Archive for Shirley Clarke

Tomorrowsday #1: Mr. Id

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2018 by dcairns

I was pontificating about the season of Tuesday sci-fi movies I saw on the BBC as a kid, and Sheldon Hall was good enough to supply the exact schedule, which went as follows: FORBIDDEN PLANET (06/11/1974), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (13/11/1974), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (20/11/1974), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (27/11/1974), VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (04/12/1974), THEM! (11/12/1974) and THE TIME MACHINE (18/12/1974).

I now intend to blog about all of them.

I already wrote a substantial piece on the last-named, but will revisit it and see what happens. I should see if my Dad is up for watching any of these, since he accompanied the just-turned-seven me last time round, and helped explain some of the more difficult stuff. I might still need his assistance.

Seeing all those films for the first time in such a compact pattern and at such an early age was definitely eye and mind-opening. I was already a Doctor Who fan — that character was about to transform from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker, which made me if anything an even bigger fan, but what impressed me about these movies was less the higher production values, which didn’t make any direct impression on me, and more the striking imagery and wild concepts. For sure, images like the decomposing Morlock or the invisible Monster from the Id outlined against a force field were made possible by the movies’ bigger budgets, but also by the greater imaginative scope.I can’t recall for sure, but I suspect FP was the first 50s sci-fi movie I ever saw, and I don’t see that I could have done better, even though the film must have been pan-and-scanned and seen on a b&w TV (I recall our first colour TV arriving a little later — I was excited at the prospect of seeing Tom Baker’s scarf in colour). By virtue of being set in deep space and in the far future, it hits the viewer with exciting imagery from the very start — a flying saucer piloted by a crew of staunch earthmen (did they back-engineer the Roswell UFO?), an exotic alien planet, and the first inhabitant we meet is a friendly robot. There wasn’t much chance of me getting bored. (But I was riveted by all the other films in the series, except the one I missed, and which I will be seeing… for the first time… in a few weeks.)

Before Leo the lion has even faded up fully, the beep-beep-bloop of Louis & Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities adds a sonic strangeness, and the first thing we see after our leonine emcee is not the main title, but a spacecraft. MGM evidently decided to make not only the biggest and most impressive of SF-SFX movies, but one with a hint of the unconventional. The score, like the costumes, would be recycled endlessly in future films, but the composers received no fees for the re-use, since their work wasn’t classed as music.

 

Four minutes into this upload of a Shirley Clarke experimental film you can hear more of the Barrons’ “tortured circuits” music

Before Robby, we get a bit of backstory setting up man’s hyperdriven expansion into the cosmos, and we meet the crew of Starship C-57D, including Space Commander Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). The cast also includes Mr. Miniver, Steve Austin’s boss and Honey West, whose affinity for wildcats is first established here. The stuff about hyperdrive demonstrates the film’s seriousness and largesse: it feels the need to make interstellar travel in some way scientifically explainable — or, if it doesn’t really offer an excuse for faster-than-light travel’s existence, it at least acknowledges the need for an excuse, and uses the problem to motivate some neat VFX from Joshua Meador from Disney, and his uncredited team.The set-up is very Star Trek. Though there are no living aliens in this scenario, there’s a benign, American-dominated space force (maybe in the future EVERYONE is American?) and a tough ship’s captain and his chum the doctor. When they were trying to come up with ideas for Star Trek motion pictures, I thought they could do worse than remake FP. And as I recall, James Cameron wanted to. Maybe the scary lost alien civilisation stuff, which is very Lovecraftian, would have informed Del Toro and Cameron’s planned adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.

