Archive for Keats

Tomorrowsday #2: Incredible Shrinking Man, I Love You

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by dcairns

 

Title suggested by the great Tom Lehrer, who listed several possible movie themes before actually singing a suggested love song for Pasolini’s OEDIPUS REX.

In fact, writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-classic already has a swooning romantic theme, performed by Ray Anthony on his trumpet as part of music supervisor Joseph Gershenson’s score, economically compounded from the work of four different composers. Despite their varied attributions, Universal’s fifties sci-fi horror ouput have a highly distinctive and consistent musical style, maybe because Gershenson (whose name sounds like a drunkard’s slur) compiled most of them — lots of musical SHRIEKS OF ALARM, like the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON’s motif of alarm…

Ahah! The Chiseler has the explanation: uncredited Herman Stein is the musical link, the man with the shrieks.

The music accompanies a really enjoyable title sequence, though one might argue that the little outline of a diminishing human figure is unnecessarily literal. The big white encroaching cloud looks to be the same element used later for the radioactive fogbank, before it was optically inserted into an ocean background. By itself, it’s scarily abstract.

“I’m telling you, this movie is a goddamn masterpiece!” Fiona would declare several times during our recent viewing of it. It starts gently — all the non-shrinking scenes are done very straightforwardly, following Sidney Pollock’s sage dictum, “Let the boring crap be boring crap.” Jack Arnold could be quite prosaic in his shooting, but he knew how to make the most of a strange set-piece. The opening scene is just relaxed banter on a yacht with our two likeable leads — until that weird cloud descends, missing minor Hawksian Woman Randy Stuart as she goes to get the beer, but dropping glittering particles on Grant Williams.

One of the things the sci-fi movies stimulated in me was my Keatsian negative capability — getting pleasure and fascination from things I couldn’t understand. I *think* I picked up on the fact that the eerie cloud is never explained. Fifties audiences would no doubt have read it as fallout from an atomic test, but it gains in power from not having such a standard diagnosis applied. Kind of like the way NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offers a bogus sci-fi explanation for zombie-ism, but Romero’s sequels gain power by walking it back and leaving the plague a mystery.

The next few brief scenes show Williams very gradually coming to suspect what’s up with him. This is where Matheson worried that the film would be boring, and was annoyed that his idea of presenting the narrative out of chronological order was rejected. I don’t want to say that Matheson was wrong — we don’t have his version of the film to judge, though we do have his novel, which Fiona has read and admired (“There’s much MORE, including sexual stuff.“) — but I think the version we have works like gangbusters, partly BECAUSE of the very linear structure. Though the cloud’s appearance in the titles, and then minutes later in the first scene, suggest a film looping back on itself, the rest of the story has a rare and powerful inexorability, the drip-drip of a problem getting steadily, catastrophically worse. I think it would lose all that, plus the surprise value of discovering each stage of our man’s diminution as it occurs.

(Matheson also objected to the catchpenny title: “They didn’t think a shrinking man was incredible enough.” But I guess a bit of circus barker ballyhoo is not inappropriate here…)

Maybe the filmmakers were worried that the early stages would be slow, though, because they ramp up the pace as best they can, getting to the point where special effects are required ASAP, so that each scene will have some element of the visual uncanny. So that now the eye and mind have plenty to boggle at, be in split-screen effects that show a diminished Williams facing a normal-sized Stuart, or Williams grappling with out-sized props. The early stages of the sickness call to mind Herzog’s “explanation” of EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL — imagine the world has grown gigantic overnight so we must clumsily struggle to interact with our once-familiar objects.

Williams is outstanding. Like Arnold’s filming style, his slight blandness is appropriate to this tale of the monstrous-domestic. And he has the acting chops to produce credible angst: Lee Strasberg training and all that. Fiona also remarks on his mellifluous voice, a boon for the film’s last half, when our hero has no dialogue but keeps in touch with us via his philosophical voice-over.

We all know our cats would eat us if they could.

The incremental nature of the plot doesn’t become tiresome, because although it literally is one damn thing after another, we have the false hope of the treatment that briefly halts our hero’s shrinkage, the brief, tentative quasi-romance with the “circus midget” (censorship prevents any hint of dinky hanky-panky, leaving the viewer to make up their own deleted scenes in their own filthy imagination) and two types of terror-suspense. There’s the inexorable existential threat of shrinking to nothingness, which there seems to be no protection from, leaving us to worry about what can possibly resolve this story, apart from DEATH — and there’s the incidental threats encountered along with way, which kick in when the movie’s most distinguished cast member, Orangey the cat (immersing himself in the role of Butch), stops seeing Little Grant as his lord and Kibble-dispenser, and starts seeing him as a potentially tasty snacklet.

