Spinalonga: Space and Memory

It is the 16th of June. The heat is oppressive. I am walking along a dirt track, breathing in hot air, among the exposed beams, crumbling concrete, and assorted architectural remnants of Spinalonga, a tiny island off the coast of Crete. I point my camera at layers of civilization consigned to dust.
The island, which is little more than an outcrop of rock only 8 hectares in area, is an accretion of layered histories. Spinalonga was a Venetian garrison until 1715, when it became a Muslim settlement, housing (among others) the women of the sultan’s harem. In 1904 the island’s houses, already ruins, became home to a leper colony, first for Crete alone, and later for the whole of Greece. The leper colony closed its doors in 1957 when the island’s 250 or so inhabitants were evicted: some of them cured and allowed to assimilate back into healthy society, others moved to a medical compound on the outskirts of Athens. Today, Venetian cisterns nestle alongside Ottoman built market houses with their inscriptions in Arabic, and the rusting remnants of the disinfection chambers and hospital outbuildings dating from the 1930s and 40s.
The 2015 tourist information brochure, given out by the Ministry of Culture and Sports to all visitors to the island, reads (in English):

…After the leper colony closed in 1957, the islet remained desolate and uninhabited. Spinalonga’s use as a place of confinement for lepers, who experienced the reality of death in isolation and desertion, had stigmatized it. The name ‘Spinalonga’ became synonymous with suffering and acquired symbolic meaning.

After centuries of settlement and re-settlement, use and reuse, Spinalonga was all used up. The islet lay desolate, like furniture covered in a dust-cloth, new visitors put off by the aura of death surrounding it. Its walkways began to crumble, its cisterns ran dry; the abandoned city was a settlement in death throws, and perhaps long past them; an ailing geography – a geographical outcast, like the patients it had once housed.
Recent developments have resulted in the island’s rehabilitation. Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island, which is largely set on Spinalonga and became a bestseller in Greece, has caused a resurgence of interest in the island’s history, and the plight of the lepers who made their lives there. To Nisi, the 2010 Greek language television series that brought Hislop’s novel, and with it Spinalonga, to every home in Greece, has changed attitudes to the desolate place. The series is the most expensive in Greek television history, with production values far outstripping anything that preceded it.
Episode one opens with a night-time boat trip, a dinghy ferrying a sick woman to her place of incarceration. It is understood that she has come to the leper colony to die there. A ghostly figure in a hooded cape, back-lit against the moon, she is a lone passenger in the ferryman’s boat. The visual reference to Charon and Hades is unmistakable and deliberate. Yet the story that follows is one of re-birth, in time and space. After this sequence, and the opening titles, the story proper can begin. In present day London, we follow a young woman in her mid twenties, Alexis. She makes a trip to Crete where her maternal family is from, to find out more about the obscure past of her ancestors. Armed with only a photograph and a road-map of the Greek island, she visits Plaka, a tiny village on Crete proper, separated from Spinalonga by a thin lick of sea. Here she meets her mother’s childhood friend Fotini, who, using the photograph as a starting point, begins to piece together a new picture of the past for Alexis. We explore the island in flashback, as narrated by Fotini. The present-day road atlas Alexis has brought with her is useless. Instead, the black and white image acts as a road-map through a harrowing past. Spinalonga is not portrayed as the Hell the healthy inhabitants of Crete had always imagined it to be. Fotini shows Alexis, and by extension the viewer, that it was never a place of isolation, but a community, just another settlement where people came together, divided up their space, cultivated land, and generally engaged in living, in spite of their affliction.
While much of the action was shot on sets in Plaka, some scenes, notably arrivals on the island, were filmed on Spinalonga itself, inscribing fictional journeys onto the real spaces of the island; the island’s geography was thus the scene of a re-enactment, it’s spaces metaphorically and literally rewritten, in order to make them useable again. Now, five years after the filming of To Nisi, trips to Spinalonga are re-enacted by powerboats, bringing hundreds of tourists to explore the secluded spot each summer. Spinalonga is beginning to wake up, and shake off its stigma, its aura of suffering; it is becoming a viable tourist destination; a healthy space for healthy people, with a healthy economy. Sadly, perhaps, a space that has borne witness, is beginning to forget.
History shows itself here for what it really is. A dense knot of connections, mediations, and re-appropriations. Edifices built by and inhabited by conquerors, came to house the sick and dying, and later the actors mediating their experiences. Concrete structures from the 1930s and broken glass now nestle in with wood and stones and the tools of workmen, resurfacing, preserving, and rebuilding the ruins. Some remnants are obliterated, others kept intact. There is no real way to tell (with the naked eye) which period the island’s many refurbishments belong to, or if they belong to the historical period that is none at all, and are merely the result of imaginative curation, replication, fiction.
James Irby recalls the famous childhood memory of Jorge Luis Borges, who spoke of his father’s analogy of memory as a pile of coins. Spinalonga is a geographical pile of coins [1], of replicas of replicas, remnants of spaces where time has gathered like so much dust. There are constantly swirling periods, epochs, minutes, and seconds, real and false, all eddying about each other and jostling for space in the now.

