Somehow he knows this

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2020 by dcairns

My good friend Japa Fett introduced me to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, for which I’m forever grateful. This was back in the early nineties when I think only a couple of the master’s films had been translated. JF provided informal Benshi translations of TOTORRO and others. These were not super-detailed, but then the plotting in the films is fairly loose.

“Why does Kiki lose the power of flight?”

“Is not really explained.”

When it came to THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, there’s a bit where Lupin III, our intrepid hero, discovers a treasure and suddenly expounds a bunch of phony history to explain it.

“Somehow he knows this,” said JF.

That’s a good phrase to keep in mind whenever you get an info-dump of exposition from a character who couldn’t possibly know it, or is inferring it from insufficient evidence. It’s a good phrase to keep in mind while watching season 3 of Dark.

Spoilers will be avoided as far as possible, but if you’re still to watch all of the last season you should save this for later.

Dark was a very enjoyable show, even if you did need to have some kind of checklist of characters by your side while watching. not only are there several interlinked families plus a bunch of outsiders, but nearly everyone is played by three actors, since they exist as kids, grown-ups and oldsters in the series’ multiple time periods. Season three adds to the potential confusion by introducing multiverse theory, so that you can have radically different versions of the same character at the same age. Fortunately for the viewer, they’re adept at applying different disfiguring injuries to their cast so you can tell them apart.

The show is almost entirely without humour — the only joke I can recall in twenty-eight episodes is a running gag about one particular injury, whose explanation is continually forestalled. The phrase “all fun and games until someone loses an eye” can be reversed, here: the eye loss is the traumatic event which lets comedy in, for an instant.

Now, my hero Ken Campbell always said to distrust anything that lacks humour, and he’s largely right, with some exceptions. In fact, Dark is absorbing and insanely watchable, and the high quality of every element, acting, writing, direction, photography and music, is sustained to the end. Critical responses so far have, accordingly. been very favourable. But it didn’t really satisfy me.

For a show so clearly influenced by Twin Peaks, the degree of closure supplied is quite high. There are a few things that weren’t clear to me, but I expect they’ll get covered by astute rewatchers. The big finish makes a lot of the smaller questions sort of irrelevant anyway — the gigantic Gordian knot of tangled plotlines are cut clean through in a way which is, essentially, consistent with story logic.

But Dark is a mystery, and the kind which promises a solution: the Lynchian ideal of a HANGING ROCK style non-explanatory denouement is not the goal. The show unquestionably gets to a solution, but does it do so fairly?

I’d identify three kinds of flaws with the conclusion.

  1. Is it fair to introduce the material required for a solution so late in the story? The second universe is introduced at the very end of season 2, but that just complicates the complications. The wrap-up is enabled by information supplied in the very last episode, without the benefit of real clues beforehand. Now, Dark may be a mystery but we’re far from Agatha Christie territory: I don’t think we can ask for total authorial fair-play here. I believe it was Asimov who suggested that science fiction and the whodunnit make uncomfortable bedfellows: the locked room mystery that can be solved by an s-f solution isn’t wholly satisfactory. So this isn’t a dealbreaker.
  2. But not only does the show hold back crucial information until it’s too late for us to guess ANYTHING, it executes a kind of genre-switch at the last minute. Writer Jantje Friese (think anti-freeze) drags in predestination and makes it the ultimate narrative problem the characters must solve. If flaw 1 is a kind of deus ex machina solution, hauled from the author’s ass with a flourish at the climactic moment, flaw 2 is the opposite, a deus ex machina PROBLEM. But maybe this is unfair of me: all through the series, the most active characters have been wrestling, across decades, with the fact that all their attempts to fix things go wrong. Friese, arguably, has just restated this problem in metaphysical terms. Still, it upsets me a little, the way that other time-travel show, Quantum Leap, explained itself quite early on with the idea that God was using its protagonist as an instrument. Having both divine intervention and time travel in a story struck me as a bad case of Double Voodoo.*
  3. And finally, we get to the “somehow he knows this” part. At the end of the penultimate episode, a character turns up to explain what’s been going wrong all this time. But she has deduced this solution from inadequate information. Somehow she knows this. Friese has to give her a monologue explaining how she arrived at her solution, but it’s transparently bullshit. A subdivision of this problem is the fact that the antagonistic forces in operation through the show, the Mabuseian manipulator figures, have ALSO based their ideas on bullshit with inadequate evidence to support it, though since they’ve got it wrong I guess that’s a justifiable narrative device.

I don’t have any suggestions as to what should have been done differently. Other than, I suppose, dripping the information in more gradually. The character with the ultimate answer should probably have been behaving more consistently all along, also, like someone working towards that answer.

It also feels like a nasty case of “the ends justify the means,” a moral approach that I would like to see avoided, like, forever.

But, you know, by the standards of most TV finales, it’s moderately satisfying. Which is another way of saying, TV has gotten really good but they don’t seem to have figured out endings.

 

Dirty States

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2020 by dcairns

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In ALTERED STATES, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Ken Russell, Dr. Edward Jessup (a name suggesting both Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde) enters a tank of water, doped up on weird Peruvian broth, and emerges as an ape.

In DIRTY WORK, directed by lemme see Lloyd French whoever he might be, Professor Noodle (a name suggesting that which he he is off) fills a tank with weird broth,  possibly Peruvian for all I know, and tries to entice his butler to bathe in them. But before this can happen, Oliver Hardy (for this is a Laurel & Hardy short) falls in and emerges as an ape.

