Topics In Fantasy: Emily Carr, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Los Bros Hernandez, And The Hibakushi

That last one means: “explosion-affected persons”.

Japanese for A-bomb survivor.

“At last, to see through the inner eye of the totem!”, says a transported Emily Carr in one of those dreadfully quotable Canada Post-sponsored “Canadian Heritage” commercials: describing her achievement as a painter. Hey, for crappy historical whitewash, you have to admit those things are written kinda catchy…

And in truth, that line gets very close to the heart of Carr’s fascination with the remnants of Native culture on the B.C. coast: well, white people’s stories of this part of the world have always been about women travelling off in boats, out of their own society and into another, at least partly interior, world. As the saying goes: “Canada is a nation of people who have traded their history for geography”, and it’s true enough, except the missing term in that equation is that all this geography was once someone else’s history, before Us Guys decided to try to erase it, turn it all from living present into deep dead past, into archaeology…before we decided to try to empty the landscape, and so telescope time.

Unfortunately, we did a pretty good job of it.

So when Emily Carr goes off into the coastal waters, what she finds is Indiana Jones’ wet dream: hundreds and hundreds of miles of spun-out Macchu Picchu, moss-covered Thunderbird heads buried in the forest, nursery logs for mystery and awe, dead gods of the geography she’d traded for. The alien soul of the landscape.

It took her hard.

So she began to paint it; and in so doing was transported.

Okay?

Okay, so let’s talk about what I’m going to call the Spielbergian generation of American filmmakers. Because they discovered something too, and were transported too, as they strove to see through the inner eye of their totems. Which were, of course, cars.

Cars: did anything take Spielberg and Lucas and Zemeckis and all the rest of them so hard as the mystery and the awe of the car? I’m here to argue not; the generation or half-generation before them discovered postwar America through faces — John Wayne’s face, Marlon Brando’s face, Robert Redford’s face, Jane Fonda’s face, Peter Boyle’s face, Gene Hackman’s face — and those were the uncertain totems whose inner eyes they saw through, those were the mysteriously abandoned geographies, archaeologies, that transported them…but for Spielberg and his ilk, it was always the car. Seen as through the eyes of a child, the congress of cars as America, pure shape and pure colour moving swiftly through the landscape of dream, a million fast totems on about their mythological business, making space where previously there had been no space before, and roaring about it. The new Ford Doppler, now with even more new proportion-establishing technology…!

You may think I exaggerate. But, there is something compelling about the car as a symbolic carrier. The car speaks of something, to artists of that era, that human voices can’t quite say.

Consider the aggressively dreamlike nature of the early car/stunt movie, now an American genre staple called, vaguely enough, “action”. Born in the time when automobiles meant something more as far as freedom and individuality were concerned than they had meant in earlier decades — and note that this “more” meaning of freedom and individuality was also coupled with a “less” meaning of anonymity and dissolution that was new as well, as far as the humble car went — always the fascination of the young, that liminal state between personhood and destiny, love and suicide, being and non-being — born in that time of youthful grasping at realizing the in-betweenness of it all, these car/stunt movies were amazingly galvanizing at the time in a way we can be forgiven for forgetting today, and also in love with the absurd concretization of inner states by the outward heft of style in steel and chrome in a way that today, if we only thought about it, we would have to find touchingly naive. The other day, I saw the recent remake of The Italian Job — Ed Norton repeats the wild technique first pioneered by Ron Howard in Grand Theft Auto, of having the helicopter break all the rules of where things are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do, by chasing the car down where the street is.

The helicopter becomes the car’s enemy: trying to restrain its freedom.

Just as the crop-duster — God love it, the venerable crop-duster! — my favourite’s the one in Capricorn One! — becomes the car-substitute, the “car of the skies”, the freedom of the new young American individual to find new ways to “drive”?

God, remember how those guys used to be just so absolutely fixated on the anonymity and independence of the crop-duster? As John Bunyan was fixated on the spiritual symbolism of the freaking bird.

