramatic effect. “Is this testing whether I’m a replicant or a lesbian?” Rachael asks Deckard coyly after she’s asked about the woman in the magazine, her eyes inscrutable from behind a cloud of smoke. When renegade replicants Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) find themselves in the apartment of the sympathetic human Sebastian (William Sanderson), Batty gets down on his knees and positions himself between the other man’s legs. At the scene’s climax, when Sebastian leads them into the Tyrell Corporation, Roy kisses Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) passionately before killing him on the spot. Throughout Blade Runner, the replicants are not only queered and sexualized, but their queerness and any implied proximity to it is as alluring as it is dangerous.

Towards the end of the film, however, both this aversion to queerness and the Voight-Kampff test’s negation-based model of selfhood is challenged when Deckard fights and flees Batty in an abandoned building. Deckard, who has “retired” a collection of replicants over the course of both the film and his career, is suddenly and brutally confronted with one who seems very capable of destroying him. This represents a confrontation between two concepts of humanity and definitions of the self: the isolating, heteronormative notions of the Voight-Kampff test, and a queered, kinship-based model centered on similarity rather than difference. Even ignoring the long-standing fandom debate over whether Deckard himself is a replicant, Blade Runner seems to ask what the functional difference between humans and replicants is, anyway. Just as Warhol argues for an understanding of sexuality and identity based on similarity rather than difference, the fight between Deckard and Batty signifies a brutal process of redefining the self in connection to others, despite coming from a framework that relies on destroying and negating them.

In this final battle, then, Rick Deckard is not only fighting for his life, but fighting to maintain a precarious sense of self that relies on the notion that replicants are fundamentally different from him. Despite this, the gaze of the camera consistently portrays him and Batty as similar to each other, juxtaposing both their bodies and their pain. After a shot that emphasizes Deckard’s fingers, bent at odd angles after Batty breaks them one by one, the camera cuts to a shot of Batty’s own hand curling in on itself as it necrotizes. The parallels are taken to new, gory heights when Batty drives a nail through his atrophying hand in order to trigger a healing response and stop his rigor mortis from spreading. Here, the camera calls back to Deckard having done the exact same thing: his grimaces and the angle of the shot are almost indistinguishable from an earlier shot of Deckard painstakingly and agonizingly popping his fingers back into place.

These instances also emphasize the sadomasochism throughout Deckard and Batty’s climactic chase—a raw, erotic fight to define the self. This is initially teased out through a variety of double entendres in Blade Runner’s script that harken back to the film’s earlier references to queerness. After he breaks Deckard’s fingers, Batty hands him his gun back and tells him that he will stand still by the hole in the wall and offer Deckard one clear shot at him—he must only “shoot straight.” When Deckard fires, Batty jumps out of the way and laughs, shouting gleefully that “straight doesn’t seem to be good enough!” From the other side of the wall, Batty tells Deckard that it’s his turn to be pursued and, his face twitching lasciviously, says that he will give Deckard “a few seconds before I come.” The role that the audience plays in witnessing the physical torment of both men—the pain that they inflict on themselves and each other throughout this chase—is almost pornographic, recasting the viewer as a voyeur absorbed into the crisis of selfhood occurring between them.

The notion of the gaze of an audience upon eroticized pain not only suggests the identification with a subject that the Screen Tests encourage, but also evokes an artistic successor of Warhol’s: Robert Mapplethorpe, whose depictions of gay male S&M are described by Richard Meyer in Qui Parle as insisting on “the photographer’s identity with… the erotic subculture he photographs” and emphasizing the impossibility of “knowing” a person or a culture through outside observation. This suggests potent ramifications for the battle between Deckard and Batty. Much like the Voight-Kampff test proves the absence of humanity through observation rather than identifying its presence, a read of Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s projections onto Deckard’s observation of replicants and the climactic fight with Batty suggests that distinctions of identity are unknowable through opposition and passive perception, and that selfhood relies instead on likeness and identification with others.

When Batty does catch up to Deckard, he maniacally shouts, “You’d better get it up, or I’m gonna have to kill you!” before Deckard attempts to flee out of the window. From this point onward, Deckard is cast in an explicitly submissive light by the camera: as he desperately attempts to scale the decrepit building and escape, we follow him almost exclusively in wide-range shots from above, watching him pant as he stumbles and dangles off the building’s edge. When he reaches the roof, he lies at the top of the building, whimpering. The sexualized power dynamic between Deckard and Batty is only re-emphasized when Batty comes outside and finds him again. Deckard, once more attempting to flee, leaps to the next building over and fumblingly latches onto one protruding metal bar, only to find Batty looming over him moments later after gracefully jumping onto the rooftop. Batty is portrayed, here, as a kind of unhinged replicant dom; the camera showcases him from below in a series of shots that emphasize both his power over Deckard and the physique of his body.

After Batty pulls Deckard up with one hand and throws him onto the rooftop, Deckard continues to struggle below him, breathing heavily as both he and the audience wonder what Batty will do to him. Batty, by this point, has removed most of his clothes; his nakedness, which gave him a primal, animalistic edge during the chase, now makes him seem vulnerable and human as he stands with Deckard in the rain. In a compelling moment of empathy, he physically crouches in order to face Deckard, then muses about the fleeting nature of memory and time before telling Deckard it is “time to die.” 

By the end of the scene, when Batty gracefully shuts down, Deckard’s practice of collecting replicants through administering the Voight-Kampff test and violently retiring them has been overhauled through a sadomasochistic struggle that ends in Batty thrusting likeness upon him and ultimately retiring himself. Deckard is left to grapple with a sense of selfhood that is suddenly uncategorizable by opposition. Closing his own eyes moments after Batty has closed his, both he and the audience are left to reckon with Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s queer notions of identity and kinship instead.

Annie Parnell is a writer and student based in Washington, D.C. who hails from Derry, Maine.

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From Buzz Bin to Dust Bin: Nuclear Anxiety in Belfegore’s ‘All That I Wanted’

Ty Matejowsky / January 14, 2021

As far as innovative 1980s music videos go, probably none is more immediately visceral and less popularly remembered than Belfegore’s “All That I Wanted.” Like a repressed memory from the dark recesses of Generation X’s collective unconscious, the promotional clip of this 1984 near-hit single from a short-lived German industrial/goth/post-punk/new wave trio warrants reappraisal—if not for how it showcases the propulsive strains of a song that blends the best of Killing Joke, Billy Idol, and Joy Division (while prefiguring Pretty Hate Machine-era Nine Inch Nails along the way) into an unholy alchemy of snarling guitarwork and abrasive electronica, then certainly for its reification of late-phase Cold War anxieties running amok along a Hudson River pier under the looming presence of the World Trade Center, still some 17 years away from its abrupt deletion from the Manhattan skyline.

By this point in their all too brief career, Belfegore seemed on the cusp of some mainstream breakthrough recognition. Having already released a long-player in their native Germany in 1982 alongside a pair of singles the following year, the band got signed to Elektra Records, home of CBGB-bred pioneers Television and new wave perennials The Cars. Belfegore’s self-titled English language debut built off the band’s more rudimentary predecessor thanks in no small part to the expanded sonic palette made possible by trailblazing krautrock/kosmische producer Conny Plank. Known for overseeing the recordings of both Neu!’s first album (1972) and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974), Plank’s trademark electronic stylings and harsh guitar and drum sound find expression in Belfegore’s ferocious opener and lead single “All That I Wanted.”  

The video’s aesthetic genius lies both in its conceptual simplicity and unbridled kineticism. An ominous sense of foreboding prevails as leather-clad lead singer Meikel Clauss trots across the asphalt desolation of a New York City dock looking like a gothed-up version of “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Amid a scattering of overturned musical equipment, road cases, crash cymbals, amplifier stacks, and rubbish blowing about, Clauss speeds up slightly when a man carrying a fine art painting and easel closes in from behind, both of them increasing their stride as if fleeing some unseen menace. Next, Clauss appears back where he started, this time sprinting and singing manically to the camera, presumably one step ahead of imminent death and destruction. The man with the artwork is there also, picking up the pace, rapidly moving forward without so much as a backwards glance. Abruptly, a wide-angle shot reveals Clauss racing down the concourse from a similar starting point, this time running ahead and alongside a motley mix of costumed music video extras, some gripping luggage, one or two clutching firearms. 

Over the next four minutes or so, Clauss—occasionally with his electric guitar or microphone stand—zigzags among this improbable throng of central casting rejects, bumping shoulders and throwing body blocks as they all dash headlong towards some unreachable destination. That or the crowd races past a now-stationary Clauss who, along with Belfegore bass player Raoul Walton and drummer Manfred Terstappen, performs “All That I Wanted” as if his very life depended on it. A series of fluid tracking shots sweeping past the band while these stock characters randomly hustle by adds dizzying intensity to an already chaotic scene. Among those unfortunate souls damned to repeatedly traverse this narrow tongue of industrial bleakness are a construction worker, nurse, showgirl, briefcase-toting businessman, Olympic torch runner (the 1984 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles), nun, sheik, uniformed schoolgirl, pram-pushing mother, restaurant waiter, cowboy, man with a leashed German Shepard, policeman, bellhop, assorted punk rockers, and a man inexplicably carrying a porcelain toilet. Many of these background actors end up taking a spill, some pitching forward while moving in and out of frame; others fall while dodging or leaping over random obstacles. As the music builds to a crescendo, the video does not so much end as peter out, left exhausted by a vicious onslaught of sonic and visual chaos.

As much a product of its time as a prescient foreshadowing of the mayhem that would one day envelop Lower Manhattan, sending ripples of dread across the global psyche, the video is not without its flaws. Amid shifts in camera direction, abrupt edits, and no discernable consideration for daylight continuity, the clip allows sharp-eyed viewers to pinpoint what happens when artistic vision bumps up against the time constraints, budgetary concerns, and other realities of on-location shoots. Beyond eyeblink instances of extras visibly hesitating before slamming to the ground (or more likely onto off-camera crash pads), the most obvious imperfection is the noticeable breathlessness and decreasing speed exhibited by some of the background talent in scenes ostensibly shot late in the day after take after take of running back and forth on an exposed pier while lugging cumbersome props. From the looks of it, only Belfegore’s rhythm section got off easy in this regard, as neither drummer Terstappen nor bassist Walton had to move much beyond their stage marks.

Minor quibbles aside, the video readily captures the prevailing sense of angst and helplessness characterizing Cold War antagonisms in the years immediately preceding thawed US and Soviet relations before the Berlin Wall came down. Ronald Reagan’s real and rhetorical efforts at pursuing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) known colloquially as “Star Wars,” his scuttling of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty, and the escalation by the Soviets of the Soviet-Afghan War threatened to upend the geopolitical equilibrium previously maintained through the military/foreign policy stalemate of mutual assured destruction (MAD). Against this backdrop, the first half of the 1980s was a time suffused with varying levels of unease and uncertainty. Belfegore’s video for “All That I Wanted” viscerally distills the existential dread surging through the global body politic. Not only does it elicit the social breakdown that occurs with the panicked realization that the normality of everyday life is suddenly and irrevocably overtaken by events, it also visually encapsulates the powerlessness of ordinary people scrambling for a nonexistent offramp from a crisis neither of their making nor compliant to the political sway of their so-called leaders. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as prospects for survival rapidly dim, might our final moments—the mushroom cloud already on the horizon—somehow resemble this?

Directed by experimental filmmaker and 1986 MTV Video Vanguard Award honoree Zbigniew Rybczyński, the heart-racing propulsion of this lost classic captures all that was possible for a short-form entertainment genre finally coming into its own as a veritable artform. Rybczyński—a Polish émigré and likely the only Oscar winner ever arrested and jailed mere minutes after receiving an Academy Award—cultivates a singular style easily recognizable across his decades-long filmography (he went on to work with Art of Noise, Lou Reed, Simple Minds, Rush, Fat Boys, Mr. Mister, Supertramp, Pet Shop Boys, and the Alan Parsons Project, among others). The eccentric visual language he employs in his music video work pairs rapid edits, repetitions, and sweeping Steadicam pans with the detached sensibilities, nonlinear narratives, and quirky aesthetics of an ascendant 1980s postmodernity not yet reduced to an exhausted caricature of itself. 

Despite an eye-popping video, some initial college radio buzz, and prized opening slot on the 1985 European leg of U2’s Unforgettable Fire tour, Belfegore never connected with a wider audience, quickly slipping into obscurity. In 2011, after some 25 years of radio silence, flickers of life emerged when the band unexpectedly resurfaced for a one-off German reunion show. That same year acclaimed director David Fincher used “All That I Wanted” in a pivotal scene of his screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Such faint hints of a career resurrection notwithstanding, Belfegore’s legacy remains all but negligible.

Seemingly resistant to the YouTube algorithms working nowadays to define so much of our recollected MTV-era tastes and preferences—sorting formulas that work to winnow out all but the most obvious one-hit wonders and essentialized mainstays of a Stranger Things-like nostalgia trip—the conceptual novelty and thrilling imagery of “All That I Wanted” evokes an adrenalized urgency that belies its unsung status within a collective headspace prone to blind spots, if not outright bouts of generational amnesia. Despite such popular and critical indifference, the howling catharsis and uncompromising frenzy of Belfegore’s only major label video resonates today not just as a hidden gem of 1980s college radio ephemera awaiting rediscovery, but also as a pure embodiment of the pre-détente fears gripping the wider world when the specter of nuclear annihilation remained ever-present.

Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  He is a Libra who enjoys sunsets and long walks on the beach.
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A Year in the Iso-Cubes: The Mutants Recap 2020

Recollections / December 31, 2020 TELEMMGLPICT000137577656_1_trans_NvBQzQNjv4Bq0TrNspzLiqItVcUZLpZHegLAO3oYeUItLnNLiuBiSoY

2020 in action

MCKENNA: Christ on a bike, it has been a year. Who would have imagined back when we started 2020 with a frivolous piece on little plastic spacemen the grim turn things were about to take? And to think, back in a previous end-of-year mutants communiqué, we were hubristic enough to say that 2018 had been punishing, jejune fools that we were! 2020 didn’t like that and decided to show us what punishing really meant: an appalling bastard physically, mentally, and financially that has put immense numbers of people through nightmarish shit. So what better way to indulge in a bit of propitiatory magic in the hope of a better 2021 than by quickly listing a few of the gems your faithful muties have been fortunate enough to find embedded in the continent-sized turd that has been the year? So Mike, Kelly—what have you two stumbled across in the last twelve months that’s given you a glimmer of optimism?

