Monday, February 27, 2012

The Social Network

Miles Bennell changed his profile picture

A boy who says his mother isn’t his mother. A woman who says her uncle isn’t her uncle. Yet the mother and the uncle look, act and remember as they are supposed to. So what is it? There is something missing. The person gives every outward indication of being his or her old self and plays the part to perfection, but still there is an unaccountable distance. A lack of feeling. A blunting of affect.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been variously interpreted as a cautionary tale on the dangers of Communism or an allegory of the stifling conformity of post-war US society. Neither reading concerns me today, except to the extent they both suggest that the strangely persistent myths about the brash optimism and lack of self-reflection of the American Fifties are not to be credited. This is an era that feared not just nuclear annihilation but also social disgregation, and was well aware of its spectres.

In Body Snatchers, these spectres don’t take the literal form of sinister doppelgangers growing inside of alien pods. It’s what happens after that. It’s the ontological impossibility of telling apart the real human from the copy, because they are identical in every respect except the one thing that cannot be scientifically measured or forensically determined, namely their emotional content. Add to this a detail that is entirely incongruous, plot-wise, but genuinely terrifying: that the copies, once they have come to life, take over not by violent means but as soon as you go to sleep, wherever you may be, as if by telepathic, long-distance osmosis. So that at first you yourself might not know if you had become one of them.

Becky Driscoll changed her location to Santa Mira

The fictional anywhere of Body Snatchers is located in California, and appears orderly and affluent, but whether or not it would be a happy town were it not for the arrival of the marauding aliens is hard to say. It is possible that the local psychiatrist’s sardonic take is influenced by his having been replaced by the time he observes that

Less than a month ago Santa Mira was like any other town. People had nothing but problems. Then out of the sky came a solution.

If the solution is another society, the inevitable inference is that the problem must have been society itself and how it is structured. The first act of the newly installed citizens is to freeze economic activity and turn their attention towards making room for more of their kind. In this they seem well organised. But, as in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (which was published at the same time as the source for Body Snatchers), what is less clear is how the alien/vampire society will operate once the takeover is complete, except insofar as its harmony appears to be founded on feeling the same way about things, and banishing notions such as ‘love, desire, ambition, faith,’ without which, still in the words of the town’s psychiatrist, ‘life is so simple’.

To have only friends, but no enemies. To harbour neither love nor hate. Are these the aspirations of our data selves? Does the impoverished range of responses on the social networks – like, retweet, +1 – tend towards the same end, that is to say further existence and the steady broadening of the networks themselves, irrespective of their content and communicative value? Or, to ask a possibly more useful question: could it be that we have also come to think of these new networks as a solution to the problem that is the social?

George Bailey and Mary Hatch were tagged in a picture

Were it not for the framing story complete with narration by the male lead imposed on Don Siegel and the production, Body Snatchers would be an even more nihilistic affair, whereas the decade-older It’s a Wonderful Life has been traditionally regarded as an uplifting Christmas story that affirms the capacity of small town America – and, by extension, Christian communities everywhere – to produce positive values and a liveable society. However even if we ‘buy’ the remarkably comprehensive resolution of its celebrated and much-spoofed ending, I would argue that the film is a lot darker than it is generally, although no longer universally, acknowledged.

It is not just that the long section devoted to showing James Stewart’s character in increasingly painful detail what life would be like in Bedford Falls if he had never been born is a true horror film within the film; it’s also the implication that, to the extent that the town survived the Great Depression and the war without complete immiseration or the total collapse of its moral core, it was all down to one man; and that the pressure exerted on this unique citizen, this nigh-superhuman figure of banker with a conscience, was such that he ended up on the brink of bankruptcy and suicide. If it’s a miracle that restores George Bailey to life and solvency, then it is also a most unlikely miracle that he was around – and that he stuck around – in the first place.