But anyway…that’s all fine for the Seventies, of course, but in the 2000’s what Ed Norton does with his helicopter is fucking stupid. That naivete won’t hold up in the present day: to crash through liminality as the Spielberg generation did with their outlandishly over-the-top conception of what a “stunt” could be…I mean this was something that was so new, this was seeing through the inner eye of the totem of film for sure! The helicopter chases the car! Dreams break through into daylight! But in the remake of The Italian Job, you’ve got to know that things just don’t work that way. We’re better educated now, this isn’t a Columbo episode where the Lieutenant finds out something about what a Polaroid is, or how the phone system works…all the infrastructure that seemed tinged with magic to the naive senses of young Seventies filmmakers, essentially impressionistic as a child’s understanding of what Daddy does when he’s at work…we know all about that stuff now. “Action” movies have carved out that understanding in our brains. So Ed Norton flies in circles around Los Angeles, but give me a break, this is not the same cultural idiom that once was, and we all know he can’t do that…! You can’t just jump into a helicopter and fly off and do what you please, this is not the part in Frosty The Snowman where Karen and the kids just don’t understand about traffic lights or train tickets or that the temperature doesn’t go up because the thermometer “gets red”, but the thermometer “gets red” because the temperature goes up…

Sorry, ranting…

And hey, I liked The Italian Job. But it just made me laugh to see old Ed in that helicopter. Because I don’t care how many millions you’ve got, life and action are not as free as they were thirty-five years ago, and when we see that sort of thing in a movie and accept it we are not accepting it for the same reasons as we did when it was fresh. We are not accepting it as the sudden amplification of a symbolic dynamic, we are accepting it as an action-movie convention, that’s lost all its power to thrill, or shock, or yes I’ll say it: transport. Ed N. flies around up there the way he does because he lives in a world that works by the rules of the world of movies. But in more ancient times, the symbolic charge would have come from him flying around in a world that works by the rules of the world…said world not yet having rules that have been entirely fixed and understood in “action” terms. Today’s action-movie conventions are as recognizable as they are varied, and as varied as they are immutable: elevators have trapdoors, buildings have easily-accessible airducts a person can squeeze through, guns can shoot off locks on doors, people set passwords on their computers that conform to a description of the thing they are trying to block other people from looking at. Try typing in “Secret Doomsday Weapon”, 007…

Understand, I’m not speaking against any of it!

But the unreality of all that stuff is as well understood in the present day, as it was poorly understood in the days of the Spielbergian stuntmasters.

You see, it’s all about what the dreamscape is. It’s all about what’s in it. That’s what I’m trying to say. It never was “realism”. But it reflected a different fantasy image of “realism”, than the one it reflects today. Belief was suspended on different things, in different places, and to different effects.

We forget: these guys invented “action”. They invented the summer blockbuster. Okay, we don’t actually forget, obviously, because we say it all the time, but we forget what things were like before these guys came on the scene. We forget what made them great in the first place.

I am saying: it was the car. It was how they understood the romance of the car. It was how they thought, or felt, that the car was really important. Star Wars has a lot of the car in it — everything’s about the car. Corvette Summer is, pretty obviously, about the car. I mean watch that movie again today: it doesn’t make any fucking sense. It still carries the viewer through, but it’s stupid today, in a way it wasn’t when it came out. Because of how it’s about the car, because of how the cultural idiom of car-ness has changed, because it is naive in a way that seems very nearly aphasic today. I Wanna Hold Your Hand is, admittedly a little less obviously, about the car. American Graffiti is painfully obviously about the car, I mean even more than Corvette Summer is (although it’s got a better excuse). Jaws is just a car movie in sharky clothes. I am perhaps not making the best argument I could be making here. But: I’m telling you.

It’s all about the car.

Um, I’m gonna fix those examples later, to make more sense…

Sorry! Ranting.

But ANYWAY…

The dreamscape, right. Seeing, finally, through the inner eye of the totem.

I’m sure you know who does it best: the Japanese. The telescoping of time, that drops a chasm in-between the future and the past? Check, check, check. Check. The understanding of the romance that inhabits wordlessly potent technological symbols, vehicles, prostheses? Of the chromed shagfoal of futurity? You know they say you can chrome anything; you can chrome toast, if you want to. Check, check, bloody check.

The dramatic implications of the artificially-emptied landscape? The transportation through different ways of seeing? The archaeology in faces? Because that’s what the totems really are, you know: faces…

Oh my God. Soooo check.

The Japanese, as usual, are ahead of everybody.

Only excepting, perhaps, the Hernandez brothers.

