Dystopia Distant Dream Or Ongoing Nightmare Cultural Studies Essay

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The fantastic, a sense of the spectacular, has worked itself into the architecture and design of everything from shopping malls to hospitals and restaurants to nightclubs. Imagine the cluttered insides of a gaudy club. Space can suddenly change; floors move, lighting and laser rigs are in constant motion, video projections create the sense that one is being immersed in a virtual reality, and lavish special effects undermine the overall stability of the club space. The "cyborg clubber," caught in a state of "spatial flux," plugs his or her self into this machine, and in doing so, becomes a vital part of its circuitry (Redmond, 2004, ix). Redmond (2004) believes such futuristic places and spaces "allow the wanderer to time travel and see beyond, or rather, to enter the future" (ix). Put simply: ours is a world textured by science fiction. It is no coincidence, then, that a genre best able to articulate contemporary fears directly interprets, questions, and provides healing solutions to the everyday problems people of the planet face. Kuhn (1990) explains that "science fiction films relate to social order through the mediation of ideologies, society's representation of itself in and for itself" (Redmond, x). From Cold War obsessions of the 1950s to the post-industrial and postmodern cityscapes of more recent productions, the genre often adopts a historical approach (Kuhn p. 4). That is to say, science fiction's thematic preoccupations are tracked alongside social events and attitudes prominent at the time the work first appeared. Sobchack (?) advances the view that science fiction films offer "new symbolic maps of our social relationship to others in what has become the familiarity (rather than the novelty) of a totally technologised world," and that, with their ruined cityscapes, these films presuppose the effects of disaster (Kuhn, p. 4).

Some types of literary science fiction trace their roots to utopian literature-writings about non-existent places whose politics, laws and living conditions are perfect. These fictions of progress, as well as disaster, are rendered visible in film. Sontag contends "the extensiveness of the disaster is normally conveyed in a direct and immediate manner through images and sounds, rather than words" (Saunders, p. 192). Signs of threat clearly emerge in the mise-en-scene of the future film, especially in what are called dystopias. "Dystopias generally project into the future the fears of the present, and their themes often transcode the sorts of anxieties that characterized that crisis-uncontrolled corporations, untrustworthy leaders, a breakdown of legitimacy, rising crime, etc" (Redmond, p. 54). Although many dystopian films offer thorough critiques of futuristic life, many "undermine the critical effect of such a vision by dislocating this distinctly imagined world from our own" (Ricoeur, Telotte, p. 46). Telotte (?) suggests that one way of accounting for the problematic impact of such works is to think of the dystopian film as a kind of "proto-postmodern text, a work that, in its assault on the status quo and the manner in which it couches that assault, inevitably raises the question of what we consider to be real" (p. 47). In this context, the connection between dystopian films and our sense of "real" can begin to inflect the story itself. This paper intends to examine the liberated space of several dystopian films, including Metropolis (1926), THX 1138 (1971), Alphaville (1965), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), and Brazil (1985), in an effort to better understand the current state of postmodern reality.

The influence of Metropolis on the history of science fiction film is virtually endless. Menville

and Reginald (?) have called it "the first great achievement in science fiction cinema whose atmosphere and visual style were to influence the concept of virtually every filmic portrayal of the future for many years to come" (Kuhn, p. 80). Although many critics and historians decry the film's naïve, seemingly simplistic, politics, Desser (?) suggests it is the very attempt to politicize the genre that accounts for the film's historical significance (Kuhn, p. 81). Metropolis reveals strong fears of economic collapse and Communist revolution riddled with anxieties about modernization, urbanization, and fears of "racialized Others" (Desser, Kuhn, p. 81). Alternately, it revels in the modern, with towering skyscrapers and astonishing technology contradicting motifs central to Nazism. Desser (?) believes these fears and attractions are structured into the text through an intertwining of visual and thematic elements revolving around race, space, and social class (p. 82).

