The Social Novum in Film
Questioning the Newfangled
What is a social novum and can we see its function in film in various ways including the narratively indispensable and the narratively disposable? And can we also, and more importantly, muse over it as a very useful and important way of putting new ingredients into old bottles? We have in mind Darko Suvin's use of the novum in the context of science fiction literature (with the term itself borrowed from Ernst Bloch). Suvin sees the novum as a futuristic yet plausible element, that can be used to a varying degree in given works. Quantitatively, the postulated innovation can be of quite different degree of magnitude, running from the minimum of one discrete 'new' invention (gadget, technique, phenomenon, relationship) to the maximum of a setting (spatiotemporal locus), agent (main character or characters), and/or relations basically new and unknown in the author's environment. ('SF and the Novum') What interests us is how developments in technology in the broadest sense, create on the part of the filmmaker the need to incorporate it or to choose to incorporate it, while also keeping in mind how it can be used as a way less to give novelty to generic demand than explore social reality. Suvin reckons "Sci Fi is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional 'novum' (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic" (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre) as he differentiates this from fantasy which require no such cognitive basis. People can have magic powers; they can turn people into ice, or shape-shift into animals. They can possess superhuman strength or shrink to the size of a thumb. But these are the properties of the fantastic. A novum however is something that is not real but could be realised. Simon Spiegel says, "since sf appears as this-worldly, it implies contrary to fantasy or the fairy tale a connection with the empirical reality of the reader." ('Things Made Strange: On the Concept of Estrangement in Science Fiction Theory') As a rule, James bond film aren't S/F but in the Aurum Encylopedia of Science Fiction, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker are listed. They aren't set in the future but they propose the futuristic in the novum villainy of their respective antagonists. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Karl Stromberg wants to take out cities like New York and Moscow and wishes to focus on creating a civilization under the sea. It is an unlikely proposition but not an impossible one. "The idea of humans living underwater may not be as crazy as you think. An idea once reserved for video games or science fiction, underwater cities may be a viable solution for humanity in the distant future." (Interesting Engineering) A person breathing like a fish may be the property of fantasy, but generating the infrastructure for humans to live under water needn't be. In Moonraker, Hugo Drax wants to kill off most of the human race so he can set to work on a master race: he has transported a few perfect members to space stations and they will provide the basis for his superior species. If The Spy Who Loves Me draws on the intricacy of utopian infrastructure planning, Moonraker takes a smidgen of old-fashioned Nazi eugenics and blends it with advanced possibilities in genetic engineering. There is no doubt an article to be written about James Bond and the novum but for our purposes, indispensable social novums would include the mobile phone, the internet, the aeroplane, and the car. Dispensable novums include air conditioning, sun beds, televisions, and record players. The latter may appear in films and often do so but aren't essential to them. The former impact strongly on the very process of narrative itself, raising certain questions about the difference between what is paramount and what is not in the process of telling a story. It is of fundamental importance that a detective interviews a witness; it isn't usually of such import where the interview takes place, even if the location might not be irrelevant. If a detective or an investigator is trying to find out who killed someone, or where a cache of guns is stashed, they might choose a locale that is safe and secure to talk. But this place will still be of secondary importance to the information sought. When in All the President's Men, Woodward meets Deep Throat in a darkened basement car park, it adds suspense to the situation and symbolised the risks the man was taking to reveal info to the journalists trying to expose the Watergate break-in, but what matters most isn't the car park but the info delivered. Any number of other locations would be valid but the information that moves the plot along is vital.
When we talk of social novums, we are thinking of an apparently secondary feature of narrative that becomes, if not quite primary, then un-ignorable and thus essential. In The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the title character betrays the man who has been selling him guns. He does so because he is looking at several years in prison for an earlier offence, and if Coyle (Robert Mitchum) wants to escape the sentence he is expected to prove he is a reformed character: in other words to inform. He decides to shop the gun dealer when they next meet. Jackie Brown is much younger than Coyle and could handle a sentence more easily than the ageing gunrunner. But when Coyle buys a few guns from him, he sees in the boot a few machine guns as well, which will lead to a much heavier sentence than if they were just handguns.
Coyle shortly afterwards phones the police even though Jackie hasn't especially done him wrong, and Coyle disappears from the film for a while as the police wait to capture Jackie when he drops off the weaponry to some disaffected youths. After making the call is Coyle's conscience clear of does he know that there is nothing to be done once the call is made? There is no way he could contact Jackie even if he wanted to do so, and thus there wouldn't be any point in cutting back to Coyle and seeing how he feels about the decision: he has no mobile; he can't change his mind. Sure, Eddie doesn't like machine guns, as he makes clear in an earlier scene with Jackie, and heck, Jackie is more than a little scuzzy around the edges, but Coyle does betray him and another filmmaker, in a more recent period where the technology could show Coyle fretting over his decision, might have shown Coyle looking at his cell phone as we wonder if he will let drop that someone has informed on him and Jackie should skip the delivery. The absence of the mobile gives to the film an ambiguity the technology would deny: we don't know how Coyle feels about what he has done because he disappears from the film while Jackie gets caught. We may say the same of A Brief Vacation, even if nothing is made of the mother Clara's anxieties as other thoughts quickly replace it. She worries on the tram whether her children, who are at home with an ageing mother-in-law and a sick husband, will drink from a compress bottle that is poisonous. It seems the mother-in-law hasn't labelled the bottle with a skull and crossbones. Clara (Florinda Balkan) is a tired and harassed mother, who works long hours in a factory, fretting over what might happen. The film doesn't do anything with this potentially suspenseful moment director Vittoria de Sica simply uses it to indicate one of the many anxieties Balkan lives with.
