Archive for George Lucas

The Tunnel of Terror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2022 by dcairns

FLASH GORDON Chapter 2.

The superdramatic credits music segues into a ludicrous plangent saxophone as the recap title cards fade in — we’re not at the STAR WARS scrolling infodump phase yet.

Then we get the rehash of last episode’s cliffhanger, a good economical way to eat up some footage while orienting the latecomer.

Flash and Aura have accidentally been trapdoored and are falling towards almost certain mild peril, but the designers of Ming’s infernal devices have foreseen such snafus and installed a safety net, which interrupts their stylishly-shot plunge towards the inevitable enlarged iguanas. Oh for the days when death-traps came with safety features! In the modern world of airbags and such, ordinary transport has become crammed with lifesaving add-ons, but what of the lethal weapon or IED? Surely nailbombs could be fitted with nullifying magnets, imploding their shrapnel safely if a mistake has been made in the planting or detonation? Landmines should be fitted with bathroom scales so they only de-leg responsible adults. &c.

They’re way ahead on Mongo.

As a kid I wasn’t bothered by the implausibility of the net that catches F & A, either its existence or the speed with which it can be deployed (also a function of the sheer excessive Wonderland depth of the pit — but then, I guess you wouldn’t want to keep enlarged iguanas IMMEDIATELY under your palace linoleum). I just thought it was insanely cool and dramatic, which it is, plausibility aside.

(Perhaps every film should have an imaginary twin into which plausibility can be put aside: all movies need this. In Ken Loach’s solidly “realist” CARLA’S SONG, the bus-driver hero [and yes: more of these, please] is following the eponymous heroine through wartorn Nicaragua, but he’s told the village she’s now in is totally inaccessible — you can’t get there from here. But neither he nor anyone else asks or explains the obvious question — how in Fuck or Nicaragua did SHE get there?)

“They’re in the net, make prisoners of them both!” orders Ming, redundantly. Isn’t anyone in a net a defacto prisoner anyways? But if you’re an emperor you can say things like that with no pedantic critic to quibble.

Aura meanwhile explains that the enlarged iguanas should be properly known as the Dragons of Death — a bit of alliteration hinting at the chapter’s intended title until somebody realised there were more tunnels than dragons onscreen.

Aura, being an insider, knows all about The Secret Door, so she and Flash can attempt to elude their captors. Now we have some running about in caves/corridors, always good filler material in any serial, from here to Doctor Who. The corridors are artfully intertwined to avoid a spacetime continuum blow-out which would result if Flash met Buck Rogers going in the opposite direction.

Director Frederick Stephani, whose only canvas chair gig this was (but he wrote a bunch of stuff, contributing to this script and to the same studio’s DRACULA) now gets adventurous, essaying some Deutsch tilts, perhaps preparing us for the leftover FRANKENSTEIN sets which are waiting in the wings. He always tilts to the top left, rather than alternating, which I guess saves him having to commit himself to an ordering of shots (you generally want to go left-right-left to get that nice Eisensteinian crisscross effect in the cut).

Squeezed against a rockface with Aura, Flash crassly wonders about Dale’s fate (Sam J. Jones in the remake had similar difficulties compartmentalising his romantic interests). Larry “Buster” Crabbe speaks out the side of his mouth when stage-whispering (guards are searching a nearby Dutch angle) but, with adorable incompetence, it’s the WRONG side of his mouth. But hey, it favours the camera.

Bronson Caves, Bronson Canyon — no doubt the desolate, lizard-infested surface of Mongo was filmed a stone’s throw away. Anyway, FG had the biggest budget of any serial to date, so it’s not ALL stock shots and models and leftover sets. It’s an impressive location, even if, like Griffith Observatory in part 1, it’s more local than exotic.

Meanwhile, in Ming’s laboratory or “workshop”, Zarkov is put to work. I presume this is an old palace set from some Ruritanian operettafilm, with Kenneth Strickfaden electrics shipped in. An exciting combo.

