Science Fiction Studies

#85 = Volume 28, Part 3 = November 2001

Science Fiction Classic.

Thomas Elsaesser. Metropolis.British Film Classics Series. British Film Institute/Indiana UP, 2001. 87 pp. $10.95 pbk.

Thomas Elsaesser’s study of Fritz Lang’s classic science fiction film Metropolis is one of the latest additions to the ongoing British Film Classics series, an effort to provide authoritative commentary and historical context for movies that the British Film Institute has identified as "key works in the history of the cinema." This entry in the series is extremely well written, impressively illustrated with a combination of frame enlargements, production stills, and period images, and is a thoughtful effort at accounting for this film’s continuing hold on the cultural imagination of the West.

Metropolis is certainly one of the most deserving entries in the BFI series since it is, very simply, one of the key works in twentieth-century film and cultural history. It is probably the main cinematic touchstone for discussing the Expressionist visual style, for considering the career of the German director Fritz Lang, for exploring the development of special effects (thanks to its introduction of the Schufftan Process), for understanding the history of the UFA studio, for tracing the trajectory of robotic and dystopian imagery in the twentieth century, and for sketching the development of science fiction as a genre. One measure of Thomas Elsaesser’s achievement in this book is that, despite its slim nature (87 pages including notes, bibliography, and appendix), he manages to survey and provide interesting discussion on most of these concerns.

More than just a formulaic introduction to the film and its place in cultural history, Elsaesser’s book is elegantly written and draws together from various archival sources and recent accounts two important histories that bear on practically every discussion of Metropolis. The first is the history of the film’s origins—a history that speaks significantly to issues of authorship, collaboration, and reputation. In the pattern of such other recent film scholarship as Klaus Kreimeier’s The UFA Story: The History of Germany’s Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945 (U of California P, 1999) and Patrick McGilligan’s Frtiz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin’s, 1997), Elsaesser cautions against accepting traditional accounts of the genesis of Metropolis, particularly Fritz Lang’s version that rather romantically attributes the film to his first glimpse of the New York skyline from onboard the SS Deutschland in October 1924, and that further implies the film is another instance of Lang’s auteurist inspiration. In fact, as Elsaesser’s sources show, Lang and his wife, noted science fiction writer Thea von Harbou, had by that time been working on the film script (as well as her simultaneous novelization) for nearly a year, and Lang’s producer Erich Pommer had publicly announced plans for the film in January 1924. The second of those histories is of the various versions of the film—versions different enough that, even after several recent efforts at restoration, we still lack a truly authoritative text. Metropolis, as it debuted in January 1927, ran for approximately three hours. Like other classics of silent cinema, most notably Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and Von Stroheim’s Greed (1925), it was subsequently subjected to repeated cuts that transformed the film, as Elsaesser suggestively offers, into "a ruin-in-progress." With remarkable clarity and economy, Elsaesser traces out the intricacies of those re-editings and retitlings that produced rather different American, British and Commonwealth, and general European release versions, and that subsequently resulted in the most common prints today having a running time of under 90 minutes. This sort of compact history, of both Metropolis’s beginnings and its ends, alone makes Elsaesser’s book a valuable addition to any film library and a compulsory introduction for film students.

The volume also nicely represents the early critical reception and commentary on Metropolis. One of the book’s pleasant surprises is its ability, through a relatively brief sampling, to afford a satisfying flavor of the original reactions to the film: citing German Communists’ scathing responses to Metropolis, summarizing the technologists’ reaction to what would become one of the key "Machine Age" texts, and situating it squarely in the context of the Weimar era’s industrial politics. Because it was such a powerful film, it clearly provoked varied responses—responses that, because of the tensions that marked the Weimar Republic, were quite often strident. Placing Metropolis in a later context, Elsaesser effectively represents the complex efforts of the Nazis to disown the film (even though it was avowedly one of Hitler’s favorites) by situating it as a misguided effort by UFA "to imitate the soulless civilization of America." He also allows us to see that effort in an ironic light cast by what is surely the most famous commentary on the work, Siegfried Kracauer’s landmark history of early German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton UP, 1947). That book would trace in Metropolis the rising spirit of National Socialism and eventually damn it as "proto-Nazi." Certainly, this sort of quick overview of responses is critical and cultural history in a nutshell, but it is also most effectively done and a nice model for what such volumes can accomplish.

