Science Fiction Studies

#35 = Volume 12, Part 1 = March 1985


 

NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE

Altering Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Nancy Steffen-Fluhr's "Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (July 1984) is, despite its seeming complexity and introduction of a wide range of issues and theories, simplistic and reductionist in the extreme. Steffen-Fluhr is yoking together concepts from several unrelated fields, and has nothing in her buckets except an accusation against a male director for having made a male nightmare vision. I hope to be able to show in the space allotted to me here why I find her criticism anti-materialistic, divisive, and insulting.                           

Steffen-Fluhr probably started offwith the best intentions, but then got carried away in the wrong direction. Reading her article, I had to refer back to its title to assure myself we were talking about the same film. I have no doubt that all the things she quotes are in the work, somewhere, and that her students, to whom she thought `50s' clothes would be news, giggled (in my class we would giggle at anything when we were 15); but I would question her interpretation: first and foremost, because most of the plot and a large part of the metaphorical texture have both been transferred directly from Jack Finney's novel (of 1955, not 1978, as Steffen-Fluhr would have it) and thus can't so readily be ascribed to Siegel's insomnia and his other alleged limitations. Furthermore, I would have liked to know whether she actually saw the film more than once. One does tend to remember different things from different viewings of the same movie, particularly if some time is allowed to lapse between each.                

In Siegel's boy-meets-girl-meets-pods drama, as Steffen-Fluhr sees it, Miles the protagonist repeatedly warns Becky against getting involved with a doctor—i.e., himself. Rather than reading the first of a series of sinister meanings into this, I would regard it as sensible advice at a time when doctors' working hours were long. Besides, his warning is simply a joke—something needed in the early stages of the film before the proper start of the action that is to rivet the attention of the audience. And it is a residual joke at that: according to Stuart M. Kaminsky (Don Siegel: Director [NY, 1974]), the start of the film was full of comic touches, but to Siegel's regret the studio removed most of them because they were thought to be inappropriate in a horror picture (p. 103).                

Joking over, Becky does get involved, but the action is held back on this point— which brings about a shower of accusations from Steffen-Fluhr against Miles the male for being the one who spends the most time digging his heels in. Poor little central character. Of course, he's the one who spends the most time digging his heels in: as the central character he's the personage we see most often. He is as open and ready for analysis as the porno model who responds to the touch of a button, provided the film is on the video monitor. He has weaknesses, of course, and maybe by directorial design: Siegel does not want his heroes all good or his villains all bad (see Kaminsky: 79). By extension, and in a historical perspective, they don't become completely heroic, either.                

Realizing this, I have been puzzled by Steffen-Fluhr's attitude to Miles as a protagonist. She seems unaware of the function as well as the history of focal characters. Perhaps Miles, the poor dear, appears on the screen too early to work for her as a legitimate anti-hero.

(As an aside, I might observe that the remake of Snatchers could have employed a female Miles and a male Becky. There does not seem to be such a strong case for the exclusion of women as focal characters as many male writers, directors, and editors seem to think. A survey of teenagers that I did in 1983 seemed to indicate that the protagonist's gender did not matter to them. If the results of my interviews also hold for adults, there is no reason for preferring male over female protagonists—apart, that is, from restrictions created by obscenity laws.)                

Steffen-Fluhr does not mention whether Siegel in the interviews he gave in 1972-73 had anything to say about the creation of his protagonists. Nor does she seem very interested in what he had to say about working on the film—which I suppose is where the real insult lies. Miles can handle his own affairs as a cine-historical phenomenon...or he can be rescripted after kids have performed their appropriate giggles at his wide trousers. Siegel, however, to save his reputation, may have to emerge out of Sherman Oaks grunting, "I am not Miles" (or lack, Miles's writer-neighbor, as Siegel is elsewhere in Steffen-Fluhr's article).                

Considering the accessibility of information about his career, work habits, relations with companies and co-workers, etc., I am not impressed with Steffen-Fluhr's frisson of pleasure at her one discovery: that Siegel has declared himself an insomniac. By the token of that discovery, Night after Night is the work of Siegel-the-epileptic, The Beguiled of Siegel-the-drag-bitch, the Dirty Harry movies of Siegel-the-bigot-killer, and A Spanish Affair of Siegel-the-...what?                

