Dictator by Robert Harris (2015)

‘My skill is statecraft and that requires me to be alive and in Rome.’
(Cicero talking to Tiro, Dictator, page 36)

This is the third and concluding novel in the Robert Harris’s epic ‘Cicero trilogy’. Harris is a highly successful writer of intelligent thrillers and in the Cicero trilogy he has applied the style and mentality of a modern thriller to the life of the Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC) with great success.

Book one, Imperium, covered Cicero’s life and career over the years 79 to 64 BC, the second novel, Lustrum, covered the five years from 63 to 58, and this concluding volume covers the last 15 years of his life, from 58 to his murder at the hands of agents of Mark Antony in 44 BC.

I’ve covered the outline of Cicero’s life in my reviews of his letters and Plutarch’s Life:

Tiro’s memoirs

As with its two predecessors, Dictator (a weighty 504 pages long) purports to be part of the multi-volume first-person memoir of Cicero written by his loyal slave and personal secretary Tiro almost 40 years after Cicero’s death:

I still possess my shorthand notes…it is from these that I have been able to reconstruct the many conversations, speeches and letters that make up this memoir of Cicero (p.37)

A summary cannot convey the skill with which Harris plunges you right into the heart of the toxic politics of republican Rome, or into the mind of Tiro, the shrewd, literate observer of the dilemmas and experiences of Cicero, a figure who combined wit and dazzling oratory with a profound interest in contemporary philosophy and, above all, deep embroilment in the complex power politics of his day. It is an utterly absorbing and thrilling read.

Tiro is aged 46 when the narrative opens (p.40).

Sources

Because there is so much information flying in from different places about so many events, Harris relies much more than in both the previous books combined on actual historical documents, on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the early part (for example, pages 147 to 148), then on the letters to and from Cicero, for example to and from his lifelong friend Atticus.

Like the preceding two novels Dictator is divided into two substantial parts:

Part one – Exile (58 to 47 BC)

‘Exile’ is a slightly misleading title as Cicero was only in exile from Rome for 18 months, returning in late 57 BC. And it doesn’t really refer to a spiritual or political exile either since, once he returned to Rome, he was right back in the thick of political intrigue and returned to his position as Rome’s leading barrister.

The narrative begins exactly where Lustrum broke off, with Cicero, Tiro and a few slaves secretly leaving Rome at night due to the threat against his life issued by the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. Clodius issues a law saying anyone who gives Cicero help, food or fire within 500 km of Rome is liable to execution.

They clandestinely travel south but their attempt to sail to Sicily is blocked by the governor (p.7). Travel back across Italy to Brundisium (11). Nightmare sea crossing to Dyrrachium (13 to 15). Governor of Macedonia, old friend Apuleius Saturninus, sends a message saying Cicero can’t stay with him (16). But one of Saturninus’s junior magistrates, the quaestor Gnaeus Plancius, offers to put him up in his town house in Thessalonika. News of Cicero’s wife and family’s mistreatment back in Rome (21). His luxury house has been burned down, the land confiscated and a shrine to ‘Liberty’ erected.

Clodius and his gangs have complete control of Rome. His sort-of ally Cato the Younger has been packed off to serve as governor of Cyprus (22). Atticus tells him about a fight between Gnaeus Pompey’s men and Clodius’s men for possession of the son of the King of Armenia, a hostage held by Rome, in which one of Pompey’s friends is killed. This decisively turns Pompey against Clodius and he now regrets having supported Cicero’s exile (24).

Unexpected arrival of the fierce ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who has just managed to be elected tribune and offers his services to Cicero, accompanied by a really hard-looking gladiator named Birria (30). He explains he offered Pompey the services of 100 hardened gladiators to confront Clodius’s gangs in exchange for Pompey helping him (Milo) get elected tribune. Pompey himself has been attacked and forced back to his house by Clodius’s gangs so now he whole-heartedly wants Cicero back.

But there’s a catch: Cicero must ‘reassure’ Caesar i.e. promise not to oppose him. So Cicero’s exile will be ended if he agrees to truckle to the Triumvirate. Milo says he must send a letter and emissary to Caesar in person, so Tiro sets off on the long journey across the Adriatic, up Italy and finds Caesar doing his assizes at a town called Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul (41).

Publius Crassus, son of Marcus, spots Tiro in the queue of supplicants and takes him to see the great man in person. Tiro finds Caesar naked on a table being given a massage by a big black man (46). He scans Cicero’s letter in which he promises to meekly support Caesar’s legislation and keep out of politics and simply signs it ‘Approved’ (48). (While waiting, Publius shows Tiro copies of the Commentaries Caesar is writing, the annual account of his campaigns which he is having published back in Rome to win support – see my reviews of Caesar’s Gallic Wars for a summary. Harris also uses it to meditate on the appalling atrocities Caesar carried out against the Gauls, see below.)

Atticus is sending him letters from Rome keeping him informed and tells him that although Clodius’s gangs are still beating up their opponents (including Cicero’s brother, Quintus) the tide is turning against him. Friendly senators arrange a vote of the entire citizenry which is unanimous to have Cicero’s exile ended (52) and then restore full rights of citizenship (57).

Cicero’s triumphant march from Brundisium to Rome, feted and welcomed at every village and town. Reunion with brother Quintus who he hasn’t seen for 2 years (while he’s been off serving with Caesar in Gaul) (61). A vivid description of his triumphal entry into Rome and the ceremonies around his restoration as a citizen (63).

Because his house was demolished, Cicero’s household move in with brother Quintus. The two wives do not get on, but Cicero’s marriage to Terentia is under strain. She gave him her full support on the understanding he would be a success. Exile was the extreme opposite of success and exposed her, back in Rome, to any number of threats and humiliations (65).

Straight back into toxic politics. In return for his support in having his exile rescinded, Pompey wants Cicero to propose a bill giving Pompey executive control over Rome’s food supply for the next five years (68). This will redirect the people’s loyalty from Clodius’s crowd-pleasing back to Pompey, an establishment figure.

Clodius still has control of street gangs and sets a crowd to besiege Cicero and his family in Quintus’s house (73 to 78) until they smuggle a slave out to fetch Milo and his gladiators who see off Clodius’s thugs.

Next day Cicero presents Pompey’s grain powers bill in the senate and wins a huge ovation, supporters carry him to the rostra where he addresses a cheering crowd and then introduces the man of the hour, Pompey (81-81). Pompey accompanies Cicero home and tries to strong arm him into becoming one of the 15 food commissioners; is disgruntled when Cicero refuses (he’s only just got back to Rome and his family), so Pompey bullies Quintus into reluctantly taking up a post in Sicily (82).

Vivid description of Cicero presenting his case to the College of Pontiffs to have ownership of his (ruined) house returned to him, claiming it was never properly sanctified, helped by the discovery that the so-called Statue of Liberty Clodius set up in the ruins is actually a half-naked statue stolen from Greece where it adorned the tomb of a famous courtesan. Clodius’s case is laughed out of court and the land restored to Cicero to rebuild his mansion (85-89).

But workmen starting to rebuild it are attacked and Clodius’s gangs throw firebrands onto Quintus’s house nearly burning it down (93), forcing the family to go and stay at Atticus’s empty house. Eight days later they are walking along the Via Sacra when they are attacked by Clodius and a dozen of his hoods carrying cudgels and swords and only escape by dodging into a nearby house (94).

Terentia shows Cicero the weals on her back where she was savagely whipped on the orders of Clodia, Clodius’s fearsome sister, while Cicero was in exile (96)

The affair of Dio of Alexander, philosopher from Alexandria who had come to Rome to petition against the return of the pharaoh Ptolemy and is one day found murdered. Ptolemy is staying with Pompey and so suspicion falls on him, specifically on one of his managers, Asicius. Pompey strong-arms Cicero into defending him (100). Asicius chooses as alibi the young protege of Cicero’s, Calius Rufus. Now this smooth young man had defected from Cicero to Clodius in the previous novel. Now Cicero meets him and realises he has fallen out with Clodius. Cicero discovers his affair with Clodia ended badly with her accusing him of trying to poison her.

Pompey lobbies for a bill giving him sole command of a commission to restore Auletes to power in Egypt. Crassus is so jealous he pays Clodius to launch a campaign to stop him. Meetings and speeches to the people are broken up in violence. Cicero is delighted because it heralds the end of the Triumvirate (105).

The Rufus strategem (pages 105 to 122)

Cicero learns Rufus is scheduled to prosecute Lucius Calpurnius Bestia for corruption. Bestia was a creature of Cataline’s and so a sworn enemy of Cicero’s but Cicero conceives a Machiavellian plan. First Cicero amazes everyone by volunteering to defend Bestia, does a great job and gets him off. Irritated, Rufus issues another write against Bestia. Bestia comes to Cicero for advice. Cicero advises the best form of defence is attack; he should issue a counter-writ. More than that, he should meet with Clodius and Clodia and get them to join his case. They loathe Rufus. With them on his side Bestia can’t lose. Delighted, Bestia goes away, meets with Clodius, and issues a writ against Rufus accusing him of a) murdering the Egyptian envoys b) poisoning Clodia (110).

Cicero chuckles. His plan is working. He takes a puzzled Tiro on a visit to Rufus and finds him disconsolate: just the accusation means his budding career as a lawyer is in tatters. To Rufus’s amazement Cicero offers to be his defence counsel. Neither Rufus nor Tiro understand what is going on.

First day of the trial passes without Cicero’s intervention. Clodius is one of the three prosecutors. He depicts his sister (Clodia) as the innocent victim of a cruel libertine (Rufus). On the second day Cicero takes to the stage (trials were held on raised platforms in the Forum) and proceeds to lay into Clodia with unparalleled fury and accuracy, describing her as a whore, a courtesan, Medea, hinting at her incest with her brother, depicting her as having countless lovers, depicting him as the sensual immoral seducer of a boy half her age (Rufus) and she the daughter of an infamous, merciless, crime-stained, lust-stained house. Clodius is infuriated, Clodia sits motionless. Cicero eviscerates her in front of a cheering Roman audience who end up pointing their fingers at her and chanting ‘Whore, whore, whore.’ It is said she never went out in public again (122).

And this entire elaborate scam? Revenge for Clodia having his wife, Terentia, whipped. Cicero presents the result to his wife as a gift and atonement for her sufferings during his exile.

Cicero makes one more intervention in politics. Next day he speaks in the Senate to the bill to assign 20 million sestercii to Pompey for his grain commission but he uses the opportunity to ask whether they should reconsider the land reform legislation Caesar passed before he left for Gaul. This pleases the anti-Caesarians but infuriates his supporters, not least Crassus (125).

He makes an evening visit to Pompey’s villa outside Rome, politely greeting the great generals’ beautiful young wife. Pompey tut tuts over Cicero’s speech against the land reform but Cicero goes on the offensive saying Crassus’s insensate jealousy of Pompey is far more dangerous than anything he, Cicero, can say. Pompey agrees. Cicero comes away well pleased at his work undermining the unity of the anti-republican triumvirate (130).

Tired, Cicero takes a holiday at Cumae, in a villa left to him by a rich tax collector he did some legal work for (126). They notice it’s surprisingly empty for the time of year (132). Then dusty soldiers approach. Scared, they receive them and they turn out to be envoys from Luca.

After Cicero’s disruptive speech, Crassus went to see Caesar and they then summoned Pompey to what turned into the Conference of Luca, designed to shore up the Triumvirate. Now this soldier has brought an ultimatum to Cicero. He must shut up. He must stop criticising the triumvirs. He must reverse his position and support the land reform.

And astonishes him by telling him Pompey and Clodius have been publicly reconciled. Crassus and Pompey are going to stand for election as consuls. If they stood in the summer they would fail. But the elections will be delayed because of the escalating violence Clodius will provide. By the time it’s safe enough to hold election in the winter, campaigning season in Gaul will be over and Caesar will send thousands of his soldiers to vote for Pompey and Crassus. When they have finished their year as consuls they will be awarded provinces, Pompey to Spain, Crassus Syria. These commands will be for five years, and Caesar’s command in Gaul will also be extended.

Altogether these plans are known as the Luca Accords (136). If Cicero doesn’t support them, bad things will happen to him. After the soldiers leave Cicero is shaken but furious with Pompey. Can’t he see he is being turned into Caesar’s dupe? He is securing Caesar the few more years he needs to thoroughly subjugate and pillage Gaul and then, when he’s done, Caesar will return to Rome and dispense with Pompey.

But Terentia intervenes. She is fed up with Cicero thinking he and he alone must save the Republic. There are hundreds of other senators and ex-consuls. Let them do something about it for a change. Cicero knows he is right. After this ultimatum from the three most powerful men in Rome he realises his time is up. He should back away from active politics (139).

Vivid description of Cato the Younger returning from two years as governor of Cyprus with vast wealth (140). He is shocked at the Senate’s obeisance before the Triumvirate and at Cicero’s pessimism. From now on Cato becomes the leader of the opposition to Caesar (143). Cicero kowtows. In the Senate he humiliatingly withdraws his suggestion that Caesar’s land reform be reviewed – and receives a letter of thanks from Caesar (146).

(150-154) Portrait of Crassus as he prepares to set off on his military campaign against the Parthian Empire. He is only interested in looting everywhere and amassing as much money as possible. It is unpopular with the people. Cato makes speeches against it, declaring it immoral to commence a war against a nation Rome has treaties with. But when Crassus asks for Cicero’s support the latter is happy to invite him and his wife round for supper and pledge his heartfelt support. Anything to appease the Triumvirate and get them off his back. Tiro notes the slack, dilettantish behaviour of the officers who accompany Crassus, a sharp contrast with the whip-smart and efficient officers who surround Caesar. (This is all by way of being anticipation of Crassus’s disastrous defeats and miserable death in Syria the following year).

Over the next 3 years Cicero writes and rewrites the first of his works, On the Republic. Harris has Tiro give a useful summary (p.156):

  • politics is the most noble of callings
  • there is no nobler motive for entering public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men
  • no individual or combination of individuals should be allowed to become too powerful
  • politics is a profession not a pastime for dilettantes
  • a statesman should devote his life to studying the science of politics in order to acquire all the knowledge that is necessary
  • that authority in a state must always be divided
  • that of the three known forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and people – the optimum is a combination of all three, since kings can be capricious, an aristocracy self-interested, and an uncontrolled multitude is a mob

Tiro has a severe fever during which Cicero promises to finally make him free – description of Tiro’s manumission

Crassus is killed at Carrhae – Harris chooses to quote Cassius’s long message as read out by Pompey to the assembled senators

detailed description of the affray which leads to the murder of Clodius – Cicero defends Milo at his trial but can’t be heard above the barracking (p.194)

Cicero is forced to go serve as governor of Cilicia as the political situation in Rome intensifies. Tiro doesn’t want to go but Cicero persuades him with the offer of buying him the farm he’s always wanted (p.198). Terentia wants him to play the traditional Roman governor and fleece the province for everything he can but Cicero knows this will play into the hands of his enemies as well as being against his temperament (202).

En route to take ship at Brundisium, the party is invited to go stay with Pompey at his nearby villa. They discuss the political situation. With Crassus dead the triumvirate is now an unstable duumvirate. Because Caesar has now successfully conquered and pacified all of Gaul, the question becomes what to do about him. Caesar wants to stand for the consulship in absentia to ensure that he gets it and secures immunity from prosecution which the office provides (204).

In Athens discussion with Aristatus, leading exponent of Epicureanism (206). He argues that physical wellbeing, the avoidance of pain and stress, is all. But Cicero argues that physical illness and pain are unavoidable and so the Epicurean notion of ‘good’ is weak and vulnerable. A more robust notion of the Good is needed, namely the moral goodness of the Stoics which endures no matter what state our body is in. Which inspires Cicero to write a guide to the Good Life.

Harris skimps on Cicero’s governorship, giving a very brief account of the one military campaign he led, to besiege the capital of a rebellious tribe. He omits two aspects described in Cicero’s own letters, namely a) his difficult relationship with his predecessor who just happened to be a brother of his bitter (and dead) enemy, Clodius and b) his very real achievement of setting a ruined province back on its feet, reducing taxes, reviving trade and administering justice fairly. You can see that these nuts and bolts aspects of actual administrative work don’t fit the thriller template.

Before his governorship is quite over, Cicero packs and sets off back to Rome, accompanied by Tiro and his entourage. He detours via Rhodes to visit the tomb of his tutor in oratory, Apollonius Molo. However, the winds change and block them there. Finally they sail on to Corinth but Tiro is taken very ill and eventually cannot be moved. He is left in the care of a banker friend of Cicero’s who he was not to see again for 8 months.

So he is forced to watch from a distance as the Roman Republic collapses for it was in January of that year, 49 BC, that Caesar crossed the River Rubicon and sparked civil war against Pompey, the defender of the constitution and senate.

Harris uses a series of Cicero’s actual letters to describe events. Pompey panics, thinking Caesar has his entire army with him (whereas he only had one legion) and orders the authorities to evacuate Rome and head east, ultimately holing up in Brundisium before sailing for Greece.

Caesar just fails to stop him then, without ships of his own, is forced to march back to Rome. En route he stops off at Cicero’s house in Formiae and has a brief meeting. He asks him to come back to Rome, to address the senate supporting him. Cicero refuses. Caesar is angered but leaves.

Cicero realises he must throw in his lot with Pompey and heads back to Greece. Tiro travels from his sickhouse to rendezvous back in Thessalonika, the same house where he spent his exile. Everyone is miserable (226). Cicero talks to Pompey, attends meetings. 200 senators are there with their families and staffs, bickering and politicking.

Caesar finally secures a fleet and sends half his army to Dyrrachium. Pompey marches there and surrounds his camp. It settles down into trench warfare, with the soldiers yelling abuse at each other and the occasional outbreak of fraternisation. Defectors tell Pompey about a weak place in Caesar’s defences so he attacks there. In a confused fight it is generally thought Caesar lost. Next morning his fortifications are abandoned. He is marching east into Greece. Pompey resolves to chase him and also strikes camp. Cicero’s son, brother and nephew all march off, but he doesn’t like war and elects to stay in a villa near the now liberated town of Dyrrachium (249). Cato is put in charge of forces there.

