Archive for John Wyndham

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.

 

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Tomorrowsday #7: England’s Dreaming

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2018 by dcairns

For my previous piece on THE TIME MACHINE, see here. The comments are particularly good.

Newer thoughts based on yesterday’s viewing ~

A very Twilight Zone opening with clocks floating about in limbo, ticking at us. Which came first?

A sundial, various clocks, and then the sun rising on the main title itself — the sun, our primary temporal device, the great diurnal timekeeper — and weather changing behind the main titles. There’s a kind of simple poetry to it.

Then, with a Scottish air on the soundtrack to accompany Alan Young’s mild-mannered Filby (not a very Scottish name – Young lived in Edinburgh as a toddler and seems to have made his character Scottish as an act of sheer bravura), we join an unusual gathering. Scrooge McDuck, Gavin Elster, Bagheera and Dr. Teenage Frankenstein are impatiently awaiting the arrival of the Time Traveler, Pongo AKA Mitch Brenner AKA Boysie Oakes AKA Travis McGee AKA Daddy-O AKA WInston Churchill.

Come to think of it, Doris Lloyd, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs Watchett (absurdly on-the-nose name!) voiced a rose in the cartoon ALICE IN WONDERLAND, making this a very Disney gathering. Tom Helmore seems to be the only one without a credit for voice work, but then, you wouldn’t want to let criminal mastermind Gavin Elster loose in a world of cartoon physics and logic, would you. The risk of him getting a time machine is bad enough!

The warm relationship between Young and Taylor’s characters isn’t really there in the book. You don’t miss it — Wells has other fish to fry — but it seems of central importance to the movie, put over by Young’s sentimental Dickensian eunuchoid characterisation and Taylor’s soulfulness, which he didn’t really get to reveal elsewhere. Their relationship seems much more important than the love interest with Weena. It IS the love interest.

I love everything about this film — you’ll get no snarky comments from me on this one. The opening expository stuff is masterful: Fiona points out that Taylor’s he-man qualities in no way stop him convincing as a brilliant scientist, since the intensity and passion — and love — he applies to his onscreen work is so convincing. In other words, he uses leading man qualities of strength and romantic interest to be a scientist.

The design of the machine, first seen as a miniature, is exemplary, never bettered, though the gizmo in TIME AFTER TIME is graceful enough. Frankly, this is a design classic and the next time someone’s foolish enough to try to remake this they should just dust off the original chrono-jalopy. Samantha Mumba may also be available.

And I cannot fault the enchanting time travel, with Taylor transported into a timelapse and Puppetoon wonderland as he fast-forwards through the decades. One of screenwriter David Duncan’s most pleasing updates to Wells is to have the Traveler stop off in recent history, distressed by the world wars he encounters. The near future bit — set in the sixties — may be unsatisfactory from a production values standpoint, and Young struggles to play his own son as an old man in a silver jumpsuit with the dignity such a role obviously demands — but the idea behind it is so excellent and the pacing so breakneck it hardly matters.

(It’s hard to work out how Duncan could have written this — even with the terrific source material to go on — and also THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, THE LEECH WOMAN and even FANTASTIC VOYAGE. But he was also a magazine sci-fi writer and I’m curious what his fiction was like.)

Then Taylor meets the Eloi, or millennials as we call them, with their VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED hair, and a whole new story begins — the pacifist terms of the opening scenes are reversed as Taylor has to teach man’s descendants how to fight. At one point, Taylor’s VO refers to the Eloi as “little” but they don’t seem notably jockeyish here. In the book, Weena is four feet tall.

The idea that the air raid siren of the twentieth century has become a siren call, luring the Eloi to their doom, preying on some distant race memory that says, when the siren sounds, you have to go underground — outstanding, sir, outstanding! “It is all clear.”

