Saturday, August 13, 2016

Things to Come

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.

Things to Come, released in 1936, a collaboration between H. G. Wells, Alexander Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and a host of illustrious others, is a bit of an odd duck. Gorgeous looking, with stunning imagery (pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and utopian), even more stunning montage sequences, fantastic music, and - well, a star-studded cast, doing what they can - and preachy, static, abstract, with characters designed to Make Points, all of it Deadly in Earnest and political - all at once. It's a case of too many cooks - creating a wild pot luck of - metaphors...

Try again:

The best way to look at it is to realize that it is an advertisement. Propaganda. An advertisement - for Wells' book (The Shape of Things to Come), though probably more for Wells' ideas, his political schemes. The concept of the book is that it is a transcription of a history book from 2105 or 6 that an otherwise very clever man attached to the League of Nations has dreamed of reading over the past few years, writing down as much as he remembers in the morning. He told HG Wells about it, then died, in 1930 - Wells got the notes together and made them into a book, and when the events of 1930-33, described in the dream book, all proved true, Wells decided to publish it (in 1933 or so). The film, then, is an adaptation of this book - given some cinematic touches (it is a book of history, dry, rather impersonal history at that), like characters and drama - but not a lot. The characters are types, put in typical situations, where they make speeches to one another....

But as an advertisement, for the book, and the ideas, the style is perfectly natural. Like ads and propaganda, it may have characters and stories, but they are distinctly abstract - types, there to state the ideas they are advertising, directly and explicitly. "15 minutes can save you 15% on car insurance;" "we don't approve of independent sovereign states." These people and stories, most of the time, are completely swallowed in the technical displays around them. The technical displays of Things to Come certainly swallow its characters. It is monumental and grand, and dominated by its montage sequences - spectacular montage sequences, brilliantly stitched together series' of beautifully staged and shot images, tightly edited to the music. They are dazzling: the opening Christmas/War montage - the sequence of the start of the war - the bombing of Everytown - a couple sequences showing the long progress of the war - and an orgy of machine porn (I mean, what else are you going to call it?) showing the building of the new, underground, utopian Everytown.

It's a style that shows up on TV every 10 minutes or so; you can watch a dozen 30 second examples while you wait for Michael Phelps to win another medal. In 1936 it was a bit more novel, but not unknown. It's approach - monumental imagery, dazzling montage, human beings as types, and treated as elements in the design, and, indeed, an overpowering sense of design to the whole endeavor - appears in many propaganda films of the day. Triumph of the Will has it; Eisenstein's films have it, especially in the 20s - as do many other films, experimental films, city symphony films, as well as straight up propaganda. Most of the techniques turn up in mainstream films as well (plenty of montage sequences anywhere you want to look in the 30s, some of them as abstract as anything here) - what sets it apart, and links it to propaganda then and advertisement since is both the reduction of humanity to Points to be Made, and that pervasive sense of design.

Because for all the clash of styles and egos going into the making of the film, it is a carefully, and completely, designed film. Look at it: the stunning sets, the careful arrangements of objects (including human beings) in front of the camera, the superb editing - but also look at the overall structure. The film is careful in its symmetries - repeating situations, images, etc, from one section to another. As an example - the symmetry between the bombing/gas attack on Everytown that marks the beginning of the end of the old world, and the "gas of peace" attack that issues in the era of the air dictatorship, the beginning of the new world. Repeated situations and reminiscent shots:

The parallelism is certainly helped by the fact that the same actors keep showing up in new roles, that embody the same types (Raymond Massey the hero, Edward Chapman as his cautious friend) - they get to repeat their conversations in new clothes and on different sets, with a different young friend as interlocutor:

Advertisement, then. And what is it advertising? The political idea of H. G. Wells, basically, in the form of a prediction of future history. Wells took them seriously, he had high hopes for the film as a way of spreading his ideas - it's worth giving them some attention, I think. What is Wells saying? He tells the story of the next 100-200 years to describe what he thinks will happen, and what he thinks should happen - this is prescription as much as prediction. He has some strong theories about how the world should work, spelled out in detail in the book, indicated int he film. What are they?

1. The World needs a single world government to allow humanity to develop into what they should be.
2. The history of the world is the history of smaller units of people forming larger units - individuals, to families, to tribes, to communities - to both larger political units, and other units, such as ethnic and linguistic groups, religions and so on.
3. At every step of this evolution, existing units resist the development of larger units - hanging on to their own privileges and powers.
4. To get to #1, you need an elite of scientists, technicians, intellectuals who share the values and goals of the World State, and who work not just to implement it but to educate the population in its precepts - humanity is what it teaches itself to be.

