The Woodchuck

I’m off next week to Glasgow for this year’s Screen Studies 2012 conference, so I thought I would post a sneak preview of the paper I will be presenting there: Hinterland Who’s Who: Nature, Nostalgia and the Bureaucratic Uncanny. The conference theme this year is “Other Cinemas”, which fit perfectly with some of the work I am doing right now on public information films and public service announcements.

This time round I’ve turned my attention to the Canada of my childhood and consider the wonder and weirdness of the Hinterland Who’s Who series of PSAs from the 1970s and 80s. As you’ll see, my overall claim is that PSAs/PIFs have a special role to play in the effort to think about the connections between television and memory. The primary question I explore in the paper is why these films have stuck so tenaciously in memory, haunting many of those who saw them even long after they fell out of the regular broadcast cycle.

Part of this has to do with representations of violent death. The cautionary PSA/PIF is a close cousin of the horror film in that the world is represented as a profoundly dangerous place and death is always just around the corner for the innocent who is insufficiently vigilant. But there is something about the tone of these films as well, even the non-gory ones, that unsettles and haunts.

So here is a little taste of the paper itself, with the HWW short for the woodchuck embedded within:

For those who grew up watching Canadian television in the 1970s and 80s, the haunting flute melody that begins the majority of the Hinterland Who’s Who public service announcements should be instantly recognizable. Commissioned by the Canadian Wildlife Service and produced in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, the Hinterland Who’s Who series of vignettes profiled a wide array of animals native to Canada, showing each of them in their natural habitat and providing some basic facts about the species and its behavior through voice-over narration. This straightforward description of the formal features and pedagogical aims of the series, however, does not capture the weirdness and allure of the vignettes themselves. The force and impact of these films, especially in retrospect, derives primarily, I would argue, from their tone and texture. The somnambulistic cadence of the narration, the eerie stillness of the wilderness soundscapes, and the sparse randomness of the information provided about the animals somehow render these films both charming and creepy at the very same time.

My aim here is to account in some small way for the affective force of the Hinterland Who’s Who films. Part of this is generational, even biographical, having to do entirely with the formative experience of seeing these shorts innumerable times at an impressionable age. Yet I will argue that the import and significance of the series extends beyond the personal and sentimental. The original Hinterland Who’s Who series documented the distinctive natural landscape of Canada and focused on animals most readily associated with the nation, yet the sixty-second clips also stood out distinctly in the televisual landscape of the 1970s and 80s, differing dramatically in style and atmosphere from the regular programming that surrounded them. This stylistic and tonal oddness, a calm contemplativeness that is also strangely eerie and elegiac, is the main reason, I think, why these vignettes are so powerful. It distinguished them when they first aired and it is also why they have stuck so resolutely in memory for those who experienced Canadian television in the era when they were in heavy rotation. Memory is key here. These shorts disappeared from television at some point in the mid to late 80s and have become readily available again only quite recently, via individual enthusiasts on YouTube and officially on the website of the Canadian Wildlife Federation. In the intervening years, these shorts, whilst unavailable, assumed a kind of talismanic status, a lost bit of television beyond the scope of commercial reissue or official and subsidized digital-archival collection.

While thinking more about this trajectory from televisual disappearance to digital return, I also want to claim that these films represent loss in a far more general way as well, not in terms of the extinction of any of the species represented, but of the disappearance of a whole structure of feeling and way of life. The continuing force of these vignettes fits with the contemporary nostalgia for the welfare state, the melancholic fascination in today’s culture with things produced in recent memory, but which seem to come from a different world. They stand as examples of the hauntological, a term coined by Jacques Derrida that in memory studies has come to denote the affective force and cultural resonance of those products of the past that unsettle the present by virtue of the latent and unactualized political aspirations they bear within them. These shorts are haunting not simply because they reproduced the call of the loon or because the narration is distinguished by an undercurrent of deep sorrow, but because even after they disappeared from television, they remained in cultural memory, almost as a kind of half-remembered childhood experience that one is no longer sure ever really happened.


