The "People in Tubes" Motif

Gregg Williard


A pair of scientists wearing white coats received a book through the mail on how to build a machine called an interocitor. After the lead scientist Meacham built the device an alien appeared on its screen, congratulating him on successfully assembling the interocitor, "a task of which few men are capable."

Bridey bent over her notebook for 20th Century History Through Film and started writing. The girl she met at the bus stop had told her DeGref's history class was easy but impossible. She started doodling the usual machine things. The next time she looked up at the screen a flying saucer was crashing in an orange and violet fireball behind THE END. She read the 20th Century History through Film syllabus:

Our lectures and readings will present a seeming bricolage of fact and fantasy, historical record and personal recollection, memory real, imagined, and confabulated, in an alternating valence of personal/political oppositions posed before this, our project of "history" . . . we will interrogate certain signal conceits: 1) That history is like watching an old film on TV; 2) That wars are the commercials; 3) That the narrative motif of people in clear tubes (from iron lungs to suspended animation to glass coffins of Snow White and Lenin to YouTube) encapsulates—literally—a charged vector of contradictory desire, from control of life and death within glass-enclosed interventions of arrested metabolism, to the false closures of overt or covert suicide; and 4) That the narrative of contested historical perspectives and interpretations can only cohere "from the wrong end of the telescope"—the telos of individual, 'private' experience in heuristics of reverie and confession.

This semester we will focus on six films:

1. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse Nero-Film (1933) Directed by Fritz Lang. In Testament, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the robotics inventor in Lang's Metropolis) is a criminal mastermind and hypnotist imprisoned in an insane asylum, furiously scribbling plans to destroy the social order and rule the world.

2. Man Hunt Twentieth Century Fox (1941) Directed by Fritz Lang. Big game hunter Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) gets Hitler in the sights of his unloaded rifle and pulls the trigger for the "fun" of a "sporting stalk." He's in turn pursued by the Nazis, who believe he is an assassin for England.

3. This Island Earth Universal-International (1955) Directed by Joseph Newman. One of the first big-budget science fiction films in color. Rex Reason plays nuclear scientist Cal Meacham, who learns that he and other Earth scientists are being enlisted by aliens to give them more sources of atomic energy.

4. Bataan MGM (1943) Directed by Tay Garnett. An early WWII film that depicts a group of thirteen American army volunteers picked off one by one fighting the oncoming Japanese, considered brutally realistic for its time.

5. Forbidden Planet MGM (1956) Directed by Fred M. Wilcox. In this film a rescue space ship in the 23rd century is dispatched to a distant world to learn the fate of a colonization ship from twenty years past. They are met by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, the star of Man Hunt), his daughter Altaira (Ann Francis), and a servant robot (Robby), sole survivors of a deadly planetary force, monsters from Dr. Morbius's id.

6. Ministry of Fear Paramount (1944) Directed by Fritz Lang. Set in wartime England during the Blitz, it tells the story of Stephen Neale (Ray Milland), recently released from a psychiatric asylum for apparently aiding in the assisted suicide of his terminally-ill wife. Neale stumbles on a Nazi spy ring behind a charity group called The Mothers of Free Nations.

The next day Mr. DeGref's lecture began without preamble:

"This Island Earth presents us with a machine called an 'interocitor,' a 1955 vision of a flat-screen TV/communicator in the shape of an inverted triangle, with red disintegration rays issuing from the triangle's points. This film is central to the 'People in Tubes Motif', which, I maintain, animates a central place in the collective psyche (via movie posters and science fiction illustrations) of the mid-20th century. The tubes in This Island Earth are 'conversion tubes' used by aliens to readjust to their world's crushing atmospheric pressure after time on Earth. Hence the connection with post-war polio and iron lungs in our previous lecture. In 1967 the seminal film writer Raymond Durgnat writes of This Island Earth, 'To survive the various pressures of the voyage, the humans and their human hosts alike are obliged to stay in a transparent tube and to undergo what Michel Laclos has called "the integral striptease"—their clothes skins muscles veins and bones successively dissolve as their molecular structure is dissolved and held in "protective suspension" in the tube. Thus the "indefinite duration" of interstellar travel, and all the problems it poses for the scenarist, is "paraphrased" in an intimate and unexpected manner. Outer Space becomes Inner Space. Two disturbing notions are fused into a vivid, yet exceptionally economical, image. This kind of reinforcement-by-contradiction, as audacious poetically as it is opaque to Cartesian analysis, is a transposition of mental sensation immediately comprehensible in terms of the "dreamwork." And its "anatomical" key sets the key for some dream overtones of subsequent images . . .'"

