You get a car, and you get a car, and everybody gets a car! I’m making my BSFA Award-shortlisted story “Jolene“, first published in Interzone 283, available for free online. Click the title to download it and read what really happens to a cowboy when his wife, dog and truck have all left him….
Last instalment, I talked about how to evoke the past well, and not so well, with a quick detour round Metropolis. This instalment, I’m back with our usual case studies, and looking at how each of them has used the Wild West as a reference point: successfully, and not so successfully.
We’ll start with the unsuccessful. Here, once again, is an image from the classic Battlestar Galactica “The Lost Warrior.” Now, this one really ought to work. The Wild West is an appropriate referent for the story, which riffs heavily on Shane and other Westerns of the “stranger rides into town, fixes things, rides off again to the great disappointment of the comely local widow” variety. To be fair, there are some creative design elements in the serial– making the buildings look like repurposed spacecraft, for a start– but the Western aspects include a lot of, well, silver cowboy hats and vests. And, while, as I noted last time we talked about this episode, it does bring home one of the symbolic associations of white clothing for a villain (plantation bosses), it also makes it really sort of too obvious:
Meanwhile, Star Wars is arguably the textbook example of Doing Wild West Space Opera Right. The Tatooine sequences especially are a coming-of-age Western at heart: young boy, dreaming of leaving the ranch and fighting in a civil war, teams up with a grizzled old gunslinger after his family are brutally murdered, and they go to a saloon in a disreputable little desert town in order to recruit a maverick mercenary pursued by all the local bounty hunters, and his brown partner who doesn’t speak English.
This is the sort of thing that generally goes unnoticed by the audience, however, and for fairly good reason. In order to make sure it doesn’t wind up being as on-the-nose as “The Lost Warrior,” the design team have drawn their past-times elements from the Middle East:
And 20th century abstract sculpture:
The most obvious nod to the Western genre is Han Solo’s costume. Even there, you’ve got an interesting mix of black and white, pointing to the idea that Solo’s morals and allegiances are a little variable (we don’t see the colour of his hat, after all):
So people don’t tend to notice that the whole thing is a coming-of-age Western. They also don’t usually notice, by the way, that our protagonist’s family have a plantation and own slaves, and he wants to fight for the “rebels”, which does add an element of ambiguity to the literally black-and-white distinction between the heroes and the villains.
But, and here’s the point where structuralism comes in: the symbolic connotations of all of these places overlap with the Wild West. The Middle East, in the 1970s, was seen as a lawless gold-rush area, province of hyper-masculine gangsters; Kurosawa, one of Lucas’ key influences, is best known for Samurai warrior movies which have later been remade as Westerns; abstract sculpture developed under the same chaotic global conditions that spawned the Wild West (war and extreme financial instability). So, unlike Padme Amidala’s forays into Japanese and Weimar imagery in the prequels, it doesn’t just Look Neat, it Tells Us Something.
And finally, you have Blake’s 7. On the one hand the Western is sort of baked into the programme’s DNA, since one of the reasons for the title was series creator Terry Nation pitching it initially as “The Magnificent Seven in space”. Somewhat wisely, though, the team largely steer clear of using Western costumes and sets, presumably for reasons of not wanting to make that connection too obvious (also, presumably, because it’s hard to do well on the cheap– that’s a compliment, by the way, Blake’s 7 is a good example of how one can do even space opera well with no budget, provided you have a strong writing team and a creative production team).
