Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tales from the Retrofuturist Pharmacy, Part II: PHASE IV, Boards of Canada, SPACE STATION 76 (1st 20 minutes)

See Part 1: 
And Tales from the Benway Pharmacy; BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE MACHINE

The future is always already then, as then is the future, so it is/n't written. Some tomorrows are maybe yesterdays' correct prediction and if you ever believed man the axis of his own spinning destiny, consider the wisdom of that hedonistic and empathic era known as the 70s --a scant 40 odd years ago, though it seems like it hasn't even happened yet--a time when we were much more collectively decadent and forward-thinking (about some things). Now it's all just a pipe dream, a smoke cloud we let be wrest from our collective lungs at the first wheezy indication of long-term damage. We let the revolution slip through our fingers. We were too hungover to find suitable hip answers to the terror of AIDS, and then the wearying, streaked excesses of home video, and the death of John Lennon (completing a JFK, MLK trifecta) made us realize how ugly the world really is. The low-res saturation that Nigel Kneale predicted in his 1968 BBC mini-series YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS unleashed a televisual level sleaze and violence we'd been too scared to go to the inner city or X-rated cinema to hitherto know existed. We finally saw the dead end of vice, and the sheer number of grisly misogynist titles made us turn away... but not from the screen, from each other.

But before that, innocence let us think we were quite adult, even lewd and bawdy in this safe space called the swinging suburbs (ala Spencer's Gifts). In theaters there had been successful 'head trips' like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1969) showing us mankind itself as a giant brain ever expanding thanks to contact with big black rectangular slab of LSD sent to us by a highly advanced civilization. We were ready for his next stage of evolution, one with free love, Evelyn Wood, EST, ESP, and mood rings to go with the Valium, whiskey sours, wife-swapping at all night drunken block parties, and DoodleArt for all. The 'dark arts' were solely at the drive-ins and city theaters. TV itself was safe for all generations. We though Burt Reynolds using the "S"-word in car chase movies the be-all and end-all of badass subversion.

Everything was coming our way: the 70s offered a future we felt we were already reaching, aspiring to and achieving all at once.

Underneath all that was another element: we sensed back in the late 60s how even the future would eventually look outmoded one day, that commercial space flight would eventually be reduced to a few 'idle' commie intellectuals in the Howard Johnson spaceport lounge on ridiculously modular furniture. But we felt we could afford to admit our own tacky tendency to grow complacent and glazed-eyed without regular visits to the obsidian obelisk. The obelisk would be there, like a parent giving us kicks and threats to get out the door and looking for a job after college.

Yeah, and part of our evolution, according to Timothy Leary, is that our collective intelligence will meet and merge with collective intelligences from other kingdoms, like the kingdom of the insect or of plants (we already had merged with the mushroom). Today we can't imagine giving up the reins on Mother Earth without a lot CGI overkill and Space Marines "going in hot" and that's because we've yet to let go of the individual mind. We succumb to the lure of fascism (or cults) to reach glimpses of the power in letting our will be subsumed in collective oneness. But if we go too far in that direction, our leader turns megalomaniacal, greedy, delusional. The PHASE IV (1974) ants would be six moves ahead of us on that score, their collective hive intelligence seeing through our paltry mammalian herd cross-purpose milling. They'd dominate us: total victory--we wouldn't even be anything as coarse as wiped out. Wiping out itself is--as we learn at the end of the film-- a primitive notion that involves a fixed identity, and what is unfixed cannot be threatened. The unfixed never needs to worry about new kingdoms slithering over to visit and mate; they can dilate to encompass galaxies, or shrink in aperture to infinitesimal abstraction.

Groovy geodesic designs by ants... for ants (PHASE IV)
Recent retrofuturist head trips like the misguided SPACE STATION 76 (2014) and excellent BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010 -covered here), provide the full measure of timeless nostalgia for these times un-past, these nearly-fulfilled ambitions. A hauntological subgenre of electronic-analog music, initially spearheaded by Boards of Canada (see below), and sites like The Scarfolk Council, indicate a longing to return to the less covertly oppressive, more tactile and modular ur-Pagan future promised by the 70s... one where documentaries about The Bermuda Triangle could sell millions of tickets at the theater and no one ever imagined we'd lose that unified sense of an entire planet being ready for things to get weird.

