#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999
NOTES AND CORRESPONDENCE
Remembering Kubrick. To say that Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was the greatest filmmaker of his generation may well turn out to be an understatement. It is not just that Kubrick made first-rate films in more different genres than anyone else, but also that he could hardly approach a genre without redefining it and marking out its limits of possibility—as he did, for example, with the horror film in The Shining (1980), with the historical romance in Barry Lyndon (1975), and with the war movie in Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). No one else has ever explored the different kinds of film so searchingly.
But Kubrick’s favorite genre—and the one on which his impact was most profound—was science fiction. In Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss describes him as “perhaps ... the great sf writer of the age,” a claim deliberately provocative and somewhat imprecise (Kubrick was not primarily a writer), but hard to refute nonetheless. With 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick gave the sf film—in the familiar sense of the special-effects-laden space epic—the one and only masterpiece it has produced, or perhaps ever will produce. One measure of its importance is that today our shared images of space and space travel continue to derive far more from this movie than from all the actual footage of outer space ever shot. No “space odyssey” made since 1968 has even begun to rival Kubrick’s in visual power or intellectual depth.
With Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick took sf cinema in new directions that have hardly begun to be assimilated or approached to this day. If Dr. Strangelove remains something like the definitive artistic treatment of the nuclear arms race, it is largely because Kubrick saw that science-fictional satire was uniquely qualified to respond to the insanity of the subject itself. In this insight, Kubrick was unmatched not only by any other sf filmmaker, but also by any figure from literary sf, with the exception of Philip K. Dick, whose admiration for Dr. Strangelove is strongly though implicitly recorded in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), one of Dick’s own finest works. As for A Clockwork Orange, its nuanced considerations of individual and state violence take place within perhaps the most memorable urban landscapes in science fiction film (and I’m not forgetting Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner ). The social estrangements that these landscapes help to effect transcend the conventional Catholic morality of the Anthony Burgess novel (1962) on which the movie is based, while at the same time managing to respect the novel’s essential concerns. Burgess himself described the film as “better than the book.”
And the best may have been yet to come. At his death Kubrick was reportedly at work—in the slow, incremental way that his notorious perfectionism required—on a new sf film about artificial intelligence, a topic that he had effectively introduced to the mass audience with HAL in 2001. Evidently, it was to be based on Brian Aldiss’s story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” and a good deal of screenwriting had been done by Ian Watson. A.I. (as the movie was tentatively titled) might have been Kubrick’s fourth science fiction masterpiece; in purely artistic terms, the most bitter specific consequence of his sudden death is that now we will never see it.
Kubrick was not universally popular, however. Intelligence never is. In addition to the irresistible visual (and musical) splendor of his films, there was always an insistent, unsparing intelligence that intellectually lazy viewers—including many who review films for a living—found resistible indeed. Kubrick’s corpse could hardly have been cold before Anthony Lane composed for The New Yorker a mean, stupid assault on his work. But it hardly matters. Such journalism is dead before the ink that prints it dries. As long as people watch movies, Stanley Kubrick will live.—Carl Freedman, Louisiana State University
The E-Files. In 1973, the first issue of SFS featured an informal debate about the nature of sf criticism between participants identified only as A, B, and C. We revive these old alphabetical antagonists to identify the participants in a spontaneous editorial debate on the merits of the film The Matrix that suddenly erupted during our final e-mail exchanges as we closed the July issue. The Notes editor did not participate, but enjoyed the discussion and thought that SFS’s readers might enjoy it, too. Spoiler alert: the debate that follows discloses major plot twists in The Matrix.—CM
A: Have any of you seen Matrix? Let me alert you to my favorite detail: when Neo, the strung-out, Gentry-like console cowboy, reaches for his contraband hyperdisks, we see he keeps them in a hollowed-out copy of a book entitled Simulacra and Simulation, printed in fine large type, faded parchment paper, and ragged page edges like a classics edition of a Victorian novel. The plot is the usual c-punk amalgam of sf topoi, but done with real conviction. This is the first masterpiece of film c-punk. To think we had to wait until now. And Keanu, bless his soul, has been redeemed—his sentence to hell for Johnny Mnemonic has been rescinded. See it, folks; I want to talk about it.
B: I saw Matrix last evening: it’s a stupid plot, but a very, very smart cyberspace spectacle. And A, not only does it insert Baudrillard’s book literally, but Larry Fishburne’s character makes a reference to “the desert of the real” from “Precession of Simulacra”; I loved that!
