My time… is your time

“In the tradition of films like Metropolis, Things to Come, and Logan’s Run, all works that carefully stylize their futuristic worlds and, in the process, set their reality at a safe aesthetic distance from our own, THX 1138 too reaches for a distinct visual scheme, a highly stylized rendition of this other place. However, instead of the sort of monumental look we find to some degree in most utopian/dystopian films, it turns in another direction, offering a stark simplicity: cubicles and bare walls that frame the individual within severe rectangles, imprisoning the subject but also replicating the film frame itself and thereby rendering the person as doubly a “screened” image. In a further development of this design scheme, seen especially in the futuristic prison-without-walls to which THX is consigned, it emphasizes horizonless, open space that has the effect of reducing dimension, turning the self into a two-dimensional figure. More pervasive, though building to a similar effect, is the monochromatic color scheme. The constant white-on-white, recalling the initial descriptions of the future world in Huxley’s Brave New World, not only suggests a sterile and lifeless world but also diminishes the individual by making the subject blend into the background and again appear two-dimensional. Individuality and individuation simply have no place here. The overall effect of this visual design scheme is to consistently frame subjects in an abstract space, removing them from a conventionally real world and, in the process, reconfiguring them as part of a derealized environment.

“In keeping with this effect, THX 1138 also brings into the foreground the very role of representation here and its implications for future life; for from its start this film manifests a kind of self-consciousness, evoking the mechanism of the movies and asking us to consider the effects of that mechanism. We see this impulse in the constant iconography of video screens, computer terminals, and surveillance technology, in the whole mechanics of reproduction on which the genre so often focuses. Of course, that sort of imagery hardly seems out of place here, since such icons typically fill our science fiction narratives. As Garrett Stewart notes, these various “mechanics of apparition,” through their omnipresence, have indeed become a kind of generic signature.”

Telotte, J.P. “The Science Fiction Film as Fantastic Text: THX 1138.” Science Fiction Film.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pp  130.


They know it when they see it.


“Most viewers seem to have little difficulty in staking out some fairly clear territory from which to start thinking about the science fiction film, and certainly are not much troubled by […] fundamental questions of generic boundary or definition – all concerns that are seemingly best left to critics and academics. Anyone who has watched even a few science fiction films, episodes of a Flash Gordon serial, or several episodes of the Star Trek or Babylon 5 television series, for example, would probably argue that he or she could, with little hesitation, decide if a certain work belongs within the science fiction category. That sense of certainty probably springs from the fact that the typical viewer easily recognizes particular hallmarks, visual icons that, over the course of many years, have helped constitute a common signature that cultural consensus or historical use has by now assigned to the genre. Included in this broad category are such things as character types, situations, clothing, lighting, tools or weaponry, settings – all those elements that have often been described as the “language” of the genre, and much of which has been long established in the popular consciousness thanks to the corresponding literary tradition and its reliance on illustration, on visualizing its “what if” scenarios.”

Telotte, J.P. “Introduction: The World of The Science Fiction Film, Chapter, Genre Determinations.” Science Fiction Film.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pp16-17.

Minimalism Mash Star Wars

“In a 1967 essay on minimalism, Clement Greenberg, America’s most influential critic, could have been describing Star Wars: “Everything is rigorously rectilinear or spherical. Development within a given piece is usually repetition of the same modular shape, which may or may not be varied in size.” Greenberg rejected minimalism as pedestrian. “Minimal works are readable as art,” he wrote, “as almost anything is today, including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.” Perhaps because of its fantastic nature, the Death Star has never been recognized as an essential work of minimalism—but it is one.


“Its destruction has never been acknowledged as a turning point for modernism—but it was one. Lucas unabashedly emulated the visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),which incorporated the principles of modernist architecture (spare, utilitarian, evenly lit spaces) and the presence of a minimalist slab (colorless, drab, depersonalized, inscrutable non-art). The only ornamental flourishes in the film were borrowed from NASA (whitewashed modular construction pocked by latches, struts, and access panels) and corporate furniture design (steel, leather, powder-coat enamel, and blobby red Dijinn).

Lucas hired so many members of Kubrick’s team that their subset of the Star Wars crew was dubbed “The Class of 2001.” But he borrowed selectively. Kubrick’s 2001 environments were cohesive and balanced, informed by architectural theory and late-’60s aesthetics; they upheld the distinction between the astronaut modernists and the alien minimalists. By contrast, Lucas willfully mashed together minimalism, modernism, and NASA design. Two visual rhetorics are at war on-screen: The first is that of an industrial superpower; the second is that of a rogue fringe of misfits and mismatches…

Star Wars: A New Heap – Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Death Star, John Powers, Triple Canopy

Are you now or have you ever been?

“In an interview about the sound for THX 1138, Walter Murch charaterised the ambience recordings for the “White Limbo” sequneces in this way: “It’s basically the room tone from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. …It’s a veil of mysterious sound – it doesn’t have have anything specific to it, but it is full of suggestive fragments.” This description could easily be used to categorize the entire sound track of the film. The sound montages are full of “suggestive fragments” that offer subtle cinematic metaphors, sharp social criticism, and even satire in in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldos Huxley’s Brave New World…” [1]


“Technology mediates the presentation of all of […] images and sounds, filtering them through video cameras and audio processors. Every bit of data is under review and scrutiny, not just by a centralized authority but also by the system of oppression in which the characters are trapped. No individual takes up the role of antagonist, rather the film presents the cumulative effects of intrusive technology and misguided authority and social rules. At this point of convergence, individual rights erode. The filmgoer is also implicated in the process of analysis. Just as with the French New Wave narratives, the film demands an active reading strategy to synthesize the narrative data and evaluate these images and sounds of the future. The hope is that the filmgoer will also speculate about the possibilities of this sort of oppression in contemporary society. Lucas explains, “We have all the potentials today [for this course toward the future], polluted air to drive you underground, tranquilizing drugs and computers. Whether it happens depends on the human spirit. Or the lack of it.”‘

