Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Peter Ohlin

Science-Fiction Film Criticism and the Debris of Postmodernism

Annette Kuhn, ed. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso; NY: Verso (Routledge, Chapman & Hall), 1990. viii+231. $59.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Constance Penley, Elizabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, & Janet Bergstrom, eds. Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Minneapolis & Oxford: Minnesota UP. xi+298. $39.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

In 1980, in a review of film criticism in the US in this journal (SFS 7:323), Pamela Annas suggested that "we do not yet have and desperately need a politically left, feminist, theoretical analysis of SF film in the US." The two books under consideration here go some distance towards meeting that need; and though they do not necessarily go as far as we might wish, they invite the reflection that things have changed considerably since then and that a fertile field of criticism in this area has blossomed in a rather short time. In brief, SF film criticism has come of age, and now, for better or worse, generates the same kind of work as academic criticism generally and SF studies specifically. But even with the emergence of this ambitious body of criticism, it is only with a rather appealing recalcitrance that SF cinema is allowing its gradual theorization. The films remain, obdurately, more interesting and more complex that the theories being developed in response to them. Thus, while much of the current work has interesting things to say about SF films, it is a long way from creating the crucial bond between genre and criticism we have come to accept in other fields.

Another striking fact about these essays is the extraordinary privileging of the two films Alien and Blade Runner, made within a few years of each other, and, furthermore, made by the same individual, Ridley Scott. To see these two films as speaking for the contemporary SF film genre as a whole requires some stretch. Annette Kuhn sees them as responsible for the upsurge of interest in SF cinema among film theorists and cultural critics, suggesting that Alien was "in the vanguard of a renaissance in the genre." She continues:

The variety of approaches taken to [the two films] is in itself highly revealing, pointing to issues that reach far beyond the actual film, or even the genre to which they belong. What is the relationship between different types of cultural theory? Between cultural theory and film practices? Between film practices and society? (11)

But Blade Runner is used so frequently for so many different purposes, before emerging finally as an icon of the postmodern condition, that one is forced to ask whether it is possible for it to be all things to all theories. In the process, the film acquires layers of interest and significance, one more arresting than the other. Yet the more interesting it becomes, the less significant it becomes as a genre film. The significance of the genre, one of the reasons for its introduction into this context in the first place, disappears in the accretion of postmodernist theoretical debris.

In addition, it's worth observing--though nowhere remarked on in the volumes under review--that if these two films constitute a renewal of a quintessentially American cinematic genre, the fact that they are both made by the same individual, and that one not an American, might be of some significance. Even granted the specific purposes of these two volumes (Kuhn's stress on cultural theory, and the stress on feminism in Close Encounters), Ridley Scott's specific position within the genre, within the art-form, within the cultural practice, deserves some examination in specific and individual terms, rather than simply assuming that he is representative of all 1980s' American SF cinema. Is it useful to regard him as a kind of contemporary Sergio Leone, cannibalizing existing genres to further his own creative agenda (in the way that Leone cannibalized the Western and later the gangster film); and if so, what does that mean in terms of the context in which we place him? Why is it that it is possible to use these films to debate issues of paternity and self, the Other and the feminine, and so forth? Or put another way: Why is it that these films work so well? Would other films have worked equally well? Reading these volumes one gets the distinct impression that other films would not have worked equally well: that there is something powerful in these two films, in Scott's particular and specific contribution, which fuels the energy of the cultural debate here collected. But if indeed their interest is attributable to Scott's individual cinematic vision as much as or more than to a generic cultural development, the question, then, is not so much to what extent these films have become topics of the current cultural debate, but why they, of all the current work in the genre, have acquired the kind of academic status they have? Kuhn does not really respond adequately to that issue when she acknowledges that the current surge of interest in certain SF films is "due largely to the appearance, in the past ten years or so, of a handful of films which have caught the attention of film theorists and cultural critics. However, this interest has so far not extended to systematic generic analyses of science fiction cinema" (5). The texts presented here do not in fact succeed in coming up with systematic generic analyses of SF cinema; but they do succeed in extending, in all kinds of interesting directions, certain theoretical notions into specific analyses of a few very interesting films; and that may well be useful enough.