Bridey's attention wandered from his piquant growl to the butcher paper quotes covering the classroom walls, lettered rough and drippy in black tempera:

–Austin O' Malley

"I'll return to more of those images in a moment, but keep in mind the Freudian operation of 'dream work' as it applies to the question of our life voyages' 'indefinite duration' as suspended in our bodies, and the body of the world, of the world's body in glass coffins as items in a Cabinet of Curiosities, or a Joseph Cornell universe in a box . . . Elsewhere we will hear passages about the glass coffins holding Lenin and, briefly, Stalin; the victims in freezer capsules of the H.A.L computer in Kubrick's 1968 film 2001, and the rumored tinfoil-wrapped Walt Disney, presumably stored in some variety of pod. We follow with another example: the post-war German company Braun, makers of the world's first stereo/radio combination, a pristine box of white plastic turntable and console under smoked glass lid called 'Snow White's Coffin' . . ."

That night back home Denys collapsed into his favorite and only armchair, sipping the remaining coffee from his thermos and staring at his bag. It was a battered leather doctor's bag he'd inherited from his father, a sort of engineer. The leather was cracked and the handle shined. When unbuckled it fell open in soft folds like the jowls of a basset hound. Everything it held was baptized in a smell of old machine oil and mimeograph ink. He pulled out Bridey's notebook/sketchbook. She explained that her notebooks were always this particular type, made by Canlon with 8 1/2" x 11" pages wire bound at the top and with heavy black front and back covers that allowed them to sit upright on their own for easy reading while she typed. The paper crackled from heavy teeming lines detailing biomorphic-mechanical doodles and a tiny, pressured hand. The briefcase smell suited her notes, more mechanistic doodles than words. Though tiny, her writing was easy to read:

My left eye sees this:

The expectations not met: that your History Thru Film Class would have certain of the standard goals, like fostering empathy and identification for those oppressed, and to some extent, their oppressors; building a better understanding of the complexities of cause and effect; helping to see the present in new ways. Mrs. Dahl in her History Through Film class studies the movie Glory to learn about blacks during the Civil War, or Lincoln to understand the Emancipation, or Gran Torino to learn about the Hmong in the U.S., or Swing Kids to understand the beginnings of Nazism. Using films rich with meanings and with young, attractive protagonists easy to identify with; with themes that can be clearly identified and analyzed, justifying their use of class time to view, discuss, and write about in journals and formal essays. Your approach . . . but "approach" doesn't capture what happens, or doesn't happen, in your class. You lecture for almost the entire time. There are rarely any breaks for questions or comments. The references to significant historical events or specific films are fragmentary at best. Rather than an academic presentation with a clear thesis appropriate to college studies, with citations and references from historical, cultural or film studies literature, you teach instead a self-named "bricolage" of movie scenes, memories from life or imagined others' lives, idiosyncratic meditations on time and time's space that makes sense as confessional poetry, maybe, but not history.

