J.G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Black Friday

Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally,  to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.

Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.

The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:

Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .

The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.

Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:

He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)

Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):

Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.

BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW

YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES

Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:

They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.

“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:

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The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.

In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:

It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.

Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.

I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!

Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Food, a surreal short film by Jan Švankmajer

Jon Brion talks about scoring Punch-Drunk Love

Watch Hiroshi Teshigahara’s tranquil visual poem, Antonio Gaudí

The opening heist sequence of Michael Mann’s film Thief

Totoro Jack O’ Lantern Stencil


Do you still need an idea for a jack o’ lantern? Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki films? Even the really sweet and gentle ones, like Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro? And, are you, like, totally skilled at carving pumpkins? If so, have at it with this cool stencil by Flickr user PlayWithFire:

You can see variations on Totoro jack o’ lanterns–and other cool Miyazaki-inspired pumpkins here. From that set, here’s Flickr user C. Lambert’s Totoro pumpkin–

Curation and creation in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive

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Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive is excellent. 

Moody, sometimes funny, always gorgeous, and largely plotless, the film centers on two vampires—Adam and Eve, played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton—who fill their long lives with music, literature, and love. At its core, the film is an elegiac love song to aesthetic originary creation in the age of the curator.

As Mike D’Angelo points out in his smart review

What really interests Jarmusch is immortality, or at least longevity. How would we behave if we lived for centuries, and were free to do pretty much anything we wanted? What sort of aesthetes and collectors might we become? … In this world, the vampire’s primary function is to appreciate the things we humans take for granted; they’re much more like curators than monsters.

 

Eve’s curatorial powers are enviable—she merely has to touch an object to know its age (and quality). She touches Adam’s beloved Gibson guitar, declaring “1905.” As she packs her suitcase full of books (Don QuixoteInfinite Jest, and Kafka all make the cut), she scrolls her fingers through pages briskly but lovingly, seeming to absorb each one instantly.

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Adam’s curatorial impulses manifest in his collection of antique musical and electronic equipment, his claustrophobic crumbling mansion a mad scientist’s lab of sight and sound. Adam creates plodding dirges, death songs, elegies for the end of romance. Reclusive cult hero, he hides in the outskirts of Detroit from his growing fanbase who demand to know who made this music. Like Wyatt, the masterful forger of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, Adam wonders what people want from the person that they couldn’t get from the work of art. Still, as he mournfully complains to Eve, Adam wants a reflection, something to echo back to him. His fans—the “zombies”—are not enough.

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Eve’s library and Adam’s studio allow Jarmusch to perform his own curatorial impulses. On one wall in a room of Adam’s mansion hang the portraits of dozens of writers and musicians, including Blake, Poe, Twain, and Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe it turns out is a vampire—and the real author of Shakespeare to boot. 

It might be tempting to accuse Jarmusch of merely providing fan service for hipsters, but there’s more going on here than simple name-checking. Adam’s wall isn’t simply a shrine for hero-worship. Instead, it feels like a gallery of family portraits.  Continue reading “Curation and creation in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive”

Vítězslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger (Book acquired, 10.17.2016)

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Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická, thanks to Twisted Spoon Press. As usual, Twisted Spoon’s edition is a beauty, including some of Nezval’s original illustrations.

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The Absolute Gravedigger seems comprised of seven “books,” and I ended up barreling through one of them, Bizarre Town, in one sitting. Nezval’s surrealist poems are seemingly spare, but the parts jar against each other in unsettling ways; Bizarre Town evokes Bosch, or Goya’s etchings.

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You might know Nezval as the author of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which was adapted into a marvelously disturbing 1970 film by Jaromil Jireš.

 

More to come as I read more, but for now, here’s Twisted Press’s blurb:

The Absolute Gravedigger, published in 1937, is in many ways the culmination of Vítězslav Nezval’s work as an avant-garde poet, combining the Poetism of his earlier work and his turn to Surrealism in the 1930s with his political concerns in the years leading up to World War II. It is above all a collection of startling verbal and visual inventiveness. And while a number of salient political issues emerge from the surrealistic ommatidia, Nezval’s imagination here is completely free-wheeling and untethered to any specific locale, as he displays mastery of a variety of forms, from long-limbed imaginative free verse narratives to short, formally rhymed meditations in quatrains, to prose and even visual art (the volume includes six of his decalcomania images).

