Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin and Sci Fi/Genre Art Cinema.


The premise of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is as old and familiar as the hills: a seductive, supernatural predator leading men to their destruction.  The idea is as old as the siren of mythology and the succubi of folklore, and as comparatively modern as the enduring fascination with the vampire as a figure of sexual potency and threat.  Since all the traditional functions of supernatural entities received a fresh coat of paint in the twentieth century via its new mythologies of science, technology, and space exploration, it is unsurprising that the succubus would reappear in the guise of an extraterrestrial.  Although there are probably countless examples, two spring immediately to mind: Mathilda May as the permanently undressed space siren in Tobe Hooper's under-seen 1985 pulp joy Lifeforce, and Natasha Henstridge's cloned catwalk alien Sil in 1995's Species, a film which was considered essential viewing by adolescent boys and not widely treasured outside that demographic.






Lilith (1892)  by John Collier, Lifeforce (1985) by Tobe Hooper, and Species (1995) by Roger Donaldson.

The material underlying Under the Skin is thus familiar and generic, but Glazer's approach to it is daring, original, and disorientating, so much so that the film defies any easy generic categorization as science fiction.  First of all, Under the Skin eschews any fleshing-out of its sci-fi premise: the sci-fi, extraterrestrial elements of the story receive no explanation, no exposition, and no back-story.  We don't know where the aliens come from, how they got here, or what precisely they require human beings for.  In fact, the very idea that Scarlett Johansson is an extraterrestrial is something which we bring to the movie, either from the pre-publicity we've read, or an awareness of the source novel, or our awareness of the general conventions of science fiction films; there is nothing in the film itself which explicitly suggests that this is the case.  This reticent or minimalist approach to standard plotting is crucial to the experience and impact of Under the Skin.  In one sense, it conforms to the film's astringent air of realism; the story of Johansson and the other aliens is, like everything else in the film, a fully realized world which we cut into randomly and observe from a distance, just as the various locations and victims which Johansson encounters along the way  are random intersections with people and things whose full histories exist outside the margins of her point of view.  On the other hand, by removing all conventional exposition, Under the Skin's science fiction conceits function primarily as images rather than literalized plot-points or ideas.  As such, their effect approaches more to surrealism than conventionally plotted science fiction, and by focusing its generic elements in the intuitive, murkily powerful realm of images, it might be argued that Under the Skin brings its genre conventions back to their source in the subconsciousness, and away from their subsequent reification as literalized aliens or vampires - back to the kind of powerful, inchoate images from which these archetypal stories emerge in the first place.



Yet, at the same time that Under the Skin abstracts its sci-fi into surrealism, it anchors this surrealism in a world of gritty, humdrum realism.  (Actually, anchor is the wrong word, since the film's surrealist and realist aspects tend to unsettle rather than equilibrate.)  Some places on earth are more down to earth than others, and Glasgow, surely, sits at the antipodes of Hollywood.  This, I think, is part of what makes Under the Skin such a distinct and disorientating film.  We associate this type of realism and milieu with independently produced dramas by directors like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach; we don't associate them with science fiction, surrealism, or Scarlett Johansson.  (Is the nearest Johansson has previously come to a British film Woody Allen's mangling of London in Match Point?)  Realism is in some senses always a relative concept.  The type of realism which Under the Skin strives for is to give us a palpable sense of the reality of the Scottish locations through which Johansson moves.  In terms of how it utilizes and evokes location, Under the Skin really is a remarkable achievement.  Making films requires a great deal of control.  Traditionally, a director must have an absolute control of his or her set or location, because the script must be adhered to without interruption, and the specific effects which a director has envisioned for a scene must go according to the director's intentions.  A certain amount of experimentation and spontaneity is always tenable, but in general, because of the extreme time and budgetary constraints to which the film-making process is beholden, a director has to know what they want in advance, and have sufficient control over their location so that they can achieve precisely that when the cameras are rolling.  Necessary and useful though this control is, it has a subtle but definite effect on how the location feels to the viewers.  It feels, often on a subconsciousness level, like a controlled movie location, rather than how locations actually feel when we experience and interact with them in the real world.  Of course, the skill of the director plays a crucial part in the extent to which a set feels like a set in the finished product, but nevertheless our minds on some intuitive level instantly recognize a difference in texture between the closed-off, rigidly controlled location film set, and the dense, dappled spontaneity of real places.

