Archive for The Towering Inferno

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillermin group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.

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Lost in Time and Lost in Space… and Meaning

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by dcairns

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I was impressed by a shot in Adam Curtis’s free-form documentary found-footage mash-up IT FELT LIKE A KISS in which Doris Day closes a hotel room door in our face and the room number on it is 2001. Curtis uses this to evoke thoughts about the events of 9:11 and the more innocent-seeming world we dream existed before that act of unscheduled demolition opened the  war on abstract concepts. I became convinced that it might also be possible to draw connections between Kubrick’s film 2001 and the actual events on September 11th of that year. If, as ROOM 237 shows, THE SHINING can be bent this way and that to support an apparently unlimited range of unrelated theories, surely the even more open text of 2001 can act as a lens through which to view events which were still in the almost-unimaginable future when Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived their space odyssey?

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Kubrick begins with a desert landscape populated by aggressive cave-dwellers. Al-Qaeda? Racist to conflate arabs and ape-men, but in a way we’re only following the racist logic of much media reporting to see where it leads. 2001 begins with a land that doesn’t need to be bombed back to the stone age because it’s already there. The simians are visited by a shiny rectangular artifact, which we’ll spuriously claim represents the Twin Towers. Gazing at it in awe, they are inspired to discover weapons and kill.

Of course, the connection between apes and the World Trade Center is really made by the DeLaurentiis KING KONG, in which Kong scales one of the towers before leaping to the other, driven by some primal urge (he apparently relates the towers to a geographical feature of Skull Island). Attacked by helicopters, Kong (like the 2001 man-beasts, an uncredited actor in a costume) is shot down. KING KONG is directed by John Guillermin, who had considerable skyscraper experience, having just made THE TOWERING INFERNO. Thus Kubrick’s film, without containing any shots of large-scale destruction, calls to mind the events of 9:11 in a variety of ways in its very first sequence.

In Steve Bell’s newspaper strip in The Guardian, entitled If…, George W Bush was always portrayed as a simian. And IF… is also the title of the film starring Malcolm McDowell which got Little Malcolm the lead role in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. (CLOCKWORK ORANGE can be seen as a black parody of 2001: a barbaric savage is reprogrammed by a higher power. In both cases, the primitive being is shown a film accompanied by German classical music — Moonwatcher the apeman perceives this with his mind’s eye, whereas Malcolm watches it on a traditional screen. The protagonists of both films end up in bed, transformed.)

In a justly famous transition, Kubrick match-cuts from a hurled bone to a spacecraft, cementing the notion of flying vehicles as weapons. Later we will meet spacecraft identified as belonging to Pan-Am Airlines, confirming that spacecraft are just evolved aircraft (and both are just evolved ape-weapons).

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Now we meet Space Station V, an orbiting base composed of two wheels, each constructed like a skyscraper swallowing its own tail. Parts of the station are apparently as yet incomplete, exposing red girders. To a Strauss waltz, we watch as a spacecraft flies directly into the station, but rather than causing destruction it is simply swallowed up. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this space base has a restaurant and an unbeatable view. The WTC boasted of its top floor “observatories” and its “Windows on the World” restaurant and “Cellar in the Sky” bar. The SSV actually does feature windows on the world, through which the Earth can be seen, apparently spinning below.

On board, things are seething with international tension — in Kubrick’s vision of the future, Perestroika never happened so the Russians are still the threat. There’s also news of a strange discovery on the moon —

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The floodlit excavation sight is almost a dead ringer for New York’s Ground Zero, only with a skyscraper (the monolith) still rising out of it, impossibly. It’s existence causes another flight, this time to Jupiter (and beyond the infinite), which incidentally is one of the dozen places President Bush was flown to after the towers collapsed.

Now we find ourselves on a spacecraft on a secret mission, hijacked by a terrorist which started out disguised as a legitimate passenger on the craft (the shipboard computer). HAL kills the crew members in order to take over the ship, but he does it because “this mission is too important to allow you to jeopardise it.”

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Repeated image of a body tumbling through space.

Like the passengers on the hijacked planes, Kubrick’s astronauts can phone home. One receives the message “See you next Wednesday,” a line quoted in every John Landis film. Landis’s career has been marked by fatal aerial catastrophe. His movie SPIES LIKE US deals with a team of idiots deployed by corrupt commanders to distract attention while a war is started. His first movie, SCHLOCK, features numerous parodies of the apemen from 2001.

Like the passengers of United 93, Dave Bowman destroys the hijacker, resulting finally in his own death — but this is played in stylised form, first as a flight through distorted, psychedelic landscapes, then as an accelerated aging process, then with the traditional death-bed. In a white room whose floor is illuminated panels like the sides of a skyscraper.

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But at the foot of that death-bed, the monolith appears yet again, and once more we move inexorably towards its smooth surface, repeating yet again the collision with the WTC, an event which killed, among thousands of others, the sister of Marisa Berenson, who starred in Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. She was also the wife of Anthony Perkins, best known for playing a knife-wielding killer who struck in disguise, and who appeared in Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE, which shares with 2001 a climax in which a passage through a space portal leads to a mysterious spiritual experience.

From the impact with the monolith, something new is born, but the movie is vague about what, exactly, can be expected from it…

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In a way this is a thought experiment, to see how many meaningful-seeming coincidences can be drawn between an event and a film which actually preceded it by decades and could not have been influenced by it in any traditional cause-and-effect way. In a way it’s a parody of such academic exercises. It’s also inspired a bit by the fancy footwork in this remarkable piece.

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