Archive for The Billion-Year Spree

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill

Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns


Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.


ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.


Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.


Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.



At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.


I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.


But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.