Crystal Gazing

(Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, UK, 1982)


Wishful Thinking

Although drearily realised as a film, Wollen-Mulvey's Crystal Gazing is one of the most lucid and poignant allegories of the utopian sensibility.

The utopian imagination is all about the dream of finding or creating a series of free spaces within the social order – projected symbolically as a physical space as in The Cotton Club (1984), or pragmatically as the activity of storytelling, which is one of the subjects of Crystal Gazing.

Following several simultaneous and interconnecting narrative trajectories, the film lays out different symbolisations and conceptualisations of the problem of utopian thought – the problem of having to decide between wishful thinking and the big lie. Crystal gazing – peering into a dim future, speculating hopefully or nihilistically on its outcome – is the film's metaphor for utopian thought, and as a visual motif it links clearly escapist, cultural utopianisms (e.g. illustrations for science fiction stories) with political movements and campaigns that organise their actions and mobilise their forces around a necessary projection into the future, a belief in the possibility of changes (e.g. workers' strikes).

Wollen and Mulvey, one senses, want to count these different utopianisms as part of the one impulse. Then they want to pull back from the mutually exclusive tendencies to either celebrate or discount this impulse – "Despair, like hope, is a vanity", runs their last quotation, committed to a kind of necessarily open-ended here-and-nowness which is still somewhat unthinkable, and certainly unrepresentable, within the film itself. Although Crystal Gazing may want to just get down to a description of the variable movements of power and desire within social life, it too becomes caught in and fascinated by a poignant reflectiveness on the unresolved problem of utopia. It can't help getting a little sadly poetic and wistful – and hence wishful.

None of the utopian trajectories of the characters in Crystal Gazing end well. Neil (Gavin Richards), the science-fiction illustrator, is shocked to find his fantastic invented worlds troubled by the ugly, exterior facts of economic rationalisation and retrenchment. Unemployed, he drifts – and not too unhappily – through a series of chance encounters and experiences, improvisations of various sorts. But it is chance (in the form of a bus carrying strike-breakers to a factory site) that eventually kills him, ironically at his fledgling moment of political 'consciousness' or at least curiosity.

The story of Kim (Lora Logic), on another hand, the living out of her dream to be a pop star, comes in the form of a familiar Marxist lesson: the more she approaches her personal ideal for the future, the less human, the less connected she becomes, identified finally only by an assortment of consumerist props and attachments: the phone, the TV set, a rock video, hi-tech musical instruments. Utopianism is here damned as escapism and alienation; dreaming is only an empty dream of fame and stardom in the society of the spectacle.

The story of intellectual Julian (Jeff Rawle) is the saddest of all. He believes in a Utopia of desire which would be opposed to and beyond the empires of sense, reason, language and power. He has a theoretical problem – how will this utopia emerge, how can it ever be 'spoken'? – and a practical one: no one will listen to him, and his PhD assessors fail him as a ratbag. Driven to despair, he kills himself, leaving behind a videotape envoy which accuses society of all its ills and crimes against desire. It is a gesture as esoteric as anything he has ever done or said. His vision of Utopia – the film seems to say, resignedly – is an inaccessible one.

Crystal Gazing is a sad, wise film which knows its own doubts, confusions and ambivalences. One end-point it reaches is simply a re-posing of the wishful thinking-big lie dualism; one of the fiction's few survivors, who ends up still human, realises the emptiness and banality of her own forms of crystal gazing – astrology, weather maps, microscopes – and asks herself what she saw when she looked into Neil. "Dreams ... redundancy": a bleak stand-off. In the central dialogue between Julian and Neil, the existence of a Utopia of Desire is doubted. How would you speak it?, wonders Julian – wanting an embodiment of desire which is before or after rational speech. And how would you convince the Labor Party that desire is worth fighting for? Neil's response to this latter question is pragmatic, improvisatory: he suggests to Julian that he put his problem into a story, an allegory, "then maybe people would understand."

Now, the film knows that fiction is treated these days with much well-founded suspicion as inherently repressive and conservative: no more fiction, runs the refrain of Lora Logic's song "Martian Man". Yet it holds out for the here-and-nowness of fiction, its capacity to speak, communicate, articulate, and to inspire. Fiction, ultimately, is the film's own utopia: it wants to believe in fiction as a 'free space' in which problems can be thought out aloud today rather than projected into the desirous comings of tomorrow where they will be dissolved. Fiction as fable, allegory, even fairy tale – always a little bit absurd (as the film's own 'fairy tale' section makes clear), but not, for that, totally ridiculous or useless.

But that is to re-pose the same old problem: just what is the use-value of a utopian imagination?

© Adrian Martin June 1985

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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