That’s a brief taste of a longer paper which in turn comes from a much bigger project about memory, television and the welfare state that I hope will see the published light of day at some point in the future.

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Film, Memory, Modernity, PIFs and PSAs, Television | 5 Comments

Random Film Still #8

Video Still. Probable VHS Source. Kluane National Park Reserve – Yukon Territory. Parks Canada. circa 1983.

Posted in 1980s, Memory, PIFs and PSAs, Random Film Stills | Leave a comment

Hot Docs 1: The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army)

The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Naeem Mohaiemen’s documentary recounts the story of the hijacking of Japan Air Lines 472 on September 28, 1977. The flight departed from Tokyo and was destined for Bombay, but was forced by its hijackers to land in Dhaka, Bangladesh. What followed was an epic effort to contain and curtail the crisis, with negotiations lasting six days and led from the control tower by Captain Mahmood, a representative of Bangladesh’s military government.

The film draws on archival film and video footage to tell this story, but runs up against the limits of the visual archive. Bangladeshi state TV covered the events live and around the clock, but a visual record of this coverage by and large does not remain. What did survive, however, was a series of cassette tapes that captured the conversations between the control tower and cockpit, between negotiator and hijacker. The bulk of the film consists of a skillful selection of these imperfect analogue audio recordings accompanied by their onscreen transcription. This may sound like the stuff of radio documentary rather than that of cinema, but this is definitely not the case. The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) is in its own way as gripping as any conventional thriller but is also a compelling film essay that works through the relationship between memory and the archive, and the disconnection between the recent revolutionary past and a present that only hazily remembers it.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Perhaps the most striking thing documented in the film is the relationship that develops between the man in the tower, Mahmood, and the United Red Army hijacker, who goes by the name Danke. Their exchanges, for the most part, are exceedingly polite. Mahmood repeatedly assures Danke over the six days that, working together, his “problem can be solved.” This phrasing itself provides insight into Mahmood – he exudes a steady pragmatism but, off mic and in conversation with others in the control room, also fancies himself an amateur psychologist, constantly gauging his influence over Danke and reading into the lead hijacker’s reactions the effects of his own calm and patient negotiations. This makes it all the more traumatic for Mahmood when Danke, frustrated with the delays in having his demands met by the Japanese government, lashes out and unexpectedly taxis the plane back onto the runway.

Another curious aspect of the dialogue between the two men is the role language plays. The men speak to one another in English and are very careful to ensure that they understand one another through the medium of this second language. Danke is less assured of his fluency than Mahmood, who articulateness is amplified by the care with which he expresses his ideas and the deliberately slow rhythm of his speech. Danke apologizes on occasion throughout the negotiations for his inability to properly express his ideas and demands. Mahmood is unfailingly patient in these moments, and there is an odd tenderness that arises in this exchange between two men caught in a larger geopolitical web: a Japanese hijacker talking to a Bangledeshi military commander in English about a handful of Americans on the flight, but also about the corruption of the Japanese government and the desired escape to Algiers.

Mahmood is anxious to protect the reputation of his country and tells Danke that any reckless action on his part will hurt workers in Bangladesh rather than his intended target, the Japanese government. The film notes ironically that Mahmood was part of a military government that came to power in 1975 and had little regard for the workers he invokes and that landing in Dhaka in the first place was an error on the part of the United Red Army hijackers who erroneously thought the country was still under socialist control. It may seem somewhat odd to suggest that the event had its moments of comedy, but Mohaiemen’s film is deft in the way that it brings these out, from Mahmood’s struggle to comprehend why Danke asks for “alcool” (he wanted ethyl alcohol to care for wounds and injuries) to the entire context of a scenario in which ultra-left hijackers land in what they think is a friendly country and a canny military man treats them with a respect equal to, if not exceeding, that which they would have received had their bungled version of Bangladeshi history actually been true.

