Archive for the Science Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Lumberjack Transfusion

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on January 7, 2018 by dcairns

WOLFBLOOD (1925), is the sole directorial credit of actor George Chesebro (pictured), in collaboration with the prolific Bruce Mitchell. I didn’t know anything about either man, but the movie sounded goofy enough to be interesting.

We’re up in the wilds of Canada, where men are men and they talk like this ~

They’re also constantly shooting each other. There are two rival logging firms, and one is playing dirty — they try to avoid outright murder, but they figure by shooting to wound they can put the opposition’s lumberjacks out of action long enough to get a distinct market advantage. Our hero, played by George Chesebro under the name George Chesbro (a cunning pseudonym), gets badly hurt and needs a life-saving transfusion. But with no human donors volunteering, the doc is forced to syphon haemoglobin from a wolf into the stricken sawmill manager.

This and the astounding THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE are the only movies I can think of about animal-human blood transfusion but I’m probably forgetting lots.

Anyway, the doc looks like Count Arthur Strong, maybe IS Count Arthur Strong in his silent movie days. Or else a stray Chuckle Brother, though the credits name one Ray Handford.

Soon Chesebro/Chesbro is on the slippery slope from woodsman to wolfman, as reports of nocturnal attacks convince him he’s being taken over by the canine plasma coursing through his veins. Sadly, the promising lycanthrope angle which has taken most of the runtime to get to, fizzles out in a welter of what Fred from Scooby (Dooby) Doo might call perfectly simple explanations. That leaves the scenery and a few unusual photo-illustrated intertitles to carry the day.

Movie was shot by Lesley Selander, the only familiar name in the credits: he became a very prolific B-movie director before moving into TV.

Stray thought: could this movie have inspired the strange sartorial quirk of werewolves in the movies frequently wearing checked lumberjack shirts?

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War Films

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on December 14, 2017 by dcairns

I picked up an intriguing oddity in a charity shop — Myths and Legends of the First World War, by James Hayward. I wasn’t particularly expecting cinematic connections, but there turned out to be several. A juicy one comes when Hayward is covering the tale of the Angel of Mons, a weird bit of mystical nonsense originated by author Arthur Machen in a short story, The Bowmen, which imagined the archers of Agincourt appearing in spectral form to assist the British Expeditionary Force during its retreat from Mons during WWI. The fictional story somehow got regurgitated as fact, a kind of trench urban legend or FOAF (Friend Of A Friend) tale, with the figure of St. George morphing over time into an actual angel bestriding the battlefield. Over to Hayward —

No less dubious was a report in the Daily News in February 1930, based on an American newspaper story. According to Colonel Friedrich Herzenwirth, said to be a former member of the German intelligence service:

The Angel of Mons were motion pictures thrown upon ‘screens’ of foggy white cloudbanks by cinematographic projecting machines mounted in German aeroplanes which hovered above the British lines . . . The object of the Germans responsible for these scientific ‘visions’ was to create superstitious terror in the Allied ranks. 

According to Herzenwirth, the plan backfired, and was successfully exploited by the British for their own benefit. However, the very next day the Daily News published a corrective report, explaining that its Berlin correspondent had been informed by official German sources that there was no record of the mysterious colonel, whose story was now dismissed as a hoax. Curiously, the projection idea would be resurrected by the British propaganda agencies in March 1940, who in the midst of the static Phoney War, gave consideration to ‘a suggestion for an apparatus to project images on clouds’ over the German lines by means of an unspecified ‘magic lantern’ apparatus.

I like the idea of the Angel of Mons as a kind of bat-signal.

The idea was not pursued. However, further evidence of the remarkable staying power of this particular myth came in March 2001, when it was announced that actor Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for spectral footage of angels shot by William Doidge at Woodchester Park in the Cotswolds during the Second World War.

This isn’t explained very well, but it seems Brando wanted to buy the footage to use in a film which was seemingly planned to dramatise the origins story of this material, with Brando playing an American

Doidge, a veteran of the BEF and the retreat from Mons, was said to have been obsessed with the angels legend of 1914, believing they could lead him to his Belgian sweetheart, with whom he had lost contact during the war. Like Machen’s original story published by the Evening News, the film promised excellent entertainment, although as factual history the verdict is likely to be less kind.

The verdict appeared a year after this story hit the Sunday Times, with Danny Sullivan, who had acquired the “angel footage” (only one photograph seems to exist) admitting the whole thing was a hoax, a publicity stunt to promote tourism at Woodchester Park. Along with Brando, the film project also involved director Tony Kaye, of AMERICAN HISTORY X and craziness fame, who was quoted as saying “I want to include Doidge’s footage of the apparition at the heart of the movie. It will be a spine-tingling moment. This is the closest we have on film to proof of an angel. I’ve spent much of my life looking at special visual effects, and this is an effect for which I have no explanation.”

Hey, Tony! I think I have an explanation!

Skin Jobs

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2017 by dcairns

I turn fifty on the tenth of this month (accelerated decrepitude), which makes me the perfect age to have enjoyed BLADE RUNNER when it was brand new — it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which sounds like quite a coup now, but of course the movie went on to perform poorly on first release. It’s nice to hear the sequel is getting lots of favourable attention, and I think we shall go see it. So to limber up, we revisited the original — actually, the first time we’d watched Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut.

“Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is a cracker,” said the first line of The Scotsman’s review, as I recall.

I also remember a schoolfriend continually saying he was excited to see that new film, “RUNNER-THE-BLADE.”

And I remember when ITV showed the film the first time there was a warning that it was hard to understand nd you had to pay attention. The newspaper listing siad you needed to watch it from the beginning. The next day I heard two fellow students discussing it (I was at college by then): “How was it?” “I missed the first half, I couldn’t really understand it.” And this was the version with the over-explanatory VO.

