Saturday, 4 July 2015

She (1935)

H. Rider Haggard, today a faded but still legible name on the scroll of beloved fantastical writers, was a hugely successful author in his day, a writer of no great style who nonetheless had such commercial and creative reach he can only be compared to a combination of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon today. His works like King Solomon’s Mines are perennials that helped define the popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century, and She: A History of Adventure still rides high on the list of all-time biggest selling works of fiction. Movie impresario Merian C. Cooper, fresh off his own colossal, zeitgeist-defining hit King Kong (1933), chose She as a follow-up, whilst his partner in filmmaking and globetrotting Ernest B. Schoedsack branched off to make The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). The attraction of the material for Cooper is obvious, as She offers the same précis as Kong: adventure into unknown quarters, encounters with isolated barbarian cultures, and an ultimate confrontation with a bizarre and powerful force of super-nature that stands as metaphor for the simultaneous stature and fragility of the life force, whilst also invoking weird erotic dimensions. She was not another success for Cooper and RKO, and in fact lost a chunk of change on initial release, a failure blamed mostly on the casting of Helen Gahagan, stage actress and opera singer, in the vital title role, resulting in a one-time-only movie career. She was thought lost for a time, perhaps because Gahagan had tried to buy up all the copies when she made a run for Congress. 

A print was eventually located in Buster Keaton’s movie collection, and since then has occasionally been celebrated as a camp-schlock classic in a manner similar to Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944), which itself filches Haggard’s tales. Haggard wrote five novels about Ayesha, or “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,” a woman blessed with immortality and mystical powers after bathing in a mysterious flame of life, including one where she meets up with Haggard’s other great character, Allan Quatermain. This adaptation, co-written like Kong by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, follows the first book closely but combined elements from some of the follow-ups, chiefly to create a solid romantic rivalry. She is not, as some would have it, a bad film; it’s an entertaining, occasionally striking, ungainly achievement, with problems that chiefly stem from an incapacity to translate the source material into effective cinema as well as casting. The film starts with Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), an American offshoot of a well-heeled English clan, called over the pond to visit his dying grandfather John (Samuel S. Hinds). Leo is fascinated by his close resemblance to one of his ancestors, another John Vincey, whose portrait hangs above the fireplace. His grandfather explains this John’s special place in family history as a great explorer who, along with his wife, ventured into the frigid wastes of Siberia and did not return. His wife turned up years later in Poland, wretched and dying, clutching a golden relic depicting a woman standing in fire. Grandfather John, with his friend archaeologist Horace Holly, entrusts Leo with the mission of retracing his ancestor’s mission, to see if the myth the relic encodes, of a flame of eternal life-giving properties, really exists, in the hope the elderly man can stave off death. 

Leo and Holly travel together up to the Arctic fringes, and, unable to find anyone willing to cart their gear north, cut a deal with frontier supplier and guide Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) to let him come along if he arranges for porters, as he assumes, on seeing the relic, that they’re after gold. Dugmore drags his naïve, convent-edcuated daughter Tania (Helen Mack) along to perform servile duties. After weeks trekking through frozen wastes, the party reaches a huge glacial barrier, and find preserved in the ice both of one John Vincey’s men and the huge beast – a sabre-tooth tiger – that attacked him, confirming one vital aspect of John’s wife’s account. But Dugmore starts an avalanche with his blundering that destroys the passage down from the glacier, and kills Dugmore and most of the party, leaving Leo, Tania, and Holly to survive alone. They penetrate a cave system under the ice and encounter a primitive people who propose to make them part of a sacrificial rite, but the intervention of seemingly more civilised people under the command of chamberlain Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz) saves their hides.

All of this is good fun, whilst building a sense of impending mysteries and exploits with impeccable pacing and good special effects and photography, surpassing Kong’s early scenes. The intended sacrifice of the interlopers by the gruesome tribe sees the savages proposing to lower a red-hot helmet on their heads, a memorably nasty notion that looks forward to the transference-rich Sadean fantasies of The Naked Prey (1966) but also working an anthropological idea, that the oppressed gatekeepers of Kor mimic the religion of the higher civilisation but without its pretences. The novel’s imperialist-era, racially suspect understanding of what civilisation can be defined as permeates, so the revision of Haggard’s novel from an African setting might have been worked for the sake of slightly more credulity with the Siberian setting still a largely mysterious place to the average American audience of the time, and also to make this stuff less specific and irksome, in a similar manner to what Cooper did with King Kong in deliberately creating an artificial culture to libel. Cooper and Schoedsack, as documentary filmmakers, had made cinema and sold their work by offering through it a spirit of adventure they readily embodied. Rose’s status as the secret auteur of their films suggested by King Kong as a burlesque on her relationship with the two huckster-swashbucklers, is apparent here too, as Tania, like Mack’s previous character in Son of Kong (1933), is the plucky waif who’s unfazed by following her love into killing zones of climate and refuses to back down morally in the face of omnipresent power. The surviving trio are brought before Ayesha, the all-powerful god-queen of Kor, who, as a believer in reincarnation, has been waiting for centuries for the return of her singular love, John Vincey, in whatever form he might come in. Leo’s resemblance signals to her that her demi-millennial dream is fulfilled. But Ayesha correctly senses that Tania, like John’s wife, represents an attachment she must strike down or be foiled by.

