Archive for The Stone Tape

Reincarnate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by dcairns

In Peter Sasdy’s NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, Christopher Lee is stuffy, Peter Cushing is snippy, Diana Dors is stroppy and Georgia Brown is chippy, lippy and slutty. And little Gwyneth Strong is absolutely brilliant. Everyone is intense, fervid, all the time, like they were all fathered by Charles McGraw when no one was looking, which seems to be a Sasdy characteristic (see also The Stone Tape).

It’s Christopher Lee’s only film as producer, adapted from a novel by John Blackburn, a quite interesting genre writer though a very reactionary one. Reaching the screen, some of these attitudes are softened or switched, but some remain, so you don’t quite know what to think.

The plot centres on an orphan (Strong), seemingly traumatized in a bus crash, but there’s something sinister afoot with the foundation caring for her (Kathleen Byron is involved so it can’t be a purely charitable institution, can it?). Dors is a red herring in a red shiny coat, seen trudging through the Scottish heather for reels on end, the least inconspicuous person ever. She’s a fortune teller with a black cat decal on her Hillman Imp and she’s trying to get her daughter back. Tabloid hack Brown tells her, “You must admit she’d be better of with them than here,” which seems a bit unsympathetic. There’s nothing wrong with Dors’ clairvoyance pad: she has a phrenology head and an Emmanuelle chair, what more could any child ask?

Apart from class horror at Dors’ raging slattern, the film seems to share Lee and Cushing’s distaste for the pushy journo, yet she’s the one who sets them on the right trail. The great duo are at everyone’s throats all the way through, with Cushing in particular JUST VERY CROSS in every scene. It’s the Hammer films trope of the authority figures being righteous, correct, our only hope, yet deeply dislikeable. Only with the pitch turned up and a bit of a headache.

Gwyneth Strong can dislocate her jaw in order to swallow whole goats.

We enjoyed the Scottish locations — Edinburgh airport looks unchanged to me — the evil scheme is an intriguing one and the climax gets some real moral horror going, aided by Lee waking up and doing some proper acting as he faces a kind of payback for his role in THE WICKER MAN. He could really rise to the occasion, that man, and at six foot ninety he had a head start.

It all falls apart in the closing shots, where the script can’t come up with a good finish, calls for some effects that don’t quite make it, and the staging falls apart accompanied by mismatched dusk/dawn-for-night and night-for-night shots (NOTHING LIKE THE NIGHT, you could call it), and it looks as though Sasdy just ran out of time on top of everything else.

Night shoots are a bitch.

The music — a lush rephrasing of Nine Green Bottles — is extremely poor. A death-by-hatpin recalls Sasdy’s HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Strong’s performance is one for the ages — authentically terrifying.

NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT stars the Grand Moff Tarkin; Mycroft Holmes; Frau Poppendick; Frau Freud; Nigel Barton; Mackay; Albus Dumbledore; Aunt Beru; Victor Carroon; and Sister Ruth.

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An Odyssey in Bits: Putting the starch back into Starchild

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2019 by dcairns

“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”

So, the second most dazzling cut in 2001 is probably the one nobody talks about. After Geoffrey Unsworth’s camera tracks into the monolith (death), Kubrick hard-cuts to the moon — seen from space or the Earth, we don’t know yet, and dead-centre in frame, like HAL’s eye. He could have dissolved, but the hard or direct cut makes it clear this is continuous action, just like the switch from bone to orbiting missile, the same process continuing.The moon then appears to rise straight up (its prominent role here would be more meaningful, it occurs to me, if we’d ever really seen Moonwatcher, our lead ape, you know, moon-watching. Yes, Kubrick remembered to show him looking up in awe and terror at night-time, but I don’t recall him including a POV shot. Perhaps showing “the outward urge” and John Wyndham called it seemed too on-the-nose to him at this early point). Then the Earth hoves in, and we realise that the choice of “up” is an illusion of camera angles —And the Starchild, Baby Dave, seen previously hovering or lying on Dave Bowman’s bed in its Good Witch Glinda bubble, hovers into view, the shot framed so His bubble is exactly the size of our world.This is the only shot where He looks cute, as opposed to beautiful and divine.

 

There had been a plan for Baby Dave to then blow up all the orbiting nukes, seen earlier, which would have closed the narrative thread of East-West tension established on the orbiting satellite earlier (cut to aghast reaction shot of Leonard Rossiter) but this was dismissed because either

(a) It was too pat, too Peace On Earth

(b) Kubes realised he hadn’t made the nukes obvious enough

(c) It lacked ambiguity, like, totally

(d) He didn’t want to end two films in a row with a bunch of nukes going off

SO we simply see Baby Dave, EVA in ECU, slowly turn until he’s looking right at us, which is disarming in a different way. And chimes worryingly with THIS image:“We’re the start of the coming race.”