Too bad, then, that SPACE STATION 76 (2014) was so trite I couldn't make it past the first 20 minutes. I kicked it out of my TV after three strikes: 1) the terribly anachronistic use of bad CGI for the space shots, instead of models which could have looked phony but would have been tactile, which is the whole fucking point; 2) wasting the fantasy of a druggy space station fantasia with a lot of anachronistic alienation and angst, as if writer-director Jack Plotnik couldn't visualize the 70s at all (beyond one or two unconvincing cigarettes and a strung out emotionally unavailable caregiver on Valium), relying instead on the cliches made banal from overuse in hack script workshops the world over. When the hot bad boy lights a joint in the garage/hangar for example, he does so with perfectly mussed hair, and rolled-up shirtsleeve, working on his motorcycle, such a useful device on a space station. And only one cigarette going at a time and even that one smoked like the person smoking never smoked a cigarette before, like a mime in an anti-smoking ad; 3) Hopelessly trite and obvious pop music choices, spelling out the mood they're hoping to generate rather than providing any interesting form of contrast or counterpoint (or cool analog synths). ZzzzzAP!

"Welcome to the future of the past" is the film's tag, but this isn't the past or the future-past. It's an idea whose time has come.... and gone, sunk by last minute second guess groupthink, or underthink.

Liv Tyler looks good though, even with a paralyzed upper lip and a mousy reticence utterly at odds with her character's supposed accomplishments as a pilot (but not at odds in the mind of a bad screenwriter using those trite cliches we mentioned). Compared to mighty feminist vanguards like Christina Applegate in ANCHORMAN or Denise Richards in STARSHIP TROOPERS, Tyler's girl pilot asserts no sense of competence or strength. Her polyester uniform is sexy in an offhand way I was glad wasn't overly obvious... it looks genuinely worn, lived-in, rather than, say, a sexy space girl outfit of the sort never worn outside a single slutty Halloween party. Even so, a good costume designer can't save a sinking ship. It's too little too late to care. I clicked it and ejected the silver disc like a character in a 60s Phillip K. Dick novel might.

I know that disqualifies me from a genuine review, so why did I mention it? The future, man. I'll see the rest one day, when I'm less picky about my retrofuturist serio/rom-coms. It does inevitably happen --there is a season, burn burn burn. While we're waiting for that fateful day to be come/gone, to gratify my frustrated retrofuturist jones I returned to a film I've already seen twice, and which just gets better every time, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010)

RAINBOW is a mad druggie psychologist's 70s dream of a geodesic dome paradise for people who are ready to leave behind petty moral strife, behind even if it means working or being worked on in a cold clinical red Cronenbergian psychiatric ward. In a flashback to 1966, the drugged-out shrink takes some powerful liquid LSD, is reborn, and rips out the jugular vein of his mentor's wife with his teeth.. or... something. Back to the mid-80s, and the rich scientist who set it all up is a shattered junky, his star child daughter a telekinetic Scanner-type kept under protective glass to contain her ability to project thoughts and melt people's brains. The drugged-out shrink delights in tormenting her and talking super slowly in their sessions, each word savored in his speedy mouth for its gorgeous liquid curvature. Does even he know he killed her mom? (more here).

Look close into the green in the blackness at right
Right as I was writing this, Craig T. Nelson behind me said the words "phase four" in relation to the real estate development agency he works for in POLTERGEIST (1981). Is it any coincidence that this PHASE IV is the movie I'm writing about at this very moment? "Reach back and remember when you had an open mind," JoBeth Williams says to him, right before a chair slides across the floor. As I've written, Craig T. Nelson starts the film in the 70s great dad mode--and winds up a closed-down conservative Reagan 80s dad. "Remember when you had an open mind" could apply to our current world as well. I never thought, as a kid in the 70s, that neo-conservatism would ever resurface.

