Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Victorians in Orbit - or - How H.G. Wells Prevented Steampunk
Science fiction - especially SF film - is a curiously nostalgic genre. Blade Runner (1982) is the classic case, of course, thanks to Ridley Scott’s signature ‘40 years in the past, 40 years in the future’ noir retrofitting design schemes. These days, that’s the rule rather than the exception.
Assuming you rule out Rotwang, in Metropolis, on the grounds that a wizard’s hut is too far-flung out of the Gernsback continuum even to qualify as a first instance, it’s a bit hard to say when this sort of thing started. (Yes, yes. Metropolis. But that’s boring, because it’s always the answer.) I have an almost-might-have-been case. Things To Come (1936) is, to put it mildly, un-Scott-like, in design sensibility. ("Wings Over the World!" the rationalizing Air Dictator dictates! Knees over the world, more like. The fully enlightened earth radiates kneecaps triumphant.)
I’ve posted before of my love-hate of the film. But as I was saying, the villain of the piece is played by Cedric Hardwicke, who writes in his Autobiography: A Victorian In Orbit:
The one change I suggested was in my costume as Theotocopulos, the reactionary rabble-rouser who tries to destroy the Space Gun. If this is the year 2055 [2036, by the time the film was made],’ I argued, ‘and cities are filled with skyscrapers and people dress in cloaks and sandals, think how dramatically effective Theotocopulos would be if his hankering for the past made him drive an old Ford car and he dressed like a Wall Street broker? But as I rather anticipated, Wells would not hear of it. Theotocopulos, as played by myself, wore an ‘ornate, richly embroidered, coloured satin costume with a great cloak’. That was how the movie ‘treatment’ described it.
And so, alas: instead of some kind of fantastic proto-steampunk villain, taking mad hairpin curves on the ridge, racing his backfiring, smoke-coughing antique motorcar against the scientists in their white helicopter, trying reach the space-gun (maybe playing jazz on the radio) ...
... we get a sorry sort of bargain-basement Byron with a mallet, cuffs you feel sure would interfere with its accurate employment, who is not nearly mad or bad enough, in his conservative conviction that it is dangerous to know! ("Science! We will hate you more if you succeed!")
I got the quote from Christopher Frayling’s BFI book on the film. I haven’t actually read Victorian In Orbit, mind you, but I presume the title nods as well to the man’s role in another semi-forgotten item; the Jules Verne-based Five Weeks In A Balloon. Which I recently tried to watch, because I remember loving it as a kid. (Man is that movie unwatchable. Five minutes was my limit.)
And now you know: the recipe for steampunk (give or take) was conceived in 1936, by an actor who was - apparently - George Bernard Shaw’s favorite on the stage, in the 1920’s. And H.G. Wells prevented its emergence.
What do you think is the coolest visual element in Blade Runner? I submit that the answer is obvious: Gaff’s bowtie, when combined with his Moebius-inspired flyer headgear.
The coolest visual element in Blade Runner is the way it rains milk out of the sky.
You don’t remember that particular feature? Here’s a picture.
Thanks for the Hardwicke anecdote.
The best visual element is the smoke stacks of the future, an indication that the future is not so bright as we might hope, and setting the theme of the movie.
The second best is the hundred foot ad of the geisha swallowing a pill. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head.
Hey, John, that first image seems to be in some password-protected area of examinedlife.
The most interesting interplay of future and past are the apocalyptic genre from Road Warrior to A Canticle for Father Leibowitz. It’s a popular genre and always entails that return to the past as the future.
Some of the examples you give are interesting since I think the sci-fi aesthetic of pre-war times and often up through the 50’s was much more a return to ancient Greek. Presumably on the basis of Greek philosophy as a kind of ideal for future rationalism.
Password protection is popping up everywhere.
Sorry sorry, I had the image in on a site for my class. Forgot about the password protection. Is it fixed now?
Yeah, it’s fixed.
The coolest thing in Bladerunner is undoubtedly the skyscraper-tall digital advertisment that smokes.
But then… maybe it’s not really that *cool* after all. I suppose it’s a stressful job, advertising multinational products all day and night. And in the future, the bar where the other skyscraper-tall digital advertisements hang out will have undoubtedly banned smoking.