Anxieties of the Sexual Revolution

30 August 2009

Sunday


Anxieties of the Sexual Revolution

three sci fi films

as Mirrored in Science Fiction Cinema


Science Fiction Cinema

Three science fiction films of the middle 1970s have long held an interest for me, and part of the interest that they hold is a function of the expression they give to anxieties of the sexual revolution. It is fascinating to see in detail how gender roles are not contested at the same time that gender relations are being profoundly contested. I touched upon this topic previously, both in relation to gender roles and racial stereotypes, in A Tale of Two Films.

Of the three films considered below, I know all of them only as films. I have not read any of the novels or stories upon which the films were based. A film is in no way “superior” to a novel, but it is different from a novel, so much so that to compare a film and a novel is like comparing apples and oranges. A good film has a very different structure than a good novel, and as a result the adaptation of a good novel into a good film involves a substantial change to the structure of the story. Among the changes to a story demanded by the nature of film is that the story be stripped to its bare essentials, eliminating double plots and side plots as well as numerous minor characters. There simply isn’t time enough to show it all, and time is of the essence of film.

A film, like a piece of architecture, is also a social, cooperative endeavor. Someone must write it, someone must direct it, someone must fund it, and many must act in it and fulfill the other roles that make a successful production possible. as a social endeavor, a film better represents the Zeitgeist and the Vox Populi than a novel, which, like as not, may well be written by an isolated artist with little connection to the hurly-burly of the real world. Film making, on the other hand, is the hurly-burly of the real world, and any story that survives the process of filming has proved its “street cred.”

Soylent Green

Based on the 1966 novel by Harry Harrison, Make Room, Make Room, Soylent Green was released in 1973. It deals simultaneously with several ideas, most notably euthanasia, political corruption, over population and environmental degradation (like Silent Running, released the year before in 1972). In the attempt to construct a believable and also intriguing future world, science fiction cinema picks up on cultural themes from the present, inflating and distorting them until they show to us an unrecognizable reflection, as though in a funhouse mirror. Such devices may be incorporated only in order to give style and interest to a production, not counting among the central elements of the plot, or they may be central to the plot itself. This is the former sense in which Soylent Green reflects the anxieties of the sexual revolution.

Soylent Green front

As noted above, in this stage of film making and science fiction, gender roles are not contested — men are men and women are women — but the relation between the sexes is deeply contested. In the world of Soylent Green, women are property that come with an apartment. Women in the film are referred to as “furniture” — presumably intentionally dehumanizing and depersonalizing language. This relationship is shown both to shade over into what we would consider more “normal” human relationships (where the “furniture” arrangement goes well), and to militate against more conventional relationships (when the “furniture” arrangement does not go well).

Soylent Green back

There is nothing radical about man-as-owner and woman-as-possession. On the contrary, this is the subtext of every patriarchal culture, and almost every culture in the history of the world has been patriarchal to one degree or another. What is shocking about Soylent Green is the vulgarity of the arrangement and the dehumanizing way in which it is formulated. The writer evidently wanted to confront us squarely with the commodification of sexuality and human relationships, though this wasn’t the primary function of the film. The directness of this confrontation with our sensibilities sets the stage for a world in which the commodification of human life itself — the systematic dehumanization of human beings — is believable and indeed becomes commonplace.

Soylent Green inside

The characters of the film make it obvious that they are frequently not happy about this social arrangement, and they seem on the verge of committing a grave social faux pas by contravening the established social order of their time and creating human relationships that they viewer might view as “normal.” But the film does not allow this to happen. Human relationships are ultimately peripheral to a film in which industrialized cannibalism is the central theme.

Rollerball

Released in 1975, Rollerball was based not on a novel but on a short story that appeared in Esquire in 1973. The director of the film, Norman Jewison, immediately saw the potential of the story, and pressed to have it developed as a film project. Part of the impact of the film, then, may be credited to its timeliness, moving as it did from conception to story to film in the space of just a few years, making the material fresh and thoroughly of its time by the time it made it to the big screen. (The authenticity of the material was further preserved by the author of the short story, William Harrison, writing the screenplay for the film).

Rollerball front

The film opens on a somber note with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, giving a gothic feel to the darkened Rollerball arena, which makes the transition to the violence of the action of the opening Rollerball game a bit jarring, but it is not entirely out of place. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is majestic, haunting, and not a little menacing: here we are in the presence of what Kant called the terrifying sublime (Schreckhaft Erhabene). And this is exactly what the Rollerball game is intended to be: a spectacle sufficiently terrifying that we can believe that it has replaced war as a surrogate outlet for human aggressiveness.

Rollerball back

In Rollerball the female companions to the male leads are “assignments” rather than “furniture” but the idea is essentially the same. But there is perhaps more continuity with our own world in the world of Rollerball than in the other two films we will consider today. Rollerball follows the classic science fiction formula of taking trends in the contemporary world and extrapolating them. This is often tendentiously interpreted as a form of failed prediction, since such extrapolations almost always diverge from actual historical developments, but the intellectual function of science fiction is not prediction but a changed perspective on the world.

