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Pop. Boom

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2015 by dcairns

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The two main films about overpopulation — a much discussed subject in the seventies — are SOYLENT GREEN and Z.P.G.

I have been to one science fiction convention in my life, a thing called Ra Con (cartoon rabbit emblem) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, sometime in the eighties. I was fifteen or so. I didn’t know anyone, so I just wandered around amidst my fellow sensation-seekers, a bit alienated. I went to the film show and saw Svankmajer and Bunuel/Dali and Trnka shorts, which put me in quite an odd frame of mind.

Harry Harrison was a guest, and I believe I was already a fan of his Stainless Steel Rat novels about a master-criminal of the future who is recruited into a crime-busting outfit on the principle of “to catch a thief.”

SOYLENT GREEN was screened and Harrison, an irascible, twinkly, gnome-wizard hybrid, (in my memory a lot like Edward G Robinson in the movie) spoke about the differences between the film and his source novel, Make Room! make Room! He was genuinely exercised by the problem of the population explosion. “People say things like, ‘Oh, she’s been blessed with nine children.’ Blessed! She ought to have her fallopian tubes cut out!”

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HH liked the same bits of the film I liked — the opening montage, which he seemed to indicate had been added at the last minute to rescue the film and make the point clearer, although it could be that it was always part of the plan and they simply didn’t tell him — the scene where Chuck Heston brings some real food home and he and Edward G. Robinson enjoy an actual meal “and Heston does some actual acting,” — and Robinson’s euthanasia scene. He was genuinely honoured to have Robinson, making his last screen appearance, in a film based on his work. And he made a vaguely lecherous remark about Leigh Taylor-Young.

(A year or so ago, Fiona was forced to call up the NHS’s 24 hour help line to consult on what seemed like a health crisis [and was]. The music they played was “light classical” — the sounds Robinson dies to.)

What Harrison didn’t like is the thing everybody talks about (spoiler alert) — “Soylent Green is made of p*****e!” He felt that was an exploitative, gimmicky, icky and unnecessary twist. In a sense it was put in to punch up a movie which was by its nature not so much sensationalistic as steadily downbeat. What would have made it less so, in his opinion, was deleted dialogue between the old folks, where they were to have offered up a solution — not to their problems, which had reached an irretrievable crisis, but to ours. Birth control! The one thing that could stop us reaching the dead end displayed in the movie, where we’re killing healthy old people to make room, and eating “tasteless, odourless crud” from tubes, and shoveling people up with bulldozers. But, afraid of alienating the Catholic audience, the studio chickened out and wouldn’t allow contraception to be mentioned or supported. You can have cannibalism but not condoms.

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I tried to watch ZPG once before and it didn’t take — the movie seemed lifeless and joyless, even more depressive than SOYLENT GREEN (which has Robinson to at least rage against the dying of the light). It seemed quite humourless, though in fact it isn’t…

A more sympathetic viewing in fact showed quite a lot of dry wit, it’s just that the characters aren’t in on the joke. We’re in one of those strangely antiseptic future worlds of the kind SLEEPER makes fun of — everything is ultramodern and plastic and white. BLADE RUNNER really revolutionized that view by making the great leap and imagining that SOME of our stuff will still be around in forty years, it will just have more modern crap accrued on top of it. In ZPG, the future seems like a blank slate, even though the kind of skyscrapers we see are not too different from the kind we have now.

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The details of this dystopia do, as I say, have a slight satiric bite, like the deliberately terrifying child-subsititute dolls (Super-Toys!) and the museum with stuffed cats and couples re-enacting swinging dinner parties of the seventies. The movie twice stages these soirees only to reveal that they’re happening in front of an audience in the museum, and both times I fell for the gag. Delightful. What makes the film seem humourless is that the characters aren’t in on the joke. In this world where childbirth is a capital offence, the broody Geraldine Chaplin and the brooding Oliver Reed have little to smile about, it’s true, but people do have a way of laughing in adversity, and it helps to make fictional character credible if they can step outside the seriousness of their situation and indulge in a joke. This happens precisely once in this movie.

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In defiance of the edicts, Chaplin is up the duff, and canoodles with Reed while enumerating the months, weeks, days, hours minutes and seconds until her blessed event comes due. “Are you sure about the seconds?” he asks, whimsically. “Yes,” she replies, and adopts a robot voice: “A – computer – told – me.” Again, delightful, although maybe a bit Futurama. It feels like Chaplin is making a joke about the fact that she’s a character in a science fiction film. But it’s nevertheless a welcome break from the gloom. Reed would ask directors, “Do you want Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3?” In this movie, he needn’t have asked. But there is something impressive about seeing all that bullish machismo wrapped up so tight in a civilized, repressed carapace. You fear he might burst at any moment, resulting in a dome-shaped explosion of testosterone impregnating everyone in its radius, like what happens in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

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Yay, seventies reptiles!

These two films, SOYLENT GREEN and ZPG, mark two extreme reactions to the population problem. In one, we do nothing about it and suffer dire consequences. In the other, we suffer massive ecological damage and then have to take such draconian action that the cure is as bad as the disease. Of course, only in a true totalitarian state could a “no-child policy” be implemented, and it seems unlikely to me that the rulers of such a state would want to follow the same rules as everyone else. I suspect the human race would passively, in a state of denial, choose extinction rather than submit to such a regime, and our democratic leaders would prefer a popular choice with a high chance of causing extinction than an unpopular one offering a solution. But ZPG can be seen as an allegorical warning rather than a literal one — if we are in danger of heading towards a catastrophe where the only solution is one we would never accept, dramatizing that by showing the solution in action is fair enough.

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And then they end up in The Zone. Great.

Of course the other 70s film about population control is LOGAN’S RUN, another high concept that doesn’t make much sense. WILD IN THE STREETS and GAS-S-S-S! are more plausible, and more fun — maybe one of those explains how this future history without people over thirty came to be. LR works best as cheese, with a single moment of behavioral realism when Jenny Agutter, exposed to nature for the first time, cries “I hate Outside!” like a stroppy child on holiday. Like Geraldine Chaplin’s computer voice joke, it almost breaks the film by allowing a semblance of humanity in.

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I gazed a gazely stare

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by dcairns

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The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.

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SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING

Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”

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SMILING AND WAVING AND LOOKING SO FINE

But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?

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WHEN IT’S BAD I GO TO PIECES

Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.

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HOLLYWOOD HIGHS

Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.

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AND SHE’S HOOKED TO THE SILVER SCREEN

What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.

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No Thanks for the Memories

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2015 by dcairns

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I remember — that word! — TV play Hauser’s Memory coming on TV when I was a kid. I was interested because I had been a fan of David McCallum in The Invisible Man TV show in which he would disappear and somehow the back of his polo-neck would disappear with him. Maybe it was backless. So, here was another science fiction thing with the Greatest Living Scotsman!

(David McCallum has, in a unique honour, been granted the title of Greatest Living Scotsman even after death, an event which we hope is a long way off, since he has basically not aged since 1955.)

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But there wasn’t much for a little kid in this dour drama about loss of personhood, death, castration and political exploitation and personal betrayal. The only thing I committed to memory were the opening credits, which I remembered as the closing credits, which is apt, because the credits sort of loop back from the last scene to create a perfect Moebius strip. If we’d had a video recorder in the seventies I might still be watching it.

Now look — you’ll hear a lot of loose talk around here about Curt Siodmak beng the idiot brother of the talent Robert S, but I have to give the affable old fellow credit here — allowing for the pseudoscience (an injection of RNA taken from the blenderized brain of a dying scientist allows McCallum to experienced the deceased man’s memories), this is an excellent piece of drama. I lost count of the number of simultaneous, interwoven plotlines that are really one big plot. Let me try to enumerate them —

The Americans (led by LESLIE NIELSEN as SLAUGHTER) and the Russians both want the formula the deceased physicist was working on at the time of his demise. The hope is that McCallum will remember it. But he begins to remember much more, and the mystery of his memory-donor’s life starts coming into focus.

But the late Hauser has needs of his own — he wants to make his peace with his loved ones (including widow Lilli Palmer) and avenge himself upon a Nazi persecutor.

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Seeking to achieve closure in his life, Hauser begins to take over McCallum’s brain, so it becomes a horrifying drama of loss of personality, the sense of no longer being who you are supposed to be. Weirdly enough, we can relate to this. It’s this aspect of the story that allows McCallum to turn in a moving performance that really should have won him awards. He has to play a Jewish biochemist and a German physicist and sometimes both at once or one pretending to be the other (the late Hauser proves to be a shrewd manipulator to further his own agenda).

Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN, another candidate for 70s SF Week) directs, sometimes badly, but the psychedelic editing is quite good — it really would take a Resnais or Roeg to do justice to this idea, but the flash-cutting and fisheye POV shots are pretty effective. Susan Strasberg has a slightly thankless role as Mrs McCallum, Robert Webber gives it the crowning TV movie touch and says “baby” a lot.

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McCallum has memory trouble again in the Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story. Fiona and I both saw this as kids. From Invisible Man to sub-Donovan’s Brain guy to a subsidiary monster-maker in this, David McCallum had quite a psychotronic decade (and there was still Sapphire & Steel to come). Slightly de-gayed by TVexecs, the two-parter is still provocative. The film still makes much of the attraction between creator and creature, understandable since Leonard Whiting is Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin is his handiwork, and taking its cue from James Whale’s monster duology, the film contrasts the appeal of a respectable marriage with the frisson of playing in God’s domain with a male friend.

Like Branagh’s rather anemic movie version, this comes to lusty life in the scenes involving Frankenstein’s lost, then reincarnated love, here played by Jane Seymour. Appearing in Edinburgh recently for the Film Festival (with the movie BEREAVE, which Fiona discovered in her role as submissions editor), Seymour remembered James Mason reading The Times out loud while she was trying to learn her lines, getting to choose her nude body double from a line-up, and accidentally sitting in Ralph Richardson’s chair. “He didn’t say anything, he just circled me, like a dog.

Unlike the Branagh, this has sufficient run-time to explore the story in depth, and invents the new notion of a handsome creation who only gradually deteriorates into scabby monstrosity pockmarked with syphilitic gumma — his rejection by his father thus becomes a bit like an aging lover getting the heave-ho when his youthful bloom fades.

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Whale’s version transposed the first names of Victor Frankenstein  and the stolid Henri Clerval, who became slightly caddish Victor Moritz. This movie transposes the characters, so that Clerval (McCallum) is much more passionate about creating life than Frankenstein is, at first. Rude, sodden, sporting an anachronistic moptop and saying things like “yeah”, McCallum’s Clerval is a hell of a lot more fun than Whiting’s pallid Daniel Radcliffe act. When he dies, it’s a loss to the film, but his brain gets transplanted into the monster so that occasionally his voice echoes out of Sarrazin’s fleshy lips — he even gets the last line (and laugh).

Isherwood and Bacardy have cheekily plundered the Universal classics while claiming to honour Mary Shelley’s original, so we get the blind man, and James Mason as a fruity Dr. Polidori, very much inspired by Ernest Thesiger’s immortal Pretorius, but with crippled hands, a touch pilfered from Hammer’s Peter Cushing vehicles.

In terms of story logic, the script is free and easy, bending the rules whenever doing so will allow a cool scene or idea. When a severed arm Frankenstein has helped amputate grabs him by the wrist, McCallum cries in delight, “It knows you!” (My vote for most fervid line reading of 1973.) A new definition of muscle memory, perhaps. Yet, when McCallum’s brain is reborn in the monster, he suffers total amnesia. A touch inconsistent. Frankenstein teaches the monster to talk, but Mason, using hypnosis, contacts McCallum’s memory, still cradled somewhere within that jagged, scabby brow. A reminder that the myth of hypnosis as memory aid was very much in the air — see also The UFO Incident…

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