Still from The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army). 2011. Dir. Naeem Mohaiemen.

Mohaiemen frames this archival retelling of the hijacking crisis with his own memories of the event. He was a child when these events occurred and remembers them so vividly at least in part because he resented that their coverage on the state broadcaster meant that his favorite programme, The Zoo Gang, was bumped from the schedule.

The Zoo Gang was a 6-part British drama produced by ITV in 1974 that tells the story of how 4 resistance fighters from World War II reunite in the early 1970s to track down another member of their gang who had betrayed them to the Gestapo. The series was shot primarily in the south of France and featured the aging members of the Zoo Gang (all of whom have animal code names and came from America, Canada, England, and France respectively) triapsing around the Cote d’Azur funding their hunt by scamming con artists and stealing from criminals.

The series sounds very much like the kind of light adventure in an exotic locale that was oddly successful in the 1970s, especially in the colonies. The series aired in Canada on the CBC in 1974 and the presence of Barry Morse (a British actor who emigrated to Canada in the 50s and appeared regularly on Canadian TV) suggested that it may have been an international co-production. In a bold move, Mohaiemen begins and ends his film with clips from The Zoo Gang, juxtaposing its bracing opening credit sequence against the tense negotiations the follow in its wake. By doing so the film raises all kinds of questions: How does the clear heroism of WWII contrast with the fallen, and far more confusing, political times of the 1970s? How do we distinguish political terrorism from political resistance? What counts as war and what counts as terror?

I’ve phrased these questions incredibly poorly, but I hope that it’s clear that Mohaiemen’s inclusion of The Zoo Gang material isn’t incidental or frivolous. It powerfully conveys something about the structure of feeling of the mid-1970s: how the nostalgia for the political clarity of WWII amounts to an incapacity or unwillingness to face up to the new political situation of the decade, from the initial sputters of a faltering world economy, to the ongoing tensions of the process of decolonization, to the rise of ultra-left movements in the midst of this political uncertainty, to the reaction of the right to all these things.

The excerpt above provides a sense not simply of the film’s formal innovations but also of its tension and surprising tenderness. At its best, The Young Man Was (Part 1: United Red Army) feels like a lost chapter of Chris Marker’s epic history of the revolutionary upheavals of the 1960s and 70s, Le fond de l’air est rouge/Grin Without a Cat (1977). And, as its title suggests, Mohaiemen’s film is part of a larger project that seeks, like Marker’s film, to document and investigate the ultra-left movements of the 1970s, but also to trace their impact and aftereffects, both personal and political. For me, it was the best of the fest, and one of those quintessential film festival experiences where you go to a film because of the allure of the synopsis or of the still that accompanies it, and end up seeing something truly extraordinary that sticks tenaciously with you.


Naeem Mohaiemen’s website. link.

Rasha Salti. “Archive Fever: A Conversation Between Naeem Mohaiemen, Maha Maamoun and Rania Stephan.” Manifesta Journal: Around Curatorial Practices 14 (2011). link.

Ursula Biemann. “Interview with Naeem Mohaiemen.” Art Territories 009.1 (2012). link.

Posted in 1970s, Film, Memory | Leave a comment

Hot Docs Preview

This year’s edition of Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary festival, is already well underway. I’ll join in starting tomorrow: I arrive in Toronto mid-afternoon and will be seeing Shut Up and Play the Hits, the film documenting the final set of LCD Soundsystem shows that took place last year in NYC, later in the evening. After that raucous beginning, I’ve scheduled 11 films in 5 days, which should give me some sense of the documentaries on offer out there in 2012.

The festival has grown substantially since I left Toronto in 2004 and falls just after the equally brilliant Images Festival, the experimental film fest, in the city’s calendar of events. One of the highlights this year will be seeing the renovated Bloor Cinema, which has been transformed into a year-round documentary-focused screening space. While the press coverage about its opening voiced some worries about its feasibility, Toronto is a film town and one whose taste for documentaries has been carefully cultivated over the years by Hot Docs itself, so I would wager that the cinema will succeed.