I notice I’ve been calling the character George by the actor’s name, Taylor, perhaps because I’m a little uncomfortable with the Time Traveler actually being HG Wells. I think it’s OK that the film hints at his identity but doesn’t nail it down. TIME AFTER TIME is a lovely, silly film, and the silliest thing is that it makes Wells its hero — but it gets lots of good mileage out of this goofy idea. Of course, Taylor is the name of another time-traveler, the hero of PLANET OF THE APES, whose parallels with this one suddenly strike me as enormous.

“There’s no future,” says time-bimbo Weena, anticipating John Lydon by seventeen years — or following him by thousands. I wonder if, rather than befriending the cattle of the future and fighting the farmers, Taylor should instead have tried reasoning with the Morlocks — eating people is wrong! But the Morlocks, despite their engineering abilities, seem pretty degraded too, as if, having reached a certain level of civilisation, have let their minds go to rot, mechanically maintaining a way of life they no longer understand.

This being an American production, the Eloi are cast with US actors, a hilarious bit of inadvertent satire. The Brits of the future have devolved into Yanks. Of course, one still thinks of the Morlocks as essentially Cockney. But it’s easy to forget we’re still in London — this post-Atomic yet prelapsarian pastoral, with the weather seemingly permanently balmy, presumably due to nuclear climate change of some kind, feels quite Californian. I’ve just read, in various sources, that John Wyndham in The Chrysalids and Leigh Brackett in The Long Tomorrow simultaneously invented the post-apocalyptic bucolic scenario in 1955, but here Wells has beaten them to it.

The talking rings are marvelous, with their posh BBC voices (the inevitable Paul Frees). Exposition is something a lot of writers fear, but it doesn’t have to be NOT entertaining.

“The rings have told us that story.”

“But you didn’t LISTEN. You didn’t LEARN anything!”

That’s just GREAT. There must be other good writing by David Duncan out there.

What do the Morlock machines DO? They don’t seem to relate to the provision of giant berries for the Eloi, which seems to be the main Morlock activity other than eating. I am forced to consider the possibility that they are tanning Eloi hides to make the Morlock’s leather nappies. A grim fate — picture Yvette Mimieux’s mortal remains, stretched around the loins of a slouching troglodyte. Not nice.

Fiona points out that the defleshed Eloi skeletons are mostly intact, like the Morlocks don’t tear them apart, they just pick them clean where they lie.

  

The Morlocks — based around Makeup man William Tuttle’s one design idea — aren’t pretty, or exactly convincing (you can see the fabric of their fake skin), but they’re unpleasant, alright. One dribbles blood onto his moobs, and there’s the very memorable time-lapse decomposition guy. A shame we never get to see him REcompose, but Taylor does, and he can’t take his eyes off it.

Russell Garcia’s music is very nice — who is he? I see he did ATLANTIS: THE LOST CONTINENT, but not much else in the movies. He seems to be paraphrasing Once I Had a Secret Love. Well, why not? There’s almost constant music in this movie, and it’s never annoying or inappropriate. This is kind of an opera. (I would totally watch a Time Machine opera.)

THE TIME MACHINE brought BBC1’s science fiction season to an end, and it was no anti-climax. Seven-year-old me couldn’t understand the stuff at the end about dragging the machine from across the lawn in 1895 to get it out of the sphinx in the year 802, 701 — I THOUGHT I’d understood the explanation of time and space at the beginning, but this was beyond me. I think my big brother patiently tried to explain it. Eight-year-old Fiona, a little ways off in Dundee, watching the same screening, processed it easily.

“Which three books would you have taken?” I LOVE this Desert Island Discs conclusion. And it’s entirely the invention of the movie. Wells gives his chrononaut a knapsack and a small camera.

With the Eloi as your starting point, what works of fact or fiction would be best suited to creating a new civilisation? I want your suggestions below.

 

Tomorrowsday #3: We’re the start of the coming race

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2018 by dcairns

Returning to our Tuesday sci-fi season. VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED was an atypical British entry in the series, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, a title which was never going to fly in the movies, though one might regret the hysteria of the alternative chosen. Especially given the film’s muted, low-key approach to much of the action, some of which can be credited to George Sanders’ quiet central performance.