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[1] James E. Irby, ‘Borges and the Idea of Utopia’, http://www2.ups.edu/faculty/velez/FL380/Borirby.htm, Accessed 14 July 2015.

Shackleton in the City: Exploring Disused Urban Space

Last month saw the release of Mad Max: Fury Road – a remake of the cult seventies blockbuster [1] featuring a post-apocalyptic, dystopian desert landscape. Cinema has always had a love affair with the end times, with cities turned into dust. And in this particular incarnation, dystopian imaginings meet the classic Hollywood road movie. In a sense, such films invite us to explore the ruins of our contemporary culture, sandblasted by time (and the set designers). They invite us to explore our fallen cities.
Myths of lost cities are certainly nothing new; the story of Atlantis is curiously perennial and has captured the imagination of explorers, filmmakers, and students of literature alike. The tree of life is deciduous – and we seem to enjoy revelling in the ephemeral nature of our urban structures, the transience of life in the spaces of the city. Perhaps there is something forbidden about watching the end. Do we relish imagining the passing of social structures and spaces that constrain us? The myriad reasons for this ultimately morbid fascination are beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting to observe, however, is one particular recent expression of this obsession with fallen cities: Urban Exploration (rather wonderfully termed ‘Reality Hacking’ by one website[2]), the practice of visiting, and documenting on social media and online forums, the skeletal remains of urban structures, fallen into disrepair not in bygone millennia, but in more recent years and in some cases months; a kind of archaeology of the now. One such forum is called (demonstrating the link between fallen cities and cinema) 28 Days Later – Urban Exploration. The website can be found here: http://www.28dayslater.co.uk.  The site’s subpages collect thousands of images, videos, and other ephemera, all documenting (sometimes mapping) abandoned buildings in cities around the UK. The most striking categories include ‘Cinemas and Theatres’, ‘Asylums’, and a page named, rather tantalisingly, ‘Underground’.
The site self-effacingly informs visitors that it is ‘a meeting-place for like-minded people’ [3] keen to share their experiences of urban space. Yet, what is really being created here is an exhaustive atlas of the re-appropriation of disused city space – usually where the state or industry has pulled out, and people have been drawn in, like animals returning to a once polluted area. The website is careful not to condone illegal or dangerous behaviour. And rightly so. However, while the practice of exploring structures that have been abandoned (usually with good reason) is undoubtedly risky, these urban explorers are taking part in the philosophically commendable exercise of urban renewal – in its most literal sense. By exploring disused city spaces, they are making the city anew. Historically, explorers, usually in the pay of the sovereign or head of state, have visited uncharted territories and produced maps, making the unknown familiar. The urban explorer has a related but inverted role: she submits the familiar forms of the city to an anthropological, documenting gaze that renders them alien and unknown.
Like nature photographers, these new explorers keep records of buildings, focusing on those on the brink of extinction. Such online visual documents of endangered architectural species are a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps one day, society will thank these Shackletons of the city for their annotated digital notebooks on our ephemeral urban ecosystem.