Yet the book remains wanting in two areas. One is its tendency to slight contemporary accounts and recent theory. As Elsaesser acknowledges, Metropolis has become a "cult film" in recent times, thanks to homages in a variety of films (especially Batman [1989], Brazil [1985], and The Fifth Element [1997]), to its sampling or imitation in a number of music videos (notably Madonna’s "Express Yourself" and Queen’s "Radio Gaga"), to its partial restoration by Giorgio Moroder mated to a New Wave rock soundtrack, and to its treatment of such issues as artificial life and dystopian urbanism that have become central concerns of our time. However, efforts to account for that status, for the film’s persistence in western cultural history, or for its use as a critical/theoretical touchstone are rather superficial. Relatively lengthy discussions of the film’s influence on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and of Moroder’s rock restoration as a kind of "performance piece" critique of the film stand in for a thorough treatment of recent criticism. And while both are thoughtful, even stimulating discussions, they do point to a general imbalance in this one area.

The other problem is generic and might particularly concern readers of SFS. That is, the author, probably for reasons of length and because he chose to treat Metropolis primarily as an historical artifact, generally avoids addressing the film as science fiction and, indeed, as one of the key works in developing the film genre’s iconography. Certainly with his Blade Runner volume in the BFI series, Scott Bukatman managed a better balance with such generic issues. In this case that slighting is especially disappointing since the science fiction-ness of the film speaks precisely to that cult status Elsaesser notes and for which he tries to find some reason. We live in an era that, as several commentators have noted, itself often seems like science fiction, and Metropolis has contributed powerfully to that seeming.

Still, I find this volume on the whole an impressive effort and would note one final measure of its value that stems from that historical focus it emphasizes. Because Metropolis exists in so many different versions, and because even the various restorations that have been undertaken in recent years—particularly the Moroder and Munich versions of the 1980s—differ in many ways, all critical discussion of the film flows from a kind of composite sense of its plot and narrative organization. By comparing his viewings of different versions of the film with the recently unearthed original intertitles and a pre-shooting script that belonged to Lang’s composer Gottfried Huppertz, Elsaesser has put together an account of Metropolis that should become a useful resource for all students of the film. In offering his "Telling and Retelling of Metropolis" as an appendix to this volume, the author has created a companion piece that helps us better recognize the connections between various characters and plot developments, imagine the full development of particular themes (especially the sexual impact of the robotic Maria), and gauge how this film fits into other pointedly Langian concerns, such as the surveillance and manipulation that are central to such works as M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). While this appendix alone is highly useful, its inclusion in a work that offers a concise and informative picture of the industrial and critical context of Metropolis marks the volume as a valuable addition to the critical literature on Lang and his most famous film.

—Jay Telotte, Georgia Institute of Technology

Recognizing the Peake Achievement.

G. Peter Winnington. Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake. Peter Owen Ltd./Doufour Editions, 2000. 263 pp. $39.95 hc.

Estelle Daniel. The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy. HarperCollins/Entertainment, 2000. 160 pp. $24.95 pbk.

Over thirty years ago, I managed to get a dissertation topic on modern British fantasy approved by the English department at Indiana University. Enduring the ordinary (and some extraordinary) struggles with my committee, I scaled back plans for an all-inclusive survey so that I could consider only the most essential writers, ones who could illustrate the range of British fantasy in the twentieth century. That amounted finally to three: J.R.R. Tolkien, William Golding, and Mervyn Peake.

Although he’s by far the least famous of the three, Peake still seems to me to belong on any short list of the last century’s greatest writers of the fantastic. Moreover, his work remains gloriously alive. Winnington’s biography is somewhat crippled by his having been denied permission to reproduce many samples of Peake’s art or to quote extensively from his writing, especially the sequence of novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950), and Titus Alone (1959) that is Peake’s masterpiece. Yet Winnington ingeniously suggests the effect of Peake’s writing, awakening a reader’s vivid decades-old sensory memories of the immense, ancient, utterly isolated castle Gormenghast, setting of the first two novels. Winnington deftly shows that, although Peake’s writing is supposed to rely primarily on visual description because of his background in visual art, Gormenghast becomes real to all the reader’s senses. The halls echo; the darkness chills. In fact, the castle is not just a setting but a fretfully slumbering presence throughout the action. One of Winnington’s purposes in writing this book is to show how Peake transmuted bits of his life into art, and he is especially convincing in suggesting that Peake’s experiences as a small child in China left him with sense impressions of vast, shadowy masses, sometimes revealing flashes of grotesque detail, always looming somewhere past the boundaries of everyday life.