Even so, as a kid in the very early 80s, I wrote a short story about a stoner orgiast grandfather trying to turn his grandchildren onto punk rock and LSD while their parents (his children) preach strict joyless religious/conservative dogma. To me, at the time, such a willing retreat from decadent freedom was unimaginable except as science fiction. I was sure things would get more decadent, and/or stay as they were. In Buenos Aires, for example, which I was in only a few years back, it's still the 70s in a lot of ways--sideburns, jean jackets, big collars, open-heartedness. North Americans down there are considered mighty backwards, violent, and conservative - our pop culture has reflected a descent from the coolness we had back in the decade they still seem to live in.  It's hard not to agree when you compare the breadth of their interests to ours. At coffee my wife and I would discuss Freud and Lacan, Godard, and Dali with her friend who drove a cab and his painter girlfriend.  In America, that would be considered pretentious - we'd discuss The Simpsons and Britney instead.

Though the USA has grown too conservative to advance back into the 70s, there is still analog synth music at our disposal, most of it from the UK, via outfits like the Canadian Board of Education, i.e. Boards of Canada, whose eerie electronic music seeks to capture that late afternoon feeling of woozy instant hauntologique deja vu when we kids absorbed the 70s elementary school-enforced complex lessons of overpopulation, pollution, Saturn, the world of insects and the darkest ocean depths all set to murky analog synth space music. Though the BOC is actually Scottish, no doubt their ingeniously socialized education systems shared film strips and 16mm shorts, as did my own in, in a progressive 70s PA grade school - where my classmates and I saw short sci-fi films on themes like the hole in the ozone layer like THE ARK (1970) constantly, and I've been looking for it for years but can't find this one thing they showed a lot that was so weird I can't find mentioned anywhere: maybe you know it? It's the one where a lone color butterfly invades a depressing black-and-white industrial hellscape, almost initiates a revolution amongst the hazmat-suited workers, and then winds up pinned to the wall above the manager's desk. We saw that film a dozen times over the years! We kids could handle depressing industrial hellscape cautionary metaphors in the 70s, goddamn it. At home, on PBS, we watched things like LATHE OF HEAVEN and STAR MAIDENS. These hazy but profound persona-shaping memories of elementary school 70s films have spawned a whole genre of music, beyond what trail-blazers like Tangerine Dream, Eno, or the BBC Radio Orchestra could have e'er imagined. It's a music so time-specific that a certain generational swath (which includes me) grows hypnotized with a giddily ominous rapturous mix of sadness, dread, and delight --the future as imagined in the past, literally out-of-time, ultra-dimensional, soaring backwards and winding up ahead of itself.


So if England made Scarfolk, Scotland made Boards of Canada, and Canada made RAINBOW, what did we make? Goddamned half-baked overthought de-clawed SPACE STATION 76. Jeeziss. We got to get it to / gether / then.

Luckily, los Estados Unidos rules the actual retro-future. We gave the world SOYLENT GREEN, SILENT RUNNING, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and LOGAN'S RUN, and--now on Netflix streaming (PS - not anymore 6/16) -- PHASE IV (1974), which used to come skittering through the usual after-school creature features on local TV, and had me thinking hyper-intelligent ants besieging a geophasic dome in the middle of the desert sounded pretty cool. But these ants aren't EMPIRE OF THE ANTS or THEM size. They're not giant, and for most of the film's running time we barely see them interact with the humans at all except through basic shapes related via fax machine. They wait until said humans are dead or 'right where the ants want 'em (in a giant hole) before they make their designs known.