[1] There were three Mad Max films made between 1979 and 1985. The first film was released in 1979.
[2] http://www.forbidden-places.net/, accessed 01/06/15
[3] http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/, accessed 01/06/15

Rohmer’s ‘L’Anglaise et le Duc’: Paris, Inside Out

In an interview with Claude-Jean Philippe, Eric Rohmer talks about his love for the city of Paris and his naturalistic style of shooting ‘dans la rue’. [1] Rohmer performs the function of a filmic cartographer, an archivist of the city.  He has catalogued both the inner-city, its cafes and parks (in La Femme de L’Aviateur, 1981) and its suburbs (in Les Nuits de la pleine Lune, 1984). With his 2001 film L’Anglaise et le Duc, he has created a map of a different kind. It is a map of a Paris that has been effaced: the Revolutionary city, the city of Robespierre and the Paris Commune.
The film is an incredibly evocative representation of a city at its most ephemeral – caught up in the flux of cataclysmic change. It documents the experiences of a Scottish royalist émigré living in France after the Revolution of 1789. It is based on the memoir of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose journal, though widely criticised for its alleged historical inaccuracies, was an early-nineteenth-century bestseller in France and England.
The film is shot entirely using matte-painted green screens. The Paris of the 1790s is accurately painted, pieced together as a series of carefully angled tableaux vivants, with recourse to Verniquet’s eighteenth century Plan de Paris and a wide variety of paintings, miniatures and historical ephemera. The stylistic decision to paint revolutionary Paris, rather than reconstruct and film it on location, was made in part because the original locations no longer exist – Grace Elliott’s Paris home, for example, has long since been demolished. Jean Baptiste Marot and Clare Barrett, writing about the film in its early stages of production, note that: ‘the main work of locating a place was achieved through walking the streets, photographing them, and sometimes measuring them.’[2]
     L’Anglaise et le Duc can, therefore, genuinely be thought of as a kind of virtual, architectural model, or an eighteenth-century interactive Google map. Choosing to create this three-dimensional moving painting and to set the story in a moment of historical turmoil, Rohmer foregrounds historical change, the destruction of the past, and its documentation. The film also touches on gender issues and themes of touristic viewing practices. Grace Elliott is not only a British woman in Paris; by the end of the film she is also a woman on trial before an all-male tribunal for her royalist political beliefs and her longstanding association with the Duc D’Orléans. Above all, however, the film explores the city as space, especially the blurring of the lines between private and public space, and the partitioning of Paris in the years following the Revolution.
The specificity of the urban condition is central to the presentation of the Revolution in L’Anglaise et le Duc. Linguistically, the idea of the Republic, presented in the film, is built around the city; the new government and the new order reflect urban living and are expressed using a uniquely urban vocabulary. As soon as Grace leaves Paris, however, these rules no longer seem to apply. She can seek refuge outside of the capital. Grace is constantly reminded by the Revolutionaries what it means to be a good ‘Citoyen’. Anyone who is not a ‘Citizen’ is necessarily a Counter-revolutionary. The Revolution is thus an urban event.
It is also a revolution in terms of the partitioning of urban, public space and private, personal space. The Committee of Security sifts through Grace’s private letters (Fig 1). An official clumsily feels his way around the drawers and compartments of a private writing desk. This moment can be read as a cipher that foregrounds the film’s central theme – the inversion of space. Grace’s desk becomes the de facto property of the Republic, and therefore public furniture. Her private correspondence – provided she is a good citizen, who has nothing to hide – must be public property too. A good ‘Citizen’ harbours no fugitives; the private spheres and private homes of good citizens are public spaces, subject to regular and frequent searches, and open scrutiny.