Now watch as this all comes together, but hopefully not too much like water swirling down a drain: you want “explosion-affected people”? The understanding of romance in wordlessly-potent symbols of technology? A fractured world, a world that carves itself out from nothing, a world with as-yet-unfixed rules, a world where naivete crashes through liminality looking for at least a smoke, a beer, and a girl, anyway at least for tonight? A world of aimless streets, a world of roaring cars, a world where the past and the future maybe meant to get married but didn’t, and then each fell in love with somebody else? And where places get lost to themselves, and maps get all turned around, and there is no easy navigation except in the cracking-apart of mute, pregnant symbol? I was going to talk about All-Star Superman today, but in a way Jaime and Gilbert have been doing All-Star Superman for decades. To take influences and treat them all as though they were important for themselves, to really pick them up and turn them to use, and apologize to no one for it. To make The Best of something that’s been seen before, so many times, and refresh it for everybody else while doing so. You know, I really am looking forward to posting that thing I have in mind about All-Star Superman. But Love And Rockets has perfected the art of seeing through the inner eye of the totem, and attuning itself to the emptied landscape’s alien soul: all those old punks, tough lady wrestlers, master mechanics, dinosaurs, superheroes…real towns in imaginary places, real places in imaginary towns, dream countries, lost empires, history for geography, and faces, faces everywhere, and always in dramatic contrast. You see every fantasy worth its salt is the archaeology of a dream, a symbolism, a meaning buried in peculiar felicities of word or picture that jump up (like the devil) and grab the end experiencer by the throat, somehow. Everything is about something, in some way.

I mean, look at Robert Redford’s face, in all of his movies. His face is the whole point. Robert Redford has never looked like a normal person, NEVER. This was the car chase of the generation and half-generation of filmmakers before the Spielbergites: that jarringly familiar dream-face, surrounded by aggressively “ordinary” other faces also out of nowhere but dream, like the dreamily-ordinary clothes, buildings, shots, routines, atmosphere, that all strove together to blow everything up in a great big BANG! Robert Redford, the human special effect. This guy was always a guy out of place and time, through no fault of his own, but that was the whole point. In that, he was just like America itself. But, too, like America, it wasn’t exactly that he was innocent, even if it all wasn’t really his fault: in Three Days Of The Condor, Faye Dunaway looks at him and says: “there’s something about your eyes…not kind. But honest.” It’s a remarkable line, for how absolutely directly it’s shot right into the face of the audience, just like that. Years later, in The Electric Horseman, something similarly arresting: one night while they’re trekking across country, Jane Fonda turns to Redford and nervously asks “are we lost?” He smiles and replies: “Lost? We’re not lost.”

He means: there’s no such thing as lost, because there’s no such thing as not lost.

Just like Maggie’s not lost either; she’s just been affected by an explosion.

She’s been transported.

Like we all should be, when we walk into a theatre. And the lights CRASH down around us.

Pretty quickly turning us to remnants, there in the dark. Hidden nursery logs. Faces lost in the trees. Things grown wild, whose origins have been misplaced. Totemic junkyards, forgotten meanings: somebody else’s archaeology.

Hey, Dr. Jones? You should wake up now, probably.

I think Akira just stole your Rolls-Royce.

You might want to get a picture of that. It looks just like that scene from Butch Cassidy.

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20 responses to “Topics In Fantasy: Emily Carr, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Los Bros Hernandez, And The Hibakushi

  1. Hey, some of the action-movie shorthand has disappeared, though, as its liminal charge lessened over time. Computers rarely blow up when someone shoots their monitor out, anymore — “dude, he totally shot that computer in the face! It’s gotta be dead!” — and even less frequently do they explode from being asked philosophical questions.

  2. I like your car notions.

    Let’s draw some more connections between the elements of your post:
    white people’s stories of this part of the world have always been about women travelling off in boats, out of their own society and into another, at least partly interior, world is connected to let’s talk about what I’m going to call the Spielbergian generation of American filmmakers. Because they discovered something too, and were transported too, as they strove to see through the inner eye of their totems. Which were, of course, cars in these ways.

    First, ‘this part of the world’ is the North American west coast, right? (Right?) That includes Hollywood. Hollywood may seem generic to you and me but I am assured by William Goldman that it’s actually specifically a western-American kind of place.