C: Matrix, no, I didn’t much like it. I appreciated the film’s attempt to deal with virtual reality issues (though in a very illogical fashion), and I liked some of the action sequences. But it struck me as desperately derivative—The Truman Show as directed by John Woo. My two biggest complaints were its illogical plot and its pompous tone, which I found risible (I was the only one laughing in the theater, though, and I got some deadly looks). Here were the holes in the story:
1. The back-story is ludicrous. AI machines warred with humans in the early 21st century and the machines won (didn’t we see this in The Terminator already?), exiling humanity into a world of VR illusion. But why do the machines need people? For energy? Apparently (this is a bit muffled in the film), humans sparked a nuclear winter to deprive the machines of solar power. So the machines decided to harvest energy from human bodies. But why not geo-thermal energy instead? Why keep a population of potentially rebellious creatures around if you don’t need them at all? And how do the machines manage to feed humans if sunlight cannot reach the planet? Are they able to cause photosynthesis in the absence of direct solar radiation? Wouldn’t all organic life die off in short order after the nuclear event?
2. The foreground plot is illogical, too. How did this band of freedom fighters arise? Apparently, by establishing connections through cyberspace with disaffected hackers (there presumably being a core group of humans that was never captured). But then they had to use the AI’s mainframe. Apparently, the AIs know all about this hacker “underground”: when they capture Keanu, they have a file on him as long as your arm. Why not just edit the hacker subculture out of existence in the mainframe, so the Elders of Zion (or whatever they are) have no ready recruits? After all, the phenomenal world Keanu (and others) experience at the start isall a simulation. I’m not convinced that an instinct for rebellion would survive under the conditions the film outlines. All the freedom fighters could do would be to stage terrorist events that periodically disrupt the simulated world, but such events would not change anything. Hence the whole messianic subtext: the notion that one hero can transform a world fallen irrevocably into hyperreality. I was irritated by this, too, especially as this hero has to be white, and his John the Baptist a devoted black man.
3. The actions of the AIs are dumb. After they “bug” Keanu at the start, they just let him walk out and get picked up by the reality hackers. There he is standing by the side of the road waiting to be enlisted by the underground. This is absurd. The machines would just convince Keanu he was insane (after that “hallucination” of the closed-over mouth) and lock him up somewhere—or, rather, simulate his lock-up somewhere. Presumably the hackers could crack into his asylum, but this would make more sense than “bugging” him. What does this bugging mean, anyway? His real body isn’t going anywhere, is it?
4. Also, the AIs’ ability to track the hackers is inconsistently depicted. Though at the start they presumably need to get a “fix” on them, by the end the AIs’ avatars are popping up left and right as dictated by the needs of the plot. Also, these avatars are unimaginatively depicted: why do they need to take the form of humans? Why not any object in the simulated world? Wouldn’t the logical thing, in the subway scene, be for the AIs to take over the subway train and chase Keanu with it, or better yet, animate the bricks in the building and drop the roof on him? There’s nothing in this flick as imaginative as the scene in Neuromancer where Wintermute hacks into the gardening robot and kills the Turing Police. And in Neuromancer, the narrative options were much more rigorously constructed–there being, after all, still a “real world” where the actions of the AIs were in some measure bounded.
As for the film’s tone, it takes itself much too seriously. The scene where Laurence Fishburne informs Keanu about the AI plot is so pompously straight-faced, it’s laughable. (During it, I muttered: “Soylent Green ... is PEOPLE!”) There is some humor in the action sequences, but the dialogue is so stilted it’s painful. Few of the actors can mouth these lines without sounding silly—the only exception is the woman who plays the oracle, who manages to be humorous and semi-human—though, again, the “noble black person” role she is forced to play got on my nerves. We can probably blame Gibson for this, with his romanticized Rastafarians in Neuromancer.
That’s my take. Did I miss something?
A: My only answer to C’s numerous examples of the film’s stoopid logic is that the film was intended to be stoopid on the narrative-logic level, in order for the visual pleasure to be maximized. If the film had been made the way C suggests, it would have been wonderful, and a Terry Gilliam might have done it. But what was done was done well, I think. First, the directors didn’t want anything to be original. We’ve seen everything before: Fire in the Sky (the gestation pods), Alien (the bowels of the Nostromo), Alien III (the sets in general and the Ripley-like Trinity), Johnny Mnemonic (say no more), They Live, Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat, Sewer Sharks, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Neuromancer, Shirley’s anti-fascist c-punk, Terminator, Fifth Element, Blade Runner (wasn’t Morpheus’s apartment in the Bradbury?), Altered States, Kung Fu, and, for intellectuals, Baudrillard, Burroughs, and who knows what else. (Alice in Wonderland? Road Runner and Coyote?) Part of the postmodern pop-aesthetic is to allow any media text to bleed into the main text, perhaps because they are unified by all being on television or in People/Rolling Stone/Wired. Sf has always had a parallel rule that sf texts might bleed into others—we call it intertextuality, but it works with a certain purity.