It is here that, weeks later, rumours reach them of disaster. Then Labienus arrives in a terrible state having ridden for days from the disaster that was the Battle of Pharsalus, 9 August 48 BC (252).

The senators and leaders who stayed behind at Dyrrachium hold a meeting and resolve to fight on and rally the Pompeian forces at Corfu, an island and so defensible.

And so amid scenes of chaos and panic the Pompeian forces pack up and sail for Corfu. Here another summit meeting is held in the Temple of Jupiter. Cato proposes Cicero be their leader, but Cicero laughs out loud and says he is fit for nothing. In his opinion they should immediately sue for peace in order to end the bloodshed. Pompey’s son Gnaeus is incensed by Cicero’s defeatism and goes to stab him with a sword, only Cato’s restraining words prevent him and save Cicero’s life (259). Cato lets anyone who wants to, leave, so Cicero slowly rises and walks out:

out of the temple, out of the senatorial cause, out of the war and out of public life. (p.260)

In Patrae they are delighted to come across Cicero’s son, Marcus, his brother Quintus and young nephew, who all fought in the battle but survived (260). Cicero speaks tactlessly of the meeting of leaders he attended, ridiculing them and their cause, not realising how deeply it was offending these three men who put their lives at risk for the cause. This prompts a furious tirade from Quintus in which he expresses a lifetime of resentment at being forced to play second fiddle to his oh-so-clever brother and he and his son walk out (264).

Heart-broken at this family rupture, Cicero returns to Italy accompanied by Tiro who has been away three full years. They find the region round Brundisium controlled by a legate of Caesar’s, Publius Vatinius, who, however, Cicero defended in a trial and so is helpful (267). Cicero is given a villa under guard for his protection and only slowly realises that he is in fact under house arrest while Vatinius finds out what Caesar wants done with him.

Cicero and Tiro realise this is life under a dictatorship: no freedoms, no magistrates, no courts, no elections. One lives at the whim of the dictator.

Cicero’s heart sinks further when Vatinius tells him that while Caesar is absent on campaign, Italy is ruled by his Master of Horse (traditional post for second in command) Marcus Antonius. Cicero and Antonius have always had a distant relationship but there is an underlying animosity because Antonius’s stepfather, Publius Lentulus Sura, was one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death in 63 BC (as described in detail in the previous novel in the series, Lustrum).

Depressing months of house arrest follow. Cicero is deeply upset by the rift with his beloved brother. All the news is of death, including that of Milo the gladiator and Cicero’s promising pupil, Marcus Caelius Rufus (269). Then they all hear news of the the miserable end of Pompey, treacherously stabbed as he went ashore in Egypt (270).

In the spring of 47 the news is that Caesar is still in Egypt with his alleged paramour, Cleopatra. Cicero is still stuck in Brundisium. His beloved daughter Tullia makes the dangerous journey to visit him. Her husband, Dolabella, now ignores her completely and has affairs. Worse, Tullia brings news that his wife, Terentia, has been conspiring with her steward Philotimus, to plunder his estate and belongings for years. Cicero’s private life is in ruins.

Then a letter comes from Caesar, no less, announcing he is returning to Italy and will come to visit Cicero. Soon afterwards Cicero is summoned to meet the dictator at Tarentum. Cicero is rising there with an entourage of cavalry and lictors when they encounter the huge column of Caesar’s army. The dictator dismounts from his horse, greets Cicero and walks with him.

It is a perfectly genial conversation. Cicero asks to be relieved of the damned lictors who still accompany him everywhere because he still, legally, is governor of Cilicia, but are a damned inconvenience. Caesar agrees on the spot. But shouldn’t that take a vote in the senate? Caesar replies: ‘I am the senate’. Caesar politely says he isn’t sure he wants Cicero back in Rome making speeches against him. Cicero assures him that he has utterly retired from politics. He intends to devote his life to studying and writing philosophy. Caesar is pleased. Then Harris has Cicero ask one of the Great Questions of History: Did Caesar always aim at this outcome, a dictatorship? No, is Caesar’s swift reply.

‘Never! I sought only the respect due my rank and my achievements. For the rest, one merely adapts to the circumstances as they arise.’ (p.281)

The thoughtful reader reels at the impact of these words, on the light they shed on the real processes of history, and this encounter makes you review everything, the long complex violent sequence of events which has led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and Cicero’s hectic chequered career which has brought the two men to this encounter on a dusty road amid a huge entourage of battle hardened soldiers. Then Caesar mounts his horse and gallops off (282).

Part two – Redux (47 to 43 BC)

They head back to Rome but Cicero decides to stop and live outside the city, at his country house at Tusculum (287). Description of the house. Here he settles down to translate the best of Greek philosophy into Latin (289). He starts with a history of oratory he called the Brutus and dedicated to him, though the dedicatee didn’t like it (290).

He divorces Terentia (286). They still have much in common but she’s been robbing him blind, stripping his properties of their furnishings and selling them off.

Cicero gives oratory lessons to Caesar’s exquisite lieutenant Aulus Hirtius (who is rumoured to have written many of the commentaries on the Gallic War) (291). He is soon joined by Gaius Vibius Pansa and Cassius Longinus as pupils of Cicero (292). Cassius admits that he regrets allowing himself to be pardoned by Caesar and confides in Cicero that he has already planned to assassinate Caesar (292).

Tullia’s errant husband Dolabella is back from fighting in Africa. He asks to come visit Cicero and Tullia. He tells them about the war in Africa, about Caesar’s great victory at Thrapsus, and about the hideous suicide of Cato (297). The deep impact on Cassius and Brutus, both of whom were related to Cato i.e. shame for having accepted Caesar’s pardon and living on under his dictatorship. Cicero writes a short eulogy to Cato (299).

Caesar holds four triumphs in a row and absurdly lavish games (300) but during one of them his chariot’s axle snaps and he’s thrown to the ground. Caesar’s clemency, forgiving errant senators (302). He pardons many of his enemies, notably Brutus, some said because Brutus was his son by his long-term mistress Servilia, herself half sister of Cato.

Cicero is forced to marry the totally unsuitable Publilia for money (Tiro reviews the three eligible i.e. rich candidates) (306). Description of the wedding including the disarmingly simple Roman marriage vow (‘Where you are Gaia, I am Gaius’) (308). After only a few weeks the marriage isn’t working (309).

His daughter Tullia comes to stay to bear the child she was impregnated with when Dolabella visited (she had been staying with her mother since the divorce). But she is ill with tuberculosis. She gives birth to a healthy boy (named Lentulus) but never recovers. Death bed scene, Cicero holds her hand, she dies peacefully in her sleep (312).

Stricken with grief, Cicero flees his young wife and hides himself away in a succession of friends’ houses and remote villas, writing a handbook of Greek philosophy about consolation (314). Eventually he divorces Publilia (315), and invites Tiro to join him in Tusculum where he sets about dictating the Tusculan Disputations (317). There are to be five books cast in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and his student:

  1. On the fear of death
  2. On the endurance of pain
  3. On the alleviation of distress
  4. On the remaining disorders of the soul
  5. On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life

One must train for death by leading a life that is morally good:

  • to desire nothing too much
  • to be content with what you have
  • to be entirely self sufficient within yourself so that whatever you lose, you can carry on regardless
  • to do no harm
  • to realise it is better to suffer an injury than inflict one
  • to acknowledge that life is a loan from nature which must be paid back at any time

‘Such were the lessons that Cicero had learned and wished to impart to the world’ (319).

Dolabella comes to visit. He is back from the war in Spain. He was badly injured. He asks to take possession of his son by Tullia, and Cicero agrees. Dolabella tells Cicero the fight in Spain was different from the other campaigns, more hard fought, more bitter. When Pompey’s son Gnaeus was killed in battle, Caesar had his head stuck on a lance (321). They took no prisoners. They killed 30,000 enemy i.e. Roman troops. Many of the enemies he pardoned after the earlier wars had fought against him. Caesar has returned a different man, angry and embittered.

Cicero continues turning out books at speed. Burying himself in Greek philosophy , reading, studying, dictating to Tiro, all help him manage his grief over Tullia’s death. He writes On the nature of the gods and On divination.

Caesar is a changed man, angrier, more controlling. His grasp on reality seems to have slipped. He writes a petty-minded riposte to Cicero’s eulogy of Cato. His infatuation with Cleopatra leads him to set up statues of her in Rome, including in temples. He has himself declared a god with his own priesthood (323). He announces a grandiose plan to take 36 legions (!) to the east to smash the Parthian Empire, march back round the Black Sea conquering all the territory, approach Germany from the East to conquer and pacify it. Basically, to conquer the whole world (323). Alexander the Great.

Cicero goes to stay on the Bay of Naples. On the Feast of Saturnalia he gives all his staff presents and finally, after years of prevaricating, gives Tiro the farm he’s always yearned for. It is described in idyllic terms but the thing that struck me was that is staffed by six slaves and an overseer. This doesn’t cause a bump or hesitation in the description by Tiro, the ex-slave (330).

Caesar sends a letter announcing he will drop by. Cicero is thrown into a panic and makes massive preparations. Caesar arrives with his entourage and cohorts of soldiers. Dinner conversation. Caesar flatters him by saying he enjoyed reading the Tusculan Disputations. This leads Cicero to ask Caesar whether he thinks his soul will survive his death. Caesar replies he doesn’t know about anyone else, but he knows that his soul will survive his death – because he is a god! Simples. Cicero concludes the intensity of his isolation, achievements and responsibility have driven him mad (328).

Caesar is made dictator for life. He has the seventh month of the year renamed July. He is given the title Emperor and Father of the Nation. He presides over the Senate from a golden throne. He has a statue of himself added to the seven statues of the ancient kings of Rome. Harris repeats the famous story that at the Lupercal festival Mark Antony repeatedly tries to crown Caesar with a laurel wreath, though the crowd boos (331).

Caesar plans to leave Rome on 18 March 44 BC to commence his huge campaign in the East. A meeting of the Senate is arranged for the 15th or Ides of March, to confirm the list of appointments to all the magistracies which Caesar has drawn up for the three years he intends to be away.

On the morning of the fifteenth Cicero and Tiro get up early and arrive at the Senate ahead of time. The meeting is being held in the theatre built by Pompey because the old Senate house still hasn’t been rebuilt after Clodius’s mob burned the old one down on the day of his funeral in 52.

Harris manages the tense build-up to one of the most famous events in Western history, the assassination of Julius Caesar very well. Tiro gives an eye witness account the main point of which is confusion and delay. Caesar was warned by a soothsayer and his wife’s bad dreams not to attend the session and so the assembled senators mill around increasingly impatient for hours. Eventually Caesar arrives having been cajoled into coming by Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators.

Assassination of Caesar (338). Conspirators retreat to the Capitol Hill. Cicero meets them and is staggered that they have no plan (347). Instead of seizing power they expect the republic to magically reconstitute itself. Leaving this vacuum is their tragic mistake (353 and 368). Lepidus moves troops into Rome and takes control. The assassins address the crowd but don’t win them over:

A speech is a performance not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect. (p.349)

Meeting of the Senate at which Antony makes a commanding speech calling for compromise and amnesty for the assassins (358). Several sessions of the Senate trying to reconcile the parties. Nervously the assassins agree to come off the hill and negotiate with Antony, the serving consul after both sides have given hostages (as in The Gallic Wars, the only mechanism for gaining trust between chronically suspicious partners.)

So Caesar’s assassins and supporters sit in a further session of the Senate, which agrees to keep magistrates in place, Caesar’s laws unaltered, then agrees with Antony’s suggestion that Caesar’s will is opened and read publicly (364).

The big surprise of Caesar’s will, that he leaves three-quarters of his estate to his nephew Octavianus, who he legally adopts and is to be named Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (367).

Five days after the assassination there is a grand funeral for Caesar, complete with elaborate cortege. Tiro thinks it was stage managed by Fulvia, Antony’s venomous wife. It climaxes with Antony’s speech to the crowd in which he drops all pretence at reconciliation and says Caesar was cruelly murdered by cowards (370). Antony displays Caesar’s corpse and then says he left the people 300 sestercii each in his will to inflames the crowd. When the pyre is lit the crowd go mad, tear off their clothes and throw them in, loot nearby shops and chuck furniture on. Then go rampaging through the streets attacking the houses of the assassins. They tear Helvius Cinna the poet to pieces under the misapprehension he is Cinna the conspirator (372). The assassins leave Rome.

Cicero flees Rome and devotes himself to writing, producing in feverish outburst the books On auguriesOn fateOn glory, and begun sketching On Friendship (375). Visitors from Rome bring stories of Antony’s high handed behaviour.

One day Cornelius turns up with a short skinny kid with pimples. This is the famous Octavian who is staying with neighbours (there is ambiguity about his name so Harris gets the boy himself to tell everyone he wants to be referred to as Octavian, p.377). Octavian butters Cicero up and seeks his advice. He has no small talk. He is a logical machine.

An extended dinner party at which Octavian’s father, advisors, some of Caesar’s senior officers and Cicero discuss what he should do. Cicero is blunt. Go to Rome, claim your inheritance and stand for office. He tells Tiro he doesn’t think the boy stands a chance but his presence will undermine Antony.

Cicero sends Tiro to attend the next meeting of the Senate (he is too concerned for his own safety to go). Tiro witnesses Antony award himself the command of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul for five years and arrange other allies in positions of power. Octavian is nowhere to be seen. He visits Cicero’s son-in-law Dolabella. Cicero wants the dowry which accompanied Tullia back. Instead Dolabella gives him a document which assigns Cicero as Dolabella’s legate in Syria. He doesn’t have to do anything but it gives him the legal right to travel and Greece and immunity for 5 years (385).

Cicero and Tiro travel to Brutus’s family home at Antium to discuss what the leading assassins should do. Brutus’s mother Servilia is disgusted at the thought her son will be merely handed on of Pompey’s grain commissioners, but Cicero advises Brutus and Cassius to take these posts and wait on events (388). But the real point is the assassins are falling out among themselves and have no plan.

Cicero moves on to another of his properties. He is working simultaneously on three books, On friendshipOn duties and On virtues (391). Reluctantly Tiro decides it is time to quit Cicero and go live on that farm. He is 60. Cicero accepts it calmly and returns to his work. Tiro’s farm (393). Nonetheless, he still frequents spas and there overhears gossip about Rome, opposition to Antony.

He meets again Agathe, the slave girl he paid to have liberated but never to to see again. With her freedom she worked, saved money and bought the spa where Tiro has bumped into her (398). [Right at the end of the narrative we are told her full name is Agathe Licinia and she owns the baths of Venus Libertina at Baiae, p.488).

Cicero comes to visit him on the farm. Antony is failing, and Brutus and Cassius have determined to revive the opposition. He is energised and going back to Rome to throw himself back into the fray. His daughter’s dead, he’s divorced from his wife, he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t mean to but Cicero is so charismatic that…he lures Tiro back into his service (402).

It takes them 8 days to travel to Rome. The roads are dangerous. Gangs of Caesar’s demobbed soldiers roam the countryside, stealing, killing, burning. People are terrified. Once in Rome Cicero attends the next sitting of the Senate and makes a speech against the corruption and distortion of the law by Antony. This becomes known as the First Phillippic, in a jokey reference to the speeches Demosthenes delivered against the Macedonian tyrant, Philip II (411).

Antony replies with an excoriating speech to the Senate dragging up every disreputable scrap he can about Cicero, and highlighting his flip-flopping support for great men as signs of a self-seeking sycophant (412).

It is December 44 BC. The military situation is chaotic. There are no fewer than seven armies with different leaders (413). Octavian’s army occupies Rome. Antony is in Brundisium trying to bribe legions returned from Macedonia into supporting him. Octavian makes a speech about calling his adoptive father the greatest Roman, to applause from the crowd. He leaves Rome, Antony exits it but then has to speed to one of his legions which Octavian has bribed away. Chaos.

Cicero’s second Philippic against Antony, packed with scurrilous gossip and accusations of corruption (418). Cicero explains his position to Tiro and Atticus: Antony is the enemy, ‘a monstrous and savage animal’ (432), often drunk dictator in the making. Octavian, with the name of Caesar and many of his legions, is the only force which can stop Antony. Atticus wisely asks whether Octavian will not himself then become dictator. But Cicero naively thinks that he can control and steer the young man, in order to restore the Republic (421).

Cicero meets Octavian at one of Atticus’s houses by Lake Volsinii. Harris is in his element. He imagines the power plays and negotiations. Octavian agrees to be guided by the Senate if Cicero persuades the Senate to give him imperium and legal authority to fight Antony (426).

Antony has marched with his legions to besiege Decimus Brutus, governor of Cisapline Gaul, in the town of Mutena. Brutus remains loyal to the state and Senate, so Antony is clearly everyone’s enemy. Cicero makes a big speech in the Senate claiming the state is being rescued by the boy Octavian. This speech became known as the Third Philippic (430). When he goes out to repeat it to the people in the Forum he is drowned by cheers.

BUT when the Senate meets early in January 43 Cicero is shocked when both new consuls (Hirtius and Pansa) and other senators reject his criticism of Antony and hope peace can still be negotiated. Next day Cicero makes the speech of his life, the Fifth Philippic in which he scorns any peace overtures to Antony, proposes he be declared an enemy of the state, and that Octavian be given full official backing (438).

But the next day Antony’s wife and mother are presented in the Senate. If Antony is declared an enemy of the state, his property will be confiscated and they will be thrown out on the streets. To Cicero’s disgust this moderates the Senate’s decision from open war down to sending peace envoys.