In Under the Skin, this distinction appears to break down; the locations have a sense of palpable and spontaneous reality almost as never before in a motion picture feature.  In order to achieve this effect, Glazer and his cinematographer Daniel Landin developed a radically new guerrilla methodology for shooting a feature, one which effectively combines elements of verite documentary, hidden camera television, and conventional feature film-making - while nevertheless maintaining at all times the core identity of a feature film.  Using their van as a kind of mini-studio, and developing a very small camera which could nevertheless record high-quality images (the One Cam, about the size of a box of matches), the pair sought always to cause the least amount of disturbance to the environments in which they were shooting.  Employing these methodologies allowed them to shot Scarlett Johansson - one of the biggest stars in the world - interacting on the streets of Glasgow with various non-actors who were not initially aware that they were participating in a feature film.  Now, this is an exciting and extremely risky approach to making a feature with a big star and any kind of budget, but it could easily have been nothing more than a meta-textual gimmick if it didn't contribute to the effect of the finished feature in some kind of meaningful way.  Even if you were unaware of how the film was shot, as I was when I saw it, you intuitively get the difference that these filming methodologies contribute - that sense of the spontaneity and "live", unvarnished complexity of the environment gives the whole film a distinct feel - its fiction begins to feel like a disconcertingly vivid lucid dream.  Landin's achievement as a cinematographer is one of the most remarkable I've seen in a long, long time.  One of the major challenges that faces a cinematographer is how to balance creating a beautiful image with capturing one which is true and faithful to the reality of what is being filmed.  (The problem is especially pronounced in a era where digital intermediate colour grading processes often generate a glossy, air-brushed image which is neither beautiful nor true.)  Landin gets this balance just right in Under the Skin - his images are coolly beautiful, but they have that remarkable sense of fidelity to location, that vivacity and spontaneity of real environments, which characterizes the film as a whole.



At this point, it would probably be customary to try to unpack what Under the Skin is really about, what precisely  it means to say about sexuality, gender, empathy, alienation, what it means to be human, and so forth.  While there is much to be said in this regard, I found Under the Skin such a powerful, haunting, and satisfying experience that I feel almost reluctant to analyze it too much.  It's just one of those slightly ineffable experiences that seems to lose a little something when you try to translate it into a neat and linear argument or position.  Under the Skin presents us with an utterly inscrutable alien presence hidden in the skin of an attractive woman - in reality, a major Hollywood star disguised as an anonymous figure on the streets of Glasgow - and by viewing the world entirely from this elusive vantage point, it shows us how cold and alien a place the human world often is, and how weird it is, as Alejandro Jodorowsky once observed, to have skinUnder the Skin evokes the icy, disconnected ambience of urban life which is nevertheless a kind of austere, paradoxical beauty, and finds similar bleak poetry in beaches and forests, in natural spaces which almost wholly eclipse the human world, a concept which feels tenuous from the outset in this film.  One of the things which makes Under the Skin so powerful is perhaps the sense that it is a fully modernized folk or faery tale.  A very common motif of folk tales is one in which a denizen of the Otherworld attempts to live in our world.  Usually, the creature of the Otherworld, be it a mermaid or a faery, marries a human being, sometimes out of love, and sometimes out of duress.  But the creature of the Otherworld can never live in our world in the long-term - the faery maiden loses her powers, and the mermaid always longs for her natural home in the ocean.  In Under the Skin, Johansson's alien - due to her encounter with the young man with neurofibromatosis - somehow falls out of whack with her normal behavior pattern, her identity, if the expression is applicable, as an alien.  Does she experience the tentative beginnings of empathy or compassion?  It's tempting to think so, but difficult to really be sure.  One way or the other, she abandons her own world, and begins to enter ours in a more meaningful way than before.  She encounters a man who for the first time does not jump immediately at her apparent sexual availability, and has intercourse with him.  This experience puzzles her, and seems to further root her in our world, as opposed to her own.  But the denizen of the Otherworld always loses their power when they enter fully into ours.  Johansson's "power" as as an alien - if you can call it that - is a total lack of empathy, engagement, or compassion for her victims; the perfect poise of a natural predator.  Entering our world and losing that as a consequence, she is transformed from a position of power to one of vulnerability, from a predator to a victim - in a sense, the same transformation which has occurred to her male victims when they realized that it was they, and not her, who was to be the notch on the bedpost.  Perhaps part of the sorrow that hovers over the alien's demise in Under the Skin derives from a sense of folk inevitability - from our folkloric awareness that the paradoxical being cannot survive for long between worlds, and that beauty, airplanes, or something always has to slay the beast with one foot in the human world.         




Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void (2009) and Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010).