H.F. giving it plenty of ‘tude. Not my fave close-up of him. But hands up if you enjoyed his Paul Linde impression when he visits Joanna Cassidy’s dressing room. Do you like it better than his Scotsman in LAST CRUSADE?

Part of what’s good about BR, arguably, asides from the sheen, is the muddled storytelling, which feels very seventies. You could make the dialogue hard to hear, like in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or HEAVEN’S GATE, and/or you could bury the essential plot info and make crucial character points impossible to visualise. Like, the replicants aren’t robots, they’re biological, but nobody comes right out and says that. Science fiction fans understand from the talk about genetic engineering that this is what’s going on, but non-nerds may be puzzled that the androids bleed.

But I want to talk a little about other, less deliberate and less reasonable muddle in BLADE RUNNER’s exposition. If you don’t like the film you’ll agree these are problematic. If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling.

The pencil-point next to the eyeball is a smart way to make the audience feel obscurely uncomfortable.

In the opening scene, we see a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon, a fugitive replicant. Replicants are apparently so identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses. This is exactly like the fabled psychopath test, with aspects of the polygraph thrown in for colour. Original author Philip K. Dick’s idea is that androids would be like psychopaths, emotionally defective copies of human beings. In came out of his researches into the Nazis for The Man in the High Castle. He claimed to have read a letter from a concentration camp guard, complaining to his wife, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick said, “There is something wrong with the mind that wrote that sentence.” Dick was thrilled when he saw the film pre-release, particularly by Rutger Hauer as replicant leader Roy Batty (cool that they have human names). Hauer looked a lot like a Nazi superman.

But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test? Later, police chief M. Emmet Walsh shows Harrison Ford photos of the replicants. They know he’s a replicant! Instead of testing his pupillary dilation, shouldn’t they just show him his photo and say, “Isn’t this you?” Or else just shoot him. It’s weirdly bureaucratic — which brings us back to the Nazis again — the movie actually makes the state and humans more Nazi-like, and there were plans to show replicant corpse-mountains at one point…

Dodgy vertical hold on shot of Rutger spinning on a swivel chair.

When Walsh shows the slides (looks like they’re on a big TV screen, but there’s a projector beam), he also explains to Ford, his top former blade runner, exactly what a blade runner does and what replicants are, and how they don’t have emotions… but Ford will later be seen administering the Jon Voight Test to Sean Young (he proves she’s not Jon Voight) so he must already know this. Theory: in films where audiences struggle to follow the plot and comprehend the story world, sometimes the confusion is actually heightened by scenes where characters tell each other things they should already know. Or DO already know — the infamous and deadly “As you know…” formulation, which is still very common in British TV and Harvey Weinstein productions. “As you know, I’m your father…” Improbably exposition throws everyone off-balance.

A lot of the off-base exposition could have been slipped into BLADE RUNNER’s opening crawl, I think, though you again have to be careful when feeding an audience info they haven’t any reason to be curious for yet. And it really helps when you swiftly follow the text info with visuals illustrating the point. STAR WARS does this. BLADE RUNNER doesn’t mention emotional tests, and talks sympathetically about the killing/retirement of replicants, whereas in the next scene its a blade runner who gets shot. (Also, strangely, the crawl is written in the past tense, unlike STAR WARS. Maybe the crawl-writer is looking back from 2049?) But of course one of the intriguing things about that first scene with Leon is that we don’t really understand what this test is. It’s a great hook.

Non-sci-fi types (muggles, mundanes, the unnerded) often have trouble with science fiction because they overthink it. They hear the jargon and believe they’re supposed to understand what it means, which is rarely true or important. They should really just ask who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In BLADE RUNNER, for the purposes of telling this story, we are to accept Ford as the hero, even though analysing the ramifications of the story world points towards a reading where Batty is a bit of a Spartacus figure and the blade runner is a sort of government hitman empowered to kill people for racial reasons. Sort of like a Florida policeman.

 

In the most recent editions of the film, the who-does-what-to-whom is very clear, but the first release version wasn’t even clear about how many replicants there were supposed to be on the loose. The excellent making-of book documents all this production muddle. You had two writers who didn’t meet until the premiere, where each thought the other was responsible for the awful VO. You had a director who hadn’t read the book: “I couldn’t finish it. It’s very densely written.” It’s 224 pages and was probably written in a week. One of the screenwriters didn’t get a chance to read it because he was bunged a copy of the script and ordered to start at once. He was probably correct to assume that any elements of the novel that hadn’t been included were left out because the producers didn’t want them.

Neither of the talented screenwriters felt he was terribly good at writing clues — a fairly important element in most detective stories. In the finished BLADE RUNNER, Ford’s stand-in finds a snake scale in Leon’s bathtub, in a scene shot back in the UK after the main shoot had finished. Then he does a scan of a photo found in the flat, eventually printing out a Polaroid (!) of Joanna Cassidy as Zora, another replicant. It isn’t clear in the super-grainy snap, but I think it’s her facial tattoo of a snake that causes him to realise that what he’s found is a snake scale. But then he goes to the market and asks if it’s a fish scale. So, if he doesn’t know what it is, what was the purpose the elaborate photo analysis? What information is gained?

Wait, i think I have it. I guess he finds Zora in the bath, thus associating her potentially with the scale, so the scale might lead to her. Whereas if the scale was Leon’s, it wouldn’t have been a useful clue.

But you see, that’s me putting this all together thirty-five years after seeing the movie. Though admittedly I haven’t spent all of the intervening time trying to figure this out.

Still, I’m pleased with my Eureka! moment in Leon’s bathtub.