A month later the peace envoys return from Mutena, where Antony is besieging Decimus. Antony refused all their proposals and made his own counter-proposals including 5 years command of Further Gaul. Once again a debate in the Senate where Antony’s friends and relations sway things. Once again Cicero rises the following day to utterly condemn Antony as the instigator of war. As Cato was Caesar’s inveterate enemy, so Cicero has made himself Antony’s.

The two consuls lead a conscript army off to face Antony in the north. The leading magistrate left in Rome, the urban praetor Marcus Cornutus, is inexperienced and turns to Cicero for advice. Thus at the age of 63 he becomes the most powerful man in the city, dictator in all but name.

It takes a while for despatches to return from the north and when they do they initially tell of a great defeat of Antony. Cicero is triumphant. It is the most successful day of his life. But then further despatches reveal that not one but both consuls were killed in the Battle of Mutena. Then Decomus Brutus reveals that his weakened army allowed Antony to flee with his over the Alps.

Worst of all, word has got to Octavian of some casual slighting remarks of Cicero’s. Octavian warns he is not prepared to be subordinate to Decimus, as the Senate ordered. Since there are 2 vacancies for consul, why can he not be made one? (He is only 19; the lower age limit for the consulship is meant to be 43.)

In May 43 Antony and his army arrived at the base of Lepidus, who was meant to be holding Gaul for the Senate. Instead he goes over to Antony. He claims his troops mutinied and wanted to join Antony’s.

When official news reaches the Senate Cicero is called on to make a speech summarising the situation. This is that Antony, far from being extinguished, is more powerful than ever. Deep groans from the senators. To Cicero’s horror the traditionalist Isauricus announces that he has swung his power and influence behind Octavian, and offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, and proposes that Octavian be allowed to stand as consul in absentia. In other words, Octavian has dropped Cicero. In his shock, Cicero gives a speech crystallising his political beliefs in a nutshell:

That the Roman Republic, with its division of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s noblest creation (p.475)

And goes on to say that, for this reason, he thinks Octavian should not be awarded the consulship. It’s precisely this kind of bending of the rules which brought them the rule of Pompey, then Caesar. This speech places Cicero, for the first time, directly against Octavian’s wishes.

Crucially, he points out to the Senate that even if Lepidus goes over to Antony and Octavian is of increasingly uncertain loyalty, they can call on the legions commanded by Brutus in Syria and Cassius in Macedon. The point is that, without realising it, Cicero is creating the conditions under which Octavian and Antony will unite as the Caesarian party and declare war on the army of the assassins.

At the end of the new month of ‘July’ they learn that Octavian has struck camp, crossed the Rubicon with his army and is marching on Rome. Cicero had repeatedly assured the Senate of Octavian’s good intentions. Now he looks naive at best, Octavian’s tool at worst (476).

Legions arrive from Africa and Cornutus assures they will be loyal. But when Cicero goes to address them they remain resolutely silent. What do his fancy words about ‘liberty’ mean to them? They want money (480).

Next day the African legions mutiny and join Octavian’s. Cornutus kills himself in shame. Octavian’s troops now occupy Rome. Cicero contemplates suicide, but goes to see him. Their relationship has completely changed. Octavian tells Cicero he has organised to have the consulship, and who his fellow consul will be, an obscure relative who will be a puppet. Soon he will go to meet Antony and Lepidus. He recommends Cicero leaves Rome. Go to Greece and write philosophy. He won’t be allowed to return without permission. Don’t write anything against Octavian. Octavian is the new dictator (483).

Broken in spirit, all his hopes crushed, Cicero retreats to his country villa at Tusculum (485). They hear Octavian has set up a special court to try Caesar’s assassins. Then that he has left Rome with 11 legions, marching to confront Antony.

A month goes by and he conceives the idea of collecting all his letters. Tiro has kept all of them. He unpacks them. Cicero has them read out in chronological order. His whole hectic public and private life. He is fully aware that they amount to:

the most complete record of an historical era ever assembled by a leading statesman. (p.487)

So he instructs Tiro to assemble his letters in the right order, then make several complete copies to be hidden and preserved. Atticus, always keen to ingratiate himself with everyone, averse to all risk, insists that all his letters to Cicero are burned, burns them with his own hands. But copies of the rest are made and Tiro sends his copies down to his farm to be hidden for posterity.

At the end of November 43 Cicero sends Tiro into Rome to recover the last of his papers from his properties. That night there is screaming in the streets. Tiro learns the devastating news that Antony, Octavian and Lepidus have joined forces to create a Second Triumvirate. They have published a list of hundreds of senators and knights who have been proscribed: their properties are to be confiscated and a bounty of 100,000 sesterces on their heads. Both Marcus and Quintus Cicero are on the list (490).

Panic, pandemonium, the city at night is full of death gangs seeking out the proscribed men in order to kill them, cut off their heads, and present them to the auditors. In mad haste, Tiro tells the remaining slaves in Cicero’s houses to flee, scribbles a message to be taken by courier to Cicero at Tusculum telling him to flee to his villa on the small island of Astura, then follows in a carriage.

It’s several days before Marcus and Quintus arrive on the shore. It’s the depths of winter, it’s raining, they look bedraggled. Tiro had a slave go and hire a boat in nearby Antium to carry them down the coast and abroad, but Quintus refuses to get in it.

They spend a miserable night in the little house on the island. Cicero elaborates on what happened: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus have met in Bononia and struck a deal to divide the empire between them. They’ve agreed to fund their armies by the simple expedient of killing the richest 2,000 men in the republic and seizing their property. To vouch for their good intentions they each agreed to include in the list someone dear to them: Antony his uncle, Lucius Caesar; Lepidus his own brother; and Octavian, after several days of holding out, Cicero, his former mentor and adviser (494).

They set off by ship but the seas and the winds are against them. Ten men are rowing the ship but it makes almost no headway. They put into a cove, beach the ship and try to shelter from the elements under the sails. Misery.

Next morning Tiro wakes to find Cicero gone. There is a path up from the beach. Tiro finds Cicero wandering along it, distracted. He tells Tiro he plans to head back to Rome to kill himself on Octavian’s doorstep. He’ll die of the shame. No he won’t, says Tiro. Cicero will just be captured and tortured to death, then decapitated. Reluctantly Cicero turns and returns with him to the beach.

They all embark back in the ship and set off rowing again. But it is hard going, the wind against them, the seas heavy. Cicero recognises the headland of Caieta and knows he has a house nearby. He insists they dock at a small jetty. Tiro checks the villa hasn’t been occupied by soldiers or death squads but it appears untouched so he sends slaves to fetch Cicero from the beach and tells the housekeeper to light fires and prepare a bath.

They sleep deeply but are wakened next morning by a slave saying soldiers are coming. Cicero insists on having a bath and dressing formally. Only then will he enter the litter Tiro has arranged and is being carried down to the sea to board the ship when they are cut off by a dozen legionaries. The slaves turn about face and carry the litter hastily back up the path but are met by more legionaries.

The tribune leading the soldiers turns out to be one Caius Popillius Laenas. By a supreme irony he was one of Cicero’s first clients in law. He defended him against a charge of parricide when he was a measly 15 year old and got him acquitted on condition he join the army. Oh the irony (which Harris appears to havey confected; none of this is in the historical accounts I’ve read).

Popollius orders the centurion under him to execute Cicero. Cicero is utterly resigned and insists they do it while he lies back on the litter, assuming the position of a defeated gladiator. And so with one stroke of his sword the centurion cuts off the head which composed some of the greatest speeches and works of literature in the Latin language. Little good they all did him in the end.

They then chop off his hands and put them all in a basket and depart. Tiro hears Antony was so delighted by the hands he gave Popillius a bonus of a million sestercii. Antony had Cicero’s head and hands nailed to the public rostra as a warning to anyone else who opposed the triumvirate. It is said that Antony’s wife, Flavia, who hated Cicero, stuck needles through his witty tongue (502).

Tiro and the slaves carry Cicero’s body down to the beach and burn it on a pyre. Then he headed south to his farm. Quintus and his son were caught and executed. Atticus was spared because he had helped Fulvia when anti-Antony feeling was at its height.

All the loose ends are neatly tied up and Harris gives Tiro the briefest of spaces, just one page, to reflect on the extraordinary life he has described and the epic times it sheds light on.

My work is done. My book is finished. Soon I will die too. (p.503)

The Victorians achieved moving literary effects by writing too much. Modern writers strive for the same emotional impact by writing too little.

It is a moving and emotional end because Cicero’s life itself was so awesome and his end so wretched. The facts themselves are very moving for the reader who has accompanied Cicero this far, however. Harris’s treatment is a little disappointing. He winds up the narrative by telling us that Tiro marries that slave girl he freed all those years ago, Agath,e and they often spend the evenings together reminiscing. Sounds like a Disney movie or the Waltons.

And he quotes the passage from Cicero’s work, The Dream of Scipio, where Cicero tells the statesman to look down from the vast heavens on the insignificant earth and dismiss the petty activities of humans.

Ah, but that’s what politicians all say when their careers are over. Contrary to all Cicero’s preaching in his literary works, the consolations of philosophy are feeble compared with the full-blooded excitement of action.

Key words

Politics

As I made abundantly clear in my reviews of the first two books, these are novels about politics, not in the broad theoretical sense, but in the narrow sense of the day to day scrabble to win and then maintain positions of power in the state. One of the many pleasures of the previous books is the way Harris has characters state sententiae – maxims or sayings about politics – which are perfectly meaningful in their context but framed in such a way as to be widely applicable to any time and place, including our own.

  • There is always this to be said of politics: it is never static. (p.51)
  • ‘Nothing in politics can be planned in advance for seven years.’ (p.137)
  • It is the most important rule in politics always to keep things moving. (p.433)

But having got into the habit of writing out all the apothegms in all three books made me realise there are far, far fewer uses of the word, and hardly any zingy apothegms about it in this one.

Power

I think the word ‘politics’, central to the previous two novels, is superseded in this one by use of the word ‘power’, signifying a shift in subject and in historical events. With the advent of the Triumvirate the time for petty politics passes and is replaced by the more naked manipulation of power.

And then, possibly, the word ‘power’ is itself superseded half-way through the book by ‘war’. And neither Cicero nor Tiro can make casual, knowing generalisations about war since neither of them are soldiers.

It’s a subtle, lexical indication of the way the focus of a novel supposedly about Cicero shifts its emphasis, spreads it more widely, in this novel. Well before the end of part one the energy centre of the narrative, as of Cicero’s world, has shifted to Caesar. Caesar is the true protagonist and Cicero an increasingly passive cork floating on the huge ocean of disruption and war he causes.

With the outbreak of civil war Cicero – and the text – become increasingly reliant on letters and third person accounts of events scattered all round the known world (Greece, Egypt, Spain).

And then, after the assassination of Caesar, not only all the characters but the narrative itself feels adrift. Retreating to the country, Cicero tries to make sense of the fast-moving series of events where no-one is in control, certainly not the assassins, but not Mark Antony either.

It’s in this chaos that slowly emerges from the confusions of the narrative the cold-eyed, steely determination of young Octavian who is to astonish the world by mastering the chaos created by his elders. Initially Octavian is keen to meet Cicero, ask his advice, when he departs with his army keeps in touch by letter. But when he hears about Cicero’s fateful slighting remark, he goes ominously silent. No letters, no replies, no despatches.

Octavian’s silences signal the text’s final abandonment of Cicero. Tiro’s narrative continues to focus on Cicero’s activities and attitudes but the narrative has moved through three key words – politics, power, war – and the final buzzword is nothing, nothingness.

The authorities in Rome hear nothing about Antony for months, Cicero hears nothing from Octavian for months. But in this ominous silence they are cooking up the Second Triumvirate, which will seize power and unleash an army of assassins whose aim is the end of all words. The end of Cicero. The end of the text.

The law

A little into this one I realised I’d been missing the importance of an obvious subject, the law. Cicero was first and foremost a lawyer. He made his name with the Verres case (described in great detail in part one of Imperium). Even when he ducked out of politics he continued to advocate cases in the courts. And what comes over very loudly is that in ancient Rome the law had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with fancy notions of ‘Justice’ but was entirely a tool of political manipulation, attack and revenge.

Trials in ancient Rome were wildly different from modern trials. They involved a jury of scores, sometimes hundreds (75 jurors were sworn in for the trial of Rufus, p.116), were conducted in the open air with the Roman crowd watching, sometimes in their thousands. Speeches were astonishingly ad hominem, not only dishing up all kinds of dirt on the accused and witnesses but also on the opposing advocates, who were often accused of the most grotesque crimes themselves.

Above all, cases could descend into violence as the onlookers behaved more like a football crowd than the limited number of public allowed into a modern court, and started yelling or applauding or booing, or sometimes throwing things, and sometimes invading the platform where the trial was being conducted.

So much highfalutin’, self-serving rhetoric surrounds the practice of the law but the Roman reality was obvious a shambles. Harris has Cicero tell Rufus:

‘My dear Rufus, have you learned nothing? There is no more honour in a legal dispute than there is in a wrestling match.’ (p.108)

War atrocities

As always, I am appalled at the gross violence, war crimes and atrocities carried out by the Roman army:

  • Dyrrachium is still recovering from the fate ordained by the Senate in the 150s, namely razed to the ground and its entire population of 150,000 sold into slavery
  • Harris makes room for a scene in which Tiro reads through Caesar’s Commentaries on his Gallic Wars and works out that by Caesar’s own account, he has been responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 Gauls and Germans in just one campaigning season (p.45)
  • Metellus Nepos reads out a despatch from Caesar to the senate in which the great man admits that of the 65,000 strong army of the Nervii only 500 were left alive (p.70)
  • Caesar’s lieutenant wins a great naval battle against the Celts, has their leaders executed and their entire nation sold into slavery. (p.147)
  • Caesar lures 430,000 members of the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes across the Rhine and then annihilates them. (p.148)

It is notable that the only member of the entire ruling class who protests against this behaviour is Cato, who makes a speech in the senate saying Caesar should be declared a war criminal, removed from his command and prosecuted. His suggestion is shouted down.

Even Cicero does’t care that much about these atrocities. But Tiro does. Harris has Tiro dwell on them with horror and this confirms for me, not that Tiro is a sensitive soul, but that he is the representative of the modern liberal consciousness in the novel. Tiro would be a more interesting character if he were either malicious or unreliable. Instead he is the simplest kind of narrator possible, the loyal friend of the protagonist who reports everything he sees with utter honesty. And is as appalled as a Guardian editorial by violence and war.

Family ties

  • The stern republican Brutus was the nephew of the stern moralist Marcus Portius Cato (140).
  • Julius Caesar married off his daughter Julia to Pompey.
  • Mark Antony was the stepson of Publius Lentulus Sura, one of the five Catiline conspirators Cicero had put to death. One among many sources of enmity between the two men.
  • Cassius Longinus was married to Brutus’s sister.
  • Domitius Ahenobarbus was married to Cato’s sister.
  • The consul Marcus Philippus was married to Caesar’s niece (142).
  • Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew.

Dated diction

In my review of Lustrum I mentioned the way the thriller, as a genre, uses stereotypical characters, situations and language to guarantee an enjoyable read. The characters and events may be unpleasant (betrayal, murder etc) but the shape and feel of the incidents is almost always super-familiar and, in a paradoxical way, despite being superficially unpleasant, at a deeper level, cognitively reassuring.

I meant to mention something else I noticed, which is that Harris’s characters often speak like characters from a 1950s British movie. I mean they use a reassuringly old fashioned and very pukka diction.

Some of the reviewers suggest Harris has rewritten Roman history for our times, and insofar as his narrative focuses on cynical abuses of political power that may be true. But I was struck by how very 1950s the language of a lot of the characters is. They often reminded me of characters from Ealing Comedies or the St Trinian’s movies.

It first struck me when Cicero talks about one of the other characters as ‘not being such a bad fellow’.  From then on I noticed this 1950s upper-middle class professional register.

‘Very well, young man, that’s enough’ (p.29).

On page 107 Tiro refers to Bestia as ‘the old rogue’. Who uses the word ‘rogue’ any more unless they’re talking about the Star Wars movie Rogue One or a ‘rogue state’ or maybe describing a ‘loveable rogue’ in a review of a movie?

Bestia had with him ‘his son Atratinus, a clever lad’.

When characters address each other they’re likely to say things like, ‘My dear Rufus…’ or ‘My dear, poor boy…’ Atticus speaks with the overemphasis typical of the English upper-middle classes: ‘Tiro, my dear fellow, thank you so much for taking care of my old friend so devotedly‘ (p.113). And:

  • ‘What an utter villain that fellow is.’ (Cicero about Crassus, p.154)
  • ‘The man’s ingratitude is unbelievable!’ (Milo on Pompey, p.178)
  • ‘I am delighted to meet you! My wife has always talked of you most fondly.’ (Dolabella to Tiro, p.296)

Now you could argue that the dialogue is a bit old fogeyish as part of a broader authorial strategy by which Tiro’s language as a whole has a definite oldster tinge, like the pages of an old paperback which have yellowed with age.

I slept, and very deeply despite my anxieties, for such was my exhaustion… (p.499)

Not ‘because I was so exhausted’ but ‘such was my exhaustion’. It’s not exactly Victorian or really old diction and it’s not dominant in every sentence; but at moments when he has a choice, Harris always chooses the more old-fashioned, stiffer phrase.

Presumably this dated tinge is a conscious effort. I can see it has two intentions: one is to subtly convey that this is a 2,000 year old document describing a lost world. It is meant to feel, not archaic exactly, but slightly dated, in order to convey its pastness.

The other, more obvious motivation, is that the narrator is 100 years old. Tiro is an oldster. So of course his turn of phrase would be dated, even in his own time. When you ponder that fact, you could argue that the phrasing throughout the book is not dated enough.

But at the end of the day this is not a literary work, but a popular novel, a historical thriller and its default prose style is the crisp, factual manner of the thriller and most literary effects are clinically dispensed with in order to achieve its strong, direct, intelligent but simple impact.