GRASSO: Richard, first things first: when Jenny and I were going through our own presumed COVID infection back in the spring, one of the things that kept me going was chatting with you early in the mornings, whinging about symptoms, lamenting my suddenly swiss-cheesed brain, worrying about… well, nearly everything. So friends have absolutely kept me going this year, and having you and Kelly as comrades and creative partners for a fifth year has been the lifeline that’s largely kept me going.

Like I may have mentioned, much of everything before our recovery in about June is a bit of a blur, sadly. I did stay sane like many people during the first months of the pandemic by watching, yes, Tiger King, which, by the time it was over, got me wanting to watch an earlier, much better Netflix documentary on the tension created by the collision of cultic belief with American capitalist culture, Wild Wild Country. Both of these, though, paled in comparison to the recent release of Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults on HBO Max, a terrific and nuanced look at the individuals who found themselves so damaged by a society that denied them wonder and companionship that they marched off to their deaths for beliefs that seemed insane to everyone outside the group. People were talking about it around the election for precisely the wrong reasons, I found.

Honestly, though, I haven’t had the attention span for much visual media this year. I’ve been doing far more reading and listening. I’ll start with Carl Neville’s fascinating novel of a sideways Earth where an out of control right-accelerationist America faces off against a mostly-Communist rest of the world (including the UK), Eminent Domain. Its deep, detail-packed examination of a “utopia with dystopian characteristics”—a largely post-scarcity “People’s Republic of Britain” where a 1990s revolution against the CEOs and toffs has allowed an ostensibly classless technologically-driven society to flourish—is a political thriller, a spy novel, an exploration of alternate-history culture and art, and in the character that I identified with most—a young American college student who falls in love with the PRB thanks to its cultural products, art, and music—a simultaneous celebration and warning about falling in love with a place you’ve never been. It changed my life in a lot of ways and I’m unimaginably proud I got together with Carl to talk about it back during the summer.

ROBERTS: A blur is right. It’s almost like I’m existing in somebody’s demented time-lapse photography experiment. These (so far) nine months have been hard and they have certainly changed my life—the extent of that change won’t be clear to me until some sense of normality (what does that word mean anymore?) reasserts itself (or my mind inserts it). With a full-time-plus job in a public university health system and two kids at home who are deeply bored and sometimes furious at the inadequacies of Zoom, I haven’t had a hell of a lot of time or energy for discoveries. But I did re-watch a lot of disaster movies, a genre we subsequently (and rather angrily, on my part) wrote about here.

And we did get some great news in 2020: we signed a contract with Repeater to do a book exploring the themes of reaction and resistance in American film from about 1967 through 1987, and it’s been a lot of fun, as well as a welcome distraction, watching so many films from the era and finalizing the chapter list with you guys. It’s also been really hard, because we have no choice but to leave out so many movies we love and admire. I’m really excited about the final list, though, a mix that’s heavy on genre but also includes a few blockbusters, a couple of documentaries, some exploitation classics, and some absolute gems that have all but disappeared from the public eye. The idea is that each chapter will pair two films that may not have much in common on the surface, but connect profoundly on a deeper level.

This project, as well as the videocasts we’ve done, has gone a long way in keeping me sane.

MCKENNA: Yes, having you two to shoot the breeze with has been good—well, those of you two that aren’t a grumpy, monosyllabic Californian. Naming no names. But this year’s definitely brought home how fortunate I am. Work’s been tough but at least there’s been some, which is more than a lot of people have had. I was sick in March—fuck knows what it was but I’ve never had such weird symptoms (annotated list available on request—really). It only lasted a week, but I was still in a weird state when it finished, because work was at a complete standstill, I spent it in bed, and for some reason it seemed to make sense to devote the time to watching or re-watching a lot of Bela Tarr films. At the risk of sounding a bit precious, it was an oddly therapeutic experience that I’d recommend, if you’re lucky enough to have the time. And even though I’m sick to the back teeth of Lovecraft, have had enough Nic Cage to do me for the next few decades and never had much time for Richard Stanley in the first place, I actually found myself quite enjoying 2019’s The Color out of Space.

Despite the numbing effect of events, one thing that did make a big impact on me was James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art. There’s so much beautifully rendered art around nowadays, but (and it may just be because I’m getting older) it often seems a bit too perfect—so intimidatingly slick that it can come off as strangely impersonal and unaffecting. That’s not the case with Cawthorn’s stuff—it’s like getting zapped with a cattleprod. I read John Varley’s Gaea trilogy, which I started off thinking was everything I dislike about SF but which turned out to be a lot that I love about it, and, prompted by the website Science Fiction Ruminations, I also read Nancy Kress’s brilliant Alien Light, Suzy McKee Charnas’s brilliant Walk to the End of the World, and finally read some Tanith Lee, which was even better than I’d been hoping since I first meant to read her in 1984.

Music-wise, I fell in love with Fushigi, a 1986 album by Akina Nakamori, Caterina Barbieri’s latest, 2019 Ecstatic Computation, which is just as great as its predecessors, and Yasmine Hamdan’s Arabology (after a tip off by fellow mutant Daniele Cassandro). And of course, a shitload of Hawkwind, after a review copy of Joe Banks’s brilliant Hawkwind: Days of the Underground (review on its way, but in the meantime Joe has written us a great article on the band) spurred me to pull out all my old Hawkwind records and blast myself into the cosmos.

GRASSO: I remember finding myself, immediately after recovering from COVID, really needing music on a near visceral level, spending hours listening to NTS Radio and ordering countless vinyl and DVD compilations from Numero Group, getting into micro-genres and musical scenes I’d never really delved into before. That died off somewhere in the autumn, as I began to mourn what really always attracted me to music, and that is the communal experience of listening and talking about it, which didn’t translate into my isolated life all that well. (One of the exceptions was listening to mixes made by friends and artists I love, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.)

But there was one musical experience in that very difficult autumn that did evoke a sense of community, and that was the release of Oneohtrix Point Never’s semi-eponymous masterpiece LP Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. Given the fact that I was already acquaintances with quite a few fans of Daniel Lopatin’s work, getting to share the experience of listening to and diving deep into the themes and symbolism around this intensely personal album was a delight. Lopatin has always acted as a theorist of nostalgia and media history, and on this album, he uses the conceit of a single day on old-school terrestrial radio, replete with “dayparts” aimed at distinct audiences and demographics, to explore his own career obsessions with the bits of our lives that fall through the cracks of a lifetime bombarded by media. Lopatin’s obsessions around our once-mighty collective pop culture monoculture, its historical fragmentation, and its digital afterlife spoke to me in a year where our collective isolation grew more grim:

“There’s a kind of thesis in [album closer “Nothing’s Special”]. It was a really rough fucking year and it’s been hard for everybody. Something that’s always given me a lot of solace when I’m in a funk is that I notice that I’ve become disenchanted. The thing that can kind of re-enchant me very quickly when I get there is to remember that—like the Philip K. Dick quote said—everything is kind of divine, and everything is interesting, including the stuff between the dials. The noise.

Honestly I did find myself revisiting what you might call media “comfort food” at various points in 2020; I did a complete re-read of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy and did (er, multiple) rewatches of my favorite Scorsese filmsGoodfellas, Casino, and new entrant to the Scorsese pantheon The Irishman—all those tales of white men behind the scenes in the shadows acting badly, those paeans to what Mark Fisher called a “desensitization [to] capitalist realism.” Somehow those old-fashioned, bloody, up-close-and-personal brutalities and cruelties seemed easier to take than the impersonal mass slaughter going on outside our quarantined walls. At least in a Scorsese film or an Ellroy novel you (might) get to look in the eyes of the guy who kills you.

One other old favorite author who surprised this year was Don DeLillo, whose efforts in the ’10s have become almost like prose-poetry: spare, evocative, sketching the edges of our collective collapse. In his slim but powerful 2020 release The Silence, he imagines the loss of our digital commons on possibly the most media-laden holy day of our American calendar: Super Bowl Sunday. Given the dislocations that coronavirus has wrought on all our senses of time and place (especially in relation to using professional sports to orient ourselves in our yearly cycles and how badly COVID scrambled these collective rituals), I found DeLillo’s haunting novella to be both a valedictory for his own career and for an older world of media and parapolitical action that he has helped explain and explore.

But mostly what got me through 2020 were my friends. As acutely painful as it was for me to be physically separated from those friends for a full year, they invariably kept me sane, safe, solvent, and prevented the worst of the demons from knocking at my door. Whether it was gathering online to play Among Us (I have lots of thoughts on why a video game based around betrayal and suspicion became the year’s biggest hit) or just hanging out in those cursed Zoom boxes, without this minimal level of contact I would have surely lost my mind completely. I started a new tabletop RPG campaign online this year, set in the Weird Seventies, and my players have knocked me out time and time again with their own worldbuilding, character development, and exploration of the game’s themes that have been for me much like a magickal Working. This includes, yes, a mix of psychedelic rock, funk, folk, soul, and Motorik music from ’69 to ’73 contributed by player and comrade Leonard Pierce that was a delight to discover and listen to over and over this year. So thanks to the URIEL team. And yes, the planning and writing of the Mutants book (in addition to the Repeater media channel I’ve been working on) has me excited to throw myself into new projects in 2021. So to everyone who’s stuck with us through a once-in-a-century calamity, who’s submitted their own thoughts to our pages, who has shared or commented on our pieces during this difficult time—thank you, yet again. You’re the reason why we keep at it, why we keep plugging away.

ROBERTS: When I have had a couple of hours to myself, I’ve been rewatching a lot of stuff from the late ’80s and early ’90s, starting with Predator and Predator 2, inspired by Alex Evans’s great piece on the first one. And you know what? I really like 2010’s Predators too. Everybody says Adrien Brody was miscast, but that’s bullshit. He’s great in it. He’s great in everything and people are always saying he’s miscast because he doesn’t look like Brad fucking Pitt. I also love 2004’s Alien vs. Predator—no, I will not be taking comments at this time. From there I revisited a really enjoyable Predator/Terminator rip-off called I Come in Peace (1990), starring my man Dolph Lundgren and, ahem, Brian Benben, who many of you will remember from HBO’s long-running series Dream On. It’s certainly nothing you haven’t seen before, but the chemistry between Dolph, the renegade cop, and Benben, the by-the-book FBI geek, is great, and the evil alien (Matthias Hues) shooting tubes into his victims’ brains to suck out the endorphins (an addictive drug on his home planet) is a nice touch.

Another buried treasure from that high-’80s period is Cherry 2000. I saw it when it came out on video (it did not receive a theatrical release in the US) and didn’t remember much, but it’s got a lot of spirit, and the plot is, er, unique: in 2017(!), a businessman’s sex robot shorts out, and he is so in love with it/her (a Cherry 2000 model) that he hires a tracker (human tough gal Melanie Griffith) to take him into Zone 7 (which turns out to be a destroyed Las Vegas) to find and bring home a replacement. I am in no shape to take on the sexual politics right now, but the film is really colorful and uses a lot of kitschy design elements from the ’50s and ’60s to describe its post-apocalyptic setting, there are some excellent action sequences, and supporting turns from Tim Thomerson (the bad guy, who ends up crucified on a Las Vegas casino sign) and legend Ben Johnson (Shane, The Last Picture Show) make up for the stilted performances of the leads. Director Steve De Jarnatt also directed Miracle Mile (1988), another low-budget cult classic that I watched again and still love.

Aside from research on the book, I’ve read literally jack shit this whole year. My mind can’t do it. Music is an endless loop of the Charlie XCX channel (apparently there is something called hyperpop, and I dig it), New Age ’80s ambient, and anything that resembles the ’80s output of Toto, Rick Springfield, and The Cars.

MCKENNA: I Come in Peace is a fucking rocker, on that we can all agree. And I also agree that Adrien Brody deserves more credit, not least for being one of the few credibly punk faces in a film (Spike Lee’s 1999 Summer of Sam). Anyway, as Mike has so eloquently put it, thank you on behalf of all of us to all of you who have taken the time to read We Are the Mutants this year and anyone who’s supported us in any way, whether by contributing or by commenting, or retweeting, or forking out cash, or whatever—it really is much appreciated. And while I’m at it, thank you two for putting up with me too! With so many going through so much shit, wishing anyone “Happy New Year” sounds a bit empty, but fuck it, Happy New Year anyway!

Spirit of the Age: The Science Fiction Aesthetic of Hawkwind

Joe Banks / December 23, 2020

Hawkwind live in 1973. Photo from the Japanese single for “Urban Guerilla”

Hawkwind are an indelible part of the UK’s underground culture. It’s been over 50 years since they formed in the seedy cradle of London’s Ladbroke Grove, but they still enjoy a fanatical cult following both in Britain and around the world. They may never have scaled the commercial heights of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, but the influence they’ve exerted on modern music is profound. You can break down the components of their sound—barbarian psychedelia, propulsive rhythms, raw electronics—but what’s far harder to quantify is Hawkwind’s distinctive persona, their essential otherness within the story of rock.

In many ways, they’re a sub-genre to themselves, the house band of the British counterculture during the 1970s and beyond. There’s a parallel often made with the Grateful Dead in the US, and certainly from that period they share a similar sense of communal self-sufficiency (plus a propensity for extended jamming, though of a very different stripe to the blues ragas of Jerry Garcia’s crew). But whereas the Dead evoked a mystic vision of Americana, Hawkwind channelled the apocalyptic spirit of the age, fuelled by a combination of Cold War paranoia and pulp science fiction.

Along with the fearsome, if sometimes surprisingly complex, noise they made, it’s the SF-derived image and mythology that built up around Hawkwind that makes them truly unique in the annals of popular music, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in this article. My book Days Of The Underground – Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia is an analysis of the band’s music and cultural impact during their “classic years” of the 1970s, and it looks at some depth into their sci-fi connections—but Hawkwind were still a potent force and SF nexus point in the early ‘80s, which was when I first seriously began to get into them.

Actually, I’d already had a head start; my older brother had a copy of their 1975 album Warrior On The Edge Of Time, which I would hear blasting out of his bedroom—its crashing riffs, rampaging Mellotron, and thunderous drumming loudly announcing a band that seemed to exist outside of the ‘70s rock continuum of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and Queen. But there were two features in particular that both fascinated and slightly unnerved my pre-teen self. Warrior’s sleeve depicted a silhouetted knight on horseback dwarfed by a garishly colored vision of the edge of time, with a mirror image of the same scene (minus the knight) on the back cover. The sleeve folded out and down to reveal a plunging panorama of the abyss below—but flip it over, and an impressive Shield of Chaos is revealed, giving a clue to the presence of a special guest within…

However, if the unusual sleeve created a frisson, the album’s spoken word interludes positively freaked me out. The bleak, pulsating chill of “Standing At The Edge” evokes a purgatorial nether zone of lost souls condemned to live forever, a voice full of petulant affront declaiming, “We’re tired of making love.” It’s like the final nail in the coffin of the hippie dream, calling time on the long ‘60s as the cold grip of the ‘70s takes hold. Elsewhere, the gentleman delivering “The Wizard Blew His Horn” and “Warriors” sounds alternately in the grip of mild hysteria and robotic possession.