My right eye sees this:

A second narrative, a spot that will not be washed out, a stain of another world's words seeping through the lectures, a writing in invisible ink disclosed before a candle's flame, some parallel track about people in tubes, a done city, a done kid gang, a war against black ships fought with ginned-up toys that flit between the letters, behind the words to a boiler room, a slaughter house, a place where all the words and people are in tubes . . . In the distance that produces pressures that thrum under the surface, there's a metal shape that looms in midday shadows. After the boiler falls silent, the machinery hulks, shoulders some unseen weight of presence or absence, in this realm both qualities generate a gravitational field, even light's magnetism, and storms on the surface of the sun. And distant drumming that sounds heat waves striking pale skin in the lashes of pennants and regimental flags. There is a parade. It is getting closer. There must be 500 drums going, stretching way back into an echoing tunnel. Enough to shake the walls of the tunnel of the cave of the basement. There is the thing in machines. And there was the thing in movies. And there was the thing of the war that was history, anyway, I guess. I could see that. How the things, along with sex and drugs, could be it. Could be the history. I could see it. Like some kind of chilly organ practice in a hall open to the winter wind . . . There is the kind of architecture of the sound, an architecture to the sentences and the story, and I can only wonder which of these realms, the spectral landscape or the wigged academician's talk, will finally prevail . . . ?

Denys swallowed the icy coffee he'd forgotten was in his mouth. He looked back over the words and the drawings and shook his head. Who was this kid?

–Don DeLillo

The next class Bridey watched the students' heads as they bobbed, sank, snapped up, sank again: it could have been weed, Ecstasy, hangovers, Ritalin; or maybe Adderol, glue, crank, bath salts; or even experiments with hypnosis or tasers, seasonal affective disorders or whacked out biological clocks; or just partying late (or even studying late!). The class was, after all, late in the afternoon, when the winter dusk could pass for the middle of an arctic night. Or maybe simple boredom? Bridey was kind of bored, but it was an interested and interesting boredom. So maybe no simple boredom for the others? How could she ever know that, know anything about them? Perhaps they were there only because the class was a squishy elective you could literally sleep through. The homework (one page summarizing "what you took away" from the week's lectures) seemed incredibly open-ended. She heard that one girl had passed by copying out two months of her dream journals.

". . . the great Alan Turing, breaker of the Nazi Enigma Code, pioneer of the modern computer, was hounded into suicide for his homosexuality by the British courts and vice squad, taking his own life by biting into a poisoned apple, inspired by the wicked witch disguised as a crone in the Disney Snow White (1938), Turing's favorite film—and the real meaning of the Apple computer's logo of the apple with the bite taken out? . . ."

She hadn't slept well. In the middle of the night her phone made its gulping bees sound:


The message was a chunk of spambot surrealism, the stuff meant to slip through spam protection:

TO THE FRIENDLY AND CERTAIN signal of the weeping closure, I tip your tit and briccolear the individual telos, covert coveture of inclosed penile containment within band of animate catheters. Desire for your teenage-nesses sung by narratological squirts Some weird overt or covert control of fathom leagues, getting between YOUR legs and the centuries OF suspended comingulatedness, cominguled erectile motifs of erectile ejaculatory contests of history babe-a-zoids! Oh sweetness, your openings of imprisoned perspectives and privileged dualities, the decentered cum of the link to High Jinx pregnant witH http.// . . .

She watched Denys and knew it wasn't him. She looked around the class. Nobody looked capable of a DeGref mash-up like that. Nobody was sufficiently awake. And nobody particularly disliked Denys. If anything his class was popular because it was so easy. She began to nod off again.

". . . to where shoes mountain, words betray, and shadows propose their bitter analogies: as Jefferson's stables were liveried by his secret mulattos, so too our century's Monticellos are attended by the half-breed progeny of Leni Riefenstahl and Fritz Lang . . ."

–Seamus Heaney

". . . there's a recurrent theme in Rupert Brook, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen of homosexual erotics, of course, but not just for their fellow soldiers alongside them in the trenches. Perhaps an even deeper feeling is focused on the dead, an unmistakable thread of gay necrophilia hissing like a lit fuse all through the mud shrieks, the jagged trees festooned with garlands of intestines and ornaments of hands and heads and splintered bone all about them, a homoerotic necrophilia that was, perhaps, the final stop on the wartime literary train, the last, living-in-death ejaculation to 'come' out of World War I, the boys of Eaton and Oxford reveling in the dark sexy of dismembered young men, maybe especially those dismembered by explosive shrapnel, or chewed by machine gun fire, or bloated and weeping green pus after a mustard gas attack . . ."

