Mather on Telotte



ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 51, December 1999



Philippe D. Mather

Fear and Wonder: Ambivalence Towards Technology




J. P. Telotte

_A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age_

Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1999

ISBN 0-8195-6346-3

218 pages


Other than to offer an account of a somewhat neglected period of the science fiction film genre's history, one could legitimately ask why J. P. Telotte has chosen to focus on the twenties and thirties. His explanation in the introduction to _A Distant Technology_ is that the period in question has been referred to as the Machine Age, 'the moment at which the modern world first discovers its specifically modern character' (1). The author's goal might then be to define modernity, as well as explain how the post-World War I era witnessed the birth of the Machine Age sensibility, in an 'histoire des mentalites'. While he argues that Western society has always maintained an ambivalent relationship with technology, Telotte nonetheless characterizes the ethos of the Machine Age as emphasizing 'the properties of the machine -- speed, regularity, efficiency' (4). The films selected to illustrate this point from a sociological perspective, in the classical Kracauerian tradition of reflection theory, certainly all contain the appropriate number of thematic references to machines and machine-like behaviour. But apart from the self-fulfilling or circular aspect of this approach, one wonders whether the definition of modernity employed by Telotte is too specific. Might there not be other dimensions to the spirit or sensibility of the modern world that could inform this study in a productive way, beyond the various forms of technology and technocracy? Telotte mentions in passing the modernist aspect of the science fiction genre's ideology, or Weltbild, when he refers to its 'rational perspective', its 'view of the world . . . as essentially knowable, reducible to cause-and-effect terms, and thus accessible to human manipulation' (17). But the study does not focus on genre concerns, surprisingly perhaps, so this avenue remains unexplored. Also, the historical aspect of the argument might be questioned. Is it undoubtable that the world discovers its modern nature for the *first* time after World War I? Some might argue that the Industrial Age, not just the Machine Age, is witness to this new mentality, one that emerges at the turn of the nineteenth century, at least.


Two other interrelated notions are discussed in the introduction: distance, and the reflexivity of the film medium. The term 'distance' is never defined in a rigorous, unequivocal way, but is explored for all its metaphorical and connotative values. On the one hand it signifies humankind's alienation from 'the natural world and a traditional way of life' (22) due to the growing presence of technology. On the other hand, it refers to 'narratives about great physical, cultural, or epistemological distances and the struggle to overcome them' (21). One gets the sense that there is an idealist assumption underlying the repeated allusions to the *natural* world that the modern world is being compared with. What exactly is the *natural* world and the traditional way of life, and in what way is it less alienated (closer to *matter* and *reality*) than the modern technological world?


The science fiction film genre's reflexivity in this study is partly based on a thematic link between film *about* technology, and film *as* technology. Since film is a technological medium, the argument goes, it should be ideally suited to represent and discuss matters relating to the technological nature of the modern world. Furthermore, not only were film and the science fiction genre 'born' in the same year (1895), but the novel that launched modern science fiction, H. G. Wells's _The Time Machine_, is arguably a metaphorical description of what the film medium is: a time machine. Cinema preserves events from the past, allowing you to visit family and friends from a bygone era, and it can also create events that have not yet occurred, thereby turning every film spectator into a time traveller. But, this almost playful interpretation of film and science fiction's respective natures does not translate into a perfect marriage. Paradoxically, Telotte suggests that the perceived 'appropriateness' of film and the subject matter of science fiction in fact results in a tension. Since Western culture's attitude towards technology is a fundamentally ambivalent one, torn between a sense of wonder and a fear of technology's potential for destruction, film is caught in an embarrassing dilemma, not knowing exactly how to deal with the topic at hand. It is 'too close to its subject, too marked by the same sort of tensions that typified modern culture, tensions that came with technology itself' (19). The film medium itself was going through some important technological changes during the Machine Age, as the soundtrack was introduced in 1927. Science fiction films tried to accomplish a difficult balancing act: to exploit the public's fascination for the possibilities of science, but at the same time remain mindful of the tragedies that had already occurred in the recent past when modern technology was misused. Clearly, this tension or ambivalence is not specific to the Machine Age, but Telotte finds it articulated in a prescient way, considering that the two decades under study arguably produced the initial serious, feature-length science fiction narratives.