Scraps

Cicero tells Tiro that Cato is the only one of them who clearly sees they they’re on the road to ruin (p.149).

Tiro the slave (p.20). His (sketchy) thoughts about slavery (p.226).

Caesar is like a whirlpool (p.147).


Credit

Dictator by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson books in 2015. All references are to the 2016 Arrow paperback edition.

The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Roman reviews

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (1998)

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to fuck her. And if I don’t want to fuck her, she shouldn’t be in the movie’ (Don Simpson, President of Worldwide Production, Paramount Pictures, after seeing a showreel of Shelley Duvall, quoted on page 370)

Turns out lots of the senior people in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s were know-nothing scumbags.

Also turns out the movie business is first and foremost a business i.e. even the most ‘radical’ far-out types in the late ’60s-early ’70s were concerned to make a profit – lots and lots of profit – win prizes, gain respect, engaged in extremely serious, dog-eat-dog competition with their peers and rivals. Basically, same old same old.

And it turns out that these young New Hollywood types were into awesome amounts of sex, adultery, free love, were ‘pussy addicts’, ‘pussy struck’ (p.212) and ‘pussy hounds’ (p.208), propositioning any girl who walked by, had multiple mistresses, girlfriends, even ordering up partners from modelling catalogues (a technique pioneered by Brian de Palma who recommended it to Steven Spielberg).

And that they ingested a whole heap of drugs – at first everyone smoked pot, riskier types took acid, and then in about 1971, the whole town discovered cocaine. By 1980 Hollywood was a winter wonderland of white powder. Martin Scorsese alone seems to have been a one-man pharmaceuticals factory (p.377).

None of these things are, by themselves, that much of a revelation. What makes this book such an epic read is the awesome amount of detail that Biskind goes into on all these and many other topics, and the amazing eye-witness testimony he appears to have coaxed out of everyone who was there.

Easy riders

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a big, intensely researched and hugely absorbing book, turning in at just over 500 pages of smallish print, including the index and ‘Cast of characters’.

The idea is simple. The later 1960s saw the final collapse of the Old Hollywood which had dominated from the 1920s, with its rigid studio systems, production quotas, stars under strict contracts, subject to carefully managed images and appearing in movies with, by and large, squeaky clean subject matter (Doris Day & Rock Hudson) or, if a bit more gritty (gangster movies, Westerns), nonetheless featuring clear heroes, baddies and well-upholstered love interests.

In this Old World, directors were simply hired hands who took pride in subsuming their own style to the requirements of the studio and the project (mostly – though you could still tell a Howard Hawks movie from a John Ford movie etc).

The late 1960s saw the arrival of a Completely Different Approach, with writers and directors and actors determined to tear down all the old restrictions, to portray more explicit violence and sex and controversial political and social themes in their movies, and to have a lot more say about the kinds of movies they wrote and directed. They wanted to be auteurs, not just directors but film-makers, free to convey their special visions in their own personal ways.

The new young generation of writers, directors and actors who came through at the end of the 1960s created a Golden Age of Independent Cinema in a new kind of Hollywood, which slowly adapted to more grown-up, controversial and ‘difficult’ themes.

The audiences were younger, too, and better educated, college kids who wanted to see the unsettling reality of the world they lived in – the endless carnage in Vietnam and student protests and Black Power and drugs and free love – portrayed up on the screen.

All of this is fairly well known, as is the list of New Hollywood directors:

  • Robert Altman (b.1925) M*A*S*H*, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville
  • Mike Nichols (b.1931) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Teach Me!, Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge
  • Roman Polanski (b.1933) Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, Tess
  • William Friedkin (b.1935) The French Connection, The Exorcist
  • Woody Allen (b.1935) Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall,  Manhattan, Stardust Memories
  • Peter Bogdanovitch (b.1939) The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Daisy Miller, Nickelodeon
  • Francis Ford Coppola (b.1939) The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now
  • Brian de Palma (b.1940) Carrie, Scarface
  • Martin Scorcese (b.1942) Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Raging Bull
  • Terence Malick (b.1943) Badlands, Days of Heaven
  • George Lucas (b.1944) THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars,The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • John Milius (b.1944)
  • Steven Spielberg (b.1946) Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The key New Hollywood actors:

  •  Warren Beatty, James Caan, Robert de Niro, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Jon Voigt, Ryan O’Neal, George Segal

New Hollywood movies

And the movies themselves. In this list I’ve 1. highlighted in bold the movies Biskind treats in real detail 2. and indicated their directors. The others are included as context. And I’ve included the movies which won Best Picture Oscar for each of the years. The idea is that there a few forerunners in 67 and 68:

1967 – Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Cool Hand Luke – Best Picture Oscar: In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)

1968 – Bullitt (Peter Yates), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski): Best Picture – Oliver! (Vernon Harris)

But 1969 was the year of the Big Breakthrough:

1969 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper), The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Best Picture – Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger)

1970 – M*A*S*H (Robert Altman), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson), Catch-22, Little Big Man (Arthur Penn), Woodstock: Best Picture – Patton (Franklin Schaffner)

1971 – The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovitch), Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby), Dirty Harry, Klute, THX 1138 (George Lucas): Best Picture – The French Connection (William Friedkin)

1972 – The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson), Cabaret, Deliverance, Jeremiah Johnson: Best picture – The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola),

1973 – American Graffiti (George Lucas), The Exorcist (William Friedkin), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman), Mean Streets (Martin Scorcese), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovitch), Badlands, Sleeper: Best Picture – The Sting (George Roy Hill)

1974 – Chinatown (Polanski), The Conversation (Coppola), Daisy Miller (Bogdanovitch), The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham 123: Best picture – The Godfather part II

1975 – Nashville, Shampoo, Love and Death, Jaws, Three Days of the Condor: Best picture – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Foreman)

1976 – All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory (Hal Ashby), Marathon Man, The Omen, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Taxi Driver: Best picture – Rocky (John G. Avildson)

1977 – Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Best picture – Annie Hall (Woody Allen)

1978 – Coming Home (Ashby), Days of Heaven (Malick), Blue Collar (Schrader): Best picture – The Deer Hunter (Cimino)

1979 – Apocalypse Now (Coppola), 1941 (Spielberg): Best picture – Kramer v Kramer

1980 – Popeye, Heaven’s Gate (Cimono), American Gigolo (Schrader), Raging Bull (Scorsese), Tess, The Elephant Man: Best picture – Ordinary People

1981 – Reds (Beatty), Raiders of the Lost Ark: Best picture – Chariots of Fire

Qualities of New Hollywood movies

To summarise: the ‘New Hollywood’ was a brief historical window when a new generation of writers and directors, unfettered by Hollywood traditions, felt empowered to tackle challenging new subject matter, shot more cheaply on location (away from the technical and stylistic limitations of studios), starring attractive young actors (Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway), with more graphic treatments of violence and sex.

And a troubled, haunting tone. The best New Hollywood films capture a wistful sense of the loss of shared values and social certainties besetting late-60s America, exacerbated by the catastrophe of the Vietnam War and the general disillusionment with politicians and the ‘old’.

Matching this disillusionment, many New Hollywood films specialise in an atmosphere of uncertainty – uncertainty about plots and characters and values.

The demographics are interesting. In the 1950s and into the 1960s movie-going audiences tended to be middle-aged, high school-educated i.e. not too intellectual. The Sound of Music suited them just fine. But the arrival of the New Hollywood period coincided with a marked shift in the movie-going public, which changed to a younger, more affluent, college-educated demographic. By the mid-1970s, 76% of all movie-goers were under 30, 64% of whom had gone to college. Radical students. Peace, man. Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.

It was a more studenty audience ready to lap up more extreme violence and full-frontal nudity undreamed of by the Hollywood of the 1950s. The old studio heads couldn’t understand these pot-smoking hippies at all and the New Hollywood period can be seen as a hiatus while the Old Guard gave unprecedented autonomy (and money) to a bunch of new, young, wannabe directors.

In reality it only took 4 or 5 years (Martin Scorsese says the period lasted from 1971 to 1976 ‘because we were just starting out’, p.233) before a new generation of studio executives figured out new ways to cater to / exploit the new audience, new genres, subjects, and approaches to marketing and releasing movies, which would restore big money profits and revenue streams to the studios, and the era of happy-go-lucky experimentation ended (see below).

The stories

Gossip Biskind loves gossip. His book is basically a gossip fest. Donna Greenberg has a rich husband and lives in a big beach house in Malibu. She knows Julie Payne, daughter of John Payne and child actress Ann Shirley. Julie has a perfect American body. She is fierce and wild, chainsmokes and drinks, is liable to turn up at Donna’s house at one in the morning, screaming: ‘I want to use your swimming pool to have a fuck.’

There’s lots of stuff like that. If you find that kind of thing interesting or entertaining, then this is the book for you.

Wanna know about the time Dennis Hopper threatened to pull a knife on Rip Torn in a bar? Or ordered 50 nubile young women up to his apartment for an orgy he could film (p.134)? Or beat his wife, who eventually ran away with the kids, terrified he was going to kill her? Or was married for six days to a gorgeous dollybird he met on the location of his second movie – but that once he got her home he took to roaming round the house, off his face on drugs, firing live ammunition, slapping her about, and handcuffing her to the bed so she couldn’t get away… until after six days of this, at a moment when the cuffs were off, she fled?

It’s all here, plus hundreds and hundreds of other stories of the same ilk. The way Warren Beatty’s Winebago on location was besieged by nymphets and spent hours rocking up and down, day and night, as he screwed them? Studio execs lounging by the pool giving all the bikini-ed nubiles who passed by numbers out of ten, Bert Schneider trying to persuade his wife to screw all his friends so he’d feel less bad about his flings, powerful men thinking it run-of-the-mill to say things like ‘Nice tits, honey’ to every woman they met.

The hundreds of outrageous stories behind the bloated, disaster-struck production of Apocalypse Now (the drugs, the no script, Brando’s refusal to act, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, the typhoon which destroyed the set, Coppola’s nervous breakdown), the extraordinary drug intake of Martin Scorsese which almost killed him (pp.386-7), the overdose which saw Hal Ashby being stretchered off to hospital after a hard night partying with the Rolling Stones (p.353).

Sex Biskind loves this stuff and loves describing the sex lives of the directors and executives and stars. Once Peter Bogdanovitch arrives in Hollywood, he and his wife do a good job inveigling their way into the highest Old Hollywood circles.

When their friends went away, they house-sat. Like X-rated Goldilockses they went through the closets of Beverly Hills mansions trying on clothes and fucking in every bedroom. (p.115)

Yes, ‘fucking’. The book starts with everyone being foul-mouthed as you can imagine, and then goes downhill. Everyone was fucking everyone else. Well, to be more precise, pretty much every male in the book is unfaithful to whatever partner they have (wife, mistress, girlfriend). Some, like Beatty, are natural babe magnets. Others set out to systematically screw the wives and girlfriends of all their friends.

A whole lot of women are interviewed who give a lamentable collective portrait of a generation of ‘pussy addicts’. Ted Ashley, chairman of the Warner Brothers film studio from 1969 to 1980 was, according to producer Don Simpson, ‘the pussy freak of all time’ (p.82). Peter Bogdanovich casts his girlfriend Cybill Shepherd in flop after flop because he is ‘pussy struck’.

Once Francis Ford Coppola made it big (very big) with The Godfather he bought a huge house with a pool in San Francisco, gave big parties, as soon as his wife went to bed, he was touching up all the nubiles in the pool. ‘It was no secret that Francis was a major pussy hound,’ says Marcia Lucas (p.208).

Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson emerge as particularly colourful characters. As Biskind puts it, ‘Bert [was] a man for whom the term ‘mindfucker’ was invented…’ (p.130) and he screwed his way through an armada of women, a highlight of whom was the beautiful actress Candice Bergen. He tried to get his wife, Judy, to sleep around too, so he wouldn’t feel so guilty about his affairs, and encouraged his friends to hit on her (p.129). He drove Candice (Candy) mad by his incessant lecturing her about life, how to behave etc, acting Svengali to her Trilby.

Bob Rafelson directed one of my all-time favourite movies, Five Easy Pieces, but is bluntly described as a ‘bully’, raving, shouting, blustering and browbeating everyone around him (p.119).

Drugs And the drugs. Obviously drugs of one sort or another had been around for a long time but mostly on a tiny marginal fringe. The success of Easy Rider made every young producer, director, actor or executive worth his salt feel like he had to be au fait with hash and pot, and the radical ones tried acid. Biskind describes some of the small independent production houses where the secretaries had the task of rolling the joints in preparation for big meetings.

Drugs were even involved in the actual production of the films. Bob Rafelson controlled the pacing of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Five Easy Pieces by managing his drug intake. He and the producer would discuss whether it was best to give Jack some hash or some grass before each scene, depending on the acting requirements (p.119).

Everyone knew Dennis Hopper would scarf down any pharmaceuticals from anywhere within reach. During his acting career, some directors never used him after lunch, when he would be trolleyed; another director sent Hopper calls sheets which included annotations suggesting which drugs he should use before which scenes (p.136).

Then cocaine came in. It went from being a secret vice to a social norm. Bowls of cocaine were laid out at the best parties. Wearing a little gold coke spoon on a necklace became a fashion statement. ‘Cokey’ becomes an adjective. The movie Personal Best is powdered with the stuff.

It was a cokey set. A production designer referred to [the movie’s writer-director] as ‘old write-a-line, snort-a-line Towne’. (p.395)

Scorsese at the Cannes Film Festival had good coke flown in from Paris for himself and his entourage. When studio executive Robert Evans flew out to visit the set of Robert Altman’s movie, Popeye, shooting in Malta in 1980, his luggage contained large consignments of coke for the director and crew, which made it embarrassing when his luggage got lost and opened by customs. Biskind tells a wild story of a panic-stricken Evans ringing studio head Don Simpson in the middle of the night, making him realise the stakes were that a senior exec and a major film could go down in a drugs scandal, and telling him to get no less a personage than Henry Kissinger on the case! (p.370).

Business All this sex and drugs stuff is initially entertaining, but after a hundred pages has got a bit oppressive. More interesting is the insight into the movie business as a business. We are told about umpteen ‘business meetings’ where decisions are made about greenlighting numerous projects, or where Old Hollywood executives are persuaded to fund risky experimental new ventures, like Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios. That said, they’re not like the meetings I used to go to at government departments, which go on for one, two or three hours with an agenda, minutes and action logs. In Biskind’s hands most of these ‘meetings’ quickly turn into shouting matches, where executives and directors shout and swear at each other.

It wasn’t exactly a meeting, but it gives you a flavour of the business relationships to learn that whenever super-producer Robert Evans phoned Francis Ford Coppola with yet more criticism about the Godfather project, Coppola invariably ended up yelling obscenities, slamming the phone down, and kept a hammer nearby so he could smash the phone to pieces (p.153). After which a secretary replaced it with a new one.

When producer Stanley Jaffe, at a pre-production meeting for The Godfather, was so insistent that Marlon Brando wouldn’t be in the movie that he slammed his fist on the table, Coppola feigned having an epileptic fit, and fell to the floor in spasms, to convey just how imbecilic the suggestion was (p.153).

Money And there’s a lot of talk about money, about how much a project will cost, how much the studio will put in, the shape of the deal i.e. will director and stars get cash up front or a percentage of the profits, and how those profits could be calculated differently, taking into account all kinds of overheads, what John Landis calls ‘numbers and deals and phone calls’ (p.245).

Warner Bros exec John Calley pays $125,000 up-front to direct the screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? Brando gets $50,000 for appearing in The Godfather while Coppola only got $110,000 (plus 6% of the take, which ended up making him a multi-millionaire). Robert Towne was paid $250,000 to write Chinatown plus 5% of the gross. Lots and lots and lots of financial detail like that.

The process So, putting to one side the sex and drugs gossip, it’s interesting to get really embedded into the way the whole system worked: the way producers, directors, actors and execs were constantly having business meetings and/or social gatherings, hanging out in bars, discussing books or plays which have the potential to become movies, discussing who would be right to develop it, to turn it into a treatment or a script, who to offer the parts to, and the complexity of schedules and commitments, which meant your first choice of director or star actor or whoever, were continually being changed, adjusted, projects dropped, projects revived and so on. Like spinning plates. Like moving between multiple stages where multiple producers, directors, writers and actors are all spinning multiple systems of plates, an awful lot of which crashed and shattered, often very expensively.

And Biskind seems to have staggering access to it all. He seems to have carried out interviews and garnered eye-witness accounts from everyone present at all the key moments, parties, meetings, phone calls and sets. Some critics have complained that Biskind distorted evidence and stories and accounts in order to fit his wildly cynical and jaded narrative, but he indicates where accounts conflict and anyway, who cares? The point is rarely in the detail, it’s in the overall atmosphere of grotesquely appalling behaviour at every level, in every way.

As a small example of how it works – legendary cinéaste and would-be director Peter Bogdanovitch – before he’d directed anything – and his wife production designer Polly Platt, were sent by a magazine to write a feature about the making of what turned out to be John Ford’s last movie, 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. They got friendly with young actor Sal Mineo, the only person on the set their age. Sal gave Polly a dog-eared copy of a trashy paperback titled The Last Picture Show and said it would make a good movie and he’d love to be in it.

Thus began the long process which led to the eventual production of the movie, The Last Picture Show, released in 1971, one of the defining movies of the New Hollywood, Bogdanovitch’s first and arguably greatest film. During filming he fell in love with the female lead, Cybill Shepherd, aged 20 at the time, and left his wife who – the book emphasises – had played a key role in not only adapting the book, but even on set, helping to direct it. Biskind describes in excruciating detail the torment Polly went through as she helped her husband with every aspect of the day’s filming, only to go back to their apartment alone as he spent every night with pneumatic young Cybill.

None of which stops The Last Picture Show being a masterpiece and one of my favourite movies.

So from the hundreds of examples in the book, you get a good sense of the very extended series of accidents, insights, conversations, commissions, scripts, hirings and firings which are all involved in the convoluted processes which lead up to the production of any movie.

