Archive for the literature Category

Men from Mars are from Mars

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Tobe Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS — part of a set of actually quite interesting semi-bad movies he made for bigtime schlockmeisters Cannon (I would never have believe the daywould come when I might feel nostalgic for Cannon, but here we are). LIFEFORCE is a sort of laughable Quatermass-for-and-by-teenage-boys (the monster is the scariest thing ever, a naked girl) and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II is genuinely fucked-up and harrowing, if somewhat incoherent. See it — you’ll be punch-drunk afterwards.

In the 50s, designer-director William Cameron Menzies (name-checked in the high school in the 80s version) made an uncategorizable B-movie sub-classic, which tried its damnest to use a juvenile it-was-all-a-dream structure in an interesting way. I never felt it quite worked but always felt it was interesting, and Menzies’ expressionist child’s-eye sets are terrific.

One surprise with Tobe’s remake is how it doubles down on precisely the elements of the original that seemed dangerously hokey thirty years earlier and were least likely to find favour, one would have thought, with an 80s audience. Though there had been a spate of fantasy films with kid protagonists, IFM was never going to be another ET, was it?

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The central conceit is that of the genuine psychological condition Capgras Syndrome, in which one imagines intimates have been replaced with impostors. Or, in this case, taken over with NECK IMPLANTS. Neck implants appeared in Menzies film before they became part of the mythos of true life alien encounters, which maybe tells you something about true life alien encounters — but maybe only some of them? The cast essay a wide range of approaches to alien possession: Louise Fletcher does her patented ice bitch act, but more manic, but the best players at this are mom Laraine Newman and especially dad Timothy Bottoms, who is helped by Dan O’Bannon & Don Jakoby’s script, which gives him lots of quirky schtick like gulping scalding coffee supersaturated with undissolved sugar. But his stilted line readings and spooky demeanour are a constant joy. When he unexpectedly appears from behind a bush with a man from the telephone company (everyone hates the telephone company) the scenario seems redolent of cottaging, and Bottoms does great work with his explanation: “He’s from the switching department,” delivered as if this goofy remote-control meatpuppet WANTS the ordinary humans to pick up some Hidden Meaning.

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The other best bit of business for the mandroids is when Fletcher, for no discernible reason, starts reciting “A-E-I-O-U” repeatedly and then launches into a bit of Magwitch’s dialogue from Great Expectations (“get me a file and some wittles”). Interestingly, this is the bit right before Magwitch describes his friend who can crawl through tight spaces and eat your liver — a character who became serial killer Eugene Tooms in The X-Files. Magwitch never mentions that his friends sleeps in a newspaper nest like a hamster, but we can still agree that Great Expectations has had more influence on science-fiction than any other Dickens novel. Apart from Rod Serling’s Carol for Another Christmas, and at least until someone makes a post-apocalyptic version of Little Dorrit. Fletcher’s incongruous recital is wonderful precisely because nothing whatsoever can account for it — she’s a science teacher, not an English teacher, and anyway, WTF?

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Great-beyond-great Stan Winston aliens — he obviously got the same note about this being a pastiche that Bottoms got.

Hooper seems to be riding the Louma crane for the whole flick, serving up sinewy, twisting moves that may not add tension but certainly impart elegance.

I recently interviewed the film’s production designer, Les Dilley, but failed to ask him about this one. Tough brief — the film doesn’t replicate Menzies’ distorted perspectives designed to make the child hero extra-diminutive and overwhelmed, but it still embraces a form of theatrical stylisation unfashionable at the time (same year as BLUE VELVET, though, interestingly). And then there’s a Geiger-ish sensibility to the aliens’ underground lair. The difficulty is, the first INVADERS was replicating the non-cinematic media influences a child of the era would have, from pulp magazines to comic books, bubble-gum cards, radio shows and maybe TV. In all of which, space and space invaders were a definite thing, with set generic qualities (Menzies dutifully includes Bug Eyed Monsters and a Little Green Man). That world of influences has irreversibly split in a thousand directions by the 80s, so the film struggles to create a unified sensibility that feels like it could be a small boy’s dream, though there are some nice details like a NASA security device that beeps like a digital alarm clock. This is all happening in a suburban bedroom…

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And then there’s Bud Cort, who is just insanely wonderful for about five minutes before he gets disintegrated. Most untimely disintegration in sci-fi history, unless you count the guy in ANGRY RED PLANET who waits until the third act before getting dissolved, when he should have taken a Captain Oates long walk as soon as possible and spared us our misery.

