Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) has had a strange afterlife. It’s not as popular as The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) or Corman’s Poesploitation oeuvre, but for sheer hallucinatory energy it’s certainly a lot better than his overrated LSD movie The Trip (1967). Corman says more about his other films in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood (1998) but X has nevertheless persisted as a “cult creepie” not least because of its appropriation by contemporary film-makers particularly Amanda Beech and Craig Baldwin.
X ostensibly keys into all the comic-book phantasies promised by 25-cent x-ray specs. Ray Milland stars as James Xavier, the archetypal scientific over-reacher who, frustrated with his limited perception of the wave spectrum, self-administers the experimental Compound X. This grants him the power to see through walls and clothes as well as the ability to assess and intervene in risky surgical practices. So far, so good – nothing particularly interesting here. However, once Xavier realises that Compound X is cumulative in its effects, the film takes on an unexpected level of proto-psychedelic intensity. He’s robbed of darkness, sleep, shelter from the glare of the sun until finally, wandering in the desert on the outer limits of
Las Vegas, he confronts the terminal horror
of the universe fully revealed.
X belongs to Corman’s subset of nihilistic, eschatological movies, films like The Day the World Ended (1955) and The Last Woman on Earth (1960). Whereas films like It Conquered the World (1956) mirror the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), these films are full of Cold war fear and loathing: not the anxiety that something awful might happen, but the dread and ennui that comes with having living through the actuality of such a disaster. Although X doesn’t take place on a ruined Earth, it nonetheless plots a (literally) post-apocalyptic scenario because it shows the immolating consequences that follow a moment of intense revelation.
Part of what makes X interesting is its reliance on the structure of the road movie. Xavier moves from downtown LA to the wastelands of the desert; from urban rationality to the hysteria of an evangelical tent-meeting and his final epiphany. Along the way he sees
Los Angeles as an x-rayed
accumulation of skeletal architecture, a “city unborn, with its skin dissolved
in an acid of light […] a city of the dead”.
That Xavier is able to perceive the scaffold that underpins the svelte exterior of
Los Angeles and later, Las Vegas, gives his x-ray vision a critical
trajectory. At the start of the film, Xavier’s exploration of the wave spectrum
is epistemological. It provides a means of discovery as regards the spaces that
carry sedimentary content. Walls are seen to enclose rooms that hold private
dramas and clothes cover bodies that carry organs held in place by skeletons.
By the time of his urban excursions, Xavier’s insight has become ontological.
He is able to see that which constitutes the material – and in the film’s
closing moments the phenomenological – fabric of ‘reality’. His view of LA as
the “unborn” city “rising in the sky” full of “signs without supports”
announces a paradigmatic shift in the trajectory of his vision. An awareness of
architectural and corporeal dissimulation gives rise to a perception of these surfaces
as simulations, membranes of false plenitude that cover abysmal vacancy.
Beech draws on this aspect of X in her multi-platform work Sanity Assassin (2010). Commissioned by
Island in Bristol, Sanity
Assassin is a three-channel video installation that incorporates a
“sculptural  element: a spotlit mirrored plinth which displays a series of polished chainsaws situated in a custom-designed waiting area”.
The ‘showroom’ is based on the premises of the McCulloch chainsaw company in LA and the parallel video depicts a series of cityscape scenes cut to a noise soundtrack and a draconian editing rhythm.
Sanity Assassin offers
Los Angeles as a geographical ossification of
the neo-liberal agenda. Reality is presented a particularly violent form of
hegemonic realism whereby space, policy and capital maintain dominance (despite
inefficiency) through the projection of freedom and security as
non-contradictory utopian ideals. Mike Davis offered a similar critique of LA’s
political architecture in City of Quartz (1990) in which he
analysed such late-capitalist symptoms as the city’s ‘fortress’ aesthetic and
its gentrifying public transport facilities.
By contrast, Beech’s work draws this critical identification of postmodern
irony into its analysis. Sanity Assassin
works to interrogate the process of critique. Her study of LA operates as part
of a wider investigative field in which the humanistic bias of critical theory
is positioned as an agent in the production of the politics it seeks to
question: “exposing power and making it visible simply reminds us that power
exists as such”. In
the light of this position, Sanity
Assassin takes as its representational modus operandi the
contingency of power:
The work explores the various contradictions that are produced as a consequence of theorizing how to act when there is no absolute power to target and no centre from which to operate. Most particularly, the work attempted to explore the aestheticization and theorization of this infinitude as the real of the political and how it informs and shapes politics.