Speaking of paradoxical, composite beings, it seems to me that Under the Skin emphasizes yet again that the best science fiction movies being made at the moment all fall way aside the pale of generically conventional, mainstream science fiction.  Much heralded revivals of mainstream science fiction such as Duncan Jones' Moon and Neil Blomkamp's District 9 never amounted to much to write home about in my books, neither achieving anything like the originality, depth and formal daring of Under the Skin and last year's Upstream Color.   These latter films, however, are not easily categorized as science fiction, and are best understood as fusing elements of science fiction and art cinema.  This marriage cuts both ways, and it might be argued that some of the best, or purest, art cinema in recent years is emerging from the mixture of art film aesthetics with those of generic forms, be they science fiction, Italian giallo horror films, or the gonzo experimental spirit of Midnight Movie figures like Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger.  With this in mind, one might argue the existence of a loose cinematic movement in recent years, beginning with Gaspar Noe's mighty Enter the Void, and incorporating Panos Cosmatos's Beyond the Black Rainbow, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer, Nicolas Refn's Drive and Only God Forgives, and Shane Curruth's Upstream Color.  What these films share in common is a tendency to give a creative shot in the arm to genres like science fiction and horror which have grown moribund in their mainstream incarnations, coupled with a revival of the art film's movement away from conventional narrative and psychological realism, and towards a cinema of greater formalism, abstraction, and sensory richness.  Also common to many of these films (and a sort of general characteristic of contemporary culture), is a strong cinephilia, coupled with an obsessive nostalgia or fetishisation of the past.  This tendency is particularly noteworthy in Beyond the Black Rainbow, Amer, and Drive, all of which are encyclopedic in their influences, and aim for a kind of creative re-imagining of the past - even the less overtly cinephilic Under the Skin clearly evokes experimental sci-fi's of the past like Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), and Bernard Tavernier's Glasgow-set Death Watch (1980).    

 

Beyond the Black Rainbow is set in 1983, in a experimental New Age faculty called the Arboria Institute (imagine the Esalen Institute reborn as a early Cronenberg nightmare clinic) which is devoted to the exploration of better living through “benign pharmacology, sensory therapy, and energy sculpting.”  Summarizing the plot is not hugely helpful - director Panos Cosmatos (whose father George directed such less explicitly avant-garde fare as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra back in the 80s) establishes the barest bones of a narrative in order to facilitate a jaw-dropping spectacle of pure, immersive cinema trance - a science fiction film re-imagined as psychedelic art installation.  Although it has a cult following, Beyond the Black Rainbow still feels criminally obscure - it's not even available, so far as I know, on any European region blu-ray or dvd release.  For a debut film shot in three weeks, the visual imagination, design sensibility, and mastery of mood and form on display here are staggering. 


Upstream Color

The multi-talented  Shane Carruth made his name with 2004's micro-budgeted hard sci-fi puzzle Primer.  In the long awaited follow-up Upstream Color, the director moved decisively away from hard sci-fi in terms of plotting, and became far more experimental in his film-making approach.  The plot of Upstream - exploring the life-cycle of a parasite which manifests itself at one stage of its journey as a mind-control drug - was easier to understand, but far less literal, and more poetic, symbolic, and emotionally resonant in effect.  Upstream is also far more explicitly an art film than its predecessor, adopting Terrence Malick's elliptical, non-linear editing patterns, and an experimental foregrounding of sound-design of a type also recently explored in Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio.  The resulting film falls somewhere between a downbeat romantic drama, a weird Gnostic fable, and a bold formal experiment - but it works magnificently, and reaches a genuinely moving conclusion.  


Amer

Moving from sci-fi to horror, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer is often labeled an homage to the giallo films of Dario Argento and Maria Bava.  This is reasonable enough, as the pair have obviously steeped themselves in the iconography, style, and period music of those films.  However, Amer is something very distinct from a giallo - like Beyond the Black Rainbow (but more so) it jettisons plot in favor of enveloping the viewer in an immersive, hypnotic, and extremely sensual experience.  As the film progresses, dialogue is largely abandoned, its dramatic function taken up by a constantly inventive and complex sound design.  The story of a woman's sexual awakening told from three different junctures in her life, what continues to fascinate and impress me about Amer is the way the directors use a kaleidoscopic array of formal techniques to heighten the most banal of situations, and infuse them with a barely suppressed hidden life of erotic and nightmare delirium - the film's opening half-hour being perhaps one of the screen's all time great evocations of a nightmare.    

 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Barbara O'Brien's Operators and Things: A Remarkable Account of Schizophrenia in the Age of the Organisation Man.



How very odd, I mused, that my unconscious mind should call itself an Operator and call my conscious mind a Thing.
  
Barbara O'Brien, Operators and Things.


