Archive for the Science Category

Hobo Erectus

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2021 by dcairns

Though GETTING ACQUAINTED is Chaplin’s Keystone farewell to most of his favourite co-stars and the last real park film made with Sennett, HIS PREHISTORIC PAST has tramp-in-park bookends, so it’s a goodbye to the studio.

All the major silent comedians made stone age comedies — Keaton did THE THREE AGES, Laurel & Hardy did FLYING ELEPHANTS, Harold Lloyd, in his Lonesome Luke phase, did CLUBS ARE TRUMP. Although I’m being ahistorical as well as prehistorical, since when Lloyd and L&H made their entries, they were not yet among the greats, certainly lower echelon than Arbuckle in his pomp.

Chaplin was first — his HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, set up as a dream sequence with the Tramp settling down to sleep on a park bench, the entire story sandwiched, Cocteau-like, between the onset of unconsciousness and the inevitable shaking awake by Kop Syd Chaplin (his half-brother, who had just joined the company as Charlie was leaving), is a straight parody of D.W. Griffith’s BRUTE FORCE, released the same year. That film cast Bobby Harron as Weakhands (Griffith liked his heroes to have parable-type names), this one casts Charlie as Weakchin. There’s some question about whether the name was in Chaplin’s original release cut, because brother Sidney, the noted cannibal rapist, rewrote most of Chaplin’s intertitles after he left Keystone. But given the connection to Griffith’s film, and the fact that playing that up in 1914 makes more sense than doing it later, I feel it was probably part of Charlie’s original scenario.

David Robinson points out that the “discovery” of the Piltdown man in 1912 doubtless kicked off the movies’ brief caveman craze. Piltdown man was a phony, an anthropocene Princess Anastasia, but he caught the public’s eye much as Charlie’s phony hobo would.

This high-concept parody approach is a new wrinkle for Chaplin and probably for Keystone. He wouldn’t return to it. It seems like a lot of effort (costumes, props) for relatively little reward.

Mack Swain is King Lowbrow, identified by title as King of Waikiki Beach. And I feel this may be an unfortunate Sydney interpolated intertitle. The movie was later retitled THE HULA HULA MAN in some territories, clearly an act of madness, as Howard Beale would say. This all seems to be riffing off the primitive ritual dance which opens the caveman section, which has a Hawaiian aspect to it. If Chaplin had known the trouble this would cause, he might have asked for different moves to entertain his terpsichorean tyrant.

Some of the cavegirls wear grass skirts, that’s another reason for the mix-up, I expect.

Enter Charlie from behind a tree, clad in off-the-shoulder fur number, but with familiar hat, cane, toothbrush ‘tache and boots. This is either a good gag or a damaging anachronism. For a short fantasy it seems fine. And Chaplin is now well-identified with these items of costume, they’re not optional. A fur derby and baggy furry pants might have been an idea. A club which can be used like a cane could have worked. But this seems like a decent surreal image.

Charlie then plucks some fur from the arse of his coat, stuffs it into his pipe (he has a pipe again! But a different one from THE PROPERTY MAN) and lights it with a flint struck on his leg which doesn’t produce a spark the way a flint would, but instead catches fire at one end, the way a flint wouldn’t. All of this is just conjured from nowhere with a few props, and would have been cut if anyone at Keystone other than Chaplin had been in charge. It’s not ACTION (the Keystone stock-in-trade). It’s BEHAVIOUR (Chaplin’s forte).

Other cave-persons: May Wallace (cavewoman queen), Gene Marsh (sexy cavegirl), Fritz Schade (Caveman medicine man), Al St John, Vivian Edwards (teenage cavegirl). Grover Ligon (spaceman caveman).

Chaplin starts wooing, but his big club is just for show: he prefers more modern flirting. Sidenote: his legs at this point are very skinny. Amazing they didn’t just slice clean through the baggy pants and leave them standing in his thin wake. Maybe they did, and that’s why he’s making this film panstless.

