Archive for the Science Category

The Sunday Title: Snake Oil

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by dcairns

Well, you can’t really have a Screwball Week AND and a Sunday Intertitle, can you? There aren’t really any intertitles in screwball proper, it being a genre mainly of the late thirties and early forties. We might allow some early thirties stuff in too, but that still lets out the intertitles, which appear very occasionally in talkies up to about 1931 but rarely thereafter.

So here are some titles. The above and below are from Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY, and they almost qualify in that they come at the close of the title sequence, which is a mini-adventure all its own, and therefore they’re a piece of bridging narrative, not just an intro. The camera pulls back THROUGH them, which is a very neat trick. Motorised track? Double exposure? This fanciness could be seen as necessary precisely to make the effect seem modern and not a throwback to “old-fashioned” intertitles.

The other title I have for you is the animated opening of Sturges’ other bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle screwball, THE LADY EVE. Both Ed Sikov’s Screwball and James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy (my two uber-texts) remark on the phallic imagery, with the serpent of Eden wriggling through the O of PRESTON and getting his waistline stuck. But I believe I can expand on the mythological and cultural connotations.

First, the tipsy-looking snake retrieves THREE apples from the bushes. Each is inscribed with one word of the main title. Why? You could just as easily get the whole title on one apple and ask the snake to hold it closer to the lens. I believe the reason we need three apples is to evoke the golden apples of Greek myth.

The myth with three apples is the one about Atalanta, defeated in a foot race by Melanion, who distracted her by dropping the apples, which were a gift from Aphrodite. None of this quite fits the plot of THE LADY EVE except for the appearance of a love goddess. The couple eventually got turned into lions, which might fit with the metamorphoses Barbara Stanwyck undergoes here, but not very convincingly. But I think the overall themes — the battle of the sexes, and not fighting fair — are kind of relevant.

There’s also Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides, and the apple of Discord, which is addressed “to the fairest” — which also makes me think of the poisoned apple in Snow White, which does go to the fairest one of all… Discord is certainly a Sturgesian trope.

The apple is from the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible, right? That phallic snake suggests that it’s sexual knowledge. In Sturges’ film, Fonda is bamboozled with a lot of false knowledge and he still isn’t wised up at the film’s end. But we’re promised that he is finally going to be enlightened — the film ends on a Lubitschian closed door, and the snake reappears on cue. Oh, the snake also gets beaned with an apple, recalling Newton — his “Eureka!” moment about gravity. Fonda has a lot of slapstick run-ins with gravity and I guess they are all going to lead to his own personal eureka.

Complicating things even more, Fonda is an ophiologist (“Snakes are my life, in a way,”) and his snake is female, unlike the biblical reptile or the cartoon version here. A rival for Stanwyck — bring in the Biblical serpent’s qualities of temptress, trickster, and apply them to her. Stanwyck is going to supplant snakes in Fonda’s affections — she hates and fears them. She’s brought together with Fonda by his pratfall (gravity) and the broken heel of her shoe (she tripped him) — the Bible tells us that, after the Fall, Woman will loathe the snake and seek to crush in beneath her heel.

You see what we can get out of that snake and apples once we get past the dick joke? I bet you can offer more, too.

Rudy the Wrangler

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , on March 7, 2017 by dcairns

This story was told me by a friend who worked on a fishing TV show hosted by Scottish actor Paul Young. Young had been in Michael Winner’s western CHATO’S LAND (an unpleasant affair: don’t watch it) and had at least one story to tell. I’m telling it as my friend told it to me, hopefully correctly.

Young Paul Young

There was a horse wrangler on  the film called Rudy (this checks out: Rudy Ugland was his name). Rudy was a relaxed sort of cowboy, usually to be found with his feet up, hat pulled over his eyes, until needed. Whenever Winner let loose his nasal bray “Roooo-deeeee!” he would tilt the hat back, stand, and saunter over to see what needed doing.

One day, Winner decides to set up one of his periodic artsy shots, shooting under a horse, using its belly and front and back legs to frame the shot. I haven’t rewatched the somewhat obnoxious oater to locate this angle, but it sounds like the kind of thing Winner would do when he was feeling a bit Sid Furie.

The horse and the camera and the actual subject of the shot — maybe including Mr. Paul Young himself — were all in position, and Winner looked through the viewfinder to check the shot. Hmm, something not right. Some diagonal obstruction cutting right through frame.

It turns out the horse has an erection, which is making the shot a little TOO expressionistic. The image is cut in half from top right to bottom left, like a split screen. Like you might expect to see two characters engaged in a phone call, either side of the horse cock.

“ROOOO-DEEEE!” calls Winner.

Rudy raises his hat brim, stands, moseys over, looks through the camera, sees the problem, moseys over to the makeup artist, asks to borrow a can of hairspray, returns to the horse, and — SKOOSH — sprays the tip of the unruly member with hairspray. And the thing retracts like a telescope.

Tip of the ole hat to Mr. Winner, and Rudy walks back to the startled makeup woman, hands her the hairspray back, returns to his seat in the shade. Hat down Feet up.