There’s a thing: in ANGRY RED P, the Martians warn us to get off their dusty red lawn, but in INVADERS FROM MARS they’ve come here uninvited and dug ruddy great holes. It’s a bit rich, that.

Oh, Karen Black. Nurse. I hope I get sick.

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Retro Viral

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on September 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona watched Stranger Things avidly, but I only half-watched it. We both watched IT FOLLOWS. Retro electronica scores and sorta-period detail unite these two shows. Otherwise they’re pretty different.

I wasn’t too taken with Stranger Things because I recognized pretty much all the elements, and they were all drawn from a rather narrow pool of influences. The creepy child experiment stuff was new to Fiona, because I realized she hadn’t seen AKIRA — rectifying that tonight. The best I can say about the story world in this series is that the portal-to-hell stuff is more like a modern video game influence, or THE MIST, and transplanting it back in time into an ET/EXPLORERS 80s setting imparted what freshness the show had.

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IT FOLLOWS is arguable less successful overall — it doesn’t achieve a rounded, satisfying arc the way Stranger Things does (albeit a deeply conservative one, where outsider characters are conveniently erased and nuclear families preserved), but it has its own look and its own fresh central idea.

I felt the half-period/half-alternate-world schtick achieved precisely nothing in itself, and undercutting the reality of the milieu wasn’t really helpful to the fantasy, but I guess it spared writer/director David Robert Mitchell from having to accurately capture modern youthspeak. It’s the first sign of the dumbness that eventually derails the movie.

Well, not quite the first sign — during the opening shot, our first victim is introduced, desperately fleeing the unseen menace, which is, in best 80s slasher tradition, at this point represented by the camera eye itself.

“She’s in heels!” exclaimed Fiona. “Why is she in heels? Those are heels! Just kick them off!”

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Too late.

Though obviously Lynch-fluenced — in a way, this movie references the 80s the way BLUE VELVET referred back to the 50s — Mitchell has a pleasing camera style which is individual, seductive, and informs every shot. I particularly liked the high angles which don’t quite make it as POV shots. And the fondness for slow pans is refreshing. He also has a slightly prurient eye for young women’s bodies — I was beginning to wonder when we were going to meet a fully dressed female character — but this mild Larry Clark tendency still seemed honestly individual. Maybe it’s my Scots puritanism worrying unnecessarily.

But as the inanities piled up, he began to make me think of M. Night Shyamalan and Richard Kelly, whose neat ideas and visual confidence tends to be undercut by a tendency to be excited by really dumb stuff, to have fatal lapses of taste and judgement, and to fail to question themselves with sufficient rigour. All three filmmakers might at some future point resolve their problems and fulfil their early promise. Here, it’s the inane swimming pool plan that shows up the weakness in following through on a strong (if unpleasant) premise. It’s all downhill after that.

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Another sign of dumbness, though a counter-intuitive one. My friend Rolland is of the view that any time a movie quotes Dostoevsky, it’s a sign of stupidity ahead. Not that Dostoevsky is stupid, by any means, but he seems to appeal to people who aren’t as clever as they think. I guess everyone reading him for the first time gets all excited and thinks they’ve made a great discovery that nobody else knows about.  And they make the mistake of thinking that quoting him will raise the intellectual level of their venture. I’m interested in hearing if anyone can suggest exceptions to this “rule”. And is it worse when the extracts are read from a fictitious clamshell compact Kindle device?

Hellraiser

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2016 by dcairns

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Enjoyed Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils.

Richard Crouse has done a fine job putting together research materials and interviews, some of them original, to tell the story of Ken Russell’s masterpiece. I have only three issues with it.

