The human extinction story
With global warming, floods, health pandemics... the human extinction story is back in fashion. In the 1970s it took shape in the post-apocalyptic story where a wondering lone hero (or a band of heroes) survived in a post-nuclear Armageddon, a petrol-starved wasteland, while also attempting to rebuild a viable society.
Outliers like Silent Running (1972) focused in on the wider eco-system, not just the plight of humanity itself. Most of those 1970’s stories were tonally upward journey’s, surprisingly optimistic. Although much of humanity had been wiped out, the message was simple: we’re tough and we will prevail. There’s always hope. In The Road (2009), The Survivalist (2015), and High Life (1919) the tone is altogether darker. It is about maintaining hope in an otherwise hopeless world that’s filled with destruction and barbarity. But, even in a world like this there’s still selflessness and sacrifice – there’s still a moral choice to be made.
In Aniara (2018) journey is a downward one, away from optimism, which makes for a tough sell. It is a bleak but intelligently handled story about materialism and human meaning – ‘High Rise’ set in space, an imploding micro-society meets ‘Silent Running’. In essence it is saying that hope is wrapped up in other bigger things, like a wider social context, connection, belonging, and an earth-like natural environment which people feel at one with. The mainstream Hollywood story is usually has an up tone, the little person winning against the odds, justice being fought for and attained, positive change, good winning against evil, finding harmony. In essence it says: there’s no need to worry.
The mass extinction story (often in the form of the low budget science fiction indie movie) is one of coming to terms with a grim new truth, a new reality. In blockbuster Hollywood films the global floods, earthquakes, ice-storms and meteorites never lead to extinction. There’s always someone with a nifty idea just in time to save the day. With independent films the audience doesn’t always have that certainty. The tonally downward journey is, in a way, a modern morality tale about love and sacrifice.
Planet of the Apes
I’ve been meaning to read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963) for a while. I’ve seen the 1975 Hollywood film a number of times. It’s something of a cultural icon. But it’s always surprised me how the author of The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) could also have written Planet of the Apes. They seem so entirely different.
Although the novel is quite an intellectual mind-game, as a story I prefer Rod Serling’s film version. The gloriously simple visual reveal at the end is cinematic genius, and the 1975 film seems to make more chronological sense. To put it in simple terms it’s just more satisfying. I’ve always assumed that the 1975 film was a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, but this isn’t the case. Now, having finally read Planet of the Apes I can see parallels with The Bridge over the River Kwai. They are both post-Second World War novels about human folly.
The space opera
We take it as a given that the human story is integrally woven into this world, our ecosystems, the land and the sea – planet Earth. When we leave the bounds of this planet we’re literally taken out of our element. Any story that takes place in space or on distant planets is a relatively new kind of story, a new kind of adventure. Flash Gordon is a classic example of the 1930s space opera. It involves a ‘rocket ship’ that travels across space to the planet Mongo, the discovery of non-human races, advanced technology, mind control, death rays (and other terrible weapons), and a grand power struggle between an Imperial ruler and subjugated peoples.
In Forbidden Planet (1956) a scientist and his daughter, and their robot (the only remains of an interplanetary expedition) are visited by a rescue team intent on investigating the mysterious disappearance of the expedition. This space story’s strong Freudian influence, its electronic soundtrack, and special effects created a more realistic, mysterious and atmospheric vision of life on another planet. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the thinking person’s space story. It bumped up the realism of interplanetary space travel, taking it to new heights. It threw in questions about the meaning of life, space as the new landscape, and a psycho AI.
Star Wars (1977) returned the space adventure back to its roots, back to the original 1930s film serials. It had action, adventure, romance, a story with good triumphing against evil, drama, and more drama – possibly making it the definitive space story. The post-Star Wars space story continues with Interstellar (2014), which reaffirms the space story in a climate where NASA’s funding is being cut, where America’s boundless optimism has been clipped and people question the relevance of travelling in space.
In Interstellar we get the global eco-threat facing Earth, which creates a new call to adventure, a brilliantly minimalist robot (with a sense of humour), and a tesseract in space that resonates with metaphysical implication. There’s still life out there in space.
Blast of Silence
A hitman returns to New York, his home-town, to carry out one last job, but things go wrong. Straight from the opening of 1961s Blast of Silence, a black screen with the gravelly voice of the narrator speaking directly to the audience, the film offers a different take on the classic Film Noir: ‘Remembering. Out of the black silence you were born in pain.’ The voice-over is spoken in the second person (‘you’). The narrator is outside of the story looking in, omniscient, seemingly all knowing, goading and mocking the protagonist, sometimes condescending or patronising, sometimes anticipating the protagonist’s thoughts. At other times the narrator acts in the role of the protagonist’s conscience. It’s a bold stylistic device that’s perfectly exploited.
The cinematography is shot in the Film Noir style, black and white with heavy shadows. The distinctive gravelly tone of the voice-over, and ambient jazz music provide an auditory motif to complement the noir look. A scene in the club is almost completely without dialogue, the music does the talking.
For an early 60s film it still feels remarkably fresh. While it’s a very different film to Seconds (1966), both films share the same brutal fatalism. ‘A killer who doesn’t kill gets killed,’ the narrator goads Frankie. The narrator’s comments provide a revealing insight into Frankie Bono’s mindset, as well as creating empathy for an otherwise oppressively dark character. Frankie Bono dispenses violence and is the victim of it. This late Film Noir has a trace of the Counter Culture about it, existential angst, and the French New Wave even with the gravelly voice of the narrator sounding like the narrator in Alphaville (1965). It’s not an easy film to watch, but the narrator keeps it moving with his dry humour, making it a rewarding experience, and certainly a memorable one:
And this is it, baby boy Frankie Bono. You’re alone now. All alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again, back in the cold, black silence.
