Archive for Baragon

“Monster, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2010 by dcairns

So, in a twist of film history both inevitable and deeply demented, the Frankenstein monster gets drafted into the Japanese kaiju genre and pitted against a man in a lizard costume, under the directorial aegis of GODZILLA helmer Ishiro Honda…

I hope you understand that I’m watching FRANKENSTEIN VS BARAGON, aka FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, purely because the late Denis Gifford saw fit to include a b&w illo from it in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies. So in my mad quest to see all the films depicted therein, a quest I have abstrusely entitled See Reptilicus and Die, I totally had to watch this movie. I mean, it’s not as if I go out of my way to see this kind of thing normally.

“Do I LOOK like I’m kidding?”

We begin in Germany, where a swivel-eyed mustache guy is working on the  still-beating heart of the Frankenstein monster in a mad scientist’s layer in a castle somewhere unwisely close to the front lines. ThenNazi stormtroopers arrive with a compulsory purchase order and confiscate the creepy ticker, shipping it to Hiroshima by sub, where the leader of the Seven Samurai proceeds to examine this strangely immortal pump, with a view to mass-producing bullet-proof Japanese soldiers. This perfectly reasonable subplot is brought to an abrupt end by the detonation of an atom bomb.

Fastforward to the poptastic sixties, and a “degenerate waif” is terrorizing the city, rather a lot like Denis Lavant in Leos Carax’s episode of TOKYO! “There were a lot of these boys after the war,” says a concerned supporting player, perhaps visualizing GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES. Apprehended by the authorities (including a gratuitous roundeye scientist, Nick Adams — ot’s gaijin vs. kaijin), the monster waif starts growing to, well, monstrous size, no doubt due to all that radiation he soaked up — for you see, this large deformed boy is no less than the Frankenstein monster’s heart, which has regenerated an entire new body around itself (I would love to have seen the halfway stage of that) a bit like Oddbod Jnr. in CARRY ON SCREAMING — who germinated from a single discarded finger — whom he closely resembles (he also looks a bit like Richard Kiel disguised as a hillbilly).

Dangerous curves.

Meanwhile, the late Baragon has emerged from the bowels of the earth and is ravaging the countryside. While Frank, escaped from his tiny cell, roams the hinterland searching for a spot with a climate akin to that of Frankfurt, but with a sufficient supply of life-giving protein. His dinners are being swiped by Baragon — cue shots of the lizard thing stomping a puppet horse… a battle seems inevitable: underground monster vs. 100 ft waif.

Baragon, although known as The Underground Monster, is clearly recognizable to westerners as Edward Lear’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose.

Slowly it wanders,–pauses,–creeeps,–
Anon it sparkles,–flashes and leaps;
And ever as onward it gleaming goes
A light on the Bong-tree stems it throws.
And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along,–
‘The Dong!–the Dong!
‘The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
‘The Dong! the Dong!
‘The Dong with a luminous Nose!’

“Ha ha, you missed me, you need glasses!”

Battle Royale, or Batoru Rowaiaru, commences — by this time, alas, we were no longer taking the film as seriously as it deserves, even though Honda was a friend of Akira Kurosawa and even directed bits of DREAMS and merits the greatest of respect. Once the monsters started fighting it was impossible not to make up dialogue for them, so they trash-talk each other while slamming one another with papier-maché boulders. Finally Frank, without doubt the spazziest of all Japanese monsters, murders Baragon by tearing his head apart, but is then immediately set upon by an Act III giant octopus, which appears out of nowhere in an eleventh-hour “development” unprepared for in any way.

“Watch it, mate, I’m gonna audition for the lead in OLD BOY right now, using you as main course!”

“Oh yeah? Well here we are in Japan, and I’ve got eight tentacles… ever see that Hokusai print of the pearl diver?”

The movie, having never quite come up with a practical solution for what to do with the monster, now cuts the Gordian knot by having him fall into a lake with a big octopus. Everybody immediately goes home: “Nothing to see here.” He’s barely been submerged five seconds!

“He’ll be back,” speculates a sequel-grubbing scientist. “Somewhere, sometime.”

“Perhaps the best thing would be for him to die,” says another, who isn’t going to be invited back for FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTERS: SANDAH VS GAILAH. “After all, he’s only a monster.”

Only?

The Ten Commandos

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2008 by dcairns

My Ten Commandos of Screenwriting (a couple of people said they would be interested in a list of screenwriting “rules” — well, I don’t believe in rules, but the reality of commandos is there for all to see).

A Sonar Commando of the 32nd Century.

In order to populate this list at all, it’s necessary to point out that even the most amorphous of commandos apply only to traditional dramatic narratives (including, to large extent, comedies) — I should probably spend the next 10,000 words defining what those are, but I’m not going to.

Re-reading this, I still find it over-prescriptive, but if people want guidelines / thoughts, these are some that I’ve found sort of useful. None of them will actually GET YOU STARTED though.