Just as the private becomes public, so the once public urban spaces of the film become perversely private. By painting them, Rohmer makes the thoroughfares and squares of Paris resemble the interiors of a stately home. The fields and streets that Grace Elliott walks through are painted landscapes that could hang in a lady’s boudoir, a salon, or a drawing room. Brush strokes convert bridges, streets, and walls into fabric swatches, wallpaper, and the canvas of domestic furnishings (Figs 2 & 3). Paris is turned inside out. This inversion is made explicit when, as Grace is taken to the Revolutionary Tribunal by carriage, a passer-by shouts: ‘It’s nicer out than in’. The film is replete with shots in doorways and passages in interiors. And in Rohmer’s interior-exterior spaces there are also doors. This is underlined by continuous references to passports. Grace needs to procure travel documents to move in and out of the city of Paris. There are places in the city that she cannot visit: entire streets that belong to specific factions, areas that have fallen under military control, and a strict curfew. Just as there are hidden compartments in writing desks, and boudoirs hidden behind bedrooms, so too the city of Paris has secret compartments, reachable through holes in the wall (Fig 4), where things and people can be hidden. This diegetic partitioning of the urban space, when coupled with the painted exteriors of the production design, theorises Paris as an interior: an interior under surveillance.
Grace and her maid are pictured, throughout the film, peering through upstairs windows and straining to see public spectacles using a telescope (Figs 5 & 6). This foregrounding of optics and viewing apparatuses is important. Paris is a closed space open to viewing, much like an optical box. The film invites us to read Paris as a historical fossil in a Boîte de Salon. The city has become a curio we can observe. We find ourselves inside a city, whose exteriors are painted, and evoke eighteenth-century panoramas and dioramas; the viewer is thus a tourist in a city turned inside out, with Verniquet’s map on her GPS, and a lady’s memoir as a guide.

[1] ‘Eric Rohmer Parle de Ses Films: Extraits de l’Entretien avec Claude-Jean Philippe “Le Cinéma des Cinéastes”, France Culture, 22 Mars 1981’, DVD Extra: La Femme De L’Aviateur, The Eric Rohmer Collection, Arrow Films.
[2] Jean Baptiste Marot and Clare Barrett, ‘Paris for the Cinema’, in AA Files, No. 45/46 (Winter 2001), p. 138, stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/29544264, accessed 21/4/15

The Waters of ‘The Salton Sea’

150 miles outside of Los Angeles, drying up in the unforgiving sun of the Colorado Desert, lies the Salton Sea. The lake is an enigmatic and powerfully symbolic place. Once California’s largest freshwater lake, it now has a salinity higher than that of the Pacific Ocean. [1] It was created by an accident of town planning, when early irrigation trenches to agricultural land in the region silted up, causing the Colorado River to burst its banks. The newly formed lake became a luxury yachting and boating development in the 1960s and was marketed as a playground for LA’s rich weekenders. Now the luxury hotels and marinas have been abandoned. The eerie, desolate landscape, an erstwhile draw for tourists and wetlands wildlife, has become a ruin, a remnant, and an ecological disaster area. Agricultural run-off has rendered the bottom of the lake, and its parched shores, a cauldron of poisonous dust.[2]
A much over-looked, eponymous film, directed by D.J. Caruso, and released to little fanfare in 2002, provides me with fertile ground for exploring the Salton Sea in the American imaginary. The Salton Sea follows Tom Van Allen, who, after the murder of his wife on the shores of the lake by hooded drug traffickers, becomes a drug addict and police snitch, in order to track down his wife’s killers. Liquids play a central and varied role in Caruso’s film. I am particularly interested in how the film uses water and other fluids to present the lake as a place in flux.
Water has long been an issue for Los Angeles. Norman Klein writes about the building of the myth of the LA climate, and describes how the Boosterism of the nineteenth century largely whitewashed LA’s idiosyncratic water and drainage issues in advertising and other forms of mass media. He lists droughts, putrid smelling, malfunctioning sewers, and widespread flooding and landslides in the rainy season as just some of the forgotten issues surrounding the city and its waterways.[3] Images of drains and drought in Caruso’s film bring this other side of the metropolis to light. They tell the story of LA’s water supply and provide an unusual visual vocabulary for the narrative of Los Angeles.
Firstly, water fits in to the film’s central elemental metaphor: the symbolism of fire and water as two parts of Tom Van Allen’s personality. Water is associated with the pleasant notions of the past: music and love; fire (with which the film opens) is aligned with Tom’s alter ego: tattooed junkie Danny Parker. Perhaps unusually, life-giving water is associated with the past and death. The murder of Tom’s wife, the filmic Original Sin, which we only see late in the film, takes place on the Salton Sea, when the lake is still fecund. Whenever Tom thinks of the Salton Sea, the landscape is dreamlike, presented as a kind of prelapsarian haven. Water here symbolises past plenty, love and the fluidity of memory. Tom daydreams his early life with his wife on the banks of the still lake at sunset. These scenes are projected onto the walls of his apartment, covering the space, and Tom’s body, in liquid waves (Fig. 1). The Salton Sea becomes a kind of Stygian lake in the Colorado Desert, which connects the living with the dead. This kind of liminality is presented as positive. Water links Tom to the memory of his dead wife elsewhere as well. It gushes out of sprinklers when he visits her grave at the LA cemetery. Water is also a passageway backward in a more general sense; Tom washes Danny Parker off with water, removing green hair dye, and restoring his old persona (Fig. 2).

