Where stories on a planetary scale might reveal the magnitude of human folly, Cities obscure the private degradation of human motives; both venues, however, allow for the interrogation of the relationship between Identity and civilization. Rosemary’s Baby is in many respects as New Wave as anything that appeared in sf magazine New Worlds or any of the Original Anthologies of the 1960s: rarely can have the mutual indebtedness of the nouvelle vague in Cinema and the new wave in Genre SF been so clearly demonstrated. That the film also reveals the continuing importance of Horror in SF to the emergence of Fantastika as a cornerstone of popular culture is instructive: there is little so cathartic to the human imagination as watching one’s unspoken fears about the malevolence of human society rendered as entertainment.
Rosemary’s Baby achieves this by the way it merges its slow, almost predatory, portrayal of human Psychology under supernatural pressure with its mastery of surrealistic filmmaking techniques: here the razor from Un chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí is exchanged for the kitchen knife in the hand of postpartum mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), the keyhole voyeurism of Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) by Jean Cocteau repurposed as the neighbourly manipulations of Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon) and the clandestine marital set-up of Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot recycled as the selfish ambition of Rosemary’s flaky and avaricious husband Guy (Cassavetes). Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and sometimes translated as The Devils or The Fiends, also influenced the Freudian terror of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho (1959) on which Alfred Hitchcock‘s seminal thriller is based, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film. It is the way director and screenwriter Roman Polanski fuses the oneiric force of Rosemary’s inner life to the interior of the New York apartment block to which she and her husband have moved that causes the viewer to identify so closely with her predicament:
The VVitch is a curious artefact. The stylization of its title comes from a Jacobean pamphlet on witchcraft, its costumes (designed by Linda Muir) are thoroughly researched from Stuart Peachey’s Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (2014) and its cinematography (by Jarin Blaschke) is intended to replicate the formal composition of paintings of the period. That much of the dialogue is lifted from writings and witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century lends a curiously dislocated tone to the whole affair: one which might connote the unsuitability of the European paradigm to the North American locale if not for the fact that the religious fervour turns out to be correct in every particular. Thus The VVitch‘s connection to the traditions of Fantastika – a body of literature that communicates its themes most resonantly when read literally and which seeks to interrogate the Politics of the Western world by comparison with exotic locales or buried truths – is both disrupted and enlivened by its almost-documentary devotion to historical accuracy: it may well have been at the point that the Western world stopped treating the idea of God as incontrovertible that Western discourse began to distinguish fact from the fantastic. “Hell is empty and all the devils are here,” as a William Shakespeare character says in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623).
As has been mentioned elsewhere [see We Don’t Go Back: A Personal Taxonomy of Folk Horror and Pagan Film #52: The Witch (2015) by Howard Ingham], the Psychology of the way the family reacts to the strain they are under is entirely credible; it is the attachment of a supernatural explanation to realist verisimilitude that makes The VVitch seem conflicted. Three Algonquin tribespeople are glimpsed at the beginning of The VVitch: America’s native population is neither seen nor heard from again. The VVitch, like Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899; rev 1925) is a text about the unconscious vastation of a belief system that reduced entire continents to Slavery and one half of its own population to the status of chattels:
We know what will happen the moment we hear about the “next generation” human embryos aboard the colony ship: a xenomorph will impregnate them. Here though, the marriage of the fine-honed excitement of the Monster-slaying story arcs of ancient Mythology to the richness of existential inferences from the initial run of films – that Evolution occurs along a little-understood plane of immanence, that Life on Other Worlds is likely to be at least as terrifying as life on this, that Aliens allegorize aspects of organic behaviour not yet fully-explained by Scientists, that the xenomorph represents something about species’ will to survive, much, indeed, as did the alien Shapeshifter from John Carpenter‘s remake of TheThing (1982), that there is, in short, something real and meaningful going on – is exchanged for a blood-spattered retelling of the European occupation of North America as the Colonization of Other Worlds:
Already, during the first episode of The OA, one of the integral tethering points of Fantastika to a logic of sense – that events inside the fictive space should be read as literally happening – is disrupted. Transgression and Equipoise are put to fantastika’s traditional purpose of subjecting the fixity of the world to “fruitful instability” but there is little ontological framework by which to direct The OA’s system of Metaphysics: everything is diegesis and doubt. The fact the viewer does not know The OA’s true origin story means that we cannot properly invest in The OA‘s narrative arc; unless perhaps it is to question the very basis of consensual narrative. A film like Guillermo Del Toro‘s El laberinto del fauno [“Pan’s Labyrinth”] (2006) by contrast begins and ends its tale of a fallen princess oppressed by all-too-real forces in a Secondary World [see TheEncyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], making itself all the more concrete by turning its narrative full-circle. The OA‘s refusal to let its audience know where it stands complicates any attempt at interpretation, a decision accentuated by placing credit sequences at unusual junctures in episodes of unequal lengths, disjunctive pacing and switching between points-of-view and, most tellingly, by alternately supporting The OA’s version of events and throwing them into doubt. We are not showing you the literal truth, the makers of The OA are saying, because a human being literally does not know where she comes from or why she is here.