Together with Nezval’s prior two collections, The Absolute Gravedigger forms one of the most important corpora of interwar Surrealist poetry. Yet here his wild albeit restrained mix of absolute freedom and formal perfection has shifted its focus to explore the darker imagery of putrefaction and entropy, the line breaks in the shorter lyric poems slicing the language into fragments that float in the mind with open-ended meaning and a multiplicity of readings. Inspired by Salvador Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, the poems go in directions that are at first unimaginable but continue to evolve unexpectedly until they resolve or dissolve – like electron clouds, they have a form within which a seemingly chaotic energy reigns. Nezval’s language, however, is under absolute control, allowing him to reach into the polychromatic clouds of Surrealist uncertainty to form shapes we recognize, though never expected to see, to meld images and concepts into a constantly developing and dazzling kaleidoscope.

Storyboards for the Coen Brother’s film Blood Simple

Gravity’s Rainbow — annotations and illustrations for page 105 | The real business of the War is buying and selling

“The blackmarket blights peace,” Dutch postwar propaganda poster, 1946

Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling 1. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways 2. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world 3. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus 4 to just ordinary folks, little fellows 5, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets 6. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” 7 by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars. Jews also carry an element of guilt, of future blackmail, which operates, natch, in favor of the professionals. 8

From page 105 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

1 Gravity’s Rainbow is often (unjustly and unfairly) maligned as a messy, even pointless affair—but here’s our author speaking through the narrator, offering up one of the novel’s points—clearly, without equivocation.

Our narrator digs irony though…

Entropy is all—but entropy doesn’t make for good capitalism, by which our sly narrator means, Their Capitalism. The adult world needs to be organized, systematized, caused and effected.

Cf. Jack Gibbs’s rant to his erstwhile young students, early in William Gaddis’s 1975 novel of capitalism, J R:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

Note the not-so-oblique reference to GR’s theme of stimulus-response (and upending that response).

Not too much earlier in the narrative, dedicated Pavlovian Dr. Edward W.A. Pointsman worries about the end of cause and effect, the rise of entropy:

Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?

5…the preterite?

Pynchon reiterates his thesis.

Note that organic (entropic?) markets fall outside of Their System—y’know, Them—the Professionals—these organic (chaotic, necessary) markets must be labeled “black” (preterite?).

Here’s another Dutch propaganda poster:

“Protect them against the black market!”, Dutch propaganda poster, 1944

Page 105 of Gravity’s Rainbow “happens,” more or less, in 1944, in the middle of an extended introduction of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent. (Or is that double Dutch agent?). The propaganda poster above strikes me as overtly racist, but also seems to nod to King Kong (1933, dir. Cooper and Schoedsack). Gravity’s Rainbow is larded with references to King Kong, a sympathetic but powerful force of entropy, a force against the Professionals.

Still from King Kong, 1933
Still from King Kong, 1933

From the invaluable annotations at Pynchon Wiki’s Gravity’s Rainbow site (there is no annotation for page 105 at Pynchon Wiki, by the way, and no notes on the passage I’ve cited above either in Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):

King Kong & the Like

Fay Wray look, 57; Fay Wray, 57, 179, 275; “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” 179; “headlights burning like the eyes of” 247; “the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer,” 275; Mitchell Prettyplace book about, 275; “Giant ape” 276; “the Fist of the Ape,” 277; “orangutan on wheels,” 282; taking a shit, 368; “The figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes” 483; “a troupe of performing chimpanzees” 496; “on the tit with no motor skills,” 578; “Negroid apes,” 586; “that sacrificial ape,” 664; “a gigantic black ape,” 688; Carl Denham, 689; poem based on King Kong, 689; See also: actors/directors film/cinema references;

The Kong-figure in the Dutch propaganda poster seems to wear the petasos (winged hat) and wield the caduceus of Hermes or Mercury—god of thieves. But also god of the market, of commerce, merchandise, all things mercenary.