Much has been made of the connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though as with William Wellman’s western version, it’s not 100% sure who came up with the notion, or if it was even consciously in place. The story is credited to two special effects artists, Irving Block and Allen Adler, who seem to have made their brief careers as screenwriters by pitching stories based around effects they knew they could provide. Although Roger Corman, director of THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE LAND OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT, felt that he was essentially conned into making the movie on the strength of spectacular production art which was then impossible to realise. The smart dialogue (apart from Robby’s weird misuse of the word “monitor” and a few other odd touches) is by novelist Cyril Hume, whose The Wife of the Centaur was filmed by King Vidor in 1924. It has one IMDb review, by our old friend F. Gwyneplaine MacIntyre, which means it’s almost certainly a lost film. Hume sold his talent to MGM and became their go-to guy for TARZAN pics. It seems plausible that he noticed Tempest-like qualities in Block & Adler’s scenario, and emphasised them.Ariel and Caliban are sort of flipped here — Ariel, the good and faithful servant is Robby, the solid, earthly one,  whereas the rebellious native Caliban is the monster from the id, the floating spirit. But Robby is also someone else —

This movie seems to invent the trope of the robot butler. As emotionless as Jeeves, Robby’s lumbering gait prevents him shimmering into existence like Wooster’s manservant, but he seems to have been inspired by the natural associations of butlers and desert islands which dates back to J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, first filmed in 1918, again as MALE AND FEMALE by DeMille in 1919, and at various times since. Unofficial adaptations abound, and there have been two actual robot Crichtons on TV — Jeff David’s obnoxious Crichton in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Robert Llywellyn’s timorous Kryten in Red Dwarf. It probably all goes back to Man Friday, though.

Robby is a great robot. If I had to choose a feature of A. Arnold Gillespie and Robert Kinoshita’s design that makes him most wondrous, I would be torn between his little stumpy arms and his big glass bubble head, both of which make him less obviously humanoid, although both are completely compatible with him being a man in a suit. In these dark days of robot rebellion, of T-1000s and EX MACHINAs, Robby reflects the comforting certainty of the fifties. Robby will never let us down.His ability to synthesise anything from bourbon to diamonds on demand anticipates Star Trek too — Gene Roddenberry did acknowledge the influence. The future seems to be without want, like Powell & Pressburger’s heaven, “with all our earthly problems solved and bigger ones worth the solving.” As Robby accompanies the surviving crew of the C-57D home at the end, he’s presumably going to put his awesome powers at the service of humanity. As a product of Morbius’s alien-boosted brain, he may bring some dangers too, but non-sequel THE INVISIBLE BOY fails to explore these promising possibilities.

Of course, he’s a mechanical red herring in this story, as the one visible suspect who could be responsible for the upcoming murders. Does Forbidden Planet fail as a fair-play murder mystery? Perhaps so, as by its science-fictional nature it depends on producing unpredictable elements which alter our understanding of the world we’re in — nobody’s likely to guess the presence of a monster from the id in this one, because the possibility of such things isn’t established at the outset.

Check out the two end ones.

So, now we meet the other inhabitants — Dr. Edward Morbius (great name!) and his comely daughter, Altaira, a very Star Trek female, with her miniskirts and what-is-love? naiveté. She also gets the best deliberately funny line in a fifties sci-ci flick as she admires the sudden influx of male specimens — “The two end ones are unbelievable.” It may not rival “O brave new world, that has such people in’t,” but it’s highly amusing and a touch risqué.

If this is a whodunnit, then everybody immediately guesses that Morbius is the who who done it, though we can’t know how. Attempts to throw suspicion on Robby falter in the face of his portly benevolence, and a brief moment where Altaira seems to have a nightmare depicting the monster’s onslaught only hints vaguely that she might be involved. We know Morbius knows more than he’s telling, and once we learn about the lost Krell civilisation we know those guys figure somehow, but there’s no way to really guess it.

Possible explanation for Altaira’s psychic dream: did Morbius resist the temptation to brain-boost his young daughter? And perhaps the effects will only truly kick in as she attains full adulthood. Is the C-57D starship hosting a Midwich cuckoo in the nest?

Director Fred MacLeod Wilcox was something of a mystery to me — I’ve loved his film for over forty years without ever looking into his career. That ends now!

Charles Butterworth addresses Fred Wilcox’s sister, Ruth Selwyn, in BABY FACE HARRINGTON.

Wilcox was lucky enough to be brother-in-law of Loew’s Inc. chairman Nick Schenck. Actress Ruth Selwyn was one of his several sisters, wife of director Edgar Selwyn. His direction is better than workmanlike here, with a sure touch for generating suspense. No doubt he’s aided greatly by his effects artists, who find neat ways to portray the invisible enemy’s advances, including those subjective camera crane shots.

