But I’m thinking about something else. The same is true – the women are dead; the men seem to be okay with robot wives – in the 1975 film. But then came successive made-for-TV versions (I’m relying heavily on Wikipedia here, but it’s an interesting trail to follow) in which (1980) the wives were hypnotised, broke free, took revenge; (1987) wives and children were victims but husbands (“conspirators”, says Wikipedia) ended up being killed; (1996) the title was changed to The Stepford Husbands, which says what needs to be said. In that last one, the making-into-robots/hypnotising was led by a woman, and the wives*, I imagine, didn’t do much clearing up around the house. No, I haven’t seen it.
I didn’t know any of that (thanks, Wikipedia). I did read the book and then see the original film, years back, and then I saw the 2004 film (do I have to insert “made-for-cinema” here?) directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler and Glenn Close, among others. With that cast, perhaps it’s not surprising that the wives weren’t murdered and replaced with mindless automata**. They’re capable of being rescued. Yes, one of them is shown to be a robot (spoiler) or a machine or a something by a husband who uses her as a cashpoint (her mouth dispenses banknotes), but even she is capable of being restored to, er, full working order.
After The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin wrote The Boys From Brazil (1976, Random House), which gives us an interesting take on cloning technology. In 2011, in a Guardian review, Sophie Martelli wrote, “What scares today is Levin's premise based on biological engineering: in the 1970s, although scientifically possible, [the villain’s] plan belonged firmly in the realm of fiction; now it's not nearly so far-fetched.” I’ve always liked the idea that cultural change can be tracked through popular entertainment***; maybe Ira Levin’s unusual prescience also extended to the impacts of science. If you're thinking of indulging in a little light cloning over the weekend, read The Boys From Brazil first.
Yes, I know I haven’t mentioned Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s second novel (first published on 12th March 1967 by Random House). In a discussion of Ira Levin’s curious prescience, perhaps that baby is just a little problematic. She (he?) would lately have celebrated her fifty-first birthday. Or thereabouts. Not that I’m in any way mentioning politics in this post, and I’m not in any way thinking of the plots of The Omen (1976) and its sequels (yes, there was a remake), but, you know, isn’t fifty-ish a good age to be thinking about running for office?
*I’m assuming they did agree to marriage, as the title suggests.
**Is that too finicky? I mean “automatons”.
***For example, the idea that all those black-and-white movies of the fifties about alien invasion expressed fear of communism.
To complete the record, Ira Levin's first novel, A Kiss Before Dying (1953, Simon & Schuster), told the story of a wife-killing serial murderer. Spoiler - he ends up boiled, which a cinema buff might consider a blow for bunnies everywhere.
But if we come at the saying from a slightly different angle, we might get: continuing to engage in activities that are long past their sell-by date. Those deckchairs would need to be out of the way, and you wouldn’t want to throw them over the side for fear of hitting a lifeboat, so you would perhaps secure them as per regulations for adverse conditions. But then going around collecting drinks orders, or advising that the late-night deck-quoits competition is scheduled to begin in five minutes, would be inappropriate.
Enough with the Titanic. People died. There was a deckchair attendant, at least one, and at some point he realised that there wasn’t a place on a lifeboat for him. What I’m saying here is – we’re often mistaken about usefulness. To go somewhere else and pick a different example, it’s not exactly “futile or ineffectual” to have the soldiers (visibly) guarding Buckingham Palace dressed in conspicuous red jackets, nor indeed for the travelling on important state occasions to involve gold-coloured, horse-drawn vehicles*. All of that may be past its sell-by date (the real guarding is done by [redacted]; a black cab would get you there quicker), but it does bring in tourist dollars (yen, etc.) and it draws the eye.
Soldiers in red jackets are useful. But not for their original purpose. It’s disconcerting (but not surprising) to research the subject online, and find that red jackets remained part of the British Army’s standard going-into-battle uniform until shortly before the First World War. See for example Stanley Baker, Michael Caine et al in the film Zulu (1964)**. The idea of the red jacket was for the enemy to see the British Army coming and be frightened off the battlefield (or not). Let’s have some emphasis here, please: once that red jacket was written into the regulations, not even (for example), the increasing accuracy of snipers’ rifles through the nineteenth century could dislodge it.
Happily for those young officers leading the charges up out of the trenches and into the barbed wire, and for the men following them (who were shot if they didn’t go), by then the red dye for the jackets had become too expensive for widespread use***. We can conclude that a century ago, cost-cutting worked better than leadership in saving us from a rule-bound adherence to sending men into battle dressed as targets. And it occurs to me to say: maybe just about anything works better than leadership – or is that going too far? I think of the community response to the Grenfell Tower fire, against the official government response, and the way that every clever government reorganisation of services ends up with fewer services.
You can’t even cost-cut effectively if your biggest state secret is that you’ve mismanaged everything to the point of having no money. But this is me going off on a tangent again. Somewhere back there, I was on target to make the point that usefulness is all about what works, in financing public services, evacuating ships, bringing in tourist dollars (yen, etc.), and not about official roles, official uniforms, what the rulebook says. I should clarify that this is not a post about those organisations of today that employ battalions of lawyers and PR executives to tell us how useful they are; that tell us “lessons have been learned” every time they hurt people; that respond to requests for an apology by telling us how sorry they are that we’re upset.
It’s not about them. But – “engage in futile or ineffectual actions”? And – “engage in activities that are long past their sell-by date”? Hm. Let’s hear it for the deckchair attendants. And the locals. Like I said, often we’re mistaken about usefulness. And effectiveness. And sometimes we’re not.
*Although I remember the so-called “minor royals” turning up in grey minibuses for the most recent royal wedding. Why do reporters call them that?
** “By 2007, critics were divided over whether the film should be seen as deeply anti-imperialist or as racist,” says Wikipedia. Also, same source, the battle at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was filmed with Zulu in mind.
***“Nonsense! That red jacket will frighten the snipers away, man. Off you go.” I think I remember reading somewhere that a sniper could always spot an officer because he’d be the one holding a handgun and not a rifle. Officers were to be killed first, of course, to cut off the flow of orders.