So let's assume that Miles is just Miles, ok? He has weaknesses, of course. His grossest act of weakness, as seen by Steffen-Fluhr, seems to be the unheroic part he plays at the end, when J. Edgar Hoover and his boys have to move in, thereby reasserting "sterile old patriarchal values." The criticism of Miles here seems particularly out of place, for what else has he got, living in a small town, after his own failure and Becky's transformation? Or so the studio seemed to think, since the frame, including this ending, was their invention. This brings me half way into the question about the conditions under which films were/are produced: all those seriously interested in Siegel's oeuvre express their regrets at studio interference in the editing of Snatchers in particular.                

Despite Siegel's reputation as a guy with "a big mouth and too much to say" (Mark Hellinger, in Kaminsky: 42), his early relative autonomy in montage work (Byron Haskin, in Kaminsky: 32), and his insistence on being involved in the scripting of his films (Daniel Mainwaring, in Kaminsky: 124, and other co-workers throughout his career), there is one example in his career (viz., Duel at Silver Creek) of his not knowing before he started to shoot who "got the girl" (himself; see Alan Lovell, Don Siegel. American Cinema [London, 1974], p. 52). Also there is the matter of the frame grafted on Snatchers. Daniel Mainwaring testifies:

I had added the frame after several preview showings of the film to audiences, bad ones, who couldn't understand the film. Walter Mirisch of Allied Artists had threatened to bring in another director and writer to make the changes. So I made them and convinced Don, against his will, to shoot them. (Kaminsky: 107)

No big mystery here. The only question is whether Siegel might have walked out instead. The person to ask this is Don Siegel himself.                

To come back to the part of the film which Siegel is truly responsible for: Miles, according to Steffen-Fluhr, commits yet another unpardonable error, that of putting work before pleasure to the point of interrupting a dinner which might have become more than a dinner. I can't see what else anyone could have done in 1956, unless lack Finney, in his novel, had put in ellipsis points and let Miles and Becky have a smoke.                

But to see in all this an "essential puritanism" in conflict with the "Protestant Work Ethic" of the pods? The latter would make some sense, albeit out of context, only if the phrase means Protestants invented the work ethic. I know very few people, even Protestants, who think so. Steffen-Fluhr's whole argument in this regard is a tiresome distortion of the need in earlier American movies to replace explicitly erotic scenes with sensual imagery. A critique like hers, which fails to take into account the conditions under which movies were/are produced, is anti-materialistic regardless of the inclusions of token sections on the female labor reserve and other bi-lexical phrases preceded by "female." Directors working under contracts cannot be analyzed as if their works appear in limited circulation magazines.                

This all applies on a level besides that of auteur-studio disagreement, which I have already gone into. There were things that just weren't done in this period of American film-making. An extreme example: in Raoul Walsh's 1945 movie, Objective, Burma, a platoon of US soldiers have allegedly been chopped up by The Enemy, but their mutilation is not shown on the screen. To be sure, that traditional cinematic practice eventually fell by the wayside, but not as early as 1956, in Podland.               

Now comes the juicy part: pods. Pods, like pudenda or ovaries. I've never seen an ovary in real life, so I can't say if I find the comparison biologically accurate. But I will say that whatever else Steffen-Fluhr is doing, she seems intent here upon "outhiteing" Shere Hite (see The Hite Report on Male Sexuality  [NY, 1981]); for she immediately brings in another "synecdoche," the bloody gash, to compete with the pods-aspudenda. At least she gives us a new theory, which neatly splits the male gender into two types: those who see female genitals as bloody gashes,: and those who see pods. So there! Yet despite Shere Hite's manipulative treatment of her material, it appears from her report that other perceptions about the appearance of women's vulvas are possible ("blossoms," "velvet folds," etc.). The typology of the matter is thus something which those male readers who find Steffen-Fluhr's categories inadequate will have to establish for themselves.

In regard to these points of Steffen-Fluhr's, which are supposed to deal with Siegel's "essential text" or "subtext," she has immense problems bringing her argument forth whole and healthy—not only because her approach makes one doubt that she has met any heterosexual men lately and because she seems indifferent to the fact that anything connected with sexual reproduction bears a resemblance to everything else (dried peas, in close-up photography, look like testicles, etc.), but because she seems to assume, although she does not say so explicitly, that there is such a thing as a-sexist aesthetic. There isn't, just as no artistic expression is inherently radical or regressive. Rather than sneering about this point, let me just give a friendly warning against overusing terms like "covert," ''artfully disguised," "unarticulated," "inner voice," "subplot," "tacit paradigm," etc. They easily make the reader suspect that the phenomena alluded to in this manner just ain't there.               