Zarkov’s new status as Ming’s bitch is signalled by his costume change to a black onesie with thick medieval bdsm belt. None of us enjoys looking at Frank Shannon’s legs, though, so thank God for the medium shot. Zarkov seems for now quite ready to fall in line with his new master’s bidding, seduced by the opulent mad science facilities.

Dale, meanwhile, is rejecting her own costume change and refusing to settle into what is obviously a harem or seraglio. At last Jean Rogers gets to do some camp ham, jutting her little jaw as she asserts her stubborn earthwoman will. Because there’s a round mirror on the set, we leave the scene via a bubbling set of circular wipes. George Lucas was paying attention: when C-3PO is lifted to his feet, the wipe rises from bottom to top like an elevator. Of course Lucas’ other big influence, Kurosawa, had an early weakness for wipes too…

Aura leads Flash out of the caves to a discreetly parked rocketship, and Maestro Stephani throws in a Wagonwheel Joe / Sid Furie spy angle, shooting through an obscure stack of foreground rubble, perhaps foreshadowing some hidden assailant? Foreshadowing is usually an alien word in the movie serial, which thrives on the one-damn-thing-after-another sequential menace paradigm, where pausing to set something up is verboten. But the alternative explanation — that this is merely a stylistic flourish — is also rendered unlikely by the demands of short schedules and economy in all things. (Economy is actually a pretty good aesthetic.)

As in the comics and the 1980 movie, Aura is a near-unique point of moral ambiguity (but actually, there’s Vultan to come…) She saves Flash out of lust, and is determined to keep him from Dale. But she is a potential covert to the side of good. Her nymphomania does not condemn her, which is good, I suppose.

In movie serial logic, the fact that Flash and Dale are instantly in love is just taken as normal, though they spoof it in the remake. Whereas Aura’s hot pants are a character aberration. “You will never see Dale Arden again,” she monologues.

Flash finds a change of outfit in the rocketship’s closet. So now all three of our leads have been offered Mongoese fashions, with only Dale holding out. Obviously she’ll have to go with the tide eventually. Meanwhile, it will be a relief to get Larry “Buster” Crabbe out of those polo duds.

Dale’s refusal to become Ming’s bride and wear his togs results in the High Priest telling on her. “As High Priest, you know what to do,” intones MTM. “You mean… the dehumanizer?” quails the cleric, wondering how being ordained has led him to this end.

Ming specifies that the hypnotic spell should only last long enough for the marriage ceremony to be perfromed. Anything after that is legal, I guess. We’re only in episode 2 and we’re at the climax of the Hodges movie. Things move pretty fast around here.

Now a dude in cassock and silver slippers reports that “the gyro-ships of the Lion Men” are on the attack. He’s just seen it on a Zoom call. The Lion Men and their spinning top spacecraft are sadly absent from the later movie. I’m not sure if there’s any logical thread that says Lion Men should have giddy-making dreidelcraft. Also, I don’t know how practical these things are — maybe the centrifugal force is supposed to create gravity in space (which apparently wouldn’t work), but the things are only ever seen in Mongo’s atmosphere. A waste of energy, but then, that’s kind of the whole modus operandi here.

Seeing these invaders, Flash immediately takes off to start a dogfight or lionfight with them. Strange behaviour since (a) he’s a polo player, not a trained space pilot, and this isn’t even a earth-built rocketship and (b) he has no dog/lion in this race/fight. He has no reason to suppose these spinning tops are hostile, or that he should care if they are.

At the wheel of one ship is Thun, the lion man, disappointingly bereft of Bert Lahr makeup. But he does have the upsetting shorts that are de rigeur spacewear for Mongoites.

The ensuing battle royale does not strike me as inferior to anything in STAR WARS, and presumably cost about $1.98. Models on wires, miniature pyrotechnics, it’s all the same thing. The sound effects are of the firecracker variety, has anyone ever transposed Ben Burtt sound effects onto this sequence? I know he did a track for WINGS, and that worked fine.