Clarence Odbody posted a message on George Bailey’s wall

Thus ‘no man is a failure who has friends’, one of the overt moral messages of the film, may adequately describe the parable of the protagonist, but not his broader social context, much less the country’s. George is not just a man who has friends: he is the friend – and son, brother, husband – that everyone else depends upon, the single guarantor of the viability of his social network and, by extension, of society. If every town needs its George Bailey, and if every George Bailey is similarly besieged, then It’s a Wonderful Life can hardly be said to offer a workable model of how communities may survive and progress in an economic system that runs on greed.

Unlike I Am Legend, which is set in Los Angeles, Body Snatchers and It’s a Wonderful Life depict a nation in which the social fabric starts tearing from the smaller towns, where it ought to be stronger, and harbour in this respect the same fundamental pessimism about the present and future prospects of post-war America. But they also map anxieties about social relationships that are less historically specific. Interestingly, memory plays a key role in both scenarios.

In Body Snatchers, the transfer of memory is a key part of the replacement process. Only by demonstrating the necessary, intimate knowledge of the victims’ life story can the invaders succeed in not arising suspicion amongst those who are yet to be replaced. The graduality of the process (‘they replace you atom for atom, cell for cell’) finds echoes in the creation of nowadays’ digital selves, through the uploading of one’s personal archive on the likes of Facebook’s Timeline, a reflexive process in which the subject is encouraged to think of him- or herself as a function of the identity slowly accreting on the screen. In It’s a Wonderful Life the situation is reversed, and the never-born George Bailey is plagued by the memory of things that never happened. He knows everyone in Pottersville (formerly Bedford Falls) but recalling his past experiences with them only increases their suspicion and distrust. They don’t know this man. He’s cut off from the network and lacks the capacity to re-enter it with a new identity.

To know everyone and not be known by anyone: this too finds an equivalent in the asymmetric nature of social media relationships, the unrequited follower, the awkwardly excluded. Marginalisation takes on new codes and forms. At the same time, Body Snatchers invites us to question what is it that constitutes true or at any rate truer identity. Our atoms get periodically replaced in the normal course of our being alive. So what is it that makes these perfect copies less than us? What is it that makes the configuration of their social network a degraded version of ours? Unless what makes them evil is their being other, not-us: Hell as other people.

There is that killer line in Body Snatchers about fear of sleep: ‘We might wake up changed.’ And then the two fugitives pause in the hills outside of Santa Mira to listen to a female voice singing in the distance. ‘Miles, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful. It means we’re not the only ones left who know what love is,’ says Becky. ‘Pray that they are as human as they sound,’ is Miles’ reply. But later he returns to their hiding place to find that she has been replaced. The song acted as a lullaby, and she fell briefly into the ill-fated sleep. All it took.

There is poignancy in the cause of that effect, that it might have been beauty and feeling – two flaws of the network, soon to be designed out – that caused Becky’s undoing, but more so in the unexplained mystery of the source of the song, and the odds-on likelihood that it came from them, and that they so quickly learned not just guile but also how to simulate and possibly enjoy the performance of art. And so over fifty years on, instead of its progressively more and more mediocre remakes, Body Snatchers still begs for a sequel and a glimpse into that new society, in the off chance that it may turn out to be a utopia populated by monsters.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People

'Let us not apologize for being the nation which turned out to be the best at colonization.' Seventeen words near the end of an obscure book by an even more obscure publisher. Yet it’s practically a manifesto, the un-coded response to the decline of Western hegemony by a sector of the public in Britain and in its former colonies. How broad a sector, it’s hard to say, and would be instructive to properly investigate. But in the meantime we can savour that phrase. Let us not apologise. Indeed not. For being the best at. Who would apologise for being very good at something? Colonization. Oh.

