Serpents & Birds

“As filtered through Horace and the power of Roman literary institutions, Aristotelian notions of genre provided the very foundation of the neoclassical critical system. […] Perhaps the most celebrated cause of this period is the battle over the ultimate generic crossbreed: tragicomedy. Ever the incontrovertible naturalist, Horace had set limits on the poet’s right to mix genres: ‘it does not go to the extent that savage should mate with tame, that serpents should couple with birds, or lambs with tigers’. Reacting strongly against the medieval grotesque tendency to mix the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the secular, the tragic and comic, seventeenth century French neoclassical critics and first found it impossible to accept the new composite. Yet little by little the production of new plays […] broke down critical resistance and led to the acceptance of the hybrid genre.


“For our purposes, one particular lesson stands out from this unexpected development. That a new genre should be born in an expanding culture hardly provides cause for surprise. More important is the way in which this genre develops out of the coupling of two genres previously thought diametrically opposed. In spite of the Horatian committment to keep genres seperate and the neo-Aristotelian refusal to recognize genres not mentioned by Aristotle, the rise of tragicomedy demonstrates the possibility of generating new genres through monstrous mating of already existing genres […].

During the latter half of the 18th Century, a new genre began to edge its way between tragedy and comedy. At first called the ‘serious genre’, as opposed to classical genres, deemed incapable of dealing with contemporary reality, the new genre was designated the ‘weepie genre’ (genre larymoyant) biy its conservative opponents. Eventually baptized simply ‘drama’ (drame) by its radical supporters […] this is the theatrical form that would eventually give rise to melodrama – the most popular theatrical mode of the nineteenth century and cinema’s most important parent genre…”

Rick Altman. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute. 1999. pp 4-5.


Mr. Ballard, He Say No


“I thought the whole problem SF faced was that its consciousness, critically speaking, had been raised to wholly inappropriate heights-the apotheosis of the hamburger. An exhilarating and challenging entertainment fiction which Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain would have relished has become a “disci- pline”-God help us-beloved of those like the Delany who will no doubt pour scorn on my novel of the early ’70s. The “theory and criticism of s-f”!! Vast theories and pseudo-theories are elaborated by people with not an idea in their bones. Needless to say, I totally exclude Baudrillard (whose essay on Crash I have not really wanted to understand)-I read it for the first time some years ago. Of course, his Amerique is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift- brilliancies and jewels of insight in every paragraph-an intellectual Alladin’s cave. But your whole “postmodernism” view of SF strikes me as doubly sini- ster. SF was ALWAYS modern, but now it is “postmodern”-bourgeoisifica- tion in the form of an over-professionalized academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance is now rolling its jaws over an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone. You are killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be! Turn your “intelligence” to the iconography of filling stations, cash machines, or whatever nonsense your entertainment culture deems to be the flavor of the day. We have enough intellectuals in Europe as it is; let the great USA devote itself to the spirit of the Wrights-bicycle mechanics and the sons of a bishop. The latter’s modesty and exquisitely plain prose style would be an example to you- especially his restrained but heartfelt reflections on the death of one of his sons, a model of the spirit animating SF at its best. But I fear you are trapped inside your dismal jargon.”

J. G. Ballard, “A Response to the Invitation to Respond”. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, Science Fiction and Postmodernism (Nov., 1991). p. 329.

Cue The ‘Scrapers

The world is a fake and there are good reasons to believe it has been a set up from the start. When Thomas Anderson awakes from the dream that was his “real life” to discover that he is really Neo, The Matrix [1999] plugs into one of the most pervasive themes of contemporary cinema – that the world is a simulation. With this discovery comes the realisation that the centre of the world, the self, is perhaps also a shifting set of fictions. It’s a theme that touches on profound philosophical inquiry, mixed with the pop iconography of our times, and draws on a literature of the fantastic to provocatively literalise metaphors into exotic alternative realities.

It’s perhaps inevitable that popular cinema opts for a romantic notion of the self where most crises are resolved as external problems. In this view, the self is immutable and central, and as the external world may appear to change, doubt is the result of outside forces. This view has been found in cinema since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [1920] but the film that anticipates our current obsessions most vividly is John Frankenheimer’s classic The Manchurian Candidate [1962].