Taking a closer look at the credits a few years later, I discovered that the voice behind those last two pieces belonged to none other than Michael Moorcock, whose Eternal Champion books the album is very roughly based around. Moorcock had first drifted into Hawkwind’s orbit in 1971, being also based in Ladbroke Grove. From here, he edited and published New Worlds magazine, the key journal of the so-called science fiction New Wave, as epitomized by the writings of J.G. Ballard. Moorcock could often be found of a weekend manning a second-hand book stall in the local market (as part of the constant effort to keep New Worlds afloat) or helping to organize open-air gigs under the Westway, the concrete overpass that looms above the area. Hawkwind too would play for free in the same location, and when Moorcock asked if he could do some readings with them, the band jumped at the opportunity to get a bona fide sci-fi author on board.

Moorcock’s first impressions of the band are telling, describing them as “barbarians with electronics” and “like the mad crew of a long-distance spaceship who had forgotten their mission.” And when I interviewed him for the book, he admitted that Hawkwind felt like a band he’d conjured into existence, so perfectly did they fit into his entropic universe. The first piece he wrote and performed with them has become Hawkwind’s most iconic spoken word track: “Sonic Attack.” While its title is often used as short-hand for the brain-blasting shock and awe of Hawkwind in full flight, the track itself is all creeping dread and terror, a blackly comic parody of WW2 propaganda broadcasts distorted by the chilly logic of the Cold War, and very much a piece of New Wave SF.

Of course, discovering Moorcock’s connection with Hawkwind further piqued my interest in the band. As a young teen, I had moved seamlessly from reading Target’s Doctor Who novelizations to greedily consuming Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. At the same time, it was becoming apparent that the one thing I was really interested in was music, and coming from a market town in the East Midlands, this almost inevitably meant heavy metal. If you combine those elements together, then it almost inevitably leads you to Hawkwind, particularly their early ‘80s incarnation. Yet even if you weren’t a big music fan, but were the type of young person who dug SF, Hawkwind would still find you one way or another, so embedded were they in British sci-fi and fantasy culture.

Working my way through Moorcock’s dizzying output—how had this man managed to produce so many books?—meant regular visits to the local library, which also had an eclectically stocked record section, and it was here that I had my next close encounter with Hawkwind. Flicking through the racks, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the front cover of their 1973 live album Space Ritual. Etched in retina-sizzling technicolor, and featuring a stylized cosmic messiah flanked by gape-mouthed star cats, it was as though I’d stumbled across some bizarre alien artifact. Like a portal to another world, it was illustrated and designed by Colin Fulcher, aka Barney Bubbles, the man responsible for creating Hawkwind’s striking visual identity, from record sleeves, posters, and adverts. He even painted their equipment. As both a skilled professional designer and mystically-inclined freak, Bubbles was instrumental in creating an image for the band as sci-fi warriors and sages waging a sonic assault on the staid conventions of the straight world.

Hearing Space Ritual for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Lemmy—perhaps the band’s most famous ex-member—memorably described Hawkwind as being “a black fucking nightmare – a post-apocalypse horror soundtrack,” and this was surely the album he had in mind when he made that comment. It begins with what sounds like some deep space transmission, a massive interstellar hulk slowly heaving into view, before the ship’s grimy engines fire and you’re pushed back into your seat by the inertial intensity of opening track “Born To Go.” It’s dark, dense, and blurry, a nuclear-powered battering ram smashing through the cosmos, threatening to tear a hole in the fabric of space-time.

I can’t say it was love at first hearing, because it felt so outside my normal listening experience then, which was the relatively polite hard rock pyrotechnics of bands such as Rainbow and Judas Priest. But as I was eventually to realize, Space Ritual simply doesn’t sound like anything else, certainly not any other band. Yet staring at that sleeve as the record’s strange combination of cyclical riffs, chanted vocals, and electronic bleeps, howls, and whooshes poured out of the speakers, the thing it did sound like was science fiction—futuristic and dystopian, but with a vague sense of wonder still peeking through the cosmic gloom. And that was before “The Awakening,” the first spoken word piece on the album, and my first encounter with Robert Calvert, space-age poet extraordinaire.

More so than even Moorcock and Bubbles, Calvert was the man responsible for transforming Hawkwind into a science fiction band, first building a mythos around them as star-faring freedom fighters and prophets, then using SF as a vehicle for satire and social comment in the latter half of the 1970s, when he became their full-time singer and frontman. One of the first things he did for the band was to create (alongside Bubbles) The Hawkwind Log, a booklet that came with 1971’s In Search Of Space album. It tells the discontinuous, Burroughs-esque story of Hawkwind’s mission to liberate the human race from its essential emptiness, but sees them compressed “into a disc of shining black, spinning in eternity.” This depiction of Hawkwind as space travelling saviors puts the band themselves at the heart of an SF-inspired narrative, rather than merely writing songs about flying saucers and aliens.

It was Calvert who had come up with the concept behind the Space Ritual tour—the dreams of a crew of starbound explorers held in suspended animation—but even if the idea of staging a “space opera” was ultimately abandoned, traces of its storyline are still discernible, particularly in “The Awakening.” Calvert had first appeared on stage with Hawkwind reading his poems between songs, with “The Awakening” being part of a longer piece entitled “First Landing On Medusa.” Against plaintive warbles from the electronic chorus line, Calvert contemplates the cryogenically frozen members of his crew, his voice a chilly combination of precision and dispassion, his words full of ear-catching rhymes and imagery: “The nagging choirs of memory / The tubes and wires worming from their flesh to machinery / I would have to cut.” In the concluding part of the poem, the crew set foot on Medusa, and are quickly turned to stone.

There are a number of other readings from Calvert on the album that firmly locate the band in the New Wave SF universe of Ladbroke Grove. There’s the aforementioned “Sonic Attack,” bleakly Darwinian instructions for surviving a future war—Do not panic! Think only of yourself!” —delivered by Calvert with malicious intent. “The Black Corridor,” another Moorcock piece that uses the opening lines of his novel of the same name, is typical of Hawkwind’s take on space as “a remorseless, senseless, impersonal fact.” And there are two other Calvert-penned pieces: “10 Seconds Of Forever” is a countdown through the last moments of someone’s life, while “Welcome To The Future” is a concentrated hit of eco-terror—“Welcome to the oceans in a labelled can / Welcome to the dehydrated lands.” Both are indebted to the apocalyptic landscapes of Ballard’s inner space.

But it wasn’t just Calvert writing from a science fictional perspective, with Space Ritual also highlighting other members’ take on the genre. Band leader Dave Brock had been writing in a paranoid, pessimistic vein from the first album onwards, with “Time We Left This World Today” neatly encapsulating Hawkwind’s philosophy of radical escapism, decrying an oppressive society controlled by “brain police” and calling for immediate off-world evacuation. Similarly, saxophonist and singer Nik Turner expresses a desire not to “turn android” and recommends flight in “Brainstorm,” while “Master Of The Universe” finds the alien demi-god of the title sorely disappointed by the affairs of man: “If you call this living, I must be blind.”

By the time that Hawkwind played the shows that would be recorded for Space Ritual in late 1972, they were by far the biggest band in the UK’s underground scene, performing to thousands of fans every night—in fact, with the unexpected success earlier in the year of their single “Silver Machine,” which got to number three in the charts and would go on to sell a million copies worldwide, Hawkwind were in danger of becoming a mainstream rock act. But if their science fiction associations enamored them to their fanatical following, who were more than happy to buy into their mythos, it both bemused and intimidated the music press, who continually wrote them off as, at best, a “people’s band,” at worst, a joke.

While rock culture itself still liked to adopt an “outsider” stance, even as it transformed into a multi-million dollar industry, science fiction remained a proper outsider culture in the ‘70s (pre-Star Wars), and was for the most part looked down on by the critical establishment. Yet for a lot of young people, rock and SF shared similar characteristics and attractions—as well as both being escapist mediums, they were also forward moving and excited by the idea of the future, a disruptive threat to straight society’s status quo. While both could be garish and naïve, they were also capable of smuggling new ideas and perspectives into consumers’ heads. And books such as Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings (first published in paperback in 1965), Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land (1961), and Herbert’s Dune (1965) had been foundational texts of the original psychedelic counterculture, depicting battles between old and new worlds, and anticipating the coming of revolutionary messiahs.

From the late ‘60s onwards, during Britain’s progressive rock era, there were plenty of bands who included songs with science fictional themes in their repertoire: Pink Floyd’s “Let There Be More Light,” Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void,” Genesis’s “Watcher of The Skies,” etc. And some of the cover art of the time suggested an engagement with the fantastical, Roger Dean’s sleeves for Yes in particular, plus the covers to ELP’s Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery (the latter illustrated by Alien designer H.R. Giger). David Bowie was also adept at sneaking SF-related themes into his work—“Space Oddity,” “Starman,” “1984,” etc.—and took the lead role in Nic Roeg’s cerebral SF flick The Man Who Fell To Earth (Hawkwind appeared in Robert Fuest’s adaptation of Moorcock’s The Final Programme, but literally for the blink of an eye). And both avant-jazz pioneer Sun Ra and French art proggers Magma drew inspiration from the idea of leaving Earth and setting up home on a new world. 

But it was only Hawkwind who specifically defined themselves via numerous SF tropes, who sounded like the roaring of a mighty spacecraft, whose visual imagery was full of galactic heraldry and pulp magazine homages, and who actually had a series of post-apocalyptic SF novels written about them, where they effectively save the world. It’s what makes them the ultimate science fiction band, adding a cosmic spin to the turbulent “no future” culture of 1970s Britain.

Once I’d fully digested Space Ritual, and recognized it for the towering work of outsider genius that it clearly was, I needed more Hawkwind in my life. And as luck would have it, the next item I bought was a “twofer” cassette of the band’s late ‘70s albums, Quark, Strangeness And Charm (1977) and PXR5 (1979). Having achieved some kind of space rock singularity on Space Ritual, Hawkwind’s music became (relatively) more nuanced through the middle part of the decade and veered into fantasy territory (see Warrior)—but when Robert Calvert re-joined them as full-time singer and conceptualist, the band’s profile as sci-fi provocateurs par excellence was boosted once more.

Quark and PXR5 are full of songs animated by Calvert’s quicksilver imagination, one which had moved on from early Hawkwind’s millenarian space chants to embrace SF as the New Wave had intended, as a way of interrogating the modern world and unravelling the technocratic, sometimes psychopathic, forces that increasingly ruled it. “Spirit Of The Age” is the band’s defining song from this era, a vision of the future where bored astronauts light years from home make love to android replicas of their long dead girlfriends, only to complain, “When she comes, she moans another’s name.” It’s also a paean to the plight of the clone, where individuality is unattainable: “Oh for the wings of any bird / Other than a battery hen.”

On saying that, “Uncle Sam’s On Mars” pushes it close, Calvert’s angry take-down of (as he saw it) America’s colonialist approach to space exploration, including pops at its fast food culture and consumerist worldview. He also presciently makes reference to global warming—“Layers of smoke in the atmosphere / Have made the earth too hot to bear”—and suggests that the money and technology involved in putting a man on Mars would be better used repairing our own planet. This was also the period of Hawkwind when the titles of classic sci-fi novels would be co-opted by Calvert as a springboard for his lyrics—in the case of “Damnation Alley” and “Jack Of Shadows” (both Roger Zelazny books), this resulted in reasonably faithful interpretations of the stories, whereas for “High Rise,” just the title of Ballard’s novel was taken. A personal favorite of mine is “Robot,” which references Asimov’s Three Laws, but riffs on the idea of the white collar suburban worker as a slave machine to capitalism.

The Atomhenge tour, 1976

Calvert left Hawkwind in 1979, and, in truth, the band would never subsequently pull off the rock + science fiction equation as inventively and authentically as when he was on board. But in the wider scheme of things, it didn’t particularly hinder the band’s progress, so strong was their brand with the people that mattered—their fans. In fact, the clutch of albums they released after Calvert’s departure all charted higher than Quark or PXR5—while both are now rightly regarded as highlights of the band’s back catalog, it’s possible that at the time they were just too literary in places, Calvert’s clever wordsmithing obstructing the flow of Hawkwind’s sonic attack. 

And that takes us now to me sitting in my bedroom with that twofer in my hand, wondering what to listen to next. So I checked out what they were currently doing, and that meant 1982’s double-headed offering of Church Of Hawkwind and Choose Your Masques. The former is more electronically-inclined, while the latter is almost cosmic industrial, but they still contained those sci-fi rock essentials of engine room rhythms, distress call synth, robot vocals, future-themed lyrics, and all recorded the day after tomorrow. And Choose Your Masques in particular had a very cool sleeve. These albums might have lacked the finesse and sophistication of the Calvert era, but Hawkwind still sounded like no other band.

And that’s surely why they’ve continued to this day. They’ve certainly stretched the space rock template along the course of their journey, absorbing techno and ambient influences, especially during the ‘90s, but they’ve consistently traded in science fictional imagery and themes without ever having to resort to trad rock subject matter or the need to be more commercial, contemporary, or “edgy.” They’ve had their wilderness years, but the last decade has seen a significant revival of their fortunes, with perhaps the stand-out release from this period being The Machine Stops (2016), a concept album based on E.M. Forster’s story of civilization living inside a vast mechanical hive—its citizens are electronically connected, but they live alone in their cells.

Michael Moorcock once said that science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll were the two great despised art forms of the 20th century. It’s no wonder then that Hawkwind, in which the combination of the two reached its apotheosis, have come in for so much grief throughout their existence. But as my teenage self would have told the haters, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re missing out on something really quite special.

Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground – Radical Escapism In The Age Of Paranoia by Joe Banks is published by Strange Attractor.

Joe Banks is a London-based music writer whose work has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, MOJO, Prog, Shindig!, Electronic Sound, and The Quietus. Hawkwind: Days Of The Underground is his first book. For endless Hawkwind trivia, follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JoeBanksWriter.

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Mark Probert, the Inner Circle, and UFOs: A Mystery in Vinyl

Stephen Canner / December 17, 2020

This is a revision of a piece that was originally published at Mediated Signals.

