Archive for the literature Category

Isherwood or Bust

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2018 by dcairns

Christopher Isherwood’s name on the credits of DIANE, a 1956 period potboiler of unusual size and duration, might lead one to expect a classy affair before viewing, or to judge harshly the novelist’s skills as a screen dramatist after viewing. This may be unfair, as who knows what contributions co-writer John Erskine is guilty of? (This was his first screen credit in twenty years, mysteriously.) And we can certainly detect the contribution of the Breen Office in this bowdlerization of a famous courtesan’s love life. Diane de Poitiers was mistress to King Francis I AND his son Henri, which makes her a fine role for Lana — remember the familial mix-ups rumoured in the Stompanato affair? — but you wouldn’t really know any of this from the story told here. The movie also stars James Bond 007, Pancho Villa, Sakura the Sorcerer and Corporal Emil Klinger. Best main performance is Marisa Pavan as Lana’s rival — costume designer Walter Plunkett has huge fun draping his divas. Roger Moore proves himself, at this point in his career, an even more hopeless actor than Lana. Percy Helton appears briefly as a court jester and insinuates himself into our nightmares forever. Taina Elg has nothing to do including no dancing: a ballerina hired to stand still in long dresses. Henry Daniell squares off against Sir Cedric Hardwicke: eye-bags at down. The only two men in christendom whose eye-baggage flows down half their faces and brims over their cheekbones, like pie-crusts.Isherwood’s hand can best be seen in a sequence dealing with Sir Cedric as Pavan’s court astrologer. He works with the aid of some kind of clairvoyant catamite (Marc Cavell), who does his actual crystal-gazing for him in a sweaty trance as Sir C. anoints his brow (anointy-nointy) with mystic unction. It’s the only scene that builds up any kind of melodramatic frenzy. Even when Sir Roger de Moore gets a lance through his head, the film barely rouses itself from torpor. This is the “heavy flow” variety of period movie.With Lana leading the charge, it ought at least to provide camp hilarity, but David Miller, who extracted some fine teeth-gnashing from La Crawford in SUDDEN FEAR but seems paralysed by respectability in this one. And Cinemascope, which he allows to prevent him getting close to anything that happens. Three years after NIAGARA, he hasn’t heard of the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, which basically goes, “You CAN shoot me in tight close-up, we already established in the previous shot that I have a top to my head.”Walter Plunkett does a marvelous job with the costumes, but it would be just as much fun to watch them on mannequins.

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Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by dcairns

Returning to our Tuesday sci-fi season. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was an atypical British entry in the series, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a title which was never going to fly in the movies, though one might regret the hysteria of the alternative chosen. Especially given the film’s muted, low-key approach to much of the action, some of which can be credited to George Sanders’ quiet central performance.

Sheep! The first accidental echo of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Nothing says “sleepy English village” like sheep, and they serve as maybe a metaphor for humanity’s potential fate, though watching the pale, placid things flocking along is oddly reminiscent of the alien kids when they appear, always traveling in a group.

Looks like Rilla got a camera crane into the village location for one day and shot the hell out of everything. The best bits of the remake are the quick cuts of unconscious Midwichers, but Rilla’s sweeping moves are better, the gliding camera contrasting with the static bodies and emphasising their inactivity. And playing the credits over the clock tower is terrific — it’s 11am, not time to sleep — and also, it rhymes with the prominent role played by clocks at the film’s climax.

This part of the film has a real EXTERMINATING ANGEL vibe about it, particularly when they send a man in with a rope tied to him. (Surrealist logic is allowed to be bendy, as in Tex Avery. Bunuel has his houseguests simply unable to try to leave, whereas the people on the outside CAN try to get in, but then they go wobbly and fall over.) In a way lots of the film is like Bunuelian sci-fi. A village falling asleep all at once is a surreal idea — a variant on Rene Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT, perhaps. Every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant is equally bizarre. And, rather than relying on special effects (most of them fairly shaky when they do appear), the film prefers to keep the truly alien and uncanny stuff offscreen and therefore abstract, unknowable.

Peter Vaughan! A great psychotronic actor — two Gilliams, two Ken Russells and one Peckinpah to his name, but not yet. His P.C. Gobby here is one of a raft of early copper roles he was lumbered with before his greatness became apparent.

Wyndham offers a glimpse of something round in the village square, seen from the air. We obviously imagine a flying saucer. This could have been replicated in the movie, perhaps as a doctored aerial photograph, but they prefer to leave everything, but everything, to our imaginations. Perhaps this is due to censorship/taste concerns also: they don’t want anyone to imagine Little Green Men roving the village with turkey basters, impregnating every female in their path. By making the invasion invisible, we’re free to picture these conceptions as immaculate, with the alien sperm passing through the women like tiny ghosts, as a beam of light passes through a stained glass window, without breaking it. The alien fertilisation is an abstract force, just like the bubble of unconsciousness enveloping Midwich.

Another thing left out of the film is the attempts by various village women to lose their unwanted foetuses, taking long bicycle rides or hot baths, or throwing themselves downstairs a la LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Couldn’t deal with THAT in a film of the period.

Fiona was reminded of WENT THE DAY WELL?, another tale in which an alien force occupies a sleepy (!) English village. In both stories, the angry resistance by Britishers sometimes seems too brutal, unsympathetic.

“So cold…” says the soldier recovering from his unconsciousness. And it is! You can see the actors’ breath in the air.