I’ll do my best to report on films in between screenings, but for now here’s a brief preview of the five films I am most eager to see:

Marley (2012, Kevin Macdonald)

1. Marley (2012, Kevin Macdonald): There’s high hopes out there for this one. Made with the permission and involvement of the Marley family, but steering clear of pure hagiography, Macdonald’s film promises to situate Marley within the long, complex history of the Black Atlantic. If Marley has in recent years been reduced to icon without history, this documentary ideally would play some part in returning us to the man himself and showing the key role he played in the global 70s. Macdonald seems a good choice of director here. One Day in September proved him a deft hand at dealing with recent history and important historical events and Touching the Void showed his talent is drawing the best out of his interviewees.


2. Detropia (2012, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady): I’ve written here and here about the contemporary cultural fascination with Detriot and Detropia joins Requiem for Detroit (Julien Temple) and Detroit: Wild City(Florent Tillon) to form a trio of films that examine the city’s descent into ruin but argue that there is continued life in the city. While Temple’s film delved deeply into the archives (both visual and musical) to juxtapose the past with the present and Tillon’s pursued the ecological in its representation of Detroit as a kind of recrudescent post-apocalyptic garden, Ewing and Grady’s doc look as if it will focus on the people of Detroit, those who have remained, have returned, or have found their way there.


3. McCullin (2012, Jacqui Morris): This documentary about the legendary photographer who worked at the Sunday Timesfrom 1966 to 1983 is already generating talk of a Hot Docs audience award.


4. Downeast (2012, David Redmon, Ashley Sabin): This looks like a terrific state-of-the-nation documentary that tells an economic and environmental story by focusing on the east coast fishing industry. It’s American and the fish process plant is in Maine, but I am expecting it to resonate powerfully with the Canadian experience and ongoing struggle in Nova Scotia (and the Atlantic provinces more generally) to sustain a fishing industry in the face of government mismanagement and corporate rapacity. Cynthia Fuchs has a review of the film, which played at the Boston Independent Film Festival, at PopMatters.


5. The Young Man Was (Part 1: The United Red Army) (2011, Naeem Mohaiemen): This looks as if will bridge the art gallery and the cinema and is being co-presented by Hot Docs and the Images Festival. Angie Driscoll provides a compelling description of the film at the Hot Docs website:

The first installment in a film trilogy that traces a history of 1970s ultra-left terrorist groups, Part 1 looks at the 1977 hijacking of flight JAL 472 by the Japanese Red Army and their landing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen remembers missing his favourite TV spy show for pre-emptive live coverage of the hostage-taking. Relying almost entirely on radio transmissions between the airport tower and the hijackers, the film displays the interactions as on-screen text. The tension and drama that builds from the clipped verbal exchanges speaks volumes, escalating from polite courtesy to mortal threat. Part 1 is an experimental suspense story that relies on the sound of disembodied voices to convey the negotiations and tenuous alliance between the Japanese Red Army’s rogue rebels and the Bangladeshi military government.

Memory-film, essay-film, this sounds as if it could fall somewhere in between Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge/A Grin Without a Cat (1978) and Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). Very, very excited about this.

The Young Man Was

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Postscript on Dazzle Ships

Foolishly, my recent post on Dazzle Ships overlooked two things about the album that make it all the more intriguing and alluring.

OMD. Dazzle Ships. CD Cover. Designed by Peter Saville.