The name of Professor Noodle’s butler is… JESSUP.

The Jessup connection strikes me as significant, given the fact that ALTERED STATES in so many respects is a remake of DIRTY WORK, only with less chimney sweep slapstick. Chayefsky undoubtedly would have seen the L&H film, so he had that in his brain and the whole premise of his script is that nothing is ever lost, all that information is still inside us.

Jessup is frequently pictured STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD.

I’m not aware that Ken Russell was a particular fan of the boys but that’s OK because what’s exciting about the film is what was so displeasing to Chayefsky — Russell’s audio-visual attack comes from a very different direction from Chayefsky’s philosophical science fiction story. Russell’s influences are, in the main, Fritz Lang silents, Busby Berkeley musicals, and bits of Welles and Fellini.

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Here, he’s also merrily sourcing stock footage from Oxford Scientific Films and Fox’s DANTE’S INFERNO and I’m not sure what-all else. Anyone know what the massed ranks of crucifixions are from? I checked SPARTACUS but nope. A shot of twin chargers at a gallop suggested the hallucination from the ’40s JEKYLL where the horses turn into Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, but it’s not from there — but maybe the shot was SUGGESTED by that sequence, whose surrealism and sonic assault do suggest Russell’s visions and John Corrigliano’s brilliant, bruising score.

Intelligent design by Richard MacDonald: the squawk box Jessup communicates through when he’s in the tank is shaped sorta like the tank. And has a funny face!

Fiona: “I would KILL to see this on the big screen!”

Me: “It’s one of the tragedies of this life that if you kill someone, you are in fact LESS likely to get to see ALTERED STATES on the big screen.”

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“I have nothing to say!”

The Coming of Sound, and Vice Versa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2020 by dcairns

1927! The coming of sound sends sonic shockwaves through Hollywood. When Al Jolson throws open his hideous face and emits the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” the screen’s first audible double negative shatters box office records as the public rushes to hear the rules of grammar nakedly flaunted by a charcoal-smeared buffoon.

Rival studios rushed to compete with Warner Bros’ twin innovations of synchronized sound and discoloured actors. MGM tries painting Norma Shearer with a kind of luminous wode and filming her in pitch dark sets to save money, but the experiment is judged a failure and Shearer gets an unpleasant rash; at Columbia, they go one step further and paint everything black, actors and sets alike, or so the publicity goes. An expose reveals that the cameras were loaded with black leader and that no sets were built at all.

A sound.

Stars who had been happily moving their lips attractively without a care for dialogue, suddenly had to undergo terrifying sound tests to ascertain their suitability for the microphone. “In the old days, we used to just say ‘Elbow elbow elbow,'” recalled Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “Because lip scientists had ascertained that the word ‘elbow’ creates the most attractive lip movements of any word in the English language. Of course, poor old Lars Hansen had to say ‘armbåge’ because he was Swedish, which didn’t look half as good. For my part, I’d gotten so used to elbowing that I found it hard to quit. I’d be looking into Clara Bow’s eyes and I’d say ‘I’m absolutely elbow about you,’ and then next thing you know William Wellman’s coming at me with big stick, and that’s how the mic boom was invented.”

Of course, as the legitimate cinema moved to sound, the nascent porn industry had to follow suit. Promoters raved about the slapping and squelching sounds that could now be enjoyed for the first time, and THE JIZZ SLINGER was advertised with the slogan “You ain’t heard fuckin’ yet!”

During the silent era, adult movies had enjoyed steady popularity, often following the hits of the day with pornified versions, like ORPHANS OF THE SPERM starring the Gash sisters, Lillian, Dorothy and Jenna, LITTLE ANAL ROONEY with Mary Prickford, and ROBIN NUDE with Douglas Bareflanks. With the coming of sound it was found that John Gal-butt squeaked like a dormouse at the moment of climax, ending his career, while the heavily accented pantings of He-male Jannings in the “grunty” remake of THE LUST COMMAND sent the star packing back to his native Milwaukee.

For a time, film production was dominated by the demands of the sound man. On set, soundproof booths constrained the camera, the director, and the actors. Screenwriters were forced to contrive scenarios which convincingly explained why everybody was in their own individual fridge-like box, staring helplessly from the window and enunciating at one another. William Powell played Philo Vance in THE INDIVIDUAL SOUNDPROOF BOOTH MURDER CASE in which the dapper sleuth had to explain how a prominent business magnate had been stabbed to death inside an individual sound-proof box (the solution involved little person Billy Barty in another, much smaller box) and musicals were frankly a pain in the ass.

Inventive directors got around the problem by starting early, before the sound man came to work, and shooting the cast with their backs to the camera to obviate the need for lip-sync. The popular college musical FACING AWAY was shot in its entirety with the cast’s back to the camera. “All singing, all dancing, all looking the other way!” raved the publicity, and studios began giving long-term contracts to the actors with the most attractive craniums. Phrenologists were in demand.

In porn, this innovation proved restrictive on the variety of sexual positions and camera angles achievable: porn musical genius Jizzby Jerkeley’s spectacular overhead shots helped, and everyone agreed that it was better than a porn movie with everyone in individual soundproof booths, helplessly smearing their features, facial and otherwise, against the glass. The only such film made, I’M HERE FOR YOU, BILLY (1930), was not a hit.