A curious ad appeared in the August 1955 issue of Ray Palmer’s Mystic Magazine. It announced the release of an LP that would allow readers the opportunity to hear the voice of someone called Yada Di Shi’ite. It went on to say that the record contained “a true aural picture of a typical lecture given by the teachers of the Inner Circle through Mark Probert.” As puzzling as this may sound to us today, regular readers of Mystic would have been very familiar with both Yada and Probert. What is not obvious from the information given is that this might well be the earliest example of a commercially released vinyl record related to the UFO phenomenon. Unfortunately, no copies of the record are known to exist, and to my knowledge very few collectors are even aware of it. But how this record came to be made and its relationship to early UFO culture is something of a tale.

On October 14, 1946, The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a number of people in San Diego believed that “a space ship from another planet” had attempted to make contact with Earth during the previous week’s meteor shower, an event caused by the passing of the Giacobini-Zinner comet. Although local authorities received no reports of anything out of the ordinary, at least a dozen people told the paper that on October 9 they had witnessed a “large and weird object” in the sky over the city. One witness was quoted as saying, “It was shaped like a bullet and left this vapor trail behind it.” Another observed that it had “something that looked like wings.” The article curiously went on to say that local occult publisher Meade Layne was “putting a medium to work on the supposed sighting.” That medium was Mark Probert.

According to the brief autobiography published in the 1963 edition of his book The Magic Bag, Mark Probert was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907. As a teenager he joined the Merchant Marine. But after only two years at sea, he disembarked at San Diego and decided to stay. There he worked briefly as a jockey and a bellhop, before moving into vaudeville as a “song and dance man.” By the 1930s, vaudeville was dying, so in 1939 he took a job as a graphic artist with the Visual Education Department of the San Diego public school system. It was there he met his wife Irene.

Not long after they were married, Irene made a casual remark that would change the course of their lives. She told Mark that he often talked in his sleep. The odd thing was that when this happened, it sounded as if he were speaking a foreign language. Soon the couple met Meade Layne, a former university professor who had left academia to devote his life to the study of psychic phenomena. As Probert put it, “he had considerable interest and knowledge in the fields of metaphysical and occult laws.” It was Layne who convinced Probert that his nocturnal mumblings could be evidence that he was in fact a trance medium. 

The idea that Probert was perhaps channeling entities from beyond was put to the test during an experimental séance. Recounting his experience years later, Probert recalled that after being instructed to relax, he soon found himself in a state of euphoria so intense that he lost all awareness of the world around him. When he regained consciousness, he was told that he had been in a trance for some 45 minutes and had spoken in a voice not his own. The voice introduced itself as Martin Latamore Lingford, a New York showman who had lived earlier in the century. Lingford explained that he and a group of other entities from the “inner planes” had spent years preparing Probert for his role as channel. Soon, the voice promised, these other “controls” would also come forward and make themselves known. 

During a number of séances over the next three years, the other controls—collectively known as the Inner Circle—did indeed appear, and began to reveal their plan for Probert’s life. They explained that it was they who had chosen Irene to be not only his wife, but also “their personal guide and assistant in the work.” They emphasized that this work was to be “almost entirely of an educational nature” and not to “expect much in the way of personal matters.” On the surface this may seem a minor point. But this statement could be read as a conscious attempt by Probert to separate his work from earlier trance mediums of the spiritualist movement, who would often help the bereaved by contacting their “dear departed loved ones.” It seems that something more important was happening here.

In early 1945, Meade Layne began publishing a newsletter called The Round Robin. The first issue was sent out, somewhat experimentally, to some 15 to 20 people. Over time it grew, and after a name change to The Journal of Borderland Research, it endured into the current century. In the October 1946 issue, Layne explained that the mysterious object reported by the newspapers that month first came to his attention when he received a telephone call from Mark Probert, who told Layne that he had been watching the meteor shower from the top floor of a building when he sighted it. He described it as a luminous craft, “about the size of an extremely large plane,” with two reddish lights, moving very fast. He then added a surprising detail: “the flapping of its wings was plainly visible.”

The next day, Layne received a number of calls from other witnesses who agreed on some points of Probert’s description and disagreed on others. Why these witnesses would call Layne, and not the authorities, to report their sightings is not explained. In a footnote he adds that, “The record of such strange craft, objects, appearances in the sky has greatly increased since Charles Fort began his astonishing memo, and still grows.” This is an interesting comment given that it suggests that the era of the UFO dates to Charles Fort’s early work, the first volume of his “astonishing memo” being his Book of the Damned, published in 1919. What is more remarkable is that this statement was made a full eight months before public knowledge of UFOs was widespread, at least as any sort of organized concept. But early readers of Charles Fort were always a bit ahead of the curve in this respect.

Mark Probert soon went into a trance (he now seemed to be able to do this at will) so that his controls could be asked about the object. From them he learned that it was called “the Kareeta.” (Elsewhere its name is given as “Careeta” and even “Corrida.”) In somewhat poetic language, the controls chimed in with their opinions about the craft. One said it came from a planet “many thousands” of miles away and that it was made of “balsam wood [sic] coated with a thin layer of alloy.” Another claimed that it came from “west of the moon” and that its pilots “want you to get a group of scientists who will meet them at some isolated spot.” At this point there is no indication that what was being described was anything other than a concrete object being piloted by physical beings.

In late May 1949, responding to Walter Winchell’s claim that UFOs were actually “experimental guided missiles from Russia,” Layne told a newspaper reporter that the saucers in fact originated from a place called Etheria. This was not a place that was part of our own physical reality, but a “material world, with objects and people and a great civilization, and it lies all about us, though invisible and untouchable.” Based on what he learned from Probert’s controls, Layne had been developing this idea throughout 1947, in the pages of The Round Robin. This is a very early version of the Interdimensional Hypothesis, an idea that would become well known in UFO circles some two decades later. According to the hypothesis conceived by Layne, the saucers did not come from outer space as we know it. Neither did they come from “the astral plane,” but from what was effectively a parallel universe. He was to formalize this idea in 1950, with the publication of a mimeographed booklet called The Ether Ship Mystery and Its Solution.

In late 1953, Ray Palmer, already well known for his success with Amazing Stories and Fate, launched a new magazine called Mystic. In his chatty editorials, Palmer expressed a vision for the new publication that sounded almost as if he were attempting to create a new genre of literature, one that was somehow simultaneously both fact and fiction. This new enterprise served as something of a bridge between the fantastic fiction of Amazing Stories and the fantastic “fact” of Fate. In the third issue in March 1954, Palmer printed Roger Graham’s detailed account of how Probert, through his controls, successfully identified and diagnosed a number of Graham’s medical problems, diagnoses that were later confirmed by medical professionals. (This intersection of spiritualism and healing already had a long history by the early 1950s. In the US, Edgar Cayce was providing clairvoyant diagnoses as early as the turn of the century. Harry Edwards, Britain’s most famous spiritual healer, began his career in the 1930s.) This article signaled the beginning of what would become something of a fascination with Probert on Ray Palmer’s part. This may have been partly due to the number of letters the magazine received about Probert’s alleged abilities, both supportive and scoffing. Palmer was never one to let a good controversy go unexploited.

The cover of the August 1954 issue of Mystic featured paintings by Probert of three of his more talkative controls. These were Ramon Natalli, an astronomer who lived at the time of Galileo; Doctor Alfred Luntz, a 19th-century Anglo-German “clergyman for the High Episcopal Church of England”; and Yada Di Shi’ite, a 500,000 year old priest from a lost Himalayan city. Elsewhere Probert wrote that these controls, along with two others, appeared to him in visible form one night in 1947, insisting that he paint their portraits. He did not explain why disembodied entities from the inner planes who had lived in a number of different physical bodies over the millennia would want portraits of themselves, but some of these paintings were later used as illustrations in Probert’s book The Magic Bag

Mark Probert, 1950s

The feature article in the August issue of Mystic was the transcription of a séance held by Probert, attended by Irene and a man identified only as “RGM.” The two were to present a set of questions to the controls that had been provided to them by Ray Palmer. The first of the Inner Circle to emerge was Dr. Luntz. The question posed to him concerned the extent of the U.S. government’s knowledge of the true nature of flying saucers. For a Victorian vicar, Luntz seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the subject. His answer was that the government did indeed know more about the phenomenon than was publicly admitted, but that there was no sinister motive behind it. The intent was simply to shield the public from the panic that would surely result from any revelation. He then went on to suggest, somewhat incongruously, that arch-debunker Donald Menzel’s recent book—Flying Saucers, published by Harvard University Press in 1953—was the result of an intentional conspiracy to suppress the reality of the saucers.

Renaissance astronomer Ramon Natalli then made a brief appearance, presenting his theory that all reality is driven by consciousness. With the opening acts out of the way, it was time for Probert’s star turn. Yada Di Shi’ite manifested, speaking his own impenetrable ancient language of Yuga: introducing Yada’s arrival with a barrage of gibberish would soon become something of a set piece for Probert. Undoubtedly this was a device intended to add drama to Yada’s arrival and to increase audience anticipation. Switching to English, Yada provided the basic outline of his autobiography. He said he had lived a half million years ago in the city of Kaoti, in a civilization called Yu. There he was a Ka-Ta, or priest. Once he completed the “33rd degree in the order called Shi’ite,” he was given the title Yada. Since that first life in the Himalayas, he had been reincarnated many times, the last being in China 500 years ago. In this description, Yada presented himself as something between a bodhisattva and a Scottish Rite Mason. He said that he had not experienced any “breaks in consciousness” since his original incarnation on Earth, and that anyone could achieve this. He then explained that reality is illusory but that mankind can rise out of this illusion by degrees. He closed with the revelation that no single path leads to enlightenment, but that “all of man’s experiences are to be classified as initiations into higher and to more complete states of awareness.”

Over the next year it was a rare copy of Mystic that did not feature Probert somewhere in its pages. An interesting letter from an anonymous correspondent who claimed to work in the mental health industry appeared in the August 1955 issue. He wrote that after seeing Probert in person he was “very disillusioned.” Among his complaints was that the messages the controls delivered were unoriginal, and seemed to have been gleaned from the library. Also unconvincing was the fact that the various voices that emerged from Probert—whether early modern Italian, Victorian English, or ancient Himalayan—always spoke in the same accent. “I think these trance states would not have become necessary had he not found himself a teacher with no students, a philosopher with no audience,” anonymous wrote, “consciously or unconsciously I believe that he is using the occult to put his own ideas across.”

The August 1955 issue also featured an advertisement for a long playing album, announcing that the public could now hear the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite at home. The ad copy was written in a tone that assumed the reader knew full well who both Probert and Yada were. It explained that the record had been made from an unedited, hour-long tape of a séance held before a live audience. Yada would begin the session by speaking in his ancient native tongue, before switching to English. The Himalayan priest would then give his opinions on such topics as reincarnation and the purpose of life, before taking questions from the audience. All this could be in the reader’s mailbox by sending only $4.98 to Inner Circle Records in Ojai, California.

As mentioned, to my knowledge, no copy of this record has ever turned up. Why? The first and most likely answer is that it was only ever pressed in an extremely limited quantity, never sold well, and any remaining stock was eventually disposed of. This has been the unfortunate fate of so many ephemeral recordings over the years. Another possibility is that it never existed. If that is the case, then the ad for the record was likely an attempt to secure orders before actually pressing and shipping the disc. This model was definitely in use at the time for self-published saucer and occult books, although in those cases buyers were usually told that they were placing an advance order.

The offices of Mystic were in Evanston, Illinois, and Mark Probert was based in San Diego. Why then is the address given in the ad in Ojai, California, a tiny town more than 200 miles away from Probert’s home? The obvious answer is that the company producing the record was located there—which would make sense, given’s Ojai’s historical connection to Theosophy and the esoteric tradition. It does not appear that Inner Circle Records actually existed outside of this release, however. In all likelihood, it is simply the label name Probert chose to use when arranging its manufacture with a custom pressing outfit. And in a town as small as Ojai, it would seem that the company should be fairly easy to identify.

At first sight, a tantalizing possibility is that the record may be a very early release by the legendary Two: Dot Records. This label was run by husband-and-wife team Dean and JoAnne Thompson from their home on the outskirts of town. They began doing run-of-the-mill custom work in the 1950s before tapping into the regional rock scene in the late 1960s. Examples of the label’s 1970s output by bands like Hendrickson Road House or The Mystic Zephyrs 4 sometimes sell for as high as four figures. 

However, there was also another label operating out of Ojai in the 1950s. Educo Records was founded in 1953, releasing classical recordings to be used for music appreciation classes in schools and colleges. The company operated out of Ojai during its first few years of existence, and later relocated to nearby Ventura. Given that the PO Box address in the Mystic ad was that used by Educo while in Ojai, it is reasonable to conclude that this was the company contracted by Probert to manufacture the LP. So far, no other custom releases by Educo have been identified. But like other small labels of the era, it is likely that Educo accepted custom contracts to increase revenue, the finished product bearing no evidence of the manufacturer so as not to confuse private releases with the company’s main brand in the minds of consumers.

It is not known whether Probert’s LP contained any references to the flying saucer phenomenon. By 1956, however, Yada was giving audiences his opinion on the reality and nature of UFOs, still promoting the idea that they were not from other planets but from another dimension. In early 1957, Probert was a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show in New York, a regular stop for saucer celebrities. In 1960, he appeared at the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention—the most famous and one of the largest of the early UFO conventions—where he channeled Yada for an audience, with Irene acting as master of ceremonies. Here, as usual, Yada first emerged speaking Yuga before switching to English. 

A cynical observer might point out that Probert, by his own admission, was an ex-vaudevillian, and that this standard performance—repeated ad infinitum—was beginning to have something of the feel of a tired old vaudeville turn. The couple continued touring the country performing séances throughout the 1960s, and after Irene’s death in 1966, Probert continued his work alone.

Probert’s last known major public appearance was at the Northern California Space Convention in October 1968. At this point he was telling audiences that he was not a medium, but a “telegnostic.” This term not only served to further distance him from the stereotype of the medium left over from the days of spiritualism, but implied something deeper. The term suggested that he was not just contacting spirits, but was somehow transmitting gnosis from some distant location. It also served to position him not simply as a fortune teller or mentalist, but as something much more serious: a gnostic. Mark Probert died a few months later, in early 1969.

It is easy in our rationalist era to cast Mark Probert as one in a long line of spiritualists who were either delusional or blatantly fraudulent. But this point of view ignores the content of his message. What is remarkable about the séance published in the August 1954 issue of Mystic, is that in a single, short session Probert—or, if you prefer, his controls—was able to seamlessly guide the conversation from possible conspiracies around the existence of UFOs, to ideas about reality being a by-product of consciousness, ending with hints of a grand Buddho-Masonic theory of release from the cycle of reincarnation, resulting in something resembling Buddhahood. In doing so, he provided a tantalizing suggestion that these things might somehow all be related. It is also striking that the questions raised by Natalli and Yada during the séance are still those that concern serious modern students of anomalous phenomena, mysticism, and even physics. In effect, Probert seemed to be telling audiences to move away from the obvious conclusions they were making not only about saucers, but about existence itself. 

