We Are the Mutants

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

Michael Grasso / January 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Schwartz / January 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Schwartz is a freelance writer working out of Ohio.



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Supersonic Fantasies: Celebrating the Mecha of Supermarionation

Fred McNamara / January 14, 2020

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

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

A Wonderland of Monochrome (Supercar and Fireball XL5)

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

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

Stand by for Rescue (Stingray and Thunderbirds)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow’s Cross-Sections Today

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

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

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

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

Exhibit / January 9, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews / January 8, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Mutating Empire: Britains’ ‘Space’ Toys

 Exhibit / January 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit / December 12, 2019

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

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

“Can I look?” said Doc.

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

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit / December 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah Berlatsky / December 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit / December 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit / December 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You Don’t Have to Get Pregnant’: Miseducation in the Age of Sexual Revolution

Lindsay Oxford / December 3, 2019

In the early 1970s, scores of liberated, fertile women were eager to join the sexual revolution. Along with the diaphragm and IUD, the recently available birth control pill gave women the autonomy to decide when and if they would have children. With so many options and the pill so new, where could a woman turn to get reliable advice and information about contraception? A gynecologist? A trusted female relative? How about an “educational” two-LP set produced by a fly-by-night operation whose only other output may have been a twelve cassette informational program for dental students?

Enter You Don’t Have to Get Pregnant, produced by In Sight & Sound. Or maybe it’s Plan Your Family by Health Information Systems, Inc. Who’s to say? The record’s spartan label calls the set Plan Your Family, while the cover and accompanying booklet—both showing a couple embracing as they walk along the beach—include both proclamations. For what it’s worth, the Library of Congress (along with the University of North Texas, the only other institution with the set still cataloged) has chosen to catalog it as Plan Your Family, the single publication linked to In Sight & Sound. WorldCAT, a searchable network of libraries worldwide, does show other listings for Health Information Systems, Inc.: the set of instructional dental cassettes mentioned above and produced at roughly the same time as Plan Your Family (I’ll use this title going forward).

Whatever the set’s provenance, the creators of the LP were shockingly ill-equipped to advise women on options for their reproductive needs. Paternalism, racism, and outright misinformation pervade Plan Your Family, and it’s prime for aural rubbernecking. With availability of birth control only truly becoming legal nationwide via the Supreme Court’s Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling in 1972—following the more well-known Griswold v. Connecticut, which ensured access to birth control but did not supersede restrictive state laws in about half the country—the sudden need for birth control education may have been a call In Sight & Sound felt moved to answer. Their apparent decision to make Plan Your Family without consulting an OBGYN, however, is another issue entirely.

“Not Trusting to Luck. Not Depending on Hope”

Plan Your Family may have rolled its listeners’ understanding of the female reproductive system back at least two decades. With no introduction other than a disembodied, paternalistic voice imploring us to listen as he addresses us “as a doctor would,” our unnamed narrator begins his four-sided slog. We’re asked to consult the first image in the record set’s accompanying booklet, showing a waiting room full of women—and men—seeking birth control. Our narrator relays his reasons to delay childbirth in a tangle of unattributed quotes. Some cite exhaustion, some cite expense. And one “frank single woman” tells us she “expect[s] to get married,” but doesn’t know when. Birth control is for “the meantime.”

Whatever trust and goodwill Plan Your Family gained in the waiting room is lost as we’re asked to move on to the next illustration. Here, we’re told, is someone who should employ birth control posthaste. A young woman, more olive-complected than most of the waiting room we just left, sits with downcast eyes. We’re told she has five other children, lives in a two-room apartment, and is pregnant. A pause. “Again.” Our narrator-cum-eugenicist doesn’t just hint that she might consider birth control, he expresses disdain that she hasn’t used it before.

“How Does the IUD work? We Don’t Really Know”

It’s just past the waiting room that Plan Your Family really tips its hand, letting us know it’s engaging in gynecological spitballing. Condensed to its basic information, Plan Your Family would run the side of one record. Condensed to accurate family planning advice, it would run even less. From the history of the IUD to the mechanics of the pill and to the very basics of ovulation, Plan Your Family is the equivalent of a book report written the night before, and it’s a wonder it was ever mass-produced.

Like all of the methods discussed, we’re introduced to the IUD—the “intra-utereen deviceon side one, and we revisit it with nearly identical wording later on. It’s this repetition that twice gives us the gem “”Exactly how does the IUD work? Doctors still aren’t sure.” In fact, the modern IUD had been in use for at least 20 years in 1972, and the idea of placing a foreign object into the uterus to prevent pregnancy dates back even farther.

“You Can Make Love Whenever You Want”

The birth control pill is given one full side of Plan Your Family, but our narrator’s understanding of how the pill works is more than a little shaky. In the In Sight & Sound universe, the pill “prevents the production of eggs,” a phrase that seems to imply that women lay eggs like chickens. Women are born with all the eggs they will have in a lifetime, and what the birth control pill does is suppress ovulation—that is, keeps an egg from becoming available to be fertilized. The egg itself was “produced” at birth.