Duncan Balmer’s The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People predates Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by two years. They weren’t idle years, either, for the rehabilitation of our supposedly shared colonial past has taken rather different tones this side of 9/11. It is possibly interesting too that by the time the two books were published their respective authors had left Britain. Ferguson, to take up a post at New York University. Balmer, to work as an investment advisor in Auckland. It is therefore unsurprising that both books should be concerned as much with historical Britain as with its idealised double, a nation of the mind, which in Balmer’s case takes in fact the proper name of England in order for the roots of British exceptionalism to be dug deeper, extending the colonial (and patriarchal) logic to the home country itself. For Balmer is especially careful to inform us that the grievances of the Scottish, Welsh and most importantly Irish people are morally and historically baseless, and so apparently is their claim to belong to the British nation and share in its achievements. It is all for England and about England, precisely because the core nation is defined by the absence of such grievances and of otherness more generally. It is history with the occasional blemish but without negation.

Balmer’s book is not ostensibly about the British Empire, however. Its stated aim is rather to show how England’s history, borrowing from a quote attributed to Pericles, ‘abides everywhere, woven into the stuff of other people’s lives’ (13), and so it proceeds to enumerate the English inventions – the jury trial, Common Law, the Anglican Church, driving on the left, Parliament, several popular sports, the English language as lingua franca, Greenwich Mean Time, and so forth – that continue to have a significant influence outside of the geographical confines of their nation of origin. Here Balmer overlooks the obvious point that some of these inventions are so widespread because of Britain’s imperial successes. Many items on his list are also to be found in fact in Ferguson’s list of the features of British society that the Empire introduced in its colonies, which goes like this:
1. The English language
2. English forms of land tenure
3. Scottish and English banking
4. The Common Law
5. Protestantism
6. Team Sports
7. The limited or ‘night watchman’ state
8. Representative assemblies
9. The idea of liberty (Empire, xxii)
So powerful was the idea of liberty, Ferguson and Balmer agree, that no matter how despotic the empire became, ‘there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society’ (Empire, ibid.), and that commitment to liberty gave the British Empire it’s peculiar ‘self-liquidating feature’ – this is Ferguson again – which made it difficult for the rulers, once a colony had become British enough to aspire to political independence, to find sufficient justification to deny that aspiration.

To the extent that Balmer’s book is more interesting than Ferguson’s, it is in that it is more naïve, less guarded, and frankly more of a mess. You won’t find a single coherent argument in The Whole Earth, but you will find the naked unravelling of the thought patterns of the apologists, as if under a compulsion. The book that doesn’t want to be about Empire, just be allowed to indulge in jingoistic pride, must nonetheless grapple with the ghosts of history and in so doing expose its bankrupt logic.

One of the 914 (to date) establishing shots of England’s greatness in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey

As in Downton Abbey, at the centre of the plot is heritage, an inheritance. The dedication of The Whole Earth to ‘Avril, Charlie and A.J.’ reads
You’ve all got English blood in your veins; be proud of it.
There is an obvious contradiction between the essentialist appeal to an ancestral bloodline and the celebration of England’s pride on the grounds of its superior ideas, as there is more fundamentally between the desire to own past achievements and the injunction to forgive and forget past wrongdoings. ‘It is surely anachronistic to still be harping on about all the alleged crimes of the English after all these years, (128)’ bleats Balmer on the subject of Irish history, without seeming equally inclined to let us forget just who it is who came up with all the good stuff.

But it would be wishful to suppose that England’s greatness could be affirmed without pointing out the shortcomings of the peoples that came under its rule. It’s like when Paul Holmes told Hone Harawira that colonisation hadn’t been so bad, I mean, now we have refrigerators in which to keep all the crayfish, don’t we (the wry smile that Harawira mustered in response is beyond my descriptive powers. You’ll find it at around 8 minutes 30 seconds of this video), which hinted simultaneously at the wretched backwardness of the native and the modernising benevolence of the conqueror, nor it could in that context have done one without the other. So too Balmer feels the need to account for the primitive political institutions and the turmoil of the nations that Britain came to colonise, most notably perhaps in the case of India, for which he blames ‘the debilitating mutual hatreds and jealousies of separate Indian states’ (136) for forcing the hand of the otherwise reluctant British State, later noting that the eventual post-colonial country was made viable by the institutions left by the departed power, and was never run so well as then the people who introduced those institutions were in charge. Of the same tenor is the observation that Australian aborigines and the New Zealand Māori would have carried on their merry stone age way had the British not taken it upon themselves to civilise them.