Once She reaches the inner sanctums of Ayesha, the film stalls, however. She was codirected by actor-director Irving Pichel, who had also split helming duties with Schoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and here worked with Lansing C. Holden, an air force buddy of Cooper’s who probably contributed to the film mostly in a design capacity, with his touch apparent in the film's many dramatic, frieze-like vistas. The duo created a memorable fantasy city in Kor, with its towering statues, guttering pyres, drenching shadows, and monstrous blend of cyclopean antiquity with art-deco apparent in the outsized architecture, accomplished on a scale that would have made Cecil B. DeMille envious. Ayesha’s first appearance is well-staged, glimpsed at the top of a giant flight of stairs, speaking from behind a vaporous curtain with stentorian yet ethereal authority, and then bursting out into the open as she realises that her singular fixation has come true. Gahagan’s chilly presence actually suits Ayesha to a certain extent, as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is defined by a blend of imperious entitlement and anguished neediness, with a fatal tunnel vision that craves her lover but can only use the apparatus of power to answer her needs: she appeals to Leo to awaken the dormant spirit she imagines in him, but ultimately can only bully, not attract. She interestingly represents a partial inversion of the compelling theme of satyr sexuality glimpsed in both King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game, as it deals with the monstrous side of the feminine rather than masculine. Leo is briefly awestruck by Ayesha’s zealous romanticism and aura of holy power, reducing him to masculine fetish object, leaving it to Tania to resist her regime, scuttling through the halls of Kor’s palace and defying guards human and numinous to reach Leo and give Ayesha what-for. But Tania, through the jealous Billial’s connivance with Ayesha, is trussed up in S&M-accented fashion complete with silk gag and draped veil, to be sacrificed at a Kor religious ceremony, and the film lurches closer to John Willie territory.

The trouble is that all of this makes for rather static drama, like some mutant version of one of those Women’s Pictures where Joan Crawford can’t get a man because she likes wielding an iron hand in the boardroom too much, but without the gloss of by-play one of those would have. The fantasy plays on that universal wish for immortality, and the more specific, presumed feminine fear of loss of the power of desirability: diva wilfulness unbound by time and scruple. Gahagan, although often fetchingly attired to become an icon of stylised female power (to the extent that Disney modelled the evil queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938, on her), lacks charisma and erotic presence. Her version of regal hauteur and pagan sadism is a breathy American patrician brand, like Margaret Dumont in a trimmer package. Scott is a bit of a cold fish here too, although his familiar ability to inhabit upright masculinity without seeming pompous is apparent. The dance of sensual enticement and abhorrence that is supposed to define their relationship therefore just never lights up, whilst Mack isn’t much of a romantic alternative either, all chirpy lines deliveries and girlish eyes. Tellingly, Ursula Andress’ presence in the 1965 Hammer version helped make that film a hit for its studio: Andress perfectly embodied the kind of warrior-queen image that had inspired a close artistic relative to Haggard’s creation, Klimt’s painting of Pallas-Athena, all haughty domme chic and classical Teutonic features. Like many films embraced as camp (e.g. Devil Girl from Mars, 1954), She beholds the notion of gynocracy, the rule of women, with a mixture fetishism and weak-kneed, ultimately punitive uncertainty.