In much the same way, Winnington notes bits of the mannerisms or appearance of people Peake encountered, pointing out how they could have been incorporated into fictional characters. This is extremely speculative, of course, and Winnington knows better than to push it too far. The most convincing identification is between Peake himself and Steerpike, the antagonist in the first two Titus books. Winnington observes that "In the mid-1940s he [Peake] signed a letter to his typist, Hilda Neal, with ‘alias Steerpike’; I know of none signed ‘Titus’" (135). The most familiar photograph of Peake (by Derek Sayer, 1946, used on the dustjacket of this book) strongly resembles Peake’s own drawing of Steerpike: long face, mussed hair, penetrating gaze. But their expressions are quite different. Steerpike does not make eye contact with a viewer, for he seems unaware that anyone else is present. He is looking off to one side, and there are no laugh lines at the corner of his mouth. Like Peake, Steerpike can recognize that there’s a difference between what people suppose and what is, between what we expect and what we get; rather than finding humor in this recognition, however, Steerpike resolves to exploit it for his own benefit regardless of anyone in his way.

Peake, as Winnington shows, was never very successful at exploiting his abilities. Besides the Titus novels (and the related novella "Boy in Darkness" [1956]), he threw himself into producing countless drawings and paintings, several volumes of poetry, and other fiction and plays. Yet his talent for visual and verbal creation was too idiosyncratic and disturbing to be very fashionable for very long. He never received the praise he deserved or the money he needed. His last years were marred by mis-diagnosed and mis-treated medical problems, and he died at age 57, largely forgotten.

But Peake has never been entirely forgotten. Michael Moorcock, for one, labored to keep Peake’s reputation as a writer alive; with his encouragement, Peake’s widow Maeve Gilmore produced A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake (Gollancz, 1970), which was followed by a similarly informal but affectionate book by Peake’s long-time friend Gordon Smith, Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir (Gollancz, 1984). And then there is John Watney’s Mervyn Peake (St. Martin’s, 1976), the "official" biography, prepared with Gilmore’s assistance and with generous permission to reproduce quotes and art. Winnington feels these advantages were wasted, scoring Watney frequently (and convincingly) for credulity and sloppiness. I haven’t seen Malcolm Yorke’s recent Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (Murray, 2000), another book prepared with the help of Peake’s family, but it reportedly is deformed by dislike of Peake as a person. Written with mastery of facts and with respect for its subject, Vast Alchemies is now the essential source for factual information about Peake’s life.

Winnington doesn’t attempt a survey of Peake criticism, though he does attempt to link Peake’s life and work. John Batchelor’s Mervyn Peake: A Biographical and Critical Exploration (Duckworth, 1974) devoted about two thirds of its length to critical analysis. Winnington himself is responsible for much of our critical awareness of Peake, since he has edited Peake Studies since it was founded as The Mervyn Peake Review in the late 1980s. (Available from Winington, Les 3 Chasseurs, 1413 ORZENS, Vaud, Switzerland; send 16 or $25 for a subscription, figured on a per-page basis.) He also edited the valuable selection of critical essays on Peake’s writing that fills the back pages of the Overlook Press’s 1992 edition of Titus Alone.

As a complement to the labors of biographers and critics, consider The Art of Gormenghast: The Making of a Television Fantasy, published to coincide with the BBC’s four-hour production. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes description of how people who loved Peake’s writing managed to trim, tug, and generally reimagine his first two novels into a TV miniseries. There are personal reactions by cast members (such as John Sessions’s sharp observation that "It’s Dickens on crack"), details of how sets were created and costumes created— testimony, overall, to how much the people involved in this project wanted to do it right. This emphasis on the purposeful management of lively details may seem inappropriate in translating the novels’ panorama of weighty, immovable detritus that is part of Gormenghast’s dreadful fascination. The TV production does a good job of reflecting Peake’s playfulness and whimsy, somewhat less so of showing how oppressive it would be to live forever next to the Tower of Flints.

The Art of Gormenghast’s most valuable aspect for readers, though, is the selection of personal photographs—the kind of thing that would have enlivened the appearance of Winnington’s book considerably—and Peake’s own pictures of several characters and scenes from the story. In particular, the drawing of Steerpike mentioned above fills one 8 1/2 by 11 page, reproduced in color so that one can appreciate Peake’s skill with ink and pastel. At this size, Peake’s revisions in the sketch are visible. We can see how the pupils in the young man’s eyes were shifted off to the side. Now viewers are forced to imagine what he could be thinking. He is perplexing, intriguing, fascinating. So is his creator.

—Joe Sanders, Mentor, OH

The Art of Fear.

