Archive for the Television Category

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.

 

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The Home Film Festival

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2018 by dcairns

It was rainy last Sunday so I suggested we have our own film festival at home. Try it!

An eclectic program, decided at random. First I watched THE ORE RAIDERS, and blogged about it, then I popped on THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974), which always looked like awful tommyrot when on TV, but it’s Don Siegel therefore worth a try.Reader, THE BLACK WINDMILL is indeed awful tommyrot, but with impressive credits. TV pan-and-scan showings, which I recall seeing bits of, ruined it utterly — the pleasure is all in Siegel’s framing and blocking. Ousama Rawi, the former Mr. Rita Tushingham, shot it, beautifully — there’s some particularly nice anamorphic city lights. Antony Gibbs, of PETULIA and PERFORMANCE, cut it, less successfully than one might have hoped, though the neatest bit is a long take from a locked-off position as bad guys frame the hero with a nudie photo staged in his own bedroom. Roy Budd, of GET CARTER, provides a GET CARTER type score, with added tabla drums. Veteran costume designer Anthony Mendleson makes his leading man look ridiculous. I think there’s a good argument for leading men dressing conservatively, as Cary Grant suggested. They don’t date, and anyway, why would a spy dress like THIS?I suppose, in a crisis, he could always turn sideways and hide behind his necktie.

A distinguished cast includes cast includes Harry Palmer, Dr. Crippen, Empress Alexandra, Elizabeth Bathory, Sheik Abu Tahir and Maya the shapeshifter from Space 1999.

   

Fiona only joined that one midway, then insisted on some Bette Davis so we ran JEZEBEL, which we hadn’t seen in ages. I’ve often felt that the Germans in Hollywood had more racial sensitivity than native-born filmmakers, but although the black characters here all get bits of characterisation, and Eddie Anderson underplays for once, the movie never misses a chance at a cheap joke. When Henry Fonda says he feels haunted, wrinkled retainer Lew Paton stammers, “H-haunted?” in terror of spooks.

Still, the soapy story compels, and Bette is playing a perverse, willful, stroppy filly much like herself. She adored Wyler’s disciplinarian approach, and dialled down her excesses. When she reacts to the news that Fonda has married, her face registers a dozen emotions and calculations at lightning speed, subtly enough that you can believe smiling Margaret Lindsay doesn’t notice them, and visibly enough that you can see Fonda does.

Also great work from Richard Cromwell and, shockingly, George Brent, whose sleepy approach to acting here becomes electrifying when he’s given something of real interest to play. His character is supposed to be a dynamic old-school swashbuckler, and by playing it with indifference he actually adds a convincing edge to it. This guy is so dangerous because he doesn’t advertise it.

The cunning use of POV shots I noted in THE ORE RAIDERS is present here, as Bette, embracing Fonda, makes particular note of the stick he’s left by the door. All her behaviour in the ensuing scene is an attempt to provoke him into using it on her, which he refrains from, much to her disappointment. Did I mention Bette’s character is a touch perverse?

Co-writer John Huston was drafted in to direct a duel scene, and in a film full of smart grace notes, delivers one of the neatest, as the duellists take ten paces, clear out of frame and two puffs of smoke issue in from the edges of the screen, rendering the battle an abstraction, its outcome a mystery.

We followed this with another, contrasting Bette movie, LO SCOPONE SCIENTIFICO (1972), which I’ve tackled at greater length elsewhere. Let’s just say that, cast as a kind of monster-goddess, Bette again is playing a character remarkably like herself: indefatigable.

Short subject: PIE, PIE, BLACKBIRD with Nina Mae McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers when they were small. She does an adorable rasping trumpet honk thing with her voice, an orchestra plays inside a giant pie, and the Bros. dance so hard, everybody turns into a skeleton. Will, if anybody was going to cause that to happen, it would be them.

It’s very funny to me that the props man couldn’t find a child skeleton — there was, it would seem, little call for such items — so he’s removed the shin-bones of an adult to make it dance shorter. Incredible to think that young Harold performed all those moves without knees.

Then MIRAGE, based on regular Shadowplayer Daniel’s recent recommendation. Sixties Edward Dmytryk, when he’s supposed to be washed up, but there’s some interesting stuff afoot, not all of it pulling in the same direction, but still. Stars Atticus Finch, Felix Unger Oscar Madison, Anne Frank’s sister Margot, Willie Loman’s son Biff, Gaetano Proclo and Joe Patroni. Which is to say, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy are reunited after CHARADE, which was also scripted by Peter Stone, and Matthau and Jack Weston are together, prefiguring A NEW LEAF.