Kuhn's declared purpose is to lay bare the cultural instrumentalities at work in Sf cinema: What do these films do, and how do they do it? Consequently, she organizes the critical essays in a neat progression from realism to postmodernism in five easy stages, according to the primary concerns of the critical texts: (1) films as reflections of social trends and attitudes of the time: preoccupations of the historical moment; (2) the relationship of films to the social order mediated by ideologies: readings below the surface; (3) films as the voicing of cultural repressions in unconscious textual processes, which, like dreams, require interpretation; (4) what films do to and for their spectators, the sorts of pleasures and fantasies generated; and (5) the active involvement of SF films in the whole network of intertexts of cultural meanings and social discourses (10). Each of these individual sections is provided with its own theoretical and descriptive introduction, setting out the framework for the material. Within each section, the last essay also begins a shift of concerns that will lead into the following section, so that Judith Newron's essay on feminism and anxiety and Alien, for example, in the section on SF film and ideological mediation, already begins to deal with particular forms of cultural repression, the topic of the subsequent section. In short, Kuhn's framework is logical and carefully thought out, and her introductions to each section are informative and articulate. Despite the very limited range of films discussed, and its failure to deal adequately with the whole generic issue of SF cinema, I find this text a useful one, in and out of the classroom.

A couple of the essays strike me as particularly helpful. For example, Michael Stern's essay on special effects in SF cinema (one of four or so pieces culled from the pages of this journal) is useful in its demonstration of how one particular formal and technical feature is foregrounded by a genre or form of discourse and validated by the social organizations that construct the particular discourse: "SF foregrounds technology as a special effect--magical, socially ungrounded--while naturalizing the technologies of domination themselves. This is also the way news and advertising work" (70). In Stern's view, these discourses, like SF, are "constituted by the tension between affirmation and negation, legitimation of the way things are and a critique of them, rather than by some positivity or negativity inherent in them" (71). Thus, his examination of special effects leads not only to the current emphasis on forms of cyberpunk "head trip" extravaganzas (or Hollywood self-parodies as in FX) but inevitably to the remark that all effects are special when seen in the context of the prison of the taken-for-granted. In this way, some of the formal features of the genre are made to take their place in the context of the social construction of reality more explicitly than before.

Similarly, the essays on Alien (by Kavanagh, Newton, and Creed) appearing in different sections of the book, make clear exactly how rich that film is as a contemporary text. As Kavanagh says, "to say that Alien broadcasts a very sophisticated set of overwhelming feminist signal articulated in contradictory relation to other signals about class, and about humanism and science, opens the way to knowledge of how this film, and those ideological raw materials it extracts from a specific field of social discourse, operate" (81). The kinds of knowledge being made available range all the way from the ideological portrayal of various gender roles, to more specifically ideological concerns with feminist issues, to a conception (Creed's) of SF cinema and the horror film in the context of cultural repressions where space becomes "the archaic mother...present in all horror films as the blackness of extinction--death...the place 'where meaning collapses'" (136-37).

In all the essays, an extraordinary effort is expended on attempting to find a correct reading of the scene where Ripley discards her clothes; whether that scene violates and invalidates the feminist gender-equality demonstrated in the film so far; or if, as Creed suggests, "the monstrousness of controlled through the display of woman as reassuring and pleasurable sign" (140); or, finally, whether, as Harvey Greenberg proposes in his article in Close Encounters, the film not only mocks the values of its characters as it tears their flesh and "assails its audience with that same spirit of negativity, destructiveness, and exploitation" (103) some would have us believe it decries--all the time raking in vast profits in the process. But for all the ingeniousness of this laying bare of ideological and cultural repressions, these articles do not forge an irrefutable link between their critical discourse and the formal demands of SF cinema as genre.