Telotte ends his introduction with a word about his approach or methodology. He describes it as a combination of 'contemporary cultural criticism and film history' (24), which accounts both for the analysis of the cultural conception of the technological, and the specific national cinemas he considers. Cultural criticism is perhaps most evident in his final chapter, as I indicated earlier, which focuses on the 1939 New York World's Fair, whose theme was 'The World of Tomorrow'. Given Telotte's approach, it should not be surprising to find that, despite the study's title, there is no direct focus on genre issues, nor is there much formal, textual analysis of the films selected. The analysis remains at a narrative and thematic level, always mindful of the ideological and historical contexts in which the films are made. However, since the topic is technology, and since science fiction film so often reminds us of its technological base, thanks to the special effects, for instance, then one might expect a more extended discussion of the films' technical and stylistic dimensions.


Chapter two discusses Soviet science fiction films, in the context of the 1917 Revolution and the technological spirit which characterized the constructivist art movement. It seems that many popular science fiction novels in the Soviet Union combined a fascination for technology with the revolutionary zeal. Alexei Tolstoy's novel _Aelita_ is one such narrative where the socialist and technological revolutions merge (31). Science fiction, then, turns out to be an ideal form in which to explore these ideals, as it focuses not only on science and technology, but also on the construction of alternative, better worlds. The utopic impulse of this narrative form becomes very clear in the forward-looking Soviet novels and films. Telotte points out that one plot development in the film version of _Aelita_ includes a recurring theme in science fiction of the silent film era: the association of technology with the feminine (42). One would think that technology would be linked to the male-dominated world, but in this case the connection is between the seductive power of technology and the feminine, and also their potential dangers. Thus the *femme fatale* is linked to a *technologie fatale*, exemplified by the robot Maria in the German film _Metropolis_.


The third chapter explores German science fiction film, and opens with a somewhat confusing philosophical discussion on distance and the technological. One is unsure whether the alienated self arises from being a producer or a product of technology (47). But certainly the Nazi regime proved to be one of the most obvious attempts at creating the ultimate technocracy, a curious combination of technological efficiency and nineteenth century romanticism. Telotte analyzes a few key images in Fritz Lang's _Metropolis_, namely the futuristic skyline and 'the hands of a million workers' (53), but for some reason does not mention the famous image of the worker at the large dial/thermometer gauge. One surprising comment concerns the middle part of Fritz Lang's _Die frau im mond_, described as 'a kind of technical ellipsis' (61) where the fate of the protagonists is set aside and the futuristic technology takes center stage. Telotte criticizes the narrative's lack of focus on the human subjects in this part of the film, attributing it to 'the lures of technology', which is odd when one considers the substantial amount of critical literature devoted to the science fiction genre's allegorical nature, its focus on ideas rather than characters.


The chapter on French science fiction film continues the same pattern as the previous two chapters: Telotte discusses the scientific zeitgeist as it appears in the French arts and culture, before moving on to an analysis of films, in this case Rene Clair's _Paris qui dort_. Events such as the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes contributed to popularizing modern art and art deco in architecture particularly, with the work of Le Corbusier, for instance (73). A prominent engineering accomplishment is the Eiffel tower, which features in _Paris qui dort_. It should be pointed out, however, that the Eiffel tower belongs to the Industrial Age, *not* the Machine Age that Telotte focuses on. Also belonging to the Industrial Age is the literary work of Jules Verne, whose novels _20,000 Leagues Under the Sea_ and _From the Earth to the Moon_, written in the 1860s, are 'symptomatic of an ongoing fascination with the mechanical contrivance and a pride in the accomplishments of French science' (74). The fact that in Verne's novels 'it is the machine that is the hero' (an atomic submarine or a space gun), and that these stories directly inspired Georges Melies's turn of the century films, makes it difficult to critique a genre for not doing what it does not seem interested in. Telotte's criticism of _Die frau im mond_ recalls the disagreement between Henry James and H. G. Wells on precisely this issue. It seems James was never able to understand or accept science fiction's glossing over character psychology, as though there couldn't possibly be any other topic worthy of discussion. One of the few times Telotte discusses film form is when the special effects constitute the very subject matter of these films. And so, the invisible ray which paralyzes the City of Light in _Paris qui dort_ is not only a metaphor for cinematic technology, but also creates an unusual mise en scene of immobilized characters (82).