  1. There are some awful, contorted sentences. Not necessarily incomprehensible or grammatically wrong, but ugly: “Just as the beautiful design of that film is an abstraction of German society and urban condition, Jarman’s designs for The Devils would be both a reflection of French society and an abstraction.”
  2. There’s a chapter on “context,” which is basically capsule reviews of other films that opened in 1971.
  3. Very oddly, there seems to be no mention of the film’s brilliant cinematographer, David Watkin.

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Production designer Derek Jarman had some issues with Watkin — but when Watkin learned how unhappy Jarman had been, decades later, he contacted him to apologise. And the creative clash is quite illuminating.

Jarman had offered to show Watkin the model of the set under construction, to give him a chance to plan his lighting. “I don’t need to see any model,” said Watkin, perhaps rather brusquely. Watkin always had strict limits as to what he would or wouldn’t do, and seemingly looking at models wasn’t in his repertoire. Saying that he could light the set no matter what it looked like, he declined the sneak preview and turned up on day one of shooting to find a city of white brick.

“I can’t light this. It’s white.”

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White tends to photograph as an unpleasant, featureless glare. The whole set had to be repainted with a faint greyish tone so it would photograph AS white, but with visible detail.

Another bit of trivia: Watkin took the job after Douglas Slocombe, who shot THE MUSIC LOVERS for Ken, turned it down.

In the nineties, Slocombe shot a Kwik-Fit garage commercial in Scotland (I know, I know) and a friend worked on it and spoke to him. Slocombe described being offered a lot of money to do THE DEVILS. He sat down in his garden on a summer’s day to read the script. After just a few pages he threw it away in disgust. His wife picked it up, gently reminded him of the whacking fee involved, and got him to read on. A few pages later he threw the script away again, and this time didn’t resume reading.

(Slocombe had balked at shooting Glenda Jackson’s naked lower abdomen in THE MUSIC LOVERS, telling Russell, “You need to get someone to photograph this who can stand looking at it. Russell operated the camera himself for that shot.)

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Returning to David Watkin, he and Russell evidently got on well enough for him to be asked back for THE BOY FRIEND. Jarman would return, separately, for SAVAGE MESSIAH. Watkin’s stunning work in THE DEVILS — in an interview appendix, Guillermo Del Toro notes that those fantastic sets couldn’t have been easy to shoot — includes probably the most camera movement of any Russell film, and those artful shots where out-of-focus background characters have their outlines eaten into by the glaring light, a technique used to strongest effect in Watkins’ work on MARAT/SADE in 1967.

Though in his book, Crouse suggests that Derek Jarman’s sets make him the film’s co-auteur, I would like to include Watkin, composer Peter Maxwell-Davies and costume designer Shirley Russell as equally significant contributors.

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Crouse includes some good stuff on Oliver Reed, of course, but not too much — it must be hard to know when to stop. I recall a bit of behind-the-scenes footage that struck me as revealing. Reed, on trial for witchcraft, denounces the prosecution’s use of love letters to smear his character, calling them “things put aside for a day when he would need to be reminded that he was once loved.” In the film, Reed yells the first part of the line, reaching the whole court, but drops to a whisper for the last five words. Stunningly effective — and a typical Reed trick. Richard Lester used to kid Reed: “I know what you’re going to do: you’re going to whisper two lines and shout the third.”

But in this outtake, Reed yells the whole speech. I think because the camera is far away.

Reed has calculated: to hell with continuity. They’re either going to use the wide shot, in which shouting to be heard is the only thing that makes sense, or they’ll use a closer view, and I can whisper for that.

I mentioned this as an example of Reed varying his performance, and Lester said, “Yes, Ken could get him to do that. He had a special rapport with Ken, because… they were the same, in a way.”

Despite some disagreements with Crouse’s book, I’ll always be grateful to it for reproducing a passage from a Time magazine article ~

“One long-suffering colleague, when asked what kind of childhood Russell had, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and said, ‘He’s having it now.'”