I have no doubt the pitchforks are there (the "phallic props") and the bloody gash, but why should blood invariably be associated with the female sex? It may as well be metaphorized as the stream of life, with a gash equalling a laying bare of the soul to an alien influx which transforms the stream of life into a stream of death. Anything can happen on these levels—and not, of necessity, only in terms of the dialectics of gender. As I am writing this, I wonder what to make of the warm rain like which the pods have fallen to Earth. Whose subtext is that, now?                

Before I get submerged in someone else's metaphor, let me try to explain where Steffen-Fluhr goes wrong here. She sees Miles as a guy who is extraordinarily afraid of getting involved emotionally, letting go intellectually, and/or surrendering sexually, and whose fears cinematically are expressed in terms of sleep, passivity, absence, sameness.                

In the first place, there is nothing specifically male about fear of the opposite sex and the loss of integrity following deep heterosexual involvement. A female Miles might feel that. Second, Siegel did not invent the connection between collective womanhood and conformity (sameness). These are traits furthered in the socialization of females. There is a universal connection between women (as a group or class) and adaptability, language in which the concept of the Other can't be handled for linguistic reasons (in idolization of the average, and distrust for the "intensely lived life." But this tendency is also the actual content of the reality principle for the majority of middle-class, Western, non-intellectual males. For those whose ideals (or reality) of maleness is something else, adaptability naturally represents a threat to their individuality, regardless of whether they see that as a female or a male heritage.                

Miles shares a feature with other Siegel heroes, who

not only reject established society but. . . also reject any form of social relationships. The typical Siegel hero has no family background, no wife, no children, no personal friends. If he belongs to any social group, it is usually an all-male one, held together not by bonds of sympathy but simply by a shared goal." (Lovell:21)

A few pages earlier, under the heading of "Hero and Society," Lovell writes:

As I've said, Siegel usually takes the hero's rejection of society for granted. For this reason, Snatchers, which is the one film that centers on the hero's rejection of society, has a very important place in his work.... The vegetable quality is the logical extension of society's inherent mediocrity, and most of the people make no attempt to resist the Body Snatchers. (p. 14; my emphasis)

So, people-as-pods is the normal state of social affairs writ large.                

What Siegel himself had to say was this:

There's a strong case for being a pod. That's why there are so many of them. The pods in my picture and in the world believe they are doing good when they convert people into pods. They get rid of pain, ill health, mental anguish. It leaves you with a dull world, but that, my dear friend, is the world in which most of us live.
                To not be a pod is to look for challenges and even welcome unhappiness, to affirm your existence. Existence is worthwhile as long as there is a challenge, even if you have to create that challenge. Without it you might as well not exist. With me each picture is a challenge I approach with fear...
                Directors who are pods are always confident. They know the right way, the safe way, the automatic way, to do each shot, each scene....(Kaminsky: 104-5)

It is only then, after a few more lines about lazy directors, that Siegel comes out with the now familiar statement about the fear of sleeping and waking up as a pod.                

All this does not mean that passivity is forever an anti-masculine metaphor or that Podland is a feminine territory. On the contrary. Male philosophers who have been praised throughout the centuries for their saintly nature have glorified passivity, either by cultivating a lifestyle that allowed them not to do much evil (and not much good either, because they simply weren't doing much) or else by merely idealizing passivity in their writing, so that despite their status as heretics in relation to established dogma, their glorified bachelor ethics has become for posterity an integral part of their philosophy. The kind of man whose life is organized in such a way that his day-to-day decisions do not involve ethics is different from the one depicted in films about social paranoia; but then again, the male social character has room for all sorts of character traits, provided that they are glorified. The view of passivity as a masculine ideal is even found on the screen sometimes, although, I suspect, not often in Hollywood productions.                

In view of what I said above about female socialization, it is perhaps not surprising that Steffen-Fluhr should walk into the trap of equating conformity with the female interpretative universe. What is surprising, however, is that in order to do so she employs a mishmash of otherwise useful concepts that work on completely separate and incomparable levels. That the familiar, the loved one, can be seen as a menace, an alien, is clear enough; but why profane the uniquely English critical concept of the Other, pretending it has precisely this type of implication? Although I am a native speaker of a all other Germanic languages except English one has to decide a priori whether an object is animate or inanimate, and in some of them also its gender), I can appreciate the usefulness of encompassing the alienness of Plant, Man, Stone, Time, or whatever, under one label, or (in the dynamic view) of establishing an Other as projection of the non-actualized One. But in Steffen-Fluhr's disquisition, it is meaningless; and in sharing the same paragraph with the dialogical I and Thou it is also obscene. Miles fails as a lover, but what has Martin Buberdonethat he should be included in a discourse where the I is so obviously considered holier than Thou (or—more precisely—the Mine holier than the Thine)?                