The first is the title itself. It refers to a type of marine camouflage used extensively in World War I that consisted of intersecting geometric shapes of contrasting colours that formed a zigzag pattern. The aim of dazzle camouflage was not to render the ships invisible, but to make it difficult to gauge their size, shape, and speed. I’m not sure that there is a metaphor for the album lurking in there, but it does contain several nautical and naval references, most notably on “Dazzle Ships, Parts II, III, and VII”, which begins with sonar blips and proceeds with echos and resonances that conjure up the silence of a submarine or life below deck in the immense hull of a frigate. There’s also “Silent Running,” which refers to the stealth mode submarines adopt when evading sonar detection, but also brings outer space into the equation in its allusion to Douglas Trumbull’s tremendous 1971 ecological science fiction film of the same name. The early 80s was very much a time of naval intrigue and cold war antagonisms, amplified in large part due to the threat and menace of both the Soviet and American fleets of nuclear submarines that roamed the oceans undetected. Some of this certainly finds expression on Dazzle Ships, which, for me at least, conjoins the eerie silence of silent running to the geopolitical tensions that fueled and formed the era.

Peter Saville designed the cover for Dazzle Ships and it fits with his overall fascination with the bold geometries of modernism and the cleanness of modern type. Both the title of the album and Saville’s cover design refer specifically to a painting by Edward Wadsworth, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool (1919). You can see the painting at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and it is quite remarkable for the way that it both documents a wartime practice and is a kind of modernist experiment in perception. There’s a riot of lines in Wadsworth’s painting, with the irregular asymmetries of the dazzle patterns set in juxtaposition to the straight lines of the drydocks themselves as well as the gasworks and industrial buildings that populate the background.

Edward Wadsworth. Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool. 1919. National Gallery of Canada

A common complaint about Dazzle Ships at the time of its release was that there wasn’t much new on it. There’s only six conventional songs on the album and two of them (“The Romance of the Telescope” and “Of All The Things We’ve Made”) were remixed or rerecorded versions of songs that had already appeared as b-sides. The remainder of the tracks were bits and pieces of found sounds, radio recordings, and musique concrete. One of these, “Time Zones”, may be my favorite track on the album. It’s perhaps an odd claim, given that it consists entirely of time signal announcements in several languages drawn from shortwave or public radio from around the world. Part of the attraction resides in how OMD arrange this musically, with the “pips” or “strokes” or “tones” that identify the exact time, coming into phase with one another over the course of the track itself. The contrast of languages and voices is rhythmic rather than cacophonous, and there is something of wonder in how this mechanical and formal broadcasting requirement also manages to conjure up a sense of a larger world ripe for discovery.

I’m fascinated by the elements of broadcasting, whether on television or radio, that falls beyond official programming: the station identifications, the public information films, the public service announcements, the end of the broadcast day. These infrastructural elements are frequently overlooked in the study of television and radio, but seem to me to key, not simply because they signal something of the mechanics of broadcasting (and of the sense that it is a public service), but also because they stick resolutely in memory in a fashion that is different to the way we remember actual programmes. I’m pretty sure I hear a Canadian voice mixed among all the others in “Time Zones”, a memory triggered by the grain of the voice and the feel of the radio space as much as by the accent or enunciation.

Dazzle Ships sits alongside other great albums such as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity and Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, which likewise mix full songs and ephemeral scraps. I don’t have a name for the category yet, but I’m taking suggestions.

Posted in 1980s, Art, Music | 2 Comments

Memo from Turner

Such was the complexity of the early models of the Moog Synthesizer that the company often dispatched an engineer to work with the pop stars who wanted to experiment with the device. In Analog Days: The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer, Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco tell the story of Jon Weiss, the Man from Moog, who traveled to London in the summer of 1968 with a series of black carrying cases that contained the component parts of the Moog Series III modular synthesizer. His students in London were to be the Rolling Stones, whose manager, Allan Klein, had managed to convince Robert Moog that, for promotional purposes, the Stones would receive a Moog synthesizer and a week’s free tuition. As Pinch and Trocco explain, the free week of lessons turned into weeks and then months, as Weiss was absorbed into the Stones’ inner circle and spent the majority of his time tutoring Mick, who was apparently a very quick study, on the Moog.