What happened between the ending of 2001 and the start of CLOCKWORK to account for the sudden sourness, misanthropy and pessimism? Well, it was always there — look at STRANGELOVE. But if the question has any vestige of validity, we might list: the Tet offensive, covered in FULL METAL JACKET; the My Lai massacre; the Manson murders; and the cancellation of Kubrick’s NAPOLEON. The last one perhaps being the most significant.

Kubrick’s (very) informal science fiction series consists of films that seem to rewrite each others’ messages — in STRANGELOVE, mankind is all-but doomed by the brilliance of its scientific thinking and the stupidity of its political and military thinking — in 2001, space travel offers the possibility of a way out of this mess by contacting smarter beings who may help us — in CLOCKWORK ORANGE we’re on our own: the great achievement of evolution is “man — the killer ape” and the great achievement of science is dehumanisation — politics continues to be totally fucked — if THE SHINING qualifies as SF because it relies on ESP and quasi-explains its ghosts with a version of Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape Theory, then we learn that ESP isn’t very helpful and ghosts are assholes: politics plays no central role but human beings are vulnerable and evil is imperishable — and if A.I. qualifies as a Kubrick film (I’d say only somewhat), it shows his latter-day thinking: human beings are too flawed to survive but we might be able to make something that will outlast us.

(In CLOCKWORK ORANGE scientists produce a mechanical human, organic yet functioning mechanically — what Burgess meant by the title. In A.I. they achieve the opposite, Kubrick’s anti-Frankenstein myth.)

Lots of variety in that “series,” tending towards the somewhat pessimistic. But it’s realistic to say that, since nothing lasts forever, human beings have only a certain amount of time to footer around, and optimistic to say we might get to play a role in choosing our own successors, be they starchildren or Giacometti androids.

I know a lot of people aren’t interested in these questions — it’s all a long way off. But the end of humanity always fascinated and worried me, along with the end of the universe. Maybe it’s not too soon to start planning for the heat death? And in fact, extinction, and not prosperity, may be just around the corner. Kubrick seems like one of the few filmmakers to be seriously thinking these thoughts.

Room 237 1/2

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2017 by dcairns

What’s THE SHINING about? Is it a puzzle with no answer, a labyrinth without a centre, a sentence stuck on repeat?

When I first saw the film, underage at the school film society (but film societies aren’t subject to the BBFC), we all “got a good scare” (as Kubrick said he wanted) — there were persons of a nervous disposition, teenage girls for instance, and it rubbed off on all of us. But then we were all furious at the ending, which didn’t make any bloody sense.

I like that now. At 17, one’s negative capability isn’t fully developed so things are supposed to make sense. I think the irrationality of the film, which is more extreme than 2001’s non-verbal sense of the numinous and unaccountable, probably does derive from King’s novel. King’s stuff never makes total sense, does it? I think because he’s maybe a little lazy or easily satisfied when it comes to plotting. But Kubrick certainly was after a disturbing quality that would result precisely from things not making sense. How did Jack Torrence end up in that 1921 photo? Had he always been the caretaker? How does that work, when the person telling him that used to be the caretaker?

The film actually spends half an hour at the start explaining everything — how to look after a hotel in winter, how the isolation can get to you, how a previous caretaker went nuts — and how things can leave a trace of themselves, and how a person with a psychic gift can detect that trace. But it can’t hurt you.

Over the course of act II and III, most everything Stuart Ullman, the Overlook Hotel manager, tells us turns out to be true, barring some confusion about the caretaker’s name. Delbert or Charles Grady? Delbert isn’t a typical English name, you know, and Grady turns out to be English. (Torrence also calls him Jeevesy, and Grady really does phrase things like Wodehouse’s immortal manservant.) Even though Kubrick shot a deleted ending in which Ullman turns out to be in league with the Overlook.

But what the reliable and sympathetic Mr. Halloran (Scatman Crothers) tells us turns out NOT to be true. He’s outlined what is called The Stone Tape Theory, based on Nigel Kneale’s superb TV play: ghosts are like psychic echoes of emotionally charged events. They have no will of their own, they only repeat the actions from their lives, and they can’t hurt you. This theory, concocted for fictional purposes, seems to describe really well most ghost encounters described by real people.

Unfortunately it turns out to be a really bad description of what goes on at the Overlook.

