Archive for Kim Newman

Under the Hood

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2018 by dcairns

If I was Kim Newman I’d begin this post on Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN by pointing out the existence of the 1966 Ted V. Mikels joint THE BLACK KLANSMAN, and the black sort-of klansmen in SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE KLANSMAN (O.J. Simpson, name-checked in Lee’s film). And then reference THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, Ivan Dixon’s genuinely revolutionary version of the conceit, in which a black man joins the CIA to learn guerrilla techniques he can use in the struggle. But I’m not Kim Newman. I don’t even own a cape.

I would cheerfully go along with the critical mainstream and call this Lee’s best film in years, but I stopped watching his stuff around the time of SUMMER OF SAM, which I thought was really hatefully ill-thought-out. Lee was attacked for exploiting real-life murders in a way that seemed, and was, unfair, since nobody, or nobody much, ever used similar grounds to attack Richard Fleischer (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER et al), Richard Brooks (IN COLD BLOOD) or the countless other filmmakers to labour in the true crime genre. But Lee’s movie has, for example, a throwaway reference to THE FLY — a talking fly as part of the killer’s hallucination. Lee’s director’s commentary at this point explains his choice: “hommage to THE FLY.” But what he doesn’t explain is why he thinks that belongs in this film. (Lee has always had a screwed-up willingness to go a mile out of his way in order to include a meaningless and inappropriate hommage, and it still hasn’t left him, even in this much better movie.)

So, in a sense, the criticism of this film was justified — it used real-life murders as an excuse to include a joke about a fifties horror movie. If I were the relative of a victim, I’d be offended. In fact, I’m just someone who’s seen THE FLY and I’m still offended.

But I did belatedly see INSIDE MAN and liked it a lot, so I’ve been thinking about giving him another chance.

The Independent has a fairly good, informative piece on where Lee’s film departs from the facts of his latest true crime story — probably best read after you see the movie which, as I’m trying to imply, is well worth seeing. The screenwriters seem to have invented A LOT, though the story’s unlikely set-up is indeed “fo’ real.” I wondered, after reading it, if the film’s romantic interest even existed in reality. The piece doesn’t tell me. She’s at the centre of an ethical dilemma involving the hero — is he sleeping with her while undercover? — which the movie never answers. (Turns out she didn’t exist — the real Ron Stallworth had already met his future wife before this story begins.)

The movie is shot on 35mm for an authentic blaxploitation look, although the design seems to consistently situate it bang in the middle of that decade. Nothing said 1979 to me, although maybe Colorado Springs moved a touch slower than elsewhere. Having just watched THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, whose attention to verisimilitude was a little marred by some unconvincing wigs and cookie-dusters reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Sabotage video, I was relieved that the wig-work here was convincing and, to me, the movie didn’t cross over into seventies parody. Any time you watch an actual blaxploitation movie, there will be several costumes worn in apparent earnest that you could never use with a straight face in a modern movie set in that period.

What the movie does give us is some excellent performances — John David Washington is an instant star, funnier than his famous dad, Adam Driver is as good as we’ve come to expect, and there’s an extremely powerful cameo from Harry Belafonte which forms a major part of the best sequence I’ve ever seen from Lee. Now THAT’S an hommage, if you like. (Lee’s always been good at finding roles for iconic black actors, and I’m grateful to him for giving Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis plum late-life parts). And at the end there’s one of his patented dolly-the-actors-with-the-camera shots, and it’s the best iteration of that particular conceit I’ve seen from him. And I got a fleeting sense, from the way the movie folds in bits of Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and implicates it in the resurgence of the Klan, that the technique has some special meaning for Lee (it must, for him to use it so insistently), having something to do with the intrusion of movies into life.

Advertisements

Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.

 

FYI

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on June 10, 2010 by dcairns

Forgive the blurriness of the kitten…

What a busy summer this is shaping up to be. I’ve got to finish this damned script by the end of the week (act three still to go), and now I’m apparently seeing a screening of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING in honour of Sean Connery’s 80th birthday, which is showing as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival, which I will be attending and writing about without the aid of any annoying glow-in-the-dark electronic devices, I’m taking part in a film quiz, representing the Festival against the staff of Empire Magazine (including Big Gun Kim Newman, ulp!) and Fiona and I are also fitting in a trip to London, about which more later. Very hush-hush. And then off to New York The City.

Stay posted for today’s edition of The Forgotten. That is all.