Commando One: Battalion Leader Brewte Masterson.

Write something you would genuinely like to see. But not something you have already seen and enjoyed.

Commando Two: Major Dirk “Honey” Sharples.

Always, with the pleasure, a little malaise. There must be some uncomfortable material that the audience has to work through to get to the joy. This will accentuate the pleasure when it comes. Maybe this should be an end result rather than a goal from the outset, I don’t know. But I do think that pure fun tends to be uninteresting. Even Laurel and Hardy have those strange cartoony bits where Ollie’s neck gets stretched, or whatever, which always freaked me out as a kid.

Commando Three: Corporal Steve Punishment.

Dramatic tension = something is at stake and the audience is concerned about the outcome. That’s it. Conflict is not necessary for this. A man struggling to get a door open is a dramatic situation, and there is no antagonist involved. To say that the door is the antagonist is just being silly. And commandos are never EVER silly.

Commando Four: Private Burke “Silly” Beggar.

Question marks are shaped like hooks because questions are the hooks that snare us and drag us along with a story. The audience must want the answers to questions. They must also believe that some of these questions are GOING to be answered. So you can’t just accumulate mysteries as the story goes on, you have to clear some of them up as you go, while creating new ones. The TV show Lost is actually very successful at this — sometimes it might have seemed, especially early on, that nothing would ever be explained in a satisfactory way, but the creators have so far reassured their audience by providing satisfactory solutions to SOME of the big mysteries.

Commando Five: Private Baragon.

Surprising that Baragon hasn’t risen in rank, despite his obvious leadership qualities.

Character arcs are not always necessary in comedy. Typically, comic characters are funny because of flaws and intractable behaviour. A certain predictability is necessary to make their silly behaviour logical. For instance, Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm has a tendency to fight for a principle even when the reasonable course would be to give in. His intransigence is a recognisable character trait which we grow to expect him to display, so while his behaviour is inappropriate and absurd, it is also grounded in character. This may be why the show improves as you watch more of it — we get to know the character, and his behaviour, while never less quixotic, is more credible.

But if Larry suddenly learned from his mistakes, he would cease to be funny.

An interesting example is GROUNDHOG DAY, a very successful comedy that’s so good, it gets away with turning into a drama partway through. As soon as Bill Murray resolves to use his situation to become a better person, the laughs start to dry up. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about watching somebody improve (I’m not sure disimproving would be funny either: could Macbeth, a play about the slow decay of the moral sense, translate into comedy?). But the film has hooked us in with its premise and its characters rather than purely with comedy, and so few even notice that they’ve stopped laughing. They’re still smiling very loudly.

But Buster Keaton made several great features where his character did not change (half of his films are about unworldly but hard-working fellows who succeed through perseverance or ingenuity, without changing who they are at all; the other half, which DO have character arcs, are about immature rich kids who have to acquire those traits) and Chaplin never changed. W.C. Fields and Mae West don’t change, and we love them for it. My God it would be AWFUL if they changed. Perhaps the ineffable unalterability of Laurel & Hardy made them better suited to shorts than features, but they did nevertheless make several terrific long-form films.

Comedy characters CAN change, and “learn important lessons,” it’s just that they needn’t ALWAYS.

Commando Six: Private Rocky Hemingway.

Films can do many things. Starting with a limited idea of what’s possible is not helpful. Expand your horizons beyond just a few types of commercial cinema before beginning. I want screenwriters to broaden the possibilities, at least a bit, with everything they write.

And: each element in a script should be multi-purpose. A scene does not justify its existence just by “Introducing a character,” or “showing that the bad guy has a human side.” Each scene should probably do several things: (1) move the action forward (2) create new questions (3) answer old questions (4) develop the characters (5) increase the tension (6) get a laugh — AT LEAST three of these. And every line of dialogue should justify its presence by (a) characterising the speaker (b) characterising the listener (c) advancing the plot (d) getting a laugh — AT LEAST two of these.

Commando Seven: Private Ernst “Gnasher” Mandibles.

Format and prose: learn how scripts are formatted and follow that. Nothing is gained by weird formatting. But the rules are simple, and need not be agonized over.

Develop good prose that evokes what you’re writing. If the scene is supposed to be exciting, use exciting, active language. If funny, be funny. But only while describing, as simply as possible, what the eventual audience will see and hear (while avoiding all constructions such as “we see” and “we hear”). Avoid technical descriptions of camerawork, but suggest the stylistic approach by language: a sentence equals a shot; “the hand turns the key” suggests a close-up. Rewriting: Remove excess words. Replace dull words with evocative ones.

Commando Eight: Private Gavin “Brick” Shithouse.

People obsess over structure without understanding it. Here’s what you need to know: introduce a narrative hook as soon as possible so that the audience is concerned about what happens next. If your first act gives us a character we like and a narrative problem for them to face, it can be five minutes long and that’s fine.

