Archive for Kurt Vonnegut

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.

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.

Groundhog-Day

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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