From a clear blue sky

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2017 by dcairns

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Joe Adamson’s book Tex Avery King of Cartoons is a majestic summation of the work of a great artist — a filmmaker whose cartoons express a coherent and unique view of life and the universe just as Keaton’s or Chaplin’s films do. This book should be in every school. And it should certainly be in print, which it ain’t, though you can get second-hand copies for a reasonable price.

I can’t add anything much to Adamson’s account of Avery’s 1949 classic BAD LUCK BLACKIE except better stills — I haven’t seen the 1975 edition of his tome but the 1985 one is alas illustrated with fuzzy b&w frame enlargements that capture nothing of the vivid colouring and intensity of an MGM toon.

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Plot summary — a nasty bulldog is persecuting a cute white kitten. Adamson points out that this is a unique sequence in cartooning, since it’s so mean and unevenly matched. Avery didn’t usually go for cuteness, and here he uses it as a weapon against the audience, making us uncomfortable whenever he forces laughs from us with outrageous gags whose subject is the mistreatment of a blameless and defenceless infant.

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Help arrives in the form of the title character, who presents his business card and says he can deliver instant bad luck to an enemy. Despite the business card and the air of a sharp freelancer offering a service, no money changes hands — it’s hard to see how the kitten could have paid, and to raise the question of financial reward might evoke the spectre of the protection racket (Blackie has the rasping, plebeian tones common to many Avery characters, and could be mistaken for a gangster. Don Bluth, maker of saccharine and inferior animated features, couldn’t bear those voices).

What happens next is peculiar. Whenever Blackie is summoned by a blast on a whistle, he crosses the evil dog’s path and some stray object, a flower-pot, say, will fall on the dog’s head. Instant bad luck. Avery described the cartoon to Adamson before the latter had been able to seen it, and he asked, reasonably enough, where the falling objects were falling FROM. “Avery’s answer was a small stammer and a vigorous waving of the hand, as if I had asked the most irrelevant question in the world. Which, in a sense, I had.”

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As the cartoon develops, the falling objects become more varied and, by some inscrutable but easily accepted logic, more dangerous. The dog is beaned by a horseshoe, then another, then another, then another, then flattened by a confused looking horse which drops from above without explanation. A cascade of bricks, a refrigerator, a piano, all drop without visible source or reason, seemingly teleported from the Twilight Zone into the perfect midair spot to do the most damage to their target below.

What fascinates me most, as it did Adamson, is the plot’s final twist. Blackie gets painted white and loses his power. The bulldog snatches the whistle from him and blows on it to prove its impotence. So the kitten paints himself black and crosses the dog’s path. A falling object stuns the dog, who swallows the whistle.

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Now the dog gets hiccups, and each involuntary contraction of his diaphragm causes the ingested whistle to let loose a shrill blast. By some strange simplification of the rules previously established, the whistle now causes objects to fall from the sky, with no crossing of the path required by anyone. It’s as if God or Fate of whoever is in charge of dropping things on dogs has developed a Pavlovian reflex response to the sound of a whistle anywhere near this dog. “And then, with a hiccup-tweet-THUD, there’s a rapid culmination of all the operating threads, as fate becomes more vindictive, more absurd, and more resourceful all at once, smashing the dog with a steamroller, a passenger plane, a Greyhound bus, and, as a coup de grace, the S.S. Arizona.” As the celestial brickbats enlarge, the dog diminishes on the horizon (little black dot visible above Greyhound bus, below).

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I think rapidity is key here. A set of clearly understood rules has suddenly been reduced in complexity so that an initial cause leads to a final effect with all the essential in-between steps inexplicably omitted. In a weird way it reminds me of the ending of Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The movie has established that when two creatures go into a telepod together, molecularly disassembled, transmitted and reconstructed in another telepod, they get genetically spliced together. This causes, for some reason that doesn’t really hold up if you think about it, the larger of the two organisms to slowly mutate into a cross between each passenger.

At movie’s end, this hybrid of scientist Seth Brundle and a house fly, known as Brundlefly, attempts to repeat the process with his pregnant girlfriend, so as to become more human — two adults, a foetus and a house fly will make him less Brundle but a lot less fly. However, at the last moment the girlfriend telepod is disconnected (not sure why she needed her own telepod — the fly managed fine) and the computer screen announces that Brundlefly has been fused with… his telepod.

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I read an account of this plot point in, I think, SFX magazine, which claimed that the fusion was with “the organic elements of the pod” — upholstery and stuff, I guess. But upholstery doesn’t have DNA, and so the idea of gene-splicing with it makes no sense. Also, the effect in this case is not a slow mutation but an instant melding of insect-man and machine, to create a hideous, disabled biomechanical nightmare.

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As with Blackie’s apocalyptic whistle, the filmmakers have used the frantic energy of their climax to hotwire the narrative, jumping from original cause to final effect with all the essential in-betweens left out. If we’re engaged in the film, we seem to accept this crazed leaping, though we can certainly analyse it afterwards and see how audaciously illogical it is. Am I saying it’s good or bad? Well, faultless narrative logic that achieved the same effect might be preferable, but I love both BAD LUCK BLACKIE and THE FLY so I guess I’m saying insane leaps of logic are good.

Is that any comfort on this Inauguration Day?