Networks And you get a good sense of the extended network or matrix which all this takes place in. Parties mattered. As a small example, Peter Fonda’s agent, Sue Mengers, had parties where people hooked up and did deals: Ann-Margret met director Mike Nichols and got a part in Carnal Knowledge; Burt Reynolds met director Alan Pakula and got a part in Starting Over; Lauren Hutton got chatting to director Paul Schrader and got a part in American Gigolo (p.132).

The socialising was important. Anything could happen at tonight’s party, someone could tip you off to the script going round, or that so-and-so’s looking for a director or actor for some project they’re considering… and it could be the Big Break. You never knew.

‘I went to every party, talked to everybody I could to get a picture made. I looked at people in terms of whether they could help me.’ (Scorsese, quoted page 238)

So this is why personal relationships really mattered. This is where the gossip comes in. Information about who was up and who was down, who was friends with who or had fallen out with who, who was looking to take revenge or sabotage someone else – all this was potentially vital business information as it made the landscape of opportunities much clearer.

That said, almost all the friendships, marriages and relationships in the book sooner or later turn sour, and often toxic. Because of the nature of the business.

Beatty and Towne had been friends since the ’60s. They were as close as two men could be, but it is hard to maintain friendships in Hollywood where the stakes are so high, where there are vast disparities of money and power, where the lines between affection and business are blurred, and people never know whether their success is earned or accidental. Enough is never enough, and the poison of envy eats away at the fibre of friendships. (p.305)

Types of director

The dark, yellowy feel of The Godfather derives almost entirely from the Director of Photography, Gordon Willis. I was surprised to read Biskin stating that Francis Ford Coppola’s strengths were not really visual – he was good at story-telling, writing dialogue and getting on with actors. Willis gave The Godfather that unparalleled look.

Obviously there are different kinds of directors, but I hadn’t quite realised just how different. Whereas Coppola loved actors and working with them, Polanski hated them and behaved like a dictator, like Napoleon. ‘Who gives a fuck about your motivation, your paycheck is your motivation, just say the fucking words’, he shouted at Faye Dunaway on the set of Chinatown (p.189). On on occasion she was sitting in a car holding a coffee cup while Polanski yelled at her, until she finally flung it in his face, at which point he realised it was full of pee. Hers, or co-star Jack Nicholson’s, sitting grinning next to her?

Hal Ashby, by contrast again, was immensely easy-going with his actors, one of the greatest ‘non-directors’ of all time according to Nicholson, but the downside was scenes often lacked bite and intensity so that the script got washed out (p.179).

Robert Altman created a ‘wonderful atmosphere’ on his sets, where he worked alongside the actors to get at the ‘truth’ of a scene (p.215). But he also ‘fucked everybody over’, limited other people’s pay but made sure he got the full rate, sacked crew members arbitrarily and was, of course, a womanising s.o.b.

William Friedkin was a very technical kind of director, very involved with the lenses and the technical effects, but he didn’t like actors, he went on record as saying he’d rather direct tree stumps (p.218). And we hear about the time he permanently injured Ellen Birstyn’s spine, during a special effect for The Exorcist.

And Terrence Malick (Badlands) was so notoriously indecisive that he took two years (!) to edit Days of Heaven (finally released in 1978), after which he retired from the business for decades.

One of the best bits of the book, I thought, was the one-page biographies of all the key directors.

  • Hal Ashby was raised on a farm and one day found his dad in the barn who’d put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger; he never recovered, bottled it up, but it came out in titanic rages.
  • Coppola was stricken with polio when he was eight-years-old, and spent a year in bed, all friends and most family forbidden from visiting him, lonely and isolated, a sense of loneliness and victimhood he carried into adult life.
  • Scorsese was a short, skinny, sickly momma’s boy with allergies to everything and bad asthma, ‘filled with phobias and anxieties’ (p.238). He was timid, bordering on cowardly, hated confrontation, always smiling. But he bottled up the rage from being a short skinny kid in a rough neighbourhood – he was a wall puncher, a phone thrower (p.239) – and projected his anger into his films – which is why I’ve never liked them (p.227).

He was not very confrontational. Which is one of the reasons I think he gets so confrontational in the films, he’s just letting all that out. All the stuff he can’t do in his day-to-day life. (Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver)

  • William Friedkin grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Chicago and was arrested for armed robbery (!). After the success of French Connection and The Exorcist, he thought he was a genius and behaved intolerably to everyone, many enemies being thrilled when his next movie, Sorcerer, shot on location in the Dominican Republic, was a catastrophe.
  • Paul Schrader’s upbringing was one of religious terror and beatings by his pious mother and father. The God-fearing upbringing of screenwriter Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard, with its parental beatings and hellfire terrors, is itself the stuff of fiction (or nightmares). His obsession with suicide, with always having a loaded gun by his bedside, the fantasies of mass violence, all this was to spill onto the screen in the script of Taxi Driver.
  • Steven Spielberg was the nemesis of the counter-culture, immune to politics, never took drugs, shared his parents’ values, wanted to do good business and entertain.
  • George Lucas very similar, brought up in provincial nowheresville by philistine parents, small, frail and ill (he had diabetes cf. Scorsese’s asthma and Coppola’s polio). On his arrival in LA he initially thought he wanted to be a rebel like the swaggering cool dudes, de Palma and John Milius and Paul Schrader – till he had a eureka moment when he realised he wanted to make people happy, he wanted to entertain them – which led to the good-time American Graffiti (1974) and then the epoch-making, childish simplicities of Star Wars.

Lucas and Spielberg were in the vanguard of the counterattack by small-town and suburban values that were to reclaim Hollywood as their own. (p.343)

This is partly because it sheds light on the individuals. But also because they’re one of the few places where you get a bit of depth and variety, and an insight into other lives, other American settings and contexts, outside the pussy-grabbing, dope-smoking, egomaniac film world.

The end of an era

The very same ‘film school brats’ who helped to pioneer the new age, unwittingly brought about its demise.

The air of artistic freedom which had come in with Easy Rider (1969) began to reverse itself when the commercial success of Jaws (1975) and then the epic Star Wars (1977) led the studios to realise the potential of a new kind of blockbuster, whose profits could be amplified by careful control of production, marketing and merchandising. Slowly that heady air of half-amateur experimentalism and freedom of subject and tone drained away.

Films like Alien (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) incorporated all the technical innovations pioneered in the previous decade, but had somehow morphed them into a slick new professional look. The moral and stylistic ambivalences of the best New Hollywood movies of the very early 70s had been turned into slick product which went on, as we all know, to become highly profitable franchises, complete with TV spinoffs and a world of merchandising.

Alongside the invention of a new type of blockbuster, went a further change in the demographic of people consuming movies. If 60s radicals had applauded the change in demographic from middle-aged to student-aged audiences, they were not so happy when this downward trend continued towards actual children.

By the mid-1970s 50% of the American movie-going public was aged 12–20. The thing about actual children is they tend to be as socially conservative as their parents, and so the downward trend in the age of the movie-going public was accompanied by a move away from the brief political radicalism of the early 70s towards a reborn conservatism of subjects and approach.

George Lucas understood this extremely well. He is quoted as saying American Graffiti was targeted at 16-year-olds, Star Wars at ten to 12-year-olds (p.318) and that is the basically childish demographic where most movies have stuck ever since.

The Indiana Jones series, like the never-ending Star Wars series, are, basically, films for children, and they were the future, the grandparents of today’s endless X-Men and Marvel Superhero franchises.

Film critic Pauline Kael realised this at the time and wrote essays warning about the trend towards juvenile feelgood movies, not least in an essay titled ‘Fear of Movies’ (p.342). Biskind quotes Spielberg himself as saying he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind entirely to conjure up that child’s sense of wonder, and goes on to point out how the movie’s protagonist abandons his adult responsibilities to his wife and son, regresses to childhood enshtusiasms and then, by entering the alien mothership, effectively goes right back to the womb, relinquishing all adult worries.

It’s hard to think of a more infantilising vision. (p.363)

Biskind’s analyses

Biskind provides fascinating accounts of the random conceptions and lengthy travails of all the key movies of the 1970s, accounts which are drenched, as I’ve said in gossip about personalities, sex and drugs, along with the intricate wheeler-dealing between directors, stars agents and studio executives, that more often than not continued right the way through the shooting, editing and preview stage of the films, sometimes even after they’d been officially released.

But at the point where the narrative reaches the actual release of each of the signature movies of the movement, he also subjects the key movies to interesting ‘criticism’ and ‘analysis’.

Thus he as a very insightful (to me, at any rate) page about The Exorcist which he sees entirely as ‘a male nightmare of female puberty’, drenched in fear of emergent female sexuality, which is why the movie can be seen as a conspiracy of all the male characters to torture and torment the pubescent girl, Regan, back to her pre-sexual innocence (p.223).

Biskind is good on how the unique visual look of The Godfather owes everything to director of photographer Gordon Willis (pp.156-157) but he goes on to give an insightful interpretation of how the movie as a whole, despite its status as the masterpiece of the New Hollywood’s leading figure, Coppola, is in fact a profoundly conservative if not reactionary movie, in its psychological and cultural tendency – promoting the huge importance of family and loyalty at a time when the counter-culture was busy trying to undermine The Family as a bourgeois, sexist construct (p.164).

To bring this out Biskind usefully contrasts the scene where Michael and the Don acknowledge their love for each other with the comparable scene in Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicolson’s character completely fails to communicate with his stroke-bound father.

The Godfather embodies a type of blockbuster sentimentality which points towards the neo-conservative values of the Reagan era, whereas Five Easy Pieces embodies the low-key, on-location, moral and psychological ambiguity and frustration which was the signature note of the New Hollywood. Which is why, although I can acknowledge that The Godfather is a masterpiece, I prefer the low-key, realistic ‘truths’ and perplexities of Five Easy Pieces more.

On another level, Biskind discusses the role of genres. He details the struggles Coppola had to get the movie made, not least the scepticism of every studio exec that gangster movies were passé, and so brings out how its unexpected success marked the beginning of the rehabilitation of old genres in a new blockbuster style.

This reinvention of worn-out genres would turn out to be the modus operandi of Spielberg and Lucas, reinventing scarey (Jaws), science fiction (Star Wars) and adventure (Indiana Jones) in the new blockbuster idiom.

Biskind neatly calls their achievement ‘genre gentrification’, and that captures the way a rough, edgy, arty neighbourhood (New Hollywood) ended up being taken over by smooth-talking young urban professionals (Spielberg, Lucas) and how the tired old Hollywood genres were made over, given a technological lick of paint, and resold at vast profits (p.342).

When you read Biskind’s very useful potted biographies of Spielberg and Lucas, what comes over is what utterly conventional personalities they are, coming from bland provincial backgrounds, completely lacking in political edge, timid and unworldly, who knew about life mainly from TV, who arrived in the Sodom and Gomorrah of 70s Hollywood but didn’t sleep around and didn’t take drugs, just wanted to make movies.

Their lack of rock’n’roll behaviour should have warned all the other bullshitting blowhards of the movement (de Palma and Schrader and Friedkin and Rafelson spring to mind) that here was something new, and quiet and understated, which was going to steal the carpet from under their feet.

Biskind sees this triumph of the homely, the popular, the regular guy and the mass popcorn-eating audience embodied in the story of Jaws itself. In it the rough, tough, right-wing macho man Quint gets eaten. ‘The intellectual Jew of the left’ (Biskind’s words, p.279), despite all his college talk, is ineffectual and runs (or swims) away. It is the unreflective, unflashy, everyman cop, Brody, who saves the day. The movie’s representative of precisely the kind of ‘familymanregularguy’ who Spielberg would aim his following movies at (with such dazzling success).

Politics and society

I warmed to lots of Biskind’s analyses because he relates the movies to their social, cultural and political context, which is much the same way as I think and write about art and literature in this blog.

1969 was the high point of the Vietnam War, protests against the war, and the hippy counter-culture, Woodstock etc. Easy Rider provided images, characters and a popular soundtrack which crystallised that cultural moment. But by spring 1975 it was over. In fact the Paris Peace Accords ended the war in January 1973 and by March 1973 all US forces had been withdrawn. There followed two more years of conflict before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army in April 1975, but the entire raison d’etre of the anti-war movement evaporated in 1973. Alongside it, the enmity of all right-thinking left-wingers and liberals to Richard Nixon’s presidency were vindicated when Nixon resigned in August 1974, rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.

So by 1974 the main bogeyman and the central issue of the counterculture had both disappeared, depriving the movement of its focal points and energy. Instead, America had a whole new set of worries. The country was stricken with an energy crisis from the autumn of 1973 which brought to a juddering halt the run of economic growth which had fuelled increasing affluence ever since the end of the Second World War.

A huge middle ground of public opinion, which had been prepared to let the hippies get away with the benefit of the doubt, who had let themselves be persuaded that America was an evil imperialist power or had dabbled with pot, now found themselves unemployed and scrabbling for work.

George Lucas is quoted several times as saying ordinary people were fed up of being told by New Hollywood directors that they were wicked racist imperialist pigs exploiting the workers. They wanted to see movies which would leave them feeling happier as they walked out the cinema than when they went in, not wretched and depressed (pp.363)

Hence American Graffiti, a feelgood movie deliberately set in the early 60s before the whole shitstorm of Vietnam and the counterculture kicked in. And then Star Wars, the ultimate in apolitical escapism, set in a universe long ago and far away, where the good guys wear white and the bad guys dress in black.

You can hear it in the rock music, too. In 1969 hipsters listened to the hairy ugly dudes in Steppenwolf, singing their signature track Born To Be Wild which runs through Easy Rider, ‘head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure’. Young film studio executives were taking pot, even acid, experimenting with open marriages and free love.

Just four years later (in 1973) The Eagles released Tequila Sunrise, laden with slick worldweariness, and the young studio execs were now wearing carefully ironed jeans and cheesecloth shirts, everyone was snorting cocaine and looking for the next Godfather.

By the late 70s Bert Schneider, the buccaneering executive behind BBS Productions which funded a lot of the early New Hollywood productions, now felt tired and old. The BBS building on La Brea, once the headquarters of everything hip and happening, now felt like a dilapidated old ‘head’ shop, covered in yellowing posters from the hippy era, relics from a different age (p.299).

When Barry Diller, who came from heading TV channel ABC arrived as new CEO of Paramount, he sacked a lot of the old staff and installed a young Michael Eisner as President.

When Eisner came in as president, the atmosphere at Paramount changed completely. They wanted to do what they had done at the [TV] network, manufacture product aimed at your knees. (Richard Sylbert, Head of Production at Paramount at the time, quoted on p.297)

Biskind explains that it was the ‘TV regime’ at Paramount that ‘helped to put the New Hollywood in its grave’ (p.397).

New ways of doing business

The era of experimentation came to an end when Hollywood discovered new ways of making big, big money from blockbusters. Frankly, I didn’t understand the minutiae of the new ways of funding projects which Biskind describes, but I did understand the three other key elements which were ‘new’:

1. Breaks Previously movies had been released in a relatively limited number of cinemas round the country, and in waves or ‘breaks’ – alpha cinemas first, then, when the first wave of popularity had passed, in beta cinemas – all in a bid to stretch out a movie’s paying life. With Godfather, the studio opened it across a much larger number of cinemas right at the start – and made a ton of money (total box office something like $280 million). Having seen this work so well, Universal Pictures copied the tactic with Jaws – its first weekend it opened in 409 cinemas and made a huge profit – the total take ended up being $470 million. So mass openings right across the country became part of a new ‘blockbuster’ strategy.

2. TV promotion Conventional wisdom throughout the 1960s was that television was the rival, the competitor, which was slaying the film industry, taking ads away from the screen, but much more importantly, allowing people to slump on their sofas after dinner and watch high-grade entertainment without having to schlepp through bad weather and wait in line to get into a movie which may, or may not, be any good.

It was a business strategy breakthrough when marketing departments realised that heavy investment in TV commercials could make a massive difference to box office. Seems obvious to us now, nearly 50 years later, but it was a revolutionary breakthrough at the time. Thus Universal spent $700,000, an unprecedented amount, on half-minute ads during prime time TV slots to promote Jaws and the results were spectacular.

Jaws change the business forever, as the studios discovered the value of wide breaks – the number of theatres would rise to one thousand, two thousand, and more by the next decade – and massive TV advertising, both of which increased the costs of marketing and distribution, diminishing the importance of print reviews, making it virtually impossible for a film to build slowly, finding its audience by dint of mere quality. As costs mounted, the willingness to take risks diminished proportionately. Moreover, Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws. (p.278)

3. Merchandising The third aspect of the ‘blockbuster revolution’ was merchandising. There’d always been book tie-ins and cheap trinkets, but they had never been commercially important. Once again it was Jaws that began the process, with toys and t-shirts, but Star Wars which took it to a whole new level. What’s fascinating to learn is that George Lucas knew this from the start.

Until Star Wars, merchandising was a relatively trivial cash centre. Lucas understood its importance (p.320)

Lucas was fascinated by money, studied the bottom line, analysed the sources of profit and realised from the start the immense potential of Star Wars merchandising. After all, from the get-go he conceived it as a movie for kids, and you sell kids toys, right? He aimed to make ‘the most conventional kind of movie I can possibly make’ (p.321), and recoup the money on the toys.

Star Wars drove home the lesson of Jaws, that kids and young adults would come back again and again to a movie without stars… It woke up the studios to the potential of merchandising, showed that the sale of books, T-shirts, and action figures could be a significant profit centre. Star Wars‘s merchandising efforts, instead of merely promoting the movie, as had been the case in the past, took on a life of their own and sucked up well over $3 billion in licensing fees as of the re-release of the Star Wars trilogy in 1997, adding an incentive to replace complex characters with simple figures that could be turned into toys. (p.341)

Taken together, massive ‘breaks’, TV advertising and mass merchandising (combined with the more obvious element of ‘popular’, mass-audience-pleasing subject matter) provide a good working definition of the ‘blockbuster’ phenomenon and are, quite clearly, the exact opposite of the low-budget, improvised, ambiguous art movies that New Hollywood directors got to make in their brief window of opportunity.