The Dark Room
Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room (2001) is made up of three separate novellas. The title of each story comes from the first name of the protagonist: ‘Helmut, ‘Lore’, and ‘Micha’. Although they are different stories they’re thematically related, because they are all about German identity, guilt, and the main character’s inner conflicts. The first two stories take place during the Second World War, while the third one occurs during the 1990s. All of the stories have a brilliant sense of linear progression, and a gradual shift occurring in the central character’s internal world.
In ‘Helmut’ the character’s feelings of guilt (because he is unfit for military service) run in parallel to the devastation of Berlin around him, which he chronicles as a photographer’s assistant. The increasing tension is palpable and culminates in Helmut eventually finding his place in a completely ruined and dysfunctional environment, seemingly unaware that the people around him have changed. The second of the three stories ‘Lore’ follows a group of children wandering through war-torn Germany without adult supervision as they attempt to find their Grandmother’s house in Hamburg. It was made into the film Lore (2012), an emotional and shocking journey portrayed by brilliant child actors. The story in the film has been tweaked slightly, and I think I prefer it, but it’s mostly a faithful adaptation of the written story. These are three powerfully told stories, each one different in its own way, gripping, and psychologically tense. They explore three troubling and uncomfortable situations, where the protagonists face difficult choices. Due to the subject matter it isn’t exactly a ‘light read’, but it’s a rewarding one.
- The landscape is integral to the story of the Old American West, and it’s everywhere in The Big Country (1958), framing the characters within its grandiosity. The film features the usual Western story tropes: feuding family clans, land ownership, battles over water rights, male rivalries, macho confrontations, psychological intimidation, violent conflicts, and feisty women, but no Native American Indians. Tonally, the film falls somewhere between the American post WW2 identity story and the 1960s Counter Culture. These post WW2 stories are all about men coming home, and adapting to new environments. They’re about finding a new kind of American hero, someone who can lead the nation to a better way of life. In a world filled with injustice, the audience wants to see a humble figure who is willing to fight for what’s right. The Big Country doesn’t have the depth of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), that film’s social conscience, it’s radical undermining of the Cowboy myth, or its brooding Film Noir atmosphere, but The Big Country is a significant shift away from the helpless homesteader being attacked by monstrous Native American Indians – with the US Cavalry riding in to save the day. The hero, Captain James McKay, a ship’s captain, is a man out of place in the arid Cowboy landscape. He is polite, behaves meekly, wears the business suit of a city gentleman, and rejects hatred. Any outward signs of ‘weakness’ hides a capable, brave, self-assured hero, who has what it takes.
- I saw Stalker late one night, when I was a teenager, and I wasn’t savvy with Soviet Cinema at the time. I wondered what the hell I was watching. The film defies many Western conventions of cinematic storytelling. Nothing much happens and its all, well... just plain weird. It’s an enigma wrapped up in an enigma.Stalker is open to interpretation. The Zone is a kind of paranormal area, or in storytelling terms a metaphysical space of new possibility. Entering it seems to take the visitors into a kind of 4th dimension, like a Cubist painting, the space in-between space. A working-class character (the Stalker) takes two bourgeois characters (Writer and Professor) into the Zone, a mystical place where people go in search of The Room. And the two middle-class characters return exhausted and dirty. In a way, more working-class, more like the Stalker. The mysterious Room is a place where people’s wishes are granted, or – more likely – where they gain an insight into themselves. Maybe The Zone has special powers, a magic of sorts, or perhaps the journey to the room is a learning experience that provides that self-knowledge? The nothingness of The Zone provokes anxiety that leads to self-reflection – it’s a kind of mind-expanding experience. And that’s where the journey really takes place, in the mind. It’s like that other room, the cinema in-which the audience is watching this film.
- Geoff Dyer’s Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare is a very funny book. The book works best if you watched the film in your youth, and you still find yourself venerating it, like it’s some kind of meaningful childhood artefact, your personal Rosebud. The book is a kind of DVD commentary narrated by the love child of Roland Barthes and John Berger. There are loads of great one-liners: ‘…as they approach the drop zone he looks at the blinking red light, pulsating like a headache, like a warning of imminent liver failure’. And… ‘Colonel Turner gives the briefing as though it’s scripted not by Alistair MacLean but by William Shakespeare.’ Wonderful stuff.
- Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, written in the first person and the past tense, as if it’s a journal, introduces the reader to Barbara (a manipulative and controlling loner) who befriends Sheba (a young art teacher who initiates a destructive sexual relationship with a pupil). The story is told through Barbara’s ‘manuscript’, and it brilliantly reveals her middle-class prejudices, her pretty-minded reactions, and her troubling emotional need to control anyone she decides to befriend. Part of the game the reader plays is separating her cutting honesty from her self-justifying delusions.
- In The Girl on the Train another unreliable female protagonist, this time written in the first person and the present tense, as if the reader is ‘in her head’ listening to her thoughts, comes to terms with her alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Like Barbara, Rachel Watson’s ‘outsider’ status makes her an excellent vehicle for a running social commentary about deceit, hypocrisy, and superficiality in the people around her. This has to be balanced with her delusions as an unreliable narrator.
- The largely forgotten Doc Savage series of ‘pulp fiction’ novels dates back to 1933. They’re credited as the original American ‘superhero’ story, even predating Superman. The Man of Bronze was the first in the series. Clark Savage, Jr. is part Sherlock Holmes (1887), and part Tarzan (1912). Doc Savage is another fictional character who has taken his place in the pantheon of faded heroes, lost in the vastness of time, like The Shadow, and Dick Tracy, once beloved and now largely forgotten.