In contrast, the contemporary One Day uses the mobile with awful irony. Emma leaves a message on her partner's mobile saying she was sorry for being snappy and says she will meet him later but gets run over while cycling to the destination. The film cuts to him listening to the message, aware she is late but now expecting her imminent presence while we know that she won't be there. The scene uses mobile phone technology to suggest presence when absence is the abiding mood. The scene could have been done before the mobile with Emma phoning her partner from a phone box and her partner receiving the call at home, but the scene would have felt clumsier and too foreshadowed. People leave messages all the time on mobiles (or did, before texting became the go-to way to leave a message). But if viewers are shocked by the sudden death in One Day it lies partly in the technology. It would have been less shocking in a pre-mobile age where the film would have had to use a phone-box and we might have wondered why she was going to such lengths to try and contact him. It would have felt like a moment we needed to read as a harbinger of bigger things to come. As for A Brief Vacation, if the film were made today the central character would have the friend saying give her mother-in-law a quick ring or at least send a text. The mobile phone has become so embedded in our contemporary culture that a director making the film today, updating it to the 21st century, would need to accommodate this change and this is what we mean by an indispensable as opposed to a disposable novum. It isn't an object in the background; it becomes of foreground significance.
New technology demands a rethink of the core story. In 2012, the right-wing website Breitbart offered with dismay that the homeless were to be given mobile phones. "In California, the unemployment rate may be above 10.2%, and the state debt may be above $16 billion, the state's GDP may be in serious trouble and businesses may be leaving in droves due to ever-increasing tax rates, but that isn't going to stop the gravey train for the state's poor and dispossessed. The California Public Utilities Commission is all set to greenlight a new program that would give homeless and low-income people free cell phones - call them Obamaphones - with free service." This was more than ten years ago and the site is infamously alt-right, and perhaps today even Breitbart may have to accept that a mobile phone is a necessity and not a luxury. But even then it looked a bit naive within its cynicism: as if the journal wasn't keeping up with the ongoing developments in tech as it insisted on playing up the notion of something for nothing. If some might see in Breitbart's gesture the height of political opportunism, a chance to bash the poor, it would seem the height of narrative ignorance to offer the same position in the context of a contemporary film. In our examples from The Friends of Eddie Coyle and A Brief Vacation, it would seem odd if a contemporary version of these films didn't factor in the mobile phone into these scenes. Even if Clara didn't have enough money for a cell phone that would need to be incorporated into the diegesis: to ignore it altogether would leave a question in the audience's mind. Why doesn't she just phone home? In a pertinent comment useful in various contexts, David Mamet says, "the audience will believe anything they haven't been given a reason to disbelieve." In a new version of A Brief Vacation we would need to know why she hasn't a phone to hand unless the film tells us why she doesn't. She may not have many other things as well; she might not have a torch in her pocket, cigarettes in her bag or spare change in her purse. None of these things is important unless they become immediately relevant. The phone however has become indispensable, more so than a car or even a home, taking into account California's determination to provide the homeless with means of communication.
However, our aim here isn't to write on the mobile phone per se, but of course on two things: the essential and inessential novum, and how the latter may have a necessary local function; the former possesses a necessary global one. In other words, the torch a character may or may not have in her bag becomes an important issue if she finds herself going home after it is dark, and she lives down a lane without lights. The film might make clear she is usually home before dark and this occasion is an exceptional circumstance. She now needs something she doesn't usually need and hence the local over the global. Film generally doesn't have to worry much about torches. But the essential novum cannot easily be ignored. When we look back on an older film we might see that its plot would need to be fundamentally altered by a technological, medical, or general scientific shift. In Strangers on a Train, Guy is married to a woman who is pregnant with another man's child. Guy's wife has been sleeping around and he has found a lovely woman in Washington, a senator's daughter. Guy is a tennis player who hopes to get into politics and his wife decides that she wants part of this upward mobility as well. How will it look when she makes clear he is abandoning a wife who is pregnant? After all, who will know that it isn't his child unless she tells them? The answer in 1951 when the film was made would be no one, or at best another person who might claim to be the father of the baby. But it wasn't until well into the second half of the 20th century that paternity testing was advanced enough for it to become part of our narrative landscape, even if Hitchcock could have utilised it in Strangers on a Train, even if for years, questions of paternity presented a significant challenge to scientists and potential parents alike. "During the first half of the twentieth century, researchers often turned to people's ABO phenotypes when such issues arose; however, ABO blood group information could only be used to exclude potential fathers, rather than confirm the presence of a parental relationship. (Nature.Com) Yet watching the film, it is unlikely viewers would feel it is a plot flaw as they would in one made today, and a remake would have to entertain the paternity test as a 1951 film needn't. It becomes another example of the viewer believing anything they haven't been given reason to disbelieve. When scientific developments enter the culture, they cannot be ignored by the culture; thus filmmakers have an obligation to incorporate the changes into the hard drive of narrative and not merely as novelty in its soft drive: hence, the difference between essential and inessential novums. Will the in-production updated remake by David Fincher ignore this scene in the original altogether, or accept that it needs to incorporate the scientific advance?
"SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance of a fictional novelty (novum, innovation) validated both by being continuous with a body of already existing cognitions and by being a mental experiment based on cognitive logic," Suvin insists, ruling out such fictional works as those by Kafka and Borges. There are borderline examples he admits, like Kafka's 'Metamorphosis', and one can see why, when films like David Cronenberg's The Fly share similarities with Kafka's story and the director makes the comparison himself, writing a short essay on the subject in Paris Review. "Two scenarios, mine and Gregor's, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did." In the article, Cronenberg is comparing his seventy-year-old self waking up to find himself on his birthday exactly that age, and Samsa waking up as a beetle. But he might well have been talking about the difference between his film, The Fly and 'Metamorphosis'. Yet while Kafka often falls into fantasy, however elevated, Cronenberg's work is frequently viewed as science fiction. How can two stories ostensibly so similar, where in both instances, a person turns into an insect, be so generically incompatible? For a start, Kafka has no interest in the science behind Samsa's transformation; it is a matter of fact, a fictional conceit, and the reader who concerns themselves with what generated that transformation would be missing the point behind Kafka's absurdist premise. The problem is how can Samsa still support a family very reliant on his paycheck when he wakes up as a beetle. The answer is he cannot. How then does his family respond?
Cronenberg, however, is very interested in the science: remaking the 1958 version, Cronenberg works with a degree of plausibility to move the film into the realm where scientists might actually have something to say about its relative factuality. After watching the film, DNA expert Erica Zahnle talked about genetic engineering, saying that scientists were very surprised that corn has more DNA than humans, and adds that the human may believe they are so very different from other living things but that nevertheless we share some 50 per cent of our DNA with bananas; with flies it is close to 70 per cent. "I think it's interesting where they took the plot, based on how little genetic fact that was available in 1986." This doesn't mean the film is accurate: The problem with humans and flies is that we have 23 pairs of chromosomes and house flies have 6 pairs. So at a cellular level this is where I get confused about the movie. What they're describing is more like a viral infection. A virus will invade a cell and use the host to make copies of itself" Zahnle says. "So in this case, the human would be the host, the fly would be the virus. That's the only way I could explain it because there's no true splicing going on. There's no exchange of genes." (Chicago Tribune) While it isn't the purpose of this article to comprehend the intricacies of DNA, what we want to make clear is that Cronenberg's film is interested enough in the science for a scientist to muse over what it proposes. A work of fantasy allows no such opportunity. However, perhaps the purpose of the novum isn't to reflect accurately the science (that would be science fact and not fiction) but to generate speculation on the basis of the fact. Kafka has no such interest in the facts of science; Cronenberg does. In one scene, early on in Seth Brundle's transformation from man to fly, his partner witnesses him hanging from a steel beam in his lab and watches as he shows feats of strength and agility that are those of a top gymnast. She is astonished, and well she might be, but the scene can appear as no more than a hyperbolised version of the slower transformations witnessed in various athletes taking advantage of what has become known as gene doping. This would be where the sort of gene therapy allowing medicine to change the DNA, so that a sick patient can become well again, is utilised in sport. A borderline case of gene therapy might be cyclist Lance Armstrong's use of EPO during races, explored so well in Alex Gibney's documentary The Armstrong Lie. There, the endurance athlete used the drug to increase his red blood cell count, allowing the blood to carry more oxygen. This is great for aerobic exercise. "However, those extra red blood cells also make blood thicker, leading to increased risk of stroke. Permanently increasing EPO production with gene doping, for example, might be a bad, potentially very dangerous, idea." (The Conversation). But if someone's interest is short-term, and the desire to win a race, then that is the pact made with the devil of sporting ambition.