Creed's argument about space as archaic mother/death goes in that direction, though this may be a partial definition difficult to apply to the genre as a whole. And Vivian Sobchak's excellent article, "The Virginity of Astronauts: Sex and the Science Fiction Film" makes another similar move. She argues that "sex and the science fiction film is...a negative topic" (103):

Whereas the semiotic link between biological sexuality and women has been repressed or broken by the genre, the semiotic link between between biological asexuality and men has been forged by it and allowed a full range of representation....[T]hey have rejected their biology and sexuality--pushed it from their minds and bodies to concentrate on the technology required to penetrate and impregnate not a woman but the universe. The virginal astronauts of the science fiction film are a sign of penetration and impregnation without biology, without sex, and without the opposite, different, sex. (107-08)

But, for all its striking aspects, this definition is not very useful in surveying the history of the genre, and in some ways it is general enough as a principle to fit an even wider variety of films than just those conventionally included in the genre. Sobchack, however, takes her argument one step further:

[B]oth displacement and condensation work at once in the entirety of the narrative and concentrate their efforts on the complete or partial repression of the instinct-presentation and its component parts: female sexuality and fertility, female biology and its representation in a body that is different, that is difference itself. (113)

This, to her mind, is the basic structure informing the genre, "a kind of push-pull configuration in which what is repressed will return in disguise to become overtly articulated"; and while historical and cultural changes may be marked, this structure remains constant: "Displacement and condensation will occur or the genre will not exist--in the same way that metonymy and metaphor exist or there can be no language" (113). But what does it mean to argue that displacement and condensation must occur for the genre to exist? These features characterize certain kinds of narrative frequently found within SF cinema as a genre. But they define the genre as a whole, perhaps, only if we accept the repression of sexuality and its overt rearticulation in another form as genre definitions. In other words, they only define Sobchack's definition of the genre.

Finally, Giuliana Bruno's article on postmodernism and Blade Runner relies heavily on Fredric Jameson's articulation of schizophrenia as the postmodern condition. In order not only to define the post modern aesthetics of decay, waste, recycling, fusion of levels, discontinuous signifiers, explosion of boundaries and erosion (185), but to argue that:

BR posits questions of identity, identification, and history in postmodernism. The text's insistence on photography, on the eye, is suggestive of the problematics of the 'I' over time....Photography is memory. The status of memory has changed. In a postmodern age, memories are no longer Proustian madeleines, but photographs. The past has become a collection of photographic, filmic, or televisual images. We, like the replicants, are put in the position of reclaiming a history by means of its reproduction. (193)

If this description suits the film very well, the question nevertheless remains whether it suits this film better than a number of other films, or if this kind of postmodernist clutter is somehow privileged with a genre like the SF cinema. For example, is there a difference between Ridley Scott's experimentation with cultural geography and the narrative extravaganzas of someone like Dusan Makavejev? At what point do Jean-Luc Godard's experiments in high modernism (including Alphaville) pass into postmodernism? At what point does the self-reflexiveness of Peter Brooks turn into the loss of history documented in Blade Runner? As Bruno points out (in quoting from different real cities, postcards, advertising movies, and so on), the text makes a point about the topography of post-industrialism: "it is polyvalent, interchangeable structure, the product of geographical displacements and condensations" (186). And once again the question remains what that interchangeable structure has to do with science-fiction rather than, say, documentary cinema?

One essay appears in both volumes: Constance Penley's on The Terminator as apocalyptic cinema in the light of the primal-scene time loop--an essay that, like several others in Close Encounters, originally appeared in an issue of Camera Obscura. To these the editors of Close Encounters have added texts on fan writing and on the 1960s' fantastic family sit-coms. Their volume is less tightly organized than the Kuhn anthology; but on the other hand, it foregrounds the feminist issue with more intensity.