The medicine man, catching Charlie in flagrante predelecto, shoots him in the bum with an arrow. “He had the obscure feeling someone was trying to give him a present” (William Golding, The Inheritors). Charlie retaliates by slinging a rock, which Kuleshovs through frame in the time-honoured manner and beans the King. Actually, it misses him, but Sennett didn’t believe in retakes. Swain gamely acts as if the royal noggin has been struck.

Swain and the medicine man take turns chasing the ragged rascal round and round a rugged rock. An early who’s-following-who routine. Look at those cavemen go!

“They exchange cards,” says an intertitle, ruining the joke in advance. But the joke isn’t clear wthout explanation. The piece of pelt Charlie hands over isn’t enough like a card. If we got a closeup and it had writing, or cave-art style pictograms on it, it might work. But I think ideally it should be a tiny stone tablet. Or, given the bowler and cane, it could just be a business card. This Flinstones world isn’t really Chaplin’s natural habitat. Though the casual brutality does make it a logical extension of the Keystone universe. Here’s Walter Kerr:

“Silent film comedy begins as though comedy had never existed, as though Aristophanes had never existed, as though sophistication of the same materials had never been achieved. A completely new form seems to take man back to his dawn, to revive and repeat an entire cycle of race-memories picked up along the evolutionary path, to start as primitively as if the Neanderthals were still a threat, and to probe toward the future with the weapons and level of wit of cavemen.

“In fact, the most apt description of these first screen comedies appears in a book about chimpanzees, Jane Van Lawick-Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man. ‘Young chimps,’ the author comments, ‘like to play with each other, chasing round a tree trunk, leaping one after the other through the treetops, dangling, each from one hand, while they spar and hit each other…'”

Unfortunately, too, Charlie does not seem to have outfitted himself with a fake club, so that when he clobbers foes or friends or mere passers-by, as he does frequently and at random, he has to “pull his punches” with the hefty bludgeon, which destroys even the witless level of comedy being attempted. I wouldn’t mind seeing the club bend unnaturally, but I need to see a bit of wallop put into the culling of troglodytes.

The “cave interior” is the worst set I’ve ever seen in a Keystone film, where usually the production design is sparse and tawdry. This one is just cloth stretched over random angular frames. It’s three-dimensional, but actually a painted backdrop would be less disgraceful. It doesn’t even suggest a cavern. More like a tent that’s being chewed by a dinosaur, who has mysteriously paused his mastication just as his fangs are about to pierce the canvas.

I get the feeling that Chaplin, already casting around for a more profitable deal than the one he enjoyed with Sennett, didn’t really have his mind on this job. He wouldn’t reconnect with Charles D. Hall, a colleague from the Fred Karno troupe, who would design all Chaplin’s films from A DOG’S LIFE to MODERN TIMES, for several years yet. And nobody at Keystone had ever been asked to design anything as unusual as a cave, it seems.

Some unfortunate splices (missing footage) now create a surprising Godardian effect. Competing over the cave-girlies with the rival medicine man, Charlie swings down his club, and instantly he’s standing elsewhere, surrounded by the adoring girls. From cause to effect.

An impressively managed gag, as Charlie and his cave-lady of choice walk into shot and are immediately wiped out by a colossal wave. We hadn’t known these rocks are seafront property. Poor Gene Marsh, as “Sum-Babee, Lowbrow’s Favorite Water Maiden,” (a Syd addition?) seems to be struggling against a sodden wardrobe malfunction. Worse still, Charlie and Gene and the camera operator all seem to be in danger of getting washed away.

Keystone apparently couldn’t locate an actual cave near L.A. (there is one: we see it in THE USUAL SUSPECTS) so Mack Swain’s throne room is entered by walking behind a rock.

More random clonking. This whole scenario brings out the less attractive side of Chaplin-at-Keystone. Still, at least his flirtations are non-violent, the club-’em-on-the-head-and-drag-’em-off-by-the-hair fantasy is merely hinted at, never enacted.

