Trinity College’s ‘It Came from the 1950s!’

Posted by Dale Townshend on May 23, 2008 in News tagged with
“Day of the Dead;
or,
How I Spent My Summer Holiday, by James Bell aged 25 and one-sixth.”
 
 
 
“At least there’s only one human being in my way.” –Aspasia Stephanou
 
 
When I read about Trinity College’s conference ‘It Came from the 1950s !’, I was immediately enthused. The subject matter was one of great interest to me, and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet both Kim Newman and David J. Skal, authors I have long admired. Skal is perhaps best known for his seminal The Monster Show (which I saw him sign many copies of). Newman is a film critic, and an author of both fiction and non-fiction. His Anno Dracula is a tour de force which explores the possibility of a Victorian England wherein Dracula has not only survived, but married Queen Victoria.
Trinity’s Georgian campus is achingly lovely, and especially so in the summer. (The Dublin excursion turned into something of a family holiday for your author, but that’s another story.) Attendants were drawn primarily from Trinity’s own student body, perhaps inevitably. The Stirling delegates, myself and Miss Aspasia Stephanou, were pleased to renew our acquaintance with the Carlow Institute’s Tracy Fahey, whom we befriended at last year’s Global Gothic conference. As a trio of Gothic outsiders in strange territory, we operated on the premise that if we were the noisiest and most energetic, the rest of the room would form itself around us.

 

 

The conference was held in the Botany building’s theatre, which rather resembles an anatomy classroom from an old film (Pews and ceiling beams included).
Following an introduction by Darryl Jones, David Skal broke us in gently with his light-hearted keynote address, “Paranoid Planet: Or, Take Me to Your Makeover”. Concentrating on American culture and cinema of the 1950s, Skal argued that clones are just one facet of a long-standing obsession with rebirth and reinvention. The anthropomorphic robot, for example, clearly descends from those other simulacra, the Golem and Frankenstein’s monster. The Pod People and their ilk are but the twentieth century’s document of the doppelganger.
The 1950s saw the rebirth of Disney with Cinderella – itself a fable of transformation – and also the ‘mutation’ of post-war Americans from citizens into consumers. As identical suburbs and homogenous mass culture flattened individual differences, clone-like humans became a staple of genre fiction. But there is more, Skal argued, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers than mere Cold War paranoia. It is an open-ended critique warning against conformity as much as Communism.
Less sophisticated artefacts of 1950s culture, such as Ayn Rand’s shrill and unambiguous Atlas Shrugged, explicitly dramatise anti-Communist feelings. It is a short step to impute political leanings to The Blob, which portrays a de-personalized red mass assimilating everything in its path.
Transformation and empowerment, then, became the dominant cultural motif. The flipside of a belief in personal malleability manifested itself in rumours of Communist power to ‘brainwash’; bespeaking an anxiety about the fragility of identity. This anxiety fed into such works as The Manchurian Candidate and Frankenheimer’s subsequent film. One sees the popularization of Freud in books like Robert Bloch’s Psycho, built around the notion of a ‘second self’, and Vance Packard’s expose of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders. For the first time, the very concept of ‘free will’ is called into question in popular literature.
 
After a Q&A session, the massed delegates retired to the pub for drink and craic, as we say in Ireland.
Eventually the cool people moved on to an open-air smoking lounge, where David Skal regaled us with arguments about Florence Stoker’s status as a ‘fag hag’, Frank Langella’s Dracula on film versus Broadway, and hysterical descriptions of Carrie: the Musical. (For his part, your author met an unnerving Goth girl who knew every single word of Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom and admitted to stalking Michael Crawford.)
 
The second and final day saw the well-rested and not-at-all-hungover delegates regrouping for an early-morning start: “Comrade Romeos and Soviet Tootsie Rolls: Sexuality and American Anti-Communism in the 1950s”, by Cyndy Hendershott. This presentation utilised popular songs from the era, in addition to clips from such dubious classics as Invasion USA (which brought the house down. B-movies, it would seem, are more amusing through their very earnestness.)
Cold War discourse, Ms. Hendershott argued, is sexualised in the cultural artefacts of the day, and makes much of implied deviance; yet normative sexuality is always restored without fail. Intriguingly, Ms. Hendershott suggested a possible link between the figure of the Communist and that other Slavic bogeyman, the vampire. A discussion of anti-intellectual prejudice in America against Europeans yielded inescapable latter-day parallels…
 
“One day this is going to be a pitiful country: 1955 in Black and White”, by Stephen Matterson, invoked Ginsberg and the Beats. The quality of ‘blackness’, its construction and paradigms, including the symbolic blackness of Elvis, was explored. Norman Mailer’s writings about the ‘hipster’, with his fluid identity, prefigure and anticipate many post-modern theorists. 
 
