The excellent website Wonders in the Dark is running a daily countdown of the 100 best science-fiction movies as voted upon by a jury of peers (at my request, not including me), and I’ve volunteered for three of the essays. This one appeared at WitD the other day. Of course, Nineteen Eighty-four, in any of its incarnations, does display various of the noirish themes, notably paranoia (fully justified!) about the system, but I’m not going to argue that case here, just reprint the essay.
“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
UK / 110 minutes / color with occasional monochrome / Umbrella–Rosenblum, Virgin Dir & Scr: Michael Radford Pr: Simon Perry Story: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) by George Orwell Cine: Roger Deakins Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Roger Lloyd Pack (Waiter), Rupert Baderman (Winston Smith as a Boy), Corinna Seddon (Winston’s Mother), Martha Parsey (Winston’s Sister), Merelina Kendall (Mrs. Parsons), P.J. Nicholas (William Parsons), Lynne Radford (Susan Parsons), Pip Donaghy (Inner Party Speaker), Shirley Stelfox (The Whore), Janet Key (The Instructress), Hugh Walters (Artsem Lecturer), Norman Bacon (Man on Station Platform), Pam Gems (The Washerwoman), John Boswall (Goldstein), Bob Flag (Big Brother).
- Note 1: Screen credit for the music is to The Eurythmics and Dominic Muldowney; in fact, depending on the version you find, you’ll hear a soundtrack by either one or the other. Radford preferred the Muldowney soundtrack that he’d commissioned and that had been recorded (as do I). Virgin insisted that their current megaband, The Eurythmics, should provide the soundtrack instead, and that was how the movie was released, over Radford’s protests. Since then at least one DVD has carried the original Muldowney soundtrack.
- Note 2: Cinematographer Deakins deliberately desaturated the color to draw the life out of the images, and this was the way the movie was released. (The screengrabs here are from the desaturated cut.) In some of the home video releases, however, the colors have been resaturated to give a more naturalistic effect. The DVD release with the Muldowney soundtrack is unfortunately one of those with the resaturated colors—aargh!
- Note 3: It was only after eight weeks of shooting that Burton was cast as O’Brien. It proved to be his last screen role, and the movie is dedicated to his memory.
So there was this guy who sat down in front of his computer in New Jersey, stuck his DVD of Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the tray, and set himself to rewatch the movie so he could write about it for the lauded Wonders in the Dark Science Fiction Countdown.
Within moments the mighty NSA artificial intelligence known as YoBro—a name to be spoken only with a shudder and a hastily snatched glance behind you at the arrays of CCTV cameras adorning every housefront, telephone pole, tree branch and toilet bowl—within moments, to reiterate, YoBro had zeroed in on the New Jersey guy’s watching, alert as ever to any sign of potentially seditious activity.
And within moments after that two NSA agents, alerted by YoBro, were looking in effect over the guy’s shoulder from the cameras hidden in the paintings on the wall behind him, one by Bob Eggleton and the other by Richard Powers. New Jersey Guy liked to swank about these things.
“It’s some kind of historical piece he’s watching,” hissed one of the NSA agents, Ciphery McCipherface, into the mike implanted in his jawbone.
Although the other agent, Facelessy McFacelessface, was half a continent away, their communications system was sufficiently sophisticated that they might as well have been sitting next to each other. “History’s seditious,” he hissed. “The past is a different country, don’t you know? Now, hush.”
Winston (John Hurt) peers through the window of the Chestnut Tree Café.
So they both hushed as some historical man called Winston Smith, or 6079 Smith W, who spoke in a funny accent—sort of like Alan Rickman’s, if you thought about it—pulled a secret journal out of the wall, all the while muttering:
“Thoughtcrime is death. Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death. I have committed, even before setting pen to paper, the essential crime that contains all others in itself.”
Things were pretty grim in 1984, the agents agreed. Even the sunlight—what little there was of it—seemed drained of color. A lot of buildings were in need of repair. Winston smoked like the remains of a BP oilrig and consequently had a rasping cough that kept recurring. His apartment looked like the interior of a not particularly salubrious public restroom. His TV screen was enormous but showed only sepia-and-white, had only one channel and apparently lacked an off-switch. It was also a spy device, the agents were gratified to notice, but aside from that and the helicopters (there was a really neat one that looked like a fly’s eye) all the technology appeared eerily dated, as if it were not just thirty years old but twice that—like it was “future technology” imagined by someone in, say, the late 1940s.