A science fiction story – even one written by a fabulist – would not play the game in quite the same way. Russell Hoban‘s Fremder (1996) uses a fictionalized version of quantum Physics to assert a subjective understanding of reality:
Centricity of event as perceived by a participant in the event is reciprocal with the observed universe: the universe configures the event and the event configures the universe. Each life is a sequence of event-universes, each sequence having equal reality subjectively and no reality objectively. Objective reality is not possible within the sequence, therefore subjective reality, regardless of consensus, is the only reality.
Linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is grieving for the death of her teenage daughter from cancer when twelve alien Spaceships appear at twelve locations around present-day planet Earth, engendering globalized military Paranoia. US Army Colonel G T Weber (Whitaker) partners Banks with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) in a bid to establish First Contact with the “heptapods”, who are large, cephalopod-like creatures with seven limbs organized in a circle around a barrel-shaped corpus – a form-factor that influences not only how the creatures move and communicate but also the way in which they use an inverted system of Mathematics to describe the same physical laws of the universe. Two heptapods dubbed “Abbott and Costello” by Banks and Donnelly converse with their military reception party at the Montana landing site by squirting circular Rorschach-reminiscent blots of black ink onto the clear window that separates them and their breathable atmosphere from that of their human interlocutors. Banks’ comprehension of the heptapods’ semasiographic writing system (its ideograms are based on meaning, not sound) and the heptapods’ corresponding insight into human Psychology and Biology is the hinge on which the plot of Arrival swings:-
Seven double-page spreads designed to be used as prompts for improvisation, creative inspiration or random tables provide the spine of the story: pre-generated characters, maps and guidance for play form the scenario’s second half.
Right now, the scenario is freely available only as a desktop PDF but other formats may soon become available:-
Black Dog Dérive is a modest affair but one nonetheless that requires some decisions to be made. I come from a dim, dark and mythical past in which players of a roleplaying game were left to make their own choices about how to play but this approach now seems to be regarded as some kind of oversight – and perhaps rightly so.
Playtests have allowed me to refine the guidance down to three modes: Old School, Story First and New Wave. That I do not see these styles of play as politically opposed or mutually exclusive is half the reason I’ve written the scenario – but, you know, that’s up to the people playing.
It will probably be a booklet of 30 pages or so. I may print it out as a fanzine or I may just make it freely available as a PDF: it’s been a difficult year money-wise and health-wise and I may have to settle for what I can make happen. Really, I just want it out there as an option for those playing Ville Vuorela’s wonderful STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game. I’ll contact Ville when the first draft is done – the end is in sight now – and see what he thinks is appropriate.
The moustache of main character David/The Lobster (Farrell) might easily serve as emblem for the film: earnest and yet outrageously out-of-place, trying to fit into a world whose societal constructs and everyday cruelties in fact make no more sense than any other animal endeavour. Absurdist SF is combined with deadpan Satire to disorienting effect.
The laws of “The City” indicate that David and the other single people in The Lobster must be taken to “The Hotel”, a desolate and joyless locale in the style of an English holiday resort wherein those visiting must couple-up within the forty-five day time limit or be sent off to live in “The Woods”: “If you fail to fall in love during your stay here, you will turn into an animal.” David’s brother is rendered as real-life dog on screen because “he was here a couple of years ago but he didn’t make it”. Masturbation is banned, Sex with the Hotel Maid (Labed) is as mandatory as it is joyless, and the hotel is filled with single people unable to talk, dance or connect emotionally with one another except via a bloodless rendition of romantic customs vaguely reminiscent of the transmitted narcissism of Internet dating. “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves,” announces the Hotel Manager (Colman), “you will be assigned children. That usually helps.”