Archive for Jack Kirby

These Aren’t Films

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2015 by dcairns

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More things that aren’t films…

Donald Westlake’s Kahawa, about a coffee heist (!) in Idi Amin’s Uganda, is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, more serious and brutal than the author’s usual light capers. It could make a great movie, like Jack Cardiff’s DARK OF THE SUN, but I guess LAST KING OF SCOTLAND “did” Idi Amin for a generation at least. Don’t get me started on the narrative failings of that movie. Except maybe to note that in order to facilitate the hero’s eleventh hour escape, Amin personally drives him to the airport, before having him suspended in the duty-free section by guards who then wander off so he can get rescued (Overdubbed line: “He will still be here when we get back.”)

Westlake of course machine-tools his plot to perfection, but also throws in more convincing local colour and local horror. I suspect the darkness infected his subsequent thriller, The Comedy is Finished, in which, basically, Bob Hope is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. It sounds like it should be wickedly hilarious but it’s bleak, intense, gory and profane.

Favourite line in Kahawa deals with a British diplomat meeting a charming African girl: “Then I’m delighted,” Sir Denis said, smiling down upon her from his greater height and age and sex and race.

Favourite line in The Comedy is Finished describes a naive revolutionary trying to explain how the world works: He was trying to make a necklace, using some real pearls, some fake pearls, and imaginary string.

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“Look at him. Look at Geoff Wode.” Morrison’s WITHNAIL obsession burns on.

Enjoying Grant Morrison’s comic book Annihilator, drawn in lambent cosmic hues by Frazer Irving, but what the hell has happened to the last episode? It’s an apocalyptic black comedy in which a Byronic rake from beyond our reality abducts a dying screenwriter whose brain tumour may be a corporeal manifestation of a black hole in another dimension. The comic book industry is weird, in that release dates apparently mean nothing, so the gap between penultimate and final episode has now gone on longer than the series ran when it was actually appearing.

Also good: Nameless, an occult thriller in space that excels whenever it gets really distressingly trippy. There’s a quite straight narrative about a killer asteroid filled with Lovecraftian horrors but the story keeps disintegrating under a barrage of repulsive and terrifying imagery — it’s the sense of What The Hell Is Going On? which makes it scary. Chris Burnham’s art has always had an affinity for the grubby and icky, and Morrison exploits it with glee.

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It’s ridiculous that Hollywood hasn’t managed a Morrison adaptation yet, but I fear his stuff is too smart. Whereas anytime Mark Millar coughs into a hankie they buy the screen rights.

The BBC’s adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell certainly has cinematic scope. I never even imagined it would make a good adaptation as I devoured the book, but Peter Harness has the skill to shape it into tight episodes without leaving out the crucual moments or dwelling too long on the diversions. The cast is absolutely splendid, with pitch perfect lead perfs from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan (cast very much to type, but brilliant at it). My mate Brian Pettifer is delightful in a supporting role, and week by week we await the appearance of Niall Greig Fulton (of CRY FOR BOBO and LET US PREY and NATAN) as John Uskglass, the Raven King.

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I want to specially mention Claudia Jessie out of the excellent cast, because I’m afraid nobody else will — she plays the small role of Mary the maid in the Strange household. In her stand-out scene, she’s quizzed by her mistress (breathy, magnificent Charlotte Riley) about something she may have learned from her beau — so first she has to ask about her beau. It’s like a bottle is uncorked and slowly tipped: Mary starts to reluctantly admit that she is attracted to this young man, and then it all spills out in an embarrassing erotic confession — she can’t help it, possibly nobody’s ever asked her about her love life, and suddenly she finds she NEEDS to tell. The actor not only nails this, she makes it her own, and then she exceeds expectations about what might be done with such a scene. The show is full of such grace notes. (Does Claudia self-google? Hi, Claudia!)

A confession of my own. When I read the book, Fiona was very ill with depression: she had vanished into herself so that only a tiny wisp of her life force remained visible, like the wick of a candle. I became fixated on the character of Mrs. Pole, sold to the fairies by Mr. Norrell, half her hours spent in the alarming palace of Lost Hope, her waking days an exhausted, distracted blur, unable to even speak of her plight due to an enchantment. I very much needed Mrs. Pole to get rescued. When Fiona got better I gave her the book to read but I’m not sure I explained why, asides from its excellence, it was important to me.