Wilcox started as an assistant to King Vidor, who gets everywhere, doesn’t he?

His other best-known film is LASSIE COME HOME, and he helmed a couple of later pics with the heroic trans dog, who moved through spacetime as fluidly as Doctor Who, turning up wherever s/he was needed. Wilcox makes a better brother-in-law than he does an auteur, but we can guess that his favourite actors may have been Edmund Gwenn and Ralph Meeker, who each worked with him twice, and Pal, who played that dog for him three times. Themes recurring in his work include the perils of the wayward mind, afflicting Pigeon here and Meeker in SHADOW IN THE SKY, and hydrophobia, afflicting Meeker in that film and Lassie in HILLS OF HOME. As a kid, I was amused by Walter Pidgeon’s name, but thought him a fine actor. Anybody who could play someone called Dr. Morbius HAD to be a fine actor, to my seven-year-old brain. I was probably right, but not in the way I thought. Pidgeon’s stiff manner is fine for producing gravitas, though I find his pausing a little off today — he breaks up sentences not like a man thinking where his next thought is leading, but like an actor trying to remember his lines. It’s skilled subterfuge, but not as invisible as the id-monster. Today I imagine someone like Charles Laughton in the role… William Powell… James Mason…Leslie Nielsen, who joked in later years that his early career all looked like comedy to him now, is perfectly adequate as the starship commander, though he’s no Shatner (the Shat is animated by a WILL TO GREATNESS that he may not be able to make good on, but which makes him kind of exciting and risky). The character is pretty much an asshole, punishing one of his crew for being asleep OFF duty, and slut-shaming Altaira because he simply doesn’t understand how innocent she is. Screw that guy. And when he tries his IQ on the Krell Test-Your-Strength brain machine, his brain fails to ring the bell. (Current reading: Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which contains the apt line during a fairground scene, “That bell will never ring again.”)Asides from Robby, Anne Francis gives the best performance — if you get a chance to see the pair reuinited in the documentary The Android Prophecy, it’s really sweet (she asks him for a new dress, translucent, with sequins round the nipples). Her “nude scene” here is a tease, and just as with Amanda Barrie rising from the milk in CARRY ON CLEO, the invention of VHS and the pause button allowed my teenage self to be disappointed at how much she’s actually wearing during her skinny-dip. A lot more than sequins.The Krell subterranean power station is a fantastic setting, a mixture of sets, matte paintings and miniatures (allowing vertiginous roving POV shots. It’s very clean and bright, but still scary because it’s ancient and deserted and we know something bad happened here. While showing a lot of state-of-the-art 50s FX, the movie also enlists the audience’s imagination. We never see a Krell. We see the outlines of an invisible monster from the id, created by Disney animators but looking a little like the bulldog in MGM’s own Tom & Jerry toons, but is this the accurate image of a Krell or merely Morbius’s imagining of one? That middle image is VERY Death Star chic, isn’t it? George Lucas certainly saw and admired this movie too.

The solution to the mystery — Morbius’s id runs amok — the sleep of reason brings forth monsters from the id. The image of him slumped over his desk seems a direct nod to Goya. Fiona and I still love the protective steel panels that appear around Morbius’s pad, slamming into place by jump cut, but Fiona is today unimpressed by the rubbery distortions when they buckle under the force of an id-attack. The wobbly material gives itself away. But I still remember how thrilling it seemed to me at age seven, so I don’t really mind.As a kid, the thing that baffled me was, is Morbius dead at the end? Obviously he is — he’s not on the spaceship, his planet blows up, and Commander Drebin talks about how he’ll be remembered. I think what puzzled me was his CAUSE of death. He isn’t obviously struck down by the monster from his id, so his death doesn’t have the visceral, physical quality of previous victims (even the offscreen ones described as “torn limb from limb” etc). The destruction seems to be mental, the forces of his mind turned against one another — just like Robby’s sparking circuits when he’s given an order that violates his Asimovian programming. That earlier scene works as foreshadowing here.

