“Get its brain out!”

The blogathon is officially over, which means the guide to what’s appeared has vanished back to a week ago but can still be checked here. Meanwhile, I still have a few thoughts, and there may be posts appearing as late as January…

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SATURN 3 qualifies as late Stanley Donen, doesn’t it, even though he made one more, is still going strong, and may even make another. His to-date-final film, BLAME IT ON RIO, is mostly dispiriting, with Michael Caine and Joseph Mantegna Bologna both trying to do Cary Grant impressions (the fact that Donen directed Grant to such great effect makes this much sadder) and Demi Moore looking all self-conscious and young and topless and self-conscious some more. It’s the kind of film once Donen did well, but it’s a very poor example of that genre and its being made in the wrong decade.

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Musical staging! Very “Top Hat and Tails”!

SATURN 3 is a lot more fun to watch, for me, because it’s just weird. Donen actually does a good job of shooting it, but the script is such a mess he could never be expected to turn it into something good. Apart from letting Kirk Douglas overact atrociously in the early scenes and Farrah Fawcett fail to act and dubbing Harvey Keitel with the voice of Roy Dotrice (!) — which I guess makes for a total failure with the cast, since it’s basically just the three of them onscreen — he sweeps through the tubular, vascular corridors of the moonbase with something like the glee he once brought to following Gene Kelly, and he brings some kind of visual interest to every scene.

The movie sits very strangely in his career, and can only be explained by two things. (1) Donen’s disastrous 1970s output — THE LITTLE PRINCE; MOVIE, MOVIE; THE LUCKY LADY. These three gobbling turkeys (I quite enjoy bits of the first two and haven’t properly seen the last) must have made him ready to accept any genuine offer, and the gaps between films had been getting longer. (2) The film was in fact developed to be the directorial debut of production designer John Barry (CLOCKWORK ORANGE, STAR WARS, SUPERMAN, the aforementioned LITTLE PRINCE) who died before he could make it, so Donen was a fairly last-minute substitute, after I imagine all the usual suspects had been approached.

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So allowances must be made.

Basically, SATURN 3 is a remake of THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, in which Kirk Douglas played a hermit who has retreated to a lighthouse with hot babe Samantha Eggar and has to fight off pirates. Here, Kirk Douglas plays a hermit who has retreated to a Saturnian moon with hot babe Farah Fawcett and has to fight off a man with a tiny pony-tail and a robot with a tiny head.

Big, proto-ROBOCOP feet. Fiona: “You know what they say about robots with big feet.” Me: “Tiny heads.”

The Other John Barry, as we must call him, had evidently put together a strong visual team, even if the film at times resembles all the space epics that had just come out. Unbelievable that they’d open with a big-ass spaceship flying over the camera, or feature multiple-alignment eclipses to mark time shifts — put it down to the inherent vulgar stupidity of Lew Grade productions and Donen’s unfamiliarity with the genre. What Barry hadn’t quite done was create a working script, though some of the elements are there. There are interesting ideas — Keitel becomes the first actor to have a jack in the back of his neck, before Keanu Reeves was even thought of. There’s the idea that chess-playing machines don’t understand sacrifice (not true), later stolen word-for-word in HARDWARE. But a few groovy notions are not enough. To make a film as bad as SATURN 3 you need a touch of genius, supplied here by Martin Amis.

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Hey, Amis at least got a book out of this, Money, which cruelly lampoons the process and some of the actual people (Kirk Douglas becomes Lorne Guyland). His profiting from the experience seems unfair, since nobody else did, God knows, and he saddled the cast with unspeakable dialogue (when FF turns down a blunt suggestion of sex with HK, he snaps, “That’s penally unsocial on Earth, you know that?”). He then had the nerve to declare screenwriting easy. Well, anything’s easy if you do it badly enough, and don’t know what the job requires. A perfect encapsulation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which ironically also afflicts Keitel’s character in the film.

Hollywood-style screenwriting is easy for a novelist because the prose doesn’t seem to matter (nobody who sees the film will experience it directly) and there’s just dialogue. But it’s also very hard, because it requires tight, short dramatic scenes with their own shape, and a structure which mellifluously plays the audience’s interest and builds it to a climax, and contains surprises but also logical inevitability, and creates fascinating characters expressed almost entirely in their outward behaviour (the novelist’s access to the character’s thoughts is largely shut down here).

Amis, so good with blackly comic prose, sucks at genre (as he showed with his detective and scifi stories) and can’t write scenes at all. His characters are one-dimensional and don’t change or even reveal themselves progressively. Unfair to judge a writer by the films they write, since they rarely have the final say in anything, and probably unfair to take Money as an accurate description of Amis’s process, but the book seems to suggest that he was a kind of on-set script doctor, addressing the cast’s many issues with their roles. But someone evidently decided to break off every scene before it’s achieved anything, and introduce the Adam and Eve in space characters (imaginatively names Adam and Alex) through the eyes of Keitel, as if he were the hero (yet he’s already murdered someone) and they the threat, and to leave out any character detail which might make us respond to the protags as human beings (sole exception: they have a cute dog. It’s Nick and Nora Charles in space!).

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We COULD be blaming the editor for some of this. Richard Marden’s career is divided evenly between big, not always good films for Donen, Schlesinger and Zefferelli, and butchered travesties in the fantasy genre, like all Clive Barker’s stuff, SWORD OF THE VALIANT, MALPERTUIS and Frankenstein: The True Story. Plus a couple of CARRY ON films, which were traditionally edited with a bacon slicer. Fuck it, I’m blaming it on Amis.