The one episode where they do go a little further than usual is “Gambit”, where the Seven and the Federation have both tracked fugitives Travis and Docholli to a bar in a lawless frontier town. The name Docholli is also an explicit reference to Doc Holliday, meaning that it’s hard to ignore the connection. Consequently, both Docholli (right) and Travis (left) rock delightful big hats (Travis’ is, naturally, black):
However, Blake’s 7 does a Star Wars, and takes the curse off it, by heavily referencing the Weimar Republic in other aspects of the story’s costuming and design (for instance the Croupier, emceeing the Big Wheel casino with an aesthetic that’s half Joel Gray and half Marlene Dietrich):
This also, by the way, includes the brief use of South Bank as a futuristic location– famously a product of Bauhaus-influenced modern architecture (there’s not a single good shot of South Bank from the production, you’ll just have to take my word for it). In any case, this even makes the delightful big hats less obviously cowboy-related. Since Weimar fashion could also include big-brimmed hats (many lovely examples here, but take particular note of the gent on the far right):
And Travis, in his hat and cape, looks like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera, subject of a not-unfamous film of the 1920s:
So, again, one takes the curse off the Wild West aesthetic, by linking its imagery with the imagery of another period of lawless gangsterism, reckless gambling, hedonism, violent sexuality, interwar social trauma and extreme financial instability.
And then there’s The Mandalorian. Which I was going to talk about briefly here, but then realised I had enough to say about it to warrant another blog post, so that’ll be next time.
Last instalment, I introduced the concept of using the past to evoke the future, and how it works, with a detour into The Fifth Element. This time, I’m going to go back into film design history for a bit, and talk about what makes this work.
My argument about this is that it can’t simply be done for its own sake, or because it Looks Neat. With reference, as we have done throughout this series, to structuralism, there has to be a fit between the symbols used, and the thing being symbolised (for more on this sort of thing, and for those of you who like academic references, look up Dan Sperber’s 1974 monograph Symbolism, or Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By).
Let’s take a look at Metropolis, one of the best known early SF movies, and also, though it’s frequently not mentioned, one of the earliest examples of using the past to evoke the future. In the picture below, we see our male protagonist, Freder, pampered son of an elite capitalist, in the Garden of the Sons, a sort of leisure facility for men like him:
There’s a few things to observe here. One of them is that Freder’s own futuristic businesswear, with the natty jodhpurs, has ironically aged far less well than the 18th-century-inspired gear of the courtesans around him (supporting last week’s point). The other, though, is that the period chosen is more than a little appropriate: if you want a complex of symbols associated with decadence and sexual license, with an added dollop of twee pastoralism, you could do far worse than raid the closets of the Ancien Regime.
Now the story’s female protagonist, Maria. She’s kitted out in a costume evoking medieval peasant garb to evoke the fact that she comes from the poor labouring classes of Metropolis, as well as providing a counterpoint to the Ancien Regime costumes of the courtesans (since, like the peasantry of France, Maria, or [spoilers] her doppelgänger, will later stage a revolution to overthrow the aristocrats):
And the story’s anti-hero, mad scientist Rotwang, wearing a flowing black robe over his work coveralls, evoking medieval wizards alongside industrial imagery (not incidentally evoking the Industrial Revolution which was also kicking off in the 18th century):
So, one could say the use of a particular period aesthetic is appropriate because Maria is, symbolically, a peasant girl and Rotwang, also symbolically, a wizard (and the aristocracy they both severally oppose evokes the French nobility). But it goes further than that. This is a publicity picture from FW Murnau’s film version of Faust, showing Camilla Horn playing Gretchen:
Note the resemblance to Maria’s costume. Gretchen is also a simple, good soul who remains pure despite the trials life throws at her, and, like Maria, winds up at the hands of a mob determined to burn her at the stake. Faust also revolves around the activities of a magician who is drawn to do evil. So Maria’s costume doesn’t just evoke the peasantry, but provides its German audience with a complex of fictional symbols they would instantly recognise.
So what happens when you start evoking the wrong symbols, or evoking them to little purpose? Here we need to return to Star Wars, and take a look at the Prequel Trilogy. Here’s Padme Amidala, from the first film (one example will suffice):
The costume’s certainly pretty, and certainly looks ceremonial. The film is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so a Japanese aesthetic is, seemingly, appropriate. However, if you start to think about what it’s referencing, it’s not necessarily where you want to go. Padme’s hairstyles and makeup continually evoke apprentice geisha (rather than the tomboy princess who is the heroine of The Hidden Fortress), giving an undertone of sexuality that’s arguably not appropriate for a character who’s defined more by falling in love with the wrong man than by providing entertainment and sex to male audiences.