Sheep! The first accidental echo of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Nothing says “sleepy English village” like sheep, and they serve as maybe a metaphor for humanity’s potential fate, though watching the pale, placid things flocking along is oddly reminiscent of the alien kids when they appear, always traveling in a group.

Looks like Rilla got a camera crane into the village location for one day and shot the hell out of everything. The best bits of the remake are the quick cuts of unconscious Midwichers, but Rilla’s sweeping moves are better, the gliding camera contrasting with the static bodies and emphasising their inactivity. And playing the credits over the clock tower is terrific — it’s 11am, not time to sleep — and also, it rhymes with the prominent role played by clocks at the film’s climax.

This part of the film has a real EXTERMINATING ANGEL vibe about it, particularly when they send a man in with a rope tied to him. (Surrealist logic is allowed to be bendy, as in Tex Avery. Bunuel has his houseguests simply unable to try to leave, whereas the people on the outside CAN try to get in, but then they go wobbly and fall over.) In a way lots of the film is like Bunuelian sci-fi. A village falling asleep all at once is a surreal idea — a variant on Rene Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT, perhaps. Every woman of childbearing age becoming pregnant is equally bizarre. And, rather than relying on special effects (most of them fairly shaky when they do appear), the film prefers to keep the truly alien and uncanny stuff offscreen and therefore abstract, unknowable.

Peter Vaughan! A great psychotronic actor — two Gilliams, two Ken Russells and one Peckinpah to his name, but not yet. His P.C. Gobby here is one of a raft of early copper roles he was lumbered with before his greatness became apparent.

Wyndham offers a glimpse of something round in the village square, seen from the air. We obviously imagine a flying saucer. This could have been replicated in the movie, perhaps as a doctored aerial photograph, but they prefer to leave everything, but everything, to our imaginations. Perhaps this is due to censorship/taste concerns also: they don’t want anyone to imagine Little Green Men roving the village with turkey basters, impregnating every female in their path. By making the invasion invisible, we’re free to picture these conceptions as immaculate, with the alien sperm passing through the women like tiny ghosts, as a beam of light passes through a stained glass window, without breaking it. The alien fertilisation is an abstract force, just like the bubble of unconsciousness enveloping Midwich.

Another thing left out of the film is the attempts by various village women to lose their unwanted foetuses, taking long bicycle rides or hot baths, or throwing themselves downstairs a la LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. Couldn’t deal with THAT in a film of the period.

Fiona was reminded of WENT THE DAY WELL?, another tale in which an alien force occupies a sleepy (!) English village. In both stories, the angry resistance by Britishers sometimes seems too brutal, unsympathetic.

“So cold…” says the soldier recovering from his unconsciousness. And it is! You can see the actors’ breath in the air.

There sure are a lot of Argonauts in this film. Well, Laurence Naismith and Michael Gwynn both appear.

Mobile X-ray unit! That was the answer to everything in those days. If it moves, X-ray it. If it continues to move, keep X-raying it until it stops.

The glowing eyes effect, which always seemed questionable, is even more flawed now that I see the film on DVD. I doubt that the BBC1 screening of my childhood was sharp enough to make it easil discernible that the glowing eyes have been painted onto still images of the kids, sometimes uneasily splitscreened with moving shots. It’s arguable that every effect you DON’T see in this film is preferable to everything we DO see. Partly because it’s a low-budget film and what it can afford to show us is limited. Mostly because the unseen enlists the imagination.

   

Fiona likes the crazy Herrmannesque harp glissandi — reminiscent of the shimmering, dreamy stuff in FAHRENHEIT 451. Composer Ron Goodwin maybe deserves more attention — certainly he wrote a joyous thing when he created Miss Marple’s theme tune for the Margaret Rutherford films, and of course there’s 633 SQUADRON.