The rhythm, or calendar, method also gets the In Sight & Sound treatment. It’s described here as not only faulty (it is less reliable) but allowing conception-free sex only half the month. Unless our narrator is including the messy but not disqualifying business of menses in his tallies, in reality that number is only about five days to a week of each month. Even less if a woman is tracking her basal temperature—which our narrator mentions as a vital component of the rhythm method.

But what about men? Our listeners, presumably all female, are told “You are in control over your pregnancy. Not the man.” And in the United States in 1972, women did have an unprecedented level of autonomy in their family planning decisions. But In Sight & Sound acknowledges that “a man can do everything that needs to be done to keep a woman from becoming pregnant.” For example, withdrawal, which “isn’t much better than trusting to luck.” Condoms are somewhat creepily referred to as “good to use at special times.” Finally, sterilization, a “confusing and sometimes frightening word,” prevents a man from releasing sperm at all.

The Plan Your Family team still needed to do some padding to fill all four sides, so they combat schoolyard contraceptive myths: wrapping your penis in plastic wrap is not an adequate substitute for a condom. Douching will not expel sperm. And sex standing up—or in any position, for that matter—will not prevent pregnancy.

“The Answer is Probably”

Who exactly was Plan Your Family meant for? My own copy, rescued from a community college dumpster in 2008, has the stamp of the college’s nursing program, assuredly a better resource to accurately instruct students about a woman’s family planning choices. Then again, without a way to sample content beforehand, it would have been impossible to know how condescending, ill-informed, and outright lazy the set was. Librarians don’t have the opportunity to sample every item they catalog. And so Plan Your Family languished on a library shelf for more than three decades, imbuing a thankfully minuscule number of junior college students with an alarmingly befuddled understanding of a woman’s reproductive system.

It’s a blessing that Plan Your Family wasn’t released a year later, when Roe v. Wade would have given In Sight & Sound a steeper mountain to climb—to the peril of any and all information seekers within earshot. Whether by a sincere desire to educate or because they had a contract to fulfill, In Sight & Sound—or Health Information Systems, Inc.—rallied to answer the call of women with questions about how to exercise their newly-won sexual autonomy. In the end, the project’s clumsy and misguided attempt to do right by women exists as an artifact of 1972’s acknowledgement of the sexual revolution, as well as the lack of tools and vocabulary needed to advance it.

Lindsay Oxford writes about vegan food for Sacramento News & Review and writes personal essays at igetbored.pizza.

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American Monoliths: Local Pride and Global Anxiety in ‘The Georgia Guidestones’

Exhibit / November 21, 2019

Object Name: The Georgia Guidestones 
Maker and Year: The Elberton Granite Finishing Co., Inc., 1981
Object Type: Promotional publication
Image Source: Wired.com
Description (Michael Grasso):

On the vernal equinox in 1980, a group of local dignitaries gathered on a ridgetop near Elberton, Georgia, to witness the dedication and unveiling of a monument made of six colossal slabs of Georgia blue granite. The Georgia Guidestones have remained the center of a firestorm of controversy in the nearly four decades since their unveiling, while simultaneously becoming an object of great local civic pride. The Guidestone monoliths contain a series of ten “commandments” for distant human posterity, an inscription dedicated to the moral and material health of humanity in twelve languages—four ancient, eight modern—in the face of then-current issues such as overpopulation, nuclear holocaust, and environmental pollution. The real story behind these modern-day standing stones—primarily, who exactly commissioned and designed them—is cloaked in mystery and misdirection to the present day. This mystery was only intensified by the publication of a 48-page pamphlet (full document here) in 1981 by the granite company behind the Guidestones’ physical construction. The pamphlet combines a “how did they do it” explainer with interpretations of the Guidestones’ mysterious inscriptions. But The Georgia Guidestones booklet also lays bare some of the tensions between a rural Georgia community and the attention that this eccentric outsider art project-cum-social statement brought to the area.

The booklet was produced by the management of the local stoneworkers who created the physical stones, the Elberton Granite Finishing Company, Inc. On the very first page, in the booklet’s foreword, the company openly admits that the messages on the stones will prove “intriguing,” “provocative,” “significant,” and that “not everyone will agree with all of the succinct ‘guides’ which have been permanently inscribed… in these massive pieces of Elberton Granite.” How did this small town receive such a daunting and strange task? The booklet pens a narrative about Joe Fendley, president of the granite company, receiving a “neatly dressed” visitor on a June Friday in 1979, asking for the company to build him a monument. This visitor, named R. C. Christian, “represented a ‘small group of loyal Americans who believe in God… [who wished to] leave a message for future generations.'” When Christian backs up his words with the real American language—cold hard cash brought to the bank by Christian’s lawyer, banker, and “intermediary” Wyatt C. Martin—the locals, according to the pamphlet, realized that the project was no prank.