Another moment anticipating the later developments is when Altaira’s tame tiger pounces at her, apparently failing to recognise her. She can’t understand why, and Drebin expresses a kind of wonderment at her inability to see the reason. It’s because she’s with him, I guess. Either her awakening to womanhood has confused the tiger who genuinely no longer knows who she is, or he’s jealous. (In a deleted scene, the doc equates the cat’s tameness to that of the unicorn who is in thrall to the purity of a maiden — so that must be what the script intended — an implication that Altaira has lost her purity through her association with the commander.) Which is interesting when you think of it in terms of the monster’s motivation. Is Morbius at some deep Krell sub-level of his mind as jealous of his daughter as he is off his planet paradise and his ancient alien knowledge? The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

“After all, we are not God.” Seems like almost a genre requirement to invoke the deity in the closing words of an sf thriller of this era — see also WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Let’s see if this holds true in subsequent films. It may be the result of nervousness about drama in which the recognized norms of earthly existence are subverted or vanished — a reminder that, after all, the big beard guy is still in charge, even if our characters are IN the heavens and see no sign of angels. And, well, MGM was the most conservative studio. Jere, the dumb hero triumphs and the alien tech is destroyed — something a man like Morbius would NEVER do. Outside of their musicals, they’re not my favourite dream factory by a long chalk, but still, this is one I love.

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The Edinburgh Dialogues #2: Hannah McGill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by dcairns

Number two in my series of conversations with former directors of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. These unsung heroes, toiling in the service of cinephilia, don’t often get the attention they deserve. What we’re attempting here is a look back, clear-eyed and free of nostalgia, but with affection where appropriate, and a look forward, boldly and imaginatively.

Hannah McGill ran the EIFF from 2007 to 2010, putting on retrospectives on such filmmakers as Shirley Clarke, Anita Loos, Jeanne Moreau, and also After the Wave, an estimable event celebrating those filmmakers who followed the British New Wave of the sixties — this series appealed to me so much I wrote about it here, here and here.

Hannah supervised the fest’s move from its August slot in the midst of the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Book Festival, and Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to a June position where it stands virtually alone on the stage — audiences rose the year of the move, aided by an influx of cash for events and publicity.

I asked Hannah most of the same questions I asked Mark Cousins, knowing full well I’d get entertainingly different answers —

1) Favourite/oddest moments of being Festival director.

Hannah: This will be a bit random because there are many, many scattered moments.

Meeting John Waters and Bela Tarr, and introducing them to each other – that was cool.

Laughing so much interviewing Judd Apatow onstage that I stopped being able to speak.

Telling award-winners that they’d won was always absolutely lovely, as was the awards ceremony itself.

Being stopped by strangers who wanted to gush about something they’d seen and loved.

Full houses for our Jeanne Moreau retrospective. All our retrospectives, in fact – that was a special thing because it took so much research and hunting down of prints; it was so satisfying to get it up onscreen.

Seeing the red carpet at the Festival Theatre in 2010 – the beauteous culmination of much labour and stress.

Introducing the Under the Radar strand and meeting extraordinary filmmakers through it like Rona Mark, Zach Clark and Martin Radich.

Cinematographers: Seamus McGarvey, Chris Doyle, Roger Deakins, Antony Dod Mantle.

Happy late nights in the Filmhouse bar when I should have been well asleep.

Roger Corman, Ken Russell, Clair Denis, the Quay brothers. People who were just utterly charming and sweet, like Sir Patrick Stewart, and people who were hilarious, like Stellan Skarsgaard.

I shall not list individual films, for we shall be here all day and also I may cry. 

2) Worst aspect of the job.

Hannah: Unpredictability, of everything. 

Also: it can feel thankless, because everyone wants different things from it, and people tend to have very strong, angry opinions about it – which are often unencumbered by knowledge of how festivals and the film industry work. There’s this received wisdom peddled by the Scottish press that the film festival ought to be Cannes, and by not being Cannes, evidently isn’t trying hard enough.

Well, Cannes has roughly a 30 million euro budget; happens alongside the world’s most massive film market; and doesn’t admit ordinary paying public. (And actually, when you’re there, is kind of a massive stressful faff a lot of the time). Building Cannes to the stature that it has in industry terms took many decades of massive investment.