Major Bennett Marco suffers from nightmares featuring his former platoon sergeant Raymond Shaw, the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. No one can recall the exact details of how Shaw received his citation for combat heroism in Korea. Troubled by his visions and nagging doubts, Marco begins to investigate. What transpires is a lurid tale of brainwashing at the hands of the Communist Chinese as Marco discovers that Shaw has been primed to assassinate the Vice President-elect. Each time Marco tries to recall his own brainwashing, the film presents a stunning tableaux of false memories and alternate realities but, through a sheer act of will, Marco acts to stop the assassination by deprogramming himself, rediscovering “reality” and averting political disaster.


It is now accepted that what might appear to be an objective political reality is a concoction of propaganda, brainwashing and smart advertising. This notion has a long history in po[ular cinema. The conspiracy films of the early 1970s that tapped into the cynicism of the post-Watergate era – films that included Executive Action [1973], Three Days of The Condor [1975] and All The President’s Men [1976] – centered on the now commonly held view that Government is behind “conspiracies” and can bend and distort public perceptions to suit its needs.

The Parallax View [1974] proposed a more complex scenario where the main character’s view of his “reality” and “true self” were cut adrift. Investigating the assassination of a US Senator with presidential aspirations, journalist Joe Frady discovers that the Parallax Corporation, a ‘therapy institute’, is a front for a politically motivated group that uses advanced conditioning techniques to cultivate would-be assassins. At first it seems that Frady can resist the conditioning as he poses as someone with the right personality but soon his psychlogical status becomes increasingly ambiguous – is Frady a journalist faking that he is brainwashed – or is he an assassin who really is brainwashed? Like Oswald, Frady is eliminated.

These films seem quaint today and, like The Manchurian Candidate, their big revelations are seen as commonplace realities. Indeed, when the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate cast an actor with a startling physical resemblance to Vice President Dick Cheney to play a prominent politician, it wasn’t so much a case of provocation but rather one of filmic realism. What has changed is that audiences accept that the very fabric of space and time is pliable and that “reality” is physically located just beyond the one that seems most apparent. The Matrix and its sequels exemplify this idea but it’s a thread that has been running since Blade Runner [1982] [1]. Total Recall [1990] Ghost In The Shell [1995] Abre los Ojos [1997], The Truman Show [1998] Dark City [1998], Waking Life [2001] and Imposter [2002] all toy with the notion of self in the context of an uncertain external universe. Alongside these films are the movies adapted from scripts by Charlie Kaufman including Being John Malkovich [1999] and Adaptation [2002]. Kaufman’s movies are narratives that propose radically decentered selves using multiple personalities, doubles and mirror worlds but which ultimately opt for the certainty of an immutable self [2].

Films that attribute identity crises as external manipulations ultimately retreat into dualisms of self/other, real/fake, inside/outside, good/evil. Matrix Reloaded [2003], the second in the Matrix Trilogy, concluded with the tantalising suggestion that the “real” into which Neo had escaped was just another simulation – and that Thomas Anderson was not Neo, but perhaps a third or fourth identity and so on, ad infinitum – but in Matrix Revolutions [2003] the narrative collapsed into a solipsistic closed-circuit that relied heavily on archaic and mystical notions of the self. Movies such as The Forgotten [2004] suggest that the main character’s understanding of what is real is based on her own estranged, abnormal psychology but ultimately a more mundane, if extraterrestrial, explanation is offered [3].

If the external worlds of these films are reflections of their main character’s psychologies and, if these external worlds are fakes, it could be argued that so too are the identities of the protagonists. Few films have seemed willing to tackle this idea. Fight Club [1999] utilised a split personality rendered literally to depict an [albeit] ironic heterosexual male emasculation. The fighting of the movie’s title allow its characters to discover something more ‘real’ than their everyday existence – and to be ultimately confronted not by the world at large, but by the self. Jack idolizes Tyler Durden and follows him everywhere, even as Durden creates a paramilitary organisation bent on terrorist acts. Jack protests only to discover that Tyler is a phantasm of his own making. The denouement of the film is among the most radical of recent cinema; although both sides of Jack’s personality are ultimately reconciled through the destruction of the illusion – as in the twins of Kaufman’s Adaptation – Jack embraces the alternative reality. Cue explosions – and the skyscrapers fall.

“I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life. I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.”

