Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"I Can Study Man, His Isometric Body and Glass-Jaw Mind"

Feature Trailer for Demon Seed (dir. Donald Cammell, 1977)

Anyone with a passing interest in issues of domesticity, architecture, cybernetics, psychiatry, surveillance and obstetrics (yes, obstetrics) should write an article about Donald Cammell's creepy Demon Seed (1977).

Demon Seed lobby cards (1977) (Source)

The Film Society at Lincoln Center, who held a retrospective on Cammell's films in 2007, gives a nice, canned description of Demon Seed:
Based on a Dean Koontz novel, Cammell’s 1977 movie is one of his very best. It’s a typically perverse story of a housewife (Julie Christie, in her most underrated performance) living in a scientifically enhanced domestic space called an Enviromod, who is recovering from the loss of her baby. She is impregnated by a super-computer named Proteus (who speaks in the voice of Robert Vaughn), created by her husband (Fritz Weaver), looking to break past its own boundaries ("I can study man, his isometric body and glass-jaw mind"). Cammell may not have generated the project himself, but this strange tale of machine lust remains an intensely personal merger of pulp and poetry. Beautifully shot by the great Bill Butler, with special effects by avant-garde legend Jordan Belson.
In fact, someone should curate a screening of architecture/horror films. If it were up to me, first on my list would be David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka It Came From Within) (1975), which I like to describe as "HVAC gone horribly, horribly wrong". As Thomas Caldwell states,
Shivers is set inside the clear and sterile Starliner Towers, a self-sufficient apartment high-rise complex with the infrastructure of a small community. A parasite that was originally developed to replace diseased organs goes rogue and transforms its human hosts into sexually violent sociopaths. The only way the parasite can spread itself is for the host to sexually attack other people so that it can spread itself into the new host via any orifice available. The self-contained world of the Starliner Towers becomes the perfect breeding ground for the parasites, as gradually everybody either living or working there is transformed into hosts during a frenzy of sexual violence.
It would be interesting to compare this type of filmic commentary, which operates at the domestic and architectural scales, to Tati's Mon Oncle and Playtime.

Shivers poster (1975)

All in all, it is a far cry from the type of speculation inherent in the Smithson's House of The Future (1956). It took only around twenty years to turn two archetypal modernist conceptions of living -- the automated home of the future and the clean, airy tower block -- into cinematic bĂȘtes noires.


DG said...

Great post. I briefly lived in the Baltimore version of the Mies, Montreal apartment block (Nun's Island) that (I was told) Cronenberg used for Shivers. Before I ever saw the film, friends would come by and say "you have to see this film; you're living it!"

enrique said...

Indeed! And the trick is to watch the film again and to determine which Mies apartment tower (there are several) on Nun's Island is being used.

DG said...

Uh, that's a bit too hard-core for me at the moment (have to finish up some work before school starts; shouldn't even be checking out your site!). But here's a link to the Highfield House in B'more: I recall in an aerial image from the C'berg film that was very similar.