The fact that there could have been a time as long ago as the late 1940s boggled Ciphery a bit, but Facelessy was okay with it. He’d watched the Hitler Channel a couple of times before finding it too dry.
Winston lived in a country called Airstrip One that was part of a bigger nation called Oceania. Oceania was perpetually at war with one of the only two other supernations in the world, Eurasia and Eastasia. Countless bulletins from the front filled the screens of the ever-functioning TV sets that were everywhere; people really liked, too, the televised mass executions of captured enemy soldiers and enemies of the state.
Winston had a job in some weird bureau where he had to alter the stories in old newspapers—alter history, in effect. People who had fallen from favor with the government of Airstrip One, IngSoc, were written out of existence and replaced by people who were currently in favor.
Because of his job, Winston was a part of the Outer Party, which meant he had some privileges but not nearly so many as the high muckety-mucks in the Inner Party. Still he was better off than the Proles, whom everyone in the Party, Inner or Outer, thought of as just animals. Winston occasionally, when feeling especially daring, went into the Proles’ part of the city. He’d once even hired the services of a prostitute there, fascinated by her deprivation, by how raddled her face was, by the way that everything in her life—including their sexual encounter—was whittled down to the absolute minimum. No frills and laces.
The whore (Shirley Stelfox) whom Winston hired when he dared to ventured into the Prole area.
Ciphery was beginning to get restless. “Where’s the seditious bit?” he whispered nervously.
Facelessy ignored him. He was becoming a little puzzled himself, though for a different reason. From the names Eurasia and Eastasia it was obvious Oceania must be a country that had since 1984 disintegrated to become Britain (which he called “England”) and the Americas. That would make sense, what with England—the 1984 England—having the name Airstrip One. The governing party was named IngSoc. English Socialism? That’d fit in with the way it was like a Communist totalitarian state . . . except it was Winston who seemed to be the goddam commie, as he dreamed of IngSoc’s overthrow. What was this he was saying? “If there is hope, it lies with the Proles.”
Or maybe English Socialism was like National Socialism (the benefits of a Hitler Channel education again!), which would mean it wasn’t socialism at all . . .?
Facelessy focused back on what New Jersey Guy was watching.
There were people whom Winston knew as . . . well, not friends exactly, because there wasn’t really such a thing as friendship under IngSoc, where you could never trust anyone further than you could throw them in case they reported you for some imagined crime to the Thought Police; the next you knew, you’d find you’d been tortured through brainwashing (both the NSA agents kind of liked this bit) and were spouting one of the interminable pseudoconfessions that filled in the bits on television when you weren’t getting bulletins from the front, exercise classes, mass executions, warnings against sex or messages from Big Brother, the head of IngSoc. If all those entertainments palled, and the public mass executions likewise, you could always go along to the theater for one of the regular Two Minutes’ Hate sessions where everyone screamed abuse at the onscreen image of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Party’s worst traitor ever. In fact, it wasn’t really that you could go along to the theater for a Two Minutes’ Hate session; you did go along, because not doing so wasn’t an option.
Winston (John Hurt) is an unconvinced participant in the Two Minutes’ Hate.
Back to Winston’s friendships, or the lack thereof. His next door neighbor was a man called Parsons, one of the dedicated sheeple who attended as many Party meetings as he could and whose kids were steely-eyed little Hitler Youth—no, thought Facelessy, not Hitler Youth. Big Brother Youth, he guessed. Anyway, Parsons’s revolting little kids were just itching to denounce someone to the authorities and in the end young Susan did just that to her dad. Not that Parsons objected, mind you—quite the contrary:
“Keep away from me, Smith. I’m an agent of Goldstein’s. I didn’t know it myself. . . . My daughter found it out. Very proud of her. Very grateful I’ve been discovered before it’s too late.”