Mack Swain’s whole schtick at Keystone, his “Ambrose” character which this King is a variation on, is to be big and possibly authoritative in position, but really rather timorous and easily dominated, which Charlie plays up to. It’s continually unclear why the King lets Charlie prod him in the belly with whatever’s handy, whack him on the ass with a club, etc. The King having low self-esteem just isn’t a very amusing idea and Charlie comes off as a bully, a recurring but not consistent issue in the Keystone series.

Charlie and the King shoot arrows at a hen in a tree. The eggs it drops on them have been erased, it seems, by the poor digitisation of YouTube, so what follows is a bit abstract. A more pure pantomime?

Charlie kisses Gene and the screen whites out in a Marienbad overexposure of passion. Swain isn’t seeing white, but red, though. Gene retreats to the sidelines, looking like Cousin It in her unflattering grass skirt.

David Robinson reports that Chaplin, when working hard, enjoyed no social life, and so the fact that we don’t know what he was up to besides making films at Keystone means he wasn’t doing anything away from the studio. But he was young and newly successful. I don’t think he spent a whole year NOT banging the ingenues. There’s a whole cave-cluster of them in the film, and really for no reason.

Charlie shoves Mack off a cliff and declares himself “Kink” — which I think we can agree is a likely Syd line.

Charlie now becomes an obnoxious tyrant — no surprise, as he was an obnoxious underling. He poses, Frazetta-style with his concubine in his fabric cavern. Mack enters, and smashes a small boulder to fragments on Charlie’s occiput, which causes a hard cut to “modern” 1914 Charlie being woken by Syd the kop, and the film abruptly stops, missing a few seconds I fear.

A film about succession ends with Chaplin handing over his Keystone throne to his perverted half-brother.

And it’s over. Unlike Ford Sterling, when CC left Sennett’s Fun Factory, he left for good. But Chaplin’s move from Keystone to Essanay is a blog post in itself…

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

Dirty States

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2020 by dcairns

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In ALTERED STATES, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Ken Russell, Dr. Edward Jessup (a name suggesting both Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde) enters a tank of water, doped up on weird Peruvian broth, and emerges as an ape.

In DIRTY WORK, directed by lemme see Lloyd French whoever he might be, Professor Noodle (a name suggesting that which he he is off) fills a tank with weird broth,  possibly Peruvian for all I know, and tries to entice his butler to bathe in them. But before this can happen, Oliver Hardy (for this is a Laurel & Hardy short) falls in and emerges as an ape.

The name of Professor Noodle’s butler is… JESSUP.

The Jessup connection strikes me as significant, given the fact that ALTERED STATES in so many respects is a remake of DIRTY WORK, only with less chimney sweep slapstick. Chayefsky undoubtedly would have seen the L&H film, so he had that in his brain and the whole premise of his script is that nothing is ever lost, all that information is still inside us.

Jessup is frequently pictured STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD.

I’m not aware that Ken Russell was a particular fan of the boys but that’s OK because what’s exciting about the film is what was so displeasing to Chayefsky — Russell’s audio-visual attack comes from a very different direction from Chayefsky’s philosophical science fiction story. Russell’s influences are, in the main, Fritz Lang silents, Busby Berkeley musicals, and bits of Welles and Fellini.

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Here, he’s also merrily sourcing stock footage from Oxford Scientific Films and Fox’s DANTE’S INFERNO and I’m not sure what-all else. Anyone know what the massed ranks of crucifixions are from? I checked SPARTACUS but nope. A shot of twin chargers at a gallop suggested the hallucination from the ’40s JEKYLL where the horses turn into Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, but it’s not from there — but maybe the shot was SUGGESTED by that sequence, whose surrealism and sonic assault do suggest Russell’s visions and John Corrigliano’s brilliant, bruising score.

Intelligent design by Richard MacDonald: the squawk box Jessup communicates through when he’s in the tank is shaped sorta like the tank. And has a funny face!

Fiona: “I would KILL to see this on the big screen!”

Me: “It’s one of the tragedies of this life that if you kill someone, you are in fact LESS likely to get to see ALTERED STATES on the big screen.”

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“I have nothing to say!”