This origin narrative is—by design, one assumes—full of intentional mystery and symbolism. It also echoes two esoteric myths with deep roots in Western hermeticism and occult conspiracy. First, there is R.C. Christian’s name, which evokes the rich and centuries-old mythology surrounding Rosicrucianism, with its key founding documents detailing the occult journeys of a young magus named Christian Rosenkreuz (Rose Cross, R. C.). The tale of R.C. Christian’s mysterious arrival also echoes an American myth about a stranger named “the Professor” who was allegedly present among the Founding Fathers during the design of the American flag. This tale was first recorded in an 1890 book called Our Flag by Robert Allen Campbell and eventually given new life in 1940 by American esotericist Manly P. Hall. These two seemingly-disparate threads of American esotericism—the occult wisdom of secret societies and a sort of mystical American patriotism—intertwine freely throughout The Georgia Guidestones pamphlet, as the authorial voice continues to hammer home the message from the Foreword: that however bizarre, occult, and eerie the message of the Guidestones project might be, we are always assured that it is being directed by American patriots who believe in God.

The ten-part Guidestones message itself is explained directly by “the mysterious sponsors behind The Georgia Guidestones®” (whenever “The Georgia Guidestones” appears in the pamphlet, it is accompanied by a registered trademark symbol, which seems to betray the commercial intentions of the document quite clearly) in a five-page essay called “The Purpose.” The inscriptions call quite clearly for a radical population reduction (to a mere 500 million people worldwide; in 1980 the global population was already nearly 4.5 billion), for humanity to “guide reproduction wisely, improving fitness and diversity,” and for a universal human language and a new respect for nature. The sinister first pair of commandments have more than a whiff of old-fashioned American eugenics, which, along with the command for a universal language, would certainly raise alarm bells in socially-conservative late-1970s Georgia. In the very first paragraphs of “The Purpose,” the makers cite a need for “a global rule of reason” and “a rational world society,” two harbingers of the kind of one-world government that had long frightened postwar American arch-conservatives.

The language of “The Purpose” echoes much of the discourse in the 1970s about a New Age arriving, and asserts that humanity is finally ready for such an advancement: “Human reason is now awakening to its strength.” This concept of a planet mature enough to usher in a one-world government, thanks to achievements in reason and science, is a common narrative element in much of Cold War UFO lore. The specter of nuclear annihilation hovers over “The Purpose” as the main threat to humanity’s advancement; “The Purpose” clearly implies that the Guidestones’ message offers “alternatives to Armageddon.” Building a resilient time capsule for the future, one that could survive both the aeons and the possibility of nuclear or climate catastrophe, was evidently a major consideration in the physical design and construction of the Guidestones (echoing the work that would be done in think tanks in the next decade to design monuments to protect nuclear waste from future generations’ curiosity).

“The Purpose” spends nearly two pages defending its population control policy from common political, cultural, and religious objections. Concerns about overpopulation were very timely in the 1970s: the the Club of Rome‘s report The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, and a constant theme throughout popular culture and media throughout the 1970s was an overpopulated and underfed future. The makers of the Guidestones propose that reproduction and parenting be “regulated”: “The wishes of human couples are important, but not paramount.” Coincidental in 1979 with the Georgia Guidestones project was the introduction of the People’s Republic of China’s “one-child policy,” which follows the hopes of “The Purpose” that “every national government develop immediately a considered ‘Population Policy’,” which would “take precedence over other problems, even those relating to national defense.” Later on within the booklet, an “independent” interpretation of the Guidestones’ message is provided by one Dr. Francis Merchant, a local Elberton citizen and English Ph.D. who died after the erection of the monuments but before the publication of the booklet. His assessments are more matter-of-fact than those of “The Purpose,” but take into consideration the cultural and political changes that would be necessary to live up to the aspirations of the Guidestones (along with dropping a tantalizingly Masonic reference or two: deeming God to be “the Great Architect,” for example).

Throughout The Georgia Guidestones, it’s unclear how much of all these varying explanations and interpretations are merely good old-fashioned carnival kayfabe meant to intrigue visitors and collect tourist dollars. A perhaps uncharitable reading of the booklet would be that the entire cast of characters who take credit for different elements of the Guidestones project—Fendley, Martin, and Merchant, among others—were themselves R.C. Christian. The images of Fendley’s laborers working on giant slabs of Georgia granite throughout the pamphlet make it clear that the project was an enormous physical undertaking for the workers involved (and yet it was all completed in a little under nine months, if the story in The Georgia Guidestones is true). The booklet tells a story about one of the crew hearing “strange music and disjointed voices” while working on the inscriptions: more kayfabe perhaps, but also telling in that the makers of the Guidestones didn’t want the project’s mystical aura to stop at the money-and-idea men at the top. Again, a cynical reading of all the attention given to the actual quarry personnel, granite craftspeople, construction workers, and other expert laborers depicted in this booklet would be that Fendley wanted The Georgia Guidestones to act as a long-form advertisement for his company and for the granite industry of northeast Georgia at large. But with every photo offering a candid glimpse of the work and workers involved, the reader gains an appreciation for the fact that a large part of this tiny Georgia community was deeply involved in this project, a folly driven by seemingly mysterious fringe concerns, but one which touched almost everyone in the Elberton area. As with other weird municipal art projects elsewhere in 1970s America, Elberton seemed to embrace their Guidestones purely as quirky roadside attraction, another quintessentially 20th century American cultural tradition.