Here too a number of essays stand out. Penley's, for one, usefully argues that "if The Terminator's primal scene fantasy draws the spectator into the film's paradoxical circle of cause and effect and its equally paradoxical realization of incestuous desire, its militant everydayness throws the spectator back out again, back into the technological future" (71). Thus, the film locates "the origins of future catastrophe in decisions about technology, warfare and social behaviour that are being made today" (63). It is accordingly a kind of critical dystopia, suggesting causes rather than merely revealing symptoms. Echoing Jameson, she then suggests that "the true atrophy of the utopian imagination is this: we can imagine the future but we cannot conceive the kind of collective political strategies necessary to change or ensure that future" (64). That statement probably seems a little naive in the light of events in Eastern Europe since the summer of 1990. But the question she points to is surely the important one: namely, to what extent science-fiction cinema is a privileged site for dealing with the issues that constitute the agenda of Penley and her co-editors of Close Encounters.

That agenda is laid out rather more explicitly by Sobchack, again, in her essay on "Child/Alien/Father: Patriarchal Crisis and Generic Exchange," a brilliant demonstration of the patriarchal crisis in films like The Terminator, E.T., Close Encounters, and others, in terms of certain genre determinations:

This triadic affinity among horror, SF, and family melodrama also entails a temporal and spatial exchange. The 'past' (that temporal field usually grounding the horror film) is now commensurable with the 'future' (usually associated with the SF film), and both are commensurable with the 'present' (usually perceived as the temporal field of the family melodrama). (5)

Following this pattern, in examining the horror/melodrama axis, Sobchack finds that "the former genre dramatizes patiarchal impotence and rage, the latter patriarchal weakness and confusion--both generated by the central and problematic presence of children." The resolution to this opposition she finds in "one dominant strain of the contemporary science fiction film" where "patriarchy and paternity conflate in a single figure which is powerful, loving, and lovable: the innocent extra-terrestrial who is at once patriarchally empowered, paternal, and child-like" (12-13). Specifically, by way of processes of de-signing and re-signing, the male body can be transformed/ transported "into the alien and different while it visibly stays human and the same" (23). And thus, "it is able to mean 'something else' and remain biologically capable of domestically reproducing itself" (23), as in the "fantastic" rebirth scene of the male presented in The Terminator and Starman. However:

There are no such resolutions available to either the horror film or the family melodrama--both playing out patriarchal impotence, the one through narratives of chaos and violence, the other through narratives of pathos and/or comic confusion. The current science fiction film, however, plays out narratives of paternal love and benevolent patriarchal power--even as that power is deferred, is doubly displaced in space and time, once in the "transport" of the human male body and again in the awesome displays of cinematic effect wrought by an "alien" patriarchy. Seemingly the most sanguine of the three genres discussed here, it is hardly strange that SF film has enjoyed particular privilege during the last decade. (26-27)

The SF film, she continues, is "that genre which most visibly figures the grandest illusions of a capitalist and patriarchal cinema, and which spatially liberates powerful born-again male 'children' from social, political, and economic responsibility for the past and to the present" (27). In other words, in relation to other genres, SF cinema is clearly a privileged site for the expression of a number of current concerns with ideology and gender, though that privilege is here pretty clearly limited to the last decade--suggesting that the genre has somehow acquired its privilege in a gradual process which is not explained in more detail.

Janet Bergstrom's essay on androids and androgyny has useful things to say about the designed, cluttered, intrusive, totally designed perceptual characteristics of the postmodern experience along with the failure of narrative imagination that marks its expressions. In analyzing the use of composite figures that condense the obsolete and the technologically advanced, the biomorphic and the mechanical, making it difficult to distinguish between significant and trivial elements, as well as diffusing the dominance of classical story motivation and structure along with classical patterns of sexual and social definition, she concludes:

[T]he design elements of Liquid Sky, and Blade Runner, and films of this type, are powerful because they destabilize classical narrative expectations at the same time as they demonstrate how classical sex role expectations in our society have become unreliable. (56)

Yet for all the accuracy of the observation, this is to beg the serious question, which is not whether SF cinema may or may not at times document the postmodernist aesthetic dilemmas, but whether there is any necessary or privileged reason for why this is occurring, why it is occurring now, and specifically, why it is occurring in these works at the present time.

