Archive for the Science Category

An Odyssey in Bits: To Infinity and Beyond

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2019 by dcairns

NOW READ ON!

The intertitles in THE SHINING start out factual and dependable, and they maintain that APPEARANCE, but as the film goes on they actually go insane, so you get WEDNESDAY, for instance, and you think, OK, Wednesday, a normal enough thing to be told about, but then you think WHICH Wednesday, and then WHY Wednesday? We’re on random.

So with 2001, where the baldly factual THE DAWN OF MAN superimposed over an actual literal sunrise starts us off thinking this is going to be a doddle, this space odyssey business. It’s always going to tell me where and when I am. But no.

JUPITER, AND BEYOND THE INFINITE comes up just after the little recorded message from Heywood Floyd, which had seemed to settle the narrative into a comfortable place where things made sense. We could tie it all together, couldn’t we? But now astronaut Dave Bowman, in the form of hand-painted ice-sculpture Keir Dullea, is leaving the Discovery in his pod and we have no idea why. We need HAL to tell us. But HAL is deactivated (not dead, according to the sequel, which redeems him and is lovely, but not Kubrick and so not canonical). We’re on our own, with Dave, and Dave’s not talking.If there’s a narrative progression to the next bit, it eludes me. People talk about the tunnels of light and the white room / human zoo as being perplexing, but if you don’t get too analytical they might be said to be quite straight-forward, in an abstract way. What I’m talking about is the business with the Discovery floating around Jupiter’s moons, the Monolith showing up, and Dave eventually taking the pod out for a spin. As I’ve described it, that all sounds plain sailing, but as presented, with the Ligeti drones on top, it’s deeply mysterious. Motivational stuff like Dave SEEING the monolith and getting in his pod — that’s all omitted. And there are A LOT of shots of those moons, with the camera drifting from side to side or up and down, the Discovery or the monolith drifting into view, and they’re not presented so as to create a build-up of information amounting to a dramatic situation. We get to feel a bit unmoored by the lack of obvious progress towards anything concrete, perhaps a necessary stage in our journey beyond the infinite and beyond the (comparative) narrative certainties we’ve been allowed thus far.And hey, as with all UFO stories, what the aliens are up to makes no sense, which is why they’re so fascinating. They plant a monolith on earth which gives apes an intellectual boost, fine. They put the next block on the Moon, so we’ll only find it when we’re sufficiently advanced in our use of bone-based implements that we can build spacecraft. This monolith does not provide any evolutionary boost though, it just sends out a radio signal that causes painful feedback. Is this a test? We now have to follow the signal to Jupiter — we have to be interplanetary-smart, not just moonhopping smart. Why?

Oh well, grumble grumble, I suppose they know what they’re doing (puts on space suit, gets into pod).

When the BBC showed this the first time, they showed it in widescreen, an unheard of thing (this was either the late seventies or early eighties). But they were evidently nervous of leaving some of the screen black, so they put in starscapes, the worst idea anyone has ever had. They screwed up ALL the space shots, with star patterns doing different, contradictory things. (Kubrick and effects wiz Trumbull have stars drifting by behind the Discovery, which is already quite wrong, but I guess they felt they couldn’t get away with having it look completely stationary relative to its surroundings.)

Anyway, during this TV screening my sister leapt to the conclusion that the monolith found drifting out by Jupiter was ENORMOUS, because it looks bigger than the Discovery. Far away/small and close-up/big are hard to work out in space.It’s not too confusing, or shouldn’t be: there’s an unexplained monolith out there and Dave has gone to have a look at it. Reasonable enough. But nothing is spelled out and we may already be a bit edgy here.

Then we get the last of the movie’s suggestive astrological alignments, though it’s not a sunrise, this time.

And then this happens. So, we have to assume Dave is passing through some kind of PORTAL, right? Long before such things were popular or fashionable. But assigning a genre-appropriate meaning to this imagery won’t really help us with what follows…

Ironic that a few of the miniature shots in the film do have, now, a regrettable 2D quality, smacking of still photographs being zoomed about on a rostrum, but the part of the film that is almost 100% rostrum photography of still photos and artwork (apart from the cutaways of Dave, and even he’s freeze-framed) are maybe the most deep-perspective, propulsive, vanishing-point-seeking stuff in the movie. Then we get the paint-in-water nebulae and galaxies, recently recreated by Terrence Malick, with Doug Trumbull again supervising. These might seem a bit more naturalistic, more like what you’d expect from outer space, but if those are big starscapes, they’re moving much too fast. They must surely be millennia-spanning time-lapses. If so, are they real, or are they just projections Dave is being shown? Perhaps this is a history lesson from the aliens, only we, and Dave, are too primitive to grasp the significance?  A couple of the more colourful images have a distinctly placental quality. This seems in no way inappropriate. It’s only recently that I’ve read of people finding the tunnels of light business a bit dated, in particular the alien landscapes produced by mucking about with Technicolor dyes (it’s not solarisation, I think, though that’s what it feels like). I never minded. It seems odd that 2001 passed through the eighties, when anything smacking of psychedelia was considered unbearably passé, without me hearing any grumbles about this stuff.The thing is, the slitscan images are certainly more intriguing because, even if you know how they’re done, they’re still wondrous and you still don’t REALLY know how they’re done, whereas the weirdly hued helicopter shots are just that. BUT I still love them. I want to go to those places. I want to paddle about in these metallic shallows. Maybe I ought to wear my wellies, and maybe they will accrue strange glistening sediments, until they are Emerald Wellies.This is the only one I don’t like, because there’s no way to read it except as a special effect, a double exposure. I don’t believe Dave’s THERE.