However Balmer is not content to suggest that Britain improved the lot of the countries it subjugated. He must also – again, like Ferguson – advance the view that it produced the most benign of all empires, and furthermore that there was no historical alternative to colonialism. If at any time in the last five hundred years you happened to sit on some natural resources and not be terribly advanced from a military-technological standpoint, Britain was simply the best thing that could (and, sooner or later, would) happen to you. Or, if you prefer: the past is a foreign country, and we had to invade it.

It is at this point that Balmer drops the line with which I started this post, and inside of which so many post-colonial attitudes are roughly crammed. However it is quite conceivable that even if Balmer were more honest and thorough in his assessment of any of the suffering caused by British imperialism – say, if he didn’t completely neglect to mention the Bengal famine of 1770, or if he didn’t shift entirely onto the Irish and Anglo-Irish landlords the blame for the disastrous handling of the Great Irish Famine – he would come to the same exculpating conclusion: that England’s dominion over so many nations was the only historically available expression of its cultural primacy, and that its net effect over those nations was a positive one, both in that it spared them from greater suffering at the hand of worse masters, and in that it accelerated their trajectory towards an enlightened modernity that values liberty and has no need for empires. Thus the value and full appreciation of the independence of the colonised is supplied by the coloniser, who only asks in return to be able to live, roam and work in the peaceful, globalised world he (sic) has created.

Except the author is not lucid enough to explicitly draw those conclusions. Instead, when the argument reaches a climax, it ejaculates into a non-sequitur, leaving us to fill the gap in logic. As in the following passage:
And while we are on the subject of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the English not be ashamed of their history vis-à-vis these peoples either. Whatever the true facts surrounding England’s alleged heinous crimes and injustices, that was the nature of the times in which our ancestors lived: life was “nasty, brutish and short”, and the Scots, Welsh and Irish would most assuredly have done the same things to us (and occasionally did) if we had not done them better and more often to them.

Arise, England! (150)

Downton Abbey: now with 20% more lintels.

Crude, retrograde fantasies of past Western grandeur: is it really a wonder that they are so popular at the present time? Is it surprising that there is so much comfort to be found for so many in retreating to a past that has excellent production values, if not always a decent or believable plotline? Thus Downton Abbey finds value in the aristocracy in spite of everything, always teasing the viewer that a critique of its archaic social order and values may be just around the corner – the socialist chauffeur will do something, any minute now – only to revert every single time to its reactionary, paternalistic reflexes. Like when the scheming, promiscuous visiting maid counsels Daisy, the young cook's apprentice, to demand that her pay be increased by being confrontational and threatening to seek other employment, instead of politely petitioning her present superiors; or in any of the plots that involve Thomas, the evil gay valet – who as of series 2 is either evil or gay, but no longer both at the same time – and his disorderly ambitions, his desire to go off script and be something or somebody else.

The expository nature of these fantasies suggests that they wish to educate as much as to entertain. How else to explain the single most redundant detail of The Whole Earth, namely the appendix with dates and names of the Kings and Queens of England? A list one could find anywhere, but that signals in this context a precise pedagogical end, or rather a longing – later famously shared by the serving Tory State Secretary for Education – for the school system that insisted you should memorise those dates and names, because they meant something, and that you should be proud of that knowledge and those meanings, proud of the symbols of past glory. But most importantly, that you should never, ever feel the need to apologise.

Duncan Balmer. The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People. Auckland: Third Opinion Publishing, 2000.

Niall Ferguson. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Allen Lane, 2002.