Criticism of the film has tended to ignore its liebestod motif, Steffen-Fluhr says at this point. No wonder. Liebestod is if anything (aside from what it was to Isolde), a loss of social self in unity with the loved one, not the worry that Miles feels according to Steffen-Fluhr about losing one's freedom and identity. So, no liebestod in Snatchers, since the woman turns out to be a pod. But plenty of Us and Them, of course, and no less so in Steffen-Fluhr's criticism. What might have been an interesting critique of the images of feminity or masculinity emerging out of the bounds of a `50s' movie instead becomes a personal attack on an alleged insomniac and possibly, if I'm not being overly sensitive to Steffen-Fluhr's subtext, an abuse of the sources of male creativity.                

So, women reduced to ovaries and men to insomnia. Congratulations, reader! You've got yourself a world! And even, this time, a world possessing some degree of abstraction. Not only a world of projected images, but yet another one of professional, critical analysis. One recalls with aversion the similar tendency in critics' declaring that Le Guin's genius was in some ways related to her happy genitality, or the explanation some years previous to that, in Danish criticism, of Isak Dinesen's brilliant treatment of male characters as mere animus emerging in different shapes.                

Criticism like that is really ugly. If Steffen-Fluhr before submitting her manuscript had seen the title of one of the other articles in the same issue of SFS, "The Persistence of Division," then perhaps she would have conducted her analysis differently; but then again, she might not. Some persist in factionalizing. But I for one, hope that her article does not set a trend for criticism of the non-print media in SFS's pages.                

Steffen-Fluhr's approach begs a number of other questions. Above all: why is it that propagators of holism have a tendency to opt for wholes so small that the social roles based on them would be too constricting for all of us? One might also try to trace the origin of the notion that a creative mind should be "at ease with itself," but that's another subject.                

To sum up: Steffen-Fluhr makes a pretense of offering materialistic-oriented criticism by interjecting a note, irrelevant in its context, on the material conditions of women. At the same time, however, she ignores the conditions under which Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made. Her approach is "divisionist" in hauling out elements of Siegel's "tacit paradigm" in order to show his alleged antagonism towards women (drawing energy as she does so, from the female holier-than-(/he masculine) thou syndrome in the process; and it is insultingly reductionist in making the metaphorical "subtext" of Sieges film appear as the work of a chronic insomniac and nothing more. -- Ellen M. Pedersen, Valby, Denmark      

Reading Ellen Pedersen's letter is like watching someone inflate his head with a bicycle pump. Bigger and bigger, thinner and thinner it gets, until at last one fears that Pedersen's brain will suffer structural failure and burst from the strain. No wonder: it's a hard day's work being Defender of Mankind—having to bear on one's shoulders the combined body weight of Don Siegel, Daniel Mainwaring, Miles Bennell, and Martin Buber, not to mention the countless numbers of anonymous Protestant males whose "sources of creativity" have been abused by being associated with the Work Ethic. Whew! Of course, Pedersen could have spared her adrenal glands if she had defined her task a bit more modestly. But clearly she believes that I am such a powerful and dangerous force that mere scholarly discourse will not suffice. I must be obliterated, and my fields sowed with salt. What can I say, except that I am flattered by all this heated attention. After all, once in print, a writer never really minds being attacked; it's being ignored that hurts.                

I could go on, I suppose, and x-ray Pedersen's rather shapeless argument to see if there is any structure beneath the flab, but I will forebear. Less is more. Besides, I have already made my point: Pedersen is confusing "diversity" with "divisiveness. " The latter may indeed be "ugly. " But the former is as essential to healthy film criticism as it is to healthy social life. After all, no two readers ever read exactly the same book; no two viewers ever see exactly the same film. (Only in death is there true unanimity.) Indeed, this is precisely what criticism is for—to allow us to share, tolerantly and nonjudgmentally, the rich variety of our differing responses to a work of art. It is important that we be able to agree to disagree and that we cease to prescribe and proscribe what kind of analyses can and cannot be written, as if we were Grand Inquisitors rather than teachers. Of course I believe in what I have written about Invasion. But that does not mean necessarily that I disbelieve in what others have written. I offer my analysis of Siegel's "inner game" not as the truth but as a truth, adding yet another layer to the critical palimpsest. There are more ways than one of being right. Next time around, why don't we really "Let a hundred flowers blossom."