The Guidestone sponsors and Christian “himself” each directly lament the fact that ancient monuments like Stonehenge offer no concrete message to the modern world, that the true motivation for their construction and use, aside from their obvious calendrical and astronomical purposes, is unknown to us. With the purportedly “complete” picture of the process of making this monument, from conception to execution, The Georgia Guidestones booklet offers a vital gloss on the stones’ pure physical presence and their encoded message. It also offers a portrait of a small rural community in 20th century America at the end of arguably the nation’s Weirdest decade, a decade where issues of global survival met with the parochial concerns of post-industrial labor and production, filtered through a prism of the esoteric mysticism at the center of the entire American experiment.

The Grid of Destiny: David Palladini’s Aquarian Tarot Deck, 1970

Exhibit / November 20, 2019


Object Name: Aquarian Tarot Deck
Maker and Year: David Palladini, Morgan Press, 1970
Object Type: Tarot Cards
Image Source: Graphicine
Description:  (Richard McKenna)

With their autumnal hues and deft fusion of the geometries of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the tarot cards illustrated by David Palladini and published in 1970 by Morgan Press evoke perfectly the fading glow of the previous decade’s psychedelic optimism. The drift of interest in the esoteric and occult from the counterculture into the mainstream had been underway for some time: three years previously, Palladini had contributed to another pack of Tarot cards for Massachusetts paper producer Linweave and produced a series of Zodiac posters for Morgan Press. As well as Nouveau and Deco, Palladini’s style took inspiration from “decadents” like Harry Clarke and Aubrey Beardsley, the washed-out exoticism of illustrator Arthur Rackham, and even the expressionism of Munch, all filtered through memories of the early days of cinema and the poster art of the 1960s to create something that still looks modern today.

Palladini, who passed away in 2019, may be familiar from his illustrations for books like Jane Yolen’s 1974 book The Girl Who Cried Flowers and Other Tales, the 1987 edition of Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon, and his remarkable, haunting poster for Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu. As his name suggests, Palladini came from an archetypal Italoamerican background—born in Italy in 1946, his family had emigrated to the United States in 1948 and settled in Illinois. After graduating from New York’s prestigious Pratt Institute Art School, which he attended on a scholarship, Palladini accepted a job as a photographer at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. When the the chief poster designer abruptly departed, Palladini took over his post, creating a series of posters for the event. Once the Olympics were over, Palladini moved back to New York and took up a position with Push Pin Studios, then considered one of the most innovative illustration companies in the world.

As an illustrator working in the New York of the 1960s and ’70s, it seems likely that Palladini would have been moving in the same circles as British illustrator Peter Lloyd, who would later work on the production design of 1982’s Tron. Looking now at these monochrome faces in their glowing geometric garments, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Lloyd and/or the other production designers of Tron must have been familiar with Palladini’s work. Shortly before Tron‘s release, echoes of the elegiac formalism of Palladini’s Tarot were also to be found in the uncharacteristically restrained artwork the brilliant Bob Pepper produced for this set of Dragonmaster cards in 1981: both packs channel an entire history of Western art from the Middle Ages on into beautifully cohesive imaginary worlds. And as these cards by Suzanne Treister show—published 48 years after the publication of Palladini’s deck—Tarot continues to enjoy a position of importance in the countercultural pantheon.

The Hidden Utopia: Hobo Graffiti and Sixties Paranoia in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’

Pepe Tesoro / November 19, 2019

the crying of lot 49 first edition cover 1966.jpgThomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is usually regarded as one of the best testimonies of Cold War paranoia and early psychedelic ’60s culture. Even though it is a keen and pointed exploration of the growing anxieties over the exponential post-war rise of mass media and market capitalism, the central conspiracy revealed in the novel doesn’t reproduce itself through the then-new and fascinating forces of radio waves or cathode rays. Quite the opposite: the kernel of the conspiracy in Pynchon’s novel lays precisely in a clandestine communication network sent through old-fashioned, conventional mail. This network itself possesses roots that go back as far as medieval nobility feuds, its presence identified with something as ancient and basic as graffiti. Fredric Jameson attributed the true effectiveness of the novel to this anomalous feature. “[T]he force of Pynchon’s narrative,” he writes in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past.”

