Let us say that I am in London’s National Gallery, looking at Giovanni Battista Viola’s “Landscape with a Hunting Party”, which could not have been painted after the artist’s death in 1622. Here we have something of the quattrocento flattening of perspective, the painting of bulk described by Ortega in which mere size counts as an indicator of distance (1). There is a castle-domicile upon an embankment at the right rear, with smoke climbing from a chimney into a lavender and azure sky cupped over high blue mountains in the distance. In the foreground, lush tall trees margin the picture, and at right a man in a yellow tunic holds two dogs upon a single leash as they strain to slake their thirst at a charming rivulet. At the left, an eager young man in scarlet and his lass in lavender share a hefty white stallion, another man blows a hunting horn. Sheep graze, birds fly off, two brown dogs wait together for the action to commence. But how blind must this painter have been, as he worked the variances of this wonder, to the true nature of Nature. He could see and paint no more than was given to his eye. It wasn’t until some time around 1670 that Antonie van Leeuwenhoek experimented with blown glass for magnification. Had it been Leeuwenhoek confronting that pastoral idyll, he would have been able to detect the bacteria in the pups’ saliva, the cells in the blood of the young chap in red pants trailing after the horse riders, should he have tripped and cut himself on a fallen branch. The leaves in the trees could have been subjected to interrogation, the stone in the domicile revealed in its granularity. Like his contemporaries, however, Viola lived in mute retreat from such a world of knowledge, and saw only a beautiful vista, a thrilling and momentary arrangement, a vibrant frieze.
Is it possible that ever since Leeuwenhoek we have been frightened of a curse that would compel our return to the world before his microscope, before his specialised sight that could penetrate the surface of Things? Are we not driven to using our vision as a tool for penetration? In the way that he itemised corpuscles and spermatozoa, do we not persist in seeing deep structure beneath every landscape and social portrait? (Only the other day – I write in the middle of May 2013 – someone on Facebook who had watched J. J. Abrams’ patently silly fantasy Star Trek Into Darkness  complained of his racist casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Khan that was originated by the distinctively non-white Ricardo Montalban, as if the film and the performances in it were nothing but masquing surfaces covering the better, because profounder, “truth.”) Thanks to the myth of the lens, we are now habituated in peering past beautiful arrangements into the zone of deep and highly charged – because covered – meaning: “Las Meniñas” as a revelation of the power of the king and the superior power of the painter with his point-of-view; Cézanne’s various “Mont Saint-Victoire” canvases as pointers to geo-social arrangements; Monet’s landscapes around the Seine as evidence of shipping and transportation. What if the fear of the world as only presented has led us to an obsession with the redeeming power of incisive vision – not only with the technical possibility of seeing through and seeing into but with the overriding idea of uncovering, demystifying, disenchanting (as Max Weber would have put it) (2); an idea that could lead to belief. Do we not believe that we may use rational vision as a permeating beam, that we can and should wipe aside the obstructive surface of form, balance, colour, shape and arrangement in order to plumb the deepest limits of vested interest, political and economic imbalance, cultural bias and motive that lie festering and silent beneath? Sontag writes, “The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses” (3) but what, she implies, if we can surpass the power of the camera and systematically display the hidden? What if we can make the beautiful surface disappear?
This is the thrilling possibility that lies beneath Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Corman has been involved as producer or co-producer of more than 400 titles since Highway Dragnet in 1954, all of these relatively small budget, fast-turnaround operations resulting in relatively small-scale, B-level films aimed to provide surface appeal, instant pleasure, and cheap thrills. Between Five Guns West in 1955 and Frankenstein Unbound in 1990, he directed 56 titles (with and without screen credit), including the outlandishly melodramatic X. The film was made for American International Pictures, a Poverty-Row house mostly devoted to the burgeoning teen market that developed in 1954 with Corman as its main director and with financing from Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, who together had previously run the American Releasing Corporation (4). X was Corman’s 39th directorial effort, and certainly one that might tickle the intensively sexualised teen market filled with kids who, having for years been throttled by comic book ads for Slimline X-Ray Specs while they read Archie or Superman – “Look at your friend. Is that really his body you ‘see’ under his clothes? Loads of laughs and fun at parties” – might now seek similar, and magnified, kicks in the movie theatre.