George Sanders’s contractual piano, which he insisted had to be on the set of every film, is actually part of the set here, and he tickles its ivories a little. George is great. Around this time he made THE REBEL and writers Galton & Simpson asked him about his many conquests. Had he really…? “Oh yes. But I am now of an age when a satisfactory bowel movement far exceeds the pleasure of a good fuck.” You can, perhaps, see in his restraint and melancholy here foreshadowing of the despair which would kill him (“I’m very, very bored,” he famously recorded in his suicide note). But he’s also just being true to the role: as a clever bit of plot-character confluence, the elderly Gordon Zellaby is the only villager who’s really happy about parenthood coming so suddenly, as he’d lost hope of it ever coming. And he’s going to be the one who has to take final, fatal action against his own (sort-of) offspring.

Of course we all know it’s PSYCHOMANIA that really did for him.

Barbara Shelley, an actress unaccountably bundled into horror films more often than not (well, she was a good screamer), is also very good, though all Wyndham’s women are a little underdeveloped. Fiona has long felt that a version of the story focussing on the women’s side would be worthwhile — they have, after all, been raped and impregnated, and it takes a somewhat paternalistic view (which Wyndham had) to view this as a story in which the menfolk have the more dramatic role.

Throughout the film, director Wolf Rilla’s shots have a modest intensity, a slightly noirish sense of emphasis, so we always sense the drama beneath the serene surface of this “typical” village. There are beautiful shots of the kids that remind me of the “children of rage” in Cronenberg’s THE BROOD, in those shots where we see them walking in their parkas in longshot, images that are outwardly normal except for what we know about what’s REALLY going on.

The script here is credited to American TV and movie writer Sterling Silliphant and Rilla himself and producer/Scotsman Ronald Kinnoch, which Silliphant always saw as a deplorable bit of credit-stealing. He evidently felt his script was filmed quite faithfully and so those two didn’t deserve their names on it.

Little Martin Stephens, the lead space-hellion, becomes the prototype for all scary kids — the cool, calm, Spock-like approach is far more chilling than any Linda Blair snarling. It’s tempting to believe that the little girls in THE SHINING are English not because daddy Phillip Stone is English, but because the Diane Arbus photo that inspired Kubrick then reminded him of the cuckoos, and he had to hear them talk in clipped English accents.

Stephens, of course, is also fantastic in THE INNOCENTS, and turns in THE HELLFIRE CLUB and THE WITCHES, though less interesting, cement his rep as the ultimate scary kid. He’s the fulcrum of the whole gaggle.

I’m obsessed with the ending of this movie because it resorts to a kind of silent movie metaphor technique to make the invisible visible — to perceive the kids’ telepathic intrusion on Sanders’ thoughts we need to see what they see. So first they see the brick wall he’s trying to think of. Then, under their literally penetrating gaze, the wall begins to crumble — if they were really smart they’d figure out that if he’s concealing his thoughts there must be something he’s trying to hide, something therefore not in their interests… they know what happened to their OTHER colonies.

(A Wyndham novel never filmed, and unlikely to be filmed, is The Chrysalids, which also has psychic kids who can communicate across continents. But in this book, the coming race are the heroes and the puritans who seek to preserve unmutated genetic normality at all costs are the true monsters. And there are traces of his divided sympathies in this one.)

But this is a GREAT THING. The bomb concealed behind the wall fills the shot, just as the wall does, so they’re surreally out of scale. One thought superimposed on another. And I remember, after seeing the film, trying to conceal my thoughts in this manner, placing a surface idea over a secret one. And finding it impossible not to think of an elephant.

Cunning editing avoids the worst effects of an unconvincing miniature explosion — this being a British picture, it’s unnecessary to invoke the deity at the end (might be seen as poor taste, don’t you know?) but amid the reaction shots, the village vicar is prominently placed — then there’s another superimposition, suggesting the alien souls departing for space — it may be cheesy, but I rather love it. The movie NEEDS some kind of summative moment that takes us beyond a simple victory by dynamite. Watch the John Carpenter remake and see if you don’t agree.

“The world shall hear of us again!” they don’t say. But you know that’s what they mean. And they’re right. To be continued…