The Stones’ electronic experiments come to the fore not on any of their studio albums, but on the tracks they recorded for Performance, the Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg film that was in production at exactly that moment. Mick was so taken with the device that it became a prop in the film itself, its aura of technological futurity fitting well with the film’s experimentalism and surrealism.

Mick and his Moog in Performance

Although filmed in the summer of 1968, Performance was not released until August 1970. By most accounts, the delay was the result of Warner Brothers’ shock over the film’s explicit sexual content, but it surely had something to do with its formal adventureness and general weirdness as well. The nearly two year delay from production to release surely meant that the cultural moment the film was meant to document had, to some degree, passed, but the film still had the capacity to shock and Warner Brothers were clearly skittish about its release in North America.

A press release from Warner Brothers (titled “Mick’s Mood is Moog in his ‘Performance'”) highlights Jagger’s use of the Moog synthesizer and struggle to explain the operation of the instrument. It references Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, released the previous year to substantial interest and acclaim, but is quick to point to Mick’s newer, hipper, younger use of the machine:

There’s an air of press release desperation here in the reference to the telephone switchboard and in the reduction of the music-making process to “depressing the keys and plugging the holes.” Still, it is a reminder that in its earliest days the synthesizer must have seemed like a kind of alien machine to most and that the process of naturalizing and domesticating all those jacks, wires, and plugs took time as the use of the instrument trickled out over a number of musical genres over the course of the 1970s.

In his BFI Film Classics volume on Performance, Colin MacCabe notes that whilst the film was in studio limbo, Cammell solicited letters of support from a number of other filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, David Maysles, and Stanley Kubrick, to send to Warner Brothers. He also wrote one himself and had Mick Jagger co-sign it. In it, he insisted that the film “does not upset audiences then it is nothing” (qtd in MacCabe 61). When Warners finally released the film they featured a commentary on it by Marshall McLuhan in the print advertisements.

Titled “Understanding ‘Performance'” the piece is filled with all kind of classic McLuhanisms. He claims the film is “a mildly emetic global pastoral, an artful repeat of the everyday world of 1970” and “a ‘garbage apocalypse’ – notice of cancellation of the world.” It’s not a half bad analysis of the film as it goes, and I’m sorely tempted to write a longer piece on it at some point in the future. For now, I’ll copy an excerpt from it below in which McLuhan links the way in which the criminal class and the pop world convergence in the film to the mergers and corporate partnerships characteristic of what was only around that time beginning to be identified as late capitalism.

Performance Notes

For more on Performance, I highly recommend MacCabe’s book, but see also Chris Chang’s “Cinema Sex Magick: The Films of Donald Cammell,” which appeared in the July 1996 issue of Film Comment and is archived at their site. There’s also an hour-long documentary on Cammell directed by Kevin Macdonald that, shamefully, has never been released on DVD. It is, however, available in seven parts on YouTube and is well worth watching. See the first bit here and following the links to watch the rest.

A note on the type

I think the typeface used for the title of McLuhan’s piece in the ad for Performance is Geometric 231 Light, designed by Rudolf Koch in 1927 at the Bauhaus. It’s close to, but not the same as, the one used for the cast and crew on the film’s original UK poster, which looks like Futura PT Light, also designed in 1927 but by Paul Renner, to me.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Film, Music | Leave a comment

Random Film Still #7

From James Hill's Lunch Hour (1962)

These film stills are never quite as random as I might like. They always seem to be linked to something I’m working on or simply drawn from things that I’ve watched of late.

