Neuromancer: filming the un-filmable

Mapping the future: Neuromancer.

There’s a move afoot to film William Gibson’s ground-breaking cyber-punk novel, Neuromancer. Director Vincenzo Natali is eager to realise the supposedly un-filmable novel, the papers have reported.

An earlier attempt to make Gibson’s techno-filled prose into a film resulted in Johnny Mnemonic, which has a brilliant idea at its heart – people who smuggle data in chips inside their head, jacking in to servers to download information into a storage device ‘wet-wired’ into the brain. But the film didn’t manage visually to live up to the potential of Gibson’s vibrant literary imaginings, and one wonders whether the techno-ridden crackle of Neuromancer can similarly be translated onto the screen, with better results.

Published in 1984 (Orwell would have approved), Neuromancer’s influence on science-fiction literature and film has been immense, most noticeably in The Matrix and its sequels (although, to my mind, The Matrix is more derivative of Philip Jose Farmer’s fantastic Riverworld sequence, but that’s for another article).

If it’s to be realised in a manner which captures the energy of the prose, the boundary-pushing imaginings and the idea of a world morphed by technology to such an extent as Gibson uses time and again in his writing, it will need to do so in a way that doesn’t make it seem itself a descendant of The Matrix and its children – Equilibrium springs to mind.

Should Neuromancer come off the page, or should it be left up to the reader to realise Gibson’s amazing vision ?

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his Music Matters blog.

Tarantino and timelines: David Lean got there first.

Reservoir Dogs is a great film: it plays with time, chops up narrative and presents episodes in non-chronological order, and oozes cool. The first scene after the opening credits slam-dunks the viewer immediately into a deliberately confusing moment: we are unaware of the events leading up to the blood-soaked situation we’re in, or who Tim Roth’s character really is.

But David Lean’s Brief Encounter did the same thing nearly fifty years earlier; it also opens with a scene about which the viewer knows nothing: it moves backwards to tell the story leading up to it, and then presents the same scene again towards the end.

 The second time the scene appears, it now occupies its logical place in the narrative: and its impact is enhanced – pauses are significant, silences are deafening, you know what is not being said as much as what is. Informed by the sequence of events leading up to it, your understanding of the dynamics between the two characters is now completely different.

 Reservoir Dogs is an influential film: it established Tarantino’s reputation and made black suits and skinny ties cool again. But David Lean got there first.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Culture of the Critic: is criticism making us lazy ?

Write-onIs the culture of criticism making us lazy when it comes to experiencing art for ourselves ?

We are happy to read reviews about the latest film, the most recent production of an opera, or an author’s recently-published novel: reviews telling us if that film, opera or book is good, or ‘worth’ visiting. The passive consumption of critical opinion often absolves us from the need to undergo the artistic experience for ourselves and subsequently, to make up our own minds. If reviews are indifferent or worse, we readily write the work off as not worth our attention even before we’ve seen or heard it.

As consumers of art, we need to be more diligent in our consumption: we need to be eager to visit an exhibition, go to an opera or see a film for ourselves, irrespective (or in spite) of what critics have written. Instead of slavishly trooping out to the cinema or concert-hall if critics exhort us to, or docilely staying at home if they tell us it’s not worth it, we need to be more active in seeing these things for ourselves and forming our own conclusions. Otherwise, we become mindless drones functioning at the behest of a reviewer’s opinions: they are pushing our buttons, controlling what we consume.

Donald Mitchell’s article ‘A State of Emergency’ on critical opinion in the 1960’s, which appears in the anthology of his writings, Cradles of the New, represents a call to arms in reaction to critical opinion: the call still resonates today.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Under My Skin: defining the human in science fiction.

Lying at the heart of most science fiction, it seems to me, is the attempt to define what it means to be human. Authors from Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson to modern darlings like Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville are, beneath their paranoid technicolour or cyber- or gothic steam-punk surfaces, offering an exploration of the human condition.

A recent episode of cult television series Dr Who caused viewers to complain to the BBC about the racy scenes between the Doctor and Amy Pond, admitting a previously, if not unadmitted then unexplored, sexuality into the canon: resisting the lavish advances of a mini-skirted Pond, the Doctor declares ‘I’m nine-hundred and seven years old: think what that means!’ Even here, science fiction is exploring the difference between Time Lord and human and the implications for their relationship.

As Dr. Tyrell, head of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, remarks; ‘More human than human is our motto.’ The famous speech Batty gives at the end of the film is all the more poignant because, like all the replicants, he is aspiring to be human and his experiences, whilst short-lived, define his humanity: ‘I’ve seen things…attack ships in flames off the shores of Orion.’ There’s poetry here, as well as a lament for the loss of his all-too-brief glimpse into the human condition.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story ‘The Pedestrian’ from his brilliant 1982 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is set in 2053: the narrator, Mr. Mead is the only one walking the streets at night, everyone else is indoors being indoctrinated by their television sets. Arrested by a robotic police car, he is driven past a house – the only house with all its lights on. ‘That’s my house,’ he declares. The computer-controlled car cannot understand what he is doing: ‘Just walking, Mr Mead ?’ it asks him.

In the Matrix-indebted Equilibrium, the suppression of human emotion using controlled drugs in pursuit of a society without crime and violence results in a society stripped of its humanity.

As the hybrid being that is Lieutenant Ripley remarks in Alien Resurrection, as the good ship Betty heads towards the Earth: ‘I’m a stranger here myself,’ articulating a sense of isolation that we have all perhaps felt to some extent at some point in our lives.