Now, as grade school scamp, I saw, up-close, tons of insects, both on nature documentaries and living across the street from a thriving park where every upturned rock delivered unto us kids a vast eye full of struggling worms, pill bugs, centipedes, and spiders. I even had a bug collection for a time, pinned on a cork board, each one labeled, their exoskeletons slowly crumbling onto my desk. Most kids, small and powerless in a strange world of giants, come to depend on tormenting, killing, or capturing, or just cuddling with smaller creatures to feel any sort of power. As kids we relished the chance to feel bigger than something, for a change.

Now though, on the widescreen HD TV, the close-ups look like alien monsters. Now I've put away childish things, taken them back out again, and now left them at some party I lost the address to... and anyway am too embarrassed to retrace my steps and to admit I can't remember which bars I was in where I might have left them. I revisited that Lansdale park a few years ago and the creek was dried up, the trees dying, the park was now just a stretch of crabgrass with a softball diamond. Bugs got zero cachet for me now anyway, and besides DDT took the lot of them. Reality is parched and empty while the screen explodes with HD color. Reality is certainly the wasteland the 70s predicted it would be, and PHASE IV awaits rediscovery. See it!

Nigel Davenport plays an entomologist who has detected disturbing signs in the desert that all the different kinds of ants are working together, and that their natural enemies are all conveniently and mysteriously disappearing. With a big grant he sets off to build a high-tech research station geodome in the middle of the desert, near the disturbances, to find out what's going on and (hopefully) destroy the ants before they wipe out mankind. Recruiting a games-and-theory code breaker from MIT (Michael Murphy) to help him, Davenport hopes to communicate with the collective hive ant intelligence!

The film actually moves very fast, even truncated, like a Reader's Digest abridged novel, moving through a cycle of ideas briskly and intelligently. It's not at all the molasses drip of meaningless I remembered as a kid (though I understand now why I didn't understand it then). It helps to have taken some drugs, grasped some rudimentary structuralist precepts, I guess, in the decades between viewings, and so be able to better understand the psychedelic journey of the end, where the couple come together as the ambassadors of a new insect-commandeered Earth, one no doubt infinitely better managed. In short, 2001: An Ant Farm Odyssey

Theory of film recollection:

Sometimes in close film writing I start to get a thrill from remembering a scene in great depth. The more I write about it, the longer and more powerful the scene becomes, until it begins to change - and I remember elements that--when I see it again--are not there. Lines of dialogue I know clearly in my brain, have changed. Being able to revisit a film over and over while writing about it is something denied film critics until the age of video, but we lost something in gaining that ability. In going back to check whether what we remembered is actually in the film, we drain the essence of myth - the way form and structure change and warp as a kernel of deep truth forges and reforges its molten self. Sometimes though, the DVD version isn't the same film - director's cuts, editing for TV, etc. So sometimes we were right in the first place. How can we know which is which?

Sometimes I get convinced the film been edited, somehow changed with time, or else I was 'on' something at the time and aren't now. The film's presentation might be different - certainly the widescreen and HD makes a huge difference over the old analog square. But after writing and thinking about a film, revisiting it we realize we're the ones who have changed, and memories have accrued around initial impressions until what's there isn't there anymore. That doesn't mean the memories are false, merely that time is. END OF FILM RECOLLECTION THEORY--

PHASE IV is the only feature directed in entirety by Saul Bass, the genius who used geometry and abstract planes to shape animated credit sequences to Hitchcock films like VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. This indirectly makes him the perfect man for a movie about geodesic ant architecture and hive intelligence. The genius of the ants makes a perfect analogy to that kind of animation and design --and the script is masterful at conveying the idea of non-localized intellect, the hive mind. Each ant in itself is not smart, but the hive mind is. Combating a non-localized intelligence is almost impossible. We're forced to consider them as an entire new form of intellect, genuinely superior to ours because they're so self-sacrificing, so devoted to the whole. Davenport sprays the ants with a yellow poison, for example, they die en masse, but then we see ants dying as they relay a chunk of the green-glowing toxin through a long ant tunnel and into the queen's chamber, where she eats some of it and immediately starts to lay immune green-glow-tinted eggs, as if each new ant is born with a booster shot to immunize them to that poison.