Joan Hawkins. Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde.U Minnesota P, 2000. 320 pp. $19.95 pbk.

David A. Oakes. Science and Destabilization in the Modern American Gothic: Lovecraft, Matheson, and King. Greenwood, 2000. 195 pp. $49.95 hc.

It has long been the contention of social theorists, from Aristotle to Gilles Deleuze, that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to study its "monsters"—those bodies that elicit fear and dread by threatening notions of personal, political, and societal cohesion. As Betti Marenko of IN.SECT.CORP reminds us in her essay "The Self Made Freak: Hybridizations and Bodies in Transition": "The monstrous body is first of all a cultural body" (109). It is not surprising, then, that some of the finest contemporary studies of horror literature and film (works by scholars such as Noel Carroll, Harry Benshoff, and Judith Halberstam) have focused not only on cinematic and literary depictions of corporeal alterity, but on the politics of spectatorship as well.

One of the most stimulating recent contributions to the study of the horror genre and its reception among audiences is Joan Hawkins’s Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde. An ambitious project, Cutting Edge explores, from its first few pages onward, the challenges of classification (be it of a text or genre), delving into the "slippage" between categorizations and evaluative criteria that reveals the need for "a mode of assessment that is a little more dynamic" (28). This critical strategy allows Hawkins to maneuver her analysis in multiple directions. As a result, she excavates such provocative and diverse cultural terrain as paracinema catalogues and the aesthetic demands of videophiles, the tension between "high" and "low" art/culture, and the politics of the splattered body.

The finest chapters in Hawkins’s study, however, are those that engage in close readings of Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959) and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), films familiar to fans of both horror and art cinema. Here, too, musings upon the politics of spectatorship play a significant role in her analysis. Indeed, Hawkins does a fine job locating these films as cinematic artifacts with distinct production and reception histories, and as texts that slip between cultural sites ("high" art / "low" art) and cinematic genres (the "horror" film / the "art" film), often occupying several seemingly disparate locations simultaneously. Investigation of these tensions further strengthens the book’s prevailing concerns regarding the sacralization of so-called "high culture." However, Hawkins takes her study even deeper, interrogating the larger political and social issues that inform the respective texts. For instance, in her chapter on Franju’s famous work of surrealist body horror, she reads Les yeux sans visage as participating in a critique of French anti-Semitism and collaboration during the Second World War. Specifically, she understands the film’s plot as a potential metaphor for the nation’s desire to "‘restore’ a true face—a ‘vrai visage’ that is always, it seems, constructed by the skin of the Other" (70). Although she ultimately contends that the film’s true capacity for political intervention is undermined by its "reification" as a "noir art flick" (84), she is quick to elucidate, in subsequent chapters, the way(s) that Franju’s film influenced the work of Spanish director Jess Franco, whose own films, with their "antifascist aesthetic" (113), also straddle that porous boundary between "high" and "mass" culture.

In her insightful chapter on Freaks, Hawkins positions Browning’s film as a text that likewise defies simple categorization amongst cinephiles, while also recuperating the very ideologies it seemingly gestures towards exploding. Comparing Freaks with Yoko Ono’s Rape (1969), she claims that Browning’s film shares a "major failing" not uncommon to avant-garde cinema; namely, it "perpetrates the very behavior it purports to critique" (159). In particular, she argues that by presenting a narrative that ultimately represents corporeal alterity as "monstrous," Freaks fails to provide an unproblematic locus for progressive social commentary. Furthermore, Hawkins’s analysis of Browning’s text reveals elements of misogyny in the film’s narrative. This is especially so in the case of Cleo, the "big person" whose body is perceived to transgress gender codes and triggers anxieties over male castration. Also cited as an unfortunate, lingering feature of avant-garde culture, Freaks’ gynophobic underpinnings further blunt the film’s "cutting edge," particularly its ability to peel back the protective skin of a normalizing cultural body and expose the underlying logics of power and desire.

