George Sluizer at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Sluizer (1932-2014): The obsessive director behind River Phoenix’s last film

The Dutch director, who has died aged 82, stole the unfinished reels for Phoenix’s last film Dark Blood from after coming close to death in 2007.

The Dutch director George Sluizer, who has died aged 82, made only one perfect work: The Vanishing. There are surprisingly few filmmakers who can even match that tally. This 1988 picture follows its own remorseless logic to the natural conclusion, and makes no compromises or concessions along the way. It is so unsettling and strange that to put it in the Thriller or Horror section, or to call it Psychological Drama, would be to diminish it, and give only the feeblest impression of its powers. At the beginning of the film, a woman disappears during a pit-stop that she and her boyfriend make in the middle of a long drive. Years later, the bereft man is contacted by the person who abducted her and offered a choice that is tantalising and terrifying.

Sluizer directs with unshakable calm throughout. Stanley Kubrick told him it was “the most horrifying picture I’ve ever seen”. When he asked whether it was even more horrifying than Kubrick’s own The Shining, the senior director replied that it was. Kubrick’s producer, Jan Harlan, explained: “The Vanishing was real. The Shining was a ghost film. A huge difference.”

He was already 56 when The Vanishing was released, and he had been making films for more than two decades, but this was his international breakthrough. It didn’t lead to glory. He agreed to direct a terrible 1993 US remake of The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, in which he seemed to unlearn all the lessons of the first film. Subtlety was jettisoned. Here is one example: the forgettable remake got a 15 certificate in the UK whereas the infinitely disturbing original was a mere 12. The superior version didn’t need to be explicit to be scary; it needed only to ask us to imagine the worst.

That vulgar Vanishing was not Sluizer’s only Hollywood misadventure. In 1993, he began directing Dark Blood, a thriller about a fraught married couple whose car breaks down during a desert road trip. They meet a beautiful recluse known only as ‘Boy’, who takes them into his desert shack near a nuclear testing site, and develops a warped obsession with the wife. The couple were played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis. Boy was played by River Phoenix. It had been a difficult shoot, with tensions between Davis and Sluizer, and after seven weeks in the desert, cast and crew flew to Los Angeles for the remainder of production. Phoenix chose to drive to L.A. with friends. When I met Sluizer at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht in September 2012, he recalled the last words the actor ever said to him. “He told me, ‘I’m going back to the bad, bad town.’”

Phoenix, who was 23, died of a drugs overdose in the early hours of the following morning. Eleven days of interior scenes had yet to be shot. Abandoning the movie transpired to be the most cost effective route. The footage was dumped in the insurance company’s vaults despite Sluizer’s repeated offers to buy it back. In 1999, he heard from an associate in L.A that the company was preparing to destroy the film to save on storage costs. Sluizer and friends stole the footage. He hid it in various locations while he worked on other projects, all the while mulling over how he could render Dark Blood fit to see the light of day.

In 2007, still no closer to an answer, he suffered an aneurysm. “Most people die from it,” he told me. “I didn’t. But I was condemned. I’m told I was in a coma. All the doctors said, ‘He’s gone.’ I’m a medical miracle!” His intimate encounter with mortality became the catalyst for solving the Dark Blood dilemma. “I felt that because I was condemned I wanted to leave this creative work in a good condition. I became as obsessive as any artist in history.”

The solution transpired to be simple yet inventive. “I decided not to use any material that we hadn’t shot in 1993.” Instead, the film now begins with stills of Phoenix on set as the director explains in voiceover how his desire to salvage the project gained urgency as his own health declined. He conjures an elegant metaphor in this narration, likening the film to a two-legged chair to which he has now added a third leg, enabling it to stand upright. The fourth leg, he concedes, will always be missing. Having established the ground rules, Sluizer allows the movie to play out, narrating any missing information or dialogue over freeze-framed shots of Phoenix. In coming clean about its own incompleteness, Sluizer made the film feel paradoxically whole.

He wasn’t at all well when I met him in Utrecht almost exactly two years ago, on that cold, crunchy autumn morning following the film’s rapturously-received world premiere. His skin was as pale and translucent as paper and he walked tentatively with two sticks. But he had fire and fight in his eyes. No one can deliver a knockout blow to mortality. Sluizer, though, had put it on the ropes twice over. He had finished a movie in which the lead actor had been dead for almost 20 years. And he had defied the odds to extend his own stay on earth a little longer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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