Archive for James Tiptree


Posted in Politics, Television with tags , , , , , on January 18, 2019 by dcairns

Hmm, Bird Box is quite offensive, really. Well made, compelling, but with a truly obnoxious concept, not quite at the heart of it, but close. I’d say it was operable: if you were concerned about defaming the mentally ill you could remove the offending material, replace it with something less fascist, and go about your business.

No way to get into this without some spoilers. As I say, the show is tense and involving so you might want to watch it first. But then you should think about what you watched.

Alien, windy things arrive on earth and everyone who sees them has to commit suicide. They’re like the little girl in KILL BABY KILL, or worse, THE WOMAN IN BLACK. That part isn’t offensive. It doesn’t say anything about real-world self-harm that I object to. It’s a pure fantasy concept.

But mentally ill people are affected differently. They don’t kill themselves, but they run about forcing other people to look at the that-which-must-not-be-looked-upons. The crazies in question include the escaped populace of an institution for the criminally insane, but also a hitherto harmless but weird guy who works at the local supermarket.

Tom Hollander is really good in this, by the way.

But what the show is saying, it seems, is that all mad people are basically the same, so that they might all be affected by an alien influence in the same way. And you can’t trust them.

Pretty clearly, if they’d made a show in which all black people or all gay people are turned into agents of the alien invader, that would have been seen as offensive.

Of course, insane people ARE different from any ethnic minority or sexual preference. But they’re also different from one another.

You could make a comparison with Joe Dante’s grim Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution, based on Alice Sheldon’s story. In that alarming anthology episode, an alien influence causes men to become murderously violent towards women when sexually aroused. The differences between that and Bird Box being that (1) you’d have to be a seriously butthurting male chauvinist to object to this premise. If the story is offensive to men, it’s offensive to the group who has the most power in human society. Also, this story touches base with our reality in several places: serious male-on-female violence is much more common than the reverse; the male sex drive and the aggressive drive are somewhat intertwined; making one gender kill another rather than procreate with it would be a wickedly effective way to exterminate a species. And (2), closely connected with the previous point, the makers of The Screwfly Solution and the original author pretty clearly thought about what they were saying and portraying.

The makers of Bird Box pretty clearly didn’t.

Bandersnatch is really good, though. Watch that.



The Screwfly Letter

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2009 by dcairns


Dear Joe,

When you said you were sort of glad you didn’t get James Tiptree’s story The Screwfly Solution made into a film in the ’80s because it’s so depressing it might have killed your career, you weren’t kidding!

Yours sincerely

David Cairns

In 2006, courtesy of Masters of Horror, Dante got to make his film as a one-hour TV special. Returning to the more explicit gore and nudity of THE HOWLING, while abandoning the jocularity that undercuts Dante’s usual genre mode, the movie is a real departure. Nothing about it is “fun.” Although it could still be said to deploy a form of sociopolitical satire…

Due to circumstances not immediately made clear, an airborne virus spreads through the human male population, triggering fits of religious mania and physical violence as a response to sexual arousal. Soon the homicide rate is out of control, as men start killing women in response to a mutated sexual instinct. “Male sexual urges are very closely linked with aggression,” explains scientist Matthew Perry Jason Priestley, “Now, somehow, someone has figured out a way to erase the difference.”


It starts nasty and gets worse. Mostly, the idea is developed with the kind of frightening logic that makes a fantastical idea scary, which is similar to the logic that allows a satirical conceit to reduce a scenario to the absurd (really, we should talk about EXPANDING something to absurdity). There are a couple of flaws, which are in themselves interesting.

Elliott Gould plays one of the few dependable males in the story. “The young men I’m attracted to are more than capable of defending themselves,” he says. But we never see him affected by the virus at all. Are gay men immune? That doesn’t make sense to me, since whatever the essence of male homosexuality may be said to be, and whether we consider it genetic or conditioned or learned or a combination (I think a very complex combination is likely), it’s definitely male.

There’s also a line where Gould suggests putting women in camps for their protection. This is a pretty flawed idea, but I can accept it because it’s the kind of flawed idea somebody might have. Obviously, putting the men in camps would make a lot more sense. They’re the dangerous ones. As usual, the authorities are useless at taking action (in the most amusing scene, a general rejects the idea of chemically castrating the entire army, demanding an alternative: Gould suggests actual physical castration).


Flawed thinking turns up again in the DVD extras, where we learn that concern was expressed about a scene where the patrons of a strip bar run amok and glass the strippers. The offending shot showed one man punching himself in the groin with a barbed-wire-wrapped fist. Unpleasant, yes, but if I was going to pick something to be offended by, I’m fairly sure I’d focus on the women being brutally murdered, not on the act of probably-non-fatal self-mutilation which is at least, by its very nature, consensual. Not that I am offended. Shocked, yes. All in all, the film managed to draw stunned expletives from Fiona and I once every five to ten minutes.

The story spans a couple of months during which the misogynist plague spreads across the Earth. It’s an epic tale to realize on a modest TV budget, made possible in part by speedy filming (a handicam mounted inside a steering wheel allowed for an extremely swift, dynamic shooting style). What’s most intriguing is the difficulty in figuring out what appealed to Dante in this story. It shouldn’t be a problem, because the story is obviously powerful and original, but since it’s so different from everything else in the Dante oeuvre, it does present a puzzle. Elsewhere, he hasn’t seemed like a feminist filmmaker in any sense, indeed his films are populated with satirically sketched frustrated/frigid career women, in everything from GREMLINS II: THE NEW BATCH to LOONY TOONS: BACK ON ACTION and SMALL SOLDIERS (the memorably named Dr. Kiegel). And HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD features some dubious rape jokes which turn out particularly unpleasant due to a lack of any real humorous point — it’s as if the filmmakers assume sexual violence is  inherently hilarious. “Hey, it’s the seventies!” Fortunately, Dante has not only matured since then, he’s become far more skilled at comedy, so that even on a technical level such gags wouldn’t pass muster in a modern Dante screenplay.


The humour in Screwfly is grim and unfunny too, but the filmmaker is in control of it. When an air steward snaps a screaming female passenger’s neck, another male passenger pointedly remarks “Thank you!”  as if a nuisance had been quietened in a more conventional way. The vision of a world where male-on-female violence is seen as completely normal by the men is a frightening exaggeration of attitudes that do exist, rather than an invention out of whole cloth.

What’s so commendable about Dante is that he used the format provided by Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror to make two films he could never otherwise have gotten made: Homecoming, which addressed the Iraq war back when no fiction filmmaker was going near it, and did so in a scathingly scabrous and bitter satiric fashion — like Michael Moore with FAHRENHEIT 9:11, Dante found a way to make a polemic entertaining; and this film, which nobody would have allowed Dante to make as a standalone feature, since it’s so far from his usual style.