Rollerball insert

The changed perspective on gender relations that we find in Rollerball, as with Soylent Green, leave the characters unsatisfied and desperately at times seeking some kind of oblique human satisfaction within an essentially inhuman social system. The protagonist of Rollerball (James Caan as Jonathan E) is particularly dissatisfied with his “wife” being reassigned to someone else. However, despite his dissatisfaction with the system, he is still very much a part of it, coldly reassigning one of his current partners without telling her first. After an arranged meeting with his former wife, who defends the corporate order he has come to question, and finding that his currently assigned partner is simply a corporate shill, we find that his real dissatisfaction is not so much with the character of the relationships he is able to make for himself within this social system, but the desire to have someone — anyone — on his side.

Logan’s Run

Logan’s Run, released in 1976, presents the most radical vision of society, and also the most conservative response to this radical vision. Based on the 1967 novel Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan’s Run has a conception-to-execution timetable similar to that of Soylent Green. Both novels were written in the mid to late 1960s, and both were brought to the screen in the early to mid 1970s. They span a particularly turbulent period in American social life, and, in a sense, constitute a summation of the anxieties of the period.

Logan's Run front

Logan’s Run is perhaps the most stylish of the films discussed today, with its throbbing soundtrack, the futuristic city under domes, the surreal ascent of the Carousel ritual with its soteriological trial by fire, the abandoned cathedral symbolizing the abandonment of traditional faith, the derelict, ivy-covered capital building, and the eccentric Old Man with his many cats. Moreover, the deeply ambiguous and ambivalent central character, Logan, doesn’t seem to himself know if he is acting the part of a runner in order to defeat the menace to a society in which he is invested, or if he really is changed by having his final years taken away before his time.

Logan's Run back

As with Rollerball, the society depicted is at once both utopian and dystopian. Both depict artificially designed societies in which those who are invested in the institutions believe them to be good, but from the perspective of the outside spectator these societies appear hideous and unnatural. The society of the domed city features casual sex of the most casual kind, with any connection between recreation and procreation eliminated so that children do not know their mothers and fathers. This is the ultimate manifestation of the youth culture, the worship of youth and beauty and the lack of respect for age and tradition, that many saw as the culmination of the generational conflict that raged in the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Logan's Run inside

Near the end of Logan’s Run, when Logan, Jessica, and the Old Man are talking around a camp fire on their journey to return to the domed city, Logan asks the Old Man about his parent’s tomb stones, that had “beloved husband” and “beloved wife” carved on them.

LOGAN
But you mean, I mean, they lived together all their years?

OLD MAN
Yes, oh well, before I came along I don’t know what, but after, oh yeah, they did.

JESSICA
So people stayed together for this feeling of love? They would live and raise children and be remembered?

OLD MAN
Yeah, they raised me didn’t they? …

JESSICA
I think I’d like that, Logan. Don’t you?

LOGAN
Um hmm. Why not?

JESSICA
Beloved husband.

LOGAN
Beloved wife.

Thus the solution to the dissatisfactions of the youth culture and hedonism of the “me decade” and the “me generation” (which are given their most extreme formulation in the utopian-dystopian society of the domed city) is to be found in a reactionary return to the most traditional gender roles and gender relations. This is a denouement that should warm the heart of the sternest and least forgiving reactionary.

A New Direction for Science Fiction Cinema

All of the films above constitute dystopias of one variety or another. We recognize in them something in our world gone horribly wrong. And all the films feature similar departures from traditional gender relationships. The dissatisfaction with gender relations reflect the larger dissatisfaction with a dystopian society that is an exaggeration of trends present in our society today. In Soylent Green, these dissatisfactions are accepted fatalistically. In Rollerball the dissatisfactions are confronted but not resolved. In Logan’s Run, the dystopian society of the future is effectively destroyed in the hope of returning to traditional gender relationships, with the implication that this radical “solution” will address the dissatisfactions of contemporary life.

The year after the release of Logan’s Run, 1977, saw the release of both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Both were influential, and both represented a very different direction for science fiction cinema. Star Wars represented a return to the gee-whiz Buck Rogers serial, although informed by Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and therefore tapping into perennial themes that gave weight to an otherwise vacuous space adventure. Close Encounters of the Third Kind represented something new, and we could in fact trace the burgeoning UFO conspiracy theories of our time to the influence of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But this is a large topic in and of itself, and deserving of separate treatment.

By 1979, the first Alien film was released, and the landscape of science fiction cinema was permanently changed. Alien was high tech, with impressive effects, but science fiction was merely a setting, a mise-en-scène, for a thoroughly old-fashioned horror tale. It was also effective and frightening, and not soon forgotten by those who saw it. But with films like Star Wars and Alien, science fiction cinema departed sharply from serious films of social comment. Soylent Green, Rollerball, and Logan’s Run were films of serious social comment, and they represent a side of science fiction sophistication that has become lost in the competing sophistication of special effects. But this is a general trend in the US film industry not confined to science fiction. Visual spectacle is the driver of contemporary cinema, and it has come at the expense of plot, characterization, and other elements once central to film.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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