I stopped short of linking Balmer's book that Paul Holmes' recent outburst on the Waitangi Day protests, largely because it has been covered extensively and better than I could have. I'll refer you therefore to Diane Revoluta's response and Scott Hamilton's outstanding summation following Hone Harawira's counter op-ed in the Herald. Bloggers doing what they do best.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Premature Burial

It is by reading Edgar Allan Poe that I learned to be afraid of fictions. I had been afraid as a child, of course, of monsters in the wardrobe and other things that did not exist, as well as some that did, but not of fiction as fiction, not of make believe. Not of things that I knew not to be true; whose very definition was that they were not true.

(Deep down I know there is no monster in the wardrobe, the monster that I myself imagined, but I am unable to reach the logical conclusion: that it can’t be there precisely because it was I who imagined it. There may be other monsters, other dangers; just not that particular one, yet I am afraid of it.)

I encountered Poe whilst coming out of childhood, just as I was forming that theoretical awareness, the sense of what it means – as narratologists would say – to be a conscious appreciator as opposed to a bamboozled participant in the game of fiction. We all learn to distance ourselves, to varying degrees, and especially from written fictions, which require far greater feats of self-suggestion to be sustained: I need, again, to imagine the monster, and yet somehow also forget that it was I who did the imagining, so that I can be afraid. Moreover, it is I who drive the fiction forward. If I was genuinely fearful, as opposed to titillated, I would surely stop reading or set the book aside until I regained my nerve.

(You may wish to imagine a scenario – and it would be most assuredly be fictional – in which a person who reads a message or a letter is materially and mortally endangered by the act of reading, and becomes aware of it, yet is unable to stop, and then the thing happens that was brought about by the awareness of it, somehow. It would be a similar challenge to imagining a book in which the murderer is the reader.)

But one should guard against being too literal. Fear of the monster is not the only kind of fear there is, and even as children we sometimes populate the dark with objects of morbid fascination that draw us at the same time as they repel us. That fascination was a hallmark of the gothic genre, if you could call it a genre, but in Poe especially it came wrapped in hyper-literate speculations that might at first seem designed to deconstruct the fiction, never letting you forget that you moved for a time within a literary world. This side of the book, you would be safe. But that was Poe’s trick, to draw you in with the intellectual conjecture, the ornate description, the learned quotation, to convince you that you would fully and comfortably occupy the role of appreciator, then slowly build around you a screen of darkness onto which to project your (budding, in my case) adult fears.

Harry Clarke's illustration for the 1916 edition of Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination

‘The Premature Burial’ is at once the most crude and the most subtle of Poe’s stories. Crude, in that it spells out from the outset, from the very title, what it is that you should be afraid of. Today, ladies and gentlemen, we shall be talking about the fear of being buried alive. Subtle, and disorienting, for how it plays with that expectation, and for its sublimely ironic frame.

There are certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction.
This is how the story begins, with a coup de theatre, with the notorious horror writer Edgar Allan Poe – for we have no reason at this point to distinguish the author from the narrator – telling us that we shouldn’t make up horrible stories, and then proceeding in journalistic fashion (fitting the original publication in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper) to report on a series of recent cases, both tragic and with an unlikely happy ending, of people who had been buried alive. Some of these cases are plausible, and might have chimed with the recollection of similar ones amongst Poe’s contemporaries, for this was a popular topic in the press at the time. At any rate the partly factual or quasi-factual introduction is a device common in Poe and later perfected by Borges, but it is combined here with the claim that to state anything but the fact of such cases would be abhorrent. At this point in time – 1844 – Poe had in fact published two fictional stories featuring premature burials (‘Berenice’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’), or three if one counts the borderline ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, and might possibly have already been working on another (‘The Cask of Amontillado’).