It would seem that in order to perform an adequate exploration of the psychological and social and political disruptions of an era’s newest and most cutting-edge technological developments, sometimes it is required to take one or two steps back, as if the reflection over contemporary objects would be better served through the examination of old and already familiar realities. The long history and deep cultural footprint of retro-futuristic aesthetics in Pynchon’s fictional universe seems to point in somewhat the same direction. But this odd narrative movement doesn’t just go backwards; it also, quite interestingly, usually goes downwards. That’s the case of the The Crying of the Lot 49, where the occult conspiracy that our poor protagonist, Oedipa Maas, struggles to unveil, doesn’t just rely on the old means of the mail. Its members are imagined as marginalized individuals living in between the remnants and scraps of industrial machinery, as if the life of the vagabond would be the only true escape from the madness of modern civilization. These elusive individuals, as imagined by Oedipa, seem to be:

…squatters who stretched canvas for lean-tos behind smiling billboards along all the highways, or slept in junkyards in the stripped shells of wrecked Plymouths, or even, daring, spent the night up some pole in a lineman’s tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication, untroubled by the dumb voltages flickering their miles, the night long, in the thousands of unheard messages.

This supposed conspiracy of the homeless and the outcast, not subtly named W.A.S.T.E., is then imagined as a hidden net that mimics modern global communication networks, and even lives as close as it can to those hardware channels. And precisely because of that, it stays totally untouched by modernity and is invisible to its gaze. The particular mixture of secrecy, homelessness, and clandestine communication systems in Oedipa’s imagination was not new at the time, and can be traced back to the life and especially the works of one Leon Ray Livingston

Livingston, born in 1872, was probably the most notorious American hobo. “Hobo“ is actually a rather particular term in American cultural history; it doesn’t merely designate an individual who lacks a stable location or place for living, but it instead indicates a quite idiosyncratic American social character, determined by the country’s own history of geographical expansion and industrialization. The hobo was a homeless man that crossed the entire continent, from city to city, throughout the growing railroad’s network, surfing the new, blossoming industrial landscapes a job at a time. Throughout the years, the hobo came to be recreated by the national cultural imagination as a romantic figure, a mystical outsider, a mysterious and almost invisible inhabitant of the modern world’s new industrial features, constantly at the edge of society, always trying to avoid unwelcome company and harassing authorities. That popular image was mostly the work of Livingston.

various a no 1 coversLivingston was not just a hobo; he was also a popular author. Under the pen name of “A-No1,” he published a series of books that fictionalized the hobo lifestyle and basically created from scratch the romantic and enigmatic portrait just described. But probably the most fascinating and persistent myth that emerged from the A-No1 books was the existence of a secret hobo code, presented in unnoticed and almost invisible chalk or charcoal graffiti. This code, composed of cryptic, seemingly ordinary and almost-childish hieroglyphs and symbols, was supposedly used by traveling hobos to transmit messages to their colleagues, such as “Dangerous town,” “Safe place to spend the night,” or “Here lives a nice lady.” It is known and well-documented (mostly through the work of filmmaker Bill Daniel) that the practice of signing the side of wagons and rail post with their personal monikers was and still is a spread practice for hobos and railroad workers in America. But with respect to a secret code that transmitted useful messages from hobo to hobo, there is not much evidence that it actually existed. After all, why would the hobo, a supposedly elusive and off-the-grid character, want to make public their own secret means of communication? It is not unfair to assume that the publication of the hobo code was probably nothing more than a ploy to fabricate and maintain that same legendary elusiveness.

Either way, thanks to Leon Ray Livingston’s works, the hobo’s supposed secret code became a common emblem of the intriguing and puzzling (and pretty much fantastic) mysteries of industrial civilization’s own underground realities. It seemed at the same time spooky and exhilarating to imagine that the unstoppable machine of progress was leaving behind, in its own dark residue, a striving secret society of outcasts and ostracized rebels living an almost chivalrous adventure, having happily exchanged social status and at times mental health to be free of the oppressive commands of power. I think it goes without saying how popular this common narrative has stayed throughout the years in science fiction and, more generally, in popular culture. The mystic figure of the marginalized can be tracked from the charming and magical homeless lady in Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles, to the cyberpunk Martian mutant separatists in Total Recall, to the Lo-Teks in Johnny Mnemonic and the Nebuchadnezzar crew in The Matrix series, just to name a few. These cyberpunk re-imaginations fall under the myth of the “hidden utopia”: the assumption that the hopes of resistance against the conspiracy of modern civilization lays in a counter-conspiracy of the outcasts, the unlikely sub-inhabitants of its most obscure and remote corners.

the signs used by tramps hobo camp fire tales 1911

Leon Ray Livingston’s “signs used by Tramps” in his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, written under the A-No1 pseudonym.

This is exactly what is deployed by Pynchon in The Crying of the Lot 49. Or, at least, this is how a borderline-paranoid protagonist tends to imagine a seemingly active but always evasive conspiracy, as if the myth of the hidden utopia could be also a borderline-paranoid fantasy of those made anxious and disoriented by postmodern subjectivity. It’s also possible to observe the echo of the hobo graffiti’s legend in Pynchon’s book, as the W.A.S.T.E. logo, a simply drawn muted cornet, suspiciously similar to the purported signs of the hobo code, appears to have been placed all over the most seemingly mundane corners of Oedipa’s reality, such as on the walls of a public bathroom or on the edge of a sidewalk.