The film also cuts much of Haggard’s mythology, which grew ever-denser and weirder in his sequels, presenting the possibility of a pseudo-science fiction explanation for the flame of life as well as a supernatural one. Revelation of Ayesha’s epoch-spanning memory is limited to a wistful recollection of an encounter with an early Christian – possible Jesus himself – who preached a pacific creed She doesn’t ascribe to, overseeing as she does pagan sacrifices and brutal executions because, it's suggested, they satisfy her unchecked egotism as the holder of the power of life and death. Holding back on the richness of Haggard’s creation whilst failing to capture the obsessive, mythical romanticism that’s supposed to drive the tale means that She leaves itself without much to do in its middle third. A further hunk of the film’s running time is devoted to the entirely extraneous yet mesmerically staged ritual preceding Tania’s intended execution, the ultimate suggestion of which seems to be that Kor was actually founded by a lost troupe of the Ballet Russes. Rectilinear framings of dancers attired in costumes and settings recall Fritz Lang’s cubist-medievalism in Die Spinnen (1919) and Die Nibelungen (1924), and also DeMille’s similarly shot dances in Madam Satan (1930), another film that wrestled with the spectre of female independence. Indeed, I suspect that between this and The Last Days of Pompeii, Cooper and Schoedsack were making an overt play to capture DeMille's crown as king of spectacle. But there's an interesting quality of cultural smudging recorded in such imagery, blending modernism's refined sense of form and function with the tropes of a host of classical cultures from Greek to Balinese, silently asking questions about the nature of power and gender in a world quickly losing its traditions in regard to both.

She remains visually impressive all the way through, from the vision of the frozen smilodon to the colossi in Kor's temple described by guttering firelight, mere humans dwarfed at their carved toes. When finally action does break out again, as Leo realises Tania is veiled victim under a priest’s knife, She kicks back to life for a strong finale, as extras skip out of the way of spilling, burning oil and Nigel Bruce springs in the fray to sock the high priest, a sight any movie fan must surely savour. She badly lacks such derring-do, but there’s one great sequence as the escaping trio leap over a chasm onto a balanced rock on the far side, and then push the rock off its perch along with several pursuing guards, all depicted in deadpan long shot with a clever blend of FX elements. At its best She does capture the fervent strangeness of Haggard’s world-creating and mysticism, particularly in the very climax when Leo, Tania, and Holly finally enter the abode of the flame of life, viewed as a spuming vortex of white amidst strangely geometric stonework. Ayesha ventures again into the flame of life to assure Leo of its safety, only to be steadily transformed into a withered crone, whether because she overexposed herself to the flame’s life-giving properties or tempted fate too often with her hubris, recounting her mantra of triumph over the pettiness of Tania’s mortal beauty even as hers disintegrates. Unlikely to be endorsed by L’Oreal.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Hell and High Water (1954)

Alpha and Omega are conjoined in one of the most memorable of Samuel Fuller’s headline-like cinematic declarations: Hell and High Water begins and ends with bookending shots of an atomic bomb erupting on a sub-Arctic island. Boiling infernal flame and the swelling mushroom cloud arise, a report from the fringes of the world beholding a new frontier in the Atom Age. Hell and High Water is an action-adventure film that straddles modes and attitudes with élan and a likeably distracted streak, as Fuller recast the original story given to him as a stylised piece of gallivanting he later compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Fuller made the film as a favour for Darryl F. Zanuck, who had gone to bat for him with the controversies of Pickup on South Street (1953), and dismissed it as the least of his films. But Hell and High Water represents a bridging point in Fuller’s career, perhaps the peak of that career in terms of budget and prestige afforded him, whilst it also marks the point where Fuller’s early oeuvre, with its emphasis on aberrant individuals lost within brutal events and worldly tumult, or characters like the news folk of Park Row (1952) whose passions transmit the events but operate independently of them, changed focus. The broad strokes of Hell and High Water’s geopolitical investigations seem to have facilitated Fuller’s interest in “hot topics” and characters who are more clearly avatars for such ructions, fighting forces within and without. A repeated epigram defines a moral scheme, “Each man has his own reason for living and his own price for dying,” whilst Richard Widmark returns to play another cynical hero, albeit one who, unlike his seedy thief in Pickup, has been left an angry and disillusioned wash-up after patriotic service during the war, but similarly rails against flag-wavers and professional do-gooders. 

The plot has enough angles to sustain a hefty franchise in contemporary terms. Fuller depicts the efforts of an independent, apolitical group of statesmen, scientists, and other grandees who have formed a clandestine internationalist organisation to promote world peace and investigate potential threats to that peace. Famous French scientist Professor Montel (Victor Francen) vanishes briefly after being mobbed by reporters at Orly Airport. The media and law enforcers assume Montel has been kidnapped by the Soviets, but Montel reappears in Japan as a member of the secret group, along with his assistant, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), who is actually his daughter, working under a pseudonym to assert her independent achievements. The organisation hires Widmark’s character, former US Navy submarine commander Adam Jones, to take charge of a salvaged Japanese submarine and ferry Montel into the remote, barren islands of the Bering Sea, where Montel believes Communists are building a secret missile base. Jones’ fight for his right to self-determination, down to harvesting members of his old sub crew, whilst working officially as a mercenary for hire, surely has the emotional immediacy to it of Fuller satising his own uneasy position as studio-sponsored auteur. Gene Evans, Fuller’s repeat star of his early, cheaper films, turns up as Jones’ cigar-chomping, sceptical subordinate. On the way, an encounter with a submarine that could be Red Chinese or North Korean leads to a violent clash as Jones, unable to match the enemy with torpedoes, has to reach back into his repertoire of tricks to elude the hunter. Much of Hell and High Water’s midsection is concerned with the same sort of submarine hide-and-seek stuff depicted in the likes of The Enemy Below (1957) or Torpedo Run (1963), and Fuller settles for staging the crash dives and underwater manoeuvring with almost throwaway proficiency. 