Those assumptions drive the story he tells. He believes that existing systems - the nation-state and capitalism, mainly, as well as religious and ethnic forces - have reached the limits of their ability to cope with the world and are starting to break down. (He wrote this in 1933 - this thesis is well supported.) He thinks - and this is going to cut right to the core of what he gets wrong in these predictions - that the existing Sovereign States will resist any attempt to replace them with a World State, and Capitalism will resist any attempt to change economic forms. Therefore, they need to be destroyed - though he is not a revolutionary, thinking they will be overthrown. He thinks they will destroy themselves. (Not a stretch, in 1933.) Once they collapse, the World State can rise to take their place. There will be a time of sorrow first - but science and technology will survive, and will recover, and implement a world based on - well, Wells' ideas. He doesn't think this will be easy - he shares with the Communists the belief that there must be a period of dictatorship, not of proletariat, but of intellectuals and technicians - the air dictatorship, Wings over the World in this story. This dictatorship will wither away - he's clearer than the Communists on the means: a complete education reform will turn everyone into a little superman. They will need no exceptional leaders because everyone will be exceptional. Utopia!

That's what he expects (and wants): how does he think it might happen? War will come - in the book he says it will come in Europe in 1939, between Germany and Poland over the Danzig corridor. A pretty safe bet in 1933, probably, but still, he got that right. It's interesting that the film changes this: the book is rather precise about who will invade who, who might gas who, which cities would be sterilized, what areas made uninhabitable, and so on. The film abandons this precision for a very English Everytown, that suffers all the misfortunes of the coming troubles. The war is just as vague: no cause is given for it, and there isn't a lot of detail about what happens afterwards - just those montage sequences. The book does not stint on such details. The war, in both film and book, quickly becomes dominated by air power and chemical weapons - the book offers plenty of detail about the type of gas used, its effects, who did what to whom, and so on. This war lasts decades - and is accompanied by economic collapse (the "Hoover Slump", they call it in the book, lasting 30 years.) Then comes disease - the "wandering sickness" - which is more obviously brought on by all the chemicals in the air in the book. All this - the collapse of the economy, plus the war, plus the disease that obliterates half the planet, leaves the world in a state of barbarism and ruin - nations shattered, reduced to half comic local warlords like The Chief, ripe for picking by heroic flyboys.

None of this happened, of course. The only thing he got right about the war was when it would start and where. And the aftermath, in a sense: Germany and Japan after WWII looked quite a bit like his post-apocalyptic world, for a while at least. But when they were rescued, it wasn't by Raymond Massey is a funny hat - it was by George Marshall and the good old US of A.

So what did he miss? One big thing is that he took his moment in history as the next-to-last moment in history, a mistake a lot of prognosticators make. He describes the evolution of larger and larger units of people, up to the modern state, and to ideas about transnational organizations like the League of Nation - but assumes those organizations and agreements will be completely opposed by existing States. But compare it to what happened. Start with World War II - he makes two big mistakes in predicting how it will go, militarily. One is that he discounts the importance of tanks in the war to come - that is, like many others, thinking the next war will be a repeat of the last. (He's clear about that; the film adopts it completely, showing its battle scenes as very much like WWI, even with tanks.)

But the other mistake is that he thinks the war will be fought primarily with chemical weapons. He was wrong, and wrong because the combatants followed a treaty, the Geneva Protocol against chemical warfare (and most of the world has to this day). It's almost shocking that they did - the participants in WWII didn't show a lot of restraint in their willingness and ability to kill people. It's hard to fault Wells for not seeing that coming. (It's also worth noting that the real WWII ended up killing more people in 6 years than Wells imagines it would kill directly in a decade. He didn't quite seem to realize the devastating power of high explosives and incendiaries; nor did he imagine anything like the Holocaust.) And in the aftermath of the war, we see again that States were able to adapt more effectively than Wells imagines. His imaginary war leads to decades of primitivism, poverty, disappearance of technology and culture; the real war led to a decade or so of acute suffering in the losing countries - then a miraculous recovery, in those countries, and technological innovation everywhere. Though these miracles weren't exactly miracles - they were driven by the American money, which was driven both by competition with the Soviet Union, and new forms of cooperation among other States. Wells didn't imagine intermediate forms between existing nations and the World State - but what developed in the Cold War was not far from two competing versions of World States.

