Archive for the Science Category

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2015 by dcairns

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I watched THE PARALLAX VIEW, directed by Alan Pakula — excuse me, Alan *J* Pakula — because I figured it might serve as a surprise entry to Seventies Sci-Fi Week —

— one should always have Surprise Entries. I remember reading the line-up of a season of science fiction films programmed by David Cronenberg, and they were ALL surprise entries, from Robert Wise’s HELEN OF TROY (“Indistinguishable from FLASH GORDON” — nice try, but FLASH goes like a train — maybe SIGN OF THE CROSS would be a better fit) to TAXI DRIVER (“A better version of BLADE RUNNER than BLADE RUNNER.”)

— you see, I was remembering the Parallax Test scene and thought it was a movie about brainwashing, but I think that scene is probably just testing the subject’s emotional responses to words and images. It’s not the full Ludovico. To be a science-fiction film, the movie would have to take the speculations around Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan and spin them into an elaborate speculative fiction. And the speculation would have to be based on altering present conditions. The Manchurian Candidate does this. It’s based on the way captured Americans were “brainwashed” — ie tortured into submission, in reality — during the Korean War, but it speculates that somebody could be mentally adjusted and become an unconscious assassin, a human bomb waiting for a post-hypnotic suggestion to trigger detonation. That phenomenon had never been witnessed — so far as we know — so the Condon book and Frankenheimer-Axelrod film could be termed sci-fi.

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THE PARALLAX VIEW instead shows an organisation recruiting subjects who would make suitable lone gunmen, based on their psychological profiles, and also supplying patsies. No such organisation is known to exist — apart from possibly the CIA and a few organisations like it — but it certainly COULD exist. No adjustment of present social conditions or our understanding of scientific principles or our mastery of scientific techniques would be necessary for this film to come true.

Now I just scared myself.

The reason I misremembered the movie, which I have seen several times, is that it’s somehow elusive in the memory. And a little hard to concentrate on, as if the Hitchcockian, paranoid thriller were a slightly inapt match for Pakula’s offbeat, observational style (and we should maybe refer to the director as Pakula-Willis, since cinematographer Gordon Willis is such a central, essential contributor to Pakula’s best work). The script is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, with uncredited assist by Warren Beatty’s close buddy Robert Towne.

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I had forgotten some good stuff — Hume Cronyn plays by far the best character (almost the only character, after Paula Prentiss’s one scene). I had forgotten there’s a hyperbolic barroom brawl that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hal Needham movie. I remembered that there was a car chase that’s similarly out-of-place. But the good action stuff is when Pakula defies genre by sitting the camera well back and calmly watching, chin resting on knuckles, as a human life is snuffed. The skirmish atop the Space Needle at the start, and the floundering fight in the flooding river, a huge damn venting a wall of spume in the background. The documentary distance adds a sense of reality, and therefore danger. (Obviously Pakula is doing this partly so he can cover up Beatty’s substitution by stunt double Craig Baxley — excuse me, Craig *R* Baxley — but the point is he makes a stylistic feature out of it.)

A different kind of distance afflicts our relationship with Warren Beatty’s character, a classic seventies alienated douchebag — Beatty cheerfully plays his more obnoxious traits to the hilt. The fact that he spends very little time in the movie with anyone he can relate to at all makes it a little hard to see him as other than an articulated shape. And I think the film has a hard job recovering from the Parallax Test in the middle, since it’s such a tour-de-force. We go from a montage masterpiece back into what is merely a very  good movie. And nobody seems to know who is responsible. Don Record did the title designs and seems to have had a role designing it. John W. Wheeler edited the movie as a whole. Did they collaborate or was the whole sequence farmed out to Record?

It reminds me of Chuck Braverman’s amazing opening sequence to SOYLENT GREEN, which IS a seventies sci-fi movie.

Now go do what you have to do.

Get thee behind me, Thetan

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by dcairns

GOING CLEAR, Alex Gibney’s exposé of the Church of Scientology (Scientology: literally, “science science”), is a proper documentary. I wish MAGICIAN had those chops. Welles deserves masterpieces and arguably the Scientologists deserve to be lost in the dust of history. But they also deserve to be exposed for what they are.

The model for Gibney’s approach is probably Errol Morris — tightly-honed interviews, carefully chosen archive, and dramatic images — a flung chair in extreme slomo makes an impression here. It’s not hugely ground-breaking but it’s meaningful, earnest, compelling, and very well made. Maybe they reuse their drone shot of the Scientology building too often, but it’s a super image, like a building opening its arms to give you a great, big, crushing hug.

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It has a few really amazing figures at its centre. L. Ron Hubbard, seen in archive material, has the voice of John Huston’s Noah Cross (Paul Thomas Anderson missed a trick when he used that in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, thereby ruling it out for THE MASTER) and the smile of Uncle Milty, but is an immediately alarming creature, visibly calculating fresh perfidies in every frame of celluloid that passes. As with many cult nasties, you wonder why anyone would be taken in, but he does have a certain repulsive charisma and a free-flowing glibness.

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Was the Bond villain pose really the best way to go?

David Miscavige resembles a sort of callow Ray Walston — my favourite Thetan? — nerdy in his absurd naval uniform. The leadership of cults tends to break down into two distinct types. The boss usually believes his own bullshit — he may have some kind of criminal past but his philosophy becomes holy writ even to him and so he’s totally wrapped up in the cult of himself. The second-in-commands, like high-ranking Nazis, are more of the gangster type. It’s not so relevant to them whether the faith they follow is genuine, it’s more about keeping it going and getting what they can out of it.

Then there’s Travolta and Cruise (seen in some of the really damaging maniacal interview stuff the Church never intended us to see). A lot of grinning. A sincere grin, we’re told, comes on fast and fades slowly. Hubbard is like an identikit, his eyes have no relationship to his mouth so his grin is frankly terrifying. I was never able to judge the sincerity of a Scientological smile because they DON’T FADE. They come of fast and then just FIX in position, as if the wind changed. Is it true that any Scientologist who smiles must then keep smiling for the rest of their life?

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The two things missing from the documentary are not flaws, just things it occurred to me I’d like to see.

1) An interview with the former head of the IRS explaining why he granted the organisation tax-exempt status. The film lays out a pretty convincing case that he was pressured into it, but it’d be nice to hear him say so, if he’s alive. Personally, I don’t think they should reclassify Scientology as not a religion — it’s no crazier or fakier than Catholicism — I think they should just cancel tax exemption for all religions. You might allow exemption for actual charities administered by religions, if they proved they were engaged in beneficial work.

2) Analysis by an expert in micro-body language of what is going on with Hubbard, Miscavige, and ESPECIALLY Cruise in that remarkable interview. I think this could be very revealing and entertaining, in a morbid way. WHAT is Cruise laughing at? We ideally need a ticker-tape going across his forehead on which we can read all his crazy thoughts, his internal conversation/argument male voice choir. Some massive violation of the inside/outside dichotomy seems to be going on. I’m reminded of the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, who, upon having a brilliant idea, will immediately attribute it to his interlocutor. Cruise seems like he’ll be constantly delighted/angry/terrified by all the wonderful ideas everyone around him is having and not telling him about but that he knows anyway.

It’s striking to look at this astonishing interview with Robert Blake, which Fiona discovered and watched until YouTube wore out,  and realize that Blake, convicted in a civil suit of killing his wife, and obviously out where the buses don’t run in all manner of ways, is entirely and clinically sane compared to Cruise. Blake is persistently furious (and with good reason — everyone thinks he killed his wife – -and HE DID), oppressively FORCEFUL and EXPLOSIVE, and also peppers his dialogue with 1930s newsboy expressions commingled with beat poetry and the lost language of angels: “I am FLAT BROKE! I couldn’t buy SPATS for a HUMMINGBIRD!” Interviewer Piers Morgan, he of the inflamed, evil face, doesn’t even blink at this, because he has no poetry in the place where his soul should be.