Fuller is plainly much more interested in his motley crew dynamics and landscapes of primal-futurism than model work action, particularly as he follows up Park Row in offering a boldfaced feminist twist. Denise cuts an intimidating figure of multifarious accomplishment. Echoing the introduction of Joan Weldon’s similarly unexpected chick scientist in Them! the same year, Denise appears as a pair of silk-clad, heel-sporting legs on a ladder, but where Gordon Douglas took the route of dismissing the matter thereafter, Fuller sarcastically makes a Tex Avery cartoon under water. Denise enters the fold of the rude, crude sailors to be met with hostility as a potential Jonah, only for her to quickly calm and cajole them with pledges that she’s a scientist above all. Denise’s assurance gains the crew’s acquiescence but her mere presence sets hormones on the boil: lunkhead helmsman ‘Ski’ Brodski (Cameron Mitchell, alight with impish humour) tries to charm the anthropologically fascinated Denise by showing off his sweaty physique and tattoos real and fake, whilst another gets stewed and tries to force himself on her, forcing Ski to cream him. But it’s Jones who finally makes out with her in the blazing red glow of emergency lights for a moment of high pressure passion. Darvi is remembered as one of the most tragic of Hollywood starlets after being discovered and promoted by her lover Zanuck and his wife Virginia, and then destroyed first critically and then socially, with this and The Egyptian (1954) her only major roles. Her much-heralded hesitancies as an actress, a slow, slightly uncertain diction and thick accent, are apparent in playing Denise, but so are her strengths – an aura of cool intelligence and a physical insouciance that belies her character's effort to present a tight package. Her reaction to Mitchell's chest-baring is a comedic coup that's also a subtle deflation of the cliché of the brainy female iceberg, as Denise delights in his meaty sexuality whilst also finding it slightly hilarious. These traits suit the character and impressed Fuller, and she works well opposite Widmark’s trademark astringent, derisive pith. 

Particularly cool is the scene where Denise is forced to kill a Chinese soldier, gunning him down when her life is in danger. For a moment the lab-grown savant is frozen in shock at having joined the game of soldiers, until Jones grabs her hand, and she immediately snaps back into action: like any good scientist, she knows it’s a case of evolve or die. Fuller’s intention to defang the political thriller side of the film did not remove all of the material’s vision, particularly as Fuller’s readiness to use an overtly anti-Communist gloss, as he had with The Steel Helmet and Pickup on South Street and would again with China Gate (1957), to ply his own agendas of interrogating social attitudes and clearing space for new dialogues about race and gender and sex and class, under the banner of unrepentant Free World prerogative. The submarine is Fuller’s United Nations of scruffy sea salts as Nicholas Ray’s European enclave of bureaucrats and soldiers would be in 55 Days in Peking (1965). Fuller levies this set-up via linguistic humour. Denise’s mastery of Asian languages helps the crew negotiate the workings of the sub. Former enemies of the last great war work with casual ease together only to be thrown into a tither by a pretty woman, who can pacify them because she speaks all their dialects. Chinese immigrant Chin Lee (Wong Artarne) entertains the crew with his witty blend of mangled syntax and pithy slang in a version of “Don’t Fence Me In,” whilst Ski learns to sing chanson Française for Denise’s benefit, and creates his own Bronx-Pigalle patois. Chin Lee eventually volunteers for the dangerous task of posing as a fellow captive to extract information from a captured, deeply indoctrinated Red, and becomes the film’s first or two tragic martyrs to dedication. 

