Film

Future Shock: The Death of Serious Science Fiction

The Starchild from 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey

The serious Science Fiction film genre is dead or at least on cinematic life support. As the new millennial marches forward, and an omnipresent production paradigm that substitutes spectacle for smarts, futurist filmmaking is definitely gasping for breath.


Planet of the Apes

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore, James Daly, Linda Harrison, Robert Gunner, Lou Wagner
MPAA rating: G
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
First date: 1968

2001: A Space Odyssey

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter
MPAA rating: G
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 1968/2001
US Release Date: 2001-11-02

Soylent Green

Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Joseph Cotten, Brock Peters, Edward G. Robinson
Distributor: Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: MGM
First date: 1973
US Release Date: 1973-04-19 (General release)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 1977
US Release Date: 1977-11-16 (General release)

Brazil

Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Kim Greist
Distributor: Universal Studios
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Embassy International Pictures
First date: 1985
US Release Date: 1985-12-15 (Limited release)

Dark City

Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Rufus Sewell, William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O'Brien
Distributor: New Line Cinema
MPAA rating: R
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 1998
US Release Date: 1998-02-27 (General release)

The Matrix

Display Artist: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Director: Larry Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburn, Hugo Weaving
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributor: Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: R
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 1999-03-31 (General release)
Website

Children of Men

Director: #243;n
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Display Artist: Alfonso Cuarón
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2006-12-25 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

The serious Science Fiction film genre is dead. Well, okay, perhaps not actually deceased, but its definitely on cinematic life support. With exceptions that are becoming rarer and rarer as the new millennial marches forward, and an omnipresent production paradigm that substitutes spectacle for smarts, futurist filmmaking is definitely gasping for breath. There are several villains in this creative cabal, elements and individuals that want to see the motion picture category cater to fanboys, geeks, and the easily entertained. But it seems a real shame that the one literary ideal best suited for the most visual of all mediums is constantly countermanded by issues that have nothing to do with either artforms' visionary nature.

When one charts the course of cinema's entire history, such bumps in the aesthetic road are really par for the commercial course. All categories of film go through phases; comedies veer wildly from sophisticated to gross out as dramas emerge from a stint in suburban seriousness and into dour self-indulgent drivel. Horror can be subtle, offensive, gory, satiric or even Asian-ized, while action never ever seems to find sure footing. But the situation with sci-fi is different. It's been dominated for decades by a single storytelling dynamic. Instead of reaching for intelligence and stretching the boundaries of imagination, it decides to take hoary old clichés, lots of narrative formula, and one man's F/X laced legacy, and completely rewrite the rules of acceptability. Where once the speculative spectacle questioned the existence of man within the cosmos, today it's all Westerns with robots.

It would be easy to lay all the blame at the cloven feet of George Lucas. After all, his Star Wars saga -- six films, a couple of TV stints, and billions in merchandising later -- often sets the current greenlight gold standard. Even with the horrendous nature of his pathetic prequels, the dollar doesn't lie. Commerciality always contradicts criticism, and indeed, if we are looking for the first reason why serious sci-fi is now a verboten motion picture variety, the lack of a real blockbuster benchmark would be a good place to start. Then there's the reflective nature of the culture. Speculative cinema is almost always guided by the life and times we live in, and the last decade or so have provided little food for innovative thought. It all seems too unreal, anyway. Finally, there's the real nature of the genre itself. Serious science fiction questions and speculates, not the easiest of issues to sell to a 'hurry up and explain it all to me" movie demographic.

In the last four decades (leaving everything before the '60s out of the equation for the moment) there have only been eight serious sci-fi triumphs -- movies that readily define what one means's by a thought provoking, inventive approach to speculative subject matter. In conjunction with the equally important TV triumphs of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Star Trek Saga (including all recent TV incarnations), this influential octet -- Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Dark City, The Matrix, and most recently, Children of Men -- represent real attempts to address the category's myriad of issues and possibilities. Scattered among this collective are intriguing also-rans like Silent Running, Solaris, Blade Runner, Gattaca and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. While some may argue for a missing favorite -- Alien, The Fifth Element, I, Robot -- there is a significant reasons why these movies fall outside this discussion, primary among them, their lack of an inherent allegorical nature.