David Cronenberg’s films have been long concerned with such questions of sifting identity eXistenZ [1999] is a typically perverse example [4]. Security agent Ted Pikul rescues the virtual reality game designer Allegra Geller when a Realist Underground hit squad attempt to assassinate her. Escaping to a safe house, Pikul and Geller decide to enter Geller’s V.R. game [an exact simulacrum of the outside world] to find clues to the attack. Inside the game, however, identities and realities become increasingly confused as they enter into a V.R. game within the game. “I’m feeling a little disconnected from my real life,” says Pikul at one point. “I’m kinda losing touch with the texture of it. You know what I mean? I actually think there is an element of psychosis involved here.” Escaping from the game as it comes under attack, the ‘real world’ is revealed to be four times removed as the game -and the game within the game – are part of yet another game. No one is sure if reality is real and who is who. Someone asks “is this still the game?” before being promptly killed.

One of the most interesting films to tackle the subject of alternative identities is also one of the least known. Cypher [2002] follows Jack Thursby, an an unhappy office drone living in suburbia. Offered an exciting new job with computer company Digicorp, Thursby goes undercover to spy on corporate competitors. While travelling around the United States to various trade fairs, Thursby discovers that he is actually Morgan Sullivan, and that his identity as Thursby was a brainwash that enabled him to become a double agent. Where most films opt for just one revelation, Cypher takes a third step – Sullivan discovers that his second identity as Sullivan is also a fake. He is a computer genius named Sebastian Rook who has engineered a war between Digicorp and its rival to eliminate both. Unfortunately for Rook, the conclusion of the film may not signify his “real self “ but rather the uncomfortable realisation that this third identity is a concoction, perhaps of a fourth identity, or more provocatively still, reflexively acknowledging that he is a fictional character in a movie called Cypher.


[1] One might also add the recent spate of zombie movies to this category including 28 Days Later [2002], the remake of Day of The Dead [2004] and Land of The Dead [2005], Vanilla Sky [2001] – the Hollywood remake of Abre Los Ojos – the ‘virtual reality’ films of the early 1990s and experiments in decentered personalities such as Todd Solondz’s Palindromes [2004].

[2] Kaufman’s films and others mentioned here owe a direct debt to the work of Philip K. Dick, one the most adapted authors for contemporary narratives of altered selves and realities.

[3] The Forgotten also connects the current cycle of altered reality films to the conspiracy movies of the 1970s via its extraterrestrial theme and the TV series The X-Files [1993-2003].

[4] Cronenberg’s Videodrome [1983] is the most explicitly connected to eXistenZ using TV instead of V.R. to transport its character to an altered mind state and uses and almost identical ending, but see also Dead Ringers [1988], Naked Lunch [1991] and Spider [2002].

Andrew Frost, “Other Worlds”, Photofile #77 [better than] The Real Thing, Autumn, 2006.

Nostalgia for the Future


“Space music can […] be best regarded as an outgrowth of easy-listening that is even further removed from the musical foreground. Beautiful music supplies ghost tunes of the originals, whereas space music distills the ghost tune’s mood, its sound, and a smidgen of its style and reprocesses it into an “original” composition once again, this time unanchored to any distinct emotional or historical context. It avoids nostalgia mainly because its uncertainties force us to look back and ahead simultaneously. It derives power from the clash between the musician’s emotions and the space station granduer of high-tech gadgets and computer wizardry. Some of its best examples suggest science-fiction fantasies rooted in comic books and optimistic space tales. Space music thus celebrates a nostalgia for the future as it paradoxically looks ahead toward unsolved childhood mysteries…”

Joseph Lanza. “Violins From Space”. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening and Other Moodsong. [Revised and Expanded Edition]. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2004. pp 189-90.

Speculative Geography


“[Code 46] Production Designer Mark Tildesley pieced together a “creative geography” for the film. A scene might be made up of a few different locations, different pieces of buildings existing in reality thousands of miles from each other. Tildesley thought; “The most interesting thing to do would be to try to fool the audience by taking the most interesting bits from each location. So you’d have the impression that you were walking out of a door in one city, but you’d actually end up walking out of it into completely different place, somewhere else entirely.” They chose Shanghai and Dubai as locations because they have: “This extraordinary, contradictory architecture. In Shanghai there is Third World poverty in the shadow of some of the most modern skyscrapers in the world. In Dubai there is the skyscraper area of the city and then just behind it is the desert. It was those curious juxtapositions which were interesting and attractive.”