First published in 1958, Barbara O’Brien’s Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic is a fascinating lost classic in which a woman gives a first-hand account of her sudden decent into schizophrenia and a complex hallucinatory world dominated by hidden psychic controllers called the Operators.  It was first published in hardback by a little known firm called Arlington Press, but gained wider exposure as a paperback issued in 1960 by science fiction/pulp specialists Ace Books.  (The company were noted for their two-for-the-price-of-one Ace Double imprint, the format in which Burroughs’ debut Junkie first appeared, as well as several of Philip K. Dick’s novels.)  Ace published the memoir under a “truth stranger than fiction” banner, in a style largely indisguishable from its regular wheelhouse of pulp sci-fi.  This, however, was not entirely inapt, as the ambience of O’Brien’s schizophrenic experience often evokes the monochrome surrealism of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and John Frankenheimer’s cult classic Seconds.  Operators was later republished in the 70s, marketed with a mind to tap the post-60s boom for alternative psychotherapies, particularly the anti-psychiatry movement popularised by RD Laing.  After that it went off the publication radar for a couple of decades, finally re-emerging in recent years with a small but enthusiastic cult following.  Though a slim volume, the book was fascinating to me for many reasons.  O’Brien’s invented world of Operators and Things evokes literary precursors like Kafka and Burroughs; her story offers a sidelong glance into the cold, alienating underbelly of office life during America’s golden age of postwar stability and conformity; most intriguingly, the latter sections of the book offer an extended meditation on themes which have been a lifelong personal fascination: the relationship between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain, and the closely related mysteries of inspiration, intuition, and creativity.



(I should note that it is possible that Operators is actually a work of fiction – that it is one of those trickster books which invent a non-fictional frame almost in the manner of an allegory.  It could be that some author invented “Barbara O’Brien’s” story, in order to dramatize a critique of 50s  corporate culture, and present his or her speculative theories regarding the nature of schizophrenia and the unconscious.  I’m not really going to address that possibility in the following essay, as I don’t have enough information to speculate one way or the other, and the qualities of the book remain undiminished regardless.)  At the beginning of her narrative, Barbara is a stable, capable, if perhaps a little timid, professional woman working in the offices of the family-run Knox Company.  In a manner reminiscent of many later alien abduction narratives, her life is abruptly thrown into disarray by the appearance of a trio of strange figures at the foot of her bed:
 I awoke one morning, during a time of great personal tension and self-conflict, to find three grey and somewhat wispy figures standing at my bedside.  I was, as might be imagined, completely taken up by them.  Within a few minutes they had banished my own sordid problem from my mind and replaced it with another and more intriguing one.  They were not Men from Mars, but the Operators, a group in some ways stranger than Martians could be.

As O’Brien points out, her interlopers are not extraterrestrials, but turn out to derive their chief characteristics from a more mundane and immediate milieu; according to Michael MacCoby in the Introduction,  Barbara’s hallucinations “are not, however, the gods and devils common to another age; they are the horrors of Organisation Man; they are reactions to forces blocking attempts at creativity in work and attempts to enjoy relationships of trust with others.”  Published a couple of years before Operators, William H. Whyte’s The Organisation Man would, alongside Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, become an iconic document of the American workplace in the buttoned-down, conformist 50s.  Both works spoke to a sense that America, having won the war, was now drifting into a torpor of materialistic, suburban mediocrity.  Whyte feared that the American workforce was trading the country’s traditional values of individualism and self-sufficiency for a new collectivist ethos centred around the corporation or company.  The frontiersmen, the cowboys, and the rugged GIs were drifting into memory, and gradually being replaced, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, by a horde of indistinguishably suited company men and office drones, preoccupied only by their salaries, pensions, and easy chairs by the television.  As a side-note, it is interesting that the increasing incursion of bureaucracy and office manners and dress-codes has had such a pointed impact on American folklore and mythology.  A decade earlier witnessed the emergence of the Men In Black, one of the most enduring and intriguing of modern American archetypes.  The Man in Black was an elusive type of the Organisation Man whose employers (and employer’s goals) must remain utterly mysterious; their appearances and questions are, they assure us, simply a matter of formality and routine.  The archetype retains its vigour to this day, serving the function of angel in one place, and devil in another.  In the writings of John Keel, the Men In Black emerge as peculiar, automaton-like beings, presenting us with an often amateurish imitation of the human.  Perhaps there is some weird parallel between the Men in Black’s stilted imitation of authentic humanity, and the fact that the organisation men and women of the office-space were forced to adopt an imitation of something less than human, insofar as they were forced to mould themselves to the regular, predictable, and emotionally repressive dictates of office life.




If Whyte feared the loss of the individualistic impulse in the corporate office milieu, however, he was only half right.  The impulse towards a Darwinian type of competition seems to persist in most collectivist institutions, where it simply moulds itself according to the behavioural norms characteristic of the institution in question.  Since direct, physical confrontation was untenable to the modern, civilised veneer presented by the office, a new species of competitive behaviour had to evolve, one which was subtle rather than overt, and which concentrated on the adroit manipulation and control of other people, so that they became the apparent agents of their own  downfall.  It is an exposure to this type of institutionalized office sociopathology which precipitates Barbara O’Brien’s mental breakdown, and provides her with the idea of the hook operator,  the central image of her subsequent schizophrenic fantasy:

But standards are manufactured things.  You don’t create them, you accept them.  And there are too many men like Gordon and McDermott for me to feel now that all of them are twisted.  In a way, they have adapted themselves superbly to a certain type of business environment.  Both Gordon and McDermott cut the most direct road they could find to where they wanted to go.  That they both knifed a few men getting there was totally unimportant to either of them.  ‘Such men are immoral,’ people say of Hook Operators, and of course this is true.
      

