Archive for the Science Category

“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns

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The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.

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If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.

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Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.

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Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.

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Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.

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And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.

The First Sunday of Lent Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , on February 22, 2015 by dcairns

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FINDING HIS VOICE is an informative 1929 toon from Max Fleischer, designed to show film exhibitors how Western Electric’s sound-on-film system worked. I guess you would have to shepherd the exhibitors into a room to show them this, since if they weren’t already converts to sound they’d have no way to watch this in theor own theatres.

“Talkie” and “Mutie,” two characters created from roles of celluloid, debate the sound process — since Mutie can’t talk, his speeches are represented the old-school way, as titles. He also wears a gag and uses sign language, although I would be surprised if his rapid hand movements yield to decoding.

Then a professorial type gives a rather complicated lecture, delivered in hilariously hesitant style — a bit of rare naturalism for a Fleischer toon. Untrained, stilted delivery — the ghost in the machine.

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The film offers a rare glimpse, in graphic form, of the much-discussed sound-proof booth in which early sound cameras were imprisoned, and an even more unusual look at the mixing room, where sound from various microphones positioned around the set could be combined, live, into one balanced track (which, in 1929, would probably be the only mix the film received).


I’m giving up the Oscars for Lent!

Posh Spice

Posted in Dance, FILM, Interactive, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Science, Television, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2014 by dcairns

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On Friday night I had a conundrum — Jane Gardner, possibly my favourite silent accompanist, was doing a live score for STEAMBOAT BILL JNR, starring Buster Keaton and Edinburgh man Ernest Torrence (pictured) at a lecture hall by the Botanical Gardens. Meanwhile, my friend and collaborator Alex Livingstone had written Dune: The Musical, which was playing for one night only at the exact same time. Ultimately, my decision was based on repeatability — I hopefully will get another chance at the Keaton-Gardner collaboration (though I still haven’t caught her rendition of THE GENERAL). Dune seemed like it might be a one-off opportunity — but, given it’s literally roaring success, now it might come back in the Edinburgh Fringe…

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The event, hosted at a church hall not far from where Fiona and I live (OK, that was another factor — the trip to the botanics is always a hassle and the weather was freezing), started late, and started with support acts — the horror! But they were good — we learned that Jonnie Common has “folded space all the way from Stirling to be here tonight,” and Prehistoric Friends played a very nice set, but of course they were not Dune: The Musical — although it was then fun spotting them turn up IN Dune: The Musical.

This, I had heard, was to be a proper panto, a peculiarly British Christmastime phenomenon,  in which pop songs are repurposed with their lyrics changed to fit some story which traditionally has nothing to do with Christmas, men dress as women and vice versa, and audience participation is violently encouraged. If you’re not British but you’ve seen THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW with an audience you may have some notion, only the panto is nominally for kids. ROCKY HORROR isn’t and neither was this — I counted one kid. Then I counted him again to make sure. Yep, definitely one kid.

Also, in pantos, not only can the audience talk to the cast, the cast all have the power to address the audience, which is a bit like all those internal monologues everybody has in DUNE the movie to explain the tangled plot, if you think about it. (I think those little VOs are entirely responsible for the otherwise unfounded perception that DUNE is a bad movie. They make it bad. Paul’s mother, who has been fearing for his life, walks into a room and finds him alive. She looks relieved. “My son… lives!” she thinks at us. Awful.)

Another thing about pantos is that they usually feature a combination of proper actors doing improper acting, and people who aren’t actors at all — clapped-out pop stars, reality TV nobodies, and sports “personalities”. So it may be that the casting of Sting in the Lynch film was the inspiration for this whole event. Impressively, Sting was the only actor from the movie to reprise his role at St Paul’s Church, Pilrig…

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Curiously, David Lynch touched base with the panto right before making his DUNE (the musical is mainly based on the film, with a little of the book and maybe a little of the abortive Jodorowski dream, but nothing from the Sci-Fi Channel show, which is a shame because I’ve actually met the director and both stars of that, all very nice) — THE ELEPHANT MAN ends with one. But that’s more like a proper Christmas Play than a trashy panto. It’s also mainly the work of editor Anne V. Coates, since Lynch actually shot an entire mini-play (which I’d love to see — maybe something like his later RABBITS shorts?) and then knew that wasn’t right and got her to turn it into a miraculous montage. As she said, in a voice a bit like the Queen, “It can be quite hard to get inside David’s head. And then, once you’re there, it’s quite a strange place.”

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“A beginning is a very delicate time,” says Princess Irulan in both the David Lynch and Christmas panto versions, and so it was with real joy that we greeted the sight of Bartholomew J. Owl in the Virginia Madsen role, poking his head through the curtains and into a spotlight to do the floating head narration from the start of the film. In a Northern English accent. A genius touch that told us all that this was going to be every bit as good as the concept.

Then the curtain opened and Princess Irulan shuffled off, never to be seen again (although Owl would return), and we met Liam Chapman as the Emperor, and the Guild Navigator, made out of cardboard and played by two people (more Lynchian tactics? No — two people AT THE SAME TIME, the show’s answer to a pantomime horse).

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And then a recurring gag, which, for me, never got old — during the long, clunky scene changes, a hand at the front would hold up a sign saying TIME PASSES. I think this would have been a useful device for Lynch to have used in his film.

