Cosmic Ray

Ray Bradbury is, of course, irreplaceable. Nobody in science fiction or in literature can occupy the place he held.

In the cinema, things are more problematic. I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison where he addressed R.B.’s patchy record of screen adaptations, arguing that Bradbury’s dialogue, like Hemingway’s, is designed to be read, not spoken, and sounds weird coming from the lips of an actor in a scene. He might have been talking of himself (or Clive Barker, for that matter). We could get into a debate about which of these authors writes great dialogue which is just too literary to perform, and which writes purple, gaudy stuff that is sometimes a little too rich even for the page, but never mind.

Rod Steiger liked to camouflage himself nude on people’s couches in hopes they’d sit on him. Creepy.

Being rather familiar with Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (a little patchy, I think, but with a great Herrmann score and one of the  most beautiful endings of any film), SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (flawed but seriously underrated, and I ought to treat it to a Forgotten round about Halloween), and MOBY DICK, scripted by Bradbury for John Huston, who did a great job except for the styrofoam cetacean and the balsa Ahab, being as I say rather familiar with those, we elected to watch THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, which I’d never previously been able to sit through, and The Martian Chronicles mini-series which I don’t think I’d watched since it first aired.

Both movies are based on novels which are really short story collections, things which grew organically without the usual diagrams. Of course, the slide rule and shoehorn and bacon slicer have all been deployed to hew them into some kind of cinematic shape. Jack Smight’s film of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN put me off as a youngster by being slow, ponderous and kind of depressive.

The movie stars Rod Steiger, who suffered from depression for real, but we can’t blame him for the film’s tone, he attacks his role with typical ferocity. (If you want to see Steiger acting while in the midst of depression — I can’t think why you would, but I’ll mention it anyway — see John Hough’s AMERICAN GOTHIC aka HIDE AND SHRIEK, where he can barely bring himself to mumble his lines. Very sad.) Jerry Goldsmith’s score is elegiac and lovely, but maybe a little lacking in forward thrust. But it’s the script and direction which really drag. In cutting Bradbury’s collection of tales down to three, screenwriter Howard Kreitsek forces each episode to hang about too long, turning them into turgid mood pieces when many of them are snappy potboilers on the page, pulp nasties with plenty of poetic ambition but one foot solidly in cheap thrills. The Veldt is basically a sci-fi twist on an EC horror story. But in the reverential treatment trowelled on by Smight and Kreitsek, everything is drawn-out, ponderous and aching with Significance. The other two stories become kind of pointless in the distorted form presented, although the planet where it always rains is beautifully designed, and shows that Douglas Adams was right to say that a towel is a useful thing to have in space.

Rod Steiger rocking the Ricky Gervaise look.

The exception is the framing structure, which peters out at the end with a crap zoom on a dusty road, but for much of the time is quirky, edgy, and a-quiver with a kind of homo-erotic menace I don’t recall in the book. Steiger is excellent here, with his dog in a bag (a Pomeranian named Peke), and Robert Drivas matches him in fervid intensity. The 30s atmosphere is rather besmirched by Claire Bloom’s very 1969 hair and makeup (did production designers not get driven to DESPAIR by the haircuts and cosmetics inflicted in those days? — I’m sure it’s just my imagination telling me Julie Christie wears white lipstick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, but I swear it’s not far off) but otherwise this is lovely stuff. Somebody film some more Bradbury stories, replace the ones in here, and you’d be onto something.

The Martian Chronicles suffers more severe flaws, but is a lot more watchable, thanks to a comparatively nippy pace, a greater variety of schtick, and some enjoyable hams. Top marks to Stanley Myers for his epic mood stuff, deduct two points for the disco theme tune (VERY catchy though it is), and great credit to Assheton Gorton (BLOW-UP) for his production design. The rocketships are naff (Bradbury himself called them “flying phalluses”) and a few other elements are laughable, but the obelisks and pyramids constructed in Malta and Lanzarotte are striking and actually convincing, despite the fact that everything’s decorative, nothing’s functional.

Michael Anderson (DAMBUSTERS), a former AD to Asquith, production manager to Lean, is a prose artist rather than a poet, which is actually good from a story point of view. He can’t smother everything in damned reverence because he doesn’t know what it is. He doesn’t have the taste to avoid NASA stock footage and redundant miniatures docking in space which aspire to 2001 but land squarely in the key of Thunderbirds, but he dishes up the yarns in a no-nonsense way.

“They left out the magic. They left out the part that was Bradbury,” complained sci-fi scribe David Gerrold (and he should know: he created the Tribbles), but this is not wholly true. Each episode (three ninety-minute blockbusters with three stories loosely linked in each) hits at least one moment of the uncanny, maybe because each Bradbury story has at its heart a little something that IS purely cinematic. He was too much of a cinephile not to put that in, and screenwriter Richard Matheson is too shrewd a dramatist to miss those moments.

So in the adaptation of Mars is Heaven!, Anthony Pullen-Shaw is good and eerie when he suddenly admits to not being Commander Black’s brother, after all — and Anderson has remembered how effective Joseph Cotten’s turn to camera in close-up was in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, another tale of a murderous family intruder with telepathy in Thornton Wilder land.

This is not my beautiful house from David Cairns on Vimeo.

And in what was once And the Moon Be Still as Bright, there’s a great bit by Bernie Casey as the astronaut who goes native –

The Last Martian from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Casey has immense authority, a rich voice, and a great way of seeming to throw away lines while really turning them to catch the light, although much of the time here he doesn’t seem to have learned those lines too well, which he covers up by gesturing in a stylized manner. But with this speech he knows he’s got something a little immortal, and he nails it.

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10 Responses to “Cosmic Ray”

  1. James McAndrews Says:

    Here Bernie heads to LA , instead of Newcastle.

  2. I’ve vaguely been thinking of devoting a week to all the horror/blaxploitation crossovers. But I have no idea if this will prove rewarding, although I like some of the actors.

    Am thrilled to see Mr Hyde scale Watts Towers!

    Hit Man is pretty damn good, by the standard of these things. I imagine it’s a lot better than the Stallone Get Carter, anyhow.

  3. Bernie is also quite memorable in The Man Who Fell to Earth

  4. Ray Bradbury’s greatest moment in cinema?

  5. Oh yes, I do like that. Especially as I’m obsessed with the “WHat do YOU think, Linda?” interactive play in Fahrenheit 451, performed by a couple of arch Pinter wannabes to the hypnotized awe of Julie Christie.

  6. I remember seeing bits of The Martian Chronicles here and there when it was first broadcast on TV when I was six. It terrified me. (Which isn’t surprising. About the only movie that didn’t terrify me back then was Star Wars.)

  7. “I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison where he addressed R.B.’s patchy record of screen adaptations, arguing that Bradbury’s dialogue, like Hemingway’s, is designed to be read, not spoken, and sounds weird coming from the lips of an actor in a scene.”

    That’s because Ray never metaphor he didn’t like.

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