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Against interpretation AND OTHER ESSAYS @ SUSAN SONTAG sce uremarien. Cope © 181,194, 190, 194, 1965, 1086 by Suan Seng Alghero. rtd the Uae Sto rence Nop at ‘okay tor pode ny maanernatnre tio tener ‘spi he te guts oda tal te tear tr Inte, tes aloe ISBN henue,New Yor 01 Ps 3 US aged dan i nd y Fan Salat Troon Pn fos ted 7 ‘For information on Picador Vending Croup Guide, at wells ordering, Paul Thek tla coh Pde Met dpe Shar "ow: eon parr ‘mating cm si Mur © 1964 he Rags ot Uns of Ce, Rpt "hom Fn Que, Yet hp 2-7 by pein te Rao ayo Cogn agg in Peon Dat Soaing, Sas, "ant itereton, dte eye Sun Stag, isan bi2 Se 5 Ltt Maden—20 arya det, 2. cats Ire weve itn) sor ‘30 0¢—0 ar Ft pba the Utd Se by Fert, Sms ond Giaut 208 + Ageinst intorpretat Arrenrpix: The sdvetsement dawa up by Godard when the Sn was Sit lead in Pas we ue ae Pl = — z a — gi er i Ee Ee = = = = Fa a e = i tees cm i ion e i a = & & ar me s " = ie = Su i e mn Ise a & i ste ss oe oes mm [1964] The imagination of disastor ‘Sm has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of clements which, to 2 practiced eye, are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the Kast, and the gun duct ‘onthe deserted main street. ‘One model scenario proceeds through five phases, (1) "The anval of the thing, (Emergence of the monsters, land- ing of the alien spaceship, ete.) This is usually witnessed or sus- pected by just one person, a young scientist on a feld tip. No- ody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not manied, but has a sympathetic ‘though also incredulous gil frend. (2) Confirmation of the hero's report by a host of witnesses toa treat act of destruction. (If the invaders ae beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to 210 + Against tnt spt en net means < Span aegis ne eee Ste Semaine eerie eemnee aan Eeeemacnieee Jopntse ae macy hie loe pstmt cl a nee ce he oll mentees ib fo his xd Te el sete gon whch al ops Spend, ‘untested, nuclear deviee—is mounted. Countdown. Final replse eaten as sa een anne ote ns wie Le cic at — Jentist) and his gi Se altar The imopnation of diater «211 in a small town, or on vacation (camping, boating). Suddenly, someone starts behaving strangely; or some innocent form of vege, {ation becomes monstrously enlarged and ambulatory. If x charac §s pictured driving an automobile, something gruesome looms up in fhe middle ofthe road. If it is night, strange lights huttle across the sky, : (2) After following the thing's tracks, or determining that It is radioactive, or poking around a huge crater—in short, conducting some sort of crude investiation—the hero tres to warn the local authorities, without effect; nobody believes anything is amis. The hero knows better. If the thing is tangible, the house is elaborately barricaded, Ifthe invading alien is an invisible parasite, a doctor oF ‘icnd is called in, who is himself rather quickly killed or “taken possession of” by the thing, G) ‘The advice of whoever further is consulted proves useless. Meanwhile, It continues to claim other victims in the town, which {emains implausibly Solated from the rest of the world. General helplessness, (4) One of two possibilities. Either the hero prepares to do bat- le slone, accidentally discovers the thing's one vulnerable point, and destroys it. Or, he somehow manages to get out of town and succeeds in laying his case before competent authorities. They, along the lines of the fist script but abridged, deploy a comptes {technology which (after initial setbacks) finally prevails against the invaders Another version of the second script opens with the scientist Jhero in his laboratory, which is located in the basement or on the {grounds of his tastefal, prosperous house. Through his experiments, hhe unwittingly causes a frightful metamorphosis in some class of plants or animals which tum carnivorous and go on a rampage. Or else, his experiments have caused him to be injured (sometimes itrevocably) or “invaded himself. Pechaps he has been experiment. ing with radiation, or has built a machine to communicate with igs from other planets or transport him to other places or times, Another version ofthe fist seript involves the discovery of some fundamental alteration in the conditions of existence of our planet, interpee sought about by acer testing, whic wl ad tthe extinction [doe mont of a