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Robert Blake doesn’t NEED Scientology because any Thetans foolhardy enough to clamp themselves onto him die of toxic shock or run gibbering into the night. Or turn up riddled with bullets from an antique Walther.

Piers Morgan doesn’t need Scientology (literally, “the science of science”) because he has no personality, he’s just a vaguely malevolent vacuum packed in pink meat.

 

Enigma Variations

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by dcairns

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TV plays always seemed a bit joyless to me as a kid — they were clearly for adults, but lots of adult stuff was fun. The Wednesday Play and Play for Today were never fun.

Maybe the form is at fault. You have something the length of a film, or a B-movie anyway, but made at a fraction of the cost. While B-movies got around the low-budget problem with simple, expressive lighting, cheap actors and stock sets, BBC plays did all of the above and threw in static filming and talkie scenes.

But the problem is that on top of that, they were drama, which meant they mustn’t be funny. Dennis Potter managed to smuggle in a few titters, but he saved the real comedy for his long-running shows. (A conversation I overheard when The Singing Detective first aired is like dialogue from a play: one girl trying to explain to another this incomprehensible but amazing thing she’d seen. “It was just this guy in a hospital bed with a really bad skin disease.” “Eurgh. Poor thing.” “No, but he kept saying stuff, it was the things he said, it was really good.”)

Maybe my avoidance was simply down to the fact that, inconceivably for us now, these plays made no attempt to be ingratiating or accessible, they were starkly concentrated on the job of alienating anybody who wouldn’t want to follow them where they were headed. Children were not welcome. I suppose some kids would have seen this as forbidden fruit and would be all the more interested, but as I viewed the adult world with a certain amount of terror anyway, I don’t think I was keen on anything that would open a door into it for me.

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Still, The Imitation Game, written by Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre, is really good. It does have points of connection with the recent film of the same name. McEwen started out wanting to do the life of Alan Turing but got sidetracked by his researches into the women at Bletchley Park, and the role of women in Britain’s war generally. Harriet Walter, with her long bone china face and hushed, trepidatious voice, plays a young woman determined to play her part in the war, but despite her skills she is steadily demoted instead of promoted, due to her very eagerness to do work at the level she’s qualified for.

Rather appallingly, Turing, here called Turner, is used as a villain, the penultimate in a long line of men who patronize or exploit or betray Walter’s character. McEwen found a great subject when he focused on this aspect of the “war effort” (curious phrase), but it seems a shame he had to further traduce a national hero who’d already been roundly trashed by the establishment. For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive.

Eyre achieves some very nice shots, most of them admittedly static — an austere style in keeping with the period. Locked-off frame after locked-off frame, and the only way out is a cut. This kind of feminist drama, where the men are all bastards of one stripe or another, and each sequence is another mask dropping to reveal this, is out of style now, and it does have a sad, predictable quality, perhaps because drama tied to an ideology tends that way, but it’s at least gutsier than girl power.

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Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, the most celebrated of the TV play directors, is altogether more cinematic. It sets out its stall with an intro by the author invoking the landscape of “Visionary England.” A teenage boy experiences his homosexual awakening at public school, has mystical visions including angels, demons, and a conversation with Sir Edward Elgar in an abandoned cow shed. Imagery evokes Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson.

Rudkin seems determined to throw every idea in his head at the page/screen, even creating a TV playwright character who can pontificate on his behalf. Given the play’s urgency to communicate, its baffling detours and mysticism, and the lack of anything else quite like it, I rather assumed he was a frustrated genius who rarely got to write anything that got made, but he was quite busy until the end of the eighties. His science fiction mindfuck …Artemis..8..1…. (you have to get the number of dots right) is fondly remembered, with a bit of head-scratching.

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The whole thing’s on YouTube.

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