“The space created by Code 46 is a compelling, almost meditative, melancholic vision, muted and disquieting. The dream of globalization has soured into an overly surveilled and controlling world […] , where even sexual partners need to be DNA-vetted […] The film’s East-meets-West outlook evokes the futurist visions of J.G. Ballard, where the vermilion sands of Third World deserts are interrupted only by rundown settlements and sleek shimmering citystate protectorates. Shanghai is a perfect location, as, more than any other city, it is currently undergoing a rapid transformation into “the city of the future.” The already sci-fi-inflected design of the Oriental Pearl TV tower in Pudong clashes up against the art deco mansions of Shanghai’s faded colonial past. Yet it makes perfect sense that Pudong’s new skyscraper district should coexist with the older part of town, Puxi, across the Huangpu river.”

Code 46‘s dystopic sci-fi reality is a world on the brink of destruction, fractured into citystates, internationalist but isolated. A world of transience, of airport check-ins, and motorway check points. Where people are as disconnected as the locations themselves. The glowing – circular atrium of Shanghai’s Grand Hyatt, located in the feng shui’d Jiang Mao tower, or the City’s elevated highways, spiral people into themselves, into a reverie.”

Matt Hanson. Code 46 in Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes: The Science Behind The Fiction. Mies: Rotovision SA. 2004. pp 100-02.

Code 46 on IMDB

Code 46, Wikipedia

Keep the funk alive

“del i’m feeling like a ghost in a shell
i wrote this in jail playing host to a cell
for the pure verbal, they said my sentance was equivalent to
just another hurdle, i bounced through a portal
i knew they had the mindstate of mere mortals
my ears morphed to receptors to catch ya
every word about gravity control
and the families they hold for handsome ransoms
on the run with a handgun blast bioforms, I am more
than a planetwide manhunt with cannons
will make me abondon my foolish plan of uprising
fuck dying I hijack a mech
controlling with my magical chance so battle advance
through centuries a hip hop legacy, megaspeed
hyperwarp to automator’s crib and light the torch

they can’t fight the force,
victory is ours once we strike the source
enterprising wise men look to the horizon
thinking more capitalism is the wisdom
and imprison all citizens in power
with rythm
we keep the funk alive by talking with idioms…”

Deltron 3030, 3030.

Towards infinity


“Sublimity. This attribute of objects of sight seldom occurs on the face of nature, in its natural state, comparatively with most of those which have been enumerated. Mountain scenery, how grand or magnificent it may be, is now, on that account, the more sublime-, an extent of water, though wide as the sea itself, will not admit of the epithet, while it remains in a calm, unagitated state; any more than will an extent of country covered with snow; unless the idea of unbounded space raise it in some degree: but how infinitely more is this idea capable of exciting it, in viewing space itself, — in beholding the universe, — in looking towards infinity!

“The sublime seems to require that the higher degrees of astonishment should be roused, to demonstrate its presence: a degree of terror, if not of horror, is required to produce the more forcible emotions of the mind, which Sublimity is capable of exciting.

“A giant precipice, frowning over its base, whether we view it from beneath, or look downward from its brink, is capable of producing sublime emotions. A river tumbling headlong over such a precipice, especially if it be viewed with difficulty and a degree of danger, real or imaginary, still heightens those emotions. Lightning, thunder, and hurricanes may produce them.

“But, of all natural scenery, the ocean, agitated by a violent storm, attended with thunder and lightning, is perhaps the most capable of filling the mind with sublime emotions, and most especially the mind of a spectator who is himself exposed on its frail surface; and who is not incapable, either from constant habit, or from an excess of apprehension, of contemplating the scenery which surrounds him.

“On the whole, sublimity must rouse some extraordinary emotion in the mind; it cannot be dwelt on with indifference, by an eye unhabituated to its effects, and a mind possessing the least sensibility. Magnificence, grandeur, or simple greatness, may excite some degree of astonishment; but it must be unmixed with awe; the emotions they excite are of the more pleasurable kind. Ugliness disgusts; yet when adorned, it is capable of giving delight; as a contrast to the more rational gratifications of ornamented beauty. All that simple beauty has to bestow is pleasure, heightened, perhaps, by a degree of admiration. Even simplicity, in a state of polished neatness, is capable of giving a degree of pleasure; but, in a state of slovenliness and neglect, it disgust, as ugliness, or deformity, which is simplicity, or beauty, disgustingly defaced.”

Ashfield, Andrew & de Bolla, Peter, eds. The Sublime: A reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. William Marshall, from A review of The Landscape, a didactic poem (1795). pp 276-277.

Image: Alexander McKenzie, Day Landing, 2008. Oil on linen. 137 x 197 cm. Martin Browne Fine Art