        Behind him stands the Hook Operator.  Having operated his hook successfully, the Hook Operator stands by with his other instruments, the knife and the hatchet.  He watches the trashing man, speculating, considering.  If necessary, he will move in and cut the victim’s throat, or with his hatchet cleave through the victim’s head.
It is this Machiavellian office environment which feeds directly into the extraordinary hallucinatory world which Barbara is thrust into after her encounter with the Operators.  She learns that the world is populated by two distinct types of human being: Operators and Things.  Operators differ from Things simply by virtue of brain-chemistry.  Operators are born with a special variety of cells which they call “the battlement.”  These cells give them a vastly heightened psychic ability, which allows them to read and manipulate the minds of ordinary humans, whom they christen “Things”:
 Hinton sighed.  ‘Things.  Yes, of course.  Think of the word with a capital initial, if you like.  It may help your ego a little bit.  All people like you are Things to us – Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions can be motivated.  Does that surprize you?  It goes on all the time.  There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine.  A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind.’
Here we find the quintessence of extreme paranoia: the idea that our minds are subject to invasion and manipulation by nefarious external agencies.  These types of beliefs are a mainstay of paranoid schizophrenia, and the cultural expression of the paranoid schizophrenic tendency which we find at in the fringes of the conspiracy community.  The belief that our minds can be controlled from afar often embodies a technological component, as was first noted by Freud’s pupil Victor Tausk in his influential 1919 monograph On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia.  Tausk’s case studies describe a machine of “mystical nature” which is capable of producing as well as removing thoughts and impressions in the patient’s brains by means of “waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.”  To invert Clarke, any sufficiently advanced diabolism is indistinguishable from technology.   The great Outsider Artist and schizophrenic visionary Richard Sharpe Shaver invented a dense mythology around the idea of nefarious mind-manipulating technology, in which the wielders of the influencing machine are found to be the “Abandoderos” (or Dero for short, dero meaning “detrimental robot”), an underground-dwelling race of degenerate fiends whom Shaver describes as “fearfully anaemic jitterbugs, small, with pipestream arms and legs, huge protruding eyes and wide, idiotically grinning mouths.”  Proving that paranoia loves company, the publication of Shaver’s ideas in the pulp Amazing Stories prompted a flurry of letters which seemed to corroborate the existence the Deros.  Let’s not run paranoia down too much; there is always some fire behind the wispy forms of mythological smoke.  Published a year before Operators and Things, Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders shockingly exposed the new psychological and sociological subtlety with which ad men were attempting to read and manipulate the minds of the masses via technological channels.  In the late 70s, Jerry Mander invoked the Influencing Machine in his polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:  “Doubtless you have noticed that this ‘influencing machine’ sounds an awful lot like television….In any event, there is no question that television does what the schizophrenic fantasy says it does.  It places in our minds images of reality which are outside our experience.  The pictures come in the form of rays from a box.  They cause changes in feeling and….utter confusion as to what is real and what is not.”  To many hard-line Marxist critics of capitalist ideology, the earlier quoted statement from the Operator Hinton is an apt enough description of reality:  A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind’