I love how a felled gyroship plummets point-first, with a little candleflame atop it. A flambé spaceship. Whistling sound effect. Then Flash, great berk that he is, crashes his rocket into Thun’s, and they fall together, interpenetrated. “Try a Little Tenderness” does not play on the soundtrack, I don’t think it was written yet.

They smash into the ground diorama at lethal velocity, then EXPLODE, but it’s MUCH too early for a cliffhanger, so the occupants must simply shake off their certain death and stagger from the debris, dazed but grateful to benign providence. And still determined to kill one another. We’re probably only yards from where Capt. Kirk wrestled the Gorn. In days long gorn. Of futures past.

Like most of Flash’s enemies, Tun will end up a staunch ally. Flash has that effect. As with Jimmy Stewart, “People just seem to like him.” Clay people, hawkmen, lion men… Mike Hodges saw his film as a satire on American interventionism, but in this more innocent yarn, the fantasy of foreign entanglement is served without irony.

Thun knows a secret passage that leads to the Palace. Of course he does. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as the secret passage that saves Barbarella from the sacrificial birdbox. I mean, safety features in death traps is all very well, but having a fire exit in your infernal aviary is just silly.

Meanwhile, Dale is about to be dehumidified or whatever.

Thun’s secret passage turns out to be a huge medieval gate, heavily guarded, by some thug in Greco-Roman hand-me-downs. Flash strangles him into showing the way, and anyway, the door isn’t locked.

Dale’s hypnotic device is a strobing neon bendy straw which makes her sit up straight, wide-eyed, when it’s not even in the vicinity. Powerful stuff.

Ming wants to know if the god Tao (sp?) favours this marriage, so the High Priest cues stock footage of the Martian dance number from JUST IMAGINE, which Kenneth Anger also enjoyed. As a kid, I somehow knew that this shot didn’t belong here, that it was too big and lavish for its surroundings, and I despaired of ever learning where it originated. Happy days.

I STILL don’t know where all the stock music comes from, but there’s some Liszt, isn’t there, and some Franz Waxman?

The big anamatronic god is too impressive a guy to waste, so the serial obliges us to look at him for some time, waiting like Ming for some SIGN of approval or otherwise, which the archive material is not really equipped to give. They try piping in different bits of library music to keep it fresh.

Flash immediately locates Zarkov, which is not as silly as the different characters landing on the planet-sized Death Star in THE FORCE AWAKENS and at once bumping into one another. Flash learns that the worlds will not, after all, collide. “That’s fine!” he exclaims.

He then strangles the captive guard (again) into showing him the dance number. If movie serials have taught me one dangerous factoid, it’s that strangling always works, in any situation. This has ruled me out of a lot of teaching jobs. Fortunately art school is still OK with this.

Ming’s marriage will be conducted in “a secret chamber” but the low ranking guard knows exactly where it is and doesn’t even have to be restrangled into leading the way. But he won’t go in, because there’s a “huge beast” guarding the entrance. Good luck strangling a kaiju, Flash.

Sitting in his big conch, Ming gets the gratifying news that the god Tao has sanctioned his nuptials, something we don’t get to see despite having stared at the big guy for close to a reel. What did he do, give a thumbs-up, an OK sign, or just a giant animatronic wink?

Dale meanwhile gets a lovely makeover, and she only had to be dehumanized to make her accept it. There may be a Hollywood/western civilisation metaphor at work here.

The secret marriage chamber looks to me like a Charles D. Hall FRANKENSTEIN set, with new bric-a-brac ported in, including an Egyptian god doubtless left over from THE MUMMY. But it might all be from that one.

