Archive for the Science Category

Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by dcairns

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.

 

Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.

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Reach for the Moon

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2018 by dcairns

I haven’t been impressed by Basil Dearden’s comedies, though I like some of his dramas a lot. THE GREEN MAN seemed very disappointing for a black comedy with Alistair Sim, but admittedly Dearden was fired from that one so maybe it wasn’t his fault. His Benny Hill vehicle, WHO DONE IT? is really lame, but then Benny Hill didn’t have a star personality, was more a man of a thousand chubby faces, so he never made sense as a comic leading man.

And I’d heard that MAN IN THE MOON was REALLY bad, but of course that just made me curious. It’s co-written with Bryan Forbes, and another Dearden-Forbes collab, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, is terrific, and very nearly a pure comedy itself. The star is Kenneth More, who can be effective in the right part — he certainly doesn’t ruin GENEVIEVE — so it seemed worth a go.

And yes, it’s curious… a strong supporting cast includes Shirley Anne Field, who keeps taking her clothes off, and does a great comedy voice; Michael Hordern; Norman Bird, John Glyn-Jones. Charles Gray plays an astronaut, and gets all the most eye-popping scenes.

I do tend to find More fairly charmless, and in this respect he’s quite well cast here, playing a saloon-bar bore who makes an easy living as a guinea pig in studies of the common cold: he seems to be immune, and puts his astonishing health down to a carefree attitude. This unusual profession allows us to meet him dozing in a bed in the middle of a field (part of an experiment) and the scene gets more dreamlike when Field crosses the field in full evening dress. Throughout this somewhat unsatisfactory film, we do get arresting images like this.

The story goes thus: bluff, hearty chump More is recruited by the British space program, NARSTI, to serve as a disposable space guinea pig, fired secretly at the moon to establish whether the going is safe for the specially trained, celebrated super-astronauts, led by Charles Gray (quite funny casting, this). The weirdest moment is when ground control use an isolation tank to brainwash Gray, who has become very hostile to More, resenting the fact that the untrained lout is going to be first on Luna. The brainwashing is a roaring success and Blofeld Gray emerges from the tank aglow with adoration for the baffled More. Well, first he seems sinister and inhuman, a clockwork orange, then he’s hyperanimated and childish with his schoolboy crush.

Dearden and Forbes seem to accept that the men from NARSTI — it’s not clear if they’re a state operation of a commercial one — are horrible, ruthless and would brainwash without a second thought, but they don’t seem to want to make a big satirical point of it — which marks them out as cynical but conservative, a bit like the Boultings.

At first, the casting of Gray as a hearty, athletic astronaut seems to make little sense, but in fact they know what they’re doing…

Unusually for a comedy, the tech and science approximate the real thing. Depressing that British cinema could only conceive of this subject in either farcical or monster-movie terms. This one would double-feature nicely with THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE. But at least that cheesy B-movie seems to be sincere about something or other — the existential horror of man’s aloneness in the universe, I think. Death and decay. MAN IN THE MOON needs to find something to be serious about, to be an effective comedy.

Also, there are shots in it so nice, in a dramatic, pulp sci-fi way, that it makes you wish they’d made a wholly unironic film of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

   

“Doctor? I’ve been searching for you… Everything seems strange and dark… I couldn’t find you! … Under this stuff, I feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease… like I got no blood in my veins… I have no memory… Only an instinct to stay alive…until I found you… I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt…”

The title, alas, is a cheat — More is blasted to Australia, not the moon, a fact he only realises when he encounters a tin of Heinz beans and a kangaroo.

 

Joined at the Hip

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2018 by dcairns

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.