December 30th, 2017


My tweets


A History of the Future, by Peter J. Bowler

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The promoters of applied science assumed that eventually the mechanization of industry would give everyone more leisure time (even if the work involved only boring routines). The dirty and unhealthy factories of the first Industrial Revolution would be replaced with new structures that were better to work in as well as more efficient. It was also predicted that there would be more gadgets to make life easier in the home. Popular science magazines routinely printed lists of inventions designed to make life easier or more enjoyable, most of which turned out to be useless and sank into oblivion. Inventors and promoters sang the praises of their products, but they were competing against one another and success for one would block the chances of others. Some promotional material was purely superficial, as with the enthusiasm for streamlined designs applied to objects that didn't move. Even when they were on to a good thing, technical experts and marketing agents were unlikely to foresee the wider consequences of a revolutionary technology. Yet in a few cases — radio broadcasting is a good example — almost everyone could see that their lives could be significantly transformed by what was promised. What couldn't be predicted were the deeper consequences for society, which is why some commentators worried about things that the majority greeted with enthusiasm.
Twenty-five years ago, Peter Bowler was my PhD supervisor in Belfast; I owe him a lot. He had made his reputation a decade earlier with Evolution: The History of an Idea, and had managed to find a rhythm of writing a scholarly book a year, riffing off the general possibilities of the history of evolutionary biology. Recently, in retirement, he's been veering a little bit further from his usual territory. In Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (2013), he imagined what would have happened in science in an alternate timeline where Darwin had drowned during the voyage of the Beagle, something he had been muttering about doing for years. This year, in A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, he has surveyed futurology as perpetrated both by science fiction writers and by popular science writers, mainly in the UK but looking also at the USA, in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

People like me who read a fair amount of academic and fannish commentary on sf literature will be a bit thrown by this approach. Peter Bowler has unapologetically put technology and other scientific advances, real or imagined, at the centre of the narrative, and crunches everything down to nine shortish chapters, on How We'll Live, Where We'll Live, Communicating and Computing, Getting Around, Taking to the Air, Journey into Space, War, Energy and Environment, and Human Nature. He makes the point very strongly that the First World War made a much bigger difference to the Zeitgeist than the Second; there is much more continuity in terms of vision and concerns between 1939 and 1945 than between 1914 and 1918.

There are some interesting misses and hits along the way. Lord Birkenhead, writing in 1930 about the world of 2030, expected that “Instead of party politics, our descendants will probably be content with the rule of experts, who will seek popular sanction for each measure they purpose through a referendum.” (Hollow laugh.) On the other hand, A.M. Low correctly saw the potential of telephones:
In his Wireless Possibilities, Low predicted that in a few years’ time it would be possible to talk to a recipient anywhere in the world, even when flying on an aeroplane. Five years later, he made a similar point in one of his regular Armchair Science features: ‘I shall be glad when we have made wireless sufficiently selective to enable me to ring up during every rail journey I make and talk direct to my friends.’ Note that his concern was the problem of interference between transmitters, not miniaturization. He also recognized that there would be a downside to the facility: ‘Why should I inflict a description of my mother’s children to a radius of six yards, until all those around are driven to fury … ?’ Low thus not only predicted the mobile phone – he realized what a nuisance they could become when used in public.
There are lots of good nuggets here, including the frightening irresponsibility of some early supporters of nuclear power, who nonchalantly discussed melting the ice caps and re-engineering coastlines with atomic weapons. There is a tension also between those who thought that women being liberated from housework and reproduction would bring benefits and those who feared the costs to society. (It would be interesting to know the extent to which feminists interacted with these discussions.)

Anyway, first of my Christmas presents; well worth reading.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937); Zola And His Times

The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production in 1938; there were nine other nominees, but I have not heard of any of them. It got nominations in nine other categories and won two, Joseph Schildkraut getting Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dreyfus, and the script winning Best Adaptation; deservedly so.

However, The Life of Emile Zola does not make the top ten of either way of counting IMDB votes. There is no doubt at all about the top film from 1937 in our civilisation’s collective memory: it is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It received only one Oscar nomination, for Best Score, and did not win.