Humans simply can't evolve that fast, not sober, not after AIDS, not after the Reagan 80s brought us into crash-and-carry modality, forever more.

LANGUAGE arm uakdfgrgdgum84deij-VIRUS:

'How come giraffes haven't learned to talk by now," we used to ask in class when arguing evolution in class. But now I know how that kind of thinking : Darwin is great, the theory of evolution is just a bitter pill we're afraid to swallow, so we misunderstand on purpose. This is not because we're weak, but because it means language doesn't necessarily make us stronger, so language resists our attempts to expose its limitations. Language, as the ants well know, is a soul-killing virus that slowly strangles our five human senses in favor of abstract symbology. Our dogs and cats look at us with concern, like we're crazy, as we stare at the TV in a state of zombie hypnosis, but they see more than we do of the world; when we're really troubled and ill, they know it before we do and comfort us without a word. Their senses are superior, they smell our souls, and so they get cuter all the time, that's evolution.  If we were animals we would have long ago adapted to our natural world rather than destroying it to the point it conform to the limitations of language, the way a normally free-thinking woman might be hobbled by a restrictive religious patriarchy (i.e. cutting off the fingers to fit the glove). Animals see what language and abstract thinking have done to us and they say 'no thanks, man.' Just say no. The giraffe's evolution involves reaching higher and higher to access more leaves than its neighbor, it has no need of talk. Humans, in our vanity, presume whichever dead-end we hobble down is the one true road out.

Maybe one day our evolution will involve curing ourselves of the curse of language, and we'll merge once more into the cosmic egg, fuse our intelligence to that of our Sky Mother, Shakti Kali Durga, the one without a second. There She is, waiting for us to swim once more into her lighted tunnel womb. And the two of every animals will all be waiting to welcome us when we return, saying "hey man, you finally evolved!" And we'll be like yeah, but what's wrong with you, you got the virus now too? And then we'll all look at each other with warm compound eyes and try not to say another goddamned word. ++


 Further 70s "learning" -

See also from Acidemic:

Tales from The Retroufuturist Pharmacy II: The Metatextual Cigar Edition


  1. "The 70s --a scant 40 odd years ago, though it seems like it hasn't even happened yet" might be the best explanation of the 70s I've ever read.

    I like "Beyond the Black Rainbow - at least everything up to the last 15 minutes, which didn't live up to the rest of it for me.

    But thinking of 70's-era films and 70's-type films, the existing pieces of the first half of Żuławski's "On the Silver Planet" (filmed between 1975 and 1978) is as good as any sci-fi film of the decade I've watched in recent years.

  2. thanks Katy - yeah I agree the last bit of RAINBOW didn't live up to the promise of the rest of the film, then again neither did the 70s, or does psychedelics, i.e. sooner or later even the most phantasmagorical dreams die, or grow stale, boiled of all meaning, strained and served around a fire by a pair of no-good heshers.

  3. "That doesn't mean the memories are false, merely that time is."--thanks for that, it explains a lot for me and has eased me out of a few disappointments. The phrase is especially useful when thinking of Phase IV. I saw it over a year ago and I still think about it all the time. I'm almost afraid to watch it again, but I know I'm going to have to eventually.

  4. That 'reshaping' at the end of PHASE IV originally went on a bit longer - long thought lost, the montage was found in Bass' archives and has been shown in recent screenings of the film - no word as to a second release on HV for the intact film, but until then, there's YouTube:

  5. Thanks L. Rob - it's a real tragedy they edited all that cool footage out - it makes it so much more satisfying and understandable - and plays to Bass' strengths as a great montage-collage-ist. Were the producers afraid it was too 'out there' and how dare it imply we were the new insects? Thank our future ant rulers, Bass saved it, and hopefully it will appear in future versions.

  6. Anonymous22 July, 2016

    Definitely want to check Phase IV out. Have you seen World on a Wire? It's a West German production from I believe 1973. Really amazing set design, cinematography, etc.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...