Furthermore, water and fluids in the film are associated with border protectionism and urban decay. They connote drug use, blood, murder, waste, and drainage and many of the anxieties of race and place that accompany urban blight debates. Addiction, crime and urban degeneration in the Downtown LA area have been well documented and feature in Noir literature and film. [4] Here, however, urban blight lies outside the bounds of the city, in the Salton Sink. The Salton Sea depicts decay as drought. The lake itself is a salty quagmire, full of dead fish. In the city-proper, water is replaced with flowing alcohol (Fig. 3), the blood of drug dealing junkies dripping into drains (Fig. 4), and the blood of innocent victims, like Tom’s wife (Fig. 5). These bodies, like the Salton Sea, are spilling their fluids and drying up. The film invites us to read drug use as a visual metaphor representing the anxieties surrounding migration. Liquids are again passageways, allowing for a flow and exchange of foreign bodies. This other kind of liminality is, however, portrayed as undesirable. The issue of border-crossing is linguistically connected to water when racist policemen refer to one Mexican trafficker as a ‘Wetback’, further underlining the link between watery spaces and border control.
In and around LA, wasted, dripping fluids threaten the protagonist and his city. There is a preponderance of shots showing drains, blood, beer, and water being spilt, as well as receding puddles at the Salton Sea (Fig. 6) and dead fish out of water on the shores of the lake (Fig. 7). On one level, this is facile symbolism, mirroring Tom’s psychological mood. However, on a more philosophical level, the visuals of drainage and drought suggest wider environmental concerns surrounding the issue of waste. Psychology highlights ecology: the fear of the encroaching desert and, particularly pertinent in 2002, the issue of climate change. In the following four-year period films like The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) and An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) would begin to address the issue of climate change head on. The dichotomy of self, the crisis of identity at the heart of The Salton Sea, is in equal measure LA’s crisis: caught between the desert and the Pacific Ocean, relying on outmoded fuel sources, in an environment unable to sustain its insatiable thirst – for water, oil, and profit. Shots of pumpjacks (Fig. 8) foreground the theme of thirst and waste. In this context, the Salton Sea hangs like a ghost, the city’s future self, a threat and a warning.
The filmic Salton Sea is, therefore, the point at which many anxieties mix and merge. Environmental dis-ease and urban decay are mingled in the waters of the lake, as are anxieties around borders, identity, trauma, and memory. The lake is a perfect cipher for these issues as it exists, slowly evaporating, on the edge of LA; sufficiently other and yet uncannily connected to the city, it functions as an urban unconscious, where the anxieties of the city-proper can be safely played out, metaphorised and symbolised.

[1] For a thorough account and more information on the historical environmental issues surrounding land development and water supply to the Salton Sea, see: Mcclurg, Sue, ‘The Salton Sea’, Water Education Foundation, March/April 1993, pp.3-11, http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/EnvirnEconValueSaltonSea.html (Accessed 24/2/15)
[2] Berg, Nate, ‘The Salton Sea: An accidental Oasis-turned-Environmental Tragedy’, Changing City, May 2013, https://medium.com/changing-city/the-salton-sea-an-accidental-oasis-turned-environmental-tragedy-4a92a650c94 (Accessed 24/2/15)
[3] Klein, Norman M., The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and The Erasure of Memory, London, New York: Verso, 2008, p. 33
[4] Klein, Norman M., The History of Forgetting, pp. 51-58