This is the official poster for the film. I find it a bit odd that in fact Paul Muni as Zola is bearded throughout the film, but cleanshaven here. (It's a bit less odd that he doesn't have the same impressive girth that Zola developed in real life - worth noting that William Powell also played a slimmed-down Flo Ziegfeld last year.)

The film, based on a biography by Matthew Josephson, is another biopic, this time of crusading French journalist and writer Emile Zola. As usual, I watched it on Eurostar - it's great the way most of these are around two hours long, exactly the time it takes the train from Brussels to London, a technological feat unthinkable eighty years ago (let alone during Zola's lifetime). The plot is very simple: Zola as a young writer in Paris exposes the dark side of the city in his novel Nana, inspired by meeting a young prostitute; the novel's success, and the success of his other writing, makes him complacent; he is provoked to take up the case of Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of espionage by the French Army, and after much turmoil and a prolonged courtroom case, wins, only to die in a domestic accident as Dreyfus is being freed. Here's the trailer.

There's not much to dislike about this. There is one pretty big issue, for which the film received some criticism both at the time and more recently. In historical reality, the case against Dreyfus was deeply tinged with anti-Semitism, because he was Jewish. The word "Jew" is not mentioned once in the film. Is this a deliberate cover-up, as some have alleged, to court German audiences, or for whatever other sordid reason?

I'm not so sure. It is worth noting that the Warner brothers themselves who ran the studio, William Dieterle who directed it, Heinz Herald who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script, Joseph Schildkraut who won the Oscar for playing Dreyfus, and the film's star Paul Muni in the title role, were all Jewish. Herald had actually fled the Nazis when they came to power, and Dieterle and Schildkraut were also from Germany and may well have still had vulnerable friends and relatives in the country. I don't feel it's ever my job to second-guess the responses of the oppressed; I do think that anyone who gave the Dreyfus affair even half an extra thought after watching the movie would have worked out what was going on. The point is very clearly if silently made in the shot of the officers' roll during the scene where the French military leadership decide to frame Dreyfus:

If I may have a slightly different quibble, the women in the film don't get a lot to do, and despite the fact that Paris between 1865 and 1905 was already a pretty multi-ethnic society, we see only white faces.

However. It's a great story. Muni is tremendously watchable as Zola, so is Schildkraut as Dreyfus, so is Vladimir Sokoloff as Paul Cézanne. We all hate injustice, and love to see someone standing up for what is right despite the consequences. Flo Seinfeld, the subject of the previous year's Oscar-wining biopic, ran roughshod over the feelings of his lovers, friends and business partners for the sake of his somewhat dubious art; Zola here does the same, but for the sake of freedom and justice, and certainly I found it much more sympathetic. There's nothing particularly spectacular or innovative about the way the story is told (some decent incidental music), but if it's a good story you don't really need that.

I'm going to divert into a reflection on the symbolism of France and Paris in these films. In both Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front, France is a place of fascination and moral hazard. The Life of Emile Zola is set almost entirely in Paris (apart from Zola's brief exile in London, and Dreyfus's imprisonment on Devil's Island). It's clearly presented as a place of superior achievement, the centre of the cultural world, with its own drama and internal dynamics which the audience is expected to recognise and relate to. The path to An American in Paris is clear.

One last note - the memorable minor key variation of the opening phrase of the Marseillaise, which I know well from Casablanca, is used here for the French defeat in 1870.

Now that I've got through the first ten winners of Best Picture and its historical predecessors, I think I can give a running total of my ranking of the films so far. I actually found this pretty easy, though with slight hesitation about the ordering of 6th/7th place and 3rd/4th/5th.

10) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
9) Cimarron (1930/31)
8) Cavalcade (1932/33)
7) Wings (1927/28)
6) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
5) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
4) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
3) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
2) It Happened One Night (1934)
1) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)

Next up is You Can't Take It With You, of which I know nothing at all.