As far back as 1947, when most people were just hearing the term “flying saucers” for the first time, Mark Probert had already rejected myopic materialism, and was telling the world that perhaps the very fabric of reality was quite different than our model of it. And though wrapped in a presentation that borrowed heavily from theosophy, spiritualism, and the vaudeville stage, Probert’s ideas foreshadowed an important direction that one school of thought was to take in the future. This move away from the idea of UFOs as a nuts and bolts phenomenon, and towards a more blended view involving theories of consciousness, human cognition, and quantum theories of time and space is one that is fast gaining momentum today. 

Many myths and legends center around something lost, an object or a bit of knowledge; its very absence imbues the missing thing with meaning, even importance. It is likely, however, that the idea of a lost recording of the voice of Yada Di Shi’ite is much more interesting than the actual reality, were a copy ever to surface. But puzzles like the one surrounding this album are what keep researchers moving forward, and in the process uncovering the next riddle to be solved. The UFO phenomenon itself is more koan than puzzle. It is also both an ontological and an epistemological mystery, so it should come as no surprise that a study of recordings related to it would begin with its own discographical mystery.

Stephen Canner is an archivist, musician (The Victor Mourning), and historian of artifacts that emerge from the margins of culture. He blogs at Mediated Signals.

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Big Tech, Nostalgia, and Control: Grafton Tanner’s ‘The Circle of the Snake’

Michael Grasso / December 15, 2020

The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech
By Grafton Tanner
Zero Books, 2020

I’m sure many members of Generation X have taken a moment to look around the pop culture landscape over the past decade and a half and had a sudden moment of realization: there are certainly a whole lot of people trying to sell me things using the media of my youth. Ultimately, this is nothing new. I remember when every pop culture moment, from sitcoms to TV commercials, seemed to be using the Baby Boomers’ favorite songs to sell them cars and sneakers. But in 2020, the dominance of these re-treaded properties is even more nakedly cynical, whether its the endless sequels of the Star Wars and Marvel cinematic universes, or the easy-to-consume, signifier-filled pastiches of the worlds of Stranger Things and Ready Player One. The cultural marketplace, as dominated by bloated media and tech empires, no longer sees any need to admit the novel, the fresh, the unusual.

Both the “why” and the “how” of this cultural and technological tendency are explored by author Grafton Tanner in his new book, The Circle of the Snake: Nostalgia and Utopia in the Age of Big Tech. (Disclosure: Tanner is an occasional contributor to We Are The Mutants.) Tanner explores not only the pop culture properties that utilize nostalgia in an effort to assuage the anxieties of contemporary life in the aftermath of the 2008 financial rupture; he also explains how tech companies use the feedback from algorithmic analysis to keep consumers locked into a never-ending cycle—an ouroboros—of digital satisfaction of their subconscious desires for an older, more secure time. This nostalgic digital utopia, in turn, keeps consumers constantly “on,” working through endless “quests” that approximate proactivity but in the end keep people locked into pointless and unproductive cycles of feedback, emotional satisfaction, and control. “Recommender systems and predictive analytics—the very tools that allow our contemporary media to function—zero in on quick reactions, such as a flash of anger or a swell of nostalgia,” says Tanner in his Introduction. “These reactions are noted by algorithms, which then make recommendations based on them… The result is a nostalgic feedback loop wherein old ideas travel round.”

Tanner examines how the Big Tech tendency towards technolibertarianism and monopoly over the past 20 years has created the material conditions for this self-reinforcing system of psychic feedback. With an increasing belief in culture as disposable and “just for fun,” the material and political implications of this system of control are obfuscated. The way that these cultural narratives award Big Tech further and deeper power over all of us is merely part of the game. And we are enlisted as active players, not merely passive viewers, as in the era of television’s height. The online world, Tanner notes, demands a keen eye for analysis and a deep capacity for paying attention. The technolibertarian and neoliberal alike view our tech-suffused world—everyone is plugged in, 24/7—as a kind of utopia-in-waiting, or indeed a permanent utopia, where the idealized past can be endlessly revisited and basked in, while the present never changes from its current state of cultural and political stasis. This virtual plaza of commerce, emotional satisfaction, the illusion of proactivity, and control and surveillance describe the boundaries of Big Tech’s dominance of both our material and psychic space at the beginning of the 2020s.

The interview below was conducted in November and December 2020 via email and has been lightly edited for clarity.

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GRASSO: Given the topic of your first book for Zero, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, the topic for The Circle of the Snake seems like a natural outgrowth. But from reading the book it also seems like there were a lot of specific events and observations about the world of Online and Big Tech over the past few years that led to the book’s development. What are the origins of The Circle of the Snake, and what kinds of specific cultural developments led you to propose and write the book?

TANNER: I can pinpoint the exact moment I knew I was going to write a book on Big Tech. I was living in a kind of exile in 2016, in this small town in Georgia, trying to piece my life back together after a series of false starts after college. I was sitting in a Barnes & Noble reading the 2016 Tech Issue of The Atlantic, and there was a story by Bianca Bosker about former Google employee Tristan Harris, who left the Valley and started an advocacy group called Time Well Spent because he thought Big Tech was eroding mental health. He was on a mission to fix Big Tech by making it work for us, not against us. But the piece didn’t make me feel better about tech. In fact, it was terrifying: here is an ex-Valley technocrat, mournful that he had invented habit-forming technology with severe public side effects, asking us to not only forgive him, but believe in him to create newer, better tech. I was incensed.

Shortly thereafter, we learned that Cambridge Analytica sharpened their psychographic modeling techniques by harvesting Facebook data from millions of users without their permission, all to aid in the election of Donald Trump. There was suddenly this huge backlash against Big Tech. I was supportive of it, but I also understood it came a little too late. Tech critics had been sounding the alarm for years and years. It took the election of a fascist for the left to wake up to the tech nightmare, only to realize the ones promising to end the nightmare were former technocrats themselves.

And yet, as many were loudly critiquing Big Tech for its role in throwing elections, spreading fascism, and worsening mental health, the culture industry was churning out politically retrograde nostalgia-bait. Was it really that the techlash had made everyone even more nostalgic for the pre-digital past? Or was there some kind of connection between nostalgia and Big Tech? These were the questions I had in mind when I started writing.

GRASSO: I think one of the things I like best about the book is your fusion of theory, philosophy, and epistemology with the material and economic realities of 21st century Big Tech and Big Media. Throughout the book you explore concepts such as surveillance, sublimity, nostalgia (of course), and virtuality with concrete examples from the online plaza. Essentially, if I’m not mistaken, you’re saying that the people who created the feedback loops that keep us hooked on technology and the internet and mine our data for still more ways to sell to us have themselves studied their philosophy, economic history, and techniques of mass psychology and persuasion with great attention?

TANNER: Persuasion techniques, yes, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the technocrats have studied much else beyond their limited worldview, which is scientistic. Yes, technocrats like James Williams and Tristan Harris like to cite philosophers, but they usually do it to support their self-help solutions to the attention economy. Wake up with a little philosophy, they say, because reading Socrates is better for the mind than scrolling through Twitter. It’s a very neckbeard way of thinking about cultural consumption.

Make no mistake: these technocrats are uninterested in anything other than making a lot of money. If that means learning psychological techniques of persuasion with Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg, then so be it. They weren’t and aren’t trying to make the world a better place or something. Like the banks before the Great Recession, the technocrats are out to make a quick buck by any means necessary, and they would have kept on doing what they were doing if the bubble hadn’t burst. People were disgruntled with Facebook for years before Cambridge Analytica, and tech critique was already a robust genre by 2016. But it took a kind of implosion, a Great Recession-style reckoning with Big Tech, to change the public opinion. Honestly, the technocrats would probably benefit from studying a little history and philosophy, instead of cloistering themselves in the ideological fortress of STEM.

GRASSO: I think one of the “oh shit” moments in the text for me was finding out that the Black Mirror special choose-your-own-adventure episode “Bandersnatch,” which I quite liked mostly for its material and inspirational signifiers (early ’80s computing, references to Philip K. Dick) was also used to mine viewers’ data in a delightfully dark real-life Dickean stroke. It’s not merely that nostalgia offers us a safe place from the dangerous present, but that those who create these nostalgic visions are working hand-in-hand with the very media empires that make us crave the past: another ouroboros.

TANNER: “Bandersnatch” not only exploits viewers’ nostalgia for its own gain, but it further normalizes the feeling of being controlled. Everyone today knows we’re being controlled from afar: by Twitter, Instagram, Amazon, insurance companies, think tanks, banks, and so forth. We are part of this giant social experiment called consumer capitalism. The purpose is to find out what we’ll buy. But we aren’t being controlled by future gamers or, as much as Elon Musk would like to believe, programmers in this computer simulation we call life. “Bandersnatch” is a work of fiction masquerading a horrible fact—that Netflix is the one controlling us, that we are not as in control as we think. The irony, of course, is that we relinquish our control via the technology we use every day, but we ultimately have very little choice in the matter. Students use devices at school, and jobs often require employees to have smartphones. We aren’t puppets, but we’re by no means totally free either.

Scene from “Bandersnatch,” in front of the No. 1 Croydon Building, South London.

GRASSO: So that leads me to asking you about your critique of specific media franchises: Stranger Things and the endless array of sequels and especially reboots we’ve seen since the end of the aughts. You very cannily explore Stranger Things‘ reliance on physical signifiers of commodities and objects that are no longer extant but remind us of the shackles of our technology-laden present (the old landline telephone, the shopping mall) as a key to its appeal to both Gen-Xers who were there and Zoomers who weren’t. Likewise the cinematic reboot is a way to cheaply create product and content that will connect with multiple generations. This element of “spot the Easter egg, aren’t you smart?” for older generations melds with the offer of a trip to a now-alien time for younger generations. These franchises seem to simultaneously reward passive immersion in nostalgia with an illusion of proactivity.

TANNER: Well, the spot-the-Easter-egg activities are very often nostalgic exercises themselves. Viewers are invited to find the nostalgic signifiers, even if they don’t know what they are. That’s the brilliance of Easter egg marketing for advertisers: you might not know what the hidden clue means, but you know it’s a clue and so you make note of it. Of course, the “real” fans will be able to cite all the references, but regular viewers can sometimes recognize a clue, like a corded phone or a VCR or a reference to an older movie, when they see it.

Easter egg marketing is the advertising tactic of choice in the prosumer age. It turns watching into a game. And it’s very heuristic. The films with the most Easter eggs inspire the most “count them all” YouTube videos or Buzzfeed listicles. The problem here isn’t that movies and series reference a bunch of older media; the problem is that Easter eggs reference certain things and leave others out, thus establishing these unnecessary pop culture canons. I don’t care that the Halloween franchise makes reference to itself. It’s an extended universe at this point—of course it’s going to do that. What I find questionable is its constant updating in an attempt to recapture the magic of the original film. I’m always signaling my love of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but that film is too wacky to be included in the Halloween universe, because the franchise is desperately trying to give us the original again, as if it were the first time, without all the messy parts of the sequels. The Halloween filmmakers want to keep the bloodline of the first film pure, which means anything standing in the way must be excised.

GRASSO: You mark the period between 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 (and its aftermath) as the final foreclosure of any alternative to our current future and one of the dividing lines between an idealized past depicted in our nostalgic media and the forever Now. Unsurprisingly, so many of the elements of online life we now recognize as irredeemably toxic (social media, ranking and rating apps, tentpole cinematic universes full of identical sequels) began around the end of the Bush years as well.

TANNER: One of these days, I’m going to write a history-critique of the 2000s. I find the decade fascinating. It was probably the nadir of contemporary culture. Mark Fisher called it “the worst period for (popular) culture since the 1950s.”

It’s true: there was no breaking point at which contemporary nostalgia ramped up. It was a gradual shift between 9/11 and the Great Recession. Directly after 9/11, the U.S. was reeling from shock. Before nostalgia set in later in the decade, there was a feeling of futurelessness, as Robert Jay Lifton wrote—a feeling that there can be no future after 9/11, that the fear of another terrorist attack foreclosed the future altogether, that if people could fly planes into buildings on a regular weekday morning, then anything horrific is possible. During these years, we saw the birth of cinematic universes with the Star Wars prequels and the first megabudget superhero films. Of course, there were Batman, Superman, and Star Wars films before the twenty-first century, but it was after 9/11 that we saw the avalanche of these movies, several of which could not have been made without post-9/11 Pentagon support, with its bloated influence and near-endless supply of capital. You cannot downplay the reach these films have. They’re seen all over the world. And they aren’t just pro-military propaganda, they are engines of nostalgia.

After the Great Recession, nostalgia calcified. People were moving back in with their parents, revisiting old memories to soothe the anxiety of joblessness. Financial recessions are progressive only for the bankers, if they’re bailed out. For workers, they’re regressive. They set people back and invite the sufferers to hide away from it all. There is nothing wrong with this reaction. We cannot blame people who were hit by the Recession for their nostalgia. But we can blame the ones who caused it. And austerity measures only increase the desire to escape into nostalgic feelings. In short, financial meltdowns are crises that affect the future because they erase the plausibility of surviving the present.

GRASSO: You state that nostalgia is not only an emotion used to track us and to trigger specific emotional responses (which themselves are often assuaged by consumption), but also, possibly most importantly, to control us. And that control is not only physical/material but also social/aesthetic, limiting our options to wander away from the digital plaza. How do nostalgia and nostalgic media help this attempt by the market to quantify, objectify, and commodify us, the consumer?

TANNER: Content creators—a sickening term that reduces art and culture to commodities—understand the value of nostalgia. Consumer scientists have known for years that nostalgia sells. If anger draws your attention to the screen, then nostalgia triggers you to buy what will soothe the anger. That’s the cycle we’re dealing with in the present century.

And the worse things get, the more that nostalgia will naturally rise to the surface for many people. It’s not that media companies force-feed nostalgia to us. Many people are already feeling the emotion. It’s inescapable because nostalgia is a modern condition. Corporations merely go the extra mile by locking nostalgia into these feedback loops. The more you feed nostalgia into the cultural industry, the more of it you will consume because entire companies depend on you to want it. We live in a world of disruption, and every modern displacement is accompanied by nostalgia. Corporate capital knows this and depends on it.