In Seth's case, he is indeed ambitious but, if he is much more sympathetic a character than Armstrong, it rests on a notion of the greater good: that he wants innovation in DNA research, however obnoxious he becomes as the changes start to take hold. Any link between Samsa and Armstrong would be enormously tenuous, yet those between the cyclist and Brundle plausible. A little later in the film, Seth goes into a bar and in a twist to an all too familiar scene in eighties cinema, where a protagonist gets harassed and promptly proves himself, Seth challenges someone to an arm wrestle. Those in the bar scoff at the likelihood of his victory. He doesn't only win, he snaps his opponent's forearm in the process. The scene is stale but less so than most of its contemporary equivalents because Cronenberg contains within it a larger question of physical superiority based on medical developments. As Seth walks through the streets with the bar floozie, who has been mightily impressed by his feat, she asks if he is a bodybuilder. Seth replies "yeh, I build bodies." At the time, numerous actors were bodybuilding their way to success (Stallone and Schwarzenegger but also Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Ludgren), yet Cronenberg draws out an important distinction, one that has become increasingly hard to discern as we may be quite close to the sort of building of bodies Seth invokes. "Altering the genes to enhance performance, is this cheating? Is this dangerous? Or is it inevitable?" a recent article asks. "Gene doping raises some obvious ethical arguments. Because the pace of change in the field of genetics means that we are fast approaching the point at which we will be in a world where athletes routinely alter their genes to gain the advantage." (SFE Academy) Cronenberg has always been a properly S/F director as he muses over a development in science that can become an exaggerated development for the purposes of the narrative imagination and yet he as always been interested in it for its ability to interrogate the societal, the medical, the psychological. Speaking of his training in science, and his special interest in biochemistry, Cronenberg says "I think it was natural that I should try to draw those parts of myself together and integrate them, finally in filmmaking." Yet if a filmmaker is too close to the science, better to make documentaries; if too far away from it, the work may more usefully be called fantasy. If constantly speculating about the world; its problems and possible solutions, best to make films utilising horror and science fiction aspects. As Cronenberg says, discussing plastics: one possible solution "...is we turn plastic into an advantage. We find a way to use it to live, as nourishment, as food, as protein. Biologists have found there are bacteria that can eat plastic, use it as a life force. If a single-celled animal can use it, then we, who are composed of single cells, should be able also to do the same thing." (Film Comment)
One may have noted we have slipped into the novum as Suvin see it in S/F, rather than the social novum which manifests itself as indispensable or disposable. Yet this is where we can see the novum as usually a hyperbolised development, one that might draw upon the scientifically plausible but cannot or should not be manifest socially. It is why many S/F films are cautionary tales, where they muse over the threat new technologies pose to society. There is no such threat in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, A Brief Vacation and Strangers on a Train, yet we can see that the novum weaves its way through cinema in interesting ways. It might seem odd that just as there is a strong connection between Cronenberg and Kafka and yet a fundamental generic bridge between S/F and fantasy, so we can nevertheless invoke such non-SF or fantasy films to understand an aspect of social transformation that isn't a gimmick or a threat (the difference between idle curiosity and looming catastrophe). Bond films (and Suvin mentions Bond books) often adopt a device as no more than a brief aside, whether it be the spiked umbrella in For Your Eyes Only, or a flamethrowing bagpipe in The World is Not Enough. But sometimes the gimmick might reveal the future as readily as offering a narrative aside. In Tomorrow Never Dies, we have a remote control BMW car, a vehicle that can be controlled by a mobile phone. It wouldn't be hard to imagine now self-driving taxis, centrally controlled by one person monitoring a dozen vehicles rather like a checkout assistant at the supermarket who only intervenes when one of the self-service checkouts goes awry. We are far from someone getting into a car to make a quick getaway seen as a waste of time because all it would take is a central control point to drive the person over the cliff. But such a development that entered the culture deeply, where in the middle of the 21st century people would see driving cars as the equivalent of riding a horse to work in the middle of the 20th, might make the car chase redundant. That doesn't mean we wouldn't have various films set in the past all the better to reactivate the car chase without falling into anachronism, just as numerous westerns, in the 20th, gave horses a new lease of fictional life. But a film set contemporaneously would have to adjust its focus, and perhaps subsequently its relationship with affect and ethos.
That might sound vague but let us give a concrete example. Imagine a film such as Eye in the Sky made fifty years ago. Here we have developments in drone technology that can move its characters from the heroic to the cautious, from the brave to the cowardly, from the reckless to the judicious. It isn't that the technology is new, especially. Unmanned Arial Vehicles have been around for a long time. But it wasn't until 2005 that an Unmanned Aircraft System was a term utilised by the US defence department, and in recent years this means of warfare has been often adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan. The technology creates a unilateral situation where one combatant has both information and safety; the other is ignorant and at huge risk. The first the victim knows about the attack is the moment it takes place; the person responsible for the attack is usually very far from the place of the action and can press a button to release the hardware that will do the necessary damage. Many have mused over the ethics of this, and we might wonder if the claim by numerous politicians that suicide bombers are cowards is less applicable in a strict sense than towards those administering drone strikes. It has "become commonplace to call terrorists such as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks and suicide bombers in the Middle East cowards. It is not just President Bush who uses this description, though for obvious reasons he may be the best known for doing so..." ('Are Terrorists Cowards?') Traditionally such a claim may have validity, Michael Weber notes, with terrorists generally killing innocent civilians whilst little risking their own lives as they allow a bomb to detonate far away. But when someone straps on a suicide vest, wanders into a crowded place and self-detonates, cowardice doesn't seem the appropriate word. It appears the 'coward' would be much more the person sitting in a room many miles away deciding who will live and who will die. Imagine if the pilots in Top Gun didn't get in their Tomcats to take on the Russian MIGs in aerial combat but sat in bunkers controlling the planes as they struck enemy