Plus, the diamond thingies appear to be alien artifacts (their origin and purpose a complete mystery) and I don’t think we need them.Arguably Monument Valley is too recognizable also, but I love what they’ve done with the place. Shadows inflame into hellish lava-lakes. John Wayne is down there somewhere, but his feet are green and his hands are blue. And Scar isn’t a Red Indian anymore, he’s a lovely shade of lavender.

I wonder why they didn’t turn some of the shots upside down? Maybe Kubrick thought that wouldn’t make sense, that this is supposed to be a planetary surface, and therefore DOWN. But I don’t see it as a planetary surface, to me it’s something more abstract (which makes it silly that I object to the double exposure, but I can’t help how I feel, damnit. I’m a doctor, not a geologist). This sequence also contains Kubrick’s only Scottish footage that I know of (Harris, in the Western Isles). So I *could* go there without too much difficulty. But I have a strange feeling that it wouldn’t be the same. It feels like they must have gone to a dozen different countries. Apparently not. They just used different colours.

Oh, and the quick cuts of Keir Dullea, all reflected lights and staring eye, freeze-frames to contrast most jarringly with the onrushing planetscapes and lightscapes, those are magnificent. Let’s have more of that kind of thing please.

And it’s great the way his eye blinks its way through a variety of lurid dyes and back to normal. I kept trying to do that while watching Baz Luhrman’s MOULIN ROUGE.

We’re into the home stretch now! TO BE CONCLUDED.

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An Odyssey in Bits: The Computer Wore Carpet Slippers

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on February 27, 2019 by dcairns

2001’s intermission plays for several seconds with just the hushed mechanical hum/sussuration of the Discovery (and probably HAL’s cooling system), continuing over from the HAL POV shot Part 1 ended on. This feels quite avant-garde.

A nice, ominous Ligeti drone carries us through the entr’acte, and then we’re abruptly in an extra-vehicular wide shot with astronaut Poole leaving the Discovery in his repair pod. Kubrick doesn’t try to reorient us. As often in this film, he jumps ahead as far as he can and lets us catch up through our own thought processes.And HAL goes murderous, using Poole’s own pod to snip his air-tube. Great use of sudden silence as Kubes jumps in, straight down the line to the pod, showing HAL’s cyclopean sunset of an eye staring out of it. Astute visual storytelling. The abrupt enlarging cuts (about four of them, I think?) remind me of the bomb that’s about to explode in Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE.Poole’s rapid movements as he asphyxiates are all the scarier for occurring in the eerie silence of space. ASTONISHING that other space movies don’t use the lack of sound as a positive effect.

Watch Keir Dullea’s movements as he goes to the rescue, and we can tell he’s meant to be in zero-G with grips shoes for traction. So that settles it: only the big rotating hamster wheel in the Discovery’s frontal globe has gravity.

In his haste, he forgets his space helmet. What would HAL have done if he’d brought it along? Apart from the pods and maybe the airlocks, he’s helpless, a brain in a box. But right now, he seems to have his opponent in check.

Also, a rule that is never explained but seems to be important: though HAL can take over a pod while it’s unoccupied, he can’t override the pilot’s manual control. So Dullea-as-Bowman is able to retrieve Poole’s corpse. Which allows the next stuff to happen.Meanwhile, very quietly, without any fuss, HAL kills the sleeping crewmembers. VERY funny conversation between Bowman and HAL. HAL periodically adopts the snooty tone of a teacher scolding a recalcitrant child. “I think we both know what the problem is.” The dialogue is blackly comic, and enhanced by the shots, which show a small round spacecraft talking to — negotiating with — a big long one.I love the projections on Keir Dullea’s chiselled features, especially this one. No REAL reason why they should happen, file under “visual interest,” but they pass by our defenses without a struggle. The monitors and lights in the pod MIGHT have that effect.

Funny how HAL’s closeup is always exactly the same shot. Kubrick must have shot a whole reel of it. Knowing him, probably two reels. You COULD vary it for “visual interest” and to make HAL seem alive, give him moods. But HAL is not alive, and Kubrick does not want to anthropomorphize him unduly. Which is why he cast a Canadian, I guess. (I’m kidding!)“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.”

What Bowman does now may not be exactly possible/scientifically accurate. Kubrick has been ridiculously careful to set up the EXPLOSIVE BOLTS that can open the back of the pod all at once. So that’s fine. The air rushing from the pod cannons Bowman into the Discovery airlock. But he doesn’t explode like the guys in OUTPOST. Douglas Adams produces a “fact” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy about how long a human can survive in the vacuum of space, but in reality I believe the amount of time you can survive is none time. Now, since Bowman is wearing a space suit sans helmet round his body, maybe he’s protected from having his lungs explode. And only his head will freeze. But look: Keir Dullea is holding his breath. His little cheeks are puffed out. Well, I think either he’d be forced to exhale or else those cheeks would pop like soap bubbles.But he might be able to survive a few seconds of airless, empty lungs and a freezing head as the airlock closes and repressurizes. And it’s a gripping, convincing sequence. The tension is such that you can’t call 2001 an unemotional film.

Always interesting when the control freak director goes wobbly and handheld, though I’m posi-sure he’s operating the camera himself. (US union rules might have forbade this, but in the UK things were looser in this one respect.) Dave, now helmeted (a dissolve disposes of the question of whether HAL has voided the ship’s atmosphere) goes in for the kill.

HAL’s brain is composed of numerous perspex slabs — like mini see-thru monoliths — which haven’t dated at all because who knows how they work? Whereas earlier, HAL had popped a punch card out a slot, which seems a little embarrassing now.

Characters who sing touching songs in Kubrick films: Christiane Kubrick at the end of PATHS OF GLORY; HAL here; any more?MEMORY TERMINAL

Poor HAL! I remember as a kid finding his slurring voice hilarious, and I still do, but as one gets less callous with age, I also get a big charge of pathos from the scene. “My mind is going. I can feel it. There can be no question about it.” And he reverts to childhood: the song was part of a demonstration he gave shortly after activation.

Interesting choice by Dullea — and I want to give him credit for it BEING a choice, not just his sculpted inexpressiveness. He plays the scene tense, and there’s an undercurrent of anger, but then the anger goes away. He doesn’t perform sympathy for us, like he feels sorry for HAL, but the removal of the anger tells us that he does. A bit.

EXTREMELY bold use of repetition. Very few human characters in films have had their death scenes lingered on so lovingly.

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a…fraid.”

I had a friend whose Mac would say “My mind is going,” in Douglas Rain’s voice whenever he powered it down.Then Dr. Heywood Floyd pops onto a screen for plot reasons. No obvious reason why it happens now — no reason why HAL’s termination should activate the autoplay function, since mission control never anticipated that HAL *would* be deactivated. 2001 only appears rational and precise: Kubrick and Clarke play fast and loose whenever it suits their purposes.

Clarke always felt it was a shame that the film never made clear why HAL went crazy: it’s all mission control’s fault. Not because they didn’t program him with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but because they told him to lie. This would appear to be the moment when Kubrick expects us to figure that out, but all we’re told is that only HAL knew the purpose of the mission. All this to keep the Russkies from knowing about the Jupiter signal.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot afford a Monolith Gap.”

But Floyd’s appearance does add a weird blast of mental energy to the plot, despite his trademark laid-back manner. It’s a big AH-HAH! for the audience since for the first time it’s confirmed that the Jupiter mission does have some connection with the previous part of the film. Remember, we know the ape-man and Clavius sequences had a narrative link because the monolith was in both. But for its entire duration until now, the Discovery mission has been some random astronauts and their fun-loving onboard computer off on a spree. We didn’t know the whining noise on the Moon was a message, a beacon, pointing to Jupiter. We do now. What next?

 

They Saved Hitler’s Sperm

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2019 by dcairns

Franklin J. Schaffner’s THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is like MARATHON MAN’s brain-damaged clone or something. It’s hard to say which is the tackier take on Nazi war criminal conspiracies. I think at least MM has some kind of realistic point to make and exposes Operation Paperclip to daylight in a way that’s kind of commendable. I watched BOYS in dishonour of the late Bruno Ganz, who appears, and became periodically woken up by odd moments of Schaffnerian panache.

When Larry Olivier first sees a Baby Hitler, the kid is reflected in a double set of mirrors, CITIZEN KANE style, so there are like 95 of him. This is a fine idea — clever but stupid but clever — in a good movie it would be too obvious, i n this movie it is *PERFECT* and I wish Franklin J. Schaffner had come up with another dozen or so visual ideas like it.There’s a double sex murder scene staged to an Elaine Page song. As we wait for the body to be discovered, a Mr. Punch puppet pokes round a corner to irritate Prunella Scales. It’s unsettling, to say the least, but feels really peculiar. Normally, staging the normal scenes of domestic life in a normal way would make more sense than this baroque surrealist madness. It only occurred to me afterwards that Schaffner was keeping the little puppeteer offscreen for a good narrative purpose. At the time it registers as creepy eccentricity, like the whole film has gotten into the wrong hands and may at any moment be invaded by rampaging cowboys or gremlins.

There’s a brief iteration of Schaffner’s signature shot: the planimetric flat-on full stop, but it’s an undistinguished example. But Uta Hagen’s big scene has a nicely awkward moment where her hushed confab with her lawyer strains for attention against a blankly staring, static Olivier on the lower right of frame, creating an electric tension partly because you don’t know where to look.The very weird plot has Dr. Mengele producing 95 baby Hitlers, and then, since he’s undecided re nature v. nurture, planting them with foster families similar to the original Adolf’s. Since Hitler’s dad died aged 65 when the future Führer was still a lad, 95 future Führer foster fathers have to be assassinated, an almost biblical arrangement which serves to tip off aging Nazi hunter Larry Olivier, who starts to investigate. It’s one of those plots that starts bonkers and just gets crazier, has no choice in fact but to get crazier. Like one of those things that begins “Jack the Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine… Do you believe me so far?”

Ira Levin’s narrative unfolds quasi-grippingly. Like his Rosemary’s  Baby, it somehow works despite everybody knowing the clever twist going in. We’re watching the gradual exposure of an absurd plot, and the pleasure seems to derive from how kinda-credibly it can be packaged, and the suspense of seeing a character we like stumbling closer to the awful truth.Gregory Peckory, of course, is the worst casting for Dr. Mengele you could get, outside of maybe Chuck Connors or Alfonso Bedoya, and he has the task of playing most of his scenes with James Mason and Laurence Olivier, either of whom you can imagine doing it brilliantly — and Olivier had just done so, of course, in all but name. I can see why they might not want Larry to repeat himself exactly, and his increasing frailty works better with him in the hero role. But why Peck? I guess THE OMEN had given him a slight boost, and this is the same kind of vulgar high-concept all-star malarkey, so I’m sure he was good B.O.

But Jesus.

Granted the dyed black hair is an interesting touch — makes him hard to look at, one thing you’d never normally say about the guy. He becomes a waxy mannequin — even more than normal.

Then there’s the claustrophobic effect produced by nearly everyone in it having to do a phony German accent: Lilli Palmer’s real one is a blessed relief. Bruno Ganz is Swiss but he was celebrated for his German-speaking, and rightly so as far as I can tell. His English here is rather lovely and he wisely kicks back and lets Olivier act for two.
The cat they’ve got to play Baby Hitler doesn’t look like Hitler, and is stretched (painfully: think Procrustes) by the demands of having to play him as German, Brit and American. A tall (new) order for any small boy. There must have been a big casting search, and they must’ve convinced themselves they had the answer — “THAT’S OUR HITLER!” — but Dick Shawn would not have been a markedly inferior choice. It’s not that the kid’s a bad actor, though I think he’s been encouraged to lay it on too thick. His dialogue as the English brat is so awkwardly written (“My mother is not receiving today. Don’t you understand English, you arse? We are not at home.” that he might as well have been dubbed, preferably by Paul Frees.Speaking of dialogue, to hear Olivier say, in a mounting falsetto, “He operated, mainly on tvins, VISS-out anaesthetic but VISS ze strains of Wagner providing an obbli-GAT-o to ze screams of the MU-tants he was cre-AT-ink!” is to hear a great deal, and to be unable to un-hear any of it.

John Rubinstein gets to share Olivier’s best scene (his final one in the film), but best perf is John Dehner, a former Disney animator, as the main American baby Hitler’s future Führer foster father — it’s like a real person walked into this bloodthirsty comic opera by mistake. You inhale deeply at the sudden infusion of oxygen.THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL stars Atticus Finch; Richard III; Erwin Rommel; Zarah Valeska; Carey Mahoney; Marcus Brody; Dr. Brodsky; Dr. Mabuse; Adolf Hitler; Henry Luce; General Gogol; Colonel Dankopf; Colonel Kurt von Strohm; Emeric Belasco; Sandor Szavost; Angel Blake; Sybill Fawlty; Mr. Slugworth; Prince of Tübingen; and the voice of VALIS. (It’s a Lew Grade production so it’s ridiculously stuffed with stars. I put it about even with the very enjoyable MEDUSA TOUCH and way ahead of RAISE THE TITANIC! which nevertheless I’m starting to feel I ought to see again even though I remember it being really boring. The plot in that one is that they’ve found out how to make an anti-nuke force field, but they need a rare mineral and the entire supply of it went down with the Titanic. Really! I’m not making this up.)