So kneejerk, ill-informed criticism of that nature was always galling. As was the ‘can’t win’ factor – in the same year, you get picked at for having not enough celebrities and too many celebrities; not enough obscure art films and too many obscure art films. There’s a weird resistance to the idea that the point of a festival is variation and range. The audience seem to get that rather more than the press, who are always looking for a quick editorial line – and in Scotland, usually want to find a negative one. Often, you’re being slated for things that are just part of the reality of any film festival: variable screening facilities; films of different styles and quality; some films that are there for primarily commercial reasons; films that prove unavailable; guests that cancel. The standard you’re being held to – an uninterrupted flow of undiscovered, commercially appealing, artistically flawless works, all ready for release at the same time, supported by celebrity casts who are eternally available and pay for their own plane tickets out of the sheer love of film! – is a fantasy.

You do have to rise above press quibbles, but I think there are serious consequences: the fact of the festival being so picked on for what it’s not, rather than celebrated for what it is, has had an effect on its sales and its standing. Last year a London journalist criticised the festival for having too many big commercial films. This year, the same journalist declared it a failure again, because…? No big commercial films. I bit a hole in my newspaper. (Except I didn’t, because I was reading it online, for free, the better to hasten the demise of print journalism. Ha ha ha.)

3) What would you recommend to improve the festival next year?

Hannah: I recommend that it be run by a consortium of Scottish arts reporters: they know how to make it PERFECT. No. Not really.

Just an empowered artistic director, with a full year to prepare a programme, and realistic ambitions clearly conveyed by the messaging. An acceptance, confidently embraced and properly expressed, that the financial climate and the changing film distribution world mean that the festival IS going to alter and evolve, and not turn into a multi-million pound extravaganza overnight, or go back to exactly how it was in 2003 or 1985 or 1972. 

4) The move to June.

Some facts re June as there is a lot of disinformation abounding out there: the move had been discussed for years (was in fact first proposed by M Cousins in the 90s).

The Board and management decided to pursue it in 2008, on the basis that Edinburgh was utterly overloaded in August (it is); that the tourist intake to the city weren’t coming to the film festival, whereas local and rest-of-Scotland audiences were staying away due to general August fatigue (also true); that hotels and transport and venue space were all jam-packed and overpriced (they are); and that the festival had no space to grow and establish itself as a significant international film event as long as it was seen as an adjunct of the other fests (I habitually used to get asked ‘do you programme all that theatre as well?’!!).

Arts pages were also completely overstretched, and the film fest didn’t get the coverage it merited. Also from a programming pov, August was crap. Blockbusters taking up multiplex space, whole of Europe on holiday, MUCH too close to the London film festival.

We canvassed distributors and the bulk of them thought it was a great idea. And that was why we decided to try moving.

Sorry to witter on, but I am sick of the press talking as if it happened for no good reason!! 

In addition: I can see why there are arguments for moving back, because people are sentimental about the August date, and Edinburgh’s exciting then. Also, the move to June by Sheffield, and Sundance doing a July event In London in 2012, are both new pressures on June. But the reasons we moved still stand. And next year, aren’t there some Olympics in August? Would you want to be going up against that??

Well, I hate sport, so I’d welcome a distraction while all that jumping around is going on, but I can see it might have an adverse affect on attendance…

A Scary Time

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2009 by dcairns

Part 1 —

And part 2 —

A movie so obscure it doesn’t appear on the IMDb, A SCARY TIME is “experimental filmmaker” Shirley Clarke’s project for UNICEF, made under the encouragement of Thorold Dickinson, and featuring Fraser Pennebaker, who as you might guess is the son of the shaggy D.A.

Commentary is by Robert Hughes.

Saw this two summers ago at the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Clarke retrospective, and was rather impressed. (Sorry this rip isn’t better quality, not my doing.) It may be work for hire, but it has heart, and Clarke’s trademark lopsided way of doing things comes through — it’s a real independent. The strategy of shuttling between entertainment and worthy message (genuinely worthy, mind you) is common to a lot of charity stuff, and is usually done a lot less skillfully/intelligently than this, but I still kind of resent it. But probably just because I’ve seen it done badly so often. This piece is interesting, especially for the collage effect of the non-sync sound used.