Hawkins’s exploration of the dialectical relationship between high and low culture reaches its zenith in her discussion of the films of Andy Warhol and Factory regular Paul Morrissey. Carefully articulating the cultural and aesthetic implications of Warhol and Morrissey’s quasi-Brechtian foregrounding of film’s artifice, Hawkins examines cinematic (visual) distanciation as a technique deployed in a myriad of cinematic genres, from avant-garde films aimed at an avant-garde audience to pornography and horror films. It is her contention that "films at both ends of the cultural spectrum had a vested interest in disrupting traditional generic modes of spectator identification and thereby (perhaps) enlarging their potential audience" (191). In addition, although slightly more focused on recounting the reception history of Morrissey’s later films (Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein [1973] and Andy Warhol’s Dracula [1973]) than on engaging in a prolonged close reading of a particular text, Hawkins’s investigation raises interesting questions regarding the deployment of socio-cultural power and its impact upon cinematic representations of the human body. These questions become especially compelling given the book’s concentration on the politics of spectatorship and the contingency of generic, cultural and aesthetic boundaries. Indeed, her notion of the permeability of these multiple boundaries is intriguing. By the time I finished reading her conclusion (which consists of an engrossing and thoughtful consideration of Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt [1996]), I found myself wanting to know even more about the political implications of such cultural cross-fertilizations. What impacts, for instance, have cable and satellite channels such as Bravo, The Independent Film Channel, and The Sundance Channel had on the arbitrary distinction between a commercial and avant-garde film? Given the increasing commercialization of so-called independent cinema, in which films are "sold" through advertising campaigns that highlight the extent to which they have failed to "sell-out," what are the possibilities for the emergence of a truly progressive cinema? These are not necessarily questions that I expected Hawkins’s study to answer; interrogating such issues was not her intention in this project. As is often the case when one encounters solid, provocative scholarship, Hawkins’s work opened up nearly as many questions as her text endeavored to answer.

In Science and Destabilization in the Modern American Gothic: Lovecraft, Matheson, and King, David A. Oakes also embarks upon a critical examination of the complex relationship between a text and its audience. However, Oakes’s work differs from Hawkins’s in two significant ways. First, the "artifacts" at the heart of his study are more conventionally literary; although he dedicates a chapter to the nineteenth-century American Gothic fictions by Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fitz-James O’Brien, and Ambrose Bierce, close readings of twentieth-century American Gothic novels and short stories take up most of the book’s pages. Second, the politics of spectatorship that inform his arguments arise not so much out of a consideration of modern and postmodern notions of "distantiation," but rather from a "destabilization" brought about by societal anxieties over science as both a culturally pervasive and alienating force. Unfortunately, Oakes never fully examines the cultural ramifications of this concept of "destabilization" other than to claim that it results partly from a fear of shifting paradigms, and partly from the reader’s anxieties over a perceived alienation from contemporary scientific knowledge and its potentially apocalyptic ramifications. Had Oakes elaborated upon what these cultural anxieties may reveal about the role of power and knowledge in late modernity, or commented more thoroughly upon the sociopolitical implications of the gothicization of science as a discipline, his analysis of texts by Lovecraft, Matheson, and King would have been even more compelling.

As they stand, Oakes’s chapters on Lovecraft, Matheson, and King are solid, well-organized analyses that allow readers to map a thematics of science and technology as potentially destructive forces. In particular, his chapter on Stephen King includes one of the more interesting readings of The Stand (1978) that I have encountered. Oakes views the (at times supernatural) events that transpire in King’s epic novel as illustrative of the best-selling author’s almost paradoxical view of scientific advancement as both evil (through the lethal potential of the "superflu" and nuclear power) and as something that humans "cannot let go" (114). Ultimately, through his demonstration of how King’s Gothic fiction engages both Lovecraftian fears of a potentially unknowable cosmos and more contemporary concerns over the dangers of science and technology, Oakes provides his study of King’s work with a fine sense of closure.

Lastly, Oakes’s thought-provoking conclusion raises a number of issues that may, at the very least, provide the basis for further inquiry into the complex relationships among science, technology, and the Gothic tradition. One of the most intriguing of these issues arises when he notes that "(t)he evolution of Gothic fiction is also apparent in its linking fear to science and technology" (122). While further underscoring the book’s need for a deeper interrogation of the gothicization of science, this notion raises some very intriguing questions about the construction and maintenance of literary genres. If, as Oakes argues, a dread of scientific advancement is an important component of Gothic literature, can we understand works frequently classified as cyberpunk (as well as various other sf texts) as Gothic? Furthermore, what impact might socially progressive uses of science and technology—real or imagined advances that contest or problematize binary notions of difference—have on contemporary imaginings of the Gothic or the Gothic tradition?

Oakes, like Hawkins, approaches his subject matter in a manner that is both self-contained and intellectually expansive. While Hawkins’s study is ultimately the more accomplished of the two, scholars interested in representations of "monstrous" embodiment or theories concerning audience reception of said physiognomies will find much of value in both.

—Jay McRoy, University of Wisconsin, Parkside

Back to Home