Archive for Minority Report

Skungpoomery, Part II

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Science, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by dcairns

Skungpoomery is the art of making up a word, then making up a meaning for it, then doing that thing. For instance, I’m tentringersinging — singing the praises of Ken “Prettyboy Tentringer” Campbell. (In the same way as Philip = Great Equestrian in Greek and Dick = Fat in German, allowing Philip K Dick to adopt the pseudonym Horselover Fat, so Kenneth Campbell called himself Prettyboy Tentringer and I can call myself Lovey Rockpiles.)

Ken Campbell’s Hail Eris! had what I take to be the desired effect on me — I was amazed, amused, taken to a strange place. The world was made bigger. And the evening was not over. The play was followed by a spectacular promenade up the Royal Mile to another tiny venue, where Neil Oram was doing his own monologue, also under the auspices of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. Oram was the author of Campbell’s follow-up play to Illuminatus!, The Warp – at 22 hours, the world’s longest play. The Warp had played Edinburgh, in the old Regent Cinema, and I think I remember seeing the posters, but I was too young to see it (although I would have been older by the time it had finished a single marathon performance).

Now, if Campbell was clearly an eccentric, Oram qualified as half-mad, but in what seemed a benign, attractive way. His tale was one of consciousness expansion, from eating the cotton wool out of nasal decongestants in Soho in the fifties, to the banks of Loch Ness in the now (where his drug of choice appears to be PCP, or “rape smack”, later described by Campbell with some despair as “injecting chemicals intended for veterinary purposes into his muscles”). Campbell and Oram’s spiky relationship was obviously enjoying a warmer spell — the difference in their personae was defined by Oram as “I was, and still am, on a spiritual mission. Ken was on some kind of power trip.” Campbell put it differently — “I don’t think you should believe anything. Anyone who starts out by saying ‘I believe -’ is usually a right berk. So you shouldn’t believe anything. But you should SUPPOSE — everything!”

After Hail Eris! I made a point of checking out every play Campbell directed in Edinburgh. Some of these don’t even rate a mention in the new biography, so I want to describe a little of what I remember here –

Memories of Amnesia — a monologue-play, based on the novel by Lawrence Shainberg, about a brain surgeon who awakens one morning unable to recall his wife’s name. Diagnosing himself as afflicted by a tumour, he resolves to self-operate with the aid of local anaesthetic, one assistant (his wife) and an arrangement of mirrors. This is all technically quite possible. Disturbing and funny, the play used absolutely minimal props (a melon stood in for the afflicted head) and a bare stage. The character muses on the history of brain-mapping, whereby fully-conscious patients had their heads opened and little electric shocks applied to parts of the brain to see what happens. If you get some motor neurons, an arm or a leg might move. If it’s a psychic region, the character will suddenly re-experience a memory: “It’s my Mum coming up the hill.” Once areas have been identified, little flags on pins, colour-coordinated to the various functions, are stuck into the brain tissue. It’s like a military campaign.

As the story progresses, the character refers to his wife as “what’s-her-name” and then by a wide variety of names beginning with “J”, until the end, just as he’s about to experience a seizure in mid-operation and spasmodically tear out his own brain, he refers to her as “Janet”…”Janet! THAT’S her fucking name!”

Wish I could remember the actor who played the part, he was great.

Campbell’s plays often fed into his later TV science presenting work, and so Memories of Amnesia carried the seeds that would blossom into Brainspotting.

Then there was Schlatzer’s Bouquet — some movie relevance here, since this dealt with Marilyn Monroe and the conspiracy theories around her death. Campbell’s friend Jeff Merrifield was the author, and the play featured both David Rarraport’s brother (a man with impressive eye-baggage, almost as striking as Campbell’s bushy brows) and Pauline Bailey, a professional Monroe impersonator, playing herself. Campbell had a history of incorporating “real people” into his productions, since anything that puts the wind up the actors was considered positive. The play incorporated several Photo Opportunities, in which Bailey would pose while members of the audience took pictures with disposable fun cameras sold on the premises. There was a prize for the best one.

My favourite part of the show was the opening — Rappaport appears on stage dressed as a stagehand, moving boxes around. An audience member hurries in.

“What time does the show start?” he asks.

“7,” says Rappaport.

Pause. “It’s two minutes past 7 now,” the audience member points out.

“Then it’s started.”

