Archive for Close Encounters of the Third Kind

2001: An Odyssey in Bits #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on November 28, 2018 by dcairns

(So, OK, there’s an overture — a bit of Ligeti used as build-up — played over a black screen for a minute or so before this shot.)

Hello! I thought I’d blog my way through 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and see if I can surprise myself with any fresh discoveries.

Kubrick was prone to speaking of his films being based around “non-submersible units” — “give me six non-submersible units and I’ll make you a film!” Suggesting he may have been confusing films with pontoon bridges, possibly. But 2001 really is based around big cinematic set-pieces, and Kubrick’s rejection of the theatrical act structure adopted by Hollywood and most other movies is significant. It ties him into the sixties art cinema of Fellini, Antonioni, etc. I’m not quite clear who first developed the more abstract, musical or free-form patterns we see in art movies of the time…

Anyway, after the Ligeti we get Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and a sunrise in space. In fact, a simultaneous planetrise and sunrise.Sunrises are important in this film. See how many of them YOU can spot.

The FX still hold up, partly because they’re beautiful as well as convincing. This one arguably is a little flat — a shame they couldn’t have made moon more dimensional. There is a slight feeling of the rostrum camera about the movements. It’s the authentic BRIGHTNESS of the sun that makes it feel more real than cut-out animation — the bit of lens flare that will appear just before the main title really sells it.The big crescendos and cymbal-clashes on Kubrick’s name and the title are almost too much — I don’t think anybody laughs at 2001 except for the zero-G toilet instructions and some of the late Douglas Rains’s lines, so they get away with it, but really… you must have a healthy ego to put your name up there at this exact moment in the music. It’s good showbiz though, clearly.Reading the contemporary critics is a little dispiriting. They seem so determined not to be amazed. Like they all drank their sense of wonder to death long before. Those words “sense of wonder” may have been overused to death also, but they really apply here. The film does allow room to wonder — your questions have a good chance of being worth asking. I think I may have first heard the expression around the time of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and in that film, there aren’t really any questions that’ll make you think. There’s mystery — what are the aliens up to? — but no useful answers present themselves. Stealing and returning aeroplanes and small children, swooping about, implanting images in brains… they’ve come a long way just to fuck with us, it seems.

Kubrick’s aliens are less whimsical. It seems they have a definite end in mind. They are playing a long game. But does it work?

Tune in next time…

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Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by dcairns

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…or S.U.B.S. for short. Fiona coined this phrase to describe the way the killer babies kept popping up in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. We had rented the first film in the series on VHS from the late lamented Alphabet Video in Bruntsfield, years and years ago, and been impressed by (1) leading man John P. Ryan, who brings far more commitment and credibility than the monster baby movie would seem to deserve, and (2) Bernard Herrmann’s score, which seems to come from a different, better era/film.

Cohen has a tendency to cast well and then not give his actors time to get it right, but at least he does pick out good people. Ryan returns in the second film, where Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd take over the leading parts — talented actors, as you’d know if you saw them elsewhere, but struggling with the material and tending to over-hype the emotions — too many scenes feel like promising rehearsals.

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Une Etrange Aventure de…

We also get, improbably, Eddie Constantine as a porridge-faced obstetrician, Cohen fave James Dixon, the only actor in all three films, as a cop with Donald Trump hair, and veteran John Marley, who is completely authoritative and nails every moment he’s given — thereby making everything else seem even more unbelievable.

The mutant rugrat is no better in film two than it was in film one — Rick Baker famously complained that Cohen sprang the project on him with no prep time, promised to not show the creature (an immobile sculpture) except for “flashes,” and then kept inventing new shots to showcase it. He also apparently suggested making a baby costume for his cat, which Baker balked at, so Cohen suggested using a chicken. “But chickens have two legs. Babies crawl on all fours.” “OK, two chickens! And maybe they’d fight!” (This story may have grown in the telling.)

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Sidenote — on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they apparently experimented with putting an orangutan on rollerskates to simulate an alien visitor. It didn’t come off. Undeterred, George Lucas attempted to cast a monkey as Yoda, but couldn’t quite get the effect he wanted and settled for a shit muppet. Only the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica seem to have gone all the way and put a chimp in a weird Honey Monster/bondage costume to impersonate some cyborg space pet.

At this stage, I would be unsurprised to learn that E.T. was planned as a marmot on stilts, or that Orangey the cat from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s was set to be the original Chewbacca. But I have no definite information as to these theories which I have just made up.