12 Angry Men: Crime and Punishment in New York City

In the Chicago-Kent Law Review David Ray Papke perceptively notes that few popular procedural dramas focus entirely on the process of jury deliberation as entertainment [1]. As Papke argues, 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957) is the exception that proves the rule. In a claustrophobic jury deliberation room we watch an all-white, all-male jury decide the fate of an underprivileged boy (of indeterminate racial extraction) accused of murdering his father in cold blood. One man, Davis (the juror played by Henry Fonda) goes against the crowd, and cuts through racism and prejudice with Reason, to reveal the innocence of the accused. Papke sees Davis as a ‘genuine American hero’[2] and the film as a Tocquevillian love letter to the juristic process [3]. While there are issues with this view, which I discuss later, it is true that 12 Angry Men is an anomaly, not only as a presentation of the legal process, but also as a cinematic representation of the spaces of New York City.
Despite shooting largely static dialogues and strictly maintaining the Aristotelian unities of space and time, Lumet nevertheless manages to create the illusion of a space beyond the frame. The audience is presented with a picture of New York City and urban crime in a uniquely anti-cinematic way. The film builds up a cityscape, not through images, as you would expect, but through omission. Scenes are remembered and reconstructed through sound bites and memories, in a manner that has more in common with sound recordings of testimony and oral history than it does with film. New York City in 12 Angry Men is a very real space; Lumet, however, chooses to describe rather than display the urban landscape, and so breaks the cardinal rule of cinematic practice: Show, don’t tell!
The city is evoked by means of metonymy through personification. Each character represents a social group or a particular point of view: we are introduced to, among others, the advertising executive, the migrant, the elderly outcast, the sports-fan, the bigot, and the sceptical humanist (Davis). While the jury is hardly diverse (more on this later), the film does at least succeed in defining the city as a space made up of differing social and ethnic groups, occupying different spaces. The men openly discuss urban tensions, ghettos and segregated living, which are reflected in descriptions of personal experience, and the seating arrangements in the deliberation room (Fig 1). The city beyond the room remains an imaginary structure: a sum of recalled events and memories. And urban crime is spoken of and remembered. We hear snippets of the court case and personal testimony in a variety of accents. Urban landmarks crop up in conversation. Billboards and the language of advertising are constantly referred to, conjuring up the signage of the big city. Communal spaces of work and play inform the jurors’ investigations; the sports-fan is late for the game; we ride the subway when, at a crucial moment in the plot, a train is evoked as evidence; we even go to the movies when a juror is asked to recall the last film he saw. All the while we remain locked in the deliberation room.
The film thus demands that New York be experienced in memory, read and imagined by the jurors and, by extension, the viewer. The process of exploring the city is not visual in any traditional cinematic sense, but it does rely on visual metonymy. It is tactile, logical, and archaeological in nature. Objects are examined and handled (Fig 2). The jurors reconstruct their use. We also experience space itself as an object; jurors use maps to build up an itinerary of the crime (Fig 3). Davis even physically paces out and re-enacts key scenarios from the night of the murder. He measures out the length of an eyewitness’ apartment, and walks through the space (Fig 4).

Crucially, testimony and perception are brought into question as individuals reconstruct the same event in different ways (Figs 5 and 6). As the film eschews direct reconstruction in the form of flashback, it actively theorises that seeing should not mean believing. Reality lies in the spaces in between. And what the film doesn’t show or tell us about New York is most revealing, and troubling. Judge Nancy Gertner sums up the issue when she writes: ‘The jurors spoke in different accents, reasoned in different ways, but they hardly reflected the true diversity of the city they were in, New York.’[4] There is, indeed, an undeniable lack of racial and gender diversity on screen. However, I would argue that, again, the film examines through omission. As Judge Gertner demonstrates, Lumet’s twelve angry men remained (as late as 2007 and perhaps beyond), an accurate depiction of the social make-up of a real-life jury. Judge Gertner writes: ‘…while the modern federal jury is not likely to be all male, as in 12 Angry Men, in most parts of the country it could well be all white.’[5]
Arguably then, rather than being a love letter to the American legal system as Papke claims, the film highlights systemic problems. And in doing so, it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy about the structures of crime and punishment operating in American cities. As the jurors disperse on the steps of the court, in one of the films two exterior shots, a troubling question remains in the cold light of day (Fig 7): what if Davis had failed to attend jury duty on the day of the trial? The fact remains that without Davis to lead them, the other jurors may have reached a guilty verdict. A verdict we now know to be wrong. The victory for the justice system is Pyrrhic: the diegesis highlights prejudice and a widespread lack of understanding of legal processes among the citizens of New York. Both as a critical look at the legal system and as a manipulation of the rules of cinematic form, therefore, 12 Angry Men remains relevant. It urges the viewer to look again. It demands that we see beyond omission, and re-evaluate how we reach decisions. The film questions empirical proofs, and asks that the viewer look at and see differently – both the spaces of New York City on film, and the structures that govern them in reality.