Then — this may be out of sequence, but I think we met Baron Harkonnen (Rose McConnachie in flaking tinfoil codpiece). Played with floor-shaking gusto and a lot of angry, angry laughing — one of the show’s highlights. Obviously, in the tradition of both pantos (Peter Pan) and Lynch, it would have been good if he/she were flying about on visible wires, but you can’t have everything. But, in terms of enthusiastic playing, you had more than everything, and you also had the return of Mr. Owl as the Baron’s son, Sting, wearing the identical tinfoil crotch-eagle he sported so memorably in the film.

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(Sting has said — for real — that he was quite prepared to go nude and was horrified when presented with the metallic penis bird, but that after huge discussions he finally agreed to glue the thing to his privates only if he could play the role like somebody who would take a shower while wearing a bird of prey on his old fellow. “So from that point on, I was as camp as knickers.” Sadly, Sting can’t really act so nobody realised that’s what he was trying to do.)

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Oh, and Michael Craig (not the one from MODESTY BLAISE) appeared as the cleaner who gets his heart unplugged by the Baron. I’d forgotten that character was a cleaner — he does push a broom, doesn’t he, or a space squeegee or something. Mentally, I had him down as some kind of stray boy band member, a death-twink for the Baron to get his rocks off on, killing. In the musical it’s a bit more PG-certificate, the Baron just likes unplugging hearts to let off steam. The Baron’s theme song was to the tune of Mr. Boombastic.

Anyway, by now we’d been laughing so hard and so constantly that Fiona was complaining of new wrinkles developing on her face, and we were grateful for the intermission-long scene changes, which provided some relief, although they were pretty funny too.

(I sussed early as a kid that the best time to see a panto was opening night, as things had a better chance of going wrong. You hoped, at best, for a scenery jam which would lead to dialogue being helplessly improvised in front of the stuck backdrop, or else a new scene being played in entirely the wrong setting. Dune: The Musical, being a one-nighter and ambitious to boot [I never saw a panto with so many monsters and planets] was obviously tempting fate, “It went a bit wrong — I don’t know if you noticed,” said the author afterwards. We noticed, and loved it.)

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Then – or maybe it was previously — we finally met the shows hero, principal boy Paul Atreides (Hannah Shepherd), a proper grinning, thigh-slapping naif, and her dad, Duke Leto (Neil Pennycook) and Jonnie Common again as the traitorous Dr Yueh. I had spoken to Alex previously about my enthusiasm for this concept — “Nothing spells Christmas like ornithopters and mentats!” “We have cut the ornothopters and mentats, In fact we have cut most of it.” So there was no Freddie Jones or Brad Dourif equivalent, but their unique acting styles seemed to have gotten into most of the cast via osmosis, so there was a lot of good eccentric playing going on. The swingeing cuts to the text also showed clearly how much further Lynch could have gone to get his narrative down to a manageable length (we love Linda Hunt, but her character makes no difference to anything). Alex also cut Yueh’s entire motivation and made a great joke out of it, and added a song, Poison Tooth, to the tune of Stay by Shakespear’s Sister, which totally works. And a running gag about Mint Imperials which had seemed purely formal, turns out to have Major Plot Significance.

Oh, but there’s also the fight using shields, which in the movie looks like this —

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Very impressive visual effects AND sound effects, I thought at the time. But the theatrical extravaganza goes one better —

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And then there’s a really sweet performance by Clarissa Cheong as Lady Jessica, and a zesty one by the sandworm.

Then Alex himself appeared as Stilgar, in a bravura performance based entirely around Everett McGill’s cough in the film. With earphones up his nose. The scenario here improved on the book, where Paul’s new name, Muad’Dib, based on a lunar shadow, means “the little mouse,” which is obviously a crap name for a principal boy. So here it means “the cock and balls.” The dialogue around this part went quite strange, with forgotten lines and missed cues and hastily inserted prompts, giving it  a surreal, circular quality that was distinctly pleasing.

Then it was time to “Worm Up” to the tune of Word Up, and everything was rounded off in a more than satisfactory manner with a singalong rendition of Arrakis, to the tune of Africa by Toto, which of course has a strong thematic connection to the Lynch film, for which the band failed to produce a workable score.

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“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you/There’s nothing that a hundred Fremen or more could ever do/I bless the rains down in Arrakis/Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.” This slight alteration carefully preserves, you will note, the semi-literate garbage quality of the original lyrics.

The only slight disappointment of the evening was provided by fate. At various points during the support acts, small pieces of curled paper, like those pigs’ tails you made out of paper strips at nursery school, would be dislodged from the rafters by the sonic blasts of synth-pop. I strongly suspected that these were residue from some  aeons-gone shindig, rather than perhaps foretastes of a special effects deluge that would climax the evening’s production. But I was kind of hoping that one of them might drop down, unscheduled yet with awesome aptness, during the final number, symbolising the Arrakis climate change and Paul’s ascendancy to the role of kwisatz haderach, although Alicia Witt’s role had been entirely cut from this production so there would have been no one to point that out.

However, at the critical moment, no paper fell. I think the only sensible way to tackle this omission is to keep performing Dune: The Musical, at venues up and down the country or around the world, until a bit of paper falls from the ceiling at the right moment. The crowd would go WILD.

Admittedly, we did go fairly wild anyway.

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The author and his wife.

Nearly all the other pictures here are stolen from Paula Cucurullo, with her kind consent, because my pictures were crap. I got the sandworm though.

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