Star Wars Yoda monkey

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In the end, there’s the sculpture, plus a mask and glove for closeups, and the keeping-the-monster-unseen strategy, stretched as far as it can go, comes off as cheap rather than Lewtonesque.

The second film attempts to “surpass” the first by throwing in a couple more killer sprogs, but the original is still dead so the title should really be SOME MORE ITS ARE ALIVE or IT DIES AGAIN or something. Cohen’s other saving grace is his politics, which sadly don’t get that much of an airing here. The third film goes a little further but flounders in a welter of bad effects work and bad story ideas ~

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The casting coups this time are Karen Black (not in it that much) and Michael Moriarty, who seems curiously miscast in the role of an actor. As a no-hope lounge singer in Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, I thought he was great value. I reminded Fiona that his piano-bar noodlings formed a major part of the soundtrack of that flying lizard police procedural, and she was startled at the memory. It was such a bold choice. “I wonder if he’ll sing this time?” And moments later, aboard a yacht bound for the ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, he launches into a rousing rendition of The Skye Boat Song, in Scots brogue, no less, which goes on for an uncomfortably long time and is very, very funny.

Elsewhere, things are dreadful: a bunch of the babies grow into adult-sized monsters within five years, but still have giant baby heads because I guess a redesign was going to be too expensive. Karen Black narrowly escapes gang rape by punk rockers (a very real social problem in Florida in 1987, I’m sure). Moriarty has a run in with the Cuban secret service. A bizarre post-nuclear family happy ending is contrived that makes no sense — we are supposed to feel hopeful as our heroes, who are international celebrities, flee the authorities with a mutant baby in a hot car.

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The biggest problem, for me, is that Cohen is really terrible at filming stuff — his coverage is erratic and often actually incomplete, missing shots he can’t do without to achieve coherent continuity. At other times he uses more shots than he needs, and they’re almost never the RIGHT shots. Even the few stop motion shots in the third film are oddly selected, very brief and usually showing the baby from behind, so we can admire its muscular latex buttocks but get little sense of threat, unless we’re meant to be scared it’ll do a toxic poo. Which is something a serious mutant baby movie would have to tackle, come to think of it.

Midnight Movie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2012 by dcairns

Caught up with JJ Abrams’ SUPER 8.

(JJ Abrams movies may be what rental is for.)

But I’m favourably disposed to him, really. And actually glad I saw his STAR TREK on the big screen, where the audience reaction was delightful. I’ll totally see the sequel.

Peter O’Toole cameo (left).

Abrams channels the Spielberg of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and ET well, but I disliked the faux-camera-flare and missed the grain. And also, Spielberg has been heavily absorbed by US filmmakers already, so there’s recognition without the shock when it’s done more self-consciously, as in “this is a retro statement” rather than “this is what we consider the acme of American cinema” which is the kind of attitude I get from those MUMMY films…

The story is fine, though I wished it were weirder: real UFO stories are WEIRD. The period feel didn’t really come alive for me, and oddly, the Super-8 film element wasn’t important to the story. Some kids are making a zombie film when they accidentally film a train accident in which a crashed alien, held prisoner for years by the government, escapes. But the accidental filming part isn’t really a big plot point, when you get to it. A shame, since it shouldn’t have been hard to get a BLOW UP thing going on.

Hey, it’s Glynn Turman — from JD’S REVENGE! — as whistleblowing science teacher Mr Woodward (easy Watergate reference). As we know from Breaking Bad, science teachers are bad-ass.

As the spectacle and crisis mounts, the film goes for emotion but doesn’t quite nail it, despite Elle Fanning being particularly good. I think this is because we don’t quite know how to feel about the big alien — he’s more sinned against than sinning but he does kill a lot of innocent people. And eat them. Even in Act III. There’s something nice about the film’s desire to make us consider things from an enemy alien’s point of view, and ask how these hostiles got to be so hostile — good liberal allegory work there — but it’s inimical to the simplicity Spielbergian emotion seems to require. And Abrams still has a weakness for gestural emotion, where characters throw away or let go things that they’ve grown out of. Never actually convinces or moves us. Gloria Stuart chucking that diamond away in TITANIC has a lot to answer for.

But as the extraterrestrial shit hits the fan and Spielbergian classicism melds with Abrams’ more chaotic, modern feel, one positive thing is that the funny lines play funnier amid the frenzy, so it’s a pretty good time. Just not, somehow, satisfying.

But the Super-8 film-within-the film is great ~