Next was Bernice Murphy, one of the organisers of the conference, with the imaginatively-titled “All That Zombies Allow”, subtitled “Re-imagining the 1950s in Far from Heaven and Fido”. This talk concerned the retrospective construction of the 1950s in contemporary cinema, taking the aforementioned as its main examples. Far from Heaven is an extended homage to the director Douglas Sirk, referencing him even in the title. Fido is a much more tongue-in-cheek invocation, using zombies as a blatant metaphor for alterity, whether sexual or racial. Indeed, using a 1950s setting as a springboard for satire appears to be relatively common, if Pleasantville and such ‘suburban Gothic’ works as Parents and Blue Velvet are anything to go by.
 
Bernice was followed by her fellow organiser Elizabeth McCarthy, with “Fast Cars and Bullet Bras: The Image of the Female Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s”. Ms. McCarthy demonstrated that the bullet bra, in short the famous ‘sweater girl’ look, was synonymous with delinquency, and illustrators would use it as a verbal shorthand.
A slideshow of salacious paperback covers revealed that the advertising was more provocative than any actual content – a parallel with their cinematic equivalents, the ‘exploitation quickies’ of AIP and co. As with science fiction images of monstrous women, it is the iconic posters, and not the actual films, which have imprinted themselves on popular consciousness.
 
Wayne Kinsey’s 90-minute talk, “ ‘Don’t Dare See It Alone!’: The Fifties Hammer Invasion”, was of particular interest to this delegate, who was weaned on Hammer. Kinsey, who has already published two books on the subject, gave his audience a fascinating overview of Hammer’s history, contrasting them to Universal’s more sedate offerings. Hammer’s pared-down Dracula (perhaps unwittingly) foregrounds the attractiveness and sensuality of evil. Its coded eroticism disgusted critics but, ironically, the bad notices usually backfired. Tellingly, there seemed to be a particular objection at the juxtaposition of sex and death.
Using a variety of illustrations, Kinsey demonstrated how Bernard Robinson achieved the look of much more expensive productions by cleverly redressing his exquisite sets. His death was a blow to Hammer, as was the advent of films like The Exorcist.
 
Kinsey was followed by Kevin Corstorphine of Dundee University with “Masculinity and Fatherhood in the Short Stories of Robert Bloch.” Corstorphine discussed the figure of the killer as a product of modernity, and considered whether Psycho is indeed the hotbed of misogyny it is often claimed as. In fact, Corstorphine argued, taken collectively, Bloch’s short fiction comprises a critique of typical male traits such as hero-worship and obsessive collecting.
 
Darryl Jones then spoke on “Night of the Demon and British Occultism in the 1950s”, contextualizing the film with reference to events like the Coronation. Night of the Demon was released in 1957, a symbolic articulation of an anxiety that could no longer be denied: Britain’s irrelevance. Thematically and visually, the film is a contrast of the old and the new, modern architecture and Edwardian gentlemen.
 
The final address of the conference was by Kim Newman, and entitled “Radioactive Mutants Are Attacking!” Newman began by examining the etymology of the word ‘mutant’, pointing out that it is a botanical term. Radiation, Newman observed, typically functions in science fiction as a ‘McGuffin’; a magical plot device that does whatever the story requires of it. Marvel Comics provides some obvious examples: Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men, all of whom have curiously divergent powers despite their similar origins. Of course, radiation never produces cancer in comics.
Fifties science-fiction, taken collectively, does not present a single, coherent stance on atomic power. Even low-grade ‘quickies’ display a curious ambivalence. Major studios tended to glorify the military; but in most genre films, monsters awakened or created by atomic power are typically destroyed by it also. Godzilla, the most obvious symbol of The Bomb, is himself destroyed by technology suppressed for its destructive capacity.

In common with Darryl Jones, Newman noted that Britain’s diminished status was reflected in the tone of its contributions to the genre. Newman ended by raising the possibility that we would soon see genetically-modified monsters in fiction, updating old anxieties for our own day.

 
In short, the conference was a wonderful experience. It offered the chance to listen to world-class speakers and mingle with all number of fascinating types in beautiful surroundings. The organisers are to be congratulated !
 
 
Text by James Bell, May 2008.
Photographs by Aspasia Stephanou.

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