When I came to make my short film CLARIMONDE, set entirely in one room, with a nod to REAR WINDOW, I deliberately wrote in the character of Inspector Childers, who appears only via the telephone or behind doors. My logic was that I could get a Dream Actor to play the part, since it was entirely audio and could be recorded in twenty minutes, tops. When it emerged that Campbell was coming to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to do his Bald Trilogy all in one go, I contacted him via his agent and asked if he was up for it. He was!

Taken all together, the three Bald monologues must amount to about four and a half hours. Campbell began his marathon by telling the audience. “To be quite honest, while I’d definitely do what I’m doing… I’m not sure I’d do what you’re doing…”

Buy the book! Campbell’s stories take in movie-related stuff like the mysterious goings on in the Middle-East segment of THE EXORCIST, Fortean stuff like synchronicity, mysterious disappearances and invisibility, autobiography, outright lies, and the benefits of translating Ken Dodd comedy routines into pidjin English as spoken in the Southern Hebrides. Consistently funny and mind-popping stuff.

In the intermission between Furtive Nudist and Pigspurt, or, Six Pigs from Happiness, I went to the green room with my intrepid sound recordist Kiyo and Fiona, and we taped Ken’s role in CLARIMONDE. This may be where I told him cartoonist Gary Panter’s line: “Our eyes are just parts of our brain that have grown to the outside to have a look around,” which he liked so much he repeated it several times, committing it to memory. I wonder if he ever sprang it on anyone?

My longest conversation with Campbell was in a pub, probably around 2000/01. Because it was in a pub, I don’t remember too much of it, except that Ken was in monologue mode and did most of the talking, which was fine. His dislike of BLADE RUNNER came up, since he felt the film was untrue to Philip K Dick — he was certainly right in that the melancholy, underpopulated feel of Dick’s novel, and his work in general, is entirely subsumed by Ridley Scott’s cold, bright/dark vision. Scott hadn’t even read the novel, finding it “too dense.” Scott has a magnificent eye, but one does sometimes wonder if there’s anything behind it.

Campbell was, however, enthused about the idea of Steven Spielberg doing MINORITY REPORT, while I was more skeptical. I think I was right, but I never got to find out what Ken thought of it. I imagine Campbell admired Spielberg’s showmanship, because he was a great one for wonderment and astonishment, but I’d say Spielberg’s visual sense of wonder and Dick’s narrative/existential/intellectual outrages don’t really match. My recipe for making MINORITY REPORT both a successful Dick adaptation and a proper scifi-noir (which is how Spielberg pitched it) would be to chop the last 45 minutes and end on the tragedy of Cruise realizing why he’s going to be guilty of a stranger’s murder… A better, darker ending that SE7EN!

I was excited that synchronicity, such a major force in Campbell’s life and work, had show her silvery hand again in my casting of him in CLARIMONDE shortly before he became interested in the heretical history of the Cathars, including Esclarimonde of Foix. Campbell shrugged this off — this kind of coincidence was clearly nothing compared to what he was used to. (I was also thrilled to hear the spectral radio in Cocteau’s ORPHEE announce “A glass of water illuminates the world,” which contains the phrase “clairement le monde”
which sounds like “Clarimonde” with a stutter. The film got kicked off by the fact that the name appears both in Hanns Heinz Ewers’ The Spider and in Theophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoreuse, both of which have Cathar undertones…

Of Campbell’s later projects, I watched his several science series avidly, although they did not quite reach the heights of undiluted Campbell — but they informed his other work, notably Mystery Bruises / Violin Time, another amazing monologue. I missed his pidjin Macbeth, which sounds mouth-watering and mind-watering, but I did see a production of his improvised Shakespeare with the School of Night. According to Campbell, the true secret of Shakespeare’s authorship is that his plays were made up by the actors. To prove this shaky hypothesis, supposed rather than believed, Ken began leading a troupe of players in marathon sessions of iambic pentameter improv, discovering that “The iambs only really kick in around the thirteenth hour,” or words to that effect.

In the show, whose stated aim was to ultimately, by the end of its run, reconstruct a lost Shakespeare play, the actors did the usual improv thing of taking suggestions from the audience. Ken acted as onstage director and goad, mercilessly critiquing the improvs. The show also reintroduced the ancient idea of the four bodily humours as a way of informing performance, and at one point Ken berated and audience member for paying insufficient attention, “Not like her!” he said, pointing out the wide-eyed Fiona next to me.

Ken with Doris and some bad editing.