Stephen King has really committed the sin of double voodoo in his story. You’re only supposed to have one aberrant concept per story, but he has both ghosts and telepathy. But he makes this OK by tying them together: only people with “the shining” can see these traces of past events. This makes the story seem to be set in our world with only one additional element for us to swallow, so the story goes down easily. And by the time it turns out there are at least TWO aberrant concepts at play, it’s too late. We’re deep in the maze.

Halloran’s Stone Tape starts decaying when Jack starts talking to Lloyd the bartender, but we take Lloyd to be kind of an imaginary character at first. Maybe not even a ghost. He’s an odd kind of ghost, anyway, serving drinks. We may note that some of his banter has a Mephistophelean cadence to it.

Meanwhile, SOMEBODY unlocks Room 237 and Danny is apparently attacked by “a crazy woman” inside. It’s significant that we don’t see this attack, even though we soon after see the woman — the question of ghosts being able to interact with humans and with corporeal objects is kind of left open.

The headfuck is when Grady lets Jack out of the walk-in storage locker. A ghost has turned a key. At the Portobello High School film society, my friend in the next seat went “WHAT??” at this point. Grady spilling advocaat over Torrence is one thing, nothing is really affected, but this makes him a physical presence in our world, with a will of his own. I guess he could still be a projection of Torrence’s ego, but he’s a telekinetically able-bodied one, if that’s the case. Triple or quadruple voodoo.

Despite appearances, maybe it really IS a great party — read on…

Finally, in the third act, Wendy starts seeing all kinds of Overlook inhabitants. Wendy has been, arguably, the least psychically perceptive character, but even she gets it now. (How rare is the shining ability? Four out of five major living characters in this movie seem to have it.) King speculates that all mothers can shine a little, but Kubrick is having none of this pseudo-progressive sentimentality. The Overlook comes to life in the winter, and when it’s in full flush, even a dope like Wendy can’t miss what’s up.

The entertaining doc ROOM 237 offers a series of fun crackpot theories about what the film really means. In a way, the Indian one is the one most supported by the film. The hotel was built on an Indian burial ground, and we somehow know that’s to blame for everything. POLTERGEIST, released two years later, somehow makes us accept that all the crazy stuff is happening because the house is built on a former graveyard. And we just go with it. But anyway, “built on an Indian burial ground” has become this joke in the culture signifying something that is clearly cursed and no good, and it’s a pretty good joke if you think about it because, if you think about it, wasn’t the whole United States built on an Indian burial ground?

Yet the evil lurking in the Overlook doesn’t have anything to do with Native American mythology. And it seems to espouse a very white male privileged attitude. Chauvinistic, racist. And when you die in the Overlook, you don’t go to the Happy Hunting Ground. You go to a New Year’s July 4th party in 1921. But it seems like this is maybe a kind of pocket universe, existing eternally within the Overlook. And people get recruited into it when they die there. That makes me feel awful for Mr. Halloran. Because the idea seems to be that this is a nostalgic vision of a time when the white male was king. Although Grady ended up as a waiter and Torrence, despite his tuxedo and grin in the film’s final image, is apparently still going to be caretaker, only without his wife to do all the work.

Like all afterlifes (afterlives? technically better but sounds wrong) it’s very hard to visualise, even if that’s a photo of it at the end of the film.

Here’s what I think is going on. As in King’s Pet Sematery, the Indian burial ground thing is a signifier for a powerful spiritual site full of energy that white people don’t know how to channel. This energy starts to affect Danny, Jack and finally Wendy when they move in and are left alone with it. Jack proves to be the most vulnerable, and the energy creates images and character’s drawn from Jack’s mind — if he hadn’t known about Charles Grady the caretaker he would never have hallucinated Delbert Grady the waiter.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he tells us that the environment Dave Bowman finds himself in — visualised in the movie as Louis Quinze interiors with an illuminated floor — has been created by the unseen aliens from Dave’s memories. When he gets some chicken from the refrigerator, it proves tasteless, the ersatz ghost of chicken, because the aliens have just gone by a memory of chicken’s appearance.

I think Kubrick has returned to this promising idea. The Indian burial ground energy — probably nothing to do with Indians, originally, something in the very mountain itself which was detected by the Indians and treated with due deference — works on Jack, with mayhem as its object. It uses imagery drawn from his mind to twist him to violence, and when he dies, it transplants him into that world of fantasy, forever, ‘n’ ever, ever.

And in that fantasy it is New Year’s Eve July 4th, 1921, always, because Jack’s dream is to write the great American novel (which he will call All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy). Or at any rate, to be the great American novelist. The one who writes and drinks and parties and is celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, right?

The Beautiful and the Damned