Which is why critics and insiders date the New Hollywood era from 1969’s Easy Rider, which seemed to blow the film world right open, to 1975’s Jaws when the window for interesting art movies began to close, and then 1977, when Star Wars slammed it shut.

Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big budget, comic-book mentality. (Screenwriter Paul Schrader, p.316)

Star Wars swept all the chips off the table. What happened with Star Wars is like when MacDonalds got a foothold, the taste for good food just disappeared. (Director William Friedkin, p.344)

Dennis Jakob coined the term ‘twerp cinema’ for the movies of Lucas and Spielberg.

No-one knows

One of the most fascinating things about the book, is no-one knows when a movie is going to be a hit or a flop. I found it riveting to read about the disasters which plagued the production of Jaws, I had no idea it was such a screwup all the way through the filming and editing, and right up to the last minute Spielberg and a lot of the suits thought it was a disaster. Even more amazingly, Lucas was at moments suicidal about Star Wars which he thought was a piece of junk, incoherent twaddle, and so did many of his friends and family!

It’s fascinating to see just how contingent so many of the films were. Nobody knew, not even the makers, whether they would, by the time of the final edit and the final sound mix, be Oscar winners or humiliating failures.

This helps explain the relentless anxiety, the uncertainty, paranoia and angst of the leading directors. As the budgets got bigger, the pressure on them, and the producers and studio execs, became unbearable. Here’s one snapshot from hundreds:

Scorsese went into Raging Bull twisted into a knot of bitterness, defiance and self-doubt. He was overwhelmed by a sense of fatality… Scorsese was edgy and irritable as ever, prone to sudden outbursts of anger… Scorsese had such a severe anxiety attack on the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo that he couldn’t catch his breath and was convinced he was having a coronary… (pp.391-2)

One consequence was the drugs, which were easily available and were the easiest way to escape the crushing anxiety of each day. But it also explains the prevalence of adoring groupies and yes-men which Biskin describes the uber-directors as surrounding themselves with (Friedkin, Ashby, Bogdanovich, but especially Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese). Because the closed-shop of adulatory groupies was like the drugs – a vital prop, a psychological survival strategy for men who came under immense pressure, not only to deliver big budget hits, but from their own inner demons telling them they ought to have been making the artistic masterpieces they’d come into the business dreaming about.

It was a recipe for endless malaise, anxiety, anger, frustration and depression. And masses of drugs. And the terrible treatment of women.


Jews in Hollywood

I don’t particularly care whether there are or have been lots of Jews in senior positions in Hollywood. It’s well known that some of the most prominent executives who set up the first studios in the 1920s were Jews who’d moved out from New York (Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg), but a lot weren’t. Similarly, a number of key players in the New Hollywood movement were Jewish… and a lot weren’t.

But it does appear to matter to at least some of the characters themselves, and it palpably matters to Biskind. He consistently note a person’s Jewishness, and quotes their own remarks about their Jewishness:

  • [Robert] Towne’s melancholic, hangdog expression and pale, feverish eyes, along with the Talmudic slope of his shoulders gave him a rabbinical cast he would never entirely shake. (p.30)
  • [Robert Towne] was a born kibitzer. (p.50)
  • [For The Graduate, director Mike] Nichols turned the [originally Gentile] families into Beverly Hills Jews and gave the part to Dustin Hoffman. (p.34)
  • [Bob Rafelson] was handsome in the Jewish way, a shock of dark brown hair over a high forehead, rosebud lips frozen in a permanent pout under a fighter’s battered nose. (p.53)
  • Director Henry Jaglom remembers [Bert Schneider] from Camp Kohut, for Jewish kids, in Oxford Maine…(p.55)
  • Bert and his princess Judy [Feinberg] were truly Jewish royalty. (p.56)
  • ‘These were people who didn’t feel authentic,’ says Toby [Carr]. ‘Artists suffer and upper-middle-class Jewish boys from New York didn’t feel they had…’ (p.58)
  • Evans, according to his number two, Peter Bart, ‘idolised gangsters, but he was fascinated by Jewish gangsters – Bugsy Siegel – not Italian ones’. (p.142)
  • Evans and Bart screened mob movies, realised they had all been written and directed by Jews (p.142)
  • Everyone who worked for [Charlie Bludhorn] was certain he was Jewish, but if so he took great pains to conceal it. (p.144)
  • Bart recalls, ‘We were in London together, going out for dinner. I picked Frank [Yablans] up in his room. He was finished dressing, looking at himself in the mirror, and he said, “You know, I’m a really ugly man, I’m a homely fat Jewish man.”‘ (p.145)
  • [Robert Towne and Roman Polanski bickering over Chinatown] ‘What’s her name?’ ‘No, it can’t be that, it’s too Jewish.’ ‘Who says it’s Jewish?’ (p.166)
  • [Transamerica bought the struggling studio United Artists.] ‘There was a lot of resentment because UA had had twelve, fifteen years of success, then the Jews had taken the goys for a fortune…’ (p.214)
  • According to Jennifer Nairn-Smith, ‘William [Friedkin] denied his whole background…He hated being Jewish. Think Yiddish, dress British.’ (p.220)
  • Says Friedkin, ‘If The Exorcist had previewed it would never have come out ’cause people would have written on their cards, “This is terrible, you have a little girl masturbating with a crucifix, you dirty Jewish bastard.”‘. (p.222)
  • [Verna Fields] was a large, warm lady with short brown hair and half glasses, hung on a string, perched on the tip of her nose. She was like a Jewish aunt, except that instead of talking gefilte fish recipes, she talked editing. (p.237)
  • Spielberg’s mother opened a kosher dairy restaurant in Beverly Hills, but her son avoided it. He disliked his stepfather, who was an Orthodox Jew.Some of his more Jewish-identified friends regarded him as a self-hating Jew. (p.331)
  • ‘Can you imagine Walt Disney turning over in his grave, just thinking about opening his doors to do business with a Jew!’ (p.371)

And Biskind also sprinkles the text with Jewish or Yiddish vocabulary. I had to look up terms like:

  • meshuggah (craziness, or a crazy person)
  • a macher = big shot, important person (p.39)
  • a gonif = a thief or dishonest person or scoundrel (p.101)
  • tsuris = aggravating troubles (p.111)
  • zoftig = [of a woman] a full, rounded figure, plump (p.132)
  • a pisher = a neophyte, somebody new to a job (p.152)
  • a mensch = a person of integrity and honour
  • a nebbish = pitiful, ineffectual man (p.239)
  • a shiksa = a Gentile woman, often blonde and bosomy
  • kibitzing = chatting informally (p.284)
  • shtick = a person’s routine, talent or area of interest (p.287)
  • mishegoss = craziness; senseless behaviour or activity (p.319)
  • alter cockers = older generation, granddads (p.413)

Why does Biskind dwell on the Jewish origins of his characters, and litter the text with Yiddish idioms? I don’t know and I don’t much care, but I found it a persistent and intriguing aspect of the book.

And it added piquancy to one of the promotional quotes on the back cover, from the critic of the Spectator magazine who described Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as having ‘the most dislikeable cast of characters since William S. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’.

That’s a brilliantly insulting quote, but it’s given added – and, I assume, unwitting – undertones by the Jewish flavour of a lot of the text.


Women in Hollywood

1. Husbands dumping their wives

  • Director William Friedkin lived as man and wife with partner Jennifer Nairns-Smith for three years until she announced she was pregnant. When she had the baby, in November 1976, he dumped her (p.311)
  • Martin Scorsese had a relationship with writer Julia Cameron and got her pregnant. During the filming of his musical New York, New York Scorsese started an affair with star Lisa Minnelli. When Cameron had his baby, he dumped her (p.326)

Just a few flagrant examples of the way these powerful, egotistical men treated their women. And the hundreds of examples of the everyday sexist attitudes of all the men on display are far too many to quote.

#metoo

This book was published in 1998, almost twenty years before the outing of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in the #metoo social media campaign.

What puzzled me about #metoo was that it seemed to come as a shock and a surprise to so many people. Hadn’t they read this book – which catalogues the appalling way most women were treated by powerful men in Hollywood throughout the 1970s (and into the 1980s)? Or its sequel, Down and Dirty Pictures, published in 2004, which chronicles the appalling behaviour of, yes, the exact same Harvey Weinstein? Or any of the hundreds of other exposés of Hollywood’s ‘dark underbelly’? Wasn’t the exploitation of a lot of the women who worked there a core part of most people’s vague impression of Hollywood?

When I was a kid I read books about the silent movie starts which chronicled the ‘scandalous’ sexual behaviour of the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks and the outrageous incident of Fatty Arbuckle and the wine bottle. When I was only 12 or 13 I read David Niven’s memoirs of Hollywood, which revolved around sex, especially when he shared a house with Errol Flynn.

From hundreds of references, articles, jokes, on TV, in novels and biographies, I acquired a solid impression of Hollywood as a Sodom and Gomorrah of know-nothing executives ranting, of preening stars making impossible demands, and dictatorial directors reducing their leading ladies to tears; of wild parties, booze and drugs and shameful, disgraceful behaviour.

And a key part of this lurid mythology was the widespread cliché about ‘the casting couch’ and how generations of leading ladies had had to screw or give blow jobs to all manner of directors and execs in order to get jobs. Hadn’t people read about the sexual humiliations Marilyn Monroe had to put herself through before she ended up killing herself, stories which have been repeated in umpteen documentaries and sensationalising biographies.

My point being, I thought that the sexual harassment and abuse of women in Hollywood was common knowledge and one of the most basic aspects of anyone’s mental image of Tinseltown.

‘In Hollywood men put enormous pressure on women to fuck them, even if it’s only once. It’s like the dog that pisses on the lamppost, even if it’s only once. They want that kind of connection and then maybe they can relax.’ (Actress Beverley Walker, quoted on p.234)

It seems that the #metoo revelations about Harvey Weinstein took place when a handful of brave women decided to finally stand up to the climate of fear which Weinstein and others like him were able to exert over Hollywood’s female population. And it struck such a nerve because it turned out that millions of women in not just film but all kinds of other industries, and not just in America, but around the world, had had to, and were continuing to have to, put up with outrageously exploitative, bullying behaviour from men in power.

All well and good. I wholeheartedly support the #metoo movement and all its goals. I’m just bemused by the way so much of this information was already out there. It suggests something about books like Biskind’s – that they can be bestsellers, widely read and reviewed and yet… somehow, not change anything.

It points towards the difference between static channels like books, and even magazine or newspaper reports – and the much more dynamic medium of twitter, where what are, in essence, the same kind of accusations, could go viral very quickly and create momentum, create a movement.

There’s a lot more to be said on these issues, #metoo and the (in)effectiveness of books to change anything, but I thought it was worth recording a few thoughts here.

3. Strong women

Meanwhile, Biskind does make the point that not all the women are downtrodden wives and bimbo girlfriends; that there were some very strong, achieveful women in the Hollywood of the time. One of the most striking gossip-type facts to emerge was the important role played by their partners in both Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson’s early successes.

Bogdanovich’s wife, Polly Platt, was a production designer but all accounts have her intimately involved with the actual directing of his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, sitting beside his director’s chair, discussing shots. He dumped her to begin his infatuated affair with Cybill Shepherd, and never made such a good film again.

Similarly, Bob Rafelson’s wife, Toby Rafelson was also a production designer, and had a big impact on his early masterpiece, Five Easy Pieces. After his womanising and drug-taking drove her away, Rafelson never made a good movie again (a point made by actress Ellen Burstyn, quoted on page 273).

There were also a number of notable women film editors.

Verna Fields edited Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon and What’s Up, Doc? but really made her reputation co-editing American Graffiti and then almost single-handedly saving Jaws, whose rushes were an epic mess (and for which she won an Oscar).

Marcia Lucas, George’s wife, also had an editing role on American Graffiti,then cut Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, New York New York and – seismically – Star Wars.

(It’s worth noting that Woody Allen – who doesn’t feature much in the book, being neither a New Hollywood rebel or a New Blockbuster mogul – has always used woman editors, Susan E. Morse 1977-98, Alisa Lepselter from then to the present.)

I don’t want to just repeat the outrageous attitude of most of the men in the Hollywood of that era, but also want to put on record the achievement of strong, talented women who managed to survive and thrive in it.

A craft, not an art

I use the term ‘movies’ throughout this blog to describe the way American films are, ultimately, products of American hyper-consumer capitalism and not works of art.

I myself have worked as a television producer/director, directing about a dozen commercial videos, and have also hired and employed very talented TV directors for a period of six years (1994 to 2000). I’ve worked very closely with producers, directors and editors (in television).

Granted, TV is not the same as film. But these experience are the basis of my opinion that film is a craft and not an art. Some people in these areas really are amazing, genius craftsmen and women. But, in my opinion, to call it an ‘art form’ is ludicrous – specially when you read scene after scene of blustering, know-nothing executives shouting and yelling about who or what they insist is in the movie, when you read how many ‘great’ movies were in fact bodged and botched and stitched together out of ramshackle compromises, deals, bankruptcies, disagreements, technical and logistical disasters.

As a small example, I was struck by the fact that producer Philip D’Antoni told William Friedkin, director of 1971’s The French Connection, that part of what had made Steve McQueen’s 1968 classic, Bullitt, so great was the epic car chase, so he should put a car chase into Connection. So Friedkin did (p.204). It’s a great car chase, a really brilliant car chase. But it’s not ‘art’.

Similarly, I hadn’t realised that the actual filming of Jaws had been such an epic catastrophe, taking three times as long, and costing three times as much, as budgeted. The script wasn’t finished when they began filming, so many of the scenes were improvised in the evening in Spielberg’s hotel room, with the scriptwriter, Carl Gottlieb, jotting down the best bits – and then filming these ad-libbed scenes the next day.

They made three giant plastic model sharks, but one sank and the others looked terrible, and so it was only because of the accidental fact of their ridiculous look and impact in the early filming that led Spielberg (or others, depends whose story you believe) to completely rethink the script and re-edit the movie so that the shark rarely appears until the end – thus you don’t see it in the first half of the film, which, combined with the brilliant music by John Williams, makes its unseen menace infinitely more threatening and scarey.

Most of the movies described here involved similar amounts of chaos, bad planning, script crises, changes of mind or emphasis, random elements chucked in at the last minute, the studio insisting on reshoots or re-editing the whole thing, and so on and so on.

That’s not art. It’s a shambles. It comes as a shock to learn that Spielberg, at one point, suggested that, at the climax of Jaws, after Chief Brody has blown up the shark and been reunited with Dreyfuss and as they paddle towards the shore, that, in a black joke, they see a fleet of shark’s fins appear on the horizon heading towards them!

‘Art’ is an excuse

Here’s another way of thinking about the ‘Is film an art?’ question.

It’s an excuse. A lot of these people behaved appallingly, not so much the obvious sexism and getting drunk and hitting people, but the shouting at everyone, the bullying coercive behaviour, the exploitation of young women, ripping everyone off, sacking people arbitrarily, using people’s life stories without crediting them, using their ideas, scripts and stories without credit, stabbing their business partners in the back – the book is an awesome catalogue of despicable behaviour.

And their justification? “It’s art. I’m making great art. I am a great artist.”

So all this ‘art’ talk can easily be reinterpreted as an excuse to justify monstrous egotism and abusive behaviour. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls contains more than enough examples of the jaw-dropping egotism, selfishness and the brutal mistreatment of women by some of cinema’s greatest ‘artists’ to wither and kill your opinions of them forever.

(It also kills your respect for ‘film critics’, people employed to suck up to monsters and overlook their abusive behaviour in the name of promoting their ‘art’ — and for ‘film studies’ academics, trying to persuade their students that these hugely compromised products of consumer capitalism are some kind of ‘art form’. Films can be very well crafted – having produced and directed broadcast TV I understand that very well, and how you can take to pieces all aspects of a script, of the techniques of direction, framing, lighting, editing and sound mixing a movie, yes. But that doesn’t make Jaws or Star Wars, let alone Rocky or Finding Nemo or Home Alone 2, works of art. They’re just very well-crafted products designed to be consumed by a mass audience and as nakedly intended to generate profits for their investors as MacDonalds chicken nuggets or a Samsung Galaxy.)

Pictures, not movies

I use the term ‘movies’ to indicate the blunt fact that movies’ are products of American hyper-capitalism, and deliberately don’t talk about ‘film’ or ‘films’ as this is what pretentious ‘film studies’ people say when they start talking about auteurs and ‘artistic vision’.

So it was interesting to realise that everyone in this book, including Biskind, refers to movies as ‘pictures’ – as in the title of the memoirs of über-producer, Robert Evans, The Kid Stays In The Picture, or the obvious fact that the Academy Award each year goes to ‘Best Picture’. Everyone in the business, including Biskind, seems to call them ‘pictures’, not films or movies. Pictures.

And that reminds me of a story which Oscar-winning producer Sam Spiegel tells in his autobiography about an earlier era, about the time when director Elia Kazan had made his first Hollywood movie, and the studio liked it but, after the screening, a studio executive took Kazan aside and told him he had to change his name to something less ethnic. ‘How about Cézanne?’

Kazan was appalled. ‘But Cézanne was a great artist, I couldn’t possibly compete.’

‘Nah,’ says the executive. ‘You make one good picture, everyone’ll forget the other guy.’

Credit

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind was published in 1998 in America by Simon & Schuster. All references are to the 1999 Bloomsbury paperback edition.

War Fever by J.G. Ballard (1990)

This is Ballard’s last collection of short stories, some very short indeed.