“As the sequence continues, the social and technical mechanisms of observation and oppression are revealed more clearly in the editorial equivalent of a pull back. The images become less processed, though the sounds remain heavily manipulated as a subtle reminder of the notion of eavesdropping. The allusion to “Big Brother” in Orwell’s 1984 cannot be missed. A central control node is revealed, exposing controllers, banks of monitors, and computerized consoles, much like a television studio. Thematically, the setting reiterates the connection to modern media practices, while the screens and sound bites underscore a connection to consumer culture. In a cutaway, a chrome police officer holds the hand of a child as they wait for an elevator. The music accompanying the scene is canned and hollow, akin to something shoppers might hear in a mall. To achieve this effect, Murch played “dry” recordings of the music in the empty hallway then re-recorded it to merge its echoes and spatial cues, using his technique of “worldizing. “‘ The result is the audio equivalent of fluores- cent lighting, dulling humanity and emotion in this controlled subterranean environment. Thematically, the images and sounds reveal that this society has reverted to infancy by a dependency on mechanization and technology.” [2]

William Whittington, “Suggestive Fragments in THX 1138”, Sound Design & Science Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2007. [1] p 75, [2] 78.

Embodied Listening

“…An alternative model of a subject’s encounter with reverberation might draw upon the account of music and subjectivity advanced by Naomi Cumming in her study of Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. […] Cumming’s analysis focuses upon the subjective identification that listeners feel with works. The “musical subject,” as she terms it, is the thing that listeners become while they are engaged with a piece of music. Cumming argues that the sense of this musical subject emerges from the interaction of three parameters: first, timbre, which involves the listener in a kind of vicarious vocality -an empathic understanding of the emotive quality of the sound in terms of our own voices; second, gesture, through which a listener gains access to a vicarious kinesthesia: physical gestures of the body serve as interpretants for motivic shapes, rhythms and contours; and finally syntax, those elements in music which create implicative expectancies and draw us through a linear trajectory, which can serve as the locus of causality and intentionality.


“Following David Lidov’s account of ’embodied listening,’ Cumming links the “bodily” subject primarily with the domains of timbre and gesture, while the domain of syntax is more closely connected with “the will” or the volitional agency of the musical subject. Taken together, timbre, gesture, and syntax produce the sense of musical subjectivity. Cumming’s model highlights the importance of vicarious sound production. This notion shifts the emphasis away from the receptive subject […] onto an active, productive participant.

“According to Cumming, what engages our subjectivity, what makes “the musical subject” come to life, is the act of imagining what it might feel like to be the source of the sound. To account more specifically for the listener’s response to reverberation, we might add a fourth parameter to Cumming’s list: spatialization. If the listening subject is, at some level, always engaged in a vicarious production of the sounds that confront her, then it is the subject herself who vicariously generates the sonorous envelope. [The] model of the passive subject, enveloped within an ephemeral, diaphanous softness, is counterposed in Cumming’s model of vicarious sound production by an active subject producing a vibrant halo of expanding sound energy.

“Certainly the experience of sound-making suggested by reverb is distinct: it is the experience of producing echoes and resonance, familiar from tasks like playing the piano with the pedal down, shouting in a large empty room, or even singing in the shower. What is common to these experiences is that, with a minimal input of sound energy, one gets a powerful sound in return. One can play a pianissimo chord on the piano with the pedal down and still produce a richness and breadth out of proportion with the effort expended. The magical experience of producing an echo is an experience of effortless excess. The vicarious omnipotence that reverberant sound induces in listening subjects is easily mapped onto fantasies of plenitude, abundance, and fecundity.

Rebecca Leydon, “The Soft-Focus Sound: Reverb as a Gendered Attribute in Mid-Century Mood Music”, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 103-104.

Image: Colors for a Large Wall, by Ellsworth Kelly, 1951 The New York Times

Cold War Maestros

“Mood music on record […] functioned as Muzak’s id. Muzak was confined mostly to modertate tempo arrangements with few if any distractions. But mood music indulged in volatile mood swings forbidden in the workplace: happy to grim, frantic to narcoleptic, sexy to robotic. Records abounded with outrageous themes, dissonant styles and risque suggestions.

“Still, mood music’s essential ingredient was as unmeasurable to the recording industry as ether was to radio. The common properties of mood albums? Slower, more hypnotic time signatures; massed strings treated with echo-reverberation; background vocals that sounded more angelic (or in some cases, demonic) than human; and often well-conceived philosophies about music’s utilitarian function.” [1]


“American supermarkets and department stores built in the 1950s were meticulously constructed, reverberant temples of alloy and glass. Their reflective surfaces (and in some cases, their curved “space-age” roofs) had proved capable of sustaining echoes as intoxicatingly as a medieval church. Of all the easy listening maestros in the Cold War landscape, Ray Conniff comes closest to furnishing music that is “to the supermarket born.” Conniff’s music connotes the mystically metallic clanking of shopping carts trailing down aisles, the rustle of cash registers, the tinkle of loose change, and the grunt of the chromium doors automatically opening for the next phallanx of shoppers. Conniff’s meticulous, up-tempo, and regimented beat has a chilly innocence – the perfect soundtrack for patrons traipsing under Safeway or A&P keliglights.” [2].

Joseph Lanza. Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening and Other Moodsong. [Revised and Expanded Edition]. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2004. [1] p. 16, [2] p. 103.

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.