The idealist concept of the natural world continues to infect the author's ongoing discussion of distance and alienation from technology. He writes about the postmodern impossibility of bridging the gap between man and machine (citing Baudrillard), whereas the modern world still held on to the illusion of a compromise (84). Again, I would argue that the notion of self, of man's identity, is difficult to discuss in these essentialist terms, and that the *postmodern condition* is not witness to a disappearance of the original, primordial self (whatever that is), but rather to a gradual evolution into a form of consciousness that incorporates the technological in a way that is not usefully described as distance or alienation.


Telotte turns his attention to American science fiction in chapter five. The historical period of this study is alluded to when he again mentions the ambivalent attitude towards technology: 'That pattern of worried embrace, of resisted allure, is hardly unique to America -- or to the period we are here considering' (101). Presumably, Telotte is referring to our contemporary post-Machine Age or postmodern era, but I would continue to suggest that this ambivalence antedates the Machine Age by a wide margin. Consider Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_, a novel published over a hundred years before the period considered, which is certainly a prototypical cautionary tale about the dangers of science. A number of American technological landmarks are used to contextualize the author's discussion of several films from the thirties. Taylorism and Henry Ford's production plant at River Rouge, the Hoover Dam, the New York City skyline starring the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and industrial designers like Norman Bel Geddes all contributed to the spirit of the Machine Age in America (102).


British science fiction film is compared in an interesting way with its American counterpart. In terms of the literary context, the United States enjoyed a healthy pulp magazine industry, including Hugo Gernsback's _Amazing Stories_ and John W. Campbell Jr's _Astounding_. Britain, on the other hand, could count on a more 'serious' literary heritage, including such figures as the 'father of science fiction' (140), H. G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley, who published _Brave New World_ in 1932. British science fiction films of the thirties, particularly _Things to Come_, are thematically ambitious and characterized visually by their 'monumentalism' (143). On the one hand, the films' focus on international warfare appears to betray an 'apocalyptic anxiety', while on the other hand, the technological marvels portrayed in the films promised other 'potentials for cultural accomplishment and greatness' (144) that the crumbling British Empire was missing. Telotte notes a poetic visual rhyme in the opening and closing scenes of _Things to Come_, a toy cannon and the space gun. The images frame the film and 'suggest a kind of growth, a maturation of the technological spirit' (159) which is indicative of the narrative's utopic trajectory.


Telotte devotes part of the last chapter justifying his analysis of a World's Fair by comparing it with a science fiction film. The 1939 New York World Fair's theme was 'The World of Tomorrow', which not only focused on technology, but futuristic technology, offering visitors a form of time travel. In addition, Telotte bases his analysis partly on a documentary about the Fair made in 1984. He invokes Umberto Eco to argue that a Fair is a form of show business, and that the 1939 Fair was similar to 'the prototypic science fiction film of its day' (169). In the last few pages of this chapter, Telotte appears to set up an axiology in which only the reflexive science fiction films are considered good, i.e. possessing socially redeeming qualities (180). In my view, the relevance of this evaluative stance is debatable, not to mention the difficulty of determining the degree of reflexivity as a criterion for evaluation.


Despite the reservations noted above, J. P. Telotte's study remains a thought provoking analysis of Western culture's ambivalent attitude towards science and technology, particularly as it is articulated in a sample of science fiction films made between the two World Wars. One is grateful to read a careful analysis of genre films produced in an era traditionally regarded as relatively unproductive for science fiction, compared with the fifties and its post-Hiroshima, post-Roswell offerings. Also, focusing on international science fiction cinema made in the Soviet Union, Germany, France and England, not only strengthens the author's arguments, but also fills a critical void and helps to rectify the impression that science fiction films were only produced in the United States. The final chapter may seem puzzling at first glance, as it is devoted to tracing the era's technological zeitgeist in a World's Fair rather than in films, but it provides an original context to the interpretation of fiction films and to our understanding of the cultural ambivalence towards technology.


Campion College, University of Regina

Saskatchewan, Canada



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Philippe D. Mather, 'Fear and Wonder: Ambivalence Towards Technology',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 51, December 1999 <>.




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