James Hill’s Lunch Hour (1962) is a compelling short feature, barely an hour in length, that explores the tensions that arise when a fabrication is taken for reality. Shirley Anne Field plays a young designer for a wallpaper firm who embarks on an affair with a junior executive, played by Robert Stephens. He concocts a story so as to secure a hotel room for them, but troubles arise when she internalizes the fraudulent tale (he tells the manageress that she is his wife, that he works in London while she lives in Scarborough with their two children, and that they need a hotel room for an hour only to discuss a very important manner) and lashes out at him from the perspective of her role in the story. The second half of the film, where the affair unravels precisely because of the tale constructed to facilitate it, is eerily uncanny as fiction and reality are increasingly difficult to prise apart, both for the audience and for the characters in the film itself. In this way, Lunch Hour anticipates Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) in which a couple likewise go from pretending to be married to behaving as if this were actually the case.

The still above is drawn from the long final shot of the film. The young designer’s smile, as Sue Harper suggests in her essay on the film that is part of the BFI Flipside DVD release, suggests her sense of freedom and liberation, both from the “real” affair that would have ultimately been unsatisfying and from the “fictional” marriage in which she was trapped.

Wolfgang Suschitzky, the legendary British new wave cinematographer, was behind the camera for Lunch Hour and, as a result, the film is filled with all kinds of striking shots, from the lovers’ initial meetings in the Victoria Embankment Gardens to those inside the printing works. The shot above exemplifies the way in which Suschitzky situates the characters in space, often in deep focus, opening up a piece originally written for the stage but more importantly generating a sense of modern life, the contemporary workplace, and London of the early 1960s.

Posted in 1960s, Design, Film, Random Film Stills | Leave a comment

Dazzle Ships

There’s a distinct otherworldliness to Dazzle Ships, the 1983 album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Part of it is down to the passage of time itself. The cold war context of the LP’s production, signaled by its opening track, a recording of the station identification and time signal of Radio Prague with a bit of shortwave noise thrown in for good measure, now seems, from the vantage point of 2012, like a different world altogether.

But historical distance alone does not account for the full sense of otherworldliness that characterizes and defines the album. Dazzle Ships is fundamentally about the imagination of different worlds, of new and transforming technologies, and other ways of life. The socialist world was the other space that was most readily available and one that, however degraded and corrupt it had become in reality, nevertheless served as the vehicle for western fantasies about a better future. Charity Scribner has written about this dynamic in her brilliant  Requiem for Communism (MIT Press, 2003). She argues,

In Britain and France oppositional writers, artists, and filmmakers fantasized about an “other” Europe, where men and women labored together to build a better future. This never-never land of the proletariat was charted on the cognitive map of left intellectuals but existed nowhere in reality. (63)

“Radio Prague” transmitted from this never-never land and facilitated the projection of hopes, desires, and fantasies. And even though the call sign of the station is delivered in a foreign voice, Dazzle Ships features two other tracks, “ABC Auto-Industry” and “This is Helena” that are drawn from the English-language side of Radio Prague. The first is structured around a recording of a Radio Prague programme about automation and industrial process. The presenter, apparently named Vladimir, conjures up a sense of  the marvels of socialist productivity and technological achievement. The latter features a female voice, also recorded off of Radio Prague, providing instruction on home taping technology and introducing “music for your tape recorder.” These tracks and voices in combination represent the fantasy that Scribner details of the fantasy space “where men and women labored together for a better future.”

The fanfare and pomp of the Radio Prague identification, consisting of the opening section of the Communist anthem Kupředu levá (Forward Left), seems slightly ridiculous today, emblematic of communist kitsch. Yet in the context of 1983, it would have had a whole other set of associations: of the bleak greyness of the late Brezhnev era, yes, but also the latent promises that the grim blocks and the bland uniformities of the Eastern Bloc had failed to extinguish entirely or fully expose as futile or fraudulent.

The key to the track, I think, is the shortwave interference and echo that slightly disrupts and partially obscures both the musical fanfare and the voice that announces the station as Radio Prague. This interference marks the distance between receiver and transmitter, helping transform both voice and anthem into the stuff of alluring otherworldliness and making the very act of listening itself seem transgressive.  Beginning an album with “Radio Prague” conceives of a kind of a political pop animated by a specifically utopian desire: to imagine another, better world.