The book and show use magic not as a straight allegory but in all kinds of allusive ways. Ultimately it’s a feminist novel about the excesses of men granted too much power. The fairy victims who cannot even tell of their sufferings could be seen as abuse victims, who find they cannot accuse their persecutors (“There is a rose at your mouth,”) and must instead babble meaninglessly when all that matters cannot be uttered. But the richness of the work lies in how it can be read all sorts of ways.

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I picked up a library edition of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s The Fantastic Four; Marvel Masterworks, and had the odd sensation of finishing a strip I must have started forty years ago. And I was reading it with a mixture of awe for Kirby’s punchy, wacky visuals — William Blake on steroids — and shock at Lee’s scripting. In reality, Kirby wrote the stories straight onto the page, in the form of pictures, and Lee’s job was literally what a lot of people think comic book writers do — he filled in the speech balloons. Actually, his verbose, stilted and inane dialogue, while on the one hand a perfect complement to the characters’ epic pose-striking, and a way of breaking up the space opera solemnity with occasional slangy zest, could be compared to an act of vandalism. Underneath all those unnecessary captions is MORE ART, damnit. Every time Reed Richards opens his prolix, stretchy yap, more penmanship is obscured. I know Kirby always left space for speech bubbles (thereby telling Lee who was talking and how much), but Lee always goes that extra wordy mile to cram as much guff in as possible. Hilariously, Ben “the Thing” Grimm’s contributions are usually to tell everyone else to shut up.

Also hilarious: the maniacal despots. The first two strips in this volume BOTH feature evil rulers bent on conquering the world with their hypno-rays.

I like how Kirby always drops in a clue to some mysterious new crisis developing elsewhere while the foursome are in the midst of their present adventure. Even when this week’s galactic punch-up is brought to a successful finish, a further cliffhanger is on the boil, forcing the fanboys and true believers to grab the next issue, even if it does take them forty years to get around to it.

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Slightly ashamed to be looking at Marvel’s Agent Carter, but my excuse is I’m preparing a 1940s fantasy project of my own. First episode contained a pleasing in-joke (above), and one excellent exchange. Carter, disguised as a blonde, enters the office of a villainous night-club owner.

“Is this a bad time?”

Him, grinning, “We won’t know that until afterwards.”

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Lost in Time and Lost in Space… and Meaning

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by dcairns

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I was impressed by a shot in Adam Curtis’s free-form documentary found-footage mash-up IT FELT LIKE A KISS in which Doris Day closes a hotel room door in our face and the room number on it is 2001. Curtis uses this to evoke thoughts about the events of 9:11 and the more innocent-seeming world we dream existed before that act of unscheduled demolition opened the  war on abstract concepts. I became convinced that it might also be possible to draw connections between Kubrick’s film 2001 and the actual events on September 11th of that year. If, as ROOM 237 shows, THE SHINING can be bent this way and that to support an apparently unlimited range of unrelated theories, surely the even more open text of 2001 can act as a lens through which to view events which were still in the almost-unimaginable future when Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived their space odyssey?

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Kubrick begins with a desert landscape populated by aggressive cave-dwellers. Al-Qaeda? Racist to conflate arabs and ape-men, but in a way we’re only following the racist logic of much media reporting to see where it leads. 2001 begins with a land that doesn’t need to be bombed back to the stone age because it’s already there. The simians are visited by a shiny rectangular artifact, which we’ll spuriously claim represents the Twin Towers. Gazing at it in awe, they are inspired to discover weapons and kill.

Of course, the connection between apes and the World Trade Center is really made by the DeLaurentiis KING KONG, in which Kong scales one of the towers before leaping to the other, driven by some primal urge (he apparently relates the towers to a geographical feature of Skull Island). Attacked by helicopters, Kong (like the 2001 man-beasts, an uncredited actor in a costume) is shot down. KING KONG is directed by John Guillermin, who had considerable skyscraper experience, having just made THE TOWERING INFERNO. Thus Kubrick’s film, without containing any shots of large-scale destruction, calls to mind the events of 9:11 in a variety of ways in its very first sequence.

In Steve Bell’s newspaper strip in The Guardian, entitled If…, George W Bush was always portrayed as a simian. And IF… is also the title of the film starring Malcolm McDowell which got Little Malcolm the lead role in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. (CLOCKWORK ORANGE can be seen as a black parody of 2001: a barbaric savage is reprogrammed by a higher power. In both cases, the primitive being is shown a film accompanied by German classical music — Moonwatcher the apeman perceives this with his mind’s eye, whereas Malcolm watches it on a traditional screen. The protagonists of both films end up in bed, transformed.)