To say that this frame is ironic doesn’t explain what the irony is for, however. Let us assume provisionally that its function is to draw the reader into thinking or at least speculating that the subsequent first-hand account by the narrator of his own premature burial could also be a true story, thus increasing our identification with his plight and the horror-value. However this episode, whilst undeniably unpleasant, is over very quickly. It is merely on his second attempt to scream out in anguish that the narrator is rescued by his nearby companions, and learns that he has recovered from one of his periodical bouts of catatonia not inside a coffin, but in the narrow berth of a moored boat in which he and the other men had sought refuge from a storm while on a gunning expedition. What’s more, he later finds that the brief but traumatic experience has cured him of the fear of being buried alive, and simultaneously of the lifelong illness that put him at risk of being mistaken for dead. He’s a changed man, a new man. He discards his medical books, his 'fustians about churchyards', his 'bugaboo tales', and with them all of his gloomy apprehensions. He travels abroad, takes 'vigorous exercise'. In short, he learns to live ‘a man’s life’. This most unusual finale ends with a repudiation of the literary fiction of Edgar Allan Poe:
There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell–but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful–but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us–they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.

Let’s leave aside the fact that I would give three of my toes to be able to write like that. What are we to make of this? Is this really the moral of the story, that a life lived in fear is no life at all, that we must learn to suffer our demons to slumber? One can imagine that the narrator, restored to mental and physical health and bolstered by a new-found optimism, would go on to live a long life, while the author died an alcoholic five years after the publication of the story, aged 40. So perhaps Poe allowed themselves a wishful moment, and wrote himself an alter ego who might defy expectation and choose life. However I doubt it. The irony cuts deeper, and the horror that the story articulates is not the fear of an untimely death – it’s the fear of not dying.

A series of notorious cases of premature burial led in the half century before Poe’s birth to the invention of the brilliantly named ‘safety coffin’, a contraption that would allow a non-corpse upon waking to either exit the premises directly, or attract the attention of graveyard attendants or mourners via a strategically placed and easy to operate bell, whilst allowing for the flow of air inside the tomb. In Roger Corman’s very loose 1962 adaptation of ‘The Premature Burial’, the protagonist, memorably played by Ray Milland – an actor so wooden that he could easily pass for dead whilst speaking his lines – fashioned a true safety crypt: with a coffin that would spring open upon the slightest movement, and plenty of room, a well-stocked pantry and an equally well-stocked library, rather begging the question – seeing as the man is an aristocrat residing in an isolated country estate – of how a long sojourn in such a place would differ from his normal life, or indeed why he might even want to leave the crypt, except to procure fresh supplies. This idea of death as a luxury holiday of indefinite duration may have echoes in the fabulously furnished tombs of ancient autocrats and oligarchs, or the Etruscan necropoles – subterranean cities of the dead onto which the ordinary life going on above ground was mapped – but it has little in common with Poe’s story.

Somewhat closer to the mark is Rodrigo Cortès' Buried (2010), but only so long as we amend its premise, and recognise that as soon as he wakes up inside the coffin where he was placed by his abductors, the character played by Ryan Reynolds is already dead. He’s a dead man with temporary use of a cellphone, and therein lies the horror: not just having to deal with an inhuman bureaucracy from inside his own grave – although the exit interview with Reynolds’ employer, played by Stephen Tobolowsky, is bone-chilling and worth the entire film – but also with answering machines and call waiting and call forwarding facilities. Finally, to have a voice at all, and no-one to speak to. The utter loneliness of it.

I think that’s what I gleaned above all else from Poe’s fiction in my early teenage years, the depth of what it might mean to be a misfit, unfit, surplus to requirement, alone, never learning to silence one’s demons and live ‘a man’s life’, and then on top of that carrying on far too long, waiting in vain for the house, your world, to fall around you (‘Usher’ was the one with the happy ending). All this was real. Until in my second year of intermediate school I made another encounter, this time with Primo Levi, and with the chronicles of horrors that Poe hadn’t ventured to imagine, save for when he wrote that 'the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell'. But those events really were too horrible for the purpose of legitimate fiction, and so Poe’s stories reverted to literature. They became a place of comfort, albeit angular and strange. I visit it still.