Stone’s script is witty as usual, perhaps too witty — there’s a good sense of Kafkaesque nightmare going on in the crazy amnesia/conspiracy plot, but you have Gregory Peck being all Gregory Peckory, stiff and bashful, and then making quips, and the sense of waking nightmare rather deserts one.

BUT —

Dmytryk, a former editor, has discovered direct cutting — he’s seen MARIENBAD, in fact — or maybe the previous year’s THE PAWNBROKER. As Peck thinks back on baffling recent events, or retrieves fragments of memory from his earlier, lost-time spell, we cut in hard to snippets of dialogue from earlier or brief flashes of action. Best of all is a subway scene where the sound of the train continues unabated over glimpses of Walter Abel falling out of a skyscraper. Then he cuts to a watermelon hitting the ground and bursting, something that’s only been mentioned earlier. It’s a non-diegetic watermelon, perhaps the first of its race.

It’s dazzling and disturbing and would still look pretty nifty in a modern film. What makes it sellable to the great public of 1964 is that the odd technique is tied directly to the plot gimmick. Anyway, it’s very nice indeed, and makes you realise how conservative most cutting still is. Given Dmytryk’s late-career wallowing in turgid airport novel stuff, I wish he’d enlivened his work with this kind of monkey business a lot more. For a guy who’d sold out, who had to shore up his sense of self-worth with spurious justifications, accomplishing a nice piece of work like this must have been some kind of relief.

Tomorrowsday #5: Our continuum is rather a frost

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2018 by dcairns

Anticipating ufologist Jacques Vallee by decades, Gore Vidal ruled in his 1955 television play, Visit to a Small Planet, or perhaps his 1957 stage play, Visit to a Small Planet, that flying saucers are transdimensional rather than interplanetary craft, and to hell with the Carpenters, who wouldn’t put forward their contradictory theory until 1976. Meanwhile, in 1960, because time is “all one thing” — “a trapezoid” — Jerry Lewis starred in a film version of either the TV or stage play, adapted by Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson. (Beloin has numerous Bob Hope credits, a couple of Lewis ones, an Elvis movie, story credit on DONOVAN’S REEF; Garson is one of several writers on THE RECKLESS MOMENT and collaborated as a duo with Beloin on his other Lewis movie and his Elvis. They’re not negligible talents, but they’re not fit to lick Gore Vidals seven-league boots.)

Excitingly, the alien Kreton was played by Cyril Ritchard (above) on TV and stage — the lecherous artist from Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL. Not exactly a Jerry Lewis type, though I believe Lewis could have stretched himself to play the part as written if he’d been offered it or if director Norman Taurog had any ambition to deal with ideas. The movie is a sad travesty of the play, without any coherent reason for existing. It’s only intermittently funny, but it’s stupid all the time. However, let’s see what we can find to admire.

The copy I was able to track down has German credits, allowing us to learn that the German title is JERRY, DER ASTRONAUTEN-SCHRECK, which seems odd to me. Is “fright-astronaut” a common German term for what we would call a little green man or bug-eyed monster? It’s a nice compound word, anyway.

Special effects are by John P. Fulton, a long way from James Whale and Alfred Hitchcock. But they’re excellent. The film tries to get laugh with them, and fails, because they don’t have comic timing. That’s not what you hire John P. Fulton for.

The physical effects are good too.

Excuse me while I do a spot of time-travelling myself — my memory is that I didn’t see this film in 1974, only the ending — I have a vivid memory of Lewis’s space pod and him running about like a lunatic, one of several memories of UFOs that are far more vivid than the movies they appear in — ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN and DALEKS: INVASION EARTH 2150 form a kind of trilogy with this one. But, watching it this week, I was struck by the image of Lewis sticking an entire pack of cigarettes in his mouth and lighting it. I’d seen THAT before. So maybe I saw the whole thing and then just erased it. Maybe I erased my childhood recollections, like Johnny Mnemonic, to make room for interesting facts about Anthony Mann’s filmography?

At any rate, Fulton’s UFO is memorable. I’ve proved that, by remembering it for forty-odd years. The film features both nifty opticals and impressive practical effects — a levitating dog, a car that slides sideways into a parking space, an invisible barrier that surrounds Kreton (taken from the play but given vivid visual form). Maybe that’s what earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design, which makes little sense otherwise (it lost, and rightly so, to THE APARTMENT).