I have already mentioned Harvey Greenberg's psychoanalytic notes on Alien ("Reimagining the Gargoyle"), which focuses on the bowel as leitmotif:

[W]ithin a dark claustrum filled with real, simulated, or symbolic vitals, a supremely potent menace lurks, waking to tear apart and devour its unsuspecting victims. For Kane, the menace literally lives within his guts. For the remaining crew, their ship becomes one great cloaca through which the beast prowls, Grendel-like, to pick them off at its pleasure. (96)

Not surprisingly, the image of insatiable orality that Greenberg sees in the close-up of the two perpetually feeding plastic Goony-birds becomes a symbol of the greed and lust for gain of the late capitalism of the Company. Thus to him, films like Alien in simultaneous exploiting and critiquing late capitalism constitute at best "sullied jeremiads. They dimly apprehend the primordial selfishness infecting late twentieth-century capitalism, but can only recommend convenient escapist, individualistic solutions" (103).

Finally, the essay by Henry Jenkins III on "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching" not only usefully complements some of the arguments about spectatorship and intertextuality in Kuhn's volume, but also complements and extends those about mass culture as articulated by Tania Modleski, Dana Polen, and others. Jenkins sees popular reading as a kind of poaching activity, characterized by advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text, a kind of cultural bricolage reclaiming and appropriating textual material. Thus fandom becomes a way for marginalized subcultural groups to transform mass culture into popular culture, whereby the fans can "cast themselves not as poachers but as loyalists, rescuing essential elements of the primary text 'misused' by those who maintain copyright control over the program materials" (174). The issue is not simply that fan writing involves "a translation of personal response into a social expression" (191) but that "fans are not empowered by mass culture: fans are empowered over mass culture." To explore the modifications of that insight and to document the modes of this kind of poaching operation or cultural appropriation strikes me as being work of some substantial importance in the future. If postmodernism means anything, it surely means the calling into question of the existing patterns of consumption and usage: the role of the spectators and their available relationships to the text will therefore need to be redefined in terms such as those proposed by Jenkins.

These two volumes, then, both contain material of significance to those interested not only in SF cinema, but in the theoretical reorientation of the place of SF, cinema, and literature as genres, in the current postmodernist landscape. Still, it is not necessarily clear whether this amounts to the "politically left, feminist, theoretical analysis of SF film in the US" requested by Pamela Annas ten years ago. In fact, in some ways these volumes hint at the more serious question: whether such an analysis of SF film is possible at all, given the postmodernist transformations of the genre. What would such a critique look like? The indications in these volumes suggest that the moment it confronts the disintegration of form in these films, it turns all too frequently into a familiar dystopian vision of capitalist decay rather than analysis of the magical moment when high modernism splinters into postmodernist fragments, releasing in the process an extraordinary amount of energy and inventiveness. On the other hand, it seems clear that feminist readings provide a variety of fresh and useful views on a number of themes and forms in contemporary SF films. Much of this work is clearly marked by a sincere and urgent desire to deconstruct the current form of patriarchal discourse as it struggles to meet the challenge of confronting newer cultural expressions. The films themselves, of course, in the rhythm and texture of their presentation, have already done that. But I am not sure that either of the books considered here answers quite satisfactorily what seems to me the crucial question: Is contemporary SF cinema a privileged cultural site for enactments of the postmodern condition (as Kuhn certainly seems to suggest), or is postmodernism auguring the decay and diffusion of genres (as Sobchak, for example, suggests in different places) which would annihilate all the distinctive features of SF cinema as genre. The question is not trivial. But maybe it is asked in too pointed a fashion. Quite clearly, SF cinema and the theoretical justifications for it have come to take on a much greater validity in the larger cultural context of the period of late capitalism. On the other hand, this does not mean that all the historical definitions of the genre are automatically erased in the postmodern wash of critical debris. There is, after all, no real reason to expect SF in general or SF cinema in particular to be swallowed up by the mainstream since the urge for otherness, for alternative visions, inherent in the genre is likely to remain as a defining characteristic, regardless of the attempts at appropriation from other cultural theories.

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