What I like about Matrix is that its intertext is quite pure: it’s an sf film about the pleasures of sf film. Furthermore, it simply eschews narrative interest, because all it wants from its narrative is a firm foundation, a helicopter pad for launching its visual beauties. I found myself wondering, not how is this going to end, but how are they going to get all these interesting narrative-visual elements to an end in the time given—and how long is this movie, anyway? The sense of time was worked very well: nicely alternating speeds, on a spectrum from “bullet speed” to total quiescence. I thought the photography of Fishburne and Reeve and the actress-who-played-Trinity was beautiful. They didn’t have to express anything; the camera did the work. Fishburne (what a face!) looked like a human asteroid, with all those little pock marks. I hated some of the plot moves—the I’m-in-love-with-you-so-come-on- back-to-life motif (an unironic version of the very ironic Mary Magdalen and Jesus in The Last Temptation). No one will buy that, and it came so late it’s unforgivable. But even so, I felt the film was a beautiful display of sensawonder: it stayed within the genre (and not just the corrupt Hollywood spectacle), and maybe ultimately it was “about” the sensawonder as visual ecstasy.
The kind of film that C holds out for comes along every 10 years or so. Carl Freedman thinks we’ll never have another 2001, so we’ll never have that cognitive estrangement we love so well. But I think a film like this comes along every 3-4 years (I had lots of criticisms of Blade Runner and the Alien movies), and although it may not be about cognitive estrangement, it is about the techno-sublime, and that’s grist for my mill.
C: Just a quick reply to A. He’s right that I focused more on issues of plot than the film perhaps invites: it is certainly quite spectacular in some sequences, and, as A says, broadly allusive to other texts (though some of these allusions are irritatingly intrusive, in my view: e.g., Alice’s white rabbit).
If sf film is about spectacle, not story, then critiques of sketchy plots or silly science are beside the point. I agree with that viewpoint in some ways but not altogether: that view would privilege films like Armageddon! If a film marks itself out as only a spectacle, I am willing to disable my idiot-plot sensor and just go along for the ride; but when a movie pretends to have a strong cognitive/ideational component (as in citing Baudrillard) and this component is half-baked or fudged, I start to seethe. I seethed all through Matrix, which perhaps made me unable to appreciate its aesthetic pleasures. I agree with A about the impressively looming closeups, especially of Fishburne, though the color palette of the film is so pared-down—intentionally so, this being a claustrophobic dystopia—that visual pleasure is often foiled by the omnipresent gray-greens. Fifth Element, an equally silly movie, was more fun to look at.
B: It certainly is about the spectacle (ditto, A), the techno-sublime, visual movement, computer-generated possibilities, etc.—what it’s not about is good story/plot (ditto, C): the holes are big enough to drive a truck through and even the stuff without holes is pretty stupid. I like A’s observation, however, that the plot, however unoriginal, is at least unoriginal in an sf kind of way. I loved the insertion of characters into computer games like Mortal Kombat and Doom, and the photography is quite wonderful.
All that being said: retrograde intellectual that I am, I had a difficult time overcoming my dislike of plot stupidity, so that my experience of the film was mixed. The most intriguing thing for me is that I enjoyed the action sequences the most, though I usually despise how Hollywood cinema trades off plot for action/spectacle. I was fascinated by the action in the matrix, its almost-but- not-quite realist quality. Lovely visuals.
Ed. Note: From time to time, other e-mail discussions among the SFS editors may be slipped into Notes—offered as informal dialogue on current or emerging topics in sf criticism. Readers are of course invited to join the conversation.