The film’s story is uncluttered and bold. Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) has been fiddling in his laboratory with a chemical composition that has brought results just as the film begins. When he drops some of his formula into his eyes he suddenly becomes possessed of x-ray vision, able to see through buildings to their girders or through clothing to the flesh beneath. When he increases the formula, the flesh gives way to the organ structures inside (and the thrill passes from the domain of eros to that of medical practice). Plenty of casual situational setups give us opportunity to see him enjoying his discovery, and marveling at his new powers. His associate Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) tries on his behalf but is unsuccessful in obtaining further research funding, and so he becomes a renegade and works ahead on his own, improving, intensifying the chemical still more. Then things go wrong. He takes over a surgery to save a young girl whose internal affliction he has seen, at a mere glance, as having been misdiagnosed by Dr. Benson (John Hoyt), but in doing this earns the enmity of his colleague. His chum Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone) gets into a little spat with him in the lab and gets hurled out the window to his death. Xavier goes on the run. Finally, his ocular development now unstoppable and his intelligence filled with the hidden secrets of the universe wherever he chances to look, he is living in the worst of torments, in his last moments repeatedly reaching up to touch his malignant, all-powerful eyes as he staggers through a desert setting to a revival tent where a preacher is bringing his flock the word of the Lord. “If thine eye offend thee, put it out!” the man cries into Xavier’s face, and the message finds home. Groping his face, the doctor plucks the eyes out, and abruptly the film is over (one shot in which, now eyeless, he screams “I can still see!”, having been cut). The afterimage of the bloodied face is left with us in the dark, our own treasure for seeing more than “we should”.
As with other Corman vehicles, the film was shot on the quick and cheap, with a minimal number of settings concocted from painted flats (often he used pieces of set from previous films) and a long section of padding in the middle where Xavier, at a young people’s party, cannot help seeing them naked as they twist (in shots carefully arranged from the thigh downward or the neck up). This is the naughtiest bit in the film, a self-reflectively parodic Milland episode, since even though he had (famously) played a degraded alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945) and a sadistic would-be wife-murderer in Dial M for Murder (1954), he was never without a certain decorum. Milland, who had had important roles in The Major and the Minor (1942), Lady in the Dark (1944), Ministry of Fear (1944), The Big Clock (1948), and The Safecracker (1958) saw his career declining by the beginning of the 1960s and this film did little to help; he went on to considerable television work and supporting parts in film, including in The Last Tycoon (1976), before dying in 1986 with more than 170 credits to his name. Van der Vlis had a small role in Frank Perry’s stunning The Swimmer (1968), but otherwise spent the bulk of her career aside from X doing television work. Harold Stone had appeared in The Wrong Man (1956), The Harder They Fall (1956), Spartacus (1961), The Chapman Report (1962), and The Big Mouth (1967), but most of his more than 150 appearances were on television as well. Hoyt had appeared in Spartacus, too, and in Cleopatra (1963) and hundreds of television episodes. Here he is all uptight outrage, shoved aside during surgery by the arrogant know-it-all Xavier whose condition has begun to draw him off the edge of social propriety and toward the self-absorbed, all-perceiving “blindness” that will end him.
When, following Xavier’s lead, we look beneath the surface of X we find – quite as easily as he does the buried world – a sermon about the age-old problem of vision, reminding us that we are fated either to be obstructed when we look or, as happened with Lazarus, to see far too much. Lazarus, having moved across the barrier between life and death and returned again, was beset by visions so spectacular and immense, so pure, so unseen, that everyday life paled for him. Corman states this theme without embellishment or circumvention as Xavier, dosed with his own invention, is instantly assaulted by a glimmering, hyper-lambent spectrum of life that is meant to shrivel his everyday experience. (The vision effects were farmed out to John Howard whose superimpositions, lens effects, and colorations were collectively billed as “Spectarama”.) We can reflect that this cognescento wouldn’t be experimenting if he thought he saw enough to start with; but once he changes his eyes he sees not only better than he did before, better than he thought he would, and better than anyone else, but, horrifyingly, things no one was meant to see. A more recent play on this theme is Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) in which William Hurt cannot prevent himself from seeing to the limitless depths of perspective. Science is invoked not only in Xavier’s actual situation but in the implicit drive behind the narrativity that invokes him; we must proceed in our understanding, not just occupy a position; having seen at all we must see more, and still more. Yet also invoked is the cloaking, mystifying shadow upon which religion depends to hold mankind back from the sort of self-destruction Xavier must finally endure. Modesty, prudence, calculation, patience – all these he lacks, all these contain us from going too far too fast in our dissections.