In the form of the Operators, Barbara O’Brien discovers the ultimate hidden persuaders, a species of mundane, corporate Archon who are perhaps like a white-collar division of Shaver’s monstrous Deros.  Part of the reason why O’Brien’s book didn’t cause the same furore of true believers and fellow-travellers as the Shaver Mystery is probably that the world of the Operators is largely a reflection of our own.  Like us Things, Operators work for companies (with sometimes Burroughsian names like The Western Boys); these organisations broker “charters” on Things, charters being the exclusive right to operate, or manipulate, Things.  Operators then artfully manipulate Things (and other Operators) in order to win “points.”  One particularly cruel method by which points are accrued is called The Game: a group of Operators take turns implanting distressing thoughts in the mind of an unwitting Thing, and the Operator to cause the most intense emotional distress wins the pot of points.  Points are to Operators what money is to Things:
 ‘What you’re overlooking is that a Thing can be influenced chiefly because of its desire for money and power.  An Operator’s security and self-esteem revolve around Operator’s points just as a Thing’s revolves around money.  With sufficient points, an Operator can do anything in an Operator’s world.  He can be a great power.  He can own an organisation and buy the charters of hundreds of Things.  He can be safe from other Operators.  How does that make him more despicable than a Thing?  The hell of it is, Operators and Things are motivated by similar desires.   We’re both in the soup, Operators and Things alike.’
In some respects, O’Brien’s Operators resemble the Nova Mob postulated in William S. Burroughs’ endlessly fascinating and infuriating Cut-Up Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.)  Described by its author as an attempt to create a “new mythology for the space age”, the trilogy posits a Gnostic scenario in which planet earth is subject to the incursion of various parasitic entities known collectively as the Nova Mob, who invade and manipulate human beings in order to maximize conflict and suffering, on which the Mob subsequently feed:
nova criminals are not three dimensional organisms – (though they are quite definite organisms as we shall see) – but they need three dimensional human agents in order to operate – The point at which the criminal controller intersects a three-dimensional human agent is known as “a coordinate point” – And if there is one thing that carries over from one controller it is habit; idiosyncrasies, vices, food preferences – (we were able to trace Hamburger Mary through her fondness for peanut butter) – a gesture, a special look, that is to say the style of the controller – A chain smoker will always operate through chain smokers, an addict through addicts – Now a single controller can operate through thousands of human agents, but he must have a line of coordinate points –  (The Ticket That Exploded.)
Like Burroughs’ Nova Mob, the denizens of Lynch’s Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, and the Reptilians of David Icke’s popular conspiranoid mythos, O’Brien’s Operators subliminally manipulate human beings in order to feed on their distress and alienation; like Burroughs’ hypostasis of absolute Control, they are controlled by their need to control.  Habit patterns form an interesting component of O’Brien’s scheme.  In the language of the Operators, Things’ habit patterns are referred to as “latticework.”  In a grisly operation known as “dummetising”, the latticework of a Thing can be removed and effectively reprogrammed by their Operator:
‘It’s a process by which most of a Thing’s latticework is removed and new latticework is allowed to grow in,’ Nicky told me.  ‘Latticework is the growth in your mind which stores your habit patterns.  It’s called latticework because it looks something like the wooden latticework they use to support rosebushes.  Once latticework is removed, a new latticework will grow in quickly, but it may be a very different kind of growth.  The kind of habits you’ll develop will depend on the Operators working on you while it’s growing in.’
What is perhaps more intriguing is a point stressed by several of the Operators: once a Thing has had its latticework removed, it is in a state of maximum pliability, and can be controlled with ease by any Operator.  This is because Things (us, in other words) are constituted almost exclusively by their habit patterns; their capacity to think spontaneously and independently of ingrained, automatic mental patterns is extremely limited or non-existent.  Hence, O’Brien’s hallucinatory controllers echo the central insight of Gurdjieff and his initiated predecessors: we are asleep, and move through this life on an autopilot or trance of calcified mental habits and routines.  Ever abrasive towards the ego of the Things, the following passage suggests just how limited is our capacity for creative thought:
‘That’s a dummy with a topknot,’ said Rink.  ‘And whenever an Operator runs into one of those, he knows that the Thing is not responsible for anything that it does.  It’s being controlled entirely by an Operator.  A Thing’s control is in its habit patterns.  When it has nothing but its thinking ability left, the most feeble Operator can control it, because Things can think only to a very limited degree.’
‘How limited?’
‘I’ll tell you this’, Rink said with finality.  ‘If it weren’t for Operators, Things would still be wandering in and out of caves.’ 
That is a rough outline of the complex world which O’Brien inhabits during the period of her schizophrenic fugue.  The Operators tell her that she is the subject of an experiment, whereby a Thing will be allowed to observe the normally secret activities of their Operators.  For the next six months, she travels fitfully across America on Greyhound buses, following the dictates of various bickering and omnipresent Operators.  Finally, after many misadventures, she abruptly ceases to see and hear her interlopers, and comes to the painful realization that they were all along only figments of her unwell imagination.  She makes a slow progress back to a kind of normalcy, being at first perfectly stable, but intellectually and emotionally inert.  It is in this interim period, however, that O’Brien experiences some of the books most curious phenomena.  The machinery of her conscious mind (which she refers to as the dry beach) is completely incapacitated by the trauma of her schizophrenia.  She is, however, aided at times by her still acute unconscious mind, which she describes as sending waves to the dry beach.  These waves help her out in small ways, alerting her to things she has forgotten about, helping her in mundane situations that her exhausted conscious mind is not capable of dealing with.  This, however, is where things start to get weird.  In the traumatic reorientation of her mental functioning, the powers of her unconscious mind seem to have been temporarily heightened to a staggering degree.  She first writes a novel at breakneck speed; but her conscious mind seems to have no input whatever into what she is writing:
  I would sit at the typewriter, put my hands on the keys, and start in.  I had almost no comprehension of what I was writing and no memory whatever of what I had written, once I had closed the typewriter.  My fingers seemed to know which keys to hit and that’s all there was to it.  Apparently they were being guided by the department below the sandy shore which contained the knowing waves and the perfectly synchronised clock and which seemed completely capable of forming the waves, operating the clock, and writing a novel without any assistance from the dry beach.
More alarmingly, her unconscious mind seems to be temporarily experiencing a series of wild talents which she refers to as Something.  These abilities appear to include telepathy and precognition; she experiences a “four day period of growing apprehension, knowing before people spoke what they would say, knowing, before they turned corners and appeared, that they were coming.”  Finally, Something compels her to go to Los Vegas:
Something kept me rooted at one wheel and Something urged me violently to play a certain number at a certain time.  I played a dollar chip and won.  I waited, rooted, got another strong urge, played, won again.  I played six times, won six times, and found myself with a purse full of money.
Then Something too departs from her mental functioning, and she returns gradually to a relatively normative mental health.  The whole experience spurs O’Brien to embark on a fascinating series of speculations regarding the nature of inspiration, creativity, and the unconscious, which reminds me frequently of the theories underpinning Julian Jaynes’ mind-bending 1976 masterpiece The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  In the conclusion of this essay, I’m going to consider Operators and Things in relation to Jaynes’ controversial theories.