P.S.—Jack Finney's novel was published in 1955. However, in 1978, when Philip Kaufman's remake came out, it was reissued with minor changes designed to update the topical references and thus make the book appear new. My footnote merely conforms to current scholarly practice, which dictates that only the most recent copyright date be cited. (Perhaps, if she has the strength, Ellen Pedersen should write another long letter, this time to the editors of the MLA Style Sheet.) -- Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, New Jersey Institute of Technology
                                                                                                                                                        

 

Publication Notes (With a Call for Papers)

The publishers Les Imaginoïdes have just put out their second anthology of Francophone SF, Espaces imaginaires 2, edited by Jean-Marc Gouanvic and Stéphane Nicot. The volume, illustrated by Réal Campeau, contains 10 short stories, one each by Jean Barbe, Michel Bélil, Michel Lamart, Daniel Paris, Jean-Pierre Planque, Marc Provencher, Christine Rénard, Jeal-Pol Rocquet, Daniel Sernine, and Pierre Sormany. (Price: Can. $8.95.)                

An associated publisher, Editions Hurtubise-HMH (2050 Bleury St., Suite 500/ Montreal H3A 2J4), has just issued a collection of five short stories by Jean-Pierre April entitled Télétotalité—all of them about "I'ère de l'électronirisme." (Price: Can. $1 1.95.)                

Meanwhile, two new issues of the magazine Imagine... are on the market. No. 24, devoted to works of fiction, includes four novellas: by Guy Bouchard, Michel Lamart, Francine Pelletier, and Jean-Louis Trudel. No. 25, on the other hand, contains the proceedings of a colloquium on Orwell that took place at the Université de Montréal last March (along with one of the papers given at "Boréal 84"). Here the reader will find six articles on 1984 (all of them in French): in relation to its time, its generic  context, the work of comic-strip artist Chantal Montellier, etc.                

Orders for Espaces imaginaires 2 and Imagine. . . should be sent to Cathérine Saouter Caya/4923 Dornal Ave./Montreal H3W lWl; those for Télétotalitéshould be sent directly to Editions Hurtubise-HMH at the address given above.

SFS is looking for articles suitable for a special issue on "Nuclear War and Scienœ Fiction." Preference will be given to essays that concern themselves strictly with fictive depictions of nuclear weapons or the relationship between SF and the nuclear arms race, but those which interpret the topic in a broader sense will also be considered. Proposals should be sent by July I, 1985 and the essays proper by September 1, 1985 to: Professor H. Bruce Franklin/English Dept./Rutgers University/Newark, NJ 07102.

 

Forthcoming Conferences (With a Call for Papers)       

The Second International Conference on SF at Nice, organized by Denise Terrel of the University de Nice's Centre d'Etude de la Métaphore, will take place from April 24th to the 27th, 1985. Almost two dozen papers on a variety of matters concerning utopian fiction and SF will be delivered, about half of them in English, by critics from France, England, and North America. Among the participants whose names will be familiar to our readers are Brian Aldiss, Marc Angenot, Andrew Gordon, and Gary Wolfe. To obtain a program, and also for information about attending the conference, write to: Dr Denise Terrel/Département d'anglais/Université de Nice/98, bd Edouard Herriot B.P. 369/06007 Nice Cedex/France.

On July 24-27, 1986, the H.G. Wells Society will host "Wells Under Revision," an international symposium to take place in London. As now envisaged, the Symposium (which will include a lecture by the Society's Vice-President, Brian Aldiss) will be divided into four sections: "Wells as Novelist and Scientific Romancer," "Wells as Educationalist and Utopian," "Wells and Ideology," and "Wells Today and Tomorrow. " Anyone interesting in giving a 20-30 minute paper under one of these headings should submit an abstract (of not more than 700 words) and a title to the Society's General Secretary no later than November 15th of this year. Address all such correspondence to: Christopher Rolfe, Esq./Dept. of Language & Literature/Polytechnic of North London/Prince of Wales Road/London NW5 3LB/England.—RMP

 

Erratum

Paul Brians has called our attention to a small but significant misprint on p. 262, n. 5, of his article in SFS No. 34: "Sept. 1984" should (of course) be "Sept. 1948."                

The fact that Professor Brians himself overlooked this error may excuse us from having missed it also. By the same token, however, the case points to a perpetual problem that anyone who does proofreading encounters: with so much else to attend to, it is easy for mistakes in dates, page numbers, and the like to go unnoticed.—RMP


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