Finding Campbell’s work in Edinburgh was always a bit difficult — it was rarely listed under his name, unless it was a one-man show. Often I’d turn up without really knowing what I was going to get, as when Fiona and I discovered the genius of Nina Conti, girl ventriloquist, who Campbell had already discovered and turned on to the joys of the vent act. Here’s a bit ~

Conti’s debut was a full ventriloquial play, exploring the link between ventriloqism and demonic possession, ending with the actress’s backside becoming possessed.

Anyway, as a result of this elusiveness I only saw Campbell’s penultimate fringe show through the aid of a friend who spotted it, and I missed entirely his last show, which I’ll always regret. Still, more footage of Campbell will be wending it’s way onto YouTube, and there are unproduced film scripts which maybe I could get my hands on… Plus, I have a VHS of his production of Whores of Babylon at the National Theatre. Here’s a sampler –

Mac McDonald, leader of the colony in ALIENS and captain of the Red Dwarf, explains how TV news works to keep us fearful. The ideas are influences by Milton Shulman, plus a dash of Robert McKee, whose eyebrows Capbell identified with. He offered to do a complete rendering of McKee’s screenwriting seminars for half the price at the college where I teach — alas, I wasn’t in a position to accept.

Michael Coveney’s excellent Campbell biography, which got me started on this, begins with the Great Man’s death, like CITIZEN KANE. Or his funeral, anyway — a magnificent arboreal affair with a cardboard coffin drawn on a sled by dogs. Most life stories sound better backwards. Campbell’s life story perhaps works best in fragments — he created anecdotes wherever he went, on his mission to astound the world into apprehension.

That’s a beautiful headstone. I wonder who carved it? In the interests of narrative neatness, it’d be the retired policeman who carved the wooden necktie used by Ken onstage (wielded like a dagger). At any rate, it’s beautiful, and the emptiness at the centre expresses the loss of the great caperer.

Images stolen from the Facebook group Ken Campbell Changed My Life.

Blow your mind by buying these –

The Bald Trilogy: “Recollections of a Furtive Nudist”, “Pigspurt” – or “Six Pigs from Happiness”, “Jamais Vu” (Modern Plays)

Violin Time (Methuen Modern Plays)

The Dream Detective

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2010 by dcairns

The top movie opens like whorling  ink and oil and blood in a madman’s plughole. The lower movie opens like a five-dimensional bezoar viewed through a kaleidoscope — abstract clouds of translucent hair that seem to pass through us as we delve deeper. After that opening title though, they are the same.

Behold! The Floating Head of Death in NIGHTMARE and FEAR IN THE NIGHT.

Maxwell Shane liked Cornell Woolrich’s story Nightmare so much, he made it twice, first as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which was DeForest Kelley’s first feature (and seeing the very fine performance of the Dr. McCoy guy in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot reminded me how warmly I feel towards DFK), in 1947, and again in 1956 as NIGHTMARE, with Kevin McCarthy in the lead but with Edward G Robinson accorded senior billing, as is only right.

In fact, it seems Robinson, who had previously starred in a real Woolrich classic, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (not very faithful to the source novel, but very good), made this film mainly to clear his name after he’d had some trouble with HUAC. The Z-list producers, William Pine and William Thomas (known in the trade as “the Dollar Bills”) seem to have had some power to rehabilitate stars who were under a cloud: if you worked for them, you were judged OK.

According to unreferenced internet sources, Maxwell Shane himself was a writer for Black Mask magazine, linking him to the Woolrich tradition of pulp-noir writing, and he later worked on Boris Karloff’s Thriller show, where the Woolrich story Guillotine was adapted for TV.

Incidentally, in Woolrich’s 1947 story A Night in Barcelona, the hero is called Maxwell Jones, and he’s a jazz musician, like the hero of NIGHTMARE, although unlike the hero of the 1947 FEAR IN THE NIGHT. Make of that what you will. And Woolrich reused the name, according to CW authority Francis M Nevins, in his last completed novel, Death is My Dancing Partner.

It begins — with a nightmare! Kevin McCarthy, the chin who walks like a man, sees himself in a mirrored room, stabbing a man with an ice-pick/awl, and stashing the body in a closet. “I felt as if my brain was in handcuffs,” he narrates, absurdly. During the struggle, he tears off one of the man’s jacket buttons, and after hiding the cadaver he pockets the key. And when he wakes up — you guessed it, he has the button and key on him. Also bruises and bloodstains.

This, then, is the mystery. McCarthy, sweating and jutting his jaw, is convinced the murder was real, but he doesn’t consciously remember it, and he doesn’t, so far as he knows, know the murdered man.