Inspiration. Subscribers to “Amazon.com.Delivers” have access to a very interesting interview with Octavia Butler that describes, among other things, the importance of her grandmother as “my main inspiration. Because here was a woman who could bring something from nothing.” The address is <http://www.amazon.com/octavia-butler-interview>. Subscription is free but required. Another recent online interview with Butler can be found at MZB’s Fantasy Magazine website: the address is <http://www.mzbfm.com/>.—CM
Correction. The brief review of the two Locus CDs (SFS 26.1: 146-47) contains an error for which I’m responsible. The Miller/Contento CD (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Magazine Index: 1890-1990) never appeared in print format, a fact that’s only slightly suggested by the question mark following Garland (1995?) in annotation 12-41 of Anatomy of Wonder 4, p. 712. The compilers realized that the economics of print made a paper edition impracticable, and the deal with Garland fell through. Bill Contento literally manufactured the CD himself (he is a tech rep for Cray Supercomputers). As you say, both CDs are invaluable.—Neil Barron
Steampunk Resource. While doing background research on steampunk, I came across an essay that might be of interest to scholars of Victorian science fiction: Paul Fayter’s “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction,” in Victorian Science in Context, ed. Bernard Lightman (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1997): 256-80. Claiming that the study of Victorian sf “offers a new angle on the institutionalization, mobilization, and legitimation of scientific knowledge and practice” during the period, Fayter excavates three main areas: theories and narratives of evolution, of the fourth dimension, and of the planet Mars. Essentially a survey designed to alert social historians of science to relevant fictional documents, the essay also shows scholars of sf the value of attending to debates and issues in the history of science. There are also some interesting observations on the Victorian publishing scene and an arresting contextual reading of Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland (1884). Fayton, who teaches in the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies at York University in Ontario, is working on an extended treatment of late Victorian Martian stories. His solid and valuable essay proves the truth of his conclusion that “the social history of science and the critical history of science fiction are virtual strangers but would make fertile partners.” It also suggests the particular relevance of Victorian science studies to sf scholars, given steampunk’s treatments of the pioneering “computer science” of Charles Babbage (e.g., William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine ) and the continuing popularity of evolutionary narratives (e.g., Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia ).—RL
Call for Papers—William Morris Conference. This call for papers appeared on the History of Ideas listserv <H-IDEAS@H-NET.MSU.EDU>: Following the centenary conference at Oxford in 1996, the William Morris Society is sponsoring the second quadrennial international conference to bring together scholars and students of Morris as an artist, writer, and socialist. The conference is taking place June 22-25, 2000, at the University of Toronto, with accommodation at its downtown campus in the center of the city. Proposals for 20-25 minute papers on all aspects of Morris are welcome. Proposals of 300-500 words and enquiries for further information should be mailed to David and Sheila Latham, 42 Belmont Street, Toronto, Ontario M5R 1P8, or e-mailed to <firstname.lastname@example.org >. Closing date for the submission of proposals is September 30, 1999.—Rob Vaughan, University of Hawaii
Call for Papers: Society for Utopian Studies. The Society for Utopian Studies will hold its twenty-fourth annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas on November 11-14, 1999. Conference Coordinators are Profs. Alex Macdonald (University of Regina) and Peter Fitting (University of Toronto). For information about registration, travel, and accommodations, please contact Prof. Peter Fitting, 73 Delaware Ave., Toronto M6H 2S9 Canada (phone 416-531-8593; fax 416-531-4157; <email@example.com>). If you wish to organize a panel or present a paper, please contact Prof. Alex Macdonald, Campion College, University of Regina, 3737 Wascana Parkway, Regina, Sask Canada S4S 0A2 (phone 306-359-1223; fax 306-359- 1200;<macdonaa@ meena.cc.uregina.ca>. The Society’s annual meetings provide an ideal venue for intellectual interchange in a cooperative, non-competitive, congenial, and convivial environment. At the meeting the Society will present the Arthur O. Lewis Award for the best paper by a junior scholar given at the previous annual meeting and the Eugenio Battisti Award for the best article in each volume of Utopian Studies.—Peter Fitting, University of Toronto
Call for Papers: Media In Transition. On October 8-10, 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is sponsoring a conference to celebrate the launch of its graduate program in Comparative Media Studies. Papers are solicited on such sf-related topics as the aesthetics of transition (technological change and the arts and literature), the “virtual community” as a historical construction; childhood and adolescence in a mediated culture; hypertexts (history, theory, practice); and “vernacular theory”—the role of science fiction, popular journalism, social, and cultural factors influencing the use and diffusion of new media. Abstracts (1-2 pages) should be submitted no later than July 1, 1999 to Media in Transition Conference, CMS office, 14N-430, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139. For additional information about the Media in Transition Project, see <http://media-in-transition.mit.edu>.—CM
Progress Report: SFS Website. Like the millennium, the SFS website is inexorably approaching. It will feature an annotated and expanded version of the bibliography of sf criticism printed in this issue as well as a searchable archive of all reviews and all article abstracts published since 1973, full text of recent outstanding essays, links to other sf resources, nifty graphics, and more. Designed and constructed by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., the website is now being tested by John Brogan, English Department webmaster at the University of Iowa. It will then be fine-tuned by the SFS editors this summer and should be online before September.—CM