But the recovery and use by Pynchon of these older cultural cues is not an idealization of the hidden problems of the homeless and the marginalized. After all, any social articulation outside the limits of the community itself can easily turn into a contradiction, a fantasy, a paradox not allowed by the predominant culture. If the whole world has been conquered by malignant forces and crooked interests, the possibility of a constructive, non-nihilistic escape from this system literally lays outside of this world. That’s why Pynchon, as Oedipa, finds himself at a dead end, accepting that, if W.A.S.T.E. and its obscure conspirators were to exist, its own definition would prohibit the final revelation of its actual existence. That’s good for Pynchon, who playfully explores the literary potential of such contradiction, but it ain’t so good for Oedipa, who is still and forever trapped in modern society, and seems destined to always live on the epistemic edge of paranoia, unable to determine if everything she experiences is a convoluted prank by her ex-lover, if she has gone definitively crazy, or if W.A.S.T.E. is, in fact, real.

In a dream-like episode in the middle of the novella, Oedipa encounters an old ex-anarchist friend, Jesús Arrabal, who, torn apart by the demise of the emancipatory narrative, has to admit to her the metaphysical impossibility, or at least almost supernatural essence, of any revolutionary promise: “You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one.” Alien invasion? Religious intervention? Not quite, but similarly unlikely: the possibility that, under the all-mighty and ubiquitous forces of the Machinery and the cannibalistic and expanding logic of Capital, there could have formed a secret alliance of those who have been cast out of society, those who inhabit the obscure nooks of the dirt and the piles of garbage, under the colossal figure of the ominous constructions and highways. Like parasites in the wires of modern communication systems, these posited liberatory beings have been exiled in a land “invisible yet congruent with the cheered land [Oedipa] lived in,” barely but firmly surviving out of the realm of the living, right next to where we stand, but nevertheless unnoticed by the naked eye.

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

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“Fantastic Stories”: Family and Cultural Memory in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Italianamerican’

Reviews / November 14, 2019

Directed by Martin Scorsese, 1974

After Martin Scorsese burst onto the scene with the one-two social realist punch of 1973’s Mean Streets and 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he produced an ode to the milieu from which he sprang, a briefer-than-feature-length trip to his parents’ walk-up apartment in Little Italy for Sunday macaroni and gravy: 1974’s Italianamerican. The film is many things: an obvious love letter to Scorsese’s parents and to Italian culture, something of an anthropological expedition investigating his own roots, and ultimately an examination of how the combination of higher education, cultural assimilation, rejection of religion, and flight from urban ethnic enclaves to the suburbs changed the children of these first-generation European immigrants. Scorsese’s 1974 trip back to his folks’ house exposes the Italian-American experience in all its contradictions and quandaries: in gender relations, race relations, conceptions of social class, family life, and nostalgia and memory.

The relationship between (Luciano) Charles Scorsese and his wife Catherine (née Cappa) is obviously the center of the film. While Martin does appear and does prompt questions, Italianamerican is best when we’re watching the four-decades-married couple squabble and bicker and tease each other. One notable piece of Italian-American culture that emerges from the film is the complex web of gender roles and relationships that characterize the Italian family. Charles deals in a few stereotypical sexist behaviors that one might expect of someone of his generation, but it’s clear that Catherine (and by extension Italian-American wives and mothers) isn’t having any of it. One exchange on cooking (a topic that comes up again and again in the film) says it all; Charles explains with a smile that he doesn’t cook because “I’m not supposed to… it’s not my line,” while simultaneously claiming that, even so, men are the best chefs: “It’s been known that a man is a better cook than a woman any time.” Immediately, Catherine snaps back with a simple, “Then why aren’t you doing the cooking then!”

But ultimately both Charles and Catherine recognize the purely enormous amount of unpaid labor that Italian mothers had to do back in their day: cooking and cleaning for nine kids, all while taking on outside jobs that could be done at home, like sewing piecework: “Our poor mothers worked.” Modern conveniences such as washing machines have banished much of this drudgery, but both of the elder Scorseses seem humbled by the sacrifices their own mothers had to make. Charles, especially, is touching as he remembers his late mother being unwilling to suffer fools and quite capable of defending herself in any conflict: “As far as my mother goes, my mother was a strong woman… If she had to say something, she told you and that was it and you couldn’t answer her. My mother, she was a real whip.” After this statement, Charles’s hand goes to his mouth (as does Martin’s, I noticed, an uncanny example of familial mirroring), obviously choked up at the memory. Italian-American femininity, with its focus on being strong, being tough, being protective of one’s children, being able to hold one’s own in an argument, was born on the mean streets and tenements of major cities all over the Eastern seaboard in the early 20th century and most definitely would not have jibed with the contemporary WASP image of how a bourgeois woman, wife, and mother should act.