The cityscape is a large urban construction divided between high and low on three levels. At the top, that is, above ground, is the capitalist bourgeoisie. Visuals show young people enjoying their physicality, indulging in games, races, and, among other diversions, sex in a layout that is typically industrial. The architecture and road plan layout center around an enormous dome-shaped building reminiscent of a Manhattan skyscraper. Bryne (2003) suggests that the building's vertical lines demonstrate "a desire to soar above the earth, above human limitations and conditions-a desire that can only be achieved at the expense of workers to construct and maintain the edifices" (p. 3). Here, allegorical overtones suggest similarities between the city's structure and the "Christian spaces of Heaven and Hell" (Bryne, p. 4). Above-ground Metropolis parallels Heaven, while the subterranean levels appear as a vision of Hell, "complete with infernal monsters whose appetite for live human beings is insatiable" (Bryne, p. 4). The film assumes that class division exerts an influence on the urban distribution of space.

The middle level of the city is occupied by machines powering above ground Metropolis. Broderick (1995) suggests these machines provide the foundation for designating Metropolis as an "other-world" tale where "ideological analysis may readily locate, precisely here, representations of those features rendered invisible by power and usage even as they dictate our lives" (Bryne, p. 4, p. 26). Despite the machines' aesthetic appeal, they are terrifyingly indifferent, encapsulating science fiction's ambivalence toward technological advancement. Bourbon (1999) notes that "our finding and losing ourselves takes place in relation to science and technology" (Bryne, p. 4, p. 190). While mechanization seemingly "frees" the working class, they remain enslaved. The machines cannot run themselves unsupervised; rather, they need workers to tend to them 24 hours a day. As Bryne (2003) contends, "the machines thus become metaphors for the control exerted by the upper classes" (p. 4). The film portrays the city as requiring both exhausting physical labor and mechanical power.

Predictably, the lowest level of the city is the Workers' City. A collection of grimy tenements, this level represents the "social/political unconscious as it is denied in the capitalists' thinking about their own space" (Bryne, p. 5). The only areas depicted are the central business district, the recreational areas, the machine level, and the workers' tenements. This strategy reinforces the capitalists' denial of, first, "the social diversity of their urban environment," and second, "their dependency on the workers' labor" (Bryne, p. 6, La Gory and Pipkin, p. 238). The use of tenements stresses the workers' anonymity. As the workers enter the machines' domain, "they are imaged as a mass of indistinguishable ciphers, all clad in identical uniforms and all identically downcast" (Bryne, p. 6). This mass-production of faceless human beings provokes an effect of alienation that is characteristic of science fiction film. "The workers are identified only by numbers, which erase their individuality, and only when Freder follows them to a subversive meeting with Maria does he learn to distinguish one from another" (Bryne, p. 7). Similarly, tenements lessen the individuality of workers and their families. It seems their construction implies capital investment, pointing to the "masters of Metropolis," who undoubtedly stand to benefit by cramming mass quantities of workers into tiny living spaces.

The high vs. low, upper class vs. working class dichotomy of Metropolis is seen as inevitable, but not necessarily inevitably in conflict. A mediator is thus imagined; "the labor/capital conflict is allegorized as a necessary union between hand and mind mediated by the heart" (Kuhn, Desser, p 82). The Lord of Metropolis, Fredersen, is the mind, the foreman of the workers is the hand, and the mediator is Freder, the son of the master of Metropolis. As a product of his class, Freder is ignorant of the workers' troubles until he ventures below the ground; "one of the ideological mechanisms buttressing the capitalists' exploitation of the workers is their own denial of relations of production that keep the city functioning" (Bryne, p. 8). Part of this denial hinges on "not letting the children know," and is typified in the confrontation between Freder and his father. Freder asks why the capitalists treat the workers so badly. Fredersen does not respond, "clinging on to the false consciousness that tells him he is entitled to exploit human beings for his own gain" (Bryne, p. 8). The capitalists want the workers to maintain their lifestyle at the lowest possible wages, while the workers want a decent pay and better working conditions, as well as access to the city's resources. As Bryne (2003) states, "there are no images of money in the film-the economic dimension is implied rather than imaged directly" (p. 8). The capitalists' power is shown as domination, exploitation, and mistreatment of the workers.