Even after torture, Parsons’s loyalty to IngSoc was undiminished. As the goons arrived to take him off to Room 101, the most dreaded part of the Thought Police’s lubyanka—or Ministry of Love, as it was officially known—he wailed:
“I’ve told you everything already. What is it you want me to know?”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Another acquaintance of Winston’s was his colleague Syme. Syme was engaged in the evolution of Newspeak, the simplified language to which the Party insisted the citizens of Airstrip One should restrict themselves. Syme was one of the team devoted to removing “unnecessary” or “redundant” words from the language, words whose very availability might rouse people to freedom of thought. It was his boast that the new edition of the Newspeak dictionary would be the slimmest ever, and the one beyond that even slimmer. As he told Winston, “It’s an encouraging thought that by 2050 not a single person will be able to have a conversation like this.”
Winston (John Hurt).
Too right, thought Ciphery. He was finding much of this propaganda movie baffling, but through the smog of his incomprehension he understood this bit. Why write something flowery and ivory tower like “That’s hilarious” when you could just use the plain English employed by the Founding Fathers for the Constitution and write “LOL”? “That’s hilarious”! WTF!!!??! Sounds like something a climate scientist or that bastard Dawkins might say.
Soon after Syme got all excited by the new Newspeak dictionary he was erased from history by the Thought Police, so Facelessy reckoned that in a way Syme did his bit to cut down the thickness of the phone book, too.
The Party had a bit of a problem with sex. One of its research projects was directed toward the eradication of the orgasm, for example. Of course, this sort of sexual puritanism was a great dogwhistle for IngSoc’s equivalent of the Family Values crowd, but the clampdown’s real motivation came from the recognition that illicit sex was a political act, a declaration of individuality and thereby a rebellion against the Party. This was one of the reasons, perhaps, that Winston bedded the whore that night in the Prole part of town.
Winston was at first more than suspicious when a young woman, Julia, started giving him the glad eye and passing him billets-doux. She was, after all, a stalwart of the Junior Anti-Sex League, the very people most fanatical about hunting down and putting a dumdum bullet through your precious petit mort. It was rumored her job was maintaining the machines that turned out porno novels for the masses, novels so mindlessly banal they wilted all erotic urges. Since Julia was half Winston’s age and pretty damn’ gorgeous while his own face resembled a relief map of the Andes, it wasn’t surprising he was suspicious. It didn’t occur to him that it’s always the people who’re telling you to cut back on your sex life who turn out to have the widest stances in the Airstrip One restrooms.
Winston comes across Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) at work propagandizing in the Prole zone.
Even so, one glance at Julia would be enough to persuade any straight male to throw caution to the winds; she too smoked, but not so much in the remains-of-a-BP-oilrig way. When she suggested they could have a day out in the countryside together he agreed like a shot, obviously a keen picnicker. Once they got there, and hopefully out of sight of the Party’s spying cameras, they acted rather like people who’ve met through an online dating service—to wit, they spent maybe a couple of minutes in philosophical conversation before the inevitable:
Winston: “Look, I hate purity. I hate goodness. I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt.”
Julia: “Well, I ought to suit you, then. I’m corrupt to the core.”
Except that she wasn’t corrupt. As she stripped off it was obvious she was releasing the antithesis of corruption into the world, that it was the totalitarian horrors of IngSoc that were “corrupt to the core”; her nakedness and her promiscuity, and the raucousness of the sex she and Winston promptly enjoyed on the greensward, were a slap in the face to IngSoc, the declaration of the very humanity that the Party so feared.
Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) sleeps after the couple’s first, alfresco lovemaking.
Ciphery, watching with his young mouth agape, was in part aghast by all this, in part relishing Julia’s nudity. It wasn’t just that she was naked—jeez, he’d hacked into enough subversives’ porn accounts, a man of the world, him—it was that she looked like a real woman rather than a porn star, and, after an initial brief uncertainty, like one who was happy in her own skin. When later in the docudrama he saw a shot of her stark naked and unconcernedly eating an apple he realized he’d come to love her more even than Gloria Gazumbas, the recipient of to date his only five-star Amazon review. Was this what actual women behaved like?
Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) eats an apple.