In writing this post I thought I might have more use for Robert Newsom’s essay 'Fear of Fictions'. But there you go, a reference of sorts.

If you missed the launch of the revamped New Inquiry website last week, with the addition of writers like Evan Calder Williams, Aaron Bady, Imp Kerr and Rob Horning, do take a look. And consider subscribing, it costs very little and the first issue of the digital magazine is a thing of beauty.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Death of Cinema Redux: Martin Scorsese's Hugo

‘Fix it,’ says the shop owner to Hugo, handing him a small mechanical wind-up mouse covered with felt. The boy pulls out the coil, reaches for a small screwdriver and quickly restores the small toy to its original working condition. Then he and the man watch it as it pirouettes on the desktop, occasionally standing on its hind legs as if to sniff the air.

You can buy a replica of this toy for $29.50, but that’s not the perverse part. The perverse part is that the dance of the mechanical mouse was stop-frame animated by hand, using a technique roughly contemporary to the setting of the film. As Pixomondo’s visual effects supervisor Ben Grossman has explained to fxguide,
It was hand animated for hours and hours, so we could have done a totally CG mouse which would have been a piece of cake, which is what everyone would have expected, but instead we decided to make it an homage to classic technique.

Of course another option would have been to design, build and operate an actual mechanical mouse, but that wouldn’t have been inventive enough, nor a ‘homage’. So the filmmakers opted to create all this work for themselves. A labour of love, but labour nonetheless. Is cinema the only industry in which taking longer than necessary to do something is viewed as a virtue? And I don’t mean in the way that taking a long time to do something can lead to making a better product. Say: a good cheese, or one of those plasticine animations that Aardman no longer bothers to make. No: the labour here has a purely fetishistic function, it is the end in itself. A CG mouse would not only have been a piece of cake, it would have also most likely looked better on the screen, while the hand animation was jarring and odd, its imperfections not matching the analogue movements of a mechanical toy, which digital animators are by now notoriously adept at reproducing.

I would have much less of a problem with this if the film in question, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, had in fact been shot using early twentieth-century techniques throughout, making the bold aesthetic choice to reclaim the craft of innovative artisans such as Georges Méliès, the film's co-protagonist, or of clock-makers like the young lead of the title. (After all mechanical timekeeping is itself a quite obsolete technology.) But this is emphatically not the case. If you’re fond of staring at green screens, you can sit through this nearly ten-minute long clip on the extensive use of digital technology to craft almost all of the film’s major sequences, and you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m not suggesting that there is no artistry in that, nor that the use of computers devalues production design compared to the pioneering times of Georges Méliès. But neither do I think we can claim – as Hugo does; it’s in fact its overt thesis – that today’s cinema is the modern equivalent of the old one, just with updated technology. Méliès’ cinema was nothing like ours. It didn’t command big budgets, nor rely on a worldwide network of distribution, garner advance publicity or attract critical attention from the press. It was at once a new art form and a novelty, a thing to be experimented with, to be awed by and to scoff at. Reception is key to this difference: the famous (although possibly legendary) episode of the audience jumping out of their seats during the first screening of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat is shown not once but twice in Hugo, begging the obvious retort that today’s 3D technology makes nobody jump out of theirs. We are now wise to the trickery, and even if we weren’t, the launch of every major film is preceded by videos on YouTube and news websites, or ‘making of’ featurettes on television, illustrating how the most spectacular sequences were shot and then transformed in post-production, often down to promoting the brand of software used. This would have been anathema to Georges Méliès, who had plied his trade as an illusionist. But it also exposes the peculiar obsession of contemporary cinema with demystifying itself at the same time as it seeks to persuade its audiences that they are going to witness a magic spectacle every bit as awe-inspiring and literally moving as those early films that made their naïve spectators run for their lives.

Of course there is no rewinding the mechanical clock to those pioneering years, if only because we cannot make audiences unlearn the art of watching films, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s history. However the relationship with that history, and with the passage of time more generally, is precisely the issue with Hugo.