Serious science fiction is not a question of storytelling reclassification, but of innovation spawned by creative conjecture. Indeed, Harlan Ellison, in defending of his use of the term "speculative fiction", argues that science fiction, or in its hated abbreviated form, sci-fi, reduces the ideas that artists craft by sticking them into a certain set of formulaic loop holes. Indeed, when one hears said movie moniker, their minds are instantly swept away to planets unknown, where intergalactic entities battle it out for control of their dying dystopian societies -- or even worse, a centuries from now situation where technology or terror has run amuck, and a brave few survivors have been left behind to battle a mechanical menace, or post-Apocalyptic warriors bent on destruction. In either of those cases, the supposed science fiction element is merely a stunt -- an outer shell hiding the film's real purpose (action, horror, thriller, etc.). What's missing is the element of exploration.

This is the main reason why the Star Wars films fail the serious sci-fi test. In essence, creator George Lucas was trying to revitalize another dying genre -- the Western -- when he took parts of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, fashioned some additional morality play elements to the narrative (good vs. evil, mostly) and drizzled the whole thing in a proto-religious reduction of mangled metaphysical meaning (i.e. "The Force"). The result was a phenomenon, a triumph that's impact lingers to this very day. But it wasn't just the story that sold the audiences. Lucas had spent years trying to find a special effect dynamic that would render his ideas realistic and authentic. He didn’t want his vision coming across as nothing but miniaturized models floating on strings through a cardboard cut out cosmos. The techniques his Industrial Light and Magic came up with -- advances in blue screen, motion and computer controlled camerawork, etc -- propelled the visual ability of sci-fi to resonate onscreen. Where once your standard space opera looked more than a little ridiculous, a newfound authenticity ruled the day.

It’s important to stop for a moment and consider the contributions of the past. From the first moments a camera could record images in motion, filmmakers where using fantasy and aspects of the otherworldly to wow audiences. All throughout the earliest days of the medium, directors like Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang were expanding the creative canvas, using the seemingly infinite possibilities of the format to envision the impossible (Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune) and the shocking (Lang's amazing Metropolis). As the times changed, so did the impact and influence of science fiction. Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon established the Star Wars approach, turning the serialized adventure into a laser blast shoot-em up to heal Depression/World War era worries. By the time the '50s came along, the genre had a new element to contend with -- the introduction of atomic science and the resulting nuclear bomb. More than any other real world element, the fear of radiation and its unknown after effects became the sci-fi staple, fostering a solid wall of schlock.

It was a conceit that would live on for years. As endless variations of mutant beings threatened a planet and people unprepared to play God, anyone interested in exploring important themes or metaphoric facets were reduced to limited appeal publications and the occasional somber screenplay. What was needed was a burst of intelligent innovation, a means of making these potentially powerful stories as sensational idea-wise as they were becoming visually. TV tried, championing both Rod Serling's imaginative series The Twilight Zone and its darker doppelganger, The Outer Limits. But it wasn't until President John F. Kennedy announced an intention to land on the moon that the science aspect of this format finally kicked back in. Thanks to the experimentation of the decade, and the desire to buck most of the meaningful mainstream trends, it wasn't long before '60s sci-fi turned sensationally sobering.

The first salvo arrived in 1968 with the one two punch of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes. While one film jumped on the promise of the advancements in space exploration, the other was a dissection of the then daunting civil rights movement. In Kubrick's case, he confronted the idea that man may not be alone in this universe, and tried to examine the philosophical fallout from learning of such a circumstance. Schaffner, on the other hand, took minority intolerance and majority prejudice and tweaked them, showing how a society more or less degenerates into superstition and fear when biological differences distract from clear common sense. The '70s tried to expand on such expressions of social consciousness. Solyent Green argued over the environmental impact our unchecked population growth was creating, while Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters asked us to "watch the skies", implying that the answers to most of our pending problems could be provided by beings outside our understanding -- and galaxy.
The '80s remained stuck in Star Wars afterburner mode, doing very little to advance the cause of serious science fiction. Even Star Trek, the venerable series that helped save the genre from itself back in the Peace Decade was starting to play by the ILM rules. Only Python provocateur Terry Gilliam decided to bend the high concept action adventure rules. While many see his seminal Brazil as nothing more than 1984 processed through a mind mired in Lewis Carroll and Mad Magazine, it's notion of social commentary as cutting edge satire definitely shook up the sci-fi formula. By the time of Dark City and The Matrix, the gist of what Gilliam wrought was up on the screen for all to see. Indeed, both of these fantastic films dabble in perception, in 'waking up' to one's surroundings and seeing the treasures -- and the threats -- for what they really are. Smart, sentient and more than a little self-indulgent, both efforts prepared audiences for an onslaught of considered creativity. It never arrived, sadly.

