The Dimensional Fallacy

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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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12 Responses to “The Dimensional Fallacy”

  1. De-eveolution, inot our previous simian state is the crux of the climax of Aldous Huxley’s sublime After Many a Summer Dies the Swan — which Orson Welles once considered for his first foray into moviemaking. Then he found another script about Hearst.

    I’m convinced the Huxley could still be made today. The ad-line for it would be “Do you really want to live forever?”

  2. I must read that, I like Crome Yellow and Brave New World and the essays I’ve read (apart from the dodgy racist stuff) but for some reason haven’t read more.

    It would be fun if the creationists de-evolved first.

  3. Gus Mastrapa Says:

    The John Holmes scenes in “Disco Dolls in ‘Hot Skin’ in 3D” aren’t mad, but they’re certainly something.

  4. AnneBillson Says:

    Just for the record, the character whose entrails fall through the grating in Flesh for Frankenstein is a she, not a he. A sort of housekeeper-cum-nanny whose nosiness proves to be her undoing.

    I saw this in 3-D when it was first shown in that cinema (now a theatre, I think) in Old Compton Street in (around) 1974, and it was heavily cut. I’m not sure we even got to see the entrails-through-the-grating bit. I had to wait until a 3-D screening at the NFT many years later to see the entire film in all its glory. The mise en scène is surprisingly elegant and the story quite melancholy, though every time Udo Kier pronounces the word “laboratory” (which he says a LOT) it sounds like “lavatory” which of course makes audiences crack up. Suspect this was intentional.

    But the whole thing has a lovely dark (and occasionally splattery) ambience, and is well worth seeing on the big screen. Also, no film with the line, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder” (this said while bringing a stitched-together female creature to orgasm – from the inside) can be entirely without merit.

    The short film on that same Old Compton Street screening, incidentally, was something called Violence in the Cinema Part 1, which was GREAT. Many years later, I learnt it had been directed by George Miller of Mad Max (not Snowy River) fame. Would love to see it again, but have never managed to track it down.

  5. Isherwood didn’t care for After Many a Summer, but other L.A. Brits swear by it (ie. Michael York, Barbara Steele.)

  6. Just watching my slightly fuzzy 3D copy of FforF now. Yeah, it’s not quite what you’d expect — despite the campiness and deliberate bad taste humour, there’s this beautiful music and a slightly stoned feel, partly due to the thick accents and uncertain delivery…

    Seen flat, Margheriti’s scenes seem like the most interesting ones, visually. But in 3D a lot of Morrissey’s work gains elegance and beauty.

  7. Christopher Says:

    Saw Flesh for Frankenstein at the drive-in in ’74 where it was called Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein(still don’t know what THATS all about)..and Andy Warhol’s Dracula..My brother and some friends got to see it in 3D when it played an indoor cinema a week before..alot of talk going on around school about them gutty wuts hanging out..

  8. I don’t really know Paul Morrissey’s films, but since I am not a huge fan of “gore” anyway, I’ll probably stick with that the other Mr. Morrissey:

  9. I’ll probably never forgive Paul Morrissey for his Hound of the Baskervilles — I’m not upset at him for wrecking Sherlock Holmes, but for wrecking Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. But he definitely has something going on in his Frank and Drac films (sort-of exec produced by Andy, and trading on his name). Even though that kind of gore was extreme for the period, it’s not the point of the movies, which cover a lot of thematic ground and strange tonal shifts and are really kind of fascinating.

  10. If you watch “Invaders From Mars” after reading Glenn Erickson’s two-part essay (http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s96InvadersA.html), it becomes a fairly intense film: all of the glaring oddities make much more sense if you accept them as being generated by the mind of a child having a nightmare. And that shot of the post-transformation mother lifting one eyebrow is pure genius!

  11. For some reason that link takes us to Savant but not to the specific article. But a quick search will turn up Glenn’s analysis, which does indeed shed a brilliant new light on the film.

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