Fred Clark, great dyspeptic patriarch of the fifties, is perfectly cast as TV pundit Roger Spelding. Joan Blackman is perky as the love interest. Farmer/boyfriend Earl Holliman is much more of a jerk than in the play, which is a silly change to make because they’ve already got Lewis. Lee Patrick, recently enjoyed in VERTIGO, is Clark’s ditzy wife, and John Williams plays a fellow alien, his role greatly expanded from the play, partly because if they filmed the play as written, Lewis wouldn’t enter for ten minutes, which audiences in 1960 would not have stood for. So we begin in space, in a weird studio afterlife of dry ice, Paramount’s attempt to visualise Vidal’s suggestion of another dimension.

The movie also features Miles Archer, Talkie Tina, Dr. Eldon Tyrrel and Grandma Walton (also from VERTIGO).

Ye-es… at one point, Joan Blackman takes Jerry to a beatnik joint, the Hungry Brain. In Virginia? I don’t know that much about your Earth Culture, but I’d always assumed beatniks were more of a coastal thing. A salt water bi-product. OK, it IS the best bit of the film, with Joe Turkel freaking out at Jerry’s out-of-this-worldliness, Jerry’s simultaneous translation of a scat song, and Barbara Lawson’s dance with Jer. Although the presence of a beat club in this movie is completely unforgivable, a more efficient solution would be to junk the other, less entertaining bits of the movie and come up with a whole new story set in New York where Jerry could “plausibly” visit a beatnik place. There’s no reason why the film should be set in Virginia, though the source play did have its reasons.

Much of the movie is pure Mork & Mindy avant la lettre. Kreton’s spaceship isn’t quite an egg, but it’s tending in that direction. If you were going to morph Klaatu’s big saucer into Mork’s egg, Kreton’s capsule would be the midway point.

OK, update, I’ve now read the whole play. It’s only mildly amusing by Vidal’s standards, but it at least hangs together. It’s Gene Roddenberry’s #1 plot from Star Trek: God is an astronaut, and he’s a lunatic, an idiot, a child. Did Gore invent this trope? Vidal’s Kreton is a moral imbecile, escaped from supervision for the day. He was hoping to witness the Battle of Bull Run but arrived a century late and so decides to start WWIII instead. So there are reasons for Virginia (handy for the air force too), and it all ties together, whereas the movie is a big ball of loose ends. Intriguingly, in the movie, we do learn that Kreton was somehow responsible for the extinguishing of all life on Mars, but this is brushed aside, a throwaway gag. We’re not meant to hold genocide against him.

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the name Edgar Box, about a crime-solving metrosexual PR man, and they’re excellent. It seems he could turn his hand to anything, including Mork & Mindy.

Orangey the cat, fresh from his roles in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, drags up as Clementine, voiced by cartoon favourite June Foray. (Kreton talks psychically to the cat, called Rosemary in the play, but we don’t hear her responses). The movie invents a dog also, but whoever does his voice is unlisted on the IMDb.

My favourite gag that’s original to the movie: whenever anyone tries to tell the world about Kreton, he zaps them and all they can say is “Mary had a little lamb,” sung in falsetto. When the movie’s hysterical ufologist (not in the play) snaps a Polaroid of Kreton in spaceman attire, this is how the pic comes out ~

Vidal’s notion that the aliens have moved beyond sex (“Our continuum is rather a frost,”) is spun off into lots of creepy business about Lewis wanting to watch the romantic leads making out. If you want that NOT to seem creepy, you need someone other than Lewis, whose manchild act is not devoid of lechery. The funniest thing in the play, for me, is that the young lovers had been planning to check into a motel with fake luggage to avoid suspicion — a valise full of phone books. Kreton learns of the plan and somehow imagines the phone books are an essential part of the proposed loveplay. (Ah, kids these days don’t know what lovemaking IS… because they don’t know what phone books are.)

Vidal’s Kreton is quite camp in his touristic enthusiasm — his enthusiasm for war turns him into Bud Cort in my imagination, in that scene in HAROLD AND MAUDE where Harold tries to freak out the general by being TOO pro-war. “Zero hour is almost upon us. I’m getting all shivery.” The sad thing is, Jer could have done all that brilliantly, if only they’d wanted him to.

Here is a picture of director Norman Taurog. Hahahaha he has a funny face. His career runs from Larry Semon to Elvis Presley, with Jerry near the end.

I guess VTASP served as a comedic break in the 1974 sci-fi season where I saw it, or part of it. Allowing us to gather ourselves before the strong meat of THEM! But also following neatly from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which it subverts (though a faithful rendition of the play would have subverted it even better).