Monday, June 8, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy,* (2) *drama*

These two moldy oldies don't make for very good entertainment, but they do illustrate some of the ways I see "unusual technology" falling into the domain of the uncanny-- of something that seems strange but doesn't break with the causal order-- as opposed to the marvelous, which is strange precisely because it breaks with said order.

I've often used Jules Verne's Nautilus as an example of "marvelous technology." I've read that when Verne conceived of his novel, he drew upon his period's theories of how a submersible might work, and so in some senses the Nautilus is grounded in the science of the period, though naturally Verne had to rely on the "one gimme rule" to extrapolate the ship's non-existent functionality. The extent to which Verne had to conjure forth a non-existent technology is what determines a particular SF-concept to be an concept of "the marvelous" rather than of "the uncanny."

In contrast to Verne's marvelous extrapolation, the writers of TRAPPED BY TELEVISION didn't have to shoot for the moon, so to speak. Television technology was in development at the time, so when living-hand-to-mouth scientist Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot) comes up with a viable TV camera and transmitter in his apartment, he hasn't exactly created a wonder that stands alongside Verne's prototype for the real-world submarine.

TRAPPED is an amusing trifle of light comedy. I can't say that I precisely cared much about whether the poor scientist succeeded at his task, or whether he hooked up with glamorous con-woman Barbara (Mary Astor). What sold the film for me was the character of Rocky, a "dese-dem-and-dose" fellow who has a charming love of scientific advancement. Rocky, employed by a collection agency, meets Fred when he Rocky is sent to repossess the scientist's equipment, but Rocky ends up helping Fred sell his invention, and, for good measure, also helps clobber some heist artists caught by the television lens.

Astor and Talbot are appealing enough in their roles, but Nat Pendleton as the science-lovin' tough guy Rocky makes the film worth watching. Fourteen years later, Talbot would be playing a less prepossessing avatar of science, when he essayed the role of mad scientist Luthor in the serial ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN.

ROCKET ATTACK USA possesses none of the moderate entertainment value of TRAPPED BY TELEVISION.  I'm not sure why some sources list the film's date as 1961; the 1958 date seems more probable given that it must have been rushed out in response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Filmmakers have often released movies that were meant to coattail on some fad or public concern, just as ATTACK does. On occasion such movies, while never subtle, capture some popular mood of the period with an emotional intensity that makes up for the lack of either subtlety or intelligence.

ATTACK is not one of those movies. It's predominantly a spy-jinks flick, postulating that the purpose of Sputnik was to gather and transmit vital U.S. info back to the USSR. An American agent travels to Moscow to find out how much the Russians know. By the time he gets finished watching a belly-dancer finish a long routine, the Russians have assembled a nuclear missile, which they use to destroy New York. The end.

I joke, but not by very much. Since the main intent of ATTACK is to deliver to the audience a gut-punch of seeing the Russkies destroy a major American city, none of the spy-crap really amounts to anything. The characters are so resolutely flat that they make serial-heroes seem like models of Dickensian verisimilitude. In the sixties director Barry Mahon would find his true metier in low-budget sexploitation films, some of which have modest metaphenomenal content, like 1965's BEAST THAT KILLED WOMEN. The ones I've seen are every bit as crude as ATTACK, but they all deliver more entertainment than this tedium.

Since nuclear missiles capable of devastating cities already existed at the time of the film, they in themselves are not metaphenomenal objects. The possible outcome of using them, however, does, but in highly particularized ways. In my system, if a nuclear attack simply occurs and devastates some target, as it does in this film and in the more highly regarded 1964 FAIL SAFE, this falls into the category of the uncanny. In such a narrative the deployment of the nuclear weapon requires nearly no extrapolation, though the event's "strangeness," its foreign-ness to everyday experience, still goes beyond the bounds of the ordinary. However, if the narrative attempts to broadly extrapolate how survivors of a nuclear holocaust seek to cope with the aftermath, then such a work falls into the category of the marvelous. Thus, even though THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL carries a very mundane appearance in opposition to many post-apocalypse scenarios-- that is, in that the film lacks monsters, mutants, or even weirdo tribal groups-- its suggestion that the protagonists must evolve a new society still extrapolates a "new thing," and so takes on the mantle of the marvelous.

ADDENDUM: Though it seemed implicit to me, I did not mean to imply that "strangeness" would appear in the case of every nuclear detonation. Clearly the historical depiction of the nuclear attacks at the end of World War II do not carry the phenomenality of the uncanny. And though I've stated that I do deem SPECTRE's theft of a nuclear bomb in Ian Fleming's THUNDERBALL as falling within the domain of the uncanny, not every cheapjack action-film about terrorists getting hold of nuclear missiles is automatically uncanny, either. The dividing line between the naturalistic and the uncanny is not so much "what objects or concepts appear in them," but "how are those objects or concepts used?"  

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