Archive for King Kong

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.

 

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Cut the Cheese: or, Dino’s Mighty Wind

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2017 by dcairns

A week of posts inspired by my recent reading. Here’s an excellent book by Sam & Bobbie O’Steen — Cut to the Chase: Forty-Five Years of Editing America’s Favorite Movies.

Sam O’Steen cut THE GRADUATE and ROSEMARY’S BABY and became Mike Nichols and Roman Polanski’s go-to editor. His book, “as told to” his wife and edit-room assistant, is full of good creative advice, often encapsulated in handy mottos — “Movie first, scene second, moment third,” — and also full of terrific gossip and anecdotes, as O’Steen was frequently on-set and witnessed the activities of a lot of very strange, talented, obnoxious people…

Some of the best stories arise from one of the worst films O’Steen was involved with, HURRICANE — Dino De Laurentiis’ epic turkey remake of John Ford’s group jeopardy potboiler, which was already not very good, despite sharing a lot of credits with Ford’s next film, STAGECOACH. The rehash was planned by Polanski but dropped due to his legal difficulties — it’s tempting to say that Polanski dodged a bullet, but you can’t really say such things, can you?

Jan Troell landed in the hot seat, with Lorenzo Semple on script, Sven Nykvist shooting, Danilo Donati designing, and stars Mia Farrow, Timothy Bottoms, James Keach, Jason Robards, Trevor Howard, Max Von Sydow and non-star Dayton Ka’Ne. And with all that talent, it’s deadly dull to watch. David Wingrove disagrees with me, and suggested that the film was a promising one that had been butchered in the edit, as evidenced by awkward jumps in the story and huge sets that are barely used. But O’Steen’s account makes it clear that many scenes were never actually filmed, and the imposing but underused sets are a regular result of Donati’s work — the crew on FLASH GORDON also complained that Donati never read the script, just a breakdown of scenes, so he would spend his budget freely on whatever interested him, building vast interiors for scenes that might only play for moments in the film, and skimping on others so you might find yourself shooting twenty minutes of action in a broom closet.

Many of the problems O’Steen was vexed by didn’t strike me as terribly serious — Mia’s hair and makeup may not be flattering, but I’ve seen worse. O’Steen had to create passion between the leads where none existed — Farrow eschewed any on-set romance with her unknown co-star, instead bedding Troell, then Nykvist, then (it’s heavily implied) Bottoms, leaving a trail of broken hearts in her wake. And they were all stuck in Bora Bora for six months while this was going on. There’s a big swimming scene which isn’t sexy or romantic (because it’s not there in the script or performances) but sure looks nice. It’s bloody looong, though. I guess O’Steen had to lay it on thick to compensate for the chemical inertia.

The crew arrived at a specially built hotel… that was still being built.

Franco Rossi was leading a second unit shooting waves, but they all got drunk and left their film cans to get flooded on the rocks.

Mia was seen at dinner with her beautiful son Fletcher on her lap… and all her adopted kids sitting on the floor, ignored.

Jan Troell’s love for Mia resulted in him ignoring the scenery and the story and shooting endless close-ups of his adored star. In the final film, O’Steen must have used every camera move he could find, because he complains Troell wasn’t shooting any.

Bottoms urinated on De Laurentiis’ shoes in a fit of pique, then hastily wrote an apology, in fear for his life.

Troell was promised final cut… then paid off with $25,000 to stay out of the edit room.

When Mia was feeding poor Dayton lines for his close-ups, she wouldn’t bother looking at him. She could read lines and do crosswords at the same time. Well, he’s no Jon Hall.

“Four down, nine letters, a mighty wind.”

She was also reportedly heard to refer to him as “the animal.”

Dino: “All directors are stupid. Anybody who gets up so early every day to say ‘Good morning’ to all those sons-of-bitches has to be stupid.”

Symbolism! God caber-tosses a crucifix at Trevor Howard!

With all this, and the drink and drug consumption, the VD outbreak (“You’d be surprised who has it,” said the unit nurse) and the malfunctioning toilets, plus all the grade-A talent, it’s amazing how dull the film is. The actual hurricane is good, especially as it wipes out a lot of the characters who have been boring us for two hours, but the natives are used as colourful cannon fodder, as usual, so it’s also kind of offensive. When our young lovers are left alone on a lifeless, flattened atoll at the end, it’s questionable whether we’re meant to expect them to survive or not, though we don’t actually care one way or the other.

Worse than KING KONG. But the behind-the-scenes action might make a good movie.

Headroom

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2017 by dcairns

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Finished off disc 3 of Season 3 of The Twilight Zone — as good a place to start as any — with the legendary To Serve Man. Which is not as smart a piece of science fiction as ARRIVAL, I’d say. Just the question of translation is not as well handled. The earthlings have been working on alien Richard Kiel’s space book for some time, but all they’ve managed to translated is the title, To Serve Man. One would think that the word “to” might turn up somewhere in the body of the text as well as in the title, and that might help…

If you start describing the story to a modern human who hasn’t heard it or seen the Simpsons parody of it, at a certain point they will say “It’s a cook book, isn’t it?” and this certain point will occur long before you get to that revelation. Which I don’t mind: it just gives you an insight into a more innocent time.

Despite having smart SF scribe Damon Knight as its original author, the episode has a number of “innocent” moments. “What time is it?” demands the UFO abductee, only to be told that time is a meaningless concept in outer space. “What time is it ON EARTH?” he insists, oblivious to the fact that his question is stupid. It’s not one time on Earth. It’s not even one time in the USA. Nevertheless, the giant Richard Kiel alien says “It’s noon.” Maybe he’s just humouring the jerk.

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What was most striking was the fact that poor alien Richard Kiel has to stoop to come through the door — on his own spaceship! Wouldn’t it be built with him in mind. I can imagine poor Richard’s expression on viewing the set: even when they build a set just for my character, they don’t put in enough clearance.

Alien Richard Kiel has a big bulbous bald head, like many space aliens before and since, but what’s especially good about it is it looks like he’s wearing a chef’s hat inside his scalp. Combining astronomy and gastronomy.

The door thing made me think of MOONRAKER, where Richard Kiel as Jaws never seems to hit his head on any doorways, despite the fact that it’s NOT his spaceship and you’d think they’d want to keep costs down by ignoring the slender possibility of one of their passengers being seven feet tall. The spaceship makers could have saved a fortune and the filmmakers could have gotten quite a lot of value out of Big Richard banging his forehead on every door frame in the joint. I mean, it’s not like such business would be beneath the dignity of a late-period Roger Moore Bond film…

It also made me think of KING KONG, which has the opposite problem. The natives have built a wall, a great big beautiful Donald Trump wall, to keep Kong on his side of Skull Island (how old is Kong anyway?) The trouble is, in a fit of political correctness they have thoughtfully built into their wall a Kong-sized door, despite the fact that the one thing one guesses they would not want to happen is —

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Oh well…