Back to Winston. By now he’d rented a room above the pawnshop owned by the genial Charrington in the Prole area, and the two lovers were having happy assignations there. Julia brought scarce goods like tea and coffee and sugar along, so they could feast on exotic delights in between all the other exotic delights. They could also marvel at the singing of the elderly washerwoman who seemed to spend much of her life hanging out laundry on lines in the next-door back garden. The songs she sang were collectively composed by committees and machines, yet her singing turned them into things of beauty. In a way she was a complement to the defiant sex enjoyed by Julia and Winston in the upstairs room. Her singing was an act of defiance that the Party was too stupid to recognize as such, because all it could observe was the artificial, soulless origin of the song, not the humanity given to it by the songstress.
Moments before their arrest, Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and Winston (John Hurt) watch an old washerwoman singing in her garden.
The lovers knew their time together couldn’t last forever, that sooner rather than later they’d be discovered and the might of the Party would come crashing down on them for their crime. But:
Winston: It’s not so much staying alive, it’s staying human that’s important. What counts is that we don’t betray each other.”
Yet they were unaware of the agency that would bring about their downfall: supposedly kindly old Charrington was in reality a Thought Police operative, his renting of the room to Winston an act of entrapment.
The genial mask of Charrington (Cyril Cusack) dissolves to reveal the ruthlessness beneath.
After a dramatic arrest, Julia and Winston were separated, with Winston being delivered into the hands of O’Brien—a man whom he’d thought was on the side of Oceania’s nascent resistance group, a man who’d lent him a copy of the latest Newspeak dictionary between whose pages were concealed the pages of the Trotsky-like Emmanuel Goldstein’s forbidden revolutionary text, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the book that, like Machiavelli’s The Prince, undermined the pretenses of the Party simply by spelling out exactly the principles upon which its supposedly benevolent policies were constructed. At least, that was what it seemed to be . . .
Goldstein’s seditious book is concealed between the pages of the copy O’Brien gave Winston of the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary.
Facelessy licked his thin lips. He was very partial to a bit of entrapment himself, and here was Winston having been entrapped not just once but twice. What a loser.
The agent also liked the next chunk of the documentary, in which Winston was mercilessly treated by O’Brien in a torture chamber that would have been deliciously medieval had it not been for the fact that the instrument of torture was an electric-shock machine.
. . . and the destruction of him as a human being continues with torture at the hands of O’Brien (Richard Burton).
Facelessy awoke from his relishing of the torture scenes when O’Brien said:
“Neither the past nor the present nor the future exists in its own right, Winston. Reality is in the human mind. Not in the individual mind, which makes mistakes and soon perishes, but in the mind of the Party, which is collective, and immortal.”
O’Brien (Richard Burton) before the ubiquitous Big Brother image.
The little speech reminded Facelessy of something he’d heard far more recently, sometime in the 2000s. For a moment he couldn’t remember exactly what it was, but then the happy memory returned to him:
“That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
It had been 2004, and the government official whom Ron Suskind hadn’t named had been quite right. Reality was what those in power said it was; if the power was absolute, as IngSoc’s was, then so was the status of the reality. If O’Brien held up four fingers in front of Winston and told him there were five, then indeed there were five fingers because O’Brien wielded the power (in more senses than one) in that torture chamber of his.
O’Brien (Richard Burton) shows Winston five fingers.
All good things must come to an end, and the electroshock torture sessions were one of them. Facelessy sighed with a sort of instant nostalgia; he could remember defending freedom a few times himself and then being caught pleasurably off-guard when the raghead died. He totally sympathized with O’Brien, who was quite clearly pissed off that, while he’d managed to break Winston’s resolve in every other way, he still hadn’t gotten him to betray the one thing that was the very dearest to him, his love for the winsome Julia.
O’Brien (Richard Burton) forces Winston (John Hurt) to look at his demolished self in an old and pockmarked mirror.