Another of her costumes appears to borrow heavily from one of the characters in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen:
The character in question, though, is Kriemhild:
Kriemhild is a woman who avenges her husband’s death at the hands of her brother by calculatedly marrying her brother’s enemy, luring her brother and his men into a trap and burning a fortress down around their ears.
Kriemhild is one of my favourite characters in cinema, so actually I’d’ve liked a Padme Amidala who’s both a cultured and sophisticated woman and a calculating schemer who uses her sexuality and her power to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who wronged her doomed husband. But since that’s not the Padme Amidala we got, there’s a cognitive dissonance to the way she’s dressed.
Next time: cowboys in space.
Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera (links to previous instalments: one two three four five six seven eight). One of my long-standing holiday traditions is to re-watch as many of the Star Wars movies as I can manage, which brings me nicely to the subject of the next couple of instalments: raiding the past.
From the first moment SF moved into the visual media, designers have made heavy use of the practice of evoking the future through, symbolically, evoking the past. The idea is that viewers may find it alienating when confronted with costume and styling meant to evoke a different, future society:
While on the other hand, costumes which evoke a past era, give the viewer a set of symbolic cues to work from:
You can see how it works. The first image, from Aelita, Queen of Mars, is based on constructivist art, and consequently leaves us with a blank canvas, meaning the viewer is forced to learn about the society from other symbolic clues. The second, from Blade Runner, evokes the 1940s (while being different enough from actual 1940s fashions to tell us this is the future not the past); straight away the viewer can reach for a palette of associations about the 1940s to sketch in the background to the society (it’s probably repressive, hierarchical, subject to rampant surveillance and violent criminal activity, and with an undercurrent of misogyny. There you go, and Sean Young hasn’t said a word yet). As with our subconscious approaches to colour, filmmakers can use our associations about the past as a quick and dirty way of introducing us to a society in the future.
However, it’s a little more complicated than that. This image looks like it’s got more in common with Aelita‘s constructivism than Blade Runner‘s nostalgia:
However, Milla Jovovitch’s costume is actually based on a piece of early 1970s kinetic art by Rebecca Horn:
So what we have is a costume which seems to evoke an alienating future society, but in fact evokes late Sixties pop-art, giving us a palette of associations: decadence, drugs, way too much day-go plastic.
The costume design of The Fifth Element more generally plays with this, usually giving us enough retro costume elements to evoke a mood or style, while changing them enough to remind us that this is the future, and keep us off balance:
The mixing of periods also tells us something. Note the use of 1940s elements as in Blade Runner, but a shift towards a Sixties pop-art colour palette, and hairstyles more associated with the 1920s and 1930s. So what we get is not a straight set of associations, as in Blade Runner, but a mix: we can expect a society that’s repressive, hierarchical, fascist and over-surveilled, but also one with heavy elements of commercialism, of psychedelia, of decadence. By mixing elements of the past, you can develop complicated background world building.
So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Mainly that the early films are textbook examples in how to evoke the past, evoke the past by stealth, and mix the palette.
Dressing Alec Guinness in a gi, for instance, evokes associations to do with Japanese martial arts: skill, codes of honour, feudalism, hierarchies, self-control to the point of (in the movies, at least) feats of magic. Which takes the curse off the fact that he’s also wearing a wizard’s cloak, and means that, although we still have that association, it’s buried beneath, and mixed with, the other associations.
We’re so busy thinking of him as General Makabe Rokurōta, that we’ve forgotten he’s actually mostly Gandalf.
Next time! Carrying on with Star Wars, and considering what makes retro-futurism work (and what makes it fail).
Continue reading The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth
My short story “The Stepford App” is in the final issue of Mad Scientist Journal. Fans of Driving Ambition might want to know that, although it’s a stand-alone piece about the perils of looking for love in an age of AI, it’s also a prequel which explains Liz’s allusion to her former job as a chatbot. Buy a print or e-book at the link.