oma le For sal: be tempest ‘of tects besoming to high oto lot saps il, othe cath is cng in ts ot doy bing Banke Wy lea out me third script, somewhat but not altogether diferent from the se roc ey ough pee th moon ome ote lance Wht the space voyage dns commonly thealion eran bin ase of dt emergency, acl hestened by tate paneay invader or netng einen tough the practice Ste are teil Se of he et Stat ae payed ut there (0 which added the problem of gl ting away from the doomed and/or hose plant and back to Eat Tamm of tr ome es fan Sere eee ome ba PLP seemless rent ey ee See ol ne a eer ered be a ol heme hres oe ee name palate her eee ea ee ee! et enace teasers Seat ehihae eer cme ination f duewer + 219, Science fiction films ate not about science. They are about isas- tex, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. In science fiction ‘lms disaster is raely viewed intensively; iti always extensive. Its ‘2 matter of quantity and ingenuity. If you will, its a question of scale, But the scale particularly in the widescreen color films (oF which the ones By the Japanese ditector Inothiro Honda and the American director George Pal are technically the most convincing and visually the most exciting, does raise the matter to another level ‘Thus, the science fiction film (lke that of a very different con- temporty gence, the Happening) is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties ta be found in wreaking. hhavoo, making a mess. And it is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies. Hence, the dis- advantage of the cheap film—in which the monster appears or the rocket lands ina small dalLlooking town, (Hollywood budget needs ‘Usually dictate thatthe town be in the Arizona or California desert, In The Thing From Another World [1951] the rather sleazy and confined set 8 supposed to be an encampment near the North Pole) Stil, good blackandwhite science fiction films have been ‘made. But a bigger budget, which usually means color, allows a such greater play back and forth emong several model environ ‘ments. There s the populous city. There is the lavish but ascetic interior ofthe spaceship—ether the invader or ours—replete with, streamlined chromium fixtures and dials and machines whose com. plexity is indicated by the number of colored lights they fash and strange noises they emit. There is the laboratory crowded with foumidsble boxes and scientific apparatus, There isa comparatively old-fshioned-looking conference room, where the scientists unfurl charts to explain the desperate state of things to the military. And cach of these standard locales or backgrounds is subject to two ‘modalities—intact and destroyed. We may, if we are lucky, be ‘treated toa panorama of melting tanks, Bying bodies, crashing walls, ‘awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacceraft, colorful deadly ays; and toa symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the lconie denizens of Certain of the primitive gratiGcations of science fetion Slms— for instance, the depiction of urban disaster on a colessally magni Sed scale—are shared with other types of Slms, Visually there is little difference between mast havoe a2 represented in the old hhoreor and monster films and what we find in since fiction films, ‘except (again) scale. In the old monster films, the monster always hheaded for the great city, where he had to do afar bt of rampag- ing, hurling busses off bridges, crampling trains in his bare hands, toppling buildings, and so forth. The archetype is King Kong, in Schoedsack and Coopers great film of 1933, running amok, frst in ‘the native village (trampling babies, a bit of footage excised from ‘most prints), then in New York. This is really no different in sprit from the scene in Inoshiro Honda's Redan (1957) in which two sant reptiles—with a wingspan of 500 fect and supersonic speeds— ‘by Gapping their wings whip up a cyclone that blows most of Tokyo to smithereens. Or the destruction of hal of Japan by the gigantic robot with the gret incinerating ray that shoots forth from his eyes, at the beginning of Honda's The Mysterians (1959). Or, the dev- astation by the rays from a feet of fying saucers of New York, Paris, and Tokyo, in Battle in Outer Space (1960). Or, the inunda- tion of New York in When Worlds Collide (1951). Or, the end ‘of London in 1966 depicted in George Pal's The Time Machine (1960). Neither do