Conclusion: The Subterranean Craftsman



Psychology does not know much about creativity.   Freud analyses Dostoevsky as a neurotic, but he admits ‘Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.’  In a similar way one can explain William Blake’s hallucinations and his denunciation of the Royal Academy’s Hook Operators, but the music of Blake’s words, the form of their content, and the fact of creativity, rather than stagnation, remain an awesome mystery.

Michael MacCoby, Operators and Things, Introduction.

The waves were far more clever than the dry beach.
                Barbara O’Brien, Operators and Things.

                It is surely a peculiar kind of book which can count among its admirers Daniel Dennett at one end of the spectrum, and Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, Alan Moore, Robert Anton Wilson, and Grant Morrison at the other extreme.  The Origin is surely the only such book.  To Dennett, its appeal probably lies largely in the fact that it offers a neurological explanation for the emergence of religion – but the book has also been name-checked by just about every significant countercultural writer of the modern period because it remains one of the boldest and most elegantly expressed speculations on the nature of human consciousness and history ever produced.  It is eminently a book for what used to be called “heads”  - adventurous thinkers whose fondness for mind-blowing drugs is merely a subset of a deeper fascination with the nature of consciousness, and an equal predilection for mind-blowing ideas.  Jaynes begins his odyssey by asking: how many of the things which we tend to associate with consciousness actually necessitate the use of conscious thought?  Following the testimonies of various artists, mathematicians, and scientists, Jaynes concludes that surprisingly few actually do.  The best way to begin to think about this would be with the example of trying to remember something.  You rack your conscious mind – it’s on the tip of your tongue – but the required information just won’t come.  Then, at some point, maybe a moment later, maybe a day, the answer just pops effortlessly into your mind.  Something – not your stumbling, bumbling conscious recall - has gone into the files and retrieved the data.  Jaynes argues that precisely the same process occurs with mental tasks of far greater complexity.  For the scientist or the mathematician, there is a process of conscious priming,  whereby a problem is kicked around in the conscious mind.  The conscious mind exerts itself considerably, before finally reaching an impasse – the problem appears intractable.  Then sometime later, in the shower, shaving, waiting for the bus, when the conscious mind is thinking about something completely different – wham, Eureka, the solution surges forth, fully-formed and unbidden.  Again, Something (to borrow O’Brien’s capitalization) – not the scientist’s stumbling, bumbling conscious problem-solving capacity – has somehow put all the pieces of the jigsaw together, without the scientist even being aware of it.  It’s like that peculiar phenomenon (or subjective impression) recorded by many who have dabbled casually in fishing: you only hook the fish as soon as you’ve stopped thinking about hooking a fish.

                Barbara O’Brien’s experience of rapidly writing a coherent novel with no apparent input from her conscious mind prompts her to consider the same mysterious properties of inspiration and creativity.  She also finds that the writer, when he or she is working at their optimum ability, always feels as though Something else has gotten into the driver’s seat:
Other writers who produced work of a higher calibre said almost exactly the same thing.  ‘The story wrote itself,’ was the phrase usually used to describe the birth of some story for which the writer had become best known.  Attempting to explain what was happening to them while they were in the flush of creation, writers drew revealing pictures.  ‘I felt like a receiving station for a programme coming in.’  ‘It flooded my mind like a faucet being turned on.’  (Operators and Things)
From these tentative early speculations, Jaynes arrives at a stunning hypothesis: that up until about three thousand years ago, human beings did not possess full self and meta-consciousness, but rather existed in a mental condition which Jaynes christened “bicameralism” (“two-chamberedness”).  This effectively meant experiencing the two working hemispheres of the brain as separate entities – that is that the brain worked in a largely unconscious manner according the same type of habit patterns which the other animals exhibit (and which the Operators refer to as “latticework”).  However, when bicameral man encountered a problem which the habitual latticework was incapable of coping with, the right hemisphere produced a solution which the left then perceived as an auditory command coming from an external source.  That is, the left hemisphere perceived it’s smarter, problem-solving, big picture grokking right hemisphere as something wholly other from itself – and as Something whose voice must be obeyed.  (Recall the Operator Rink’s assertion to Barbara O’Brien:  ‘I tell you this.  If it weren’t for Operators, Things would still be wandering in and out of caves.’)  Eventually, the bicameral mind brakes down, the hemispheres become – to a large degree – experientially and conceptually united, and modern self and meta-self-consciousness is born.  But from that initial experience of the smarter, gestalt-comprehending right hemisphere as a commanding and external presence, emerged all our conceptions – religious and societal - of the higher authority which must be obeyed: all our gods, all our chieftains and god-kings, all our ancestral spirits, all our mediumistic channels, all our Hidden Chiefs, Ascended Masters, and Benevolent Space Brothers.  Jaynes posits that all human cultural history – right up to the present day deification of the physical sciences – is haunted by a nostalgia for the bicameral mind, and for the immeasurable comfort of yielding to that apparently external voice of absolute authority and wisdom. 