There’s a faint echo of this scenario in MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg’s “science fiction film noir“, which makes me ponder the death of noir and the limitations of a lot of neo-noir. I have a suspicion that noir died as a result of creeping self-consciousness, and that the very act of naming the genre was a nail in it’s coffin. But I also think that noir succeeded in its heyday because the filmmakers were sincere about the paranoia and fear that fueled the stories they told, and nobody was more sincere than Woolrich, who lived the life of loneliness and alcoholism. It’s hard to think of a sensibility less noirish than Spielberg’s, isn’t it? So in his movie, a man is really driven to the brink of murdering somebody he doesn’t know, and he’s all set to do it, as predicted by a psychic (Philip K Dick’s original story is very Woolrichian — both are ham-and-eggs pulp writers with weird imaginations), but then Spielberg wusses out and needs an additional forty-five minutes of screen time to come up with a happy ending in which malevolent fate is replaced by a nonsensical bad guy with a foreign accent, played by a guy who played lots of Nazis and the Emperor Ming.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy ditches his girlfriend, a big-voiced jazz singer (Connie Russell, impressively full-throated) and visits his convenient cop brother-in-law, Eddie G. Who doesn’t believe him, until a family picnic is interrupted by a thunderstorm and McCarthy leads Robinson to the house he dreamed about, the house with the mirrored room. (The room also appears in Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which is shot-for-shot near-identical to this one, save for a lower budget and no jazz subplot. FITN appeared the same year as Welles’ mirror-magic-show THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.)

Now we learn there’s been a real murder in this house and things are not looking good for Kevin. The only real clue comes in the reading material favoured by the unseen householder ~

Suspicious!

Do you sense a hypnosis plot lurking in the wings? Do you suspect that the old adage about hypnosis being useless to make somebody act out of character was possibly not extant at the time of this movie? How right you are!

Along the way we get further nice ideas like McCarthy searching for the haunting, sleazy and scary tune he heard floating through his dream, quizzing his jazz cohorts in a dutch-tilted montage sequence to find out if anybody can Name That Tune. And we get a few nice ceiling fans and shadow shots.

As long as I’m kicking MINORITY REPORT for its feelgood finale, I should really be consistent and smack NIGHTMARE for the cheery family-values-and-jazz coda that wraps things up into a neat bundle at the end. There were ample opportunities to kill or permanently dement McCarthy along the way. But the conclusion is put over with some enthusiasm and good spirits, and it’s pretty economical, and the song is nice. This is from late in the noir cycle, so one doesn’t expect too much (TOUCH OF EVIL and KISS ME DEADLY notwithstanding), but the movie is a snappy, happy little opus with a great crime jazz score, good New Orleans locations, and a few very pleasing visuals. Here’s a moment where Kevin thinks he sees a vision from his dream ~

Gotta love that split mirror image. In fact, the whole scene is part of the padding inserted to blow up the B-movie original to a beefier 1 hr 28 mins. McCarthy picks up the girl and goes home with her, and by way of Big Easy atmos there’s a black female voice singing blues in the night, and it really is atmospheric and kind of eerie, especially because the whole thing has nothing to do with the plot ~

“My closet’s full of men’s clothes / And no man to put ‘em on / Gonna find a man to love me / Before this day is gone.”

NB: DREAM DETECTIVE is the title of a film by Shinya Tsukamoto. I like his work, but that title is so evocative for me I almost don’t want to see it. How can the film be better than the title and the thoughts it conjures?

NB2: Francis M Nevins is right to say that FEAR IN THE NIGHT is the superior version. Now that I’ve watched it all, I can say that Paul Kelly in the Edward G Robinson role makes the difference — he’s always an alarming and unpredictable presence, c.f. that terrifying scene in CROSSFIRE…

Brainwrong

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2008 by dcairns

We don’t really hear much about Armond White in the UK, so it was a surprise to discover how much he turns up in movie conversations in New York. He’s the King of Hyperbole, read for the sheer insanity of his pronouncements, which tend towards either ecstatic transport or queenie indignation, often bearing only the most tangential relationship to the film under discussion.

The only review I read by White during my visit was for Scott Frank’s THE LOOKOUT. Boy, was White angry about that film. Since he also mentioned the fact that he hated BRICK*, which I rather liked, I figured that THE LOOKOUT was probably at worst inoffensive, at best rather good. And so it proved to be.