these sequences differ in aesthetic intention from the destruction scenes in the big sword, sandal, and otfy color spectaculars set in Biblical and Roman times—the end of Sodom in Aldvich’s Sodom and Gomorrah, of Gaza in De Mill's ‘Samson and Delilah, of Rhodes in The Colossus of Rhodes, and of ‘Rome in a dozen Nero movies. Grfith began it with the Babylon sequence in Intolerance, and to this day there is nothing like the ‘hill of watching all those expensive sete come tumbling down. Tn other respects as well, the science fiction fms of the 1950s ‘take up familia themes. The famous 1930s movie serials and comics of the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, as well as ‘the more recent spate of comic book superheroes with extrater restrial origins (the most famous is Superman, a foundling from the planet Krypton, currently described 2s having been exploded by ‘2 nuclear blast), share motifs with more recent science fiction The Inesinaton of dioner + 215 ‘movies, But there is an important difference, The old science fic. tion films, and most ofthe comics, stil have an esentally innocent relation to disaster. Mainly they offer new versions of the oldest romance of all—of the strong invulnerable hew with a mystec- ‘ns lineage come to do battle on bekalf of good and against evil Recent science fiction films have a decided grimness, bolstered by their much greater degree of visual credibility, which contrasts strongly with the older fms. Modem historical eslity has greatly enlarged the imagination of disaster, and the protagonists— pethaps by the very nature of what is visited upon them—no Inger seem wholly innocent, ‘The lure of such generalized disaster at a fantaty is that it re- leases one from nome obligations. The trump sard of the end.of theworld movies—like The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)—i, that great scene with New York or London of Tokyo discovered ‘empty, its entice population annihilated. Or as in The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1957), the whole movie can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the’ deserted metropolis and stating all ‘over aguin, 2 world Robinson Crusoe. Another kind of satisfaction these fms supply is extreme moral smplifcation—that is to say, a morally acceptable fantasy where fone can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings. In this re spect, science fiction films partly overlap with herror fms. This i the undeniable pleasure we derive from looking at freaks, beings excluded from the category of the human, The sense of superiority (Over the freak conjoined in varying proportions with the titillation Of fear and aversion makes it possible for morl scruples to be lifted, for cruelty to be enjoyed. The same thing happens in science fiction fms. In the figure of the monster from outer space, the freakish, the ugly, and the predatory all converge—and provide a fantasy target for righteous belicosity to discharge itself, and for the aesthetic enjoyment of suffesng aud disister. Science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely ide anyone's feelings. (An exception is Jack Amold’s The In credible Sinking Man [1957,.) We are merdy spectators; we wate Bot in science fiction films, unlike horcer films, there i not 26 + Against Interpretation snvch honor, Suspense, shocks, sprite are mostly abjued in {vor of steady, inesorable plo. Scene Seton fms inte a di Trsint,stone vw of duction and vencos to. Toga view, Thing, objects, machinery play a major oe in these flips A pester tngeof ethical values embodied in te dso of these ans than inthe people Thingy, ater than the ples Bu tan te th Ts fs Bsa e pence hem her than people ws the sours of power. According to stence tion flinmao naked without he atifacts, Tey stand for dierent talus, they ae poten, they re wat get destoye, and they are the napa tol for the reple the alien invades or the repair ofthe damaged eavizonmest. “The sdenceGeton fins ate strongly monic. The standard range i the one about ihe proper, ec humane, use of since ersu'the mad ebsesionl se of sence. This mesage thes nce Ston Gln sharin common withthe dase omer sof {he 198s ike Fronfentein, The Mur, sland of Lost Sous, Dr, Jet end Nr yd, (Gomgss Fans biliant Le You Sus Vaage (1959), called here The Horror Chamber of Doctor Fantu, fore cent example) Inthe honor fs, we bave {hema or obmed or misguided