In a justly famous transition, Kubrick match-cuts from a hurled bone to a spacecraft, cementing the notion of flying vehicles as weapons. Later we will meet spacecraft identified as belonging to Pan-Am Airlines, confirming that spacecraft are just evolved aircraft (and both are just evolved ape-weapons).

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Now we meet Space Station V, an orbiting base composed of two wheels, each constructed like a skyscraper swallowing its own tail. Parts of the station are apparently as yet incomplete, exposing red girders. To a Strauss waltz, we watch as a spacecraft flies directly into the station, but rather than causing destruction it is simply swallowed up. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this space base has a restaurant and an unbeatable view. The WTC boasted of its top floor “observatories” and its “Windows on the World” restaurant and “Cellar in the Sky” bar. The SSV actually does feature windows on the world, through which the Earth can be seen, apparently spinning below.

On board, things are seething with international tension — in Kubrick’s vision of the future, Perestroika never happened so the Russians are still the threat. There’s also news of a strange discovery on the moon —

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The floodlit excavation sight is almost a dead ringer for New York’s Ground Zero, only with a skyscraper (the monolith) still rising out of it, impossibly. It’s existence causes another flight, this time to Jupiter (and beyond the infinite), which incidentally is one of the dozen places President Bush was flown to after the towers collapsed.

Now we find ourselves on a spacecraft on a secret mission, hijacked by a terrorist which started out disguised as a legitimate passenger on the craft (the shipboard computer). HAL kills the crew members in order to take over the ship, but he does it because “this mission is too important to allow you to jeopardise it.”

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Repeated image of a body tumbling through space.

Like the passengers on the hijacked planes, Kubrick’s astronauts can phone home. One receives the message “See you next Wednesday,” a line quoted in every John Landis film. Landis’s career has been marked by fatal aerial catastrophe. His movie SPIES LIKE US deals with a team of idiots deployed by corrupt commanders to distract attention while a war is started. His first movie, SCHLOCK, features numerous parodies of the apemen from 2001.

Like the passengers of United 93, Dave Bowman destroys the hijacker, resulting finally in his own death — but this is played in stylised form, first as a flight through distorted, psychedelic landscapes, then as an accelerated aging process, then with the traditional death-bed. In a white room whose floor is illuminated panels like the sides of a skyscraper.

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But at the foot of that death-bed, the monolith appears yet again, and once more we move inexorably towards its smooth surface, repeating yet again the collision with the WTC, an event which killed, among thousands of others, the sister of Marisa Berenson, who starred in Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. She was also the wife of Anthony Perkins, best known for playing a knife-wielding killer who struck in disguise, and who appeared in Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE, which shares with 2001 a climax in which a passage through a space portal leads to a mysterious spiritual experience.

From the impact with the monolith, something new is born, but the movie is vague about what, exactly, can be expected from it…

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In a way this is a thought experiment, to see how many meaningful-seeming coincidences can be drawn between an event and a film which actually preceded it by decades and could not have been influenced by it in any traditional cause-and-effect way. In a way it’s a parody of such academic exercises. It’s also inspired a bit by the fancy footwork in this remarkable piece.

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Master of Disguise

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2012 by dcairns

I didn’t know this until a friend pointed it out — John Chambers, Oscar-winning makeup artist on PLANET OF THE APES (Arthur C Clarke theorized that the reason 2001 didn’t win is the Academy didn’t realize Kubrick hadn’t cast real apes) worked for the CIA, and designed makeup kits to allow American prisoners to escape the Iranian hostage crisis in disguise.

The image comes to mind of a troupe of nervous Dr Zaiuses sauntering awkwardly past the guards.

The kit.

Chambers is played by John Goodman in the forthcoming movie ARGO, which details this story.

The illustrations here come from an auction site which recently sold a bunch of Chambers’ effects, including the escape kit above. Also for sale: George C Scott’s nose from PATTON ~

I used to work in a memorabilia shop when I was 19, and I went through a period of craving all this stuff — we sold posters mainly. Some of them were real beauties. But being surrounded by the stuff all that time had a weird effect — I came to see it as ultimately irrelevant to the movies. I decided to concentrate on the films themselves rather than on ephemera. Having no money helped make that decision easy.

Still, I’m as big a sucker as anyone for the totemic power of a movie-related object…

The Chambers yarn is now a movie from Ben Affleck. “Based on a declassified true story…” And apparently King of Comics Jack Kirby was also involved…