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.’

Event Horizon: combining genres

One of the great strengths of Event Horizon is that it works to combine two separate genres, science-fiction and horror.

Of course, the Alien films also effect some combination of the two, although in this case it is the stalker-type film in the manner of Jaws and the fear induced by a remorseless killer – the same fear so effectively worked on in Westworld and later mimicked in Terminator.

In Event Horizon, the horror element is derived from the paranoia experienced from within the crew themselves, which they have brought with them. It is much more of a psychologically-based horror – the fear within.

It might be argued that, from a certain point of view, the genres of horror and science-fiction are related. The polarized stances of writers Ray Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke are illustrative of this: Clarke’s writing believes that technological advancement will save mankind, Bradbury that it will be its ultimate destruction, and horror and catastrophe stalk the latter’s pages. Both horror and science-fiction concern the exploration of the unknown, the reactions of human beings to adversity, to situations reaching far beyond the areas of ordinary experience. Each genre can use the surprise factor, the unexpected, as a device to propel the narrative forward, and both place individuals in situations and predicaments outside the boundaries of everyday life.

The important difference between them can be summarized simply by the idea of ‘internal versus external experience.’ Science fiction, by definition, concerns situations that are conjectural, that have yet to exist: it is a genre that projects forward, to explore potential advances in society, technology and in human evolution (apart, that is, from the tired and unreliable technology of Star Wars mentioned previously). Thus, the concerns of science fiction are often necessarily external concerns, where mankind reacts to elements in an external world which differs from our own. Much of the fascination with this sort of narrative is as much to do with the extrapolation, by the author or director, of how technology or humanity – or even both – will evolve, as it is with the unfolding plot.

The primary concern of the genre of horror, however, is with an internal universe, with the dark elements that like with mankind, within the soul or the mind. The phobias that afflict everyone to a greater or lesser extent are internally created: though they may be triggered by external factors, such as spiders or, in the case of Event Horizon, by stasis tanks, it is the manner in which these elements work upon the internal landscape of the human soul that horror seeks to explore.

Event Horizon therefore represents something of a crossover between these two styles, combining aspects of both and allowing each to inform and work upon the other. The important elements of science-fiction are present – technology in new forms, humanity in a new environment – but inextricably woven into the fabric of the narrative are elements also of horror – a menacing evil, the internal fears and secrets of the various crewmembers.

Indeed, in this film, the one has directly contributed to the creation of the other: it is the manufacture of the gravity-drive mechanism that causes the horror to come forth. Hence the significance of the fact that the drive is often referred to as a gateway. The evolution of a particular technological achievement has led to the evil coming into this dimension, through the opening caused by the functioning of the gravity-drive.

The idea of humans tampering with things beyond their control and thereby unleashing malevolent force is a crucial part of horror, reaching back as far as Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and (for science-fiction), the original Godzilla where the monster is created by nuclear weapons, and also now of science fiction. The various novels concerning the effects of hallucinatory drugs, by writers such as Jeff Noon, Philip K Dick or William Burroughs, heighten what it means to experiment with drugs and the sense that it is always guesswork, and always involves an element of risk caused by a lack of knowledge or understanding, or of certainty. Dr. Weir begins as a scientist, someone whose vocation concerns experimentation to create empirical fact, and finishes as a personification of evil – a twist that neatly reflects the concerns of the film itself.

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