It’s what Batty and the other doomed replicants are fighting for, what the robotic police-car can never understand, and what science fiction, in its myriad incarnations is expressing: it’s what makes us human that counts.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

All that jazz: the photographs of Herman Leonard.

Herman Leonard’s photos are unmistakable. Jazz enthusiasts everywhere with large record collections will be familiar with his work, which has adorned the covers of jazz albums by legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.

Odd angles, often shot from below the subject; stark contrasts between black and white tones; smoke circling lazily in the air; the images capture the dim and sometimes dingy culture of jazz in the 50s and 60s, as this gallery collection shows. A young Miles Davis with an ankle crossed over one knee casually plays; Dizzy Gillespie amidst phantom-like swirls of smoke above his head; drummer Art Blakey is pictured truly caught up in the music; the great bandleader Duke Ellington appears all alone at the piano on a concert-hall stage; Frank Sinatra gestures with his cigarette from behind a radio microphone. These images capture the transient nature of jazz: improvised, spontaneous music that sings one moment and is gone the next, never to be repeated live.

Dexter Gordon photograph by Herman Leonard
Dexter Gordon: photographed by Herman Leonard

Perhaps the most memorable for me is the portrait of Dexter Gordon: smoke curls and twists around him like one of Gordon’s own melodic improvisations. There’s a casual feel to the image, a languor imparted by the tilt of Gordon’s head, the hat-brim turned up from the forehead, the cigarette between the fingers. Taken when he was twenty-five years old, he looks lost in contemplation, at ease with himself. There are other musicians around him: the bell of a trumpet protrudes from the left-hand side, and a drummer grins in the dimness behind him, sharing a joke with another player outside the picture on the right. But it’s Gordon’s moment, lit from above-left in an almost celestial fashion.

Once seen, never forgotten: Herman Leonard’s jazz photographs are the quintessence of jazz music made visual.

Alien Resurrection: a betrayal of the canon ?

The image of Lieutenant Ripley disappearing into the flames, clutching her dreadful offspring to her as she plummets, at the end of Alien 3 was pretty decisive. ”No sequel!” the film seemed to be declaring: ”no more!”

Lieutenant Ripley in 'Alien 3'

Yet, five years later in 1997, a new breed of alien emerged in Alien Resurrection, from the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and the team behind Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. This seemed promising, for those of us who like Jeneut’s films, as well as for fans of the first three films who possibly saw Ripley’s fiery demise for the signal that it was: no more films to follow.

I loved Delicatessen: the wonderfully craggy features of Dominique Pinon and their expressive repertoire are a joy to watch, as they are in Amelie, another of Jenuet’s films from 2001. And, in parts, I like Alien Resurrection; it has the sepia-look and the feel of Jenuet’s other work. But does his style work when translated into the hallowed tradition of the Alien franchise ? The premise that the incarnation of Ripley in Resurrection is the result of an extensive breeding programme, whose ultimate aim is the re-creation of the monster from Ripley’s DNA, feels slightly stretched to begin with as a means of moving from the previous film into the latter.

Sigourney Weaver is, as always, highly watchable: Winona Ryder is perhaps not so compelling; and the notorious scenes of the hybrid alien swimming in the flooded depths of the ship as it chases the crew, where it’s very obvious that it’s an actor in a rubber suit, only let the side down further still.

What do you think: should Ripley have been resurrected at all, or left to lie in peace ?

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Film music: an excuse for laziness.

Film soundtracks are fantastic. The music is all about an instant emotional picture: no need for the architectural unfoldings of classical music with its exposition, development and recapitulation sections. Film music is designed to enhance the nature of a particular scene immediately, without recourse to large-scale structural devices. Think of the strident dissonances in Herrmann’s music for Psycho, or the looming menace of the semi-tone in Jaws.

The trouble is that most Hollywood Blockbusters lay the music on with a trowel. Big blasting brass sections, sweeping string gestures and pounding timpani often assault the ears in these epic films. This means that viewers don’t have to think or work out the emotional temperature of a scene for themselves – the accompanying soundtrack paints it for them with a thick brush.

There’s a marvellous French film, Un Coeur en Hiver, from 1992, about a love-triangle between a woman and two brothers: played by Emmanuelle Béart, Camille is a violinist who is recording chamber music by Maurice Ravel; her partner Maxime is producing the recordings, and his brother Stéphane, a violin-maker and repairer, begins an affair with her. The subtle nuances of the dynamics between the three characters are reflected in the soundtrack, which comprises entirely the music that Camille is recording in the studio or performing live. Ravel’s music is therefore not written for the film at all, but it is used sparingly and diagetically: the music plays when the musicians themselves are performing it.

Here, Camille is recording Ravel’s Violin Sonata while Stéphane, unbeknownst to her, watches from the engineering room: The taut emotion Stéphane feels is mirrored in the brusque pizzicato of the violin, and the harmonic roller-coaster of the chords in the piano.

Or this section here, where her attempts to perform the Sonata for Violin and Cello are thwarted by her emotional state: Stephane is sitting watching, which is distracting her. She falters and has to begin several times, until Stephane quietly leaves: at which point, she is able to play the piece perfectly. The melodic lines of the two string instrument twist and turn around each other in a way that reflects the desires of the two protagonists.

The film is a welcome relief from all those major films that paint their aural backcloth in livid colour, drowning the discerning viewer in an excess of orchestral zeal. It’s a shame; it’s more interesting (and more rewarding) to be allowed to work out the emotional conditions of a film for yourself unhindered by excessive bludgeoning from the soundtrack.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.