    Second, cars are female. I have corroboration! (The people and works of art I am about to list serve very well as a bibliography of what to check out if you’re interested in the symbolic/literary identity of cars.) First, there’s Stephen King’s Christine. Second, there’s the song ‘Pink Cadillac’ by Bruce Springsteen. Third, there’s the song ‘Little Red Corvette’ by Prince. Fourth, there’s any number of Beach Boys songs; let’s name ‘409’ and ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ for starters. Fifth, there’s the Chuck Berry song, ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’.

    The next time anybody tells you that cars are phallic symbols, penis substitutes, tell ’em they’re wrong. When a middle-aged guy goes out and buys a sports car to recapture his youth, he’s not getting a penis substitute; he’s getting a trophy wife. If I may be a little more disturbingly concrete for a second, what do you do with a really cool car? You get into it, and manipulate it with various parts of your body, and it responds pleasingly.

    The ultimate love letter to this whole car thing is probably the Pixar movie Cars, but Pixar took the whole notion to such lengths that it doesn’t make a lick of sense anymore. It looks cool but if you think about the implications of the setting for two seconds you have to throw the whole thing away. And, of course, Cars has a lot of connections to the other stuff we’re talking about; Paul Newman was in Cars, or was involved with it in some way, I think, and he’s inextricably linked with Robert Redford. The story is an adaptation of the plot of Doc Hollywood, for another thing.

    One guy who seems to be a big car guy is George R.R. Martin. Not so much in his big fantasy series these days, but certainly in his earlier stuff. Fevre Dream, Tuf Voyaging, his Wild Cards characters… first read his Armageddon Rag with this in mind, and then read his other stuff and you’ll see what I mean.

  3. I bow to the superior craziness of your logic, Matthew!

    But…seriously, Hollywood’s a real place?

    Wow.

    That actually explains a lot.

    For Christ’s sake, where were you yesterday?!

  4. Oh, right. I’m with you.

    I guess Jan and Dean are the other important element in the whole ‘Hollywood as car-culture central’ thing. And don’t forget the Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car’! There’s a woman traveling off out of her own society and into another for you. (Oh, and I also should have mentioned Gino Vannelli’s ‘Black Cars’.)

    Another song: ‘Fast Car’. A woman *not* traveling out of her own society in such a car, because she knows there’s nothing there.

    Which brings me to, I used to make mixed CDs a lot, and it occurred to me once to put together a bunch of car songs where cars *weren’t* totems of freedom and individuality, but rather the reverse. I didn’t come up with enough, though:

    Studebaker – Jordan Zevon
    Trans Am – Neil Young
    Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
    Dead Man’s Curve – Jan and Dean
    Coupe de Ville – Neil Young
    Racing in the Streets – Bruce Springsteen
    Drive – Cars
    Cars – Gary Numan
    Locked in the Trunk of a Car – Tragically Hip

    I was kinda reaching with some of those. You’d think there’d be more.

  5. Ho ho ho, Matthew! Good project. I’ll go with “Cars” and “Locked In The Trunk Of A Car”, and “Fast Car” (though it’s a little earnest where the other two are knowing, and I think more incisive because more clever), and there’s a couple I don’t know here…but come on, if you’re going to call a pre-1990s Bruce Springsteen song anti-“car” in this context, then you’re going to have to allow just about every Springsteen song that ever was into this category. I say: just because a statement’s dripping with irony doesn’t necessarily mean it’s opposed to itself.

    Although having said that, I’d be perfectly willing to read every single Springsteen song there ever was as deeply ironic, because in fact I think he intended them all to be that way.

    An irony, and use of the CAR to pursue it, that I think sadly the Spielbergian stuntmen never realized was worth pursuing.

    Sorry: babbling. The new record came out onm Sept. 8th. I am still giddy.

  6. Maybelline! Why can’t you be true? Wooh, Maybelline …

    Glad you’re back, Plok. Glad, glad. I’m sorry I couldn’t pick up on the web-librarian topic after you flatteringly recalled my Phil & Gilbert bit. Other things were too intense, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

    Howsoever. What is his car to Chuck Berry’s guy? Clearly it is his zoot suit, his rig, that to which the demoiselles gravitate, one digs? And that other bozo has a Cadillac, curse him!

    But this is only the beginning. It’s been remarked that in Mad Max the car is the weapon of choice, your horse and your gun in one. And as Matthew says, your car is like your best girl, she completes you. And obviously, your car is mastery of your territory, to wish is to go.

    All together now?