sents who pms is pet frente aginst good advice to the conkary, crits a monster ot Tmonstes, and i hinsolf destoyed-often secgnising bis folly Timsll ad dying inthe sorta efor to destroy his own crea to, One sience Scion eqn of his is the scents, sally Srmenbec of feat, who defects othe planetary invades esa “hat slenceismore advanced than “rs” "hii theese The Matera, xd tue to form, the ene gale sehen inthe end an fom iin the Myst pce isp destroys and himself This Land Bart (1955), the ite faiant of the beleaguered planet Metaluna propose to conquer {anh but thet projet filed by a Metaunan scientist named eee telog ted on earth wile and lead 10 love Moat eno si 9h dooney Exc gs Ne thip ito the ocean after returning» ghmorous fit (ale an trae) of American picts to earth, Metalona dic. In The Fly (295), he her, egos nie atement boron expsients fn a mattertanmiting machin, wes hime 8 sects er Shanges head and ene aa with showed) which ha acetal Bolten tote machine Becomes etmonstn and wth isthe St man wl destroy bis abortry and onde hs we toil hi is dcovery, forthe god of mando Boing» cle el spc finely atts in ence ton films ar lay lable to cack up go of he tnd. In Conguct of Space (1955), the scenttcommane ofa Intemational expedition to Mars etenly acquis seuples seat the Blasphemy involved inthe undertaking snd begins ean the Bible mit ourey intend of tending to is dates Thecomman- ders son, wo shine aces and always arses i father 2 Genera" forced tol the old nan when he tae fo prevent the ship fom landing on Mas, In this, both ses of the smbive Tene toward scents ate given voice, Cena, fora cet enterprise tobe treated ently sympatheialy in thse ins, it cds the certieat of ity. Skene, vowed without ambiance ‘beans an effcacoe sponte to danger Daintree intellects Corey rarely apeas in aoy form ter than caveat, a cal dementia thst cate of from nova hunan welts Bat ths supicon i ually diced atthe saentist ther an Ibwork The ceatve selena becomes mary fo his own di covery, trough an acdet ox by pushing tings fo fa Dut the {mpition remains that other ne, les inapative—in shot, tetnipane—coeld hive administered the ame dicey ete nd more. The mos ingaiel contemporary mist of the Inlet wt inte mois on the sentinels us "The mesige thatthe scent one who releases forces which, i not cone fer good, could estoy nan himself ses aoe sos enough. One ofthe oldest huge ofthe seentst Sake ‘pect Presper, the overdtached scholar foci neted fom ciety toa desert ian, only pay in consol of he ace foes winch he dabble, Equally case the figure ofthe sents ‘stuns (Doctor Fatty and one of Po and Hawthore) So nce mags and man has avay known that thre Back mage 218 + Ageinst interprere: as well as white, But itis not enough to remark that contemporary Attitudes as rellected in science fiction films—remain ambivalent, thatthe scientist is treated as both satanst and savor. The propor- tions have changed, because of the new context in which the old ‘admiration and fear of the scientist are located. For his sphere of influence is no longer loca, himself or his immediate community. It is planetary, cosmic. ‘One gets the feeling, particularly in the Japanese lms but not only there, that a mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear ‘weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars. Most of the Science fetion films bear witness to this trauma, and, in a Way, attempt to exorcise it. “The accidental awakening of the superdestructive monster who ‘has slept in the earth since prehistory soften, an obvious metaphor for the Bomb. But there are many explicit references as wel. Io The [Mysterians, a probe ship from the planet Mysteroid has landed om. catth, near Tokyo, Nuclear warfare having been practiced on [Mysteroid for centuries (their civilization is “more advanced than ous”), ninety percent of thore now born on the planet have to be estrayed st birth, because of defects caused by the huge amounts ff Strontium 90 in their diet. The Mysterians have come to earth to marry eaith women, and possibly to take over our relatively un- contaminated planet .. . In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the John Doe hero isthe victim of a gut of radiation which blows over the water, while he is out boating with his wife; the radiation causes hhim to grow smaller and staller, until at the ed of the movie he steps through the fie mesh of a