Also inherent in the x-ray vision is a profound alienation that has both philosophical and economic implications. This is a reasonably early statement of the theme of “special intelligence”, invoked in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) by the prospect of seeing those who do not know they are being seen (much as happens with Xavier in the party sequence where he optically denudes his hospital colleagues); then in Fred McLeod Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet (1956) as Morbius displays the augmentation of his cerebral powers using the Krell intelligence tester; and much later in John Carpenter’s They Live! (1988), when the urban world of cheery advertisements and slick interpersonal style, viewed through special sunglasses, reveals itself as a crass and manipulative machine controlled by alien forces. Numerous other films could be cited here, for example Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) with its craniocephalic Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) (the smartest man on earth), or the supremely alienated Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) in Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), prescient, all-knowing, and utterly puissant, because he is a dead man playing in the world of the living, another Lazarus reborn. In this tradition of exclusion through augmentation, the hero is anathematised through his own brilliance – he is unable to communicate with those who cannot see things the way he does with his remarkable gift. But the economic thrust of the alienation is what matters to Corman, namely that young and disenfranchised viewers would want to race to watch a film in which their powerless thirst for power could triumph. Who is Xavier just before we meet him, after all, but one more loser of a scientist/professor who fiddles endlessly and fruitlessly in his lab while the great dynamo of modernity pulses all around? But now, presto, he has found the key that will permit him to escape from the tedium of our social arrangements, and he becomes, in a flash, not only a visionary but also a deviant, not only a prophet but also a criminal.
Is it not significant that Corman’s chemistry bestows special powers upon, of all types, a doctor! For all the evidence of prurient sexuality that he proffers, and all the crass commercialism drawn to the surface of his vision once he can see “the world as it really is”, Xavier’s sincerest acts involve diagnosis and surgical intervention, in which, it must seem obvious, he now becomes supernaturally skilled. He is the embodiment of the medical practitioner described by Michel Foucault, who possesses the “absolute, absolutely integrating gaze that dominates and founds all perceptual experiences”. Everything, Foucault tells us, is given to this gaze; nothing is hidden or subtracted from it. Corman has thus visually dramatised the normal operations of medical personnel, through a science fiction in which one paragon takes vision beyond the limit. “When the doctor observes, with all his senses open”, Foucault writes, and it is Xavier we may take him to be describing, “another eye is directed upon the fundamental visibility of things, and, through the transparent datum of life with which the particular senses are forced to work, he addresses himself fairly and squarely to the bright solidity of death” (5).
Fairly and squarely, fair and square. His relentlessly observing eyes being windows to a hungry soul, we may presume that by film’s end, once he has plucked them out, he has revealed himself not just as prophetic but also as damned.
* With thanks to Nick White
- See José Ortega y Gasset, “On Point of View in the Arts”, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature, trans. Paul Snodgress and Joseph Frank, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 107-30.
- Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Oxford University Press, New York, 1969, pp. 129-56.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977, p. 23.
- Wheeler Winston Dixon, Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale IL, 2005, pp. 115-16.
- Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith, Viking Press, New York, 1975, p. 165.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes/X (1963 USA 79 mins)
Prod Co: Alta Vista Productions Prod, Dir: Roger Corman Scr: Robert Dillon, Ray Russell Phot: Floyd Crosby Ed: Anthony Carras Prod Des: Daniel Haller Visual Effects: John Howard Mus: Les Baxter
Cast: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles