Archive for September 25, 2009

The Dimensional Fallacy

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2009 by dcairns

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In this scene, both celebrated and reviled, in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (Paul Morrissey/Antonio Margheriti), a character falls disemboweled upon a grating and his liver-and-lights spill gaily forth to dangle loosely inches before the audience’s delighted faces.

Which reminds me of a conversation I overheard between Edinburgh Film Festival director Jim Hickey and Martin Scorsese (it was easy to overhear them: they had microphones and I had a ticket) in which Scorsese was talking about the mad number of set-ups he had to shoot in one afternoon for the barroom brawl in MEAN STREETS —

“Which reminds me of Edgar Ulmer, who held the record for that — until that other guy you were telling me about, Raul Ruiz, who did what? Sixty in a day? Yeah, and one of those was from inside somebody’s mouth.* Which reminds me, the best inside-a-mouth shot I saw recently was in JAWS 3, a shark eating its victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth — in 3D! A new low in taste!”

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Which makes me ponder what the wildest abuse of 3D could be? I think the maddest thing I’ve seen that way is in THE MAZE, directed by William Cameron Menzies. Menzies is an odd chap — a genius as a production designer and a producer of some terrific films, but something seems to happen to him when he directs. I mean, I like INVADERS FROM MARS, but it has a curious naivety.

There’s a quote by Cocteau where he speculates that the story of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was probably based on fact, “some deformed figure in a Scottish castle who took a wife…” and Menzies’ THE MAZE almost takes him at his word. A group of characters gather in a Scottish castle, where one member of the McTeam family, Sir Roger, is kept shut upstairs, suffering some terrible affliction. The first nice bit of 3D occurs right at the start when a minor character enters and starts talking to camera, slowly walking closer and closer to us, coming out of the screen, all the while fixing us with a haunted stare… “Get away from me!” I screamed. Well, I didn’t scream. I maybe thought.

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At the end, we learn the nature of the unfortunate swain’s problem. You see, the fetus in the womb goes through a process of evolution, passing through all the previous stages of mankind’s development from the lower species (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny) — a popular idea in the 50s, though not a particularly true one. Poor Sir Roger’s problem is that he’s suffered a particularly intense form of retardation**, and has become stuck in the amphibian phase of evolution. He is a giant frog (and yet somehow he earned himself a knighthood? Impressive).

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So, at the climax of the film, Sir Roger the frog, in despair at his hopeless condition, hurls himself from the highest turret in the castle, falling directly into the lens. Wow.

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*Not till years later did I learn that the Ulmer film was THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (a snooze to sit through compared to its more ambitious sister-film, BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER) and the Ruiz was CITY OF PIRATES.

**And here’s why we don’t like the word retarded. Its origin is the discredited belief that people with learning difficulties are “retarded” back to an earlier phase of human evolution, immediately prior to the crowning glory that is the white person. So people with Downs syndrome were theorized to have been retarded at an oriental phase (hence that other archaic and unwelcome expression, “Mongoloid”) and other forms of learning difficulty were associated with other “inferior races.” Here endeth the lesson: don’t let me catch you using that word.

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“All the same I feel sorry for the creature.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2009 by dcairns

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I’m pretty sure Jack Arnold’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was the first movie I saw in 3D… unless the TV screening of the turgid FORT TI came first. Certainly CREATURE was the first I saw projected, at my school film society. Man, we didn’t appreciate how lucky we were to have that Film Soc.

The Universal logo at the film’s start may be the most successful bit of photography in the movie: the cloudless globe twirling behind the studio banner has a pleasing heft and roundness. Elsewhere, as is usually the case, the 3D figures resembles paper cut-outs in a toy theatre, flat shapes positioned at different distances from the observer. Perhaps owing to the speed of production, or to inherent limitations in Jack Arnold’s visual sense, the action doesn’t do much to dramatize the interpersonal relationships via framing, something which 3D could conceivably have played a part in. The compositions are generally a cut above the washing-line approach, but not by much.

The explosions that shower rocks on us during the opening VO went down well with the schoolkids, and watching it again 25 years later with Fiona, I enjoyed them anew with our anaglyph copy of the film and our tinted specs. The fossislized creature claw is also enjoyable, and the shot taken through a fish tank is amusing. But by ignoring the human drama, the filmmaker reduces these effects to a few isolated high points.

The cast isn’t bad. Richard Carlson is a lot more effective in IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, where he’s given an actual character to work with. Richard Dennings fares better: the poor man’s Kirk Douglas, he’s effective whenever he gets to exploit his neurotic overcompensating asshole schtick. The movie is really about the conflict between the two Richards, except Dennings loses too soon and too easy, and then the gill-man gets him.

Julie Adams is there to be squabbled over by the Richards and the gill-man, and to look fairly awesome in a ’50s bathing suit, conical breasts like torpedoes aimed into the heart of the audience. She doesn’t convince much as a scientist (the script doesn’t allow her to know anything, and hints she’s only along because Dennings fancies her) and she’s required to do the all-time fakiest monster-fall. You know how the girl is supposed to trip and twist her ankle fleeing the monster? Poot Julie doesn’t even manage to take a single step, she just falls on her perfect ass and assumes an ideal position to be scooped up by the hulking amphib.

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Good monster — his lust for a person not only of a different species, genus and family (as with Kong), but of a different order and class, is unexplained, and he doesn’t otherwise display any personality, but he does have a good classic look. It can’t be that easy to design a fish-man, let alone one that can swim gracefully. The water ballet scene is a justly acclaimed highlight, exploiting the 3D, the monster design, Ricou Browning’s swimming and Julie Adams’ figure, with the strange teasing movements of the creature’s webbed claws towards Adams’ ankles creating suspense and an odd kind of humour.

I’m not altogether surprised that Universal have struggled to come up with a serviceable approach to a remake: there’s so little really going on here. Fiona pointed out that Carlson plucking a plant from the lagoon bed is like a quote from Beauty and the Beast — the stolen rose — and the creature’s depredations and romantic yearnings both follow on from this. Adams dropping her cigarette in the crystalline waters, where it drifts past the gaping monster hints at an ecological angle. But nothing is really done with this stuff. When the beast sinks lifelessly into the waters (to return for a couple of plodding sequels) one wonders what the point was — the monster gone, the movie can only fade out as quickly as possible.

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Buy here (flat) if you’re in the UK —

The Mummy / Creature From The Black Lagoon [DVD]