Archive for the Science Category

Werner Herzog Eats His Sandwich

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , on October 14, 2016 by dcairns

“I never dream. Or very rarely; once a year, perhaps. And then it is always EXTREMELY BANAL. For instance, I am eating a sandwich.”

“That’s a good dream.”

The first speaker is Werner Herzog, the second is his interviewer, the filmmaker Richard Ayoade. Their conversation in London was being beamed around by satellite so I was able to see it in Glasgow at the building site formerly known as the Glasgow Film Theatre. A vivid illustration of connectivity, the subject of Herzog’s new documentary, LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD.


This one’s about the internet. We get a little history, engagingly told, and we get some speculation (what if solar flares caused the web to go down? what will the internet’s contribution be to life on Mars?) and we get to meet some people who have had interesting, tragic problems. One family was attacked by strangers who posted accident scene photographs of their dead daughter/sister. “I think the internet is evil. I think it’s the Antichrist,” says the mother. Werner doesn’t question her judgement.

Nor does he question the people who have moved into the shade of a radar telescope to find relief from their supposed wi-fi allergy. All internet and mobile phone signals are blocked in this area. I’m very sympathetic to these people, though I believe their symptoms are psychosomatic: their suffering is certainly real. So I wasn’t too bothered by the fact that Herzog doesn’t explore the validity of their claims and just lets them state their beliefs.

The one Herzog doc I didn’t like was WILD BLUE YONDER, which used NASA footage within a fictional framework. Herzog’s vision of sci-fi turned out to be pure pulp, and his grasp of science seemingly pathetic. There was a lack of curiosity about his making-shit-up approach which really annoyed me. And yet, he’s wonderfully curious and open in most of his films. Science is probably not his subject — we get to see a very complicated equation being sketched on a blackboard, but we are given no clue as to its significance. Herzog prefers mystery to explanation. But by focussing mainly on human consequences of science, he makes something very compelling and credible.

I don’t believe the internet is the Antichrist. My experiences on it have been mainly very nice, but I acknowledge the existence of what the movie terms “The Dark Side.” The internet, like Soylent Green, is made of people. It’s an environment where your virtual actions can seem to be consequence-free, so to some extent it encourages people to unleash their worst possible traits. There’s some good discussion in the film about what kind of oversight we would ideally want on the internet — not too much, not too little. But short of pursuing a North Korean policy, control of any kind seems hard to achieve.


Good discussion after the film, led by Ayoade — refreshingly, there were plenty of questions not just about the issues raised, but about Herzog’s filmi-making choices — staging, framing, interaction with subjects. When Elon Musk talks about trips to Mars, Herzog breaks in with “I volunteer. I will go. One way.” To Ayoade, he explained why this interjection was necessary: Musk is very shy. After Herzog’s expostulation, he opened up.

Werner Herzog: a people person.

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns


The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.

Men from Mars are from Mars

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


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?


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.


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?


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…


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.