window screen to become “the infinitely small” . . . In Redan, a horde of monstous car nivorous prehistoric insects, and finaly a pair of giant Aying reptiles (the prehistoric Archeopteryr), are hatched from dormant eggs in the depths of a mine shaft by the impact of nuclear test explosions, ‘and go on to destroy a good part of the world before they are felled by the molten lava of a volcanic eruption. ... In the English fim, The Day the Earth Caught Fie, two simulaneous hydrogen ‘bomb tests by the United States and Russia change by 11 degrees the til of the earth on its axis and alter the earth's orbit so that it begins to approach the su, The tmopination of dcr + 219 Radiation cavalies—oltinatly, the conception of ld analy of sce tet ad cew ae—the ‘Bet ominous of ll the notions with which since Seton fina Sal, Unies tesome expendable, Wendy bese tan burt out, exhauste, bslete In Rockthip KIM (1950) explores fem the earth lind’ on Mary hee they Teh thx atomic wtb destroyed Marian eatin In Ce Ps a ofthe Weald (1953), reldsh spindly algtostned rst from Mars invade the eth becne thet parts eco fag too co to be inhabitble, In Ths Island Fath, abo Armes gah the planet Malina, whose popeltion tar lng ago been sven unegound by wav dyng under the mii stacy an enery planet, Stok of eran, which power he fore fl Shielding Metaung, have been used py andan unsere pesition i sent to earth to enlist ert sents to dene new ‘ce for nce pow In fp Lae The Dus (90), ‘gpl dove cde we beg eed yaa ‘ent ina dake onthe Engl cnst tothe ely son of the inevitable nuclear Armageddon. ihn Toc is at anunt of wih hi dnt of wih iking i cic Stn Sims, ome oft touching, sme of it depresing. Again snd age, ove te th ne ra “pnd wl ahs os ese Potts adn fo mol gallon ae eee a fie Et ty helt ae itd eas fest ef hentai wa lina peg eaten ee ee ‘lean an cen nt (ih); heen tages hea ae Invades The Ny ich Dan Te cane Seed 1 nonstop blouse erence Beni a Seg trues ef eck tine Yet the ame tn the belly fee Seton ne pate te nig pace oes ats 1S eaten Same wi geen ts sens aco act ha tk te play ieion omcla soe Sousa theca cone thet one talsopend ere Gs One ofthe lates of may secs Sees te 220 + Ao} ation ‘olor ones usually, beeause they have the budget and resources to ‘Gevelop the military spectacle—is this UN fantasy, 2 fantasy of united warfare. (The same wishful UN theme cropped up in a event spectacular which isnot science fiction, Fifty Five Days in Peking (1963). There, topically enough, the Chinese, the Boxers play the role of Martian invaders who unite the carthmen, in his case the United States, England, Russia, France, Germany, TTaly, and Japan.) A great enough disaster cancels all enmiies and call upon the utmost concentration of cath resourcs. Scienee—technology—is conceived of as the great unifer. Thus the science fiction filme also project a Utopian fantasy. In the {Clase models of Utopian thinking—Plato's Republic, Campanell’s ity of the Sun, More's Utopia, Swift's land of the Houyhrhnms, Voltate's Eldorado—society had worked out a perfect consensus. Tn these societies reasonableness had achieved an unbreskable su- premacy over the emotions, Since no disagreement or socal confit Fras intellectually plausible, none was possible. As in Melville's “Typee, “they all think the same.” The wniversal rule of reason ‘meant universal agreement. Its interesting, too, that societies in ‘Which reason was pictured as totally ascendant were aso tradition- aly pictured as having an ascetic or mately frugal and eco- rromcaly simple mode of life, But in the Utopian world comms- nity projected by science ction films, totally pacfed and ruled by ‘slentife consensus, the demand for simplicity of material existence ‘would beabsurd, ‘Yet alongside the hopeful fantasy of moral simplification and international unity embodied in the scence fction films lurk the deepest ansities about contemporary existence. I dan’t mean only the very real trauma of the Bomb—that it has been used, that ‘here are enough now to Kill everyone on earth many times over, thet those new bombs may very well be used. Besides these new Gunieties bout physieal disases, the prospect of univeral mata: on and even annihilation, the science fiction Slims reflect power- fal anxieties abont the condition of the individual psyche. For science fiction fms may also be described 2s a popular mythology for the contemporary negative imagination