  1. War Fever
  2. The Secret History of World War 3
  3. Dream Cargoes
  4. The Object of the Attack
  5. Love in a Colder Climate
  6. The Largest Theme Park in the World
  7. Answers to a Questionnaire
  8. The Air Disaster
  9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station
  10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  11. The Enormous Space
  12. Memories of the Space Age
  13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
  14. The Index

************

1. War Fever (1989)

Through the eyes of young Ryan we learn about the endless war in Beirut between small numbers of warriors divided into four factions, the Nationalists, Christians, Fundamentalists and Royalists. Ryan lives with his Aunt Vera and sister in a tiny apartment in a ruined tower block overlooking the wartorn city.

He is helped out by the kindly Dr Edwards, a United Nations medical observer (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor). The story describes Ryan’s slow, faltering steps to bring about an end to the unending conflict, by asking everyone to adopt the blue hats of the UN peacekeepers, who man the main checkpoints but are forbidden from stepping in to stop the fighting for fear that outside powers will intervene.

Ryan’s scheme works surprisingly well and soon peace has broken out among a number of the factions. Ryan is just nervously approaching the formidable woman fighter Lieutenant Valentina when a series of colossal explosion occur across the ruined city. Ryan hares back to his apartment and discovers that Aunt Vera and his sister have been kidnapped!

Dr Edwards watches his face closely as he asks Ryan whether he’s going to rush back to his militia and resume the fighting. However, Ryan decides he is going to renew his determination to being about a truce. At which point Dr Edwards ties Ryan’s wrists together, pushes him into a jeep and drives him through umpteen checkpoints and right out of the ruined, smoke-filled city altogether.

Here, in a well-organised, clean depot and admin area packed with new guns and munitions, Dr Edwards explains to Ryan that Beirut is a huge scientific experiment. The whole of the rest of the world lives in complete peace: but they pay to support endless fighting in Beirut, supplying gun and ammo and orphans resulting from tragic accidents. Thus new generations of fighters are continually refreshing the depleted ranks of the four factions.

Why? In the same way that a handful of labs around the world keep supplies of smallpox which is otherwise eradicated: to study the war virus, to study what makes people fight, why they are motivated, how they organise and how far they will go.

It’s a version of The Truman Show with rocket grenades. Except that the exploding and the fighting gets perilously close. Dr Edwards rallies with the other UN behind the scenes staff and head back into the war zone. They drive to the wrecked sports stadium where Aunt Vera and his sister had been taken and should have been looked after. But Royalists managed to fight through the UN defences and kill everyone, the UN defenders, Aunt Vera and Ryan’s sister.

And it is then from the deep well of bitterness and anger at how and all of them have been played, that Ryan conceives his next Big Plan. He will unite the warring factions of Beirut. They will fight and overcome the UN forces. And then they will unleash the dormant virus of war and violence on an unsuspecting world!

2. The Secret History of World War 3 (1988)

A slight misnomer because this short squib is mostly a satire on American politics and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The narrator is a physician (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) based in Washington DC, and this short story depicts a fictional future in which Reagan is replaced as president in 1989, but his successor is so lamentable that the American Constitution is amended so Ronnie can stand for president a third time and is, indeed, elected, at the ripe old age of 82. He’s so old that the media take to publishing regular updates on his health, the TV news starts having a President’s Health segment, and one day an ECG-type readout appears along the bottom of the screen. It’s Ronnie’s heartbeat. Soon half the TV screen is full of a panoply of readouts recording all aspects of the President’s health, and Ballard satirises the breathless commentary of TV hosts – the stereotypical craggy old guy and the glamourpuss blonde – and the way everyone in the country, including the narrator’s own wife, become more and more addicted to the second-by-second commentary which covers every burp and fart and bowel motion.

It is in the middle of this satirical vision of a celebrity president-addicted population, that mounting tensions between the superpowers (which have, satirically, only gotten the briefest of mentions on the news in between the analysis of what the President had for lunch) erupts into a sudden exchange of nuclear weapons which takes place on 27 January 1997 between 6.47 and 6.51pm. The Russians launch a handful of nukes which explode in Alaska, the Yanks launch a handful of nukes which explode in Siberia, then both sides come to their senses, end the war, and de-escalate the various tensions around the globe.

So the story isn’t really about World War Three in any way you might expect: it is a satire on the mediatisation of American politics, and the hopeless addiction to screens and an endless diet of celebrity news, bulletins and updates among the American public.

Thoughts

This story was published in 1988. Modern commentators think there is something new and unprecedented about twitter and so on, and of course smart phones and social media are new, in one sense: and yet here’s Ballard satirising a zombie president and the American public’s addiction to screens over thirty years ago. That’s why Trump and twitter just don’t seem that new to some of us: or are just the latest iteration of a very long-running issue.

3. Dream Cargoes (1990)

Johnson is thirty years old but comes across in this story as very simple minded. He’s the dogsbody on a decrepit cargo steamer named the Prospero. In the Far East its alcoholic captain, Galloway, lets himself be bribed into taking on board an extremely hazardous cargo of toxic chemicals and the steamer then chugs round South America and up the coast towards the Caribbean. But here a series of port authorities and customs officials forbid the Prospero from docking with a cargo which has slowly started leaking and discharging toxic fumes all over the ship as well as corroding its cargo hold and then the hull.

As the ship starts to list to one side and becomes wreathed in toxic fumes, Captain Galloway and the handful of crew decide to abandon the ship but Johnson stays on, deluded by dreams of being a ‘captain’. A day or so later he spots a small island somewhere off Puerto Rico and beaches the ship there.

Over the ensuing days the toxic waste spills everywhere and has a drastic effect on the local vegetation, which starts growing at a breakneck speed, while Johnson himself descends into the kind of malnourished-sick-fever-dream which is so familiar in Ballard’s fiction.

As new types of tropical plant burgeon all around him, Johnson realises the island is visited by a biologist, Dr Chambers (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor). She becomes involved in his dreams of becoming one with the island, of becoming one of the hyper-evolved giant birds and flying towards the sun (as in so many other Ballard stories) and (as in so many other Ballard stories) the way time is slowing down for him, as he goes into more and more trance or fugue states, so that his perceptions superimpose multiple images of the same object, creating a fragmented or crystal effect.

He stared at Christine, aware that the colours were separating themselves from her skin and hair. Superimposed images of herself, each divided from the others by a fraction of a second, blurred the air around her, an exotic plumage that sprang from her arms and shoulders. The staid reality that had trapped them all was beginning to dissolve. Time had stopped and Christine was ready to rise into the air…. He would teach Christine and the child to fly.

On the final page an American ship arrives and the US Navy lieutenant who comes ashore finds them both in quite a state – finds also that the giant flora seems to have overgrown itself and is now dying off. As he helps them leave the island Johnson reflects that he has gotten Dr Chambers pregnant and that their child might well be the first of a new species of human, and how they would fight to protect it from ‘those who feared it might replace them.’

4. The Object of the Attack (1984)

Cast in the format of diary entries by Dr Richard Greville (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor), Chief Psychiatric Adviser to the Home Office.

His diary entries concern a young psychotic who built and flew a glider over Windsor Castle during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. But he got tangled up in some aerials, fell to earth and the police found he had loads of gelignite strapped to his body, wired to a detonator. Thinking he planned to assassinate the president and his entourage, the Boy, as everyone refers to him, is locked up in a series of mental institutes, where Dr Griffiths visits him.

Griffiths gives us a profile of this boy, Matthew Young, a devoted psychopath, who’s suffered from epilepsy all his life. He’s been through a whole raft of careers including trainee pilot and video game designer. What is common to them all is a pathological obsession with space flight, with the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle.

This becomes entangled with the concept of an Ames Room. An Ames room is a space in which furniture and other elements have been carefully arranged so that, from one chosen perspective, likely a peephole, it creates a completely convincing optical illusion. The concept was invented by American scientist Adelbert Ames, Jr. in 1946.

Anyway, Young escapes from a mental institute in Daventry by insisting on going to the chapel and being left alone. being a psychotic genius, he creates an Ames Room optical illusion by arranging all the furniture in the room to look as if he’s kneeling at the altar praying, when in fact he had arranged the pews in a ladder up to the ceiling and was crouched forward undoing the screws of the ventilator.

So Young escapes and disappears, going underground. Here the content of this short story gets quite clotted. Because Griffiths has figured out, from meeting the Boy himself and reading his journals, that it was never Ronald Reagan he wanted to assassinate, it’s a figure called Colonel Stamford, one of the last Apollo astronauts, who went on to have a successful career in business, and has now turned into a major campaigner against the evils of Communism. That’s why he was accompanying Reagan on the state visit.

And now Colonel Stamford is due to return to the UK, to address big Billy Graham-style public meetings, hailed by Newsweek as ‘a space-age messiah’, the ‘founder of the first space-based religion’. So the story contains quite a lot of speculating about how the space programme has morphed into a popular religion!

Griffiths turns investigator and decides to revisit the locked-up garage in Highbury where Young had been living when he was arrested. There’s a policeman on guard who lets him through and Griffiths pokes through Young’s belongings, finding more evidence of the deranged young man’s obsession with space flight.

Then he remembers that behind the lockup is a disused Baptist chapel and goes through into this. Here he discovers a bizarre scene, for Young is not only here (just yards from the protecting policeman – how did he get past?) but has been hard at work creating another Ames room, using props and posters from Star Wars and Dr Who to create a bizarre illusionistic installation of an astronaut on the moon.

Except that it looks like the Boy had an epileptic fit while at the top of the ladder and has fallen to the ground, bruising his face, cracking some teeth. Around him are the disassembled parts of a stockless rifle which he had been oiling when the attack kicked in.

And here’s the thing: Griffiths leaves him be. He frees Young’s tongue and windpipe, then tiptoes out and strolls nonchalantly past the police guard. Cut to a few weeks later as Stamford arrives in the UK, addressing both Houses of Parliament calling for a crusade against the evil empire of the non-Christian world, for the creation of orbital nuclear bomb platforms, for the launching of laser weapons which can be targeted on Tehran, Moscow and Peking. the story ends with Griffiths quietly confident that Young will have recovered from his grand mal seizure, completed his preparations and will be attending that evening’s grand assembly at Earl’s Court where Colonel Stamford will be addressing a cheering audience and will, God willing, be shot down by his psychotic assassin.

Thoughts

As so often in a Ballard story, not just the subject but the construction, the shape of the narrative itself, seems slightly askew, off-kilter. What starts out as a fairly limited study of one epileptic psychopath morphs before our eyes into an increasingly garish fantasia about an ex-NASA astronaut who’s founded a New Age religion and is frothing at the mouth about destroying Communism and Islam. It’s quite an extreme trajectory in just ten or so pages and, as with so many Ballard stories, I couldn’t figure out whether it was brilliant or – as I was more inclined to think – ludicrous.

When he writes narratives about individuals – like the protagonists of Crash, Concrete Island or High Rise – Ballard well conveys a delirious sense of psychological dislocation or alienation, and attaches it very effectively indeed to the imagery of late-twentieth century life, mainly the brutalist architecture of concrete motorways, flyovers, multi-story car parks, airports and vertiginous high-rise blocks.

But as soon as he starts making generalisations about society at large, and going on about NATO and NASA and the Third World War and Ronald Reagan and the Queen… something ineluctably cartoonish enters the stories; they become silly and superficial.

5. Love in a Colder Climate (1988)

A sort of sci-fi spoof or satire.

It is 2010 and the spread of AIDS and related viruses has put everyone off sex or physical contact of any kind. Younger people have become celibate with the result that the population plummets. By the date of the story, 2010, the government introduces national service although, as Ballard would put it, of a very particular kind.

It is national procreation service. When they turn 21 young people are assigned partners by computer and have to report to the other person’s apartment – ideally dressed in one of the procreation-encouraging outfits – an Elvis Presley ‘Prince Valiant’ suit for men, a bunny girl, cheerleader or Miss America outfit for women – and are compelled to copulate. Satire. (Note how all these outfits are American. Born in 1930, America, American cars and movies and cigarettes and technology, represented The Future for Ballard from his boyhood on, as both volumes of his fictional autobiography – Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women – powerfully convey.)

Ballard lays on the satire with a trowel with the suggestion that each young person is monitored by a personal supervisor who is a priest – the religious thought to have the mentoring skills and moral subtlety required – while young women are mentored as to how to have sex, lots of sex, by nuns. Satire. Anyone who refuses to have sex goes through stages of rehabilitation, which starts with being forced to watch porn videos and progresses to chemotherapy.

Anyway, the protagonist, David Bradley, is himself super-reluctant and when he is sent round to the flat of a young woman, Lucille McCabe, discovers she doesn’t want to either. They fall in love on the spot, and during the following months Bradley makes elaborate precautions to become her protector, swapping shifts, hacking computers to remove appointments with other men, even faking her pregnancy with the help of a friendly lab technician.

All to no avail. Their ruse is discovered when another lover is sent round by the computer and Bradley can’t stand watching Lucille being bundled towards the bedroom, they fight, Bradley is arrested and brought before a tribunal.

Here he is convicted of believing ‘the Romantic fallacy’ and of having ‘an exalted and idealised view of women’ and sentenced to three years additional national service. The only way out of it is to refuse and force the authorities to implement the ultimate sanction, and castrate him. This he happily submits to if it means he can be with the woman he loves.

Thoughts

As a child of the 60s, well a widower who lived through the 60s and took full advantage of the Sexual Revolution, Ballard is clearly satirising the rightward and puritanical shift caused by Mrs Thatcher and AIDS. Is it a good story, or heavy-handed satire? It’s certainly not weird hard-core Ballard and can be categorised along with his other relatively ‘straight’ satirical stories.

6. The Largest Theme Park in the World (1989)

Another satire.

Set in the near future when Europe’s last remaining countries give in and join a United Federation of Europe. In that summer (of 1995) millions and millions of students, middle managers and workers go for their annual holidays on the 3,000-mile-long strip of beach which is the Mediterranean shore from the Costa Brava to Glyfada.

But this time they refuse to come back. They become full-time sun worshippers, they take to beach exercises and martial arts. They become trim and lean and fit. When the police of the Mediterranean nations come to turf them off the beach, there are pitched battles and the sun-worshippers win. The heady summer of 1996 rolls into the spring of 1997 and there is now an army of 30 million strong living on camps along this huge narrow territory, in effect a new nation.

So far, so like a vision of the social collapse envisioned in High Rise but applied to beach culture. Beaches have always fascinated Ballard. The Terminal Beach is one of his most famous stories, but the story in which the world’s population suddenly has some profound primal urge in our primitive minds activated by waves from outer space, and walks, as one man, into the sea, is the most haunting variation on the theme.

This story is much shallower story than that one and its satirical climax – which feels pretty forced – is that the armies of the beaches eventually arms up and marches back north into the so-called United Europe, determined to restore a Europe of nations, each jealous of its borders and customs and traditions.

So it turns into an oddly wonky satire on the EU.

7. Answers to a Questionnaire (1985)

A short and interesting format, this text consists of 100 answers to a questionnaire – in fact more like some kind of police interview – where we don’t see the questions, just the answers in a numbered list.

It’s surprising how much you can pack into a brief format like this. Without any of the questions, and just via the clipped answers, quite a complicated narrative emerges – in fragments and cryptic references – in which the narrator appears to have befriended a Middle-Eastern-looking down-and-out with severe injuries to his hands, who is obsessed with DNA and ice-skating, who is a whizz at hacking into cash machines and extracting large sums, which they seem to have spent on organising group sex sessions.

They spend some of the money setting up radio antennae on top of the Post Office Tower pointing towards the constellation Orion and the narrator appears to have heard the figure’s voice as transmitted from the star Betelgeuse some 2,000 years ago, and appears to know the secret of Eternal Life.

This leads to the figure becoming super-famous, selling out Wembley Stadium and attracting visits from all sorts of luminaries such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, with his claim to know the secret of Eternal Life by injecting new DNA into the human germplasm, extending life up to a million years!

The pound rises on exchange markets, a serum is created and millions of people queue up to be injected, in fact the injections became compulsory for everyone over the age of 11. The side effects were impotence and loss of libido, but this hardly mattered if everyone was going to live forever.

But the very intensive bond between the Christ figure and the ‘accused’, the man answering the questions, seems to have turned sour. The accused seems to have bought a handgun and shot him, from seven feet, with three shots.

It ends with a boom-boom punchline. Literally reading between the lines of the fragmented answers, it seems as if the injections which promised eternal life have not worked, that the ‘accused’, because he was in prison during the time of the mass vaccinations wasn’t given one – and so he is the only man in the UK, possibly the world, who still has functioning sex organs and so ‘the restoration of the birthrate is now his sole responsibility.’

A smart story and a snazzy format. My favourite answer was to question 71, where the accused reveals that the mystery figure ‘wanted me to become the warhead of a cruise missile’. Very Ballard.

8. The Air Disaster (1974)

One of the new 1,000-passenger jet airliners is reported as having crashed somewhere just off the coast of Mexico near Acapulco. The narrator is a not very successful journalist who’s covering a fashionable film festival. His editor, like everyone else’s editors, sends him off to cover the disaster, but there’s a chance encounter in the petrol station where he fills up with gas. Two other journalists are talking to the pump attendant and through the language barrier he appears to be telling them the plane didn’t crash out at sea at all but up in the nearby mountains. The other two hacks don’t believe him and head off for the coast, but the narrator is suddenly seized by an intuition that he’s right. It would only have taken a fractional difference of height and speed for it to have hit the mountains.

So he fills up with gas and heads in the opposite direction up into the hills. He passes through a series of peasant villages, each one more impoverished that the last, until the final one where he enters Ballard-land and becomes genuinely scared for his safety as he watches the dirt-poor illiterate peasants eyeing him, his car, his cameras and everything else about him which they could steal. Trying to impress the narrator addresses several of these toothless old men, waving a wad of cash about and asking if there’s been a crash BOOM in the mountains, and are there bodies, corpses, cadavers?

The primitive old men nod and smile and point up to the last peak, so the narrator clambers up to the final small canyon between the snowy mountain peaks and discovers… the thirty-year-old wreckage of some military jet which crashed up here a generation earlier and is thoroughly derelict and rusted, ‘a tattered deity over this barren mountain’.