aircraft. If the opposing planes were as pilotless as theirs, very little would be at stake; it would be a game of cunning but not of bravery or ethical complication. It would be a little like training on a simulator but one that would have real-world effects the downing of a nemesis's plane denting the finances of your enemy but with no loss of life. "Military psychologist Lt. Col. Dave Grossman spent many years studying new recruits in basic training and their willingness to kill the enemy in combat. Grossman published an often reproduced graph of the willingness of combatants to kill based on physical distance" Peter Asaro says. "According to this graph, it is psychologically easier to kill from great distances, such as with long-range missiles or artillery, somewhat more difficult with mid-range weapons such as guns, and hardest to kill in close range with knives or in hand-to-hand combat. The empirical data to back up this graph is lacking, but it carries a powerful intuitive force as it seems to most people to be much easier to "pull the trigger" of a weapon if one cannot directly see the potential victims of one's attack." (The Humanitarian Impact of Drones)
But while the enemy is at great physical risk, you are not. However, especially if others who may not be terrorists are potentially collateral damage, the drone controller might be physical safe but they are making life-and-death decisions that could affect their mental well-being. A first-world luxury perhaps, yet it would be too easy to say that these pilots who control unmanned drones are cowardly. This suggests a militancy that is the reverse of Bush's but almost as problematic. "You don't need a fancy study to tell you that watching someone beheaded, or skinned alive, or tortured to death, is gonna have an impact on you as a human being" (NPR), says a physician who oversees a Surveillance and Reconnaissance wing in the US. They don't of course just witness such atrocities; they also have to make decisions based on them. Eye in the Sky (like the similar but more singularly focused Good Kill, about an ex-flyer reduced to video game slaughter) addresses some of these very questions and becomes not at all an action film but an ethical drama. While the war movie is often enough predicated on a decision, it needn't permeate the film. When in the WWI drama, 1917, a couple of Lance Corporals are asked to risk their lives travelling through No man's land, carrying a message to call off a mission that if continued would cost the lives of 1,600 men, very little time is given to the ethics of their endeavour: they may be at risk but the problem of their death is irrelevant next to the far more numerous deaths of others. It quickly gets on with the action as director Sam Mendes very deliberately immerses us in the events in a film shot to give that impression: it was all more or less one single take. The form aims to match the content: to see it as an against-the-clock mission that shows the two men constantly in danger for their own lives and determined to get to their destination as quickly as they can to save the lives of another 1,600.
In this sense, Eye in the Sky insists on a form too, to match its ethical rather than adrenalised problem. If 1917 is all about overcoming obstacles with quick thinking, as lowly army men are in the thick of things, Eye in the Sky emphasises the high-end decision-making on who will live and who will not, thus relying on a cross-cutting aesthetic all the better to bring out the dilemmas rather than merely the obstacles involved. In the first few minutes, the film cuts between London, Nairobi and Nevada as military intelligence moves towards taking out some terrorists in the African location. A British/Kenyan agent has been murdered and the group responsible will be gathering in a safe house in Nairobi. Three of their top men will be there. While the mission risks little when it comes to those who will be behind the attack, as the decision will be made in London or Hertfordshire, with the controllers in Nevada and the plane, sans pilot, dropping bombs on the house, the mission must be able to guarantee no collateral damage; no innocent citizens must die. For some, you cannot make that omelette without breaking a few eggs, and so the Hawkish but far from simple-minded Lieutenant Benson (Alan Rickman) supports the strike, especially as the mission becomes more urgent when the three terrorists are now preparing a couple of suicide bombers for an attack. Even if innocent lives are at risk; far more innocent lives may be in danger if nothing is done.
It isn't for us to get into the politics of the film, only to understand the ethical implications involved in newer technologies. What the film is very good at is registering the responsibility of stress without the adrenaline rush of fear. Though there are characters taking risks on the ground in Nairobi, the emphasis is very much placed on those making decisions from the safety of London, Nevada, or Hertfordshire. Nobody is more aware of the consequences of her decision-making than Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who negotiates between the political and the practical. While Benson and various members of the government are in a COBRA meeting musing over the implications of the deed, Powell is at army headquarters trying to work out the various risks involved and the right moment to strike. While Benson sits on his chair offering what might seem platitudes for all his military experience, Powell often moves through space, discharging nervous energy that suggests a woman knowing that she will have this on her conscience for quite some time. Benson reckons "you tell us when we can go to war; we conduct the war; you deal with the aftermath." If only it were that simple, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs says, and in Powell's body language the film indicates that it isn't.
While an action-oriented film like Black Hawk Down set in Somalia, plays up the adrenaline of men going into a war zone and taking risks, Eye in the Sky wonders what sort of affects are generated by the technological shift. Watching Black Hawk Down, for all the developments in film technique that makes it a much more immediate experience than a forties or fifties adventure story, the film chiefly works dramatically as a conventional work. Sure, Eye in the Sky may invoke more familiar genres; with Mirren saying she saw it "as a courtroom drama in a way" (NPR), while the sort of cross-cutting tension to be found in space travel films like Apollo 13 could be a model, with people on the ground making decisions over people's lives elsewhere. Mirren even wonders if the technology is so new: seeing that the doodlebug used during WWII could be viewed as an early example of a drone. Yet what we have in Eye in the Sky is the sort of precision bombing, the sort of multi-screen observational possibilities, that make people involved much more implicated in the act. As Mirren says, "we're only really involved in what we're aware of." (NPR) The drone technology allows for this hyperawareness and hyper-responsibility. At the film's conclusion, the Nevada pilot Steve Watts is given the go-ahead to strike, and then has to strike again when he sees one of the terrorists is still alive. He sits there a few thousand miles away from the atrocity he is about to perpetrate, and while the physical risks involved are all but non-existent, the psychic risks are clear. As he presses the trigger, he closes his eyes as though he cannot look at the damage about to be done.