Mentioning the particular social environment in Lower Manhattan that housed and sheltered waves of Southern and Eastern European (and East Asian) immigrants in the early 20th century, it’s clear that even as ethnic groups formed their own enclaves, they were forced to deal with different groups as a matter of course in America’s “melting pot.” Charles recalls the way Little Italy and the Jewish enclaves on the Lower East Side would find themselves side-by-side in workplaces, public spaces (like the pushcarts and public markets on Delancey Street), and restaurants (Charles is insistent with Martin on making sure he notes that the home of “the original potato knish” is Schimmel’s.) “All together, Jewish and Italians, they all worked together,” Charles says, as he remembers lighting stoves and lamps for observant Jews on the Sabbath.

As Charles remembers the pushcarts, Martin cannily cuts in images of the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and Chinatown as they stood in the then-present of 1974: it’s still a multi-ethnic neighborhood with pushcarts and kids playing in the streets, demonstrating the continuity of four generations of immigrant communities in New York City. And it’s not just fellow white immigrants who the Scorseses identify as being unfairly treated by the power structures of the time. “People were afraid to walk through [Chinatown]; you used to hear so many stories about it, but it wasn’t true!” Catherine fairly screams. (Charles is admittedly a bit more ambivalent about Chinatown, but Catherine holds her own.) Throughout Italianamerican, Catherine demonstrates a very ingrained sense of racial solidarity, likely due to the awareness that Italians had been on the end of that exact kind of discrimination when they were “fresh off the boat.” Even when Charles makes a comment about how the preexisting Irish population of their neighborhood systematically mistreated the more recent immigrant arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, Catherine also makes sure to make a point of disagreeing with Charles’s intimation that the number of bars in the neighborhood indicated that the Irish of the time were all drunks.

With that in mind, it’s clear that there is some anxiety among the elder Scorseses’ generation around their immigrant identity and assimilation into the predominant American WASP culture. Early on in the film, Charles spends some time taking Catherine to task for “putting on”: elevating her tone from her customary lower Manhattan accent and mannerisms. After being hectored about this “code-switching,” Catherine responds in a broad New York Italian accent, shouting from off-screen: “I don’t know what you mean, Charlie!” “Talk the way you’re talkin’ to me now, that’s what I mean,” Charles responds with a knowing smile. This anxiety about assimilation and forgetting one’s origins in Italianamerican helps set the stage for so many of the subsequent conversations that the couple conduct about class, ethnicity, and making it in America. Throughout the film, the elder Scorseses discuss numerous gradual processes of cultural assimilation: for example, while Charles’s family didn’t believe in having a (American) Christmas tree when he was young in the 1920s, it’s clear from the Scorsese family photos from the 1950s that Martin grew up with American traditions like hanging stockings at Christmastime (from a radiator, not a fireplace). In a story Catherine tells about her father shaving his handlebar mustache after a week-long work assignment in New Jersey, which scared the kids because he looked so different upon his return to Manhattan, there floats the unspoken possibility that he was asked to shave the Old World facial hair for reasons of the job itself. (Speaking of facial hair, there are a couple of passive-aggressive generational pokes at Martin’s thick beard from both his mother and his father.) The most striking moment surrounding assimilation is the tale Catherine tells about her father’s citizenship interview, where Catherine’s sister had to act as interpreter; as the immigration agent’s reaction to the elder Cappa’s inability to speak fluent English is one of shame and disapproval: “Why that’s terrible!” Family lore insists that Catherine’s father used this opportunity to show off a little of the English he had picked up during his time in America, telling the immigrant agent, “Go and fuck yourself.”

There are also omnipresent reminders of class. The traditional tale of European immigration to America is the idea of fulfilling “the American dream,” usually by making one’s material fortune in the new land of opportunity. Charles notes the advice he received to not work for someone else, and instead work for yourself: “You’ll always have money in your pocket.” The hard times, the sacrifices, the traumatic journey to America itself (Catherine insists her mother was so scared of the prospect of a transatlantic sea journey that she had to be tricked onto the boat): these stories clearly loom large in the Scorseses’ family narrative, as with many European immigrants of the first generation. Details about the grimness of the tenement apartments and poverty abound in the elder Scorseses’ telling, but Catherine also luxuriates in the moments when her generation began to find work and make “real” money; the story of one of her brothers starting off as a messenger boy for quintessentially old-money WASP investment firm JP Morgan so that they can afford Christmas presents and “a proper tree” contrasts with Charles’s tale of his folks not wanting an American Christmas tree. Occasionally, it’s hinted that Charles’s family was a little bit poorer than Catherine’s; Catherine notes in a conversation about making wine that her family made theirs in the basement instead of the kitchen like Charles’s family did. Catherine makes repeated reference to her family’s wanting their house to look less like a tenement, citing the desire to “better yourself,” hinting that Charles’s allegation that she was “putting on” at the outset of the film might have been at least a little correct.

