Where has the past gone ? Erasing history

I watched Westworld again recently, a Michael Crichton film from 1973 in which two characters go on holiday to a mock Western resort, populated by gun-toting robots. Holiday-makers can live out their fantasies of being cowboys, and shoot these robotic residents: alas, one of the robots malfunctions in a shoot-out and pursues the pair throughout the film on a relentless quest for revenge (the robot in question played with menacing remorselessness by a fantastic Yul Bryner.)

The formula of historical theme-park-going-wrong is one Crichton would repeat with greater commercial success with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and to a certain extent in the disappointing novel Timeline with knights.

Seeing the film again made me reflect that its whole scenario is akin to the way in which we perceive our own history, and how sometimes we experience it. Much of our view of history can come from film and literature – think of the multitude of Vietnam films such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, or Norman Mailer’s Vietnam-novel The Naked and the Dead,or Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals vision of Rome in Gladiator.

Our learning about the past can come filtered though the film-maker’s lense – Spielberg’s account of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List – or the novelist’s imagination – Bernard Cornwell, Henry Treece, etc.

Yul Bryner in Westworld
Yul never walk alone

Re-enactments and displays are popular ways of bringing historical events to some sort of ‘life;’ mock jousting tournaments at English Heritage castles across the country, or air displays featuring the dwindling number of aircraft from World War II. Like Crichton’s automaton-populated holiday resort mock-ups, these create an artificial snapshot of a generalised sense of a moment in the past, and purport to bring it to life for popular consumption.

But are we losing a real sense of our past, our history, buried under (or papered over by) a fictionalised representation of it ? And, like the remorseless robot in Westworld, will populist reinventions of our past, in representing it, actually destroy us in the end ?

Real history – if it possible to define something which we haven’t experienced for ourselves, because it occurred before we were born, as such – is being eroded by our reinventions, or re-imaginings of it; the glare of Hollywood’s limelight fails to illuminate most of history’s shadowed corners: in fact, it creates those obscuring shadows precisely because it spotlights heroes and villains for our entertainment. The same strobe lighting up the hero necessarily blinds us to the realities lost out of sight beyond the lit circle in which they stand.

Ironically, it’s almost as if the very media working to preserve history, whether for our education or entertainment, are instead serving, as the writer and cultural analyst Fredric Jameson puts it, ‘as the very agents and mechanisms for our historical amnesia.’ (‘Postmodernism and consumer society’ in Gray & McGuigan, 1993: 205.) Fredric makes this point in relation to the function of news media, but arguably it’s also a pertinent definition of the methods by which film, television and historical novels are making history disappear in the very act of trying to bring it alive.

Where has our past gone ? Or, more accurately perhaps: where did we begin to erase it ?

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

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.

Betrayal is a strong word.

I would argue that Alien Resurrection is a mutation rather than a betrayal. That although Alien Resurrection doesn’t follow the same linear, canonical, path of the previous three, it is only guilty of going off at a tangent – and that only by of virtue of necessity.

This film is a mutation about mutation – and I wonder whether it isn’t in its narrative about mutation that the feelings of betrayal may emanate. The theme of mutation is born out of necessity: the death of Ripley on Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161. She is cloned from remains, but this has resulted in the contamination of Ripley’s DNA with the alien, she has become a hybrid. And it is this cross-cloning which certainly begins our unease, we have lost our human touchstone. The hero is no longer dependable – could this be what provokes the notions of betrayal? Unlike the saintly Ellen Ripley created through the previous trinity (an incarnation of human purity, even when defiled by the alien, in Alien3, she sacrifices herself) this incarnation is unrecognisable, we can no longer trust her, her motives are selfish, she is only part human, and is most definitely part alien.

But Ripley has only been mutated, surely that can’t equal a betrayal. Alien Resurrection is only guilty of changing the hero we had grown accustomed to, by the end of the film Ripley exepmlifies human characteristics; the compassion for the even more mutated previous clones, the maternal bond with Call (recurring theme from Aliens). And far from being a betrayal I think it is a worthy mutation – one which Magneto would argue, by virtue of being a mutant it is the next level of the evolution of the Alien canon.

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.