CLIFFHANGER — the huge beast shows up, a lovely rubber lizard costume with MASSIVE pincers. He can barely walk, whoever he is. Ray “Crash” Corrigan will later play an “orangopoid” so wouldn’t they just enlist him for additional lumbering here? We may never know, but anyhow —

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK

Bulging

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2020 by dcairns

WHYYYYYYYYY did I watch BATTLE OF THE BULGE? OK, I’m swearing off wartime epics for the rest of the year.

Ken Annakin’s “vision” of Germany’s last big offensive of WWII is expensive-looking, even if the miniature work recalls designer Eugene Lourie’s work on GORGO. Since it’s a Cinerama/Super Panavision widescreen pageant, there are lots of views from the front of tanks and aircraft to give us a rollercoaster effect, and it did actually inflict mild motion sickness on me, even viewed on a DVD on my puny 27-inch Toshiba, so I have to give them that. It’s the only reason I can think of for George Lucas to have paid such prominent tribute to this minor director…Following Annakin’s THE LONGEST DAY, this De Laurentiis spectacle/ride shows the battle — it seemed like a whole lot more than one battle — from both the German and American sides. But the Germans are definitely the baddies.

There are a few moments of cinematic interest, mainly match cuts connecting scenes: nice to see Fritz Lang’s visual language in play. Robert Shaw with Aryan dye-job and ludicrous accent, pulls on a jackboot and stamps his foot to finish the job — CUT TO a whole line of soldiers stamping their little feet in salute in the next scene. That kind of thing.

Yeah, the characters have been generalized alright. And not just the generals.

The silly way the same eight or so characters keep turning up at every stage of the campaign makes the thing seem underpopulated, even with its cast of thousands. It has little imagination but nor is it realistic in any intelligent way. It wastes some good actors. It’s not entertaining. Why did they make these things? Why have I watched most of them?

“You’re obsessed,” explains Fiona, flatly.

BATTLE OF THE BULGE stars Tom Joad; Quint; Captain Nemo; Fred Derry; Philip Marlowe; Sacramento: Teresa; Harmonica; Donkeyman; Inspektor Vulpius; David Balfour; and the voices of Dudley Do-Right and Emilio Largo.“Exemplifies the error.” Yes. This.

Oh, then I watched MIDWAY — the original, Jack Smight version, from The Mirisch Company, who specialised in war pics when they weren’t doing Billy Wilders and PINK PANTHERS. It actually makes a boast about its use of stock footage in the opening crawl, so that we end up watching a great deal of real death in grainy long shot. A grisly piece of work. The only fun in it is Hal Holbrook’s wacky Mark Twain impression, and the line “These people are no more a threat to national security than your pet Airedale!” spoken by Charlton Heston with granite intensity.

The line concerns a Japanese family who have been arrested on suspicion. NOT, we note, interned, since movies, even the well-intentioned BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, were not copping to the mass detention of Japanese-Americans. Not for decades yet.The tagline ought to have been “MIDWAY — makes BATTLE OF THE BULGE look like LA GRANDE ILLUSION.”

MIDWAY stars Judah Ben-Hur; Juror 8; Pat Garrett; Deep Throat; Sanjuro Kuwabatake; Max Cady; Joe Cantwell; Prince Valiant; Juror 12; President Harry S. Truman; Det. Joe Kojaku: Det. Bobby Crocker; Nelse McLeod; another Pat Garrett; Jeff Trent; Mr. Miyagi; Emperor Hirohito; Franklin Hart, Jr.; Officer Frank Poncherello; Magnum, PI; Professor Hikita; ‘Painless’ Kumagai: Capt. ‘Painless’ Waldowski; and the voice of Colossus.

If  war is a continuation of politics by other means, war movies seem to be just a continuation of themselves, of one another, of Henry Fonda’s retirement plan.

Jeez, the miniatures department are really lying down on the job.