[1] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 735-748, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=35&id=&page, (Accessed 25 Jan. 2015)
[2] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the Jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p. 736
[3] David Ray Papke, ’12 Angry Men is not an Archetype: Reflections on the jury in Contemporary Popular Culture’, p.747
[4] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, The Chicago-Kent Law Review, Vol. 82:2, 2007, p. 613, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/chknt82&div=27&id=&page, (Accessed: 25 Jan. 2015)
[5] Judge Nancy Gertner, ’12 Angry Men (and Women) in Federal Court’, p. 614

The Martian City in Britain’s First Science Fiction Feature Film

The BFI has just released (on BFI Player, their online platform) a newly restored copy of Britain’s first feature length sci-fi film, A Message From Mars (Waller, 1913). Based on a contemporary stage play, the film is a kind of morality tale (a reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) in which a Martian is sent to Earth to teach Horace, a selfish middle aged man, how to be a better person and win back his estranged fiancée. The film is a fascinating example both of early feature film form and of the sci-fi genre. I am most interested in the film’s portrayal of extra-terrestrial space, and the Martian city in particular. In this respect, A Message from Mars stands out in the sci-fi landscape of the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s.
Mars and its imagined inhabitants captured the public imagination in the USA and the UK at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, frequently appearing in literary fiction and even in early trick films. Martians were frequently portrayed as terrifying, bellicose monsters and their planet as an unforgiving desert-scape. Warwick Goble’s depiction of the Martian invasion of Earth that accompanied H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’, when it was first published in Pearsons Magazine in 1897, shows the Martians as giant squid-like creatures, monstrous warriors, empire builders with futuristic flying saucers. Goble’s images became the archetype. [1] In another early cinematic incarnation, appearing in Thomas Edison’s 1910 trick film A Trip to Mars, the planet is an uninhabitable wasteland, peopled by ice-giants.
     A Message from Mars presents the viewer with a very different kind of extra-terrestrial space. The film begins on Mars (Fig 1.) We see the court of the Martian God or King. The spaces are flat and two-dimensional (perhaps a relic of the story’s theatrical roots), with geometric shapes and columns creating the illusion of depth. The painted backdrops resemble neo-classical colonnades, reminiscent of the Forum Romanum, or even Grecian temples. This reference to the Ancient world makes the space vaguely familiar, earthly, and idyllic. We are on Mars, but we could be in Greece during its Golden Age. These visual references effectively neutralise the threat posed by this Martian Other. The representation of the Martians themselves has a similar effect. They are immortal, but human in form, men in a built environment, wearing medieval robes, and chain mail that wouldn’t look out of place in Medieval England. Mars becomes, then, in the world of the film, a kind of masculine utopia in our solar system. When the diegesis-proper begins, these super-men become a civilizing influence. These aliens are instilled with good old-fashioned Christian values. Their interest in the earth is not a colonising but a charitable one.
The utopian Martian city is quickly replaced by a terrestrial setting. The bulk of the plot unfolds in Edwardian London. We are whisked through period interiors (Fig 2.) while the Martian (named Ramiel) undertakes the noble, positively Victorian task of teaching a man to be a better person. As a result of the Martian influence, Horace learns moral values. He feeds and clothes a homeless man and rescues sleeping children from a burning tenement. Contact with outer space is therefor theorised as positive, a didactic experience by means of which humans effectively learn the ideal of citizenship. The film thus reflects a contemporary interest in space exploration and new technology and even hints at a time when space exploration has lost the sting of fear, while simultaneously upholding the largely conservative mores of the middle classes in early twentieth-century London. As well as providing us with an unusual image of a Martian capital, A Message from Mars can be viewed as an intriguing document of the very real spaces and places of the middle classes. We drive through London and walk along its streets. We inhabit opulent interiors and we are given a glimpse of Trafalgar Square amid signs of a changing landscape: electric signage hangs in the corners of the frame (Fig 3.) With its images of terraced housing, bowler hats, motorcars and even an example of street theatre, A Message from Mars is science fiction at its most down to earth and unusual.