But any such imagined world can only be projected out of the bits and pieces of one’s own that seem to bear within them some aspect or vision of the future, however partial or dimly perceived. The use of samples on Dazzle Ships exemplifies this process of projection from the partial, the snippets of foreign broadcasts representing the romance of the future, the allure of the elsewhere. As Fredric Jameson writes in The Seeds of Time, there’s an intrinsic connection between utopia and the limits of thought. He argues that the importance of utopian projections resides not in their actual content, but in what lies beyond the scope of their imaginings:

what we are unable to wish or to bring to the narrative figuration of the daydream or Utopian fantasy is far more significant and symptomatic than the impoverished actually-existing…wishes themselves…Historically, then, this is the sense in which the vocation of Utopia lies in failure; in which its epistemological value lies in the walls it allows us to feel around our minds, the invisible limits it gives us to detect by sheerest induction, the miring of our imaginations in the mode of production itself, the mud of the present age in which the winged Utopian shoes stick, imagining that to be the force of gravity itself. (75)

Incredible quote, that, and tempting to see Thatcherism as the very mud in which the shoes of Dazzle Ships are stuck. But even more than that, Jameson’s assessment explains why Dazzle Ships is such an exhilarating, joyous album: ambition itself generates a kind of pleasure, the exploration of the limits of the perceived possible and the sense that there is a space even beyond it.

When it was released on March 4, 1983 (twenty-nine years ago today!), the album received a frosty reception. Its lyrical and thematic ambition alienated critics, fans, and radio. This seems somewhat surprising given that OMD’s first three albums, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980), Organisation (1980), and Architecture and Morality (1981), all contain moments of experimentation and even their purest pop moments tackle serious historical subjects, from Joan of Arc to the Enola Gay. But despite the pop catchiness of both “Telegraph” and “Genetic Engineering,” Dazzle Ships was a step too far in the way that it blended musique concrete, sonar blips, snippets of shortwave radio, typewriters, a Speak and Spell machine, and a toy piano to generate a experimental soundscape that evoked a world caught between communism and the commodity.

As Bob Stanley explains in a Guardian article published around the time of the album’s rerelease in 2008, Dazzle Ships, in its scope and ambition, is very much of its historical moment, perched between punk and the banal mid-eighties soft pop that would follow:

As, of course, did the whole country. Dazzle Ships, falling between the Falklands war and the Tories’ emphatic re-election, sounded the bell for the new pop playground that the charts had become. An almost forgotten era, now lumped in with the ephemera that succeeded it- the likes of Johnny Hates Jazz – new pop was an attempt in 1981 and 82 to marry chart music to the avant garde. Incredibly, it succeeded. There was no manifesto, but the new generation – OMD, ABC, Soft Cell, the Teardrop Explodes, Dexys Midnight Runners – had lived through punk, understood its situationist leanings, and understood the real value of music. While OMD name-dropped Dancing Queen, Ian Curtis and Mies van der Rohe, ABC claimed they existed to write “a soundtrack for the 80s”.

As Andy McCluskey (who along with Paul Humphreys formed the core of OMD) tells Stanley, he thought that Dazzle Ships would fuse pop sensibility to avant-garde provocations: “It all made sense to us. We wanted to be Abba and Stockhausen.” The album entered the charts at number 5 only to drop off the very next week. After the commercial immensity of Architecture and Morality, Dazzle Ships was a monumental failure.

But the very elements that contributed to the sinking of Dazzle Ships in 1983 are what make it so engaging and exhilarating today. The album heralded the arrival of sampling culture, constituted a kind of English equivalent to Kraftwerk’s hymns to technology, and pushed English pop toward experimentation and away from the rigid conventions of the pop single. These facets perhaps weren’t appealing or apparent to most listeners in its day, which makes us, today, the proper recipients of an album that, as much as its own attachment to Radio Prague, seems like an alien transmission from a space beyond.

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