He is the viewer who can't witness someone being killed in a film but he is also the person doing the killing; a dangerous disconnect that helps make sense of why so many drone pilots suffer from PTSD: "They are going literally from combat to cul-de-sac in a short drive, Alan Ogle said. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, [they] drive home. They've gone from being eyes, head in the fight, and making critical life and death decisions, to then being involved in all the normal ... responsibilities that we have, where they're a spouse, they're a parent." They're exposed to the most gruesome things that you can think about that could happen on a battlefield, says Jason Brown, in the same piece. "...They find mass graves; they witness executions. They're exposed to the most gruesome things that you can think about that could happen on a battlefield, Brown said. (NPR) The combination of continuously watching atrocity footage, and even generating some of your own, and then back home in fifteen minutes, will surely create a great deal of dissonance. This doesn't mean that troops in the past didn't come home from war traumatised; of course they did. But it does seem that there may be a specific form of PTSD based on the technology created. And that it will become the norm. Shira Maguen says that "in many of the cases she observed, the source of distress seemed to lie elsewhere: not in attacks by the enemy that veterans had survived, but in acts they had committed that crossed their own ethical lines" (New York Times), ethical lines crossed that might be all the more so in virtual warfare when the combatant cannot even claim the risk to personal harm as a reason for killing others.
One way of thinking about this dramatically is that if films can generate immense suspense and tension out of following the implications involved in taking people out in a war zone, then clearly stress and trauma will be likely on the part of those actively involved even as they are passively safe. Here we can think far from flippantly of Hitchcock. The English director reckoned, "as far as I'm concerned you have suspense when you let the audience play God." Interestingly Hitchcock invokes the very situation that Mirren mentions as he draws out the difference between the doodlebug and the V-2. "To anyone who has experienced attacks by both bombs, the distinction will be clear. The buzz bomb (the doodlebug) made a noise like an outboard motor, and its chugging in the air above served as notice of its impending arrival. When the motor stopped, the bomb was beginning its descent and would shortly explode." Hitchcock notes, "the moment between the time the motor was first heard and the final explosion were moments of suspense. The V-2, on the other hand, was noiseless until the moment of its explosion. Anyone who heard a V-2 explode, and lived, had experienced terror." (Hitchcock on Hitchcock)
Hitchcock is indeed talking about a new bomb to explain old sensations. Fear and terror are ancient feelings, primary emotions, and thousands of years ago a terrified wife may have fearfully heard her husband's horse's hoofs in the distance and suspensefully tried to get her lover out of the house or found her husband bursting in on them and meeting the moment with terror. But the doodlebug was new and Hitchcock invoked it to suggest the newness of the technology in the context of fundamental feeling, and Mirren then invokes the doodlebug as an old technology to suggest the similarity with the newer drones. If we can describe Eye in the Sky as Hitchcockian in places, it rests on the play between fear and terror and also Hitchcock's frequent interest in culpability. In Rear Window, what is terror for Lisa is fearful tension for Jefferies. He is incapacitated with a broken leg, in his apartment across the way, while his girlfriend goes into the flat of a man Jefferies suspects has murdered his wife. The man returns home while Lisa is still in his place looking around, and we view the event from Jefferies' point of view. There is immense tension while we wonder if Lisa will realise he is about to arrive as Hitchcock offers a brilliantly omniscient impotence. In other words, Jefferies and the viewer have immense privilege when it comes to knowledge and almost no capacity to act upon that information. Hitchcock could have taken us inside the apartment, focusing on Lisa's fear that at any moment the murderer could burst into the place, which he does and thus makes it an instance of terror for Lisa. Instead, the film holds to Jefferies' point of view, determined to forego terror for suspense in this moment.
Hitchcock's film is in a very basic sense a surveillance movie and Anders Albrechtslund makes the film his focus when looking at surveillance in cinema, invoking Orwell's Big Brother, Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. Yet there is nothing 'new' in Hitchcock's film, nothing that indicates the film is utilising new technologies even if Jefferies' telephoto lens looks like the latest model; he is we should remember a photographer by trade. Yet if we see the novum as either something that dates films by technology's absence (as in The Friends of Eddie Coyle's where characters are unable to use mobiles), anticipates future possibilities (as in the DNA aspects of The Fly), or deals with a contemporaneous ethical problem closely allied to the technology (Eye in the Sky), then few would be inclined to see Rear Window as a novum film. However, what is interesting is an ongoing fascination with ethical problems that can shows us that for all the newness of the technology a particular film frets over, we will see the basic emotion evident without the tech. Now, this obviously doesn't mean the technology is irrelevant; the quality of a film will depend partly on how embedded the new is in the broader question: how we absorb technological innovation into our lives.
If we see that Red Road is a modern Rear Window, in the way that other films indebted to Hitchcock's picture are not (including Mr Hire and A Short Film About Love), it rests on the advances in surveillance that turns the central character into a new type of observer. Here we have a single woman working in CCTV and one of the buildings she has her camera trained on is the Red Road flats of the title. If Eye in the Sky shows the destructive potential of observation, Red Road is interested it seems initially in the opposite: in watching situations that may require the help of optic-samaritanism. Jackie (Kate Dickie) watches as an angel of mercy rather than destruction, seeing people as potentially in harm's way and is determined to make sure they are safe. One scene shows Jackie looking on as a situation seems to develop when a man follows a young woman through some waste ground near a block of flats. Jackie initially sees it as a threatening scenario until she sees that the woman is happy to return the man's interest. There she is, in her operating room with numerous screens, making decisions about whether to leave people alone or to interrupt their activities.