The perfect confluence of these issues around class consciousness and assimilation lie in the Scorseses’ tale of finally taking their long-promised honeymoon. Instead of their scuttled original plan to visit Niagara Falls when they were first married, they go (one imagines thanks to Martin’s success and largesse) on a two-week trip to the Italian peninsula where they visit family in Sicily and see Rome and Venice as American tourists forty years after their wedding. It’s notable that while Catherine obviously enjoyed all the trappings and privileges of the return to Italy, she also feels intense guilt about the poverty in the countryside that was still in evidence in the 1970s: “The land is so beautiful, but there’s no work over there!” She nearly weeps when she thinks about a young boy who wanted to be taken back to America with her, and makes a poignant Freudian slip in saying that she wished she could take him back on “the boat” before correcting to “the plane.” Catherine’s proximity to the immigrant experience of her mother allows for an empathetic realization: that her ancestors’ emigration was an escape from real endemic generational poverty, and that her position of privilege as a comfortable Italian-American on a two-week tour of Italy will not allow her to save the descendants of those who were left behind. It’s heartbreaking to watch, but it demonstrates that those memories of her ancestors left her with something tangible: a lasting, innate awareness of right and wrong.

It’s hard for me to remain completely unbiased about Italianamerican, of course, mostly because the Scorseses’ apartment, in its studied and cluttered Old World decor combined with mid-century Italian-American touches (plastic wrap covering the “nice couch” in the living room) reminds me vividly of my own grandparents’ apartment in East Boston in the 1970s and ’80s (as does Catherine’s insistence on vacuuming and cleaning up as soon as Martin is done shooting the film; my own grandmother’s obsessive cleanliness is recounted in family lore every time my father recalls being whacked with a broom to get him to clean up after himself). As examples of members of the generation that decided not to leave the old neighborhood for the suburbs like their late Silent and Baby Boomer kids did, the elder Scorseses are indicative of a bifurcation that was overwhelmingly common among ethnic whites in the Cold War era. In that move to the suburbs—under the larger rubric of “white flight“—came a concomitant distance from one’s neighbors, a certain financial and material security upon entering the American middle class, and a forgetting of one’s origins, both cultural and class, which led in many cases to an inevitable shift among many non-WASP whites to the political right. But those Italian-Americans of Catherine and Charles’s generation, still situated in the old neighborhood, didn’t completely forget that, once, we “all worked together.”

This awareness of the solidarity of the old neighborhood finds its most powerful expression in the way both the Scorseses tell their stories for Martin’s camera. In the final third of the film, with Sunday dinner being picked at over the dinner table, the Scorseses remember how important telling “fantastic stories” was in an era before the radio and the television, purely for purposes of entertainment. (It’s no surprise that the role Catherine eventually became famous for, as Joe Pesci’s character Tommy’s mother in 1990’s GoodFellas, involves her telling just such a humorous tale from the old country about a cuckolded husband, a story type with ancient origins in Italian literature and culture.) One of Catherine’s stories in Italianamerican, which touches upon the spooky and the supernatural matrix of the Old Country, oddly becomes an inadvertent parable for all the class anxieties expressed throughout the film. In this story, a mysterious visitor clad in silver appears, Communion-like, at the foot of Catherine’s mother’s bed back in Italy while she is nursing a young child—the next generation—and asks her to “hit me with something” to receive great wealth. Catherine’s mother, petrified by the visitation, hesitates, clutching her child (destined to be an American) to her breast. Years later, a trove of silver coins is found in the home after they’d left; family members, remembering the story, blame her for not lashing out at the mysterious alien stranger and becoming rich.

In a way, though, that sort of a devil’s bargain is real, and is expressed in the way the Italians, the Poles, the Greeks, and many other non-WASPs “became white” in the second half of the 20th century. And oral storytelling like this—from generation to generation—helps to convey important cultural messages that might otherwise be forgotten in the stultifying white conformity of the red-lined, middle-class suburbs. The stories our elders choose to tell and hand down are vitally important to not forgetting our origins as well as remembering and preserving moral lessons—lessons of familial loyalty, of brave, hard-working matriarchs, even lessons of class and cross-ethnic solidarity (even if neither of the Scorseses speak in such blatantly political terms) purchased at great cost. If every Italian-American MAGA-swallowing stronzo in 2019 who talks about their ancestors immigrating “the right way” could really listen to what the elder Scorseses were saying in Italianamerican about solidarity—solidarity with laborers, with recent immigrants, with working mothers, with the ethnic “Others” in the neighborhood, a sense of community hard won, prompted by real harassment and oppression of their own ancestors at the hands of cops and immigration officials—they might begin to understand why they’re wrong, and why they’ve always been wrong, to accept the poisoned pill of American kyriarchical “whiteness.” Martin Scorsese knew, even as a hungry 31-year-old filmmaker—and he remembers today, 45 years after Italianamerican was released—that the stories we choose to tell and to preserve matter, that the voices we choose to amplify with our privilege matter, and that even in a family lark like Italianamerican, that belief shines through, like a trove of silver treasure.

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

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