More Houdini! Over at The Chiseler.
Archive for July, 2012
Look, I hate sport, let’s get that clear. All forms of organized, competitive
excercise exercise — a word I use so rarely I’ve literally forgotten how to spell it — are basically spectacles from the deepest, trident-jabbing bowels of Hell, somehow excreted up onto the earth’s surface by some repulsive subterranean eruption of fecal urgency.
“There’s the swimming,” suggests a friend. But I hate the swimming too. I don’t like the sounds it makes — echoing, splashing and yelling. If you close your eyes during the swimming, you will immediately picture yourself in Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, watching hi-tech executions. All sports either sound bad, look bad, are monumentally boring, are outbursts of vile nationalistic/territorial (or sectarian) aggression, or are just naff.
So I haven’t been looking forward to the Olympics. Still, they have a certain cinematic tradition (although I recommend the Ichikawa TOKYO OLYMPIAD far more highly that the Riefenstahl) — and I take seriously Richard Lester’s comments about the surge in filmmaking brio in Britain in the sixties being partly down to the high spirits occasioned by England’s winning the world cup. There can be a cultural crossover, just as winning the war led to a few years of dynamic, imaginative and confident cinema culminating in the glorious year of 1948.
Back when New Labour won the general election under Tony Blair, before we had to face what that actually meant, there seemed to be a similar upsurge in creative confidence, but it was manifested purely in the world of pop music. I mean, most of the lottery-subsidised cinema of the era was crap, as useless, pointless and confused as the Millennium Dome.
So whether the Olympics will do anything for Britain, apart from sucking money out of other areas, is something I’m a bit skeptical about. But still, grumbling is something we Brits do well, so I did decide to watch Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, if only to moan at it.
There was plenty to moan at, and a certain amount to enjoy. Boyle’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach meant there was always plenty going on, even if the BBC camera teams couldn’t always find it. An opening countdown with numbered balloons bursting, went all random on us as the editing rendered it as SIX… FOUR… THREE… ONE… I’m not saying I could vision-mix a live event as complicated as this and do any better, or even as well. I’m just saying it didn’t work.
Likewise, the entrance of a thousand furiously drumming drummers in near silence was a strange choice, if it was a choice, although when the volume got tweaked they made a suitably big noise.
Niggles aside, what of the overall concept? At first it seemed like a bag of bits, a typically incoherent vision of what Britain is (cricket! suffragettes! Chelsea pensioners!), starting from an arbitrary historical point that had nothing to do with the timeline of the Olympics (which might have added some rational structure). I can’t see why, if you’re chucking in a nod to both world wars, James Bond, Mr Bean, the Queen (with corgis rendered digitally jittery like the victims of Rage in 28 DAYS LATER) and a statue of WInston Churchill that comes to life, like Kali in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, you can’t also have Robin Hood and King Arthur. But you can, it seems, have Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel reciting a speech from The Tempest. For no reason.
Ken was actually a good choice for this kind of thing, though. He’s not one of those actors who can look as if he’s not acting, but if the occasion demands it he can, like Tod Slaughter, look like he’s acting his socks off and enjoying every minute of it.
And the bit where all the curious industrial revolution imagery (an event which falls in between the original Greek Olympics and the event’s modern revival) paid off with the big glowing rings forged in the furnaces of
Hell the industrial revolution rising into the air was colourful and striking. And the cutaways of Boyle’s non-professional performers looking up at it with genuine, if perhaps unnameable, emotion, were oddly powerful.
Boyle’s problem is he can’t simplify, I’d say. Which is why his Mr Bean skit was over-edited and merely gestured towards laughs it hadn’t a hope of getting, and why there was always so much going on. It would have been a relief for all the activity to stop more often and allow us to FOCUS.
Still, muddled, busy, tacky and bloated as it was, the spectacle was oddly pleasing. Or not too infuriating, anyway. I can now retreat to a darkened room and watch movies until the whole nasty affair is over.
THE MASTER MYSTERY, Part One.
OK, for the next, oh, fifteen weeks I’m going to be writing about THE MASTER MYSTERY a 1921 Houdini movie serial. Is that OK with you guys?
THE MASTER MYSTERY begins unpromisingly, with a fankle of hairy plot threads dumped over the audience like spaghetti on a cat. But things soon pick up, even though the chances of ever sorting out who is doing what to whom seem vanishingly slight.
Threatening letters (“the Madagascar madness!”), a scheming criminal gang in a cave with a leader called Q, and best of all, an adorable robot henchman, soon create the correct spooky, zany serial ambience, wafting from our minds all the early stuff about patent suppression, which seems about as likely to yield romantic adventure as the trade dispute that opens THE PHANTOM MENACE.
This is the screen’s first robot, discounting such bio-artificial men as the Edison FRANKENSTEIN. He predates 1921’s THE MECHANICAL MAN, from Italy. And he looks more sophisticated than THE MYSTERIOUS DR SATAN’s lurching tin can man, even if he lacks the rich inner life. He has a jaunty walk, googly eyes, and an oil-drum ass (literally, his “can”) that Futurama‘s Bender would surely covet. He apparently has a human brain, like ROBOCOP, and even has breath, since we see him blow out a toxic candelabra.
Why don’t I ever get into conversations like this one?
Houdini spends episode 1 in a lab, fending off a frizzy-haired woman while occasionally listening to headphones or looking meaningfully at an empty beaker. His big heroic act is to open a bolted door with a dismantled umbrella. Admittedly, I enjoyed this sequence as much as I can remember ever enjoying a similar one, but it’s not exactly escaping from a concrete sarcophagus in shark-infested waters, is it?
Looking not unlike the late Curtis Harrington, crossed with Criswell.
Still, after twenty minutes or so, things pick up, and the plot becomes a series of excuses to get Houdini into, and thus out of, handcuffs and straitjackets and locked rooms.
But even the early longueurs are almost entirely made up for just by having the lovely robot walk through shot occasionally. It’s something Ken Loach could learn from.