What this adds up to is that Wells imagines a much more manichean future than the one we have had. He makes the same mistakes in economics - he doesn't think capitalist countries will go off the gold standard and spend money ti put people to work - but they did; not enough to end the Depression, but enough to mitigate it. He imagines it will be all or nothing - the world must unite, or it will be destroyed. Instead - nothing happened universally. States found ways to cooperate in some areas, not in others. They wouldn't avoid warfare, but they were able to avoid using chemical weapons (mostly) - and after Nagasaki, have managed to avoid using nukes as well. States have split into smaller units (all the countries invented out of nothing after WWI have reverted to smaller units), while creating new and different international units. Businesses operate globally, they compete with States; religion fades, or becomes more radical, or less radical, depending on where and who you are. It is a hodge podge. And really, that hodge podge is more predictable than the all or nothing systems Wells wrote about. He should have known better. He liked to think he was a historian - but the first principal of history is that everything is contingent; everything depends on everything else. His passion for science is also real - but it's clear his great love was for biology. His imagery and his systems are all organic ones, based on evolution - and he should know: evolution is messy. It does not move in a straight line, or along clearly marked choices. It's a tangle. And human beings are an incredibly successful species because they are incredibly adaptable.

Finally (I hope - this essay is turning interminable!), let's take a couple paragraphs to think about the technology of 2036. It's interesting that in this world, we have been to the moon, and in his, they are just preparing to get there. Maybe this is what you get for not having the Cold War, which certainly chased us to the moon. Or maybe it's because Wells' air dictatorship decided to rebuild earth before doing anything else. But in this world, the two didn't compete. The US made its biggest push to space in the 1960s - roughly the same time as it made its biggest push to solve its social problems. Both of which, space and social progress, were pretty well ended by the Vietnam war: you know - maybe Wells had a point about war....

Anyway - we don't have anything quite like that house building things up there - but we do have Apple watches - smaller and better than Raymond Massey's...

Which leads me to one last point about technology and culture. Wells makes some odd predictions in his book: he writes about the horrors of the wars, and the collapse after the war, and he says that they left very little record. Few photographs, few memoirs (compared specifically to the masses of prose generated by the first World War.) He writes about the disappearance of cinema, the near disappearance of radio - in general, he imagines humanity going silent over those years. Now - one of the big things he didn't think of was the explosion of information technology in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. (Noted by David Kalat on the commentary track of Criterion's DVD.) The filmmakers imagine some of it - that watch; some fine flat screen TVs, including one covering an entire city square; live television broadcasts to the public square. But back to what people write about - even without computers and blogs, people documented WWII quite extensively, even the most horrible parts of it. Wells imagines that the world will be too horrible for anyone to bear to write about, and that basic communication technology will disappear; but nothing he imagined is as horrible as the Holocaust, and think of how documented that is. Think of the lengths people went to to document their experiences in other places, wars, gulags, genocides. It is odd to think of a writer underestimating the human need to record ourselves - but that obsession to remember, and to recall what has been hidden, is very fundamental to what we are.

And Wells clearly understood that. He just tended to segregate the intellectuals from the rest a bit too much. Though I suppose he knew better: think how proud Roxana is that she can read. Wells almost gets a real story on screen in this part of the film - or maybe, Ralph Richardson and Margaretta Scott get some story on screen, some human beings. Especially Scott, though, who gets a bit better material than Richardson to work with, and makes Roxana into the conscience of the film. She's what's at stake in the film - the one who could have chosen between the Chief's violence and the scientists and mechanics' hopes. If the Wings over the World guys hadn't just gassed everyone...

In the book, there is almost none of this - but there is the artist, Theotocopulos, who is a much more appealing character in the book. He gets his own chapter, drawn from his diary (this is from the mid-20th century, the hey day of the air dictatorship), devoted mostly to complaints about the dictator's monumentalist tastes in art and architecture, but also to some thoughts on art and love and humanity. He is presented as a critic of the regime, but one who makes sense - the film version is almost incoherent. Railing against progress - meaning what? (Passworthy comes up with much better arguments against the space gun than Theotocopulos does.) And then he leads an angry mob against the scientists' windmill - basically undermining the whole point of Wells' political hopes. These World State geniuses are supposed to educate the masses to the point where they are all truly free individuals - no more demagogues and angry mobs, no more revolutions or needs for revolutions. Instead - the film reverts to what was getting to be a hoary cliche even then: get out the pitchforks! It's a disappointment, and looks even worse if you've read the book, and seen how the air dictatorship is overthrown there. (Basically given a gold watch and sent off to write their memoirs.)

Of course the film really just drops the mob at the end, and gives us more of Massey's speeches. But in fairness, he does cut a fine figure, silhuoetted against the stars.

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