A girl in the back row muttered, ". . . ooou, gross!" Somebody tittered. Someone else yawned. Bridey rubbed her face. Still twenty-five minutes to go. She wondered at hidden memories of the lecture she and the others might retain and squirrel away, maybe becoming a Russian doll kind of memory, with each recalled passage yielding a new and previously hidden subtext or reference, as if certain key words dropped away like trap door hyper-links to another realm. And then another link: Mr. DeGref analyzing dialogue from another movie on the syllabus, Forbidden Planet, voicing each of the characters with a heartbreaking sincerity. "Dr. Morbius describes the symptoms of his shipmates' deaths from the unseen planetary force as being 'literally torn limb from limb,' or when the Captain questions the crew about the chief engineer's death: 'How was it done?' 'Done? Captain, his body is splattered all over the communications room!' That 'done,'" Mr. DeGref urged, "What is it about that 'done'?! It's the intonation and emphasis on that 'done.' It bears a special signifying package, as if to say, this language, this account must break down in trying to convey a special operation: the unconscious becoming conscious, dramatized in Forbidden Planet as subconscious mental energies becoming materialized in an invisible murderous creature. What is bedeviling me is a scrap of dialogue from Forbidden Planet coming from Dr. Morbius as he tries to explain to the Captain that now, these many years later, he has felt the deadly beast still lurking in the shadows, 'only to be reinvoked for murder.' This quote, misheard, mistaken for decades afterwards to mean something to do with being brought to justice, being tried before a court, arrested and tried, as in the monster's power being 'revoked' or taken away. This as Morbius says he only sees the invisible killer in his dreams, 'being reinvoked for murder' . . . Not, in other words, being brought back, summoned up, rematerialized in order to commit murder. My understanding was that the beast would be called back to stand trial for murder, to be judged or punished for murder which was, considering the near omniscience of the id, entirely out of the question, unless there was on the Forbidden Planet a force of justice or law that was even more powerful than the unrestrained forces of the Krell's subconscious hatreds and lusts. A super-super ego out of the Book of Revelations, the Baptist's fiery promises of eternal hell. And this matter of the Krell 'civilization without instrumentalities': the strangeness of this idea only amplified by its seeming familiarity to the spacemen, who appear to have been waiting for something like this, like the hint of a 'civilization without instrumentalities' was the end-all of their wildest imaginings! Just the idea that that vision or image or idea could be seemingly commonly held by all these spacemen, who are pointedly characterized as 'non-intellectuals' by Dr. Morbius, is arresting and odd. Morbius makes an exception for the character Doc Ostrow, saying wistfully that he 'misses the company of such gentlemen as yourself,' singling out the doctor from the other more regular joe spacemen as possessing a superior intellect, even though there is no sign that Doc Ostrow is more intelligent than the other crew members. It may be that Morbius's encomium 'such gentlemen as yourself' alludes more to Doc's sexual orientation than his intellect. Amazingly, there is no sign of resentment or jealousy among the other members of the crew. All that I was imagining was to be 'revoked,' drained of its power, or 'retried' in the sense of judged again, but there could have been (seemingly would have been) considerable misunderstanding, as ripples from the initial misreading spread out over time. Reinvoked for murder, reinvoked for a revoking of murder (maybe meaning that the planetary force for control was being materialized by the Krell thought machines, super-ego energies crushing the id), in the sense of arrested, approached, (reapproached) . . . this may be a clue, may be a hand hold onto the landscape I kept seeing in my peripheral vision, a kind of 'rendition' of thought into physical form but also the 'extraordinary rendition' of id and ego energies and cathected libido, 'rendered extraordinarily' in the Guantánamo sense of captured, imprisoned, neutralized, held indefinitely by powers; the imaginary beast within me that was so quickly understood as wantonly, murderously, psychotically out of control . . ."

-Roberto Bolaño

That night there was more spambot word salad:

Id Id iD ID Id. Re Re Re Re "Re" Recalled. REinvoked. Reinstated. SUMMONed before us to pay. Or, summoned by no law to mur der.

