Archive for Kurt Vonnegut

Man Made Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2020 by dcairns

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Algis Budrys is really good.

I find it a bit discouraging that I’m back reading science fiction at my time of life. It IS the literature of ideas, and I love it, but I have a superstition that reading too much bad prose is bad for one’s prose, and Kurt Vonnegut was right to observe that most of those toiling in the literature of ideas were pretty sucky at putting elegant sentences together.

For instance, in the (excellent) short story Death March, Budrys is moved to say “Bessmer was a big, sprawling city that curved around the bay like a long arm.” I frown at this. I can picture a city curving around a bay, but the added information that it resembles a long arm while doing so tells me nothing. And arms, outside of Mickey Mouse cartoons, can only approximate a curve.

In the novel Rogue Moon, a character is described as “a heavy-boned man with loose, papery flesh and dark-circled, sunken eyes.” I recoiled in horror from this description. Then I pictured Attorney General William Barr, and recoiled again. Then I decided that the description only coincidentally fitted Barr in the sense of summing up my moral revulsion at his human failings, and was not a plausible description of a human being. I’ve never seen anyone be “heavy-boned,” for instance.

But BOY, Budrys is an exemplar of “the literature of ideas.” And I’m encouraged by the fact that I’m reading him now. I owned his 1977 novel Michaelmas IN 1977, or near enoguh, but couldn’t get into it. As an adult I gobbled it up. It’s about the internet — which didn’t exist when Budrys was writing, or was at best a couple of giant, clunky computers sending each other morse code. He predicts exactly what it would be like. He also posits a guy with an AI in his briefcase secretly controlling the whole thing. it’s the only AI in the world, Then, one day, it detects another…

Here’s the first movie bit: Budrys throws out these great story ideas but what he does with them isn’t usually very cinematic. But he’s been filmed twice: TO KILL A CLOWN (1972) stars Alan Alda as a sociopath in command of killer dogs. I haven’t seen it but I clearly must. It’s not sf though. WHO? (1974) was filmed by Jack Gold and is quasi-sci-fi. The Soviets (Budrys was born in what is now part of Russia) return a top scientist, disfigured in an accident and cybernetically reconstructed in such way that the Americans can’t tell if it’s really their man. It’s a thoughtful meditation on identity wrapped inside a would-be espionage thriller and it doesn’t quite work. The central design — the character’s iron mask — is a let-down.

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(When the wrong people are in charge, the central bit of design will generally disappoint, while less important stuff is allowed to look good because it’s left to actual designers to make the decisons. Therefore, Batman is usually clunky-looking, while the Batmobile is OK.)

Now we’re on to Rogue Moon. The second movie bit will emerge in due course. In this novel, an alien artifact is discovered on the moon. The US has been teleporting agents up there, trying to get inside the thing, but found it to be a maze of death-traps. They’re triggered in consistent but unpredictable ways:

It is, for instance, fatal to kneel on one knee while facing lunar north. It is fatal to lift the left hand above shoulder height while in any position whatsoever. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air hoses loop over the shoulders. It is fatal past a certain point to wear armour whose air tanks feed directly into the suit without the use of hoses at all. It is crippling to wear armour whose dimensions vary greatly from the ones we are using now. It is fatal to use the hand motions required to write the English word “yes,” with either the left or right hand.

Charting a path through the complex to discover its secrets using trial and error seems likely to cost an unacceptable number of lives.

Fortunately, they’ve found a way of charting the progress of their agents through the complex, up to the moment of their deaths. Bear with me…

Each time the teleport somebody up there, they also create a duplicate version which they keep on Earth in a state of sensory deprivation. Through a process they don’t understand, this dupe remains psychically linked to his lunar doppelganger, experiencing the same stuff until he’s killed. The trouble is, getting killed on the moon sends the Earth duplicate mad.

So they have to find a guy who doesn’t mind getting killed. And, since there is a person for every job, they find one, an unpleasant macho nutter admittedly, but one they can work with.

“Now look,” Barker said, slapping the folder. “According to this, if I make a wrong move, they’ll find me with all my blood in a puddle outside my armour, with not a mark on me. If I make another move, I’ll be paralysed from my waist down, which means I have to crawl on my belly. But crawling on your belly somehow makes things happen so you get squashed up into your helmet. And it goes on in that cheerful vein all the way.”

What Budrys has come up with here seems to me an analog for the video game narrative. Complete what you can of the route, and if you get killed, start again and try to figure out what you did wrong.

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Here’s the second movie bit. GROUNDHOG DAY is, as far as I know, the first movie to use an approximation of this approach to a story. Oh, wait, before that there’s 12:01 PM (1990) and 12:01 (1993), both time-loop movies adapting Richard Lupoff’s 1973 story (that’s how far sf movies lag behind the literature). Obayashi’s adaptation of THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (1983) is listed on Wikipedia as a time-loop story but I haven’t seen any version of this popular manga so I don’t know how relevant it is. The following year, URUTSEI YASURA II: BEAUTIFUL DREAMER portrayed another time loop.

More recently, HAPPY DAY and the lovely Russian Doll use the video game structure successfully to very different ends.

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It seems logical that as video games have grown in both sophistication and popularity, their tropes will infect cinema. Ideas like long subjective camera action scenes like the opening of VILLAINESS strike me as of limited value, since they’re basically like watching a video game over the player’s shoulder, removing the actual thrill of participation. But if you can come up with a novel way of showing it, the actual problem-solving aspect of gameplay can be adapted from games to movies. The two examples I’ll offer are SOURCE CODE and EDGE OF TOMORROW, which are both very engrossing entertainments.edgeot

Rogue Moon, however, was published in 1960.

