Archive for the Science Category

The Monday Matinee, Episode 9: Prisoners of the Ray

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by dcairns

As Lisa Simpson once said, “I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense.” She was speaking of an archive shot of a cinema marquee saying YAHOO SERIOUS FILM FESTIVAL. I am speaking, as always, of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE.

Last we saw, crooning endomorph Gene Autry was engaged in a daring act of child endangerment, which apparently did not end well ~

Now read on ~

Gene unwisely uses the approach to a deep gorge as his runway — young Frankie and Betsy leap from the moving vehicle and escape unscathed, but Gene pilots his aircraft straight down the crevasse.

Cut to Queen Tkia clasping her bosom in alarm as she watches on her awkwardly placed circular floor-television. Could it be the stern-faced termagant monarch is sweet on the pudgy country singer? The television operator shoots her a cynical glance, but I don’t see what he has to be superior about: he has both spikes and bat wings on his helmet. When every fashion expert knows it’s one or the other, not both.

Seconds later, however, the Queen is gesturing with satisfaction at the smouldering plane, and declaring “That is the end of Gene Autry.” She’s a deep one.

The evil Professor Beetson and his hench-scientists find Gene, still alive, amid the wreckage, and realise from his Muranian garb that he can tell them where the entrance to Murania is hid. This is a fairly sophisticated use of dramatic irony: the scientists’ logic is that Gene’s tunic proves he has been in the underground city. But, as regular viewers and Shadowplayers, we all know Gene donned this disguise BEFORE he was abducted underground. And yet he really DOES know where the secret entrance is concealed. Wheels within wheels!

Frankie and Betsy are transported by tube-elevator at three miles a minute down, down, remorselessly down to the thirty-third level of Murania. I can’t wait to see them presented to the Queen. I anticipate some kind of perfect story of bad acting, non-acting and un-acting, between three figures who have nothing to say to each other and nothing to achieve by meeting. Dramatic fireworks are sure to ignite.

Every step of the journey to the Queen’s palace is lovingly documented, as always: the subterranean stables; the elevator, with its confusing dial; the shelf where the Thunder Guard stack their breathing helmets; the walkway past the model backdrop with the caped pedestrians and random robot. Though the palace seems to be without anterooms, the front door leading directly to the throne room so far as we can tell.

Betsy King Ross is an illiterate. She compares the Queen to the “ugly Duchess” from Alice in Wonderland then quotes the Queen of Hearts’ “Off with their heads.” Inexcusable. When Tika condemns the “insolent offspring of savage surface men to a lifetime of confinement in the lower dungeon” I cheered.

(Betsy may be America’s greatest trick rider, but the serial allows her to perform only ONE bit of fancy riding, in episode one. The rest of the time, it’s dialogue she has to handle, and is not the greatest at that, though I enjoy her earnest stilted whine.)

But the kids are soon free — Frankie does what I was waiting for, observing the button-press procedure for disarming guard robots and using it to make a dash for freedom. Now we’re running around what seems like a large bank or a small town hall, the only bit of Murania represented by location footage. (The sound of footsteps on actual stone gives it away.)

The unconscious Gene is being kept by Prof Beetson in the cavern, in the canyon, where he has been excavating for a radium mine. Gene’s inane comic sidekicks, whose tiresome scenes I don’t usually bother to mention, show up and effect a rescue, though Beetson himself is absent and so escapes having his skull fractured with a log. Rather than alerting the proper authorities, Gene joins the Junior Thunder Riders (a bunch of horseback kids with buckets on their heads) and rides off to bust into Murania on a vigilante basis.

Fearing discovery, the Muranians remove the big “electric eye” from the rock face in which their garage door is embedded. The big chunky lens staring out of the scenery always did seem a bit of a giveaway. Gene arrives with his posse and is perplexed by the eye’s absence. Somebody asks him, “What’s an electric eye?” and he gives a detailed and wholly redundant explanation, leaning forward in his saddle and yelling carefully in the boy’s face: “When your reflection appears in it, the eye, by means of a photo-electric cell, operates whatever you want it to.” The effect is reminiscent of Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks.

More technobabble underground: the Muranians set a deadly radium beam to guard the door switch — our young heroes miss that part of the exposition, and rush in to open the doors to the surface. A light starts flashing on and off and they stagger about, evidently victims of the deadly beam.

Radium was a big talking point at the time: Marie Curie had just died. The factory girls poisoned by radium won their court case in the twenties but the story was still alive enough to form the background to NOTHING SACRED in 1937.

Tune in next week to admire the teenagers’ glowing corpses! To be continued…


The Sunday Intertitle: The Milk of Inhuman Kindness

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2017 by dcairns

A fantastic event at L’Institute Francaise last week — Lobster Films’ magnificent restoration of Marcel L’Herbier’s science-fiction romance L’INHUMAINE, accompanied by my colleagues from THE NORTHLEACH HORROR Jane Gardner and Roddy Long on keyboards and violin and introduced by our friend Rolland Man.

I’d seen this projected before, and of course found it visually stunning, but with sharper picture and better accompaniment, L’Herbier’s achievement becomes even more apparent, his daft story more involving. Combining his aesthetic ritziness — designs by the best architects (Robert Mallet-Stevens), production designers (Autant-Lara & Cavalcanti), fashion designers (Paul Poiret) and artists (Fernand Leger) — with the fashionable tropes of cinematic impressionism — a school founded entirely upon sequences of delirium, hysteria and drunkenness (superb) — he fashions a hysterical melodrama propounding his own perverse and peculiar ideas — anticommunist, anti-mystic, technocratic — and serves up a mad lab climax that anticipates both METROPOLIS and FRANKENSTEIN.

Leger’s intertitles weren’t very clear, and seemed weirdly SHRUNKEN in the previous copy of the film I’d accessed, so it was lovely to see them so crisp, their forms mirroring the groovy kinetic sculptures that form mysterious pieces of lab equipment, used to save heroine Georgette Leblanc from a deadly snake-bite.

Such is the dazzling power of the imagery that nobody else we spoke to spotted Mme. Leblanc’s nipple as it escaped her Grecian-style gown. Here, purely in the interests of proving Fiona & I did not imagine it, is the nip-slip.

I have been informed that my blog is BANNED at the BFI because their servers detect nudity and come down hard on it. If this is true of all our cultural bodies, I wonder how the art galleries manage to function.


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.