[1] Examples of the illustrations can be found at http://www.ericrettberg.com/wells/omeka/items/show/93 (Accessed 6/1/15) and more detail on early pictorial representations of Outer Space can be found in Holland, Steve ed, Sci-Fi Art: A graphic History, New York, Collins 2009.

London: An Ephemeral City at the Heart of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Only Lovers Left Alive is not a vampire movie. It’s not even a zombie movie in which the human race is reduced to a mass of contaminated flesh and blood, as Tom Hiddleston’s character, the languid, blood-sucking musician Adam, might have us believe. For me it’s not even an epic love story. Only Lovers Left Alive is a film about cities. The real protagonists here are not Adam and Eve, the vampirical couple, but Tangier and Detroit: two settlements, anthropomorphised, connected in time and existing in different stages of urban deterioration. One is (to utilise the film’s own visual vocabulary) a broken down grid, a circuit with a hole in it: Detroit. The other (Tangier) is textured, like organic matter, a dustbowl at night:

They are real spaces. We travel through them, by car or on foot. These living cities are visual places, defined by light. We can see it clearly in the sequence below, in which the city twinkles in the distance, a light-source, disappearing behind the natural shadow of some trees:

The notion of the living city as a source of light (or perhaps more accurately as light itself,) is also eloquently evoked in visual markers. In Detroit we are taken on a tour of a dilapidated theatre, once used for projecting film. In Tangier, we drive past other decrepit projection houses: the ‘Cine Alcazar’ and the Mauritanian Cinema’.
And then there are the dead cities, like the third city, the city that seems to be at the core of the film’s diegetic universe.
The ghostly presence of London hangs over Only Lovers Left Alive: it is a shadow, a city that exists within the text of the film only as a non-place, a memory, but one that is made real and palpable by its very absence. In what is arguably the film’s pivotal moment – when Eve’s sister Eva ‘drinks’ Ian, Adam’s pet zombie, his human protégé and procurer – the lovers drive through Detroit, with Ian in the trunk, wondering how to dispose of the body. Eve says: ‘I mean it’s not like in the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.’
London is alluded to. Quoted. A city entombed in literature. We suspect the central characters shared a history there, but the details remain elusively out of sight, endlessly evocative yet frustratingly just out of reach. It is embodied in the ailing figure of Marlowe, whose historical namesake (the Elizabethan playwright) died in Deptford; in the accents of the actors; in the inter-text. Jarmusch makes persistent references to Shakespeare and, as we watch Marlowe dying, we can’t help but recall John Hurt, in his role as a similarly misunderstood, bedridden man, another mislabelled monster, not unlike this Marlowe: John Merrick in Lynch’s black and white evocation of Victorian London. London, therefore, is a palimpsest of histories, one layer partially concealing the next. It exists only in the interstices, in texts and fictions, in Marlowe’s ‘scribblings’ (quoting the film) and the artefacts around his bed:

And, much like the vampires of the diegesis, the city is itself an ailing fiction. London is a paper city, no longer capable of emitting light. When arranging their flight to Tangier from Detroit, Eve says: ‘No No I’m sorry. London’s no good.’ In the film’s present then, the city is not even a point on a map. It cannot be part of an itinerary. It exists only in the past, merely quotable in the present. Here, London is history – in every sense of the word.
Yet, it might also be the future: a prolepsis of what is to become of Detroit and Tangier. Jarmusch’s characters are endlessly referring to the theory of ‘Entanglement’ in quantum physics. Through Entanglement, Detroit, Tangier, and London (in all its past incarnations) can be theorised as one and the same place: the cities are separated parts of an ‘entwined particle’.
London (in the world of the film) has already succumbed to urban decay and deterioration. It has oxidised. We recall the circling starry sky of the film’s opening titles. London is a receding point of light in an expanding universe. Only Lovers Left Alive seems to theorize London (and by extension the City) as a nucleus, a cosmic body, that emits culture like light, first a living star, then a red dwarf, then a supernova and finally a black hole: anti-matter. And these disappearing cities leave traces, anecdotes, quotations, ephemera: flashes of brilliant light in the darkness, like the cinema itself.