Orangey, another Stanislavskian player whose work is always totally real, has major roles in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (the nameless role of “Cat” is more significant than it sounds), THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (written by Matheson, who must have admired his work here: he provided a drag role, as Cleopatra), and another fifties sci-fi job, THIS ISLAND EARTH (as Neutron — not sure when I saw that one, but probably within a year of my 1974 annus mirabilis). Plus more giantism in Bert I. Gordon’s VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, in the rather crudely-sketched role of “giant cat.”

Fiona asked me if I’d ever screen this film for students. I might. I did recently recommend it to one, because of its ending. I could certainly see myself screening one of the beautifully designed suspense sequences. Novice screenwriters tend to think in terms of overall story and dialogue, not realising that planning the details of a story’s action is a huge part of the job, more important than mere LINES. The what-happens-ness of a story. How each occurrence can move the dial from Happy to Sad. Breaking down the ISM’s titanic struggle with a mousetrap or a house spider, showing how clarity of action and planning and the interruption of surprise reversals makes an audience emote, would be just as useful as looking at Hitchcock. The fact that we are never quite unaware of the matte lines, process screens, and scaled-up sets, and yet we respond viscerally and emotionally to each victory and defeat, teaches an important lesson, if I could but put it into words.

Maybe it’s Michael Powell’s “There is no such thing as realism in the cinema.” Or maybe it’s that the Brechtian verfremdungseffekt is the bunk — we can be quite aware that we’re watching a film, and still be caught up in the drama. That’s why reminding the audience of the fakery is only worth doing if you can make a good joke of it. Because we always know it’s not real. But for it to work, we have to believe that simultaneously it IS real, somehow.

Down, down, down. Our hero the ISM is banished to the basement by his cat, presumed dead by his wife and brother, the house now a vast wilderness of predators and perils, food scarce and escape impossible. Arnold, director of TARANTULA (NOT such a distinguished movie), trots out his signature arachnid to do battle with our man. I guess we have to admit, one spider was probably harmed during the making of this film. I’d love to believe it was tenderly chloroformed and revived with a cup of tea and a biscuit, but I fear the worst.

And what of the ISM himself? He slays the spider, and finally escapes the basement by dwindling until he can fit through the mesh of the screen window — the first time his tininess has been of benefit to him. Out in the garden, surrounded by more threats, he delivers a beautiful parting VO that totally collapsed my seven-year-old mind to a singularity and then exploded it, a primal atom, into a Universal-International Cloud of Unknowing.

 

“So close… the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe. Worlds beyond number. God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature, that existence begins and ends, is man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away, and in their place came… acceptance. All this vast majesty of Creation, it had to mean something… and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist.

Note the obligatory reference to the deity.

But WHAT DOES IT MEAN? Little Fiona asked her mum, in Dundee. Little Me asked my dad in Edinburgh. Neither parent could really explain it. It was Beyond Mums and Dads. Years later I saw some minor celebrity, I forget who, discussing the impression the film made on them as a kid. “I was terrified. I kept saying, ‘He’s going to die, isn’t he? And in the end he does.” But does he? This was the challenge. He “melts away” to “nothing” but “still exists.” I think my Dad suggested he had become subatomic, although in “reality” it would take him a while to get that small — he looks to be maybe ant-sized when he leaves the house — and it’s not clear that he could ever be that small — what’ he made of, if he becomes smaller than an atom? I don’t know when an ISM would become too small to be complex enough to function as a human being, but part of the beauty of the film’s ABC structure is that the incredible aspect comes on gradually, like a tall tale (ironically enough)… “Do you believe me so far? How about now? How about NOW?”

I get the impression kids are quite literal-minded. I certainly could be. I was a pedantic little swine. But here was an ending that couldn’t be reduced to one literal meaning. Grant Williams was, like Schrodinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

“I still exist.” — and then THE END comes up SO FAST, rushing you out of the movie, back into Life, with so many questions…

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The Opening: Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 27, 2018 by dcairns

Despite being titled “AGAIN” this is actually, potentially, the first in a series.

To develop what our chum Keats calls my “negative capability” — roughly speaking, the ability to appreciate things without rationally understanding them, I thought I might look at the openings of some films, films I know almost nothing about, and then not watch the films.

(Robert Anton Wilson recounted coming across the words NO WIFE NO HORSE NO MUSTACHE in a Readers Digest magazine, and swiftly flapping it shut, because the phrase was so wonderful on its own he never wanted to know what it referred to or where it came from. Of course, in this internet age, one can uncover the facts in an instant. I once did so, but I have forgotten the answer. Don’t remind me.)

This quest for lack of understanding is made easier in the case of Julio Buchs’ LAS TROMPETAS DEL APOCALIPSIS (1969), also known as AGAIN, since the film is in Spanish and no subtitles or dub seem to be available, and I understand Spanish only slightly better than Rin Tin Tin, and he’s dead.

I swear this is the first movie I tried this with! And everything in the first two minutes is INSANELY entertaining!