The myth of origin created by Scorsese is blatantly dishonest: what drove Méliès out of business wasn’t the fact that WWI spoiled the taste of the public for his flights of fancy; it was the workings of the burgeoning film industry, and in particular the monopolistic practice of the rental system, to whose demands Méliès was never quite willing or able to adapt. More generally (and, one might argue, inevitably): what killed early experimental films and drove its makers out of business was the film industry that now produces the films of Martin Scorsese.

That the manipulation of the father-figure of Méliès and of the record is achieved through massive industry financing and the deployment of the latest computer technologies, with the odd piece of old-fashioned bricolage thrown in to appeal to the obsessively nostalgic, is neither surprising nor new, and speaks directly to Paolo Cherchi-Usai’s indictment of digital ideology in the cinema in a book whose preface, ironically enough, was written by none other than Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese the passionate campaigner for film preservation doesn’t see the contradiction in making a movie in which the films of Georges Méliès are digitised, transformed to include the character played in Hugo by Helen McCrory and made tri-dimensional – as if they needed to be updated in order to be shown at all – at the same time as they are held as the thing that is authentic, the objective Real that modern cinema is founded upon and should seek to return to.

Subsuming and processing the past like that, be it historical or artistic/literary, is what contemporary cinema does best through the digital (how to forget or indeed forgive that Hugo’s co-producer Johnny Depp was involved in what is without a doubt the wrongest of these films?) But I don’t mean to suggest that Hugo’s flaws are confined to a meta-level accessible only to the humourless critic, for one would be remiss not to note its thematic incoherence and dramatic weakness, leading to constant interruptions as the director phones to tell you what the film is about.

(‘Fix it’, says Méliès to Hugo. Fix my toy. Make this machine that no longer delights work again. And Hugo obliges. The broken toy is cinema, and what fixes it are child-like wonder and a pure heart. Etcetera.)

The problem in fact is that the meta-level is what Hugo is about, which is to say that its intent is to function as propaganda. As James Cameron – who must have some sort of global contract clause requiring that he be thrust in front of a camera with the director of every new film shot in 3D – has said to Scorsese: ‘Your film is about the magic of cinema, and the movie is magical to watch’. It is important that we believe this, and that’s what those ‘making of’ shorts and shot-by-shot analyses are designed to achieve. It doesn’t matter that they give away the trick, because a filmmaker’s job no longer resembles that of the illusionist. In front of an illusionist, the audience is meant to wonder: How did they do this? In the cinema, we know how they did it: nine times out of ten, they used computers, which is very much like saying that a wizard did it. If anything, knowing the trick, understanding how a piece of illusion was crafted, might make a sequence seem more real.

But that the film is magical to watch is the whole point. You must enjoy yourself. As I’ve had occasion to argue, this is close to a universal moral imperative these days, as well as being regarded as a form of labour. Yet shifting the emphasis suggests another way of reading the phrase: You must enjoy yourself. You are the ghost in the machine, and the machine is cinema. John Logan’s screenplay puts it in the mouth of Méliès himself:
If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, this is where they are made.
This is nonsense of the highest order, and could only come from a culture intoxicated by entertainment: we don’t dream in movies. But perhaps we do need to be convinced that this cinema that treats the past like a wind-up toy, that is never about social classes, never about a history other than its own, this cinema obsessed with infantilising itself and its audiences is still relevant and interesting, somehow.

For a review that focuses on the thematic/narrative aspects of the film, as well as the association between spectacle and authority, see Aaron Bady's remarkable Martin Scorsese Started the Fire: Hugo and The Bad Thing. Plus with any luck if you hated this post you might hate his as well and I might take less heat.

Edit: If you want somebody else to hate, see also Lili Loofbourow's taglines for Hugo. My favourite: Victor, H.G. and Jules agree: “all of the steampunk, none of the calories!”