Making only the fourth film to be shot in Cinemascope, Fuller’s delight in unusual cinematic syntax – his creative long takes and radical ways of tackling budgetary lacks and spatial problems with his camerawork – was relatively muted here. But he worked with cameraman Joe McDonald to think up innovative, rule-bending ways to frame and light the submarine interior, and assaulted the tableaux vivant-like stasis of early Cinemascope effectively. Sometimes they cut frames up with clashing and layered geometries, and elsewhere compose shots with attention to lateral lines rather than the vertical, to further squeeze together the top and bottom of the Cinemascope frame, building a sense of claustrophobia. Once Jones and crew reach their destination, the evocation of a blasted, far-flung, jagged extremity littered with secret bases, feels practically neo-mythic, with visions of apocalyptic fires and mysterious, cyclopean installations at the Earth’s distant places, null zones where superpowers fashion doomsday devices. Moments of jagged corporeal assault recur with a customary sense of weight – Denise’s shooting of the soldier, Montel getting his thumb caught in the conning tower hatch requiring swift amputation, Chin Lee beaten to death with a monkey wrench. Tracer bullets and erupting oil drums, smoke-trailing bombers and the boiling ocean where an island was moments before: all exist on a continuum of humankind’s gift for creating ever more spectacular methods of destruction. But Fuller’s gift for visions of weird lyricism still emerge too, like Jones carrying Denise with tender care bathed in red light. The film’s official spirit might be pulp adventure but its visuals and thematic stresses scan stark vistas and wastelands, foreboding Kubrick’s Cold War horizons in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and James B. Harris’ The Bedford Incident (1965; also featuring Widmark). Here the diverse crewmen battle anonymous soldiers and uncover a dastardly plot to drop an atomic weapon on Japan and blame it on the good old US of A, a prospect that finally jolts Jones’ dormant patriotism into gear. Fuller may not have loved it, and it’s surely not one of his densest or strangest works, but Hell and High Water rocks regardless.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Man in the Shadow (1957)

On the massive farming fiefdom called the Golden Empire, two ranch hands stalk prey amidst in the shadows and light patterns spread on the ground by a grand homestead. They strut into the shed where the estate’s populace of Mexican farm labourers, called braceros, live, in search of handsome young Juan Martin (Joe Schneider). In a single, electrifying framing, Arnold depicts Martin’s would-be lothario pretences as he’s glimpsed combing his Elvis-age hair into a sleek mass in the bathroom window, only for the prosecutors of white, moneyed, sexually repressed authority to barge in and take hold of him by that precious hair. He’s dragged out of the bathroom and into a shed, and beaten. When Juan fights back, he’s clubbed to death with a pick handle. Martin’s friend and fellow worker Jesus Cisneros (Martin Garralaga) witnesses his murder and travels into the nearby town at the heart of Bingham County to make an appeal for justice. New-minted sheriff Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) begins an ordinary day’s morning, dropped off at work by his wife Helen (Barbara Lawrence), only to find the trust and understandings that underpin his community and his job are about to unravel when Cisneros makes his statement. This is because the ranch Martin’s murder occurred on belongs to Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles), a power unto himself in the locale because of imperial breadth of his property and the wealth generated by his custom sustains the town. Cisneros fingers Renchler’s top hands Ed Yates (John Larch) and Chet Huneker (Leo Gordon) as the killers, but it soon emerges that Renchler ordered Martin to be beaten for his friendship with Renchler’s daughter Skippy (Colleen Miller). Renchler’s men try to pass off Martin’s death as a road accident, but when Cisneros refuses to retract his statement, Sadler begins investigating, however reluctantly and against the increasingly frantic and hysterical warnings of his fellow lawmen and city elders, scared that with provocation Renchler might start doing business with another town.

Directed by Jack Arnold, Man in the Shadow blends modern-dress western with noir-soaked attitudes, but also follows Arnold’s string of sci-fi epics with telling overlaps. The location photography of desolate settings recalls It Came From Outer Space (1953) and Tarantula (1955). The monstrosity grows out of the remote ranch house’s clandestine isolation, as with Leo G. Carroll’s experiments in the latter. The sense of paranoia and social exclusion is pervasive in Arnold’s oeuvre, whilst the emasculation of the everyman hero is crucially similar to The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956): Chandler’s Sadler, a dude everyone likes and respects at first, becomes the incredible shrinking lawman in their eyes, to the point where he’s rendered just as powerless and victimised as the suburbanite who flees his own hungry house cat. Where those films were metaphorical, Man in the Shadow is explicit in contemplating the dark side of Atom-age America with its shiny chrome-wreathed cars and post-war assurances coexisting uneasily with lingering realities of an age of conquest and settlement that helped spread imperial domain. Arnold clearly indicts the racist disinterest in the fate of small men expressed by many of his townsfolk as a by-product of their anxiety over facing down the same source of power, whilst comprehending how their status, