Archive for the Science Category

The Sunday Intertitle: Silent Worlds

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , on April 3, 2016 by dcairns

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An unexpected highlight of this year’s Bo’ness Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema was WUNDER DER SCHOPFUNG, a sort of science fiction documentary made in Germany in 1925. Using extensive reconstructions of historical advances in astronomy to chart mankind’s developing understanding of the universe, and to depict a hypothetical voyage to the limits of the galaxy, it stands comparison with Benjamin Christensen’s HAXAN, which likewise is an entirely staged but essentially truthful documentary. Where HAXAN is a horror movie documentary, WDS is a sci-fi one.

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It uses what was a science fiction premise — manned space flight — to illustrate mostly factual science, as it was understood at the time. Director Hanns Walter Kornblum’s only other movie is DER GRUNDLAGEN DER EINSTEINSCHEN RELATIVITATS-THEORIE (1922). At last, the film of the theory!

The screening was spookily accompanied by electronic duo Herschel 36, and introduced by the astronomer royal, John C, Brown, who happens be the dad of one half of Herschel 36. He was able to give us chapter and verse on the science in the film, some of which is accurate, some of which was accurate in 1925, and a little of which gives way altogether to whimsy, as an excuse for some surreal visuals. I enjoyed the intro and programme notes enormously but think perhaps the prof was too stern — though the film contains some strange howlers, such as asserting that gravity stays switched on until we leave the solar system — 1925 audiences as well as 2015 audiences can tell when their collective leg is being pulled, and would largely be able to disregard the bursts of absurdism in the film, enjoying them for what they transparently are: Germans mucking about with special effects. We’ve all seen INDEPENDENCE DAY, after all.

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Not Natan

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2016 by dcairns

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The real Bernard Natan. Memorise this face.

One of the many surprising reactions to NATAN, the documentary Paul Duane and I made a couple of years ago, is some confusion as to whether Bernard Natan does, in fact, appear in certain vintage porn films. It had been our intention to conclusively prove that none of the people identified by Professor Joseph Slade as being Natan, the major French film producer, are actually him.

The Natan story is complicated — in many ways, it’s like the Dreyfus Affair of cinema, although as film historian Lenny Borger pithily put it, “But Dreyfus was innocent.” Natan is touched by guilt — he WAS convicted of making pornographic films around 1909, and he confessed to fraud in 1938. But there are no surviving French porn films from 1909, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Natan ever again had anything to do with that branch of the business. And so we cannot know exactly what his original offence was: in NATAN, two different experts speculate on the kind of films Natan may have made, and reach opposite conclusions. It seems fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.

In the film we actually compare the face of Natan with that of various porno actors claimed, by Professor Joseph Slade of Ohio University, to be him. In the case of the infamous LE CANARD, a horrible goose-molesting romp from the thirties, there is no resemblance whatsoever between Bernard Natan and the husky bird-buggerer onscreen ~

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The two men are obviously just that — TWO men. It seems incredible that Prof. Slade could have mistaken them.

The circumstances of Slade’s  ID’ing Natan in these films should be borne in mind. By his own account, he found a box of films at the Kinsey Institute which had been labelled “Nathan.” Since rumours abounded about Natan’s past, and these rumours attained the status of myth when he was arrested for fraud in 1938, it’s easy to see why some opportunistic would-be scholar happening upon the films before Slade may have chosen to so label them. Slade did not accept the label as proof, but placed it in a mental area under the heading “evidence” and gradually added to it a tiny heap of other circumstantial tidbits and items of hearsay.

Also, Slade did not really know anything about Natan when he first saw these films decades ago. He wasn’t carrying a picture of him, so comparisons were not easy. But let’s have a look at some of the other men he identified as Bernard Natan.

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This is the guy who causes our viewers some trouble. He’s one of the stars of a little movie called SISTER VASELINE. There’s a certain resemblance, audiences say. But present at our Edinburgh International Film Festival screening, fortunately enough, was Dr. Brooke Magnanti, the former sex worker whose experiences under the name Belle de Jour were developed as a TV series by Paul. Dr. Magnanti is now an expert in forensic pathology, and had no difficulty dismissing the passing resemblance between the film producer and the naughty monk. Most of us determine identity by studying a small central area, the eyes, nose and mouth. In this case, the prominent nose tends to attract all the attention. But the chin and ears are quite different, and while one’s ears do grow during one’s life, nobody acquires earlobes, and only Ernst Stavros Blofeld is on record as removing his. Natan does have tiny, recessive earlobes. The nameless monk-impersonator has great globs of cartilage swaying at the ends of protuberant, mouselike ears.

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Here’s an image from LE MENAGE MODERNE DU MADAME BUTTERFLY. It’s funny how resemblance works. You may have thought the guyplaying “the randy monk” in the previous looked a lot like Natan. But you will look at the guy on the left here and probably say “That’s the same guy who played the monk!” And I think you’d be right. It’s like when you’re waiting to meet someone you know slightly, and everyone who passes looks a little like the person. But when the real person shows up, you just KNOW.

Extraordinarily, it’s the guy on the RIGHT in the faux-riental makeup who has been historically claimed to be Natan. I wanted to feature him in NATAN as part of our evidence of how silly these accusations are — it was one of my few disagreements with Paul. More comparisons, I think, would clinch it.

According to Wikipedia, the very first person to identify this bisexual performer as Natan was Thomas Waugh, who now “rejects his earlier conclusion […] based on on-screen evidence of the actor’s age and foreskin status.” Good for you, Mr. Waugh. Now how about also rejecting it on the basis that it’s blatantly NOT HIM. Scratch what I said earlier about how we identify people based on eyes, nose and mouth. Waugh evidently uses different criteria.

Sidenote — Wikipedia now identifies the actor playing Pinkerton, on the left, as one J.H. Forsell, a mainstream actor with one other IMDb credit — playing Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig in the 1919 epic THE GREAT VICTORY, WILSON OR THE KAISER? THE FALL OF THE HOHENZOLLERNS. This is not an easy film to see, or pronounce, and thus not an easy claim to disprove. But it is an American film, and so the idea of a minor player zipping across the Atlantic in order to fellate a bloke in a kimono for low pay strikes me as improbable. I’m also struck by the fact that the leading man of this lengthily-titled war flick is Creighton Hale.

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This man is not Creighton Hale. He is about to do something awful through that fence.

Creighton Hale was an Irish actor who went from playing straight roles in early dramas like THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1914) to stardom as a light comedy lead in THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (1929). He sank into the obscurity of bit parts, finishing his career as “irritated stagecoach passenger” in 1959’s WESTBOUND, but then achieved a kind of fame when Kenneth Anger, in his book Hollywood Babylon, accused him of having sex with a goat. On camera. During the height of his fame as a movie star. My friend Diarmid Mogg dispels that myth here. So I was startled when Professor Slade repeated the long-discredited allegation to me in an email: “Creighton Hale seems to have made it as a joke, and the humor certainly does outweigh the sex, which is not very explicit.  He would have had little fear of discovery, given the clandestine nature of the trade.”

My God, I thought. Professor Slade has made a career of accusing forgotten film personalities of bestiality. Perhaps that was unfair of me. It wouldn’t be right, would it, if these two colossal lapses of judgement came to overshadow the professor’s other accomplishments.

Not right, no, but certainly ironic.

Some of the complexity in this situation arises because, though there are many pictures of Bernard Natan, it’s easy to say, “Well, maybe this guy engaging in a fancy-dress threesome in some scratchy old stag film is him when he was younger.” Here, loyal Shadowplayers, is Bernard Natan when he was younger ~

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If you’re of my species, you’re probably thinking “That’s the same guy as the one in the picture at the top of this blog post, only younger!” Natan always looks like Natan. He didn’t go from looking like himself to slightly looking like another guy with a similar nose, and then back to looking like himself again.

Here’s a final comparison.

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It’s our old friend J.H. Forsell again. Or rather, not him, but a nameless, prolific porn actor who has been given that name, perhaps by someone bearing a grudge against Field Marshall Haig. If you watch the entirety of the hardcore romp SURPRIS PAR LE GARDE-CHAMPETRE, which I don’t recommend (I had to watch A LOT of vintage porn while preparing NATAN and it was not as enjoyable as some might expect. Sort of gave me a new respect for Professor Slade who apparently forged a career “studying” this stuff) you will observe that the Bogus Forsell is putting on weight, and his hair is receding. But Natan didn’t put on weight — he went to prison. Film of him at his last trial, before he was deported to Auschwitz, shows him with his hairline unchanged. If it ever intended to recede, it wasn’t given the chance. If we assume that the careers of Natan and “Forsell” were in parallel and they were the same age (of which there is no evidence), by the time “Forsell” was cavorting for cash in this one-reeler, Bernard Natan was buried in an unmarked mass grave.

 

 

I gazed a gazely stare

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by dcairns

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The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.

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SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING

Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”

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SMILING AND WAVING AND LOOKING SO FINE

But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?

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WHEN IT’S BAD I GO TO PIECES

Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.

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HOLLYWOOD HIGHS

Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.

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AND SHE’S HOOKED TO THE SILVER SCREEN

What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.

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