Retried.  Reinvoked.

"Maybe the Twilight Zone episode with Dennis Weaver as the man who dreams his own murder trial and execution again and again—the same faces in different roles—another meta-drama of self-consciously aware actors in a 'play' almost completing the breach of the third wall as the common knowledge in Hollywood that Walter Pidgeon was gay, really liked the young men, and, along with Hollywood's other closeted gays utilized the services of that pimp to the stars who just recently died, Scotty Bowers, (Full Service), who worked in a gas station in Hollywood and supplied all the stars with plenty of sex, plenty of it, as if the idealized view of Hollywood in the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's was the living idols of the silver screen stuff, bogus of course, but how was the reality . . . real, so to speak? He struggled in the dark. He meant the other extreme of Hollywood Babylon, that wasn't quite it either, or was it . . . ?"

She woke with a start. It again. She'd been sleeping for ten minutes, but none of the students or Mr. De Gref had noticed. Listening to him to unlock the spambot code? Was it to her? If she got the code she would pass m the test, like assembling the interocitor! She knew it was a silly girlie game, then she didn't. Any more unreal than the world of DeGref? Than being marooned at this school?

Hey Let's Play

". . . my neighbor, a man named Nathan Stone, used to ask, 'Do you know what it's like to wake up every morning smelling the ovens?' He was a World War II veteran, a bombardier shot down in his B-24 Liberator and in a German prison camp through most of the war, downwind from a concentration camp. 'Just like that Hogan's Heroes,' he'd quip, but his face didn't go along with any joke . . .

"Since then there had been lurid revelations about the sexual obsessions of the star Bob Crane, his insatiable taste for porn and filming himself having sex with prostitutes. Perhaps our class could watch some episodes of Hogan's Heroes to learn about the dodgy ways of Holocaust 'remembrance,' then view the Paul Schrader film Auto Focus (2002), a paean to the personal video camera as much as an indictment of Crane and the show . . ."


–Henry Ford

Mr. DeGref put his hands in his jacket pockets and walked slowly toward the door, turned, and went back behind his desk. He leaned over and pressed his hands into the surface with his fingers spread wide. Then he gently pushed off, as if in slow mo float from dingy or satellite. This was his concluding Sage on a Stage position. His face cleared and he began to talk, but a girl in the back row raised her arm. "Yes, Corrine?"

Corrine's voice gulped and croaked with vocal fry: "Mr. DeGref, is it, like, rilly true that your name means, like, the grief?" There were scattered sighs and groans. The croaker had a reputation for the inane and irritating. Mr. DeGref answered it like it was a serious question. Maybe it was. Bridey didn't know. She was still the new girl nobody talked to. If only she could stay that way. She felt a headache coming on.

"I think someone asks me this every year. Do I seem especially melancholy to you?"

A couple of students answered, "Duh-uh." Everyone laughed, even DeGref.

"OK. Well, you decide from this story. One of my ancestors, Nicholas Van der Graef, lived in Holland during its Golden Age—the mid- to late 1600's—where he was friends with Rembrandt, the astronomer Christian Huygens, the mathematician/philosopher Gotfried Liebnitz, and the great Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The family legend tells two conflicting stories about my ancestor Nicholas's life. In one account he was a member of a mob that assassinated a leading politician of the day named Jan de Witt. de Witt was a powerful patron protector of Spinoza until he was accused of treason against Holland in its war with France. In that version my ancestor did not merely 'assassinate' de Witt, but helped to knife and club de Witt and his brother senseless, then helped hang them upside down, whereupon de Witt was quartered, the fragments of his body later sold as souvenirs, or eaten raw, or cooked. In the other version my ancestor tipped off Spinoza about the plot against his protector, and helped hide Spinoza from the wrath of the mob."

Corrine asked DeGref which story he thought was true.

"Oh," Mr. DeGref said, "I'd have to say both of them. Remember, this was Holland's Golden Age."

"So," Corrine said, "does your name mean the grief, or what?'" No one answered and the class emptied.