So Budrys wasn’t working out a way of using vidgaming as a narrative ploy. What he was up to is revealed late in the novel, and I think it’s to do with the way the human race accumulates knowledge.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! The stars are burning their substance. The planets are moving more slowly on their axes. They’re falling inward towards their suns. The atomic particles that make it all up are slowing in their orbits. Bit by bit, over the countless billions of years, it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day, it’ll stop. Only one thing in the universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces itself uphill. Intelligence — human lives — we’re the only thing that doesn’t obey the universal law. The universe kills our bodies — it drags them down with gravity; it drags, and drags, until our hearts grow tired with pumping our blood against its pull, until the walls of our cells break down with the weight of themselves, until our tissues sag, and our bones grow weak and bent. Our lungs tire of pulling air in and pushing it out. Our veins and capillaries break with the strain. Bit by bit, from the day we’re conceived, the universe rasps and plucks at our bodies until they can’t repair themselves any longer. And in that way, in the end, it kills our brains. 

“But our minds… There’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them — to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical universe.”

There’s more. Go get it, if you’re intrigued. Despite occasional infelicities of style, at his best Budrys was a terrific writer.

 

 

Hi Ho

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by dcairns

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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George Melly’s Trip to the Moon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Vicious-but-fair title art by actor-writer-cartoonist Willie Rushton — not that those actresses look like that, you understand, but they both make those faces in this film.

For reasons to be divulged later, I felt like seeing some sixties nonsense, and Fiona suggested SMASHING TIME — she’d seen it first as a teenager, on TV one afternoon, and had been seduced by the whole idea of the 1960s. I’d seen bits of it and been sceptical — I like the ’60s and I like nonsense but there are certain combinations of the two that can be nausea-inducing (cf JOANNA, HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE) — but I was game and so we tried it.

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It’s not the best-directed film in the world, former cameraman Desmond Davis can be oddly maladroit at framing a shot, even when there’s a heap of mod clobber and pop design on display, and he’s equally gauche at staging slapstick, which is a shame because the script does set up some good gags. Said script is by the late George Melly, an bulbous jazz eccentric who saw THE KNACK, loved it, and set out to up the ante with cartoonishness, character names out of Lewis Carroll (Bobby Mome-Rath, Charlotte Brillig, Tom Wabe), a gaudy palette and bawdy slapstick that’s nearly bodily — a joke involving Ian Carmichael being fed laxatives and forced to defecate in a bathroom in which every cubic inch is packed with foaming bubbles hints at the hidden meaning behind the pie fights, paint fights, food fights and general muck-throwing elsewhere in the film. A bit of a surrealist, Melly had obviously glommed onto the Freudian underpinnings of all that goop, and wanted to snort about it.

NEVER MIND, I say, because there’s more to enjoy. Rita Tushingham plays a hyperbolic caricature of her KNACK role, northern rube in the big smoke, dragged into the action by best mate Lynn Redgrave, who’s inanely set on becoming a star by going to Carnaby Street and waiting to be discovered. Of course that takes less than half an hour.

The song is listed as “I’m So Young” but Lynn/Yvonne refers to it elsewhere by its brilliant alternative title, “I Can’t Sing.” Fiona and I can’t get the damn thing out of our heads now.

Fiona pointed out that female picaresques are very rare, do not, in fact exist outside of this movie and I suppose things like CANDY — has there even BEEN a picaresque movie in the last thirty years? Female clowns are likewise rare, but maybe producer Carlo Ponti saw GEORGY GIRL and THE KNACK, considered NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, couldn’t get Richard Lester, and concocted this concept? The Italians do love clowns. Lynn R. is a natural at it, to the point of maybe indulging in it a tiny bit in films where it didn’t belong, but she leads here and The Tushingham gamely follows, proving able at mugging — those beautiful eyes go ping-pong at a moment’s notice.

Kurt Vonnegut called slapstick “grotesque situational poetry,” and that’s a good description of these antics — occasionally a little too grotesque, as with an ECU of a bare foot stepping on a drawing pin — an involuntary hiss of pain from the audience isn’t really the emotion you want, is it? — and as with the paint fight where Rita is turned an unfashionable streaky brown and looks, with her screwed-up expression, like some kind of filthy witch. I like it better when it’s just on the cusp of awful — later, lovely Rita takes a cream pie to the side of the head and a great mass hangs in her hair… horrible, but hilarious. Kudos to Melly for actually coming up with sixties-specific fresh gags for a pie fight — most big custard battles just vary a few basic tropes (and are none the worse for it) but this one is seriously inventive.

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If Davis is visually a touch uneven, he does assemble a veritable Who’s-Bloomin’-Who of fab gear talent, with Bruce Lacey and his kinetic sculpture assemblage automatons (one kissing machine threatens to go full DEMON SEED on poor Rita but settles for pounding Michael York with a giant boxing glove); Anna Quayle and Jeremy Lloyd and David Lodge (all from Lester’s films) and more comedy homosexuals than you can waggle a stick at (oops, careful, you’ll have someone’s eye out with that!)

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It shouldn’t really hang together at all, but it does because Melly has put together a genuinely nice comic dynamic, with Tushingham trying vainly to keep her idiot friend out of trouble, and Redgrave oblivious to all this and clodhoppingly insensitive and unappreciative of her best mate. It’s a different dynamic from Laurel & Hardy altogether, but equally touching because you feel these two lady-schmucks really need each other, and that their friendship is worth more than anything Swinging London or Michael York with his Action Man hair and moustache can offer.