Kirk gurns maniacally for the first half hour, then settles down and gets his kit off, Lorne Guyland style. Farrah does that thing with her teeth which makes her look psycho. Grinning with your teeth apart — who does that? Keitel plays it robotic, and his scene interrogating his crazy robot Hector is the only good scene in the film. Keitel talks (with Dotrice’s voice), Hector responds with read-outs on a screen, and it’s all very creepy. Maybe because it has space to breathe and is allowed to conclude on an actual dramatic note. It gives us a tantalising glimpse of what a non-awful version of SATURN 3 would be like.

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What Amis HAS managed to do, though much of it may be accidental, is create a whole series of internal metaphors and allegories of and in the film. I don’t mean the ludicrous speech about how the Greek Hector came to a bad end, clearly added at Kirk’s request to shoehorn in “mythic resonance” (read: literary showing off). I mean the sequence where the robot’s brain is removed but it reassembles itself from parts and lumbers on, just like this movie after Barry’s death. I mean the redubbing of Keitel, echoed in the script when the robot starts copying everyone else’s voices. I mean the weird sex stuff, with Fawcett as beard to mask the peculiar tensions between Kirk and Harvey (naked strangling, Harvey penetrating Kirk’s neck to install another phono-jack), and the glass tube full of “pure brain matter” sliding sexually into the robot’s interior. This must be how Amis saw his role: pure brain matter (him), sexually penetrating the Hollywood machine, to create a psychopathic, biomechanical, microcephalic, veiny behemoth — combining Kirk’s barrel chest and wiry arms (because the robo-actor’s real arms are concealed in the torso), Keitel’s taut, shiny buttocks (leather-clad) and Fawcett’s minute cranium and glassy, staring eyes — shuffling in comical baby-steps out of control through the universe, destroying everything it touches.

He succeeded only too well.

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10 Responses to ““Get its brain out!””

  1. This is great, I’ve seen this rather bad film twice, and never appreciated a moment of it until now. However 1 quick correction

    John Barry didn’t die before he could make Saturn 3, the story is even sadder than that. This was his dream project, originally planned to be quite low budget, Donen was impressed by his enthusiasm and helped him develop it, then it got swept up in the Lew Grade machine. After 2 weeks shooting, Kirk Douglas kept on complaining about Barry, about him being inexperienced, spending too much time on the robot etc, and so he was removed, some reckon it was a power play by Kirk. The chess scene is the only remaining Barry scene

    Afterwards Barry went back to Star Wars, but sadly died after two weeks, from a rare form of infectious meningitis, possibly brought on by the stress and depression from Saturn 3

    If you can bear to read it the whole sorry Making-of story is told, in exhaustive detail, here http://saturn3makingof.com/ (there is a website for everything these days!)

    Also the Amis script, Steve Gallagher, a good writer, wrote the novelization and talks about it here
    “The script was terrible. I thought it was bad then but in retrospect, and with experience, I can see how truly inept it was. That may not be Amis’ fault. Years later I met someone who’d worked on the production and she told me that every script doctor in town had taken an uncredited swing at it, so it’s impossible to say whether it was stillborn or had been gangbanged to death.”

    In interviews Amis has blamed Douglas and Keitel for rewriting their lines on set, while also constantly stripping off to show off their physiques.

  2. This is yet another proof of Lechner’s Second Law: “Every movie is the story of its own making.” (Meanwhile, MOVIE MOVIE is a delightful curiosity, and more fun than many better films; you should write about that one!)

  3. Jack: I did!

    James, thanks! Kirk, along with burt Lancaster, may have had a hand in firing Sandy Mackendrick from The Devil’s Disciple and he definitely fired Anthony Mann from Spartacus. he’s a prick, or her was then (“I didn’t become a nice guy until my stroke.”)

    As you can see above, all I know of Amis’s thoughts on the film are Money and his comment that screenwriting is easy. I would have thought he’d save the latter verdict until he’s written a decent film…

    Keitel doesn’t strip off, more’s the pity. FF briefly does, but Kirk is the real exhibitionist…

  4. Speaking of Stanley Donen here’s story that touches quite interesting on him and the making of Give a Girl a Break . But that’s just one part of this show business saga which I guarantee you have NEVER read anything remotely like.

  5. Damn, I’m at work and can’t read. Tonight! Thanks.

  6. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    Movie, Movie is very underated. Blame It Rio is sad.
    So, what’s the story about Give A Girl A Break? I clicked and got Zilch.

  7. Retype link, D.E.!

  8. Here it is.
    http://www.therialtoreport.com/2014/12/07/whatever-happened-to-deep-throats-dolly-sharp/

    Weirdly, because one of the dancers in the Steam Heat number in Donen’s The Pajama Game was sometimes named as Georgina Spelvin, I thought for a while she had gone on to be a 70s porn star, not realizing that the name is a common Broadway pseudonym for dancers (a bit like Alan Smithee was for directors). But now it turns out Donen DID direct a future 70s porn star…

  9. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    That’ was worth witing for. I suppose. Sad. Hokey Smokes! I wondered what happened to her. I’m going dust off my Give A Girl A Break and Night They Raided Minsky’s DVD.

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