    Soothe me baby, soothe me
    Soothe me with your kindness
    For you know your powerful love is
    Soothin’ to me

    That scene sums it all up for me. The soft assurance of a summer night, cruising, relaxing. Even Chicago at peace, in love. A summer night made for flirtation, a lil eight-cylinder cop-tease, hey baby, how about it? And then it’s just car on car, a tale as old as the hills … eternal? Surely there can never have been a time in which this dance was not known, it’s in the heartbeat. When Adam and Eve left the Garden, the first thing they did was buy a car. No other way.

    Been reading up Peak Oil for dismal weeks. And I buy the mezzo-economic recension, and getting the big trucks off the long haul for rail, and the bikes and gardens and honest sweat, I do, promise. It’s where I came in, dammit, with the Whole Earth Catalog. And yet, when driving becomes a luxury, won’t it become still more desirable? They’ll be distilling 170 proof in the hills and outrunning the Excise yet, mark my words.

    The biker rode into the ghost suburb at sundown …

  7. Hah!

    More fun reading!

    This thread’s turning out okay. Discounting the Gino Vanelli reference, of course.

    Wasn’t there an Adam Ant song about a car? “Get you feet off the upholstery Ronnie”?

    Jonathan, you could do worse than spin that PKD/GKC thing up into a story for F+SF, you know. Kill the whole idea of “hypertime” meetings dead.

    I’ve decided that’s about what the word “hypertime” is good for: denoting shitty fictive crossover-ism. Sherlock Holmes meets Lazarus Long. We’ve all seen it. It’s a horror.

    So what better team to examine it than Phil and Gil?

  8. When Adam and Eve left the Garden, the first thing they did was buy a car. No other way.

    Which brings us back to Springsteen’s ‘Pink Cadillac’.

    if you’re going to call a pre-1990s Bruce Springsteen song anti-”car” in this context, then you’re going to have to allow just about every Springsteen song that ever was into this category. I say: just because a statement’s dripping with irony doesn’t necessarily mean it’s opposed to itself.

    I’m willing to take my songs at face value, and ‘Racing in the Street’ and ‘Cadillac Ranch’ do not seem to me to be the same.

    While we’re at it, it’s probably tough to discuss Spielberg and cars without mentioning Duel.

  9. The other thing that happened with cars during the time-period you’re covering is:

    Knight Rider. (A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man… who does not exist.)

    Not only is K.I.T.T. the ultimate car, but the relationship between Hasselhoff and the car was interpreted by many as a romantic one, which fits in with what we’re saying here.

    Also, it struck enough of a chord with… I don’t know, somebody… that we were also subjected to Airwolf, Blue Thunder, and Streethawk, which were all just variations on Knight Rider. And then there was Riptide, which had more vehicles in it than characters.

  10. Yeesh, re-reading that, I have to admit it suffers from an excess of bombast.

    But, now you’ve gotting me thinking about Knight Rider, and how it never really lived up to its catchprases…

    Or, maybe not that, maybe Scott McLeod instead, and all that stuff about how we see faces in everything. In car headlights and radiator grills! Put that together with your car-as-female thing, and then toss in a little Jung, and I think we may have a bit of a better angle on what I was trying to say, up there. Clearly the fascination with cars is all about identification with the car, right? In Springsteen songs as much as in Power Rangers, it’s all about becoming the vehicle by merging with it — “seeing through the inner eye of the totem” indeed! There are a hundred great old American shows where the most important thing is the car — Starsky And Hutch just doesn’t take it all as far as Knight Rider does. And I guess there’s a paper in that somewhere: that KITT’s voice is male instead of female is probably significant. Oh Christ, now you’ve got me analyzing freaking Knight Rider, haven’t you?

    Hmm, yeah, this makes sense. Gonna have to give it a little more thought! Fascinating!

    Good catch!

  11. Ha, and “Riptide”, I’d forgotten about that…

    Throw it into the mix, too!

    “Becoming the vehicle”, sure — this is psychodrama, right? No different from Superman and his crazy costume. Wish I was in better shape to attack this right now. Definitely another post in that, or at least an extra-long comments thread.

  12. Or, maybe not that, maybe Scott McLeod instead, and all that stuff about how we see faces in everything. In car headlights and radiator grills!

    Although Knight Rider isn’t the best example of that, since they didn’t give K.I.T.T. such a face; no headlights, no grill. Unless McCloud thinks we see Cylon faces in everything.

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