From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):

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The passage as a whole, which emphasizes war as a conduit for the techne of the market (or do I have that backwards? should I note the market of techne?) echoes an earlier passage. From page 81:

It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Führer-principle. But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally? One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma.

All signs seem to point to No.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Phrases: Six Films (Book acquired, 8.17.2016)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Phrases: Six Films is new in English translation by Stuart Kendall from Contra Mundum Press. Their blurb:

Phrases presents the spoken language from six films by Jean-Luc Godard: Germany Nine Zero, The Kids Play Russian, JLG / JLG, 2 x 50 Years of French Cinema, For Ever Mozart and In Praise of Love. Completed between 1991 and 2001, during what has been called Godard’s “years of memory,” these films and videos were made alongside and in the shadow of his major work from that time, his monumental Histoire(s) du cinema, complementing and extending its themes. LikeHistoire(s), they offer meditations on, among other things, the tides of history, the fate of nations, the work of memory, the power of cinema, and, ultimately, the nature of love.

 

Gathered here, in written form, they are words without images: not exactly screenplays, not exactly poetry, something else entirely. Godard himself described them enigmatically: “Not books. Rather recollections of films, without the photos or the uninteresting details… Only the spoken phrases. They offer a little prolongation. One even discovers things that aren’t in the films in them, which is rather powerful for a recollection. These books aren’t literature or cinema. Traces of a film…”

 

In our era of ubiquitous streaming video, ebooks, and social media, these traces of cinema raise compelling questions for the future of media, cinematic, literary, and otherwise.

Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, Spike Lee, and Julian Schnabel on The Battle of Algiers

Gene Wilder at the 92nd Street Y in 2013

 

Sorcerer film poster by Jay Shaw

I need to write a proper riff on William Friedkin’s astounding 1977 film Sorcerer—I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a better film this summer—nor have I seen anything that zapped me with that How the hell haven’t I seen this yet? feeling since Michael Mann’s Thief. But as the summer ebbs and a new year of a full teaching load approaches, I’m not sure if I’ve got a spare three hours to watch Sorcerer a third time any time soon (the third viewing was perfect, by the bye). It’s great though. It’s about four dudes, exiles, trying to move nitroglycerin in two old trucks across a mountain in an unnamed South American country.

I had scratched out some notes on the first viewing though, which I won’t bother to cobble together here in anything other than a silly list, which I hope to mine later in Something Bigger on Sorcerer:

  1. Metaphors of postglobal cooperation in the cause of self-interest.
  2. Multilingual, but postlingual: Film as language. Sorcerer as its own language.
  3. Post-WWII; somehow hasn’t absorbed the Vietnam War.
  4. Like Herzog, here is a depiction of nature that conveys the sublime while stripping from it the romance, leaving only the horror and awe.
  5. Comments on its own engineering, its own technological processes (like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
  6. But also, its focus on engineering points backwards (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and forwards (uh, the Fast/Furious franchise? —but not fast here; no: slow).
  7. (Clearly the double feature of Fitzcarraldo).
  8. Postglobalism — terror, crime, religion, economics, class, “high” art, — all the shit that’s  dealt with in the first 30 min — is subsumed into nature vs techne — a kind of nihilsm against nature pointing at the current century.
  9. IT’S ALL ABOUT ENGINEERING!
  10. Unself-concious postmodernism, before postmodernism is properly “postmodernism”: That Friedkin is perhaps working in Modernist idioms (all the noir touches, the irony, the hallucinations, the cuts, etc.), but produces something we might describe as “postmodern.”
  11. That end — tragic, ironic, pathetic, bathetic—and a loop! (sort of)—Friedkin’s film ironizes the Romantic touches, the Bogart shadows.
  12. (Watch it again).

Trailer for Terrence Malick’s first documentary, Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey

Marketa Lazarová (1967, dir. František Vláčil)

What Is Royal Trux?