A green-hued London night. We get a London bobby AND a London bus to make sure we’re oriented. Then, peculiar attention to a window. I immediately suspect someone is going to come flying through it, because one thing I do know is that this movie is a kind of Spanish giallo. As is appropriate to that genre, for some reason, the emotion associated with the anticipated defenestration is not dread, but a giddy glee.

Here he comes!

CRUMP

TOOT of police whistle.

Disco lights and celebratory music — the soundtrack assures us that our sadistic chortles are entirely appropriate. Detail shots of lights lead us, in an Ozu-like progression, to a swinging scene. Lots of suspiciously tanned/dusky people in hippy wigs gyrate atmospherically. One girl has a vertical LOVE necklace hanging between her boobs, on each of which a heart symbol is inscribed in red. Maybe she’s a Time Lord?

One particular guy sits in a booth, a somewhat disengaged DJ flicking through a newspaper while chewing gum. Love the art direction: there may really have been a poster with THE BOB DYLAN POSTER printed on it. Maybe that was a thing? Or maybe the art director was asked to knock up a Bob Dylan poster in English, but no title was provided? If you have the answer, I don’t mind having this mystery cleared up.

But wait! Bored DJ is no longer bored! Something has caught his attention!

And I promise, I had planned to edit the clip so you could see the headline that’s arrested our bewigged record-spinner, but I swear to God, AVI Trimmer+ is kind of imprecise and it deliberately chose to make this clip more mysterious than I’d intended. But I’ll have mercy on you —

There! Now you can enjoy how the story is badly pasted into the financial column. The English in the headline and story itself is disappointingly good, but it doesn’t sound like a newspaper, does it? “[…] apparently took his life last night by jumping from a second story window of his home here in London.” Here in London where this journalist is writing this and you are reading it. Because we’re in London. Did I make that clear? It may be important later.

OK, that’s all you’re getting! Possibly you will never get to see the rest of this film. How do you feel? Better or worse?

 

Paroxysm

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2010 by dcairns

“Freda’s THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK has an extraordinary funeral sequence. Black-clad mourners in black umbrellas walk under a silvery glitter of sunlit rain; they pass bright flowers; the grain of the coffin is warmly visible in the sun. The living wood… As the procession passes a row of silhouetted, green-tinged cypresses, a shaft of sunlight pours down on them and for a split second is broken up by the camera lens into all the colours of the rainbow. ‘Artificial’ as it is — the human eye wouldn’t see it — the effect ‘fits’, because it lifts to the level of paroxysm the tragic irony of sunlight at a young woman’s funeral.”

~ Raymond Durgnat.

Ashamed of how long it’s taken me to appreciate just how splendid his writing is. I corresponded with the Great Man late in his life, but I was mainly concerned with buying some rare movies from him (Michael Powell’s BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE), and I thought his prices a bit steep. Then he misattributed some garbled nonsense to me in his PSYCHO book, a work which I think betrays slightly his ill-health at the time of writing.

Now that I’m seriously reading The Crazy Mirror and Jean Renoir, I’m overcome with admiration for Durgant’s zestful and gripping way with both ideas and language, and also the bracing manner in which he shifts from high to low cinema without giving a hoot about class distinctions.

Riccardo Freda, on the other hand, is someone I already appreciated somewhat, having picked up a VHS of LA DOPPIA FACCIA in Berlin. David Wingrove encouraged me to see more, and TRAGIC CEREMONY was a mindblower. Freda isn’t as consistently gorgeous visually as Bava, but hits memorable highs and maybe takes a more intellectual approach. Although this manifests itself very oddly. HICHCOCK never even tries to make sense, and despite borrowings from both SUSPICION (nasty milk) and PSYCHO (doubled identities and schizoid delusions) it markedly refuses to wrap itself up with a cosy epilogue, despite a hero who’s studied under Freud and seems custom-written to perform such a function.

(Since the next draft of the script Fiona and I have been working on has to incorporate changes that don’t seem to make rational sense, which is worrying to my pedantic side, I should probably immerse myself in Italian horror, which follows what Dario Argento calls a “non-Cartesian” dramatic logic, and appeals to what Keats called negative capability — one’s ability to appreciate something without wholly understanding it; in fact, one’s ability to appreciate an object for its mystery.)

Freda’s career stretches from big Mussolini-era costume flicks, to the fantastical works he’s best known for, to his sidekick act opposite Bertrand Tavernier (an odd couple indeed). Tavernier managed to put together D’ARTAGNAN’S DAUGHTER for Freda to helm, aged 83, but Sophie Marceau seems to have had him fired, forcing Tavernier to complete the film. Boo! I read an interview with Marceau where she said she was dissatisfied with the resulting film because it should have been more about her. Marceau probably ought to make like her more talented namesake and keep her damn mouth shut.

Enjoying HICHCOCK so much has put me in the mood to re-see it’s quasi/pseudo/non-sequel, THE GHOST, which transports Dr. H (who conclusively died in the previous film) to sunny Scotland…