Don’t feed the audience a lot of exposition until they actually care. This is why people don’t really absorb the historical information in those crawls that go up the screen telling you who the Jacobites were.

In act two, things should get more complicated, with at least one major turning point. Usually the first half of act two builds up complications and the second half just keeps them in play. And often there’s a simplifying of issues so that the climax can be resolved in a straightforward dramatic way (often the dreaded “fight in a warehouse”).

At the end of act two, one aims for a moment when the conflict, or dramatic issue, becomes “locked”. The antagonistic characters are no longer able to back down, and must resolve their conflict. Or, the dramatic tension reaches a crisis point where it must be finally resolved. Often a countdown is introduced, so that we know this situation must be resolved WITHIN A GIVEN TIME-FRAME. It’s all about bringing the tension to maximum level.

Act three brings things to some kind of resolution: plot problems are resolved, character problems are worked through (important lessons can, if you really want, be learned) and the theme is brought into focus if it isn’t already.

Often the protagonist is going about things the wrong way until act three. Often there are three climactic problems to solve: an intellectual one, to give us the satisfaction of seeing something figured out, an emotional one (this is often very badly handled: moving conversations between people hanging from cliffs) to deliver the all-important character arc, and a physical one (the protagonist had better DO something).

Commando Nine: Private Bob Crunch.

The happiness graph: Kurt Vonnegut suggested you could plot the hero’s happiness on a graph. A popular form illustrates a character who is reasonably happy at the story’s beginning, becomes very unhappy due to testing circumstances, and emerges at the end very much happier than before. We could also plot the audience’s happiness, which might follow a similarly course in such a story. But part of the author’s task in a conventional drama is to create peaks and troughs on the graph, moments when the hero is very happy and very unhappy, or the audience is very happy or very unhappy.

“Oh good!” they cry, as the hero throws dust in his enemy’s eyes. “Oh no!” they cry, as the enemy calls in his three heavily-armed henchmen. In an exciting drama, the peaks get higher and the troughs get deeper as the story progresses, and they also get closer together, so that the graph of a third act should look like somebody having a heart attack. And it really applies to the audience more than the character. Observe how the darkest moment of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION comes right before the most pleasing. And the darkest moment is one of audience perception: we THINK something terrible has happened, and a moment later we learn that really, something wonderful has happened, instead. I actually like that movie best for how it illustrates this principle.

Commando Ten: Mascot Archie G. Marauder.

Audience sympathy is a very complex thing and it’s generally talked about as if it were a very simple thing. There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat! which suggests that you should have your hero do something lovely early in act one (i.e. save a cat) so the audience will like him. I don’t despise that book or that idea, but I do think it’s better to have the character make a choice that makes us respect him/her, rather than just do an arbitrary good deed.

And OF COURSE there are fascinating and successful UNsympathetic lead characters. The “heroes” of SCARFACE and THE PUBLIC ENEMY aren’t “sympathetic” at all, but they are fascinating. I think this gets overlooked because, while it’s easy to see why a likeable character would draw the audience in, get them rooting for their success, it’s much harder to say why these films work. Muni and Cagney are remarkable in them. Does the Irish gangster film RESURRECTION MAN fail because Stuart Townsend isn’t as good (he’s certainly not bad) or because of some more complicated question of the way the films work? Where does SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS fit in? The “lethal innocence” of the nice characters makes them ultimately dangerous, like Tweetie Pie, and the protagonist is a ratfink from the get-go, but maybe we’re on his side because he’s trying not to be destroyed by an even bigger bastard. Like I say, it’s complicated, and we should remember that.

Baragon But Not Forgotten

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2008 by dcairns

The film world was saddened today by the death of Baragon, the popular Japanese movie monster, or kaijin (literally, “strange beast”, which makes my cat a kaijin too). Baragon, the 100ft high tunnelling monster, made his screen debut in 1965, battling the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, and was an instant hit with audiences. He seemed to combine the insouciance of Mothra with the versatility of King Ghidora and the raw animal physicality of a young Gregory Peck.

Although Baragon officially retired from acting in 1997, he was always happy to sign autographs for fans. Living quietly on Monster Island with his longtime partner Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, he would relax by playing golf or taking photographs. An exhibition of his nudes was a critical success in 2002.

Today, colleagues paid tribute to the giant fire-breathing dinosaur, remembering his humour, his charity work, and his ability to pound cities into dust. “He was always so powerful on the screen, but in real life, he was a sweet, gentle fellow, always considerate towards new talent,” said Hedora the smog monster.

A spokesman for Toho, the studio where Baragon spent his career, said, “Baragon was a great actor and a great kaijin. We should honour his memory by thinking of his contribution to motion picture history.”

Accordingly, here are some stills from Baragon’s 32-year career, with subtitles translating his dialogue, for the first time, from guttural roars into English.

“They call me MISTER Baragon!”

“Because I wanted him, do you hear me? Because I WANTED him!”

“We’ll always have Tokyo.”