Archive for June, 2022

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2022 by dcairns

It’s appropriate, I think, that David Cronenberg got Greek money to shoot CRIMES OF THE FUTURE in Greece, because it may be his first utopian science fiction film.

It might not seem that way, but consider: it’s a world where infection and pain have been all but eliminated. Also, people seem to spend all their time making and consuming art. The few people we meet who have vaguely regular jobs seem to be living the dream: the tireless bureaucrats running the National Organ Registry set the place up themselves so they could work there; the sexy grease monkeys from LifeFormWare love their work; the cop has a sense of mission.

“…with all our earthly problems solved and with bigger ones worth the solving,” says Squadron Leader Peter D. Carter in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, and this seems to be the heaven Cronenberg offers us. No mention is made of longevity or immortality, but he might as well have thrown that in too, since his characters are all in a search to give meaning to their lives, now that the usual problems of late capitalism and biology seem to have been removed.

Also, perhaps for budgetary reasons, there are no cars: motorhead Cronenberg might not consider that utopian, but I do.

The film feels quite NAKED LUNCH-y, but I think XISTENZ is the best comparison: there are factions in ideological conflict over questions of authenticity, but instead of Phildickian Big Question #1 (What is reality?) this is more about Phildickian Big Question #2 (What is a human being?). Evolution seems to be getting out of hand… is this a good thing or a bad thing? Though a performance art piece is titled Body is Reality, the film doesn’t play the VIDEODROME/NL game of leading us into hallucination without warning. Or at least I don’t think so.

CRASH is another comparison: again, factions, individuals and couples pursuing some kind of meaning through quite extreme activities

The film looks terrific: Cronenberg’s period films have always benefitted from the added panache imparted by the past. This uncertain future has its own aesthetic: retro tech is in fashion; biomechanical gadgets are everywhere. Rather than the glassy and inhuman Canadian architecture he started out celebrating, here Cronenberg has beautiful crumbling Greek buildings, acid-lit and ominous.

I have quibbles. The internal logic is at times flakey — Viggo Mortensen’s art involves regular surgical interventions, but his body starts out free of scars. This is a distracting puzzle that doesn’t help anything and could, one feels, have been inexpensively dealt with. Is the biomechanical chair supposed to be so shonky? The design is nice, but its awkward lurching doesn’t seem to perform any service for the poor occupants, especially while they’re eating. The motivations of one lot of assassins seemed vague to me, their place in the overall narrative unresolved.

On the other hand, this is perhaps Cronenberg’s most visually beautiful film: his new collaborators, like cinematographer Douglas Koch and costume designer Mayou Trikerioti, seem to tread nimbly in the footsteps of Peter Suschitzky and Denise Cronenberg, and composer Howard Shore and production designer Carol Spier are back to provide direct continuity with the past.

I’m undecided about the ending. It struck me as anticlimactic — we’d been waiting for an IMAGE to top all before it, and Cronenberg instead focuses on performance. It’s a lovely performance, though. A second viewing may clear my doubts away. At any rate, it’s a proper Cronenberg film, arriving when it had looked like we weren’t going to get any more of those. Now do RED CARS.

In the Claws of the Tigron

Posted in FILM on June 28, 2022 by dcairns

Not a set of claws we want to be in. No indeed.

So, as Chapter Eleven begins, Flash is disintegrated, or perhaps made invisible (the previous episode being called The Unseen Peril might be a clue/spoiler).

Plato argues that we would all be unjust if we could turn invisible, and there may be something in this but Flash doesn’t show any signs of personality change: he goes about shoving and strangling, same as he’s always done. After terrorizing Ming, he visits Vultan in the dungeon, where he assaults the flunky bringing dinner, hitting him in the face with a fish on wires and so on.

I don’t remember any of this from my childhood viewing. It’s possible that the FLASH GORDON serial, like Borges’ Book of Sand, is somehow infinite and everchanging, and whole new chapters will reveal themselves on each screening. It’s also possible that it isn’t.

Flash now rescues Vultan, having at some point decided that the guy who enslaved, tortured and re-enslaved him is an OK guy. Just not safe in taxis.

News of the escape is brought to Ming. Ming’s having a really bad episode. He’s been partially strangled already. He ought to be on the verge of winning — this is the penultimate-but-one instalment — so that he can be thwarted at the last moment. Instead he’s being thwarted at EVERY moment. He exists in a perminent state of thwartage.

“Make ME invisible, doctor!” demands Vultan, after seeing Flash safely rematerialised. “And I will give Ming such a five minutes as he never had before!” He then laughs in a wicked manner, and I find myself wondering in an uncomfortable way what he has in mind. And why it takes five minutes.

It seems like Zarkov’s big plan is just to take off and fly back to earth. No desire to overthrow the despot. But there’s good news — after eleven episodes, Zarkov finally makes contact with Griffith Observatory. But Aura is listening, from a strange liminal space. Pretty unobtrusive spycraft.

Invisible Flash is now to help Zarkov install some power units on the rocket. Not clear why everyone else can’t become invisible to help. Including me. Listening in, Aura realizes Prince Barin and Dale can now be captured. Frankly, this was always the case: this laboratory is in Ming’s own palace. Surprising how domestic this serial is.

Barin notices the microphone (!) and leads Dale to hide in the catacombs. Aura enlists somebody in a three-quarter back view to help her track them, using “the sacred tigron.” Such a lot of things on Mongo are sacred. Things you wouldn’t think of that way. The orangapoid still bothers me. I would never have looked at him and pronounced him blessed.

Scuffle between Vultan and Ming’s guards, in which he displays his signature move, butting them with his armoured belly. I remember enjoying this as a kid, and I falsely remember it happening in every single episode. He’s helped by invisible Flash, which allows the guards to display whatever mime training they have, as they fall over repeatedly and feign strangulation.

Then Flash spontaneously revisibilizes, Barin wanders in, and they all rush off to find Dale, who is sitting on a lonely bench in the catacombs, a neat encapsulation of Jean Rogers’ entire role.

The sacred tigron really doesn’t like wearing a leash! I rather fear for actors Priscilla Lawson (Aura/Miss Miami Beach 1935) and Sana Rayva (three-quarters backview woman), or their stand-ins. The sacred tigron is played, you see, by an actual tiger. At least the crew didn’t have to paint stripes on this one, as they did with Vultan’s pet bear. Breaking away from his handler, he seeks out Dale, or her stand-in.

As he pounces on the hefty lookalike, a fanged wipe replaces the image with an invitation to SEE the next instalment. I sure will! We’ve come this far.