Vlad Songs Say So Much

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2018 by dcairns

Welcome to the final installment of THE VLAD TAPES, my commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. I was several installments into this before it struck me that BSD was the first movie I saw at the cinema with Fiona. It wasn’t a date — there was a producer present — but it was the start of something. And the first time I saw Fiona wearing glasses. And at the end of the movie she said, “Now, we can’t discuss it until we’re outside,” which I thought very disciplined. Normally, now, Fiona launches into the post-match analysis as the credits are starting their rise, so I think maybe she was just showing off.

We begin with an elaborate explanation of the ongoing plot from Uncle Francis, which I’ll omit.

This is, you know, a glass shot, or some old-fashioned studio effect.

It would be nice if he was sure which.

I forget even now watching what we had built and what we added… I think my mind was going at this point.

And when did that start, exactly?

You know it was a lot of stuff to shoot in a relatively short time frame… this is for sure a glass shot, the road is real and then the rest is painted.

I guess with the passage of time, it’s less easy to tell when the film is being deliberately retro and when it’s just using the standard techniques of 1992. Plenty of films still used glass shots then, I think. But the lack of overt CGI certainly works against it dating.

And it’s snowing at Castle Sitting Down Dracula! They should show this movie every Christmas.

You begin to wonder why all movies look alike, and it’s because the solutions to problems are done a certain way and when you’re making a movie you have that stunt guy and he says “You fall off a horse this way,” and that’s the way they fall off the horse in every movie… I mean, good reason, it’s probably the safe way…

Wait, what are we saying, again? The real geniuses devise more painful and dangerous ways to fall off horses. That’s probably about right, I guess.

but it’s sort of an undertow when you make an industrial film, which this is, to do it the same way they’re used to doing it…

OK, yes, I get you. And it’s true. But to break through that you do need to offer a better way, don’t you?

If you have a photographer and you ask him to do something stupid or unconventional, he’s worried […] what his peers are gonna say, is he gonna be laughed at, at the Photographers’ Ball when they all get together…

Is there a Photographer’s Ball? Was Ballhaus scared of what they’d all say at the ball? I love this idea. I love the image of a shamed Ballhaus, his peers all laughing down their viewfinders at him, waving their light meters scornfully.

My daughter Sophia does it another way, she’s a tiny woman, she’s not a, she’s a very petite woman, very sweet and gentle, but she’s just hard as nails underneath, so she’ll just say “I don’t want to do it that way.”

Whereas Francis would kick holes in doors. We live in less romantic times.

Van Helsing uses a Gurkha knife to decapitate the brides of Dracula:

So much for the three Brides of Dracula, you cut off their heads and they’re finished.

True. But you needn’t feel so superior about it.

I feel a bit sorry for the brides. They seem to be conscious, but unable to move because it’s daylight, and here comes this gallumphing taff actor to decapitate them. Horrible! Think of it from their point of view and it’s the scariest scene in the picture.

Animated POV again —

That was to show that Mina had the pixilated vision so she didn’t need the binoculars.

Are you implying she’s squiffled or something?

It is remarkable that this chase has the variety it has, because it’s all shot in the same place.

Chases don’t work so well in the studio. What Uncle Francis is really saying is that this is pretty good considering it’s the wrong way of doing it.

But actually, it’s really quite accomplished. It’s the fight that comes next that’s kind of messy.

These blue rings of fire I do believe were done on an optical printer

Francis feels the in-camera tricks have a more organic feel. Possibly true. I like how they’re the same rings — positively the same rings — as seen when Mephistopheles appears in Murnau’s FAUST and the false Maria is brought to life in METROPOLIS.

Much of these shots are done by Roman because there were so many shots to get, a slew of them […] we were like a two-man team doing these things.

The epic battle just seems like a lot of thrashing about. The occasional wide shots, like this one, aren’t terribly impressive. It’s very much a sequence made by the cutter, using a lot of just-adequate material, and it never gets very involving or exciting, despite the music and the race-the-sunset concept.

Keanu seems slightly more on top of his accent at last. Like he’s delivering the lines, not the other way around.