Scott Frank is the screenwriter of OUT OF SIGHT, probably Soderbergh’s most effective mainstream entertainment, and the film which more than any other helped confirm George Clooney as a genuine movie star (it also created a fleeting, illusionary halo of tolerability around the person of Jennifer Lopez). I’m not crazy about Frank’s other credits (Armond White, however, apparently loves MINORITY REPORT) but I was interested to give THE LOOKOUT a try sometime.

Basically, the film deals with a character played by BRICK’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who suffers brain damage during a reckless nocturnal drive and goes from being a high-school sports star to a bank janitor who has trouble remembering and sequencing events. Comparisons to MEMENTO are inevitable, but I think there’s room for more than one film about this relatively common kind of problem.

Induced by an acquaintance (Brit Matthew Goode, sporting a pitch-perfect U.S. accent) and a too-good-to-be-true girlfriend (Isla Fisher) to help out in a bank robbery, LGL’s character finds himself in over his head, outgunned and outplanned, and must work around his multiple mental disabilities in order to emerge alive.

“In THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt cements his indie rep as the poster boy for dysfunction,” writes White, suggesting a deep discomfort with any movie presenting a hero who is not perfection personified (he loves his Spielberg). And: “It takes a highly naive, cynical performer—or a doltish film critic—to find this nonsense interesting or surprising.” Naive AND cynical, that’s a nice mix. Where does Hollywood find such performers? White really seems not to believe that people with brain damage exist. The fact that JGL’s character lives with a blind man (aw, it’s Jeff Daniels — we LIKE Jeff Daniels!) seems to make him even angrier, although this is surely just WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. People with different disabilities are often housed together, so they can help each other out.

Of course, disabilities rarely DO exist in Hollywood. THE LOOKOUT doesn’t necessarily make the very best use of the issues it raises, but at least it raises them. It’s essentially a decent, tense film noir with some unusual characters. I wondered if it would be brave enough to have a downbeat ending, because I think most of the best noirs do — MINORITY REPORT would be immeasurably improved if it ended just after the Cruiser realises he’s been set up — but then I figured the film was so pervaded with loss and sadness, nobody would want to see it end worse than it started. But it’s inherent in the film’s premise that sometimes you lose something and you can’t get it back, things can NEVER be as good as they were, so the upbeat conclusion is still rather sad. This strikes me as pretty brave for the mainstream, and perhaps explains why the film didn’t do better. It’s a stylish thriller with great music and performances and the story is suspenseful and satisfying — but so many people like White are deeply uncomfortable with anything that suggests that life for some of us — or ALL of us — might not be perfectable.

Although some aspects of the film are predictable, this didn’t strike me as bad: our greater ability to work out that JGL is being exploited means that we can feel anxious long before he does. I thought it was also rather smart that the film encourages us to underestimate the hero in just the way the bad guys do. His stripper “girlfriend,” played by Isla Fisher and rejoicing in the name of Luvlee Lemons, is something of a cliched Tart-With-A-Heart: Frank wrote a proper femme fatale, but Fisher didn’t want to play unsympathetic. I think that’s a terrible choice, since femme fatales are MUCH more enjoyable that T-W-A-Hs. And Fisher telegraphs her character’s niceness in one dreadful scene by staring at JGL through a windscreen and assembling a variety of emotive expressions on her face, with a good bit of Dallas-type Odd Lip Movement.

Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly suggest that those in search of a good modern thriller to try this one on for size. If you don’t like the movie, you can still get endless fascination by trying to figure out what the hell Armond White means by “Being an indie puppet means a willingness to pervert contemporary notions of heroism, and in THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt once again plays a moral defective as if the film’s absurdities made sense.”

“I know what all those words mean, but that statement makes no sense,” ~ Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons, studying a marquee that reads “YAHOO SERIOUS FILM FESTIVAL”.

*Self-conscious neo-noirs never seem to work, since the stylistic excesses of the classic noir were committed with a kind of innocence: the term film noir had not been invented, and filmmakers were just doing what seemed natural and right at the time. Yet BRICK’s teen-noir pastiche struck me as fresh and satisfying. It helps that the film has a bright, saturated look and surprise framing and cutting that have nothing to do with noir archetypes. At times it verges on BUGSY MALONE territory, with all those kids acting like gangsters, especially when school principal Richard Roundtree calls the young hero into his office and tells him to BACK OFF, but I enjoyed even that moment. The whole film is very self-conscious and cute, but sincere too.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers