Archive for the Science Category

The Monday Matinee, episode 12: The End of Murania

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by dcairns

It was over too soon! All really terrible things must come to an end. So, for the last time, the oddly stressful theme music plays, and we get a confusing recap of fragments of the previous instalments. For the first time, the Cowboy Comedy Sidekicks (CCSs) rate a mention, since they were directly responsible for last week’s cliffhanger ~

Also, a misplaced apostrophe. Now read on.

The two nitwits manage to get Murania’s central control room malfunctioning, then throw themselves down a trapdoor which leads to where Gene Autry is getting his head disintegrated (see last week — it’s complicated). This bit of narrative retro-fitting ought to allow for a rescue, though given these nitwits’ past form, Gene might easily wind up even more disintegrated than he would have been naturally. He’s already A BIT disintegrated — he’s making a pained face and tugging at his kerchief as if overheated — that’s the first sign that you may be being disintegrated. If you have those symptoms, see a doctor.

The sidekicks drag Gene from the death ray, taking care to expose themselves to it thoroughly in the process, which surprisingly causes them no distress whatsoever, almost as if it were merely a spotlight.

Queen Tika enters, brought by two guards who had intended to disintegrate her. The CCSs immediately attack the guards in the best Iraqi style, taking off their boots and striking the unbelievers about the head.

“We must get Her Majesty back to the Control Room,” opines Gene, the second he recovers. It’s the kind of thing one feels he WOULD say in such a situation — testament to the skills of the serial’s writing staff, Wallace McDonald, Gerald Gerachty, H Freedman, John Rathmell and Ernest Schaeffer. He doesn’t look a bit disintegrated, although I guess he might be completely hollowed out on the inside. It’s hard to tell. I’m going to study Gene’s performance closely in search of suggestions that this may be the case.

The villainous Argo enters, with his pestilential science gang, and Gene promptly targets them with their own disintegrator ray, which was still ON last we saw. The burly baritone somehow backs his foes into a corner with the unwieldy weapon, and everybody legs it. Now we get to find out if Queen Tika is as good at running as she is at watching television. Let me tell you, the two talents are not always found in one person.

But we never do find out, as the serial uncharacteristically cuts from the chase, leaving the bad guys locked in the disintegrator room (their cunning escape plan: face the locked metal door and shove each other). The CCSs deal with the “heavily armed” guards at the control room (two pasty guys with spears) by shoving robots at them, leading to a strange, cramped, irritating fight. Everybody looks really hot and bothered. Although, oddly, the guards don’t notice the robots until they’re quite literally about three inches away. This makes for intense, close-quarters action.

Muranian myrmidons do seem oddly myopic. Once in the throne room, the CCSs push their dumb robots clatteringly right past a patrolling guard who doesn’t notice anything until he reaches the far wall and turns around. Then Gene fells him with a gigantic punch, flubs his line (“Hurry, we’ll… get to the control room.”) and the Control Room is gained! Queen Tika immediately wants to watch television. She discovers that Argo’s rebels are melting the door with the Disintegrator Atom Smashing Machine. The impudent dogs!

Argo, impatient at the slow rate of door disintegration, turns the volume up, impatient of Rab’s panicky warnings that his Smashing Machine might get “out of control again.” Again? He’s right to be cautious, it seems — the big ray gun immediately starts wobbling randomly around the room, forcing the rebel scientists to run about like headless chickens. “Turn it off! Turn it off!” yells Rab. “Turn it off! Turn it — off!” Nobody thinks to unplug it. Everybody dies. Although they don’t disintegrate, that I can see.

“It will eat its way through the empire!” declares Queen Tika. She suggests Gene gets out, and he suggests she come too. “To the mad world above?” she sneers, regally, harping on her favourite theme. “It would be a living death!” Still nobody thinks of maybe unplugging the Smashing Machine. Queen Tika seems tickled to death about the prospect of being disintegrated along with her people. “It is better than an invasion from the surface world.” Seemingly she’s fixated on the idea that on the surface she would be forced to drive race cars or bum cigarettes. (The fact that she would be unable to breathe seems like a more sound reason for staying below ground.) Still, one notices that the Queen’s role in her plan consists entirely of watching television again.

Entertaining shots of melting Murania! Only Gene and his two idiots think of using the elevator — everyone else is fleeing straight into the holocaust, apart from the robots who merely plod doggedly towards it.

Gene and his pals join up with Frankie and Betsy, and they find exactly the right number of horses in the Muranian stables. But then they remember all the other horses, and rescue them. The Muranian PEOPLE can go whistle. All this is shown to us on Queen Tika’s television, making it TWICE AS EXCITING.

Queen Tika staggers regally over to the big knife switch that opens the garage door to the surface, then ascends to her throne one last time as her world literally crumbles around her, a moment that could have been powerfully moving were it not totally obscured by smoke. Finally, the melting models (a cheap optical effect) are replaced by a melting Queen, and the disintegrator at last disintegrates itself.

And with one bound our heroes are free, having contributed substantially to the destruction of an entire civilisation. “But it was worth it,” says Frankie, “I learned a lot of new scientific things.” Betsy is upbeat: “I’m going back to Murania someday, and see what’s left,” she beams. The disgusting ghoul. “I’m afraid there isn’t very much left of the city,” says Gene, dampening her youthful spirits, “But we’ll probably find enough radium to make us all rich.”

When Mike Hodges made his FLASH GORDON, he saw it as a slight satire of American interventionist foreign policy, which never quite convinced me as a valid allegory. But had he instead made THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, he’d have had a pretty solid footing, it seems to me.

Until now, the serial had seemed in danger of neglecting its subplot about the tricky Professor Beetson and his cronies, and Gene’s false murder rap, and his radio show, but now these come to the fore with a truly heroic sense of anticlimax. Gene blows up a city then sorts out his legal difficulties! I suppose we’ll end with him reordering his record collection.

Meanwhile… in a cavern… in a canyon… excavating for a mine… Professor Beetson deals with a labour dispute from his miners. The excitement just keeps building! But it actually does, since rather than going through some kind of ombudsman, he opts to shoot them down like dogs. You could do that then, before they introduced all this red tape. trump is going to bring this kind of thing back, and everyone will be happier.

Gene finds one of the dying men and attends to the poor fellow, shaking him violently by the collar. “Who shot yuh? Yuh might as well tell me!” he says, compassionately. Mistaking these words for the supreme unction, the bullet-ridden miner promptly expires.

Meanwhile — will Gene make it back in time to do his radio broadcast? Given that he’s now a radium millionaire, we probably shouldn’t be concerned, but we are EXTREMELY concerned — this obviously matters more than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muranians.

The broadcast is a typically exciting one — Gene attempts to reveal Beetson’s perfidies live on air, and gets his hat shot off. Exciting chase! Song! Punch-up! That’s like the four food groups of western entertainment. Beetson incriminates himself on an imitation Muranian television screen cobbled together by Frankie Darro ina  spare forty seconds, and this is witnessed by the sheriff.

Gene “plays us out” (what does that MEAN?) with his moronic “owls go hoo” song which I now realise concerns Noah’s ark. A clear thematic bond is f0rmed with the survivors of a lost civilisation whom this serial has so ably extirpated. Then Gene does some yodeling, which doesn’t seem to connect to the main premise as neatly, and the thing is over.



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.