As in Eye in the Sky, Jackie's job carries with it moral responsibilities but it needn't incorporate ruthless action. When she interrupts it is a categorically protective measure, not one that needs to weigh up complex utilitarian questions. Eye in the Sky offers a variation on that old thought experiment: do you risk fewer to save more? In the trolley problem, people are going to die regardless but do you leave many to die naturally or far fewer to die through intervention? If a train is running out of control and further down the line will kill many people, do you leave it to do so, or do you intervene by switching the tracks and deliberately killing for example just the driver? To do nothing means potentially evading responsibility but doing something means intervening and thus 'deliberately' killing someone. In Eye in the Sky, the impending terrorist attack means that many may be killed but does that give the British and American authorities the right to risk the lives of innocent people in the process of taking out the terrorists to try and avoid numerous deaths? From a utilitarian point of view, the answer is simple: the greatest good for the greatest number. But if that were so easy, then there wouldn't be much of a dilemma, and the point of the thought experiment is to show that it is a dilemma: one that cinema can play up all the more by showing us vividly the people who will die in the sacrifice to the greater number.
Jackie needn't kill anybody, but she is in a job that, like the zone operatives in Arizona, has a God's eye view courtesy of technological development. Someone who witnesses a troublesome scene across the street has a limited purview but an active presence. They can cross the road and intervene: the amount of information they possess will be weak but their agency strong. Jackie is the opposite: she can witness events from multiple angles but remains without direct agency. Here in the scene thus described, she can switch from one surveillance camera to another, and zoom in to get a closer view, but then she must telephone the police on the ground who will intervene on her say so. Though the film becomes increasingly about the loss of her child, who was killed in a drink-driving accident by a man, Clyde (Tony Curran), who is now released from prison and whom she can see through the surveillance cameras, the film's interest rests chiefly on the technology it utilises. Even Jackie's confused feelings over Clyde, a man she finds herself sexually desiring, contains a voyeurism the technology facilitates. There is a scene where her preoccupation with Clyde leads her to miss an important event elsewhere. We see Jackie using the various screens at her disposal to follow the man's movements around the area but then realises that she has caught only the end of a stabbing incident. If in Eye in the Sky, most of the problems remain within the realm of the professional conundrum, for Jackie the problem is that she is professionally compromised by the complexity of her feelings. We might wonder if this is the ideal job for a woman who has lost her child, whose need to keep people safe and to fret over the dangers, is all the more evident for a woman who is grieving her own loss. The technology gives her the chance to play God after the helplessness she would no doubt have felt after her husband and child's accident but, unlike Colonel Powell and Lieutenant Benson, she needn't play God as an angel of death but only of mercy. Yet that is her professional role. Personally, it looks like she may indeed become an avenging angel when she wonders how she can find a way to put Clyde back in prison.
Both Eye in the Sky and Red Road aren't of course new in their storytelling but they are fresh in how they approach it, by insisting on using new technologies narratively rather than cosmetically. Neither is science fiction, nor are they modish: they don't hint at a futuristic world removed from our own, nor do they draw upon a detail that gives a momentary surprise to the story, like many a gadget in a Bond film. It might be the wristwatch in Never Say Never Again that works as a laser beam-cutting tool, the flying car in The Man with the Golden Gun, or a pen that can inject someone with poison in Moonraker. But in Eye in the Sky and Red Road, the use of recent technology allows the filmmakers to muse over the pressing ethical problems new technologies demand we address. It would be one thing for Jackie to try and get revenge on Clyde by seeing him in a bar and finding a way to put him back inside. But she uses the tools of her trade to do so, observing him in various situations and accessing the zoom when she wishes to get close-ups, switching to another camera when he moves out of shot, and pulling back to get a clearer view of the situation.
Not all new technologies invoke cinema, but few watching Eye in the Sky and Red Road will be unaware that the screens it works with resemble the screens filmmakers utilise. Cinema is a technological medium and we look over its history it is perhaps better placed than the other arts to comment on changes in tech: it has moved from silent to sound, from black and white to colour, and from celluloid to digital. Some might insist has literature not also been transformed, with writers moving from quill, to pen, and on to the typewriter and the computer. But few reading a novel will have any idea whether it was written on a laptop or with a pen, while the shift in film technology has often been a selling point that the viewer couldn't but be aware over. 'Garbo talks' was the tagline for her first sound film, Anna Christie. One of the taglines for the in-colour The Adventures of Robin Hood was that "only the rainbow can duplicate its brilliance." Later, in the fifties, film wanted to announce its technological changes all the better to distance itself from television with a number of screening strategies, including Widescreen, colour 3-D and stereophonic sound. All were introduced between 1952 to 1954. Clearly, not all films were in colour by the mid-fifties, but enough were to justify people leaving their sitting rooms. More than any other art form film has moved with the times, incorporating developments elsewhere all the better to give the viewer a new experience. Often these changes are used little more profoundly than the gadgets in a James Bond film, but whether serving the diegesis or generating new possibilities in the form, filmmakers have frequently seen the shift as either a means to further cinema's aesthetic possibilities and/or comprehend the societal shift that technology demands. Kubrick for example used the most advanced technology all the better to capture the historical with accuracy. Vincent Lo Brutto says: "As Kubrick pondered doing a period film, he learned the German Zeiss Company had developed very fast 50mm still-photography lenses for the Apollo space program at NASA." (Stanley Kubrick: A Biography) This gave Kubrick the chance to make a historical film like no other. Before the films relied on artificial light that would of course have been absent in the 18th century; with the cameras available, it became possible to film without that artificiality: the most modern technology could aid the rendition of the past. More straightforwardly, films around and into the new millennium took advantage of the digital revolution to film on the cheap, but also to suggest the cheapness in the form; while horrors of the late seventies and early eighties, like Halloween and The Shining, took advantage of the panaglide and steadicam to create a smooth aesthetic, The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield played up their shaky handheld horror using the tech as part of the very diegesis with characters trying to capture the events they are watching with the camera they have available. Nobody within the story is filming Carpenter or Kubrick's movie.
