In an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” a timid bank teller who enjoys books has his life dictated to him by the outside world. With never enough time to read, he eventually sneaks a few books into a bank vault and closes the door behind him. Outside, a nuclear blast eviscerates his city. He emerges upon the devastation and discovers a library with many books still intact. Finally content, he sits down again to read, but slips and breaks his glasses. The environment had adapted to his passions, until it didn’t.
On Thursday Oct. 11, the Pomona College Humanities Studio hosted Jennifer Fay, professor of cinema and media arts at Vanderbilt University, to talk about virtuosic failure and environmental design. The discussion was focused on Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” which was screened a few hours earlier with a live, modern reinterpretation of its score by Paul D. Miller, also known as DJ Spooky.
“Steamboat Bill Jr.” is a 1928 silent film structured around environmental collapse, in which Keaton created a three-block American town and destroyed it with a fabricated cyclone.
Fay’s talk honed in on Keaton’s relationship with the environment. Keaton’s character, William, returns to Mississippi to reunite with his father. Now a foppish college graduate, William appears maladapted to his new environment.
The storm approaches and William’s misadventures continue, but when the storm hits, his clumsiness shifts to heroic capacity. Whereas before he’d tumble on ropes and engage the steamboat’s engine on accident, now he fabricates a rope mechanism to sail his father’s steamer single-handedly and rescue the other characters.
Keaton’s character isn’t shifting, Fay tells us; the world is adapting to him. It needs to collapse for him to succeed. “Failure,” Fay explains, “is a systemic condition in this film.”
Fay is the author of “Inhospital World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene,” in which she wrote a chapter about Keaton’s environmental designs. “Keaton’s films are about adaptability,” Fay said. Sudden shifts occur when the environment adapts to the characters, rather than vice versa. For the “loser” character archetype to succeed, the environment must fail.
Earlier that day in the large, echoing Edmunds Ballroom at Pomona, Miller asked us to imagine we were in his loft in New York for a living room session. He often scores and screens films for a small audience of friends to “see what works and what doesn’t.” Miller is known for his electronica, hip hop, reggae, dub, and astral and galactic funk albums. His scores frequently collide silent films from the early 1900s with contemporary soundtracks.
By yoking a film traditionally accompanied by an orchestra, theatre pianist, or organist with contemporary music, Miller didn’t only decide which moods in the film to support or amplify; he also conspicuously adjusted the film to a different milieu.
I don’t think I was wrong to feel a kind of eeriness as strings and an electronic undercurrent introduced the two steamboats and their competing owners in the film, one a tycoon with a luxurious new boat, and the other an old-fashioned captain getting pushed out of his industry.
While the film’s original orchestral score by Timothy Brock gives this scene the feeling of a parade, Miller’s instilled a sense of ecocriticism, awareness of race and gender politics, and maybe also feelings of anxiety and distrust.
Rather than feeling plucky and adventurous, the electro swing and house paired to the film’s artificial cyclone acknowledge the environmental devastation as it occurs while remaining upbeat.
In “The Art of Rhythm,” a video interview created several years ago, Miller suggested: “It’s important for people to experience rhythm because it’s how we make up the everyday world around us. A composition is based on emotion, how people think about putting together something that expresses some eternal thing.”
Movement, too, has rhythm. Placing the movement and music of the film together anachronistically seems to bridge some of the gaps between then and now, to bring to consciousness more of today’s conversations in yesterday’s content.
Inspired by Miller, I thought I’d try giving the film my own score. I started with “The Vengeance of Galaxy 5” from his 1996 album, “Songs of a Dead Dreamer,” to intensify the film’s initial eeriness. I continued with that for a while, unsatisfied with many of my selections until I put the storm scene to “Human Sadness” by Julian Casablancas and the Voids.
It was as if the artificial city melted to the rock epic’s apocalyptic baseline, drum thumping with each crash as Keaton tumbled through the wasteland. My witchy mix — a replacement, rather than a reimagining of the original score — sufficed to match a suffuse environmental pessimism.
Courtesy of an invitation from the Humanities Studio, I joined a seminar with Fay the next day. We viewed the first test of the atomic bomb, documented amateurly in the 1945 “Trinity” film. J. Robert Oppenheimer appeared with his iconic Pork Pie hat, as part of a team preparing the bomb for launch in southeastern New Mexico. As the bomb was hoisted upward, the film cut to black, and we watched the desert landscape explode with light.
“They didn’t know what the mushroom cloud would look like,” Fay explained as we were peppered with three separate camera shots of the blast, each unable to capture its full mass.
She explained that most nuclear training films are framed with a before and an after, showing the devastation, but also lending reassurance that the world goes on afterward. However, in this film, she remarked, “there is no after.”
There was concern that this bomb might have ignited the earth’s atmosphere, and we dropped it. The film could have been the end of human recording, the end of human knowledge –– maybe the end of the world.
In an essay called “Cinema’s Hot Chronology (5:29:21 Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945),” Fay designated “Trinity” as a geological marker for the earth’s shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.
As the name suggests, the Anthropocene classifies humans as a geological force. But while humans have adapted the planet for our own purposes, Fay poetically suggested that, in some ways, we’re no longer a force of history; we’re a brute force of wind –– an algae taking over the planet.
“We have already become the nature on which species will form their culture,” she said. “For this particular length of time, things got better and the planet suffered.”
As experienced by the spectacled bank teller in “The Twilight Zone” and William in “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” the environment can adapt to produce more desirable outcomes for some of its characters.
But after the bankteller’s settled down in his desolate library and after William finds his rhythm in the cyclone, we do not have assurance that these environments will continue to be favorable for these characters. Glasses break; cyclones end; sometimes the environment is favorable, and sometimes, it isn’t.
Blake Plante PO ’19 is an English major. He is most commonly spotted scribbling into an all-weather notebook at all events.