There sure are a lot of Argonauts in this film. Well, Laurence Naismith and Michael Gwynn both appear.

Mobile X-ray unit! That was the answer to everything in those days. If it moves, X-ray it. If it continues to move, keep X-raying it until it stops.

The glowing eyes effect, which always seemed questionable, is even more flawed now that I see the film on DVD. I doubt that the BBC1 screening of my childhood was sharp enough to make it easil discernible that the glowing eyes have been painted onto still images of the kids, sometimes uneasily splitscreened with moving shots. It’s arguable that every effect you DON’T see in this film is preferable to everything we DO see. Partly because it’s a low-budget film and what it can afford to show us is limited. Mostly because the unseen enlists the imagination.

   

Fiona likes the crazy Herrmannesque harp glissandi — reminiscent of the shimmering, dreamy stuff in FAHRENHEIT 451. Composer Ron Goodwin maybe deserves more attention — certainly he wrote a joyous thing when he created Miss Marple’s theme tune for the Margaret Rutherford films, and of course there’s 633 SQUADRON.

George Sanders’s contractual piano, which he insisted had to be on the set of every film, is actually part of the set here, and he tickles its ivories a little. George is great. Around this time he made THE REBEL and writers Galton & Simpson asked him about his many conquests. Had he really…? “Oh yes. But I am now of an age when a satisfactory bowel movement far exceeds the pleasure of a good fuck.” You can, perhaps, see in his restraint and melancholy here foreshadowing of the despair which would kill him (“I’m very, very bored,” he famously recorded in his suicide note). But he’s also just being true to the role: as a clever bit of plot-character confluence, the elderly Gordon Zellaby is the only villager who’s really happy about parenthood coming so suddenly, as he’d lost hope of it ever coming. And he’s going to be the one who has to take final, fatal action against his own (sort-of) offspring.

Of course we all know it’s PSYCHOMANIA that really did for him.

Barbara Shelley, an actress unaccountably bundled into horror films more often than not (well, she was a good screamer), is also very good, though all Wyndham’s women are a little underdeveloped. Fiona has long felt that a version of the story focussing on the women’s side would be worthwhile — they have, after all, been raped and impregnated, and it takes a somewhat paternalistic view (which Wyndham had) to view this as a story in which the menfolk have the more dramatic role.

Throughout the film, director Wolf Rilla’s shots have a modest intensity, a slightly noirish sense of emphasis, so we always sense the drama beneath the serene surface of this “typical” village. There are beautiful shots of the kids that remind me of the “children of rage” in Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, in those shots where we see them walking in their parkas in longshot, images that are outwardly normal except for what we know about what’s REALLY going on.

The script here is credited to American TV and movie writer Sterling Silliphant and Rilla himself and producer/Scotsman Ronald Kinnoch, which Silliphant always saw as a deplorable bit of credit-stealing. He evidently felt his script was filmed quite faithfully and so those two didn’t deserve their names on it.

Little Martin Stephens, the lead space-hellion, becomes the prototype for all scary kids — the cool, calm, Spock-like approach is far more chilling than any Linda Blair snarling. It’s tempting to believe that the little girls in THE SHINING are English not because daddy Phillip Stone is English, but because the Diane Arbus photo that inspired Kubrick then reminded him of the cuckoos, and he had to hear them talk in clipped English accents.

Stephens, of course, is also fantastic in THE INNOCENTS, and turns in THE HELLFIRE CLUB and THE WITCHES, though less interesting, cement his rep as the ultimate scary kid. He’s the fulcrum of the whole gaggle.

I’m obsessed with the ending of this movie because it resorts to a kind of silent movie metaphor technique to make the invisible visible — to perceive the kids’ telepathic intrusion on Sanders’ thoughts we need to see what they see. So first they see the brick wall he’s trying to think of. Then, under their literally penetrating gaze, the wall begins to crumble — if they were really smart they’d figure out that if he’s concealing his thoughts there must be something he’s trying to hide, something therefore not in their interests… they know what happened to their OTHER colonies.

(A Wyndham novel never filmed, and unlikely to be filmed, is The Chrysalids, which also has psychic kids who can communicate across continents. But in this book, the coming race are the heroes and the puritans who seek to preserve unmutated genetic normality at all costs are the true monsters. And there are traces of his divided sympathies in this one.)

But this is a GREAT THING. The bomb concealed behind the wall fills the shot, just as the wall does, so they’re surreally out of scale. One thought superimposed on another. And I remember, after seeing the film, trying to conceal my thoughts in this manner, placing a surface idea over a secret one. And finding it impossible not to think of an elephant.

Cunning editing avoids the worst effects of an unconvincing miniature explosion — this being a British picture, it’s unnecessary to invoke the deity at the end (might be seen as poor taste, don’t you know?) but amid the reaction shots, the village vicar is prominently placed — then there’s another superimposition, suggesting the alien souls departing for space — it may be cheesy, but I rather love it. The movie NEEDS some kind of summative moment that takes us beyond a simple victory by dynamite. Watch the John Carpenter remake and see if you don’t agree.

“The world shall hear of us again!” they don’t say. But you know that’s what they mean. And they’re right. To be continued…

Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by dcairns

 

Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.

 

“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature, that existence begins and ends, is man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came… acceptance. All this vast majesty of Creation, it had to mean something… and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…