Bring on Room 101. It wasn’t just the most terrifying place in the Party’s torture palace. As O’Brien explained, “The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”
In Winston’s case, that was rats. As a child he saw his mother devoured by rats—or did he? Was that just one of the illusions created in Room 101? He saw his mother lying, rat-covered, in a ditch beside an implausibly green hillside, the same green hillside he saw when the door to Room 101 was opened, the same green hillside that served as a backdrop when Julia began unzipping her Party-issue tracksuit to offer him the one form of rebellion against IngSoc they could attempt, even though the attempt was doomed.
How much, thought Facelessy, of this bizarre documentary is fact, how much of it fabulation, portraying what really went on in Room 101—not the physical events but the events in Winston’s mind? Were Winston’s rat memories just another falsehood stamped on his mind by O’Brien’s torture and incessant indoctrination?
A while later the cameras found Winston as one of the fixtures in the Chestnut Tree Café. Was this a real place? Was it a mental refuge, a place to which he withdrew when reality became intolerable? Facelessy didn’t know—in fact, didn’t form the question, because that wasn’t what he was paid to do. His job was to track down obvious subversives, use the judiciary system to destroy their lives and, if he was lucky, beat the shit out of them a few times. Narrative analysis was above his paygrade.
Anyway, here was Winston in this weird joint called the Chestnut Tree Café that seemed to be devoid of other customers: there was just Winston and a taciturn waiter. In front of Winston was a chess board on which he was playing out solo games, only the moves he was making seemed subtly wrong. In the background, his own confession blathered unattended on the TV. Or was it someone else’s? By now Ciphery and Facelessy had become so inured to the relentless drone of the screened propaganda that they could hardly tell the difference. The drone of all the TV announcements had made the documentary quite tasking to watch—almost as if one had been oneself living in Airstrip One and subjected to this unpityingly ceaseless barrage through all of the day and all of the lonesome night.
Oh, wait a moment: here came another customer to the café. It was Julia, only it was a Julia like you’d never seen before. All the life was drained from her; her face was almost green with apathy and intellectual resignation.
She watched Winston’s meaningless chess moves. He spoke to her earnestly about the progress of the war, his worries that this front or another might fall. He was an eager political pundit expressing the views his masters had instructed him to express. She had even less to say back to him.
And yet, right at the end, after she’d left the café, was there an indication that somehow a trace of his love for her still remained, that something of Winston had survived the torture and even the existential assault of Room 101?
“I love you,” whispers Winston (John Hurt), but is he talking of Julia or Big Brother?
Facelessy didn’t know. Ciphery was wondering if there was some way they could hack New Jersey Guy’s computer so as to spool back to the nudie scenes.
It was only as the closing credits were rolling that Facelessy realized this wasn’t a historical docudrama they’d been watching but a piece of fiction, based on some bozo’s science fiction novel. No wonder the technology had been so weirdo. (He thought the history was probably likewise but, you know, 1984 was a bit late for the Hitler Channel.)
He vaguely recalled having heard of the book. A satire, wasn’t it supposed to be? Satire was a tricky concept for Facelessy. He’d been told it was what Saturday Night Live did, but he avoided the show in case it led him to unacceptable doubts.
But how could the movie he’d been watching be a satire? Where were the belly laughs, the fart jokes? He was certain it wasn’t subversive like YoBro had thought, that his and Ciphery’s efforts had been in vain. It might have been different if this Nineteen Eighty-Four thing had been in any way realistic, but quite obviously it wasn’t.
The media being all-pervasive, the propaganda that they broadcast being impossible to escape?
Demagogues spouting falsehoods and reinventing history as the crowds cheer . . . or leading hate sessions where people can scream abuse at imagined enemies?
The denunciation as traitors of those who disagree with the powerful?
The eagerness for executions?
The militarization of the police?
Covert surveillance of citizens?
The dehumanization—even demonization—of sections of the population or of people from other nations or ethnicities?
All just fantasies. None of them, Facelessy reassured himself smugly, at all relevant to today. Nah. That old novel, Nineteen Eighty-four—an anti-Communist screed, wasn’t it supposed to be?
He switched off the connection to New Jersey Guy’s computer and, moments later, so, more reluctantly, the image of Julia and her apple fading reluctantly from his vision as if it might have been a mote in his eye, did Ciphery.
Great tits, the younger agent thought. But the rest of it ain’t so much.