In fact, with the recent release of Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece Children of Men, we can literally look at how far the genre has fallen. Of course, Lucas had to try and reinvent what he already had reconfigured, putting out three pathetic 'prequels' that had little to do with innovation and everything to do with a jaundiced generational grab for personal glory. CGI, or computer generated imagery, made all ideas possible, but the fiscal fortunes of Hollywood dominate the creation process, meaning that all films must reference a previous box office champ, or die in 'development Hell'. That was clear when Will Smith signed up for a big screen adaptation of I, Robot. Fans fretted that the former Fresh Prince would be unable to handle the depth that Isaac Asimov provided in his short story series. They need not have worried -- the tales were tossed aside so that big time stunt set pieces could be created with the star battling an onslaught of rogue robots.

But Cuarón countered the notion of needing eye candy to sell science fiction. In fact, he avoided almost all the trappings of the recent popcorn predilection within the genre by bringing back a main missing element -- ideas. Children of Men is overflowing with them, concepts that boggle the mind in their connection to reality (society split apart by catastrophe and a lack of security) and their frightening, unfathomable nature (a world gone barren, a Britain under menacing martial law). Hints of technology pepper the fringes (a floating computer monitor, an omnipresent media eye), but overall, the director's vision of London post-infertility is like the UK after the Blitz. We see civilization hanging by a thread, while all around cooler heads, personal desire, and uncontrolled terror translate into hostility, rebellion, and death.

It’s a similar stance taken by Darren Aronofsky in his masterful The Fountain. Death is never an easy subject to address -- it burns too brightly in the human heart and confuses the mind of men who believe that they will, somehow, live forever. But via a combination of period piece, meditation on faith, straightforward drama, disease of the month manipulation, and speculative wonder, we see the pain of passion fading, and the hallucinogenic vision of mortality accepted and embraced. Because of its varying nature -- it really does transcend every genre it attempts -- Aronofsky's movie doesn't make it into the serious sci-fi schema. But its approach definitely does, a category defying conceit that allows all stories to be the source of a single idea. Cuarón also captures this in Men. At times, we see a war movie, a dystopian disaster, and a straightforward adventure. Yet all fall into a single statement of humanity's helplessness in light of a dying legacy.

While it would be nice to think that either one of these films -- or recent low budget brethren like Magdalena's Brain or Numb -- would signal a rebirth for serious science fiction, the truth remains that the bottom line still rules the majority of our cinematic endeavors. The Fountain was a failure (it was too smart for audiences…and most critics) and Children of Men rode a decent wave of pre-Oscar publicity to an average return at the turnstiles. In fact, Cuarón is often championed more for being part of the Three Amigos (a wave of Mexican moviemakers including Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu creating waves in Tinsel Town) or his Harry Potter effort than Men's amazing vision. Some reviewers have even taken the director to task for committing a cardinal sin in sci-fi adaptation; trashing most of PD James' book for his own narrative demands.

What we're looking at then is the anomaly, not the trend. Anyone hoping for a real renaissance in serious speculative storylines will be waiting quite a long while. It's all about the dollars in our current cinematic situation, and art won't trump artifice anytime soon. Case in point -- I Am Legend. For decades, Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic novel has been scheduled for a big screen revamp (it was originally made twice -- once as a low budget bungle featuring Vincent Price, the second as the slightly silly Omega Man). When it was announced that Ridley Scott, the man behind both severe (Blade Runner) and sensational (Alien) genre works, was on board to direct, it looked like the author would finally get some respect. Unfortunately, budgetary demands destroyed the project, and it sat dormant until…that's right, Will Smith signed on. Now, early buzz is that, just like Robot, Legend is getting 'mainstreamed' for mass consumption -- i.e. rewritten to avoid the story's inherent doom and gloom and amplify the blockbuster hero factor.

Of course, one could argue that serious sci-fi was always a genre glitch. The list of reconfigured futurist films vs. one's actually conceived as original takes on the times via the allegorical and/or socially significant is far from balanced. Indeed, you'll find hundreds of hackneyed space cases for every example of legitimate imagination. So before we read the category its last rites and lament the loss of speculative seriousness, perhaps we should be grateful for what we have -- and happy that there are filmmakers like Cuarón and Aronofsky willing to keep trying. If history shows us anything, it's that film will always fail us, especially when we are looking for jewels inside the junk pile. But it definitely grows more difficult when it's clinging to life, with a prognosis that looks rather bleak, indeed.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image