And for the large, large, large part, all these lines are out of the book.

If Keanu Reeves swapped parts with Alex Winter as the author of The Vampyre in HAUNTED SUMMER, which film would get better and which would get worse? I think they might be about the same. Still GREAT.

And then, alas, there’s a series of morphs taking Gary through his previous incarnations, though he skips the big friendly dog and the green fart stage. Remember how excited everybody got about morphing for about five minutes? (David Lynch, on why he didn’t use morphs in LOST HIGHWAY: “It just seems like everyone and his uncle’s doin’ it.”) Lap dissolves would have been more in keeping with Roman Coppola’s old-school approach to the other effects, maybe with a slight, subtle morphing assistance. It’s the one jarringly fashionable effect.

I remember I showed it to my friend George Lucas, and he looked it and he said, “I think she should cut off his head,” and I said, “Well, that’s pretty disgusting,” he says, “Yeah, well, that’s the greatest act she could give him, to give him the peace and the moment of once again being taken to God’s breast can only be given to him by cutting off his head,” and I said, “Yeah, I hadn’t quite thought of it that way,” and I did it. […] George had thought that to REALLY be sure that he’d never be a vampire again… I thought it was pretty CLEAR… I did it the sparks went in, the thing went through his heart, like a stake through the heart, George says “She should cut off his head, that’s the greatest act of love she could do,” I said “Okay! If they don’t get it with the stake through the heart, we’ll cut off his head. Pretty startling thing to do.”

“I don’t think he should have listened to George,” says Fiona.

I point out that they had to decapitate all the other vampires. Van Helsing was very clear about that.

“I suppose so. You can’t have a special rule just for Gary Oldman, much as you would like to.”

Still, given all that’s happened since, maybe a good general rule would be, “Never listen to George Lucas.”

I guess Gary got to keep the head, but did they also give him the nipple from earlier?

Which actor of our times is closest to being able to assemble a full silicone Frankenstein monster of himself from all the bits he’s had done in different movies?

And such is the end. They go off to heaven as lovers always do. Paola and Francesca, Dracula and Elisabeta

Bert and Ernie.

Although waitaminute, Mina’s not dead, so can the woman she’s the reincarnation of be going off to heaven with Gary? Seems a tricky one. It’s kind of like the polygamy we have to assume exists in Heaven for all the people who were widowed and remarried and then died…

and on and on, the end.

Yes.

The credits are rolling but Francis shows no signs of stopping.

My idea was to make it with young people and to make it more romantic and in fact SEXY, the Brides of Dracula and the various scenes with Sadie and then combining eroticism when Mina begins to be infected by the blood of the vampire, she gets to be sort of provocatively sexy, and in fact she was pretty sexy in that scene with Anthony Hopkins, you know, she brings him down to her level and almost exalts [sic] in the fact that she has him stoked up.

Well, it is Bram STOKER’S — oh wait, I already made that joke.

So it was supposed to be a more sexy version. I don’t feel it’s so scary a version. Maybe a little bit.

Yes.

It’s my take on Jim Hart’s script, which I guess is all a director can do.

Short of getting a better writer.

I was able to achieve a final — hopefully final! — freedom from the film industry as an industry. As I continue now, as I speak to you, it’s 2006 and I am just recently sixty-seven years old, or as I like to call it, fifty-seventeen, and I decided to do what I always felt I wanted to do, which is to be an amateur

Which is lovely. And then he compares himself to Borodin, because Borodin was a doctor in his professional life and a composer on the side, and Tchaikovsky, because, well it kind of breaks down there. Maybe Francis likes hot baths.

I hope you have enjoyed these thoughts

“Oh we certainly have!” says Fiona.

Thank you so much.

You’re very welcome INDEED.

It’s not over until the thin Aberdonian lady sings, so here’s Annie Lennox. Remember not to start discussing the movie until she’s done.