In Sanity Assassin, the book that accompanies the installation, Beech includes a series of research images that informed the composition of the work. Amongst this montage of interiors and monoliths there’s a small still of Milland as Xavier taken from the closing moments of Corman’s film. Gazing with obsidian eyes into the agony of the revealed void, attempting to comprehend “the eye that watches us all”, Xavier exemplifies Beech’s project. As Marie-Anne McQuay suggests, the “horrific consequences” of Xavier’s “collision with the Real” signpost the trajectory of the project towards the interrogation and removal of the anthropomorphic subject in the work of critique. By aligning Xavier’s vision with the Real, “the umbilical cord of the symbolic”, the subject of his gaze is recast not as that which is ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’ but that which is negative; the sense of difference rather than correspondence that normative perceptions work to exclude. What the film couches in terms of sin and transgression is presented in Sanity Assassin as momentary proximity with the kind of conceptual heat that closes Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The oscillation in X between the physical and the metaphysical evokes the “cult stratum” that
Davis highlights in the rise of Southern California as a science state. From the
mid-1920s, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena played host to a rolling faculty of
pioneering scientists who helped to establish “an emergent techno-structure”
that fueled a post-war science based economy.
However, in the case of John ‘Jack’ Whiteside Parsons, this intellectual labour intersected with a dense matrix
of seemingly dissonant interests.
Parsons was a key influence in the establishment of the Pasadena Jet propulsion Laboratory and contributed to the development of solid rocket fuel. He was also a student of the occult and in 1942, under the guidance of Aleister Crowley, he assumed leadership of the Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). In addition, he was a member of the Los Angeles Fantasy and Science Fiction Society where he met Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. His association with Heinlein gave the latter important pointers for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) whilst his ill-fated connection to Hubbard arguably informed the “amalgamation of black magic, psychotherapy and science fiction” that Hubbard peddled as Scientology.
In Davis’ discussion, this web of connections that move across the “vast wheel of public-private research” represent “bizarre” detours in the otherwise “seamless continuum between the corporation, laboratory and classroom” that characterised the economic rise of post-war Southern California. Certainly in the case of the ascent of Dianetics and Scientology, the persistence of this distant Cal-Tech offspring exists as a “discouraging reminder of science’s fate in the local culture”. For San-Franciscan film-maker Craig Baldwinthis web is not a historical aberration but is instead representative of the actual matter of
Southern California. The
“local culture” is entirely constituted of these spirals of conspiracy,
post-war science, espionage and ‘trash’ aesthetics.
In his film, Mock-Up on Mu (2008) Baldwin embarks upon a similar excavation of Southern California’s Mock-Up on Mu is a speculative analysis of the biographical intersections that existed between L.Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, Marjorie Cameron and Lockheed Martin. In essence, this group symbolises the same triangle of culture, science and industry central tofuture as that performed by Davis, but rather than analysing the concrete terrain of significant structures, he explores the imaginary environment of genre cinema and mythopoesis.
Davis’ analysis. However,
Baldwin’s collage approach – the creation of a ‘documentary’ using clips from
obscure b-movies and ‘found footage’ – seeks not to pull away the veils of myth
in order to foreground ‘truth’ but instead exaggerates the imaginary lives of
the characters as a means to analyse the construction of the myth.
Within this approach, X plays a small but significant role. Corman’s film is one of the many that
Baldwin absorbs into his cut-up
network that structures the film. In Chapter 11, ‘Desert Crossings: A fugitive
Parsons sets off a manhunt’, we see Parsons, (played by Kal Spelletich) fleeing
across the desert having been shot by Lockheed Martin (Stoney Burke) as part of
a wider Hubbard engineered plot to gain control of a solar energy device.
Parsons’ flight is inter-cut with that of Cary Grant in North by Northwest
(1959) and Milland in X. Over the top of this montage Baldwin
adds a voice-over that reads from Parsons’ essay ‘Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword’ (1950):
The inertia and acquiescence which allows the suspension of our liberties would once have been unthinkable. The present ignorance and indifference is appalling. The little that is worthwhile in our civilization and culture is made possible by the few who are capable of creative thinking and independent action, grudgingly assisted by the rest. When the majority of men surrender their freedom, barbarism is near but when the creative minority surrender it, the Dark Age has arrived. Even the word liberalism has now become a front for a new social form of Christian morality. Science, that was going to save the world back in H.G. Wells' time, is regimented, straitjacketed and scared; its universal language is diminished to one word, security.
‘Freedom’ is essentially a libertarian tract that posits the concept as the product of self-ultimacy, whereby the exertion of the individual will can help cultivate the appropriate territory in which “man” can live. However, in the quote above its hard not to see some echoes of Beech’s project. Putting aside the implied desire for an Ayn Randian creative oligarchy, the connection of “liberalism” with the restrictions of “security” evokes the critique of neo-liberalism and the security state in Sanity Assassin.
 Marie-Anne McQuay,‘Introduction’ in Sanity Assassin (
Urbanomic, 2010), pp. 7-11 (p.7).
 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990), pp.223-263.
 Amanda Beech and Jaspar Joseph-Lester, ‘Reason Without Reason’, in Sanity Assassin, p.92.
 Beech, p.66; McQuay, p. 8.
 Alan Sheridan in Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 279.
 Ibid, p.60.
 John Whiteside Parsons, ‘Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword’ in Freedom Is a Two Edged Sword and Other Essays (
New Falcon, 2001).