GRASSO: Two of the specific technologies you talk about, Instagram and virtual reality, have undergone mutations in their appeals to our desire to escape the modern world. Instagram started off as a fairly disposable nostalgic evocation of the Polaroid camera aesthetic and has become a playground for big-money influencers and exhibitionists; virtual reality has evolved into just another facet of the internet’s control apparatus, despite its conceptual origins in early ’80s cyberpunk and its promised potential to give people the ability to create their own worlds. Why do these technologies seem to always mutate in the direction of greater commercialization and/or control, despite their initial apparent harmlessness or revolutionary promise?

TANNER: In the case of Instagram, its nostalgia factor was mainly due to the horrible photo quality of early smartphone cameras. With some Wi-Fi, a phone, and an app, you could take photos anywhere and upload them on the spot, which was enticing enough for many people to do just that, but you couldn’t deny the photo quality was very poor. So one way to deal with this poor quality was to saturate photos in a kind of analog haze, which could be done by applying one of several different stock filters. I can’t emphasize this enough: so much of our nostalgic appetite in the early 2010s was whetted by the inability to take and post a decent looking digital photo.

Whether it’s Instagram or virtual reality, digital technology is never totally harmless. It’s like when Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Tech guys tell us we can have our digital cake and eat it too. You can’t have “humane tech” because tech is driven by the profit motive, which itself is often powered by another force: the military. Have you seen this new recruiting ad for the Marine Corps? It’s basically telling young people that joining the military will be an escape from the overwhelming anxieties of the digital age. The scariest thing about the ad is that it conceals the long relationship between tech and the military. Which is to say, the “tech” presented in the ad couldn’t exist without the military-industrial complex. At this point, any new, possibly revolutionary digital technology will either be bought out by a Big Tech monopoly or put to use on the battlefield.

GRASSO: As far as solutions and escapes from this predicament go, you talk a little bit about the ineffectual attempts of former technocrats to try to ameliorate our enslavement to the internet and social media with apps that limit time on websites or “safety labels,” and find them all wholly wanting. Likewise, you mention attempts to make nostalgia something constructive, playful, reflective (in the schema of Svetlana Boym). And yet the very structure of the internet and Big Media as it stands now denies all alternatives to the current control stasis. What does a constructivist nostalgia look like? Where could it exist in the cracks of the current marketplace? Is there a place for nostalgia as a political instrument of the left outside of the usual avenue of Left Melancholy?

TANNER: I’m currently writing a history of nostalgia, out fall 2021 with Repeater Books, called The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: A Recent History of Nostalgia. In it, I put forth a theory of radical nostalgia, drawing on the work of Alastair Bonnett and Svetlana Boym. Radical nostalgia is the third “R” beyond reflective and restorative nostalgia, which Boym coined. She was right about nostalgia, but over the first two decades of the present century, restorative nostalgia ballooned while the reflective strains were edged to the margins. But there needs to be this third form, radical nostalgia, because the melancholic disposition of reflective nostalgia just hasn’t been working for the left and the restorative tint has proven to be destructive.

Radical nostalgia is the act of looking back to those moments when collective action stood up to capital. It yearns for the social movements of the past. It aches for them. It isn’t interested in “getting back there,” in restoring what’s been lost, but in learning from those who came before: the struggle for indigenous rights, the staunch anti-capitalism of Martin Luther King Jr., Stonewall, the Battle of Seattle. When Richard Branson signals his support for LGBTQ+ communities, that isn’t radical nostalgia. There’s nothing radical about it; it’s mere nostalgia. Radical nostalgia looks to these and other movements to continue the fight for a more egalitarian future. It is inherently anti-fascist.

Radical nostalgia takes the action step of restorative and the aching heart of reflective nostalgia and fuses them together. It knows that the past isn’t perfect, which means what we yearn for shouldn’t be either. Restorative nostalgia is too clean, too high-definition. Reflective nostalgia kicks the can around, although reflectors might recognize the problems of the past long before the restorers do. But radical nostalgia knows that everything is imbued with horror, the past especially. Many revolutionary movements of the past suffered from machismo and intolerance, even in their own collectives. Radical nostalgia knows this and endeavors to leave it in the past. Some things must remain buried.

And radical nostalgia is one perspective we can take to resist the utopian thinking of tech. At this point, Big Tech is about the only entity that circulates visions of the future, but those visions are falling out of favor thanks to the techlash. Get ready, because they will absolutely be replaced with a different utopian vision: the humane tech movement. We’re going to be dealing with the technocrats for years. It’s going to seem like we should trust Tristan Harris and the Center for Humane Tech guys. They’re going to be pushing their vision of the future for years to come. But they are the new boss, same as the old. Only collective action, informed by the decolonial and anti-fascist movements of history, can resist what’s coming in the next decade and beyond.

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“A Peculiar State of Poise”: Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’

Noah Berlatsky / December 9, 2020

Ursula K. Le Guin is generally thought of as a progressive, even as a radical, on the strength of her utopian novels. Her 1974 classic The Dispossessed imagines a functioning anarchist society; 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet where everyone is a hermaphrodite, which means it is a world without patriarchy. Yet Le Guin was always ambivalent about revolution, and especially about revolutionary violence. 

The clearest statement of her counter-revolutionary side is the 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven. It’s a book that is generally discussed primarily as a tribute to Philip K. Dick, and it certainly picks up that author’s obsession with the construction and breakdown of reality, and with the distinction between sanity and insanity. But less discussed, and just as important, is Le Guin’s debt to anticommunist dystopian imaginings—books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, in which the utopian strivings lead to regimented, life-crushing dystopias. Like those novels, The Lathe of Heaven warns that even dreaming of a better future can result in nightmare. In doing so, it shows how Le Guin’s most famous fictions were inspired by the Cold War, and how they were constrained by it.

The Lathe of Heaven is set in Portland, Oregon in a future dystopia of 2002. The world is overpopulated and impoverished; life is grimy, run-down, and hemmed in. The protagonist, George Orr, is an inconsequential draftsman. At the beginning of the novel he is arrested for borrowing another’s rations of drugs in an effort to keep himself from dreaming. He is assigned to mandatory therapy with psychiatrist and sleep researcher William Haber.

George explains to Haber that he wants to stop dreaming because his dreams can alter reality; when he dreams an “effective” dream, George alleges, he remakes the world. Haber doesn’t believe him at first, but after hypnotizing George he gets him to use his dreams to change a picture on Haber’s wall. Usually no one but George remembers the previous reality, but being present at the instant of dreaming allows Haber to see and retain the change. He quickly decides he can use George to transform the world for the better.

But George’s dreams are an imperfect tool, and whenever Haber hypnotically suggests a dream, that dream goes awry. When he tells George to reduce overpopulation, George dreams a plague that kills billions. A request for peace between humans results in a devastating alien attack, which unites the world against the invaders. A command for racial harmony leads to a world of grey people, who unleash their aggression in ritualized, bloody sports events, rather than through prejudice.

Even so, Haber is unconvinced. He is a determined, remorseless do-gooder, asking Orr: “Isn’t that man’s very purpose on earth to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?” His gusty, bearish good humor metastasizes into a kind of ominous mechanical benevolence. At first he really wants to help George overcome his fear of dreams. But as he gains power to do good, means and ends become tangled until it’s impossible to separate the quest for power to do good from the quest for power. Each time Haber changes reality he gives himself more status and influence—a bigger office, more influence with the government—until he is one of the most important men in the world. And in his relationship with George, he becomes increasingly aggressive and sadistic. “To dominate [George], to patronize him was so easy as to be almost irresistible,” Haber thinks.

Haber’s research eventually allows him to simulate George’s effective dreaming so that he can do it himself. “There will be none of this tension between your will to nihilism and my will to progress, your Nirvana wishes and my conscious, careful planning for the good of all,” he exults. But when he tries to dream a better world, the result is nightmarish chaos. Existence melts and changes; buildings turn to jelly. The revolution undoes organic connections, and everything loses form and meaning. “It was the presence of absence: an unquantifiable entity without qualities, into which all things fell and from which nothing came forth. It was horrible, and it was nothing. It was the wrong way,” Le Guin writes. Or, to quote another reactionary vision of a hollowed-out modernity that has discarded the past: 

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

If changing the world inevitably unmakes and destroys the world, the only alternative is quietism—and George is in fact a kind of inaction hero. “I don’t want to change things!” he tells Haber early on. “Who am I to meddle with the way things go?” Haber views George’s refusal of responsibility and action as a flaw; in his eyes George is a “meek, characterless man.” But Heather, a lawyer who becomes George’s wife in some realities, sees him differently: “he was the strongest person she had ever known, because he could not be moved away from the center.” The dreamer who can change the world is strong because of his Buddhist-like commitment to not change the world. George won’t meddle with karma. 

Refusing to change the world doesn’t just mean that George doesn’t want to implement grand revolutions. He balks even at minor acts of personal kindness. When Haber asks George if he would help a woman bitten by a snake by giving her antivenom, George hesitates. “If reincarnation is a fact, you might be keeping her from a better life and condemning her to live out a wretched one. Perhaps you cure her and she goes home and murders six people in the village.” A fear of inorganic revolution slides helplessly into a reactionary taboo on lifting a finger to help a neighbor in immediate need. George might as well be a Republican official denouncing the socialism of mask mandates.

George’s weasily ethics-professor excuse for leaving a woman to die seems strikingly at odds with, say, passages in The Dispossessed about the exploitation of the poor, or the anti-slavery commitments of Le Guin’s 1995 Five Ways to Forgiveness. But it’s notable that throughout her work Le Guin very rarely puts herself or the reader in the perspective of an actual revolutionary. Even the anarchist Shevek, in The Dispossessed, who makes political speeches to mass rallies, does so only after traveling to a neighboring planet, where he is an outsider. He parachutes into a Cold War-like conflict between a capitalist and a totalitarian Communist nation to offer a third, non-binary option for peace via technological deus ex machina. Similarly, in Five Ways to Forgiveness the most vivid scenes of revolution are presented from the perspective of Le Guin’s beloved Star Trek-Federation-like Hainish interplanetary ambassadors and observers.  They are people who have a distance from the oppressions and injustice they are describing. They’re people who don’t have to take sides.

The contrast with Le Guin’s contemporary Joanna Russ is striking. Russ criticized Le Guin for mostly choosing to use male protagonists. Russ herself always wrote from the perspective of women—not least because she wanted to describe patriarchal oppression at ground level, as it is felt by those who experience it. Where Le Guin’s protagonists observe, and regret, and avoid violence, Russ’s revel in it. In novels like The Female Man (1975), We Who Are About To… (1977), and The Two of Them (1978), women turn to revolutionary violence not as a last resort or a regrettable necessity, but as a fierce joy in itself—an assertion of power, of revenge, of relief. When a wise man says, Orr-like, in Russ’s The Two of Them, “I am beginning to wonder about the wisdom of remaking culture, or even people’s lives,” the female hero considers his words carefully, then shoots him and liberates her sister.

That’s not to say that Russ is right and Le Guin is wrong. The latter is hardly a mindless counter-revolutionary, even in her most counter-revolutionary novel. George returns to the story about the snakebite victim and recognizes that the analogy—and his own arguments—were “false.” “You have to help another person,” he thinks. “But it’s not right to play God with the masses.” And even there, in extremis, sometimes playing God is in fact the right thing to do. The world George grew up in ended in a nuclear holocaust. He dreamed the overpopulated world into existence at the last moment before his death, creating not a good world, but a slightly better one.

Haber also is not, notably, just a stand in for communists and radicals. Most of his political commitments—antiwar, antiracism—are recognizably left. But his motivations are rooted in good old American exceptionalism, white saviorism, and pulp. “I frequently daydream heroics. I am the hero,” he tells George with gusto. “I’m saving a girl, or a fellow astronaut, or a besieged city, or a whole damn planet. Messiah dreams, do-gooder dreams. Haber saves the world! They’re a hell of a lot of fun—so long as I keep ’em where they belong.” 

Those Messiah dreams really have caused harm; Hitler’s piles of corpses and Stalin’s piles of corpses and (closer to home for Le Guin) Lyndon Johnson’s smaller but still horrific piles of corpses all lay in mute testimony to the potential dangers of Haberism, and the deadly imposition of happy endings. 

Still, it’s striking to see a dreamer write a tract against dreams, and a utopian thinker write a novel warning against utopians. You could see it as a sign of Le Guin’s depth and ambiguity, her ability to see every side. George, Haber reports, is “so sane as to be an anomaly,” his psych profile in the exact middle of extroversion/introversion, dominance/submissiveness—“a peculiar state of poise, of self-harmony.” Le Guin is clearly drawn to that centrist anti-extremist view from nowhere. The Cold War demanded side taking. Her writing shaped by that imperative, Le Guin in The Lathe of Heaven searches for a perspective with neither sides nor violence. She could only find it in dreams.

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

“It Ain’t No Man”: The Colonial Iconography of ‘Predator’

Alex Adams / December 3, 2020

1987’s Predator pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against a fearsome extraterrestrial creature that hunts men for sport. One of the great 1980s action blockbusters, it is memorable for its muscle-flexing machismo, its tight, quotable dialogue, and its magisterial practical effects. Its enduring allure, though, comes most of all from its creative rearticulation of colonial imagery in a Cold War context. For as well as being a tremendously enjoyable sci-fi horror romp, Predator is also a novel engagement with the iconography, aesthetics, and politics associated with Cold War-era military interventions in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

1980s action films are known for the bombastic ways in which they echo, amplify, and disseminate a particular Cold War militarism that served, intentionally or otherwise, as a sort of informal PR discourse for Reagan’s international interventionism. Swaggering, cigar-chomping, opportunistic movie producers like Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Dino De Laurentiis churned out smash after vivid smash in the Reagan years: noisy, sweaty, and uncouth adventure stories regularly chock full of beefcake bodybuilders such as Dolph Lundgren, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and, of course, the two heaviest hitters, Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Predator’s director, John McTiernan, would go on to make the iconic Die Hard—in which Bruce Willis has a towering-inferno punch-up with sneering Eurotrash terrorists—in 1988, and he adapted Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October in 1990. As entertaining as they are reactionary, these movies overflow with expertly choreographed violence, sassy one-liners, and muscular anti-Soviet ideology. 

A biography of Schwarzenegger claims that Predator began life as an industry joke rooted in Cold War politics. After Stallone’s Rocky Balboa symbolically won the Cold War by defeating the coldly murderous Ivan Drago in 1985’s Rocky IV, he would have to fight an alien if they wanted to make Rocky V. The clash of terrestrial empires finally settled, there would be nowhere for him to go but space, nobody for him to punch but Martians. Writers Jim and John Thomas had been working on just such a script since 1983, an interplanetary rumble in the jungle set where the Cold War was hot: in the opaque world of proxy wars, irregular combat, and covert operations. Stallone’s shark-jumping patriotic symbolism meant that the Thomas Brothers’ script’s time had come. 

Fighting the Cold War without embracing mutual nuclear annihilation meant fighting or funding grimy counterinsurgency wars in Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Congo, Laos, and elsewhere, and these wars had a profound and multifaceted influence on popular culture. Viscid rainforest undergrowth supplanted World War trenches as the default setting for combat scenes; enemies no longer stood before you on the battlefield, but picked you off with sadistic traps; a greater focus than ever was placed on the permanently deranging effects of warfare on the human psyche. The astuteness of the Thomas brothers’ jungle setting in Predator is that it fuses a hostile encounter with a technologically advanced alien civilization with pre-existing mythologies of first contact that had gained new currency in the wake of these wars, in which American troops were sent to countries on the other side of the planet to endure unimaginable conditions fighting utterly unfamiliar populations. Though 2010’s Predators would retroactively specify that the first film was set in Guatemala, nobody in Predator names their exact location, and this vagueness allows the story to be set in a firmly imaginary “otherland” where anything can happen. A rich tapestry of colonial iconography, Predator is a fable about a near-indestructible alien that sloshily and freely synthesizes the aesthetics of colonial war movies, dark fantasies about the cannibals in the shadows, and Conradian imagery about the inscrutable danger of the uncivilized places on the map.

Invasion is the thematic and formal core of Predator, a war movie invaded by science fiction horror. Dutch (Schwarzenegger, at his absolute peak) and his team of battle-hardened troops are hoodwinked by Dillon (Carl Weathers) into doing CIA dirty work behind enemy lines, attacking an enemy encampment and preventing the Soviets from launching a coup. As they make their escape, the group still smarting from their betrayal and fraying under the stress of the heat and the ”badass bush” that “makes Cambodia look like Kansas,” the alien hunter strikes.

Sapient, sophisticated, and near-indestructible, the predator is a tremendously evocative creature, evocative enough for Predator to sire a franchise including three sequels, two Alien Vs. Predator crossover movies, and a rich gamut of print fiction, video games, comics, and graphic novels. There is some great stuff here (and if you want a controversial hot take, I will claim 2004’s Alien Vs. Predator as the only sequel really worth a watch, because it at least has a sense of fun and is ambitious in scope), but in general the sequels and spin-offs all suffer from the same problem faced by any number of sci-fi franchises: slow death by over-explanation. Over the course of the series, the increasingly elaborate lore explains the predators’ technology, their language, their species variation and, most often, the specifics of the predators’ hunter-warrior culture, examining their abductions of “elite” humans to be tracked for sport, their attempts to hybridize with humans, and, perhaps silliest of all, their history as the original ancient astronauts who colonized the Earth. In the process, the creature’s mystique is buried under a barrage of precision that only serves to make it less interesting. But the original is compelling in a way that its offspring are not because, like the best monster movies, it is built around ambiguity, mystery, and suggestion.

This generous inexactness allows the predator to reflect an abundance of meanings, slippery and overlapping, unencumbered by all that goofy backstory. He is suggestively mammalian, slimily crocodilian, part gorilla, part crustacean chameleon, with insectoid mandibles and infrared vision. Most of all, though, the predator aesthetic draws on a rich and layered archive of colonial depictions of the “uncivilizable savage”: his loincloth, dreadlocks, and his collection of skulls; his fearsome blades, exposed skin, and his symbiotic intimacy with the jungle; his incomprehensible clicking language, his animalistic posture, and his thirst for barbaric violence. The final Cold War enemy is not only an alien; he is, simultaneously, the prehuman savage of colonial nightmare. Neither the alien nor the savage, to recall the joke about how Predator the film came to be, inhabit the same planet as the Reagan-era action hero.

The horrifying allure of the predator is sustained, in part, by the Grand Guignol spectacle of the ways it kills. The creature commits forms of gruesome murder that echo the irregular combat tactics and war crimes that were attributed to the guerrilla forces the U.S.  military faced in its small dirty wars. One by one, the soldiers are picked off by the unconventional tactics of an unseen enemy who hides in the trees, like the faceless Vietminh fighters of so many American-made Vietnam movies. The predator desecrates his victims after death in chilling ways, flaying them, ripping out spines, and making trophies of skulls in ways that recall the mutilatory obscenities committed by the cannibal tribes in exploitation flicks like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or Cannibal Ferox (1981).

And yet, it is not only FX maestro Stan Winston’s creature design that reinterprets colonial iconography. Thematically, the movie rearticulates ideas central to many Vietnam movies and the military fiction of writers like Robert Elford (Devil’s Guard) or Jean Lartéguy (The Centurions). War is a furnace, a state of brutal nature in which masculinity is tested; fighting against unconventional guerrilla forces is like fighting the jungle itself; the hero must “go native,” or become one with the wilderness, in order to defeat the primeval savagery of one’s adversary.

At the film’s climax, Dutch, the sole survivor, slathers himself in mud to hide from the predator’s infrared vision, becoming a primal, torch-wielding warrior, to fight his fearless enemy on something approaching an equal footing. The scene pulpily recalls the climax of Apocalypse Now (1979), in which Willard rises from the steaming swamp to murder Colonel Kurtz, the elite soldier driven mad by the jungle and transformed into an exterminationist demigod by his exposure to the myriad foulnesses of war. An essay on the meanings of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz as filtered through Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic depiction of hell on earth could go on forever; suffice it to say that Kurtz is a shady, uncertain vessel into whom has rushed the murderous soul of colonial war, slavery, and exploitation. Reading the predator as an incarnation of Kurtz allows us to read Schwarzenegger’s confrontation with the monster as yet another form of essentialism: in fighting the savage, we are fighting against the immortal, devilish soul of war itself. Such a confrontation is not only primeval; it is permanent, eternal.

And yet, Predator is also tethered very directly to its specifically nuclear context. In the film’s closing moments, the predator initiates a colossal explosion, a mushroom cloud pinpointing the site of its demise. Knowing that Dutch has defeated it, the beast detonates himself, cackling a monstrously polyvocal laugh. This is a clear invocation of the political fear that “savages” will gain nuclear weapons, and that they will be self-destructively insane—or simply spitefully reckless—enough to actually use them. This abundance of signification, in which the predator is a volatile enough image to represent at once an alien, a cannibal, a guerrilla adversary, “the demon who makes trophies of man,” and a rogue nuclear state, is what makes the antagonist such an attractive and compelling monstrosity.

Intriguingly, in an unexpected coda that attests to the elasticity of popular cultural meaning, Predator has also exerted an influence over the post-9/11 war on terror. What, after all, do we call the unmanned aircraft that can kill silently, from a distance, and that can detect human body heat in order to track and destroy its targets? It is tempting to speculate about the naming of the Predator drone. Perhaps, like the naming of the NSA’s machine-learning surveillance program SKYNET, it is more than just further evidence that popular culture and political discourse are irretrievably fused. What can it mean for the self-image of the U.S. when its own military names its technological innovations after monstrous sci-fi villains?

Alex Adams is a cultural critic and writer based in North East England. His most recent book, How to Justify Torture, was published by Repeater Books in 2019. He loves dogs.

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Eaten Alive: James Herbert’s ‘Rats’ Trilogy

M.L. Schepps / December 1, 2020

When 30-year-old ad-man James Herbert set out to write a novel, he had a simple goal in mind: “to show you what it was really like to have your leg chewed by a mutant creature.” He succeeded admirably. 1974’s The Rats was a genuine cultural phenomenon upon release, a blockbuster that sold out its initial print run of 100,000 within three weeks and, in the words of The Observer, “irrevocably mutated British horror,” tearing it “from the grip of the bourgeoisie” by “writing about working-class characters” and squaring off against the ugliness and frank brutality of contemporary life.

Herbert would go on to become an author of global significance, his 23 novels eventually selling over 54 million copies worldwide in 34 different languages. He would develop as an author and an activist, tempering the trademark gore with more refined language and higher literary aims. But during his first decade as a professional writer, Herbert excelled at what the British called “nasties,” publishing a novel per year, including two sequels to The Rats that completed a trilogy. 

Gory, puerile, and utterly appealing, the Rats trilogy has much to offer the modern eye. In addition to the unnerving horror and gore—neatly scaffolded by clean prose and the occasional purple flourish—we are given a glimpse of a vanished London, a city of vast slums, uncleared bombsites, abandoned docklands, feral children, casual racism, and lusty English perversion—a half-tamed London, not yet leveraged and financialized and vertical, but sprawling, old, and mean.

It is this London that James Herbert was raised in, and it is the one he viscerally evokes in the pages of his first novel. The Rats is, in the words of the author himself, “packed with metaphor and subtext.” In a 1993 interview with The Observer, Herbert relays the theme quite plainly: “the subtext of ‘The Rats’ was successive governments’ neglect of the East End of my childhood.” Herbert conjures up the decaying East End, centered around the dying Thames port known as the London Docklands, with righteous indignation. For centuries, the London Docklands were the beating, sclerotic heart of Empire. The wealth and legacy of untold peoples, developed over countless millennia, were ruthlessly extracted by the ships that plied those waterways, amassing vast amounts of cultural heritage, wealth, and treasure in the name of English colonialism while sending out fleets of gunships, grave-robbers, and bankers in exchange.  

By the 1970s, however, the area was in a state of absolute collapse. The docklands that survived the transition from East Indiaman to steam to diesel, that survived the Blitz and powered the world-historic growth and exploitation of the British Empire, died as a result of the proliferation and adoption of intermodal shipping containers, which led to larger ships that required deeper ports than the Docklands could offer. Shipping moved irrevocably to provincial centers like Felixstowe or further downstream to the Port of London, leaving the great bulk of the Docklands largely abandoned, the surrounding neighborhoods subject to flight. Between 1976 and 1981, the population of the area was reduced from 55,000 to 39,000

So, the East End of this period was one of decay and transition. Herbert said that he was raised in “an old slum that had to be pulled down,” a common occurrence in an area marked by decades-old bomb sites full of dangerous debris. When compared to the anesthetized, homogenized, health-and-safety-fied, thoroughly Wetherspooned London of today, Herbert’s childhood world seems almost unimaginably distant, the rotten strata upon which all the Gherkins, Shards, and legions of Pret-a-Manger rest uneasy. 

Written over a ten-year span, the Rats trilogy is fairly formulaic plot-wise. Take a London location (the East End, Epping Forest, and the rubble of post-nuclear exchange). Stir in some mutant rats. Add a stolidly generic middle-class man-of-action as the protagonist who urges common sense, morality, and righteous violence in the face of quibbling bureaucratic toffs and effete scientists, wins over the determinedly “modern” young woman (who nevertheless yearns for marriage), and survives the ravening rodent hordes. Salt in occasional vignettes in which characters are introduced (their life histories and often their crudest perversions) in close-third perspective, before having them destroyed in gory Grand Guignol fashion by rats (and, in the third novel, nuclear explosions). The primary storyline is interrupted repeatedly by these deeply personal vignettes, and it is in these sections that Herbert is most effective as an author, demonstrating the character-driven subjectivity and mastery of visceral horror that would develop substantially over his career. 

In the first book the protagonist is Harris, a former East End resident returned to work as a school teacher of “art to little bastards whose best work is on lavatory walls.” He is soon made aware of the presence of dog-sized predatory rodents that pursue schoolchildren and various other residents, tearing them to shreds while also carrying a deadly virus that ensures even the slightest bite is fatal. The creatures themselves are mutants, the product of breeding experiments performed by a mad scientist who used a shack in the Docklands as a lab in order to hybridize common black rats with their tropical cousins, irradiated as the result of nuclear testing in the South Pacific. This union results in a much larger, more intelligent, more aggressive species of rat, one that acts cooperatively under the mental command of psychic, two-headed albino rats who serve as overlords. 

Various bureaucrats and ministers propose various technocratic solutions to the crisis, like engineered viruses and ultrasonics. The infestation is deemed solved again and again by authorities, only for the monsters to subsequently reemerge and eat the inhabitants of tube stations, cinemas, and schools. By the end, Harris has to take matters into his own hands, dispatching the two-headed rat leader with an axe. 

In terms of Herbert’s stated theme of East End neglect, the metaphor is not a particularly subtle one. The residents know there is a problem (urban decay/radioactive rodents), while the government either ignores them or attempts the bare minimum before declaring victory. It’s a pattern painfully analogous to contemporary global catastrophes like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. 

Deeper themes are present in the novel as well, indicative of older prejudices and contexts. The monsters are hybrids, the product of rodent miscegenation and genetic tampering. They are foreign. They operate with a communal intelligence and willing self-sacrifice. The fears of the foreign other, of a caricatured communism and of what the protagonist refers to during a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Theater as the “multi-racial accents that destroyed any hope of atmosphere,” are present throughout the initial novel. They aren’t the predominant themes, but their presence is notable—and somewhat glaring—to the modern reader.

The Rats is an ugly and propulsive book, with scenes of depravity and gore whose power is no less diminished four decades later. While I have never been consumed by rodents (mutant or otherwise), sections like the following seem to capture the flavor (as it were) of the experience:

Rats! His mind screamed the words. Rats eating me alive! God, God help me. Flesh was ripped away from the back of his neck. He couldn’t rise now for the sheer weight of writhing, furry vermin feeding from his body, drinking his blood.

 Shivers ran along his spine, to his shocked brain. The dim shadows seemed to float before him, then a redness ran across his vision. It was the redness of unbelievable pain. He couldn’t see any more—the rats had already eaten his eyes.

Respectable reviewers were aghast. Martin Amis’s infamous and vinegary assessment in The Observer set the tone: “By page 20 the rats are slurping up the sleeping baby after the brave bow-wow has fought to the death to save its charge… enough to make a rodent retch, undeniably—and enough to make any human pitch the book aside.” When Herbert went to his local W.H. Smith’s to ask if they had a copy, he was told, “no, and nor were they likely to.” 

Despite the critical drubbing, the books were an immediate sensation. There is a raw vitality to The Rats, a kind of atavistic anger and verve. At times it has the feel of outsider art, a hint of Henry Darger in the sheer excess of gore coupled with the violations of “good taste” and narrative expectation. In his 1981 book of nonfiction cultural criticism Danse Macabre, Stephen King called it “the literary version of Anarchy in the U.K.” 

Adaptations of The Rats followed in short order and included a groundbreaking Commodore 64 game, among the first that set out to intentionally frighten the player. The survival horror game won praise for innovations that included the titular creatures eating right through the player’s screen. A 1982 film version was made in Canada as Deadly Eyes, trading the atmospheric decay of London for bland Ontario provincialism. The rats themselves are played by costumed dachshunds, and these unwitting actors were and are the subject of considerable scorn. They look like what they are: plump little pups wriggling beneath latex and fur overcoats. Still, watching these costumed dogs (and puppets in some scenes) in 2020 produces an uncanny valley discomfort, the primal recognition of distorted reality, a sensation that has almost vanished entirely within the weightless wonders of our CGI age.  