However, whether emphasising the technological developments in the form or also including it in the story, filmmakers have been throughout the form's history aware of constant shifts that take place in a way no novelist needs to, even if they might choose to do so. Some writers may still use typewriters or write with a pen but nobody reading their printed work would be able to look at the prose and know. In film you will, if you know enough about cameras. This leaves cinema very well placed to fret over shifts in technology, to know that it changes what you can do and how you can do it. But we need only look at the numerous films that were a little too enthusiastic about using the zoom lens in the late sixties to know that gimmicks needn't be only on the screen but behind it as well. When Hitchcock utilised developments in the camera in the late fifties, using the dolly zoom to capture the central character's Vertigo, it was vital to the film's purpose and not a device used merely because it had become available.
It might be useful here before concluding to note that strictly speaking the novum is not Suvin's term, but Ernst Bloch's, even if he has made it his own, and why we can perhaps wrestle it from Suvin's context without being unfair to its root. As Pavel Lyashenko and Maxim Lyashchenko insist: Bloch reinterprets Nietzsche's thesis on the "will to power", seeing that the "...will to utopia is a principle not only of human being but of all mankind. ('Loneliness of human in the philosophy of Ernst Bloch culture.') Yet if the novum for Suvin is a plausibly new thing in a narrative, and for Bloch, a utopian possibility in being, then the way we have explored it one might say it is a dangerous thing, a new reality which must be carefully observed; its possibilities questioned. Whether it be drones, DNA or surveillance, the good each is capable of achieving is the catastrophe that must be averted. Of course, it is great that we can understand our DNA structure as we couldn't a hundred years ago, and can lead to all sorts of positives including the discovery and prevention of previously incurable diseases, accurate detection of criminal behaviour, and discovering our origins. But that isn't where Cronenberg goes with it, seeing in DNA the troublesomely experimental. Drone strikes can save many lives, with the attackers safely ensconced in a building many miles from the explosion, and where the lives of those under attack can be more specifically targeted than in an adrenalised air situation. However, can the lack of lives lost by the combatants lead to complacency on the part of those (usually in the West) making the decisions? "The practice began under George W. Bush, was expanded under Barack Obama and appears to have increased further still under Donald Trump." Obama may have won the Nobel Peace prize in October 2009 but in his "first two years in office, 2009 and 2010, 186 drone strikes were launched in Pakistan, Syria and Yemen, according to figures supplied to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. (Guardian) Surveillance protects people in numerous situations but it also intrudes on people's lives in the most inconspicuous of ways. And in no country more than the UK: Andrew O'Hagan says: "The UK has the highest density of CCTV cameras in the world. Since 1994, British Governments have spent more than 205 million on CCTV installation in towns and cities, supporting 1400 projects, far more than any other country in Europe." O'Hagan is from near Glasgow and wrote a brilliant book about people going missing in the post-war years in the UK (called, simply, The Missing), some of whom would no doubt have been spotted had CCTV been available. But are a few saved people worth the pervasive intrusion? And are those doing the surveillance work as objective as we might wish? Jackie isn't, and though one may feel for her as she witnesses the man who was responsible for the death of her daughter and her husband, would one want such advanced technology meeting with so primary a set of feelings of grief, loss and, yes, revenge?
Yet the point of taking seriously the social novum in fictional form is to match primary feelings with new scientific and technological developments, to see that no matter how innovative they happen to be, behind them is still a human response that might not be so modern at all. One needn't quite claim this as some essentialist human nature; more that if humans have been at war for thousands of years, then certain impulses aren't suddenly going to disappear just because the means by which to do so has changed and as Mirren noted, sometimes the tech isn't so very different from war tech a couple of generations earlier. Yet it is when cinema, that most technological of art forms as we've noted, nevertheless draws upon ancient myths and structures, that it can allow us to see the ethical conundrums new technologies offer. Whether it is The Fly drawing upon Kafka but linking it to DNA developments, The Eye in the Sky showing the various arguments available in the process of a given action that has something of the dramaturgy of a court drama, or Red Road, illustrating how grief and revenge can be contained by new surveillance technology, some might say this is just cinema putting old wine into new bottles. Or it could just be that such films are useful ways to call into question how easy it is to get drunk on newfangled possibilities. Film can be a means of sobering us up.
© Tony McKibbin