about the ‘he imagination of duauter + 221 se erate ae Sorat itera aes oes as Se Scenes meetin ace tt rtm “aeeae rie Gamat Saitama Steam Dio coe ee eee Reiienrcn nae oa eee ee eee ee Clee a ect See et reve tas “Fagin eu et a ays anit oma 2 ead tbat Epes corralaaweare sity Senprieeantinnemcoe: aero are ae O eoes earch atbala ed creams Tatarstan tee Gama Semen ene a gt prea torr ie icecsivsaee sens Some rere an enone eck oa aes Seimei ean Fecions scram a eel ae ace eT anane 2m +, Ageinut in ‘wants to retain his humanity. But once the deed has been done, the ‘Victim is eminently satisfied with his condition. He has not been ‘converted from human amiability to monstrous “animal” bloodlust (a metaphoric exaggeration of sexual desire), as in the old vampire fantasy. No, he has simply become far more effient—the very ‘model of technocratie man, purged of emotions, volitionles,tran- 4quil, obedient to all orders. (The datk secret behind human nature ‘used to be the upsurge of the animal—as in King Kong. The threat ‘to man, his availabilty to dehumanization, layin his own animality. Now the danger is understood as residing in man's ability to be ‘tamed into a machine.) "The rile, of course is that this horible and irremediable form of ‘murder can strike anyone in the flm except the hero. The hero and his family, while greatly threatened, always escape this fate and by ‘the end of the film the invaders have been repulsed or destroyed. T ‘know of only one exception, The Day That Mars Invaded Earth (1963), in which after all the standard struggles the scientisthero, his wife, and their two children are “taken ove” by the alien invaders—and that's that. (The last minutes of the film show them being incinerated by the Martian’ rays and their ash silhouettes, flushed down their empty swimming pool, while their simulacra rive off in the family car.) Another variant but upbeat switch on the rule occurs in The Creation of the Humanoid (1964), where the hero discovers at the end of the film that he, too, has been. ‘tamed into # metal robot, complete with highly ecient and viru. ally indestructible mechanical insides, although he didn't know it and detected no difference in himself, He leans, however, that he ‘will shortly be upgraded into a “humanoid” having all the prop- certes ofa real man. (Of ll the standard motifs of science fiction fins, this theme of dehumanization is perhaps the most fascinating. For, as T have indiested, it ie scarcely a blackand-white situation, as in the old vampire films, The atitude of the science fiction films toward de personalization is mixed. On the one hand, they deplore it as the tltimate horror. On the other hand, certain characteristics of the Achumanized invaders, modulated and disguised—such a8 the as- ‘cendancy of reason over feelings, the idealization of teamwork and The imagination of dower + 229 the consensus-renting activities of science, a masked degree of ‘moral simplication—are precisely traits of the saviorscientis Tis interesting that when the scientist in these flms is treated ‘negatively, iti usually done through the portnyal of an individual scientist who holes up in his laboratory and neglects his fancte oF his loving wife and children, obsessed by his dating end dangerous experiments, The scientist 2% a loyal member of a team, and there- {ore considerably es individualized, i treated quite respectfully _There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kkind, in science fction films. No eitcitm, for example, ofthe con- ditions of our society which create the impersoality and dehaman- ization which science fction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It, Also, the notion of science as a socal activity, inter- locking with social and political interests, is macknowledged. Set cence is simply either adventure (for good or evil) or a technical response to danger. And, typically, when the fear of science i pparmount—when science is conceived of as black magic rather ‘than white—the evil as no attribution beyond that of the perverse will ofan individual scientist. In science fiction films the antithesis of black magic and white is drawn as a split between technology, ‘which is beneficent, and the errant individual will of a lone intel: Tectual. ‘Thus, science fiction films can be looked at as thematically cen tral allegory, replete with standard modem attitudes, The theme of