August 04, 2010

"Just relax and enjoy it": Geworfenheit on the BBC


I could have posted this on Found Objects, but I want to post it here as a contribution to the recent discussion of the BBC - see Will Hutton's piece here, Lenin's response and also my own remarks in this interview with Joe Kennedy of 3AM magazine.

I first saw Artemis 81 when it was broadcast for the first and only time in December 1981. Even though it struck me then as incoherent and incomprehensible, I willingly sat through all three hours of it. Judging by the internet responses to Artemis 81, my experience was a common one amongst kids who, like me, were allowed to stay up late and watch it because it was broadcast during the school holidays.

I suppose that Artemis 81 was one of the things that I was thinking of when, towards the end of Capitalist Realism, I argued that, far from being dreary and dull, the so-called paternalist era of media could be a breeding ground for the Weird (Ghost Box's conflation of secondary school text books with Weird fiction is based on the same intuition).

Artemis 81 was written by David Rudkin, the author of the better-known Penda's Fen (to which I'll be returning in another post very soon). Watching it again after nearly thirty years, the film doesn't seem incomprehensible at all. It is structured around a simple Manichean dichotomy (Manicheanism was one of the heavily signposted themes of Penda's Fen), and a mythic journey out of complacency and self-involvement and into a kind of visionary faith. (The persistent emphasis in Artemis 81 on the "leap into faith" makes for an interesting parallel with Inception: at one point, the lead character tells a woman who has been strung up inside a cathedral bell that "it is better to fall than to hang".) What makes Artemis 81 still alienating to watch are all the things that it lacks - all those strategies for producing audience identification to which we are now so accustomed. The acting style is as Brechtian as anything you would see in a Straub-Huillet film; the dialogue is anti-naturalistic, highly mannered (it reminds me more of an opera than television writing - and Wagner is one of many intertexts).

Rudkin says on the DVD commentary that the alien planet which we appear to see at the start of the film belongs to inner space. It is never clear when we exit inner space. But the film gains a great deal of power from grounding this inner space in what you might call found locations: the ferry terminal at Harwich; a power station in North Wales, which during the time of filming was under construction, and which becomes the entry to Hell; and perhaps most memorably of all, the interior of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool, which the BBC crew were not only given permission to use - they were also allowed to clear out all the pews, making for some astonishing oneiric images.

One sequence in particular stands above all the others. It is both one of the most disturbingly effective dream - or nightmare - sequences I've ever seen in film (certainly it is far better capturing dream topographies than anything in Inception), and also a deeply resonant image of dystopia. The lead character, pulp novelist Gideon Harlax (Hywell Bennett) suddenly finds himself in an unidentified city: he is on a tram, surrounded by consumptives expectorating blood into their scarves. It is foggy; the city is militarized, although there is a great deal of street market-like commercial activity. No-one speaks English. When he enquires after Helith, the guardian angel who has abandoned him (played by Sting - but don't let that put you off), people laugh or admonish him. A public address system incessantly streams out announcements in what sounds like an East European language (it is actually Estonian spoken backwards). Watched now, you can't help but see anticipations of Blade Runner and Children of Men here. On the commentary, Rudkin says that this section of the film was supposed to illustrate Heidegger's concept of Geworfenheit, or throwness. Rudkin reveals that on-set, they used to refer to this city - actually a composite of Birmingham and Liverpool - as Geworfenheit, but this is never mentioned in the film itself. Beyond all the explicit references to myth, music and literature, there were further, occulted, layers of intertext. Another example, from the write-up on Artemis 81 here:

    One minor point that reveals much about ... Rudkin's approach: the presiding deity of the piece is a Scandinavian goddess known as Magog. But it takes an alert eye to spot the "Gog Magog Hills" in a map of Britain which we glimpse on the protagonist's desk a lesser dramatist would perhaps have included a lengthy detour around the rather different 'Magog' to be found in English mythology.

It was Artemis 81's confidence that you can subject the audience to Geworfenheit that makes it so impressive. As all the kids who watched Artemis 81 and who have never forgotten it will attest, there's an enjoyment to be had from being thrown into the middle of things which you cannot understand and being forced to make a kind of sense out of them.

I hardly need say that it is impossible to imagine something like Artemis 81 being commissioned, still less broadcast by the BBC today. I agree absolutely with Phillip Challinor when he writes that "Artemis 81 stands as a brilliant example of the way in which interesting pretentiousness can be a good deal more satisfactory than solid professionalism and good old-fashioned storytelling." Like much seventies culture - and Artemis 81 really belongs to the 'long seventies' that ended circa 1982 - it deploys pretentiousness as a visionary force. To use a musical analogy, Artemis 81 combines the overblown ambition of Prog with the cool Ballardianism of postpunk. It is quintessentially pulp modernist - there are references to The Devil Rides Out as well as to The Seventh Seal and Carl Dreyer.

It is the BBC that made and broadcast Artemis 81 which should be recovered and defended, not the institution as it currently functions today. The opposition that sets elitism against populism is one that neoliberalism has put in place, which is why it's a mistake to fall either side of it. The neoliberal attack on cultural "elites" has gone alongside the consolidation and extension of the power of an economic elite. But there's nothing "elitist" about assuming intelligence on the part of an audience (just as there is nothing admirable about "giving people what they want", as if that desire were a natural given rather than something that is mediated on multiple levels). Important qualification: to say that there was much to be mourned in the cultural situation in the 70s and early 80s is not to say that everything about that period is to be missed. I shouldn't have to make this disclaimer, but I'm mindful that any kind of critical judgement which favourably compares the past to the present is likely to be accused of "nostalgia". As I try to argue in the 3AM interview, there are unique opportunities in the current conjuncture, but they can only be accessed if there is some negation of the present rather than a vacuous affirmation of it.

Of course, the discourse network in which surrounded the BBC in 1981 was vasty different to the situation in which the BBC finds itself today. For an example of this, take a look at the Daily Mirror's preview of Artemis 81, reproduced here:

    It could be the most baffling show of the holiday, but ARTEMIS 81 (BBC-1, 9.0) is also one of the best of the year. This three-hour thriller, giving pop singer Sting his first big television role, is a knockout. But even some of the people most closely involved are not too sure exactly what it's about. Director Alastair Reid calls it a television Rubik Cube. And actor Hywel Bennett, who is at the heart of the action says he doesn't understand it.

    Artemis 81 IS very complex. It has to do with a threat to the future of mankind, a series of mysterious deaths, a strange affair involving the Angel of Love and a great organist who, if he hits the right (or wrong) note, could blow up the world. My advice: Don't worry about understanding it, just relax and enjoy it.


Rudkin's own notes on Artemis 81 are here.

Posted by mark at August 4, 2010 11:06 PM | TrackBack