***

The first sequel to The Rats, 1979’s Lair, moves the action from the rotting labyrinth of the Docklands to the green and gentle hills of Greater London’s Epping Forest. Our new muscular protagonist (an exterminator this time) encounters the surviving vermin, while the rats encounter (and eat) various philanderers, exhibitionists, and innocents. Bureaucrats and ministers get in the way of things, problems are thought solved and then, inevitably, the ravaging rodents return. The book ends with rat revolution (reminiscent of Caesar’s ape revolution in the original Planet of the Apes series) as the grotesque two-headed albino psychic overlords are overthrown by the rank-and-file, who then make their stealthy return to London itself. 

While there is some novelty in the setting of Epping Forest, and Herbert’s depiction therein of a truly English patchwork of bucolic woodlands, raunchy public sex, earnest scouts, depraved flashers, and rotten feudal privilege abutting modern development, Lair is a bit of a letdown. Where The Rats benefits from the sheer audacity and verve of Herbert’s amateur prose, its sequel is a liminal book, in terms of both Herbert’s development as a writer and the period when it was written, the so-called “Winter of Discontent”—which would fuel the rise and electoral triumph of Margaret Thatcher. 

Written five years later, 1984’s Domain, the third book in the trilogy, drips with anger and disdain towards the seismic upheavals convulsing British society, the widening gulf between the machinations of the elite stewards of the neoliberal state and that of the socially integrated individual. Herbert terms this divide in Domain as the “Them” and the “Us.” By this point, the ancient Docklands that had so influenced both the life of James Herbert and the plot of The Rats had been transformed. A firestorm of tax breaks and development subsidies cleared away the rubble and decay (along with venerable neighborhoods and communities), and the new office blocks and skyscrapers of Canary Wharf began their long vertical climb. In Domain, multiple hydrogen bombs are responsible for the razing of the Docklands. In reality, it was Thatcher and the Tory vision of “urban regeneration.” 

Domain begins with absolute devastation, with London laid waste by a series of nuclear explosions. Amid the rubble of the city’s ancient roots, a beleaguered group of survivors huddles within a fallout shelter. Among their number is the cold-blooded representative of the government, some hot-headed working-class maintenance staff, and the requisite muscular protagonist, a pilot named Culver. There is bickering, a love-interest, and, of course, a massive horde of waiting, hungry mutants. 

Things quickly fall apart, and the best laid plans of bureaucrats (and rats) go awry. The shelter is breached and the plucky human survivors attempt to find the government’s primary underground headquarters. The bulk of the novel takes place in the ruin of the city itself, one in which the destruction of Herbert’s bombsite-riddled childhood has been spread across the entirety of London. In Domain, the action stays rooted in character, the setting is fully realized, and, like a rock band that knows to save the old hits for the encore, Herbert includes his requisite vignettes in which we meet and sympathize with several characters shortly before their gory demise. While the atavistic blood-rite horror-magic of The Rats is unimpeachable, Domain is far more successful as a novel. When James Herbert reflected on the trilogy in a 2003 interview with the Evening Standard, he agreed, saying that “each one improved on the last. ‘Domain,’ I think validates the first two.”

The key theme in Domain is that of the hubris of the government elite, the “Them” who sought to “manage” a nuclear holocaust safely ensconced within sumptuously appointed fallout shelters (which include royal apartments for “the elite among the elite”). This hubris is punished by a problem they had already declared solved and subsequently ignored: the rats. The consequence of the planner’s plan is a great pit of gnawed, headless bodies, with Thatcher’s mangled corpse assuredly among them. Herbert delights in his own machinations, writing 

A failsafe refuge had been constructed for a select few, the rest of the country’s population… left to suffer the full onslaught of the nuclear strike; but the plan had gone terribly wrong, a freak of nature—literally—destroying those escapers just as surely as the nuclear blitz itself…. If there were really a Creator somewhere out there in the blue, he would no doubt be chuckling over mankind’s folly and the retribution paid out to at least some of its leaders.

This indifference and denial of the elite contributes to the bitter humor all throughout. There are multiple scenes where people vaguely remember some nasty business with a new breed of rat having taken place “a few years ago,” the characters emphasizing that thousands of Londoners devoured in a rodent massacre failed to make much of an impression when the victims were the working class residents of the East End.

***

While it may not be “fine literature,” reading Herbert’s Rats trilogy in 2020 gives the novels a new layer of subtext that, for all his horrific (and sometimes ridiculous) imaginative powers, the author couldn’t have conceived at the time. Even a revolutionary goresmith like Herbert failed to anticipate the myriad horrors of the neoliberal consensus and the entrenchment of hard-right conservatism: the long half-century of atomization, inequality, loss of empathy, and environmental degradation. Herbert could vividly imagine rats eating London’s impoverished alive by the dozen, but the thought of 130,000 being needlessly sacrificed at the altar of the great god Austerity was too much horror, even for him. 

The theme of elite neglect and conscious denial that runs throughout the Rats trilogy has a remarkable resonance with contemporary Western society’s response to the novel coronavirus. Wishful thinking, denial, and elite arrogance have proven no substitute for painful and necessary action. Throughout Herbert’s novels, government officials declare the issue of ravening mutated rodents gnawing their way through the populace “solved”—mission accomplished—after a minimum of effort, simply because it’s easy to say. The parallels are obvious. 

Our leadership exacerbates the crises of pandemic through denial, half-measures, and simple nihilistic greed. It’s easy to make a ludicrous lie like “there is no second wave” an official government statement. It’s easy to urge the disposable “us” to “reopen” and return to our “normal life,” without having to make any of the necessary economic or political sacrifices to do so safely. When Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings boldly breaks curfew or Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows throws a lavish indoor wedding, the arrogance and disdain is palpable. “We” must sacrifice so “they” can celebrate. As the size of our current COVID-19 wave swells ever larger, with no crest in sight, the true horror lurks at the edges, ready to assert its dominion yet again. 

The rats are still here, monstrous as ever. And they’re hungry.

M.L. Schepps lives in federally occupied Portland, where he takes many photos of birds. He spent the last year developing a deep appreciation of Kate Bush while also writing a book about 19th century Chinese immigration and Arctic exploration. Find more of his work at MLSchepps.com.

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American Fetish Meets Pop Art: Russ Meyer’s ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’

Sam Moore / November 19, 2020

It’s easy to spot an exploitation film by the cover of the poster or DVD. Maybe more so than any other type of art, you can judge it by its cover: a woman, often barely dressed, holding some kind of weapon. Think Pam Grier on the cover of Coffy or Foxy Brown. Even contemporary grindhouse fare like Planet Terror embraces this tradition, with a machine-gun-legged Rose McGowan among the most immediately recognizable images from the film. That’s because exploitation films always know what they’re selling. That’s where the name comes from; there’s something in these films—normally sex and violence—that is being exploited in order to lure an audience. And that’s where Russ Meyer comes in, the filmmaker whose Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) takes everything about the exploitation genre and ramps it up to an eleven. It’s a strange film that at once knows the genre’s problems and is willing to embrace them. 

In the film’s poster, true to form, instead of one woman, there’s two, and the angle of the camera seems designed entirely to highlight Varla’s (Tura Satana) chest. She’s thrown a man to the ground, and there are two cars, engines roaring, behind her. In many ways, it’s the perfect crystallization of the film itself: women, breasts, violence, fast cars. This excess is a “come hither” moment for exploitation audiences, taking everything that they love and blowing it up to extremes. That’s what makes Pussycat so compelling, the strange combination of exploitation and the reverence with which it treats its objects, like a piece of lurid pop art, amplifying and magnifying the tastes of the seediest corners of grindhouse cinema.

One of the ways in which Pussycat challenges the nature of exploitation is by approaching these common tropes—oversexed and ultraviolent women—with a kind of self-awareness, looking at the genre with a nod and a wink. This is made clear from the very beginning of the film, and the way it uses voiceover narration—there’s no other voiceover in the film after this, which is unusual—that beckons the audience by welcoming them to “violence, the word and the act.” The voice goes on to talk about the way in which the “favorite mantle [of violence] still remains sex,” and the “voracious appetite” that the film gives to its leading ladies is something that obviously applies to the audience as well. Pussycat is explicitly designed for an audience that’s hungry for the intersection of sex and violence, for images of powerful women—as long as they’re not too powerful.

The women in Pussycat are fascinating contradictions, something that the film explores through the ways in which the gaze of the camera operates, often changing to enhance different aspects of the characters, from their sexuality to the power they possess over men. As the film begins, Varla and her soon-to-be partners in crime, Billie and Rosie (Lori Williams and Haji), are go-go dancing. The camera loves it, obsesses over and objectifies their bodies, the way that they move, embracing the male gaze at a level that almost feels like parody, even though it’s clearly played straight as can be in every possible way. But beyond just leering at the women, this sequence establishes the fact that they are powerful, with a shot straight out of Film School 101: with the camera low down, looking up at them, it makes the women seem bigger and more prominent—in more ways than one, they fill the screen. As the camera cuts between the dancing women and the borderline rabid men who watch them, bellowing “GO, GO, GO,” it becomes clear that this is, for better or worse, a film about women—about the power they can exert, about the way that they’re looked at. The opening voiceover offers a warning about the kind of women capable of violence, and it’s clearly aimed at men, with examples like “your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club.” It’s power through the lens of female characters, but clearly designed for the consumption of men, the great contradiction that defines the gaze of Pussycat, and much of the other exploitation fare of the era.

The women are placed among a landscape of things that define American masculinity, and the object most rooted in this is a fast car. Driving, racing, and time trials animate much of the drama and narrative of the film. Varla, Billie, and Rosie race through the California desert; they play high speed games of chicken with one another, and the film climaxes in a chase sequence that takes place both on foot and on four wheels. The three women are placed in a position normally associated with masculinity, which is what makes them such fetishistic objects of male wish fulfilment. The camera never lets the audience forget about the assets of these women, but they’re also shown to be “one of the guys” in the way that they drive, fight, and flirt. They can—up to a point—hold their own against the men, and there’s often a kind of role reversal in terms of gender.

In action films, with the James Bond franchise being a prime example, it’s the men who are good drivers and use women purely for sex. But in Pussycat, the women do that, with Varla’s attempted seduction of Kirk, a man she’s hoping will lead her to some money that’s been stashed away. There’s something striking about the way in which, in the moment, Pussycat engages in this role reversal without any asterisk or caveat, simply allowing the women to be powerful and sexual on their own terms. This understanding of how sexuality works on screen comes through in one of the most common exploitation tropes—the catfight, which occurs early on in the film. Billie and Rosie fight each other, their shirts get wet, and it’s all set to a strange, almost dissonant jazz score that undercuts the sexploitation angle of the scene. If the score had been different, then it would seem lifted directly out of porn.

This strange combination of a kind of female empowerment (one built on having the characters embody ideas of strength that are typically associated with maleness and masculinity) and exploitation fare is what makes Pussycat a unique, more aesthetically curious film than a lot of its contemporaries. And some of these images: the cars racing across the desert, Billie and Rosie in the water after a catfight, are reminiscent of pieces of perverted pop art. Pop art as a movement was all about taking the lowbrow and mass-produced elements of American culture, from Warhol’s soup cans to Lichtenstein’s comic strips, and elevating. This relationship between commerce, mass-production, and artistic merit is something that is rooted in a uniquely American tradition; Jasper Johns even reproduced the American flag itself. All you need to turn stills from Pussycat into a Lichtenstein print are some kitschy captions and speech bubbles.  

Meyer’s relationship to exploitation film is a lot like the relationship that pop art has with capitalism. They’re both at once slyly aware of what the systems they exist in are doing, and they are either satirizing it (the dissonant jazz score over the catfight highlights the absurdity of the trope) or embracing it in all of its ugliness. The difference, sometimes, is almost impossible to distinguish. It’s easy to imagine Varla, for instance, even at her lowest point, aping Lichtenstein’s famous Drowning Girl. The original contains the thought bubble “I don’t care! I’d rather sink — than call Brad for help!”, and while the words don’t appear in Pussycat, Varla might have said exactly this, replacing Brad’s name with Kirk’s. The film is even willing to lampoon the misogyny that defines so many responses to independent and powerful women, notably when the Old Man whose family the dancers ingratiate themselves with in the hopes of finding money says: 

Women! They let ’em vote, smoke and drive—even put ’em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president! A bunch of smoke up your chimney! Russian roulette on the highways! Can’t even tell brother from sister, unless you meet ’em up close.

This line highlights the biggest problem with Pussycat’s relationship to the grindhouse: while it’s more than willing to show these women being sexual, strong, and violent, it always reins them in when the male characters get too uncomfortable, a response that typifies a kind of masculinity that both objectifies, and is afraid of, powerful women. The film makes them monstrous, in a way—they always exist in counterpoint to the sweet and innocent Linda, who they’ve kidnapped and who offers a different kind of womanhood, one more palatable to male audiences once the credits have rolled. It’s no wonder that Varla’s demise in the climactic finale—in a moment of what feels like purposeful irony, she’s run over by a truck driven by Linda—that she gets described as “nothing human” by Kirk, before he and Linda drive off into the sunset in the very truck that she used to kill Varla.

In a way, the end of Pussycat is the only way that such a distinctly American exploitation film could end: after a whirlwind tour of tropes associated with male action heroes, set against a uniquely American desert landscape, normalcy returns. The power (and gender) dynamics of the real world—where your secretary or doctor’s receptionist are unlikely to kidnap your girlfriend, or try to seduce and rob you—are reinforced by the violent end that the subversive women meet. In contrast to this, the sweet Linda and righteous Kirk ride off into the sunset together to begin a quote-unquote normal relationship. Exploitation cinema reached its heights in the early 1970s, and while the template of Pussycat is there, the films that came in its wake were less willing to embrace the larger-than-life aspects of their characters and stories. Pussycat remains unique for the ways in which it refuses to look away from the complicated relationship that its characters have with the gaze of both the camera and the audience. These women are simultaneously manipulating that gaze and being manipulated by it, something that makes Pussycat the kind of gaudy pop art that you could only ever find on 42nd Street.

Sam Moore‘s writing on queerness, politics, and genre fiction in art has been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books, Little White Lies, Hyperallergic, and other places. Their poetry and experimental essays have been published in print and online, most recently in the Brixton Review of Books. If their writing didn’t already give it away, they’re into weird stuff.
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