The wrecked airplane is, of course, a central symbol in Ballard’s weird imaginarium, recalling the Cessna Sheppard crash lands Myths of the Near Future, the excavated Second World War planes in My Dream of Flying to Wake Island, the abandoned Japanese fighters Jim sits in in Empire of the Sun, or the still-going but decaying planes in Memories of the Space Age…

Anyway, we can imagine his disappointment and chagrin at having gone on this long wild goose chase. But the kicker is in the last page. As he returns down the hillside he goes through the last village he passed, the one where he had brandished wads of money and asked for cadavers. Only to realise that the villagers have dug up their dead relatives and lined their earth-covered, half-rotted corpses along the wall by the road, in the hope that they will pay them. Gruesome. Macabre.

9. Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982)

A nice little brain teaser told in nine short snippets described as ‘surveys’.

A spaceship arrives at what its crew initially take to be a small space station, happy to find it as their ship needs repairs. They enter the station to find it contains concourses full of tables and chairs like a giant waiting space at an airport terminal. They walk along one of these concourses and slowly realise it goes on for some distance, giving out left and right onto further mezzanines and waiting spaces with tables and chairs. When they force open the doors of one of the lifts they can’t see a top or bottom to the shaft. They drop furniture down one of the lift shafts and hear no sound: there doesn’t appear to be a bottom.

Each of the reports updates us as they discover the larger and larger extent of the station. Then they notice the floor and ceiling has a slight curvature, lifting their hopes and making them think it might be circular and they might eventually circle round on themselves. But even this is an illusion. The station appears to curve very slowly, indefinitely, in all directions, as if it is expanding.

By the point of the final ‘survey’ the author has come to the conclusion that the space station is as big as the universe; in fact it might be bigger. The distance they travelled in their spaceship from the solar system might easily be incorporated within the confines of the space station. By the end of the text the author has gone reliably mad.

Our instruments confirm what we have long suspected, that the empty space across which we traveled from our own solar system in fact lies within the interior of the station, one of many vast lacunae set in its endlessly curving walls. Our solar system and its planets, the millions of other solar systems that constitute our galaxy, and the island universes themselves all lie within the boundaries of the station. The station is coeval with the cosmos, and constitutes the cosmos. Our duty is to travel across it on a journey whose departure point we have already begun to forget, and whose destination is the station itself, every floor and concourse within it. So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination. By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning. We are so glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

10. The Man Who Walked on the Moon (1985)

An eerie story. Part of what’s eerie is how totally Ballard thought the Space Age was over and done by the 1980s. There were six crewed U.S. Apollo landings on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and then that was it. I’m inclined to agree.

This story is set in Brazil. It’s a first person narrative. The narrator is a failed journalist, kicked off a succession of ever-smaller papers and forced into giving foreign language tuition. His wife and his mother, who lives with them, despise him, and virtually kick him out the house each morning to go and get a proper job.

Hanging round the cafes he get to learn about a sad, wasted figure, a certain Mr Scranton, who is introduced to tourists as ‘the astronaut’. He isn’t an astronaut and the waiters laugh at him, the American tourists have their photos taken by him in a jokey kind of way. Our narrator does some background research into him and discovers Scranton was a crop-dusting pilot in Miami during the moon landing era, but was never anywhere near NASA.

The story recounts the way our narrator is slowly slowly drawn into this impoverished, thin, wasted man’s weird delusory world. He jokily introduces himself and says he’s writing a piece about sci-fi movies and would like ‘the astronaut’s’ opinion. But slowly, over their next few encounters, he becomes haunted by Scranton’s faraway stare, his gaze through the people and buildings of this world, his other-planetary loneliness.

The narrator asks whether Scranton has proof of his experiences on the moon and Scranton nods slowly. He needs to be helped back to his squalid flat above a fleapit cinema, the Luxor. Here he shows the narrator his ‘photographs’, his ‘evidence’. It consists of pictures torn out of Life and Newsweek magazine (note, American magazines). He’s mad, delusional, and yet…

He has known the loneliness of utter separation from all other people. He has gazed at the empty perspectives of the planets. He sees through pedestrians and traffic as if they were fleeting tricks of the sun.

Sick and ill, Scranton, like so many Ballard figures, wastes away and dies. And hands on his mantle. The narrator takes his place at the seedy café. Without any effort he finds himself slowly erasing the memories of his family life, his wife and mother and failed carer in journalism slowly disappear, to be slowly replaced by an alternative past, one in which he trained hard as an astronaut, in which he remembers the coastline of Florida falling away beneath the giant rocket. A past in which he genuinely did walk on the moon.

11. The Enormous Space (1989)

The first-person narrator is a merchant banker named Geoffrey Ballantyne. His wife has divorced him and run off with her lover, he was recently in a car crash and is still recuperating. (This reminds us of another middle-class narrator who goes mental after recuperating from a car crash, Faulkner in The Overloaded Man).

The story begins as he takes the decision not to go out of his front door. Ever again. To use up all the resources within the house and then live on space and time. In the event, after reducing himself to the familiar Ballardian condition of hallucinating malnutrition, he takes to luring the neighbours’ dogs and cats into his garden, killing and cooking them. He becomes more and more detached from reality and the house appears to grow larger and larger, soon having as many rooms as the Palace of Versailles.

I have embarked on a long internal migration, following a route partly prescribed within my head and partly within this house, which is a far more complex structure than I had realised.

His wife, Margaret, pops in a couple of times, each time noticing the progressive degradation of both the house and the narrator, but each time he manages to bundle her out. His description of the house becoming steadily larger, until he can’t make it up the stairs any more, until he can’t eventually make it out of the kitchen and remains slumped against the powerless fridge, watching the horizons expand to infinity. Until his former secretary, Brenda, pops round worried about him. By this time we have accompanied Ballantyne so far on his trip into psychosis that it’s her who seems the odd one out, and we are utterly convinced of his psychotic point of view as he describes her stepping over him slumped in his kitchen.

She is walking towards me, but so slowly that the immense room seems to carry her away from me in its expanding dimensions. She approaches and recedes from me at the same time, and I am concerned that she will lose herself in the almost planetary vastness of this house. Catching her as she swerves past me, I protect her from the outward rush of time and space.

See, no exotic words or contrived sentences or purple prose. Fairly flat, functional prose which manages to convey a state of complete derangement.

Ballantyne kills her, chops up her body, eats some and puts her head in the freezer, reminding us of the genuinely horrific climax of High Rise. Christ, this is a terrifyingly delirious text.

12. Memories of the Space Age (1982)

To an extraordinary extent this is a rewrite of previous stories such as News From The Sun or an alternate version of the contemporaneous story Myths of the Near Future, from the premise of the story through to the narrative structure right down to the use of the name Anne for key figures in both stories.

Here again we meet a former NASA physician, Dr Edward Mallory (if I had a pound for every Ballard protagonist who is a doctor) who has travelled to the abandoned zone of Cape Kennedy from Canada where he specialised in treated Downs Syndrome and autistic children. He has come with his wife, Anne. They are both afflicted with the ‘space sickness’ which has been slowly spreading out from the old NASA launching centre. The space sickness is a disease of time; the victim experiences fugues or largos when their time completely stops and they’re stuck stationary.

So for the usual obscure reasons, Mallory has come to live amid the abandoned hotels and shopping precincts of the beach resorts opposite the old launch site, squatting in a derelict room on the firth floor of an abandoned hotel, and foraging for food in the dusty abandoned supermarkets.

And of course, as usual, there is an Antagonist – Hinton, a former astronaut and in fact, the first astronaut to commit a murder in space, when he locked his co-pilot Alan Shepley into the docking module and evacuated its air, live, in front of a global viewing audience of one billion viewers.

On landing, Hinton was sent to prison, to Alcatraz to be precise. Some twenty years later, as the space sickness slowly spread across America, Hinton escaped from Alcatraz using a home-made glider. Now Mallory discovers he is restoring and flying the vintage planes from a nearby airplane museum, very much as Olds restores defunct cars in The Ultimate City.

The same obsession with man-powered gliders, in this case a pedal-powered microlight with a huge wingspan is being flown by a woman, Gale (short for Nightingale) Shepley, who swoops over him one day on one of his forays from the hotel room while his wife sleeps.

She lands and introduces herself, a young blonde who is the daughter of the murdered astronaut, Shepley. She has come to the ruined zone because she is expecting her father’s space capsule to finally re-enter orbit and crash down here – just like all those other Ballard women who wait for their dead husbands or fathers to re-enter the atmosphere and crash land beside the ruined gantries e.g. Judith waiting for her dead lover’s capsule to crash back to earth in The Dead Astronaut.

Mallory has even brought a collection of ‘terminal documents’ like so many of these characters cart around, in his case:

  • a tape machine on which to record his steady decline
  • nude Polaroid photos of a woman doctor he had an affair with in Vancouver
  • his student copy of Gray’s Anatomy
  • a selection of Muybridge’s stop-frame photos
  • a psychoanalytic study of Simon Magus

Ballard’s gives a fuller, more explicit explanation of what exactly the space sickness is. It is the result of a crime against evolution. Human evolution has created a psychological aptitude to see Time as a stream with a past, present and future, a defence or coping mechanism which situates us within a dynamic timeframe.

The manned space flights cracked this continuum and now time is leaking away. Our perception of time is returning to its primeval one, an experience of all time in one continuous present, when Time – in the conventional sense – stops.

Mallory has a couple of encounters with Hinton who explains that the birds know about Time, they have never lost the primeval, reptile sense of Time. Which is why he’s trying to teach himself to fly by learning to fly each of the planes in the aviation museum in reverse chronological order, acclimatising his body to flight until, eventually, he can fly without machinery, and without wings.

In this context, Hinton’s ‘murder’ of Shepley was Hinton’s way of ‘freeing’ him from the tyranny of Time (exactly as the lunatic Sheppard in Myths of the Near Future appears to ‘free’ the birds by crushing them to death).

His wife is entering the end stage. Her fugues last nearly all day. In her few waking moments she begs to be taken up to the roof. She wants to see Hinton. She feels close to him because he is close to the secret. Eventually Hinton successfully kidnaps his wife. Mallory sees smoke coming from the old Space Shuttle gantry and takes a motorbike to ride there. He wakes up lying athwart it with his leg burning against the red hot engine. He had a fugue.

Gale arrives in her micro-glider to rescue Mallory and they travel on to the Space Shuttle gantry. Hinton has set fire to all the airplanes gathered at the bottom, and, as Mallory watches, Hinton and Mallory’s wife step off the platform and into thin air over the flames.

Maybe all shamans and primitive rituals, maybe all religions have been an attempt to escape from the prisonhouse of Time. Maybe the space sickness sheds light on why the Christian image of an afterlife isn’t an action-packed adventure holiday, but an eternal moment, an eternity of worship, stuck in stasis.

Gale keeps a menagerie by the swimming pool of the motel she’s camped in. Cheetahs, exotic birds and a tiger. As Mallory’s time winds down he hallucinates the tiger as a wall of flame. Gale is looking after him but, as always, there is a vast distance between Ballard characters and she is growing bored of him. She is only interested in the pending arrival of her father’s corpse as his space capsule finally re-enters earth’s orbit and comes streaming over their heads towards the space centre. One day soon Mallory will open the tiger’s cage and enter his wall of flame.

13. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1967)

This is a really interesting experiment which I think totally works. It is based on one sentence of eighteen words:

A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes towards a Mental Breakdown’, recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration

and then each one of these words has a numbered note next to it.

A1 discharged2 Broadmoor3 patient4 compiles‘Notes6 towards7 aMental9 Breakdown10, recalling11 his12 wife’s13 murder14, his15 trial16 and17 exoneration18

And each of the numbers refers to a numbered footnote. So the story is in eighteen short sections, each one of which unpacks, analyses, dissects the precise meaning of its word, in the context of psychiatric and criminal case.

Thus you get to discover the narrative, the plot, the series of events, but in a beguilingly chopped-up, fragmented manner. I found it extremely enjoyable. It concerns the psychopath Dr Robert Loughlin (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) who has murdered his wife.

Obsessed with man-powered flight, Loughlin drove round the Suffolk countryside with his lover Leonora Carrington (this name is a straight copy of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, and the story references what appears to be one of Ballard’s favourite works of art, Garden Airplane Traps by Carrington’s lover Max Ernst; maybe at the time Ballard wrote the story she was so unknown he thought only a handful of cognoscenti would get the reference). Anyway he drives her round the Suffolk countryside from one abandoned USAF airbase to another, mesmerised by dreams of World War Three (exactly as Ballard describes his younger self doing in The Kindness of Women). As his psychosis intensifies, Loughlin rearranges furniture in his hotel rooms to create a notional flying machine and, only a few weeks before the muirder, makes a mad attempt to hire runway 2 at Heathrow.

His wife Judith was dying of pancreatic cancer and, tired of Loughlin’s erratic behaviour and alcoholism, absconded with her lover, Dr Douglas (if I had a pound for every Ballard character who is a doctor) to Gatwick airport. Loughlin tracked them down and somehow boarded a jet airliner which he ransacked for her, leading to a fight with a security guard who he shot. Then he made his way to Judith’s hotel room, broke into it, found the lovers out, ripped out the suitcase and proceeded to have a bath fully dressed and fuddled by alcohol and amphetamines.

When Judith returned she found the hotel room trashed and her psychotic husband passed out in the bath so she (presumably) decided to put him out of his misery and pushed his head under the water. But this revived him and psychotics are strong.

Louhglin murdered his wife, then dressed her in a flying suit with helmet and goggles, positioned her in front of him on the bed, as if they were in a plane and he was giving her flying lessons, and arranged all the furniture in the room to create the outline of a plane. Then he set the room on fire. (Just writing this out is making me feel like I’m losing touch with reality.)

14. The Index (1977)

This is a clever and, that rare thing for Ballard, very funny little text. It is what it says it is, the imaginary index to the imaginary biography of an imaginary figure, one Henry Rhodes Hamilton (presumably so named because his initials satirically spell HRH – His Royal Highness), supposedly a ‘physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion.

The first page – the only page of ordinary text – briefly explains who he was and, more teasingly, wonders aloud who compiled the index? Has the indexer included himself in the index? Did HRH ever in fact exist? Has the text of the biography, which the index is for, been suppressed because it revealed too many secrets? Or was it never written in the first place? Maybe the entire thing is the figment of some deranged lexicographer? Is the whole thing a hoax?

Reading this one page with its paragraph of teasing questions makes you realise that texts like this were purpose-written to go straight into academic English courses about metafiction and post-modernism and the Lacanian mirror phase and self-deconstructing texts, straight into the matrix of academic jargon without ever having to be read by non-academic readers.

Anyway the index itself is very funny, in  Zelig-type way HRH has known anyone who was anyone in the twentieth century and been present at pivotal moments. Karen Blixen proposes to him, Ernest Hemingway dedicates The Old Man and the Sea to him, T.S. Eliot dedicates Four Quartets to him, meets Gandhi, Freud et al, he is with Churchill at Yalta and suggests the famous Iron Curtain speech, he goes ashore on Juno Beach on D-Day (and wins a model), meets the Dalai Lama and Mao Tse-Tung…

And so it goes on, mingling HRH’s preposterous presence at key events and name-dropping key figures with the satirical narrative in which he founds a new religion and tries to set up an anti-papacy at Avignon. When Ballard addresses actual historical events and particularly when he starts making up religions etc, he quickly descends into childish cartoon mode (as described in the story about the American founder of a new religion in The Object of The Attack, but in this novel format it’s all very entertaining.

I laughed out loud when I read the index entry about Hitler:

Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgarten, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181.

Yes, as he rather did the entire German people. Hitler, Adolf, impresses German people 1939, disappoints German people 1945.

The last entry appears to refer to the indexer himself, and suggests his mysterious disappearance:

Zielinski, Bronislaw, suggests autobiography to HRH, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761

Thus, right at the end of the text, the indexer indexes himself out of existence. It was this which prompted the speculation in the one-page introduction that the whole thing might just be the products of ‘the over-wrought imagination of some deranged lexicographer’. Quite.

This may be the only really funny story in Ballard’s entire oeuvre, and it was a brainwave to close this final selection with it, helping to cleanse the reader’s mind, or at least control, many of the deeply disturbed, psychotic images which preceded it.

Thoughts

A little exhausted by Ballard-land and Ballardism, I wasn’t sure I had the energy to read this, his final collection of short stories, but I’m really glad I did. It contains good examples of several key types:

  • satire on contemporary society – The Secret History of World War 3, Love in a Colder Climate, The Largest Theme Park in the World
  • classic psychodrama about astronauts – The Man Who Walked on the Moon
  • portraits of psychotics – The Object of the Attack, Memories of the Space Age
  • descriptions of complete mental collapse – The Enormous Space
  • tales of the macabre – The Air Disaster
  • mind-bending science fiction – Report on an Unidentified Space Station

As stories go, the ones in this collection seemed to me as powerfully imagined as almost anything in his earlier career.

But what has obviously gone, long gone, is the extraordinary verbal lushness and purple prose of the earlier works. Somehow the almost Oscar Wilde, fin-de-siecle level of prose pyrotechnics which characterises the early novels and stories got thoroughly washed out of the system by the ‘urban disaster’ novels of the early and mid-70s and from that point onwards his prose becomes a lot more straightforward and serviceable. Instead of lush and exotic sentences, he comes increasingly to rely on the repetition of a handful of key words – overlit, to the sun, calm, over-excited, deranged, time and space.

In later Ballard, repetition takes the place of elaboration.

And arguably the distinctive thing about the collection is the three short stories with experimental formats – Answers to a Questionnaire, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and The Index, each one a clever, one-off idea which I think Ballard executes really well. They’re very short but very effective and, in some ways, the most successful pieces in the collection.


Related links

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Novels

Short story collections

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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