The Life of Zola is the first Oscar-winner based on a non-fiction book, the grandly titled Zola and his time: the history of his martial career in letters, with an account of his circle of friends, his remarkable enemies, cyclopean labors, public campaigns, trials and ultimate glorification by Matthew Josephson. I got it and raced through the 500 pages. As is often the case, the film is based on just a small section of the book (eg The Duchess is based on a chapter or two of Amanda Foreman's biography; Game Change is based on a couple of pages of the book by Heilemann and Halperin). Here is the second paragraph of the third chapter:
The city was under a reign of terror conducted by the ruthless General Espinasse, ever since the attempt on the life of Napoleon III by three Italian "anarchists," Orsini, Pieri and Rudio. The press was muzzled completely, and the enemies of the despot were banished or silent.
I found it very interesting, particularly as I have just read a book about Ulysses, to see the connection between Zola's radical political activity and beliefs, and (what was more important to him) his breaking the conventions of novel-writing. I may even try some of his books some day - Germinal, Nana, Thérèse Raquin And his autobiographical first novel La confession de Claude all sound promising.

A lot of what's in the film is invented - the quarrel with Cézanne didn't really happen like that, Nana was not his first successful novel (not even his first successful novel about Nana), he was not dragged into the Dreyfus case by the tears of Lucie Dreyfus, he wasn't offered membership of the Academy in 1897 (but kept begging for it), he died in his bedroom with his wife rather than alone in his study, and Dreyfus was not exonerated until several years after Zola’s death. These are necessary edits of the truth to make a good movie, I suppose. On the other hand, the real-life attempted assassination of Dreyfus in 1908, while he was attending the ceremony of Zola's interment in the Pantheon, is a dramatic end to the book that is skipped in the film. The anti-Semitism inherent to the Dreyfus case is made absolutely clear, though I’m sure that the full facts will have been even worse.

The part of Zola's life almost completely omitted from the film is of course his love-life. As a student in a garret in his late teens and early twenties, he lived with an unnamed girlfriend who then drops out of the narrative completely. (Wikipedia quotes Henri Mitterand to the effect that her first name was Berthe.) As well as his wife Alexandrine (with whom he had no children), he had a long-term lover, Jeanne Rozerot, who bore him a son and a daughter. When he died he left all of his estate to his wife and nothing to his children or their mother. (I'm glad to say that his widow acknowledged and adopted the children, who in turn adopted the surname Emile-Zola.) Josephson conveys this as part of Zola's general passion for life in general, and is rather critical of his wife for being too dramatic about the situation. I think Josephson could have found a bit more sympathy for Alexandrine, and Zola's treatment of his children does not speak well of him.

It's rather an old-fashioned biography, but a cracking good read, and it's particularly impressive that Josephson was able to boil down vast amounts of archival research in French for an American audience. It's also copiously illustrated with cartoons and copies of manuscripts.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Democracy and its Deficits, by Ghia Nodia et al

Second paragraph of third section:
On the political level, there were two main competing elites. An alternative political elite
emerged out of parties and movements that challenged the existing regime on a combination of pro-democracy and strong nationalist agendas. They confronted the existing Communist nomenklatura that was keen to preserve its power and accompanying privileges. Both these elites had fundamental shortcomings. The post-Communist elites shed their erstwhile ideological commitments and professed allegiance to new slogans of democracy and nation state, but were structurally predisposed to resisting necessary democratic and free-market reforms. They were also well-placed to translate their pre-existing administrative power into control over the most important economic resources, thus laying the ground for the plutocratic (or oligarchic) character of the new regimes. The weaknesses of the newly emerging elites lay in their lack of political experience, insufficient organisation, and over-emphasis of the nationalist agenda, which could have alienated ethnic minorities. The electorate saw the nomenklatura as a force for stability and moderation, while the new elites saw it as standing for change and reform. The turbulence of the early post-Communist years inclined them to give preference to the values of stability.
A 30-page paper by veteran Georgian commentator Ghia Nodia, with input from Denis Cenușă (Moldova) and Mikhail Minakov (Ukraine), looking at the democratic and governance systems of their three countries, which are all wrestling with the dilemma of how (and how much) to get closer to the EU while Russian troops occupy parts of their territories. I found it a very refreshing antidote to the usual take on the region, which prioritises geopolitical competition and elite internal dynamics over boring but essential things like party structures and popular perceptions of government. I know Georgia and Moldova fairly well, Ukraine less so, and found the analysis of all three countries convincing and enlightening as well as sober and sympathetic. This is the sort of analysis I used to work on when I was with the International Crisis Group, and I'm glad that someone is still doing it and that my other former employers at the Centre for European Policy Studies are publishing it.