Archive for Dan O’Bannon

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.

Holiday Affray

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2021 by dcairns

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

New Year, New Podcast

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2019 by dcairns

Happy New Year!

Fiona, myself, and Momo the spacecat venture into the trackless voids of interstellar space in our latest podcast, proving that the space between the stars will MAKE YOU CRAZY. Examples include George Pal’s CONQUEST OF SPACE, Jindrich Polak’s thoughtful Czechoslovakian Stanislaw Lem adaptation IKARIE XB-1, Bernard Knowles’s goofy but ambitious Brit nonstravaganza SPACEFLIGHT IC-1: AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE, and John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s existential comedy DARK STAR.

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.