It seems to me to that while Jaynes’ theory may not be completely (or even substantially) correct, he was still most definitely on to something.  It does often feel as though a radical alteration of some kind occurred to to our consciousness from which we have not quite recovered; that some fissure opened up which has made us, uniquely in the animal kingdom, of two distinct and often inharmonious minds, the uneasy denizens of two distinct worlds.  Ian Gilchrist, exploring and extending similar ideas to Jaynes in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, suggests that “many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bihemspheric structure of the brain.”  To those sceptical of over-literal, pop psychological treatments of the hemispheres, Gilchrist acknowledges that his division of specific modes of apprehending the world according to the left and right hemispheres may ultimately be a metaphor, albeit one which refers to real attributes of human consciousness.  (Gilchrist’s title – The Master and his Emissary  - can be easily mapped on to O’Brien’s Operator/Thing dichotomy.) 
 
However one feels about Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, Operators and Things makes for a fascinating illustration of many of its tenants.  Discussing the fantasies of schizophrenics, O’Brien notes that the common feature of schizophrenic interlopers – whether diabolical, extraterrestrial, or technological – is that of absolute, unquestionable authority:
 I should like to note, at this point, that schizophrenics, long before writers dreamed up science fiction, had – as they still have – a consistent way of developing mental worlds filled with Men from Mars, devils, death ray experts, and other fanciful characters.
Regardless of their individuality, they seem to have certain characteristics in common: they are figures of authority who can command with considerably expectation that the dry beach will obey; they are superhuman and beyond the powers of human authorities who might interfere, such as policemen and doctors.  Once they appear, the dry beach speedily gets the general drift: either you do what these characters say, or else, for no other human can help you.
The crucial lesson which O’Brien learns in the course of her experience is that the unconscious (or silent right hemisphere, or whichever metaphor you prefer), rather than being the broiling sea of atavistic and irrational impulse which Freud imagined, is in fact a creative and immeasurably smart entity.  O’Brien presents her runaway unconscious most frequently as a kind of effortless master artist:
In most cases of schizophrenia, however, the unconscious appears to prefer not the techniques of the actor, but those of the director.  It does not create a new personality, but instead stages a play.  The major difference is that the conscious mind is permitted to remain, an audience of one sitting lonely in the theatre, watching a drama on which it cannot walk out.
Without stopping for a deep breath, it gets its Martian, or whatever, going.  With speed and apparent purposefulness, it escorts the conscious mind to a box seat, makes it comfortable, and projects the shape or shapes it has created, and the voice or voices it has chosen.
Many of the lessons O’Brien derives from her traumatic experience are not flattering to the ego.  The dry beach of daylight self-consciousness is a tiny spit of sand in a vast ocean of which it has only the most limited and fleeting knowledge; the ego, the would-be controller of its world, is a mere plaything in the hands of a variety of Operators who can see right through it at a glance.  All of  these things O’Brien learns obliquely through a kind of six-month Twilight Zone mental radio play.  However, the picture is not entirely bleak.  Connected somehow with the dangers of extreme loss of control, trauma, and madness, are the hidden wellsprings of creativity, of almost supernatural-seeming intuition, of all the higher potentialities of the mind; potentialities whose outer limit, O’Brien intriguingly suggests, we can scarcely conceptualize:  “Possibly, conscious man knows so little about the odd talents, that there is no language or concept by which the unconsciousness can explain its unusual processes.”  Of course, in the commonality of the delusion, the dream, and the painted canvas or flickering cinema screen, art itself remains the primary candidate for this difficult and ongoing exchange.

The vintage Operators and Things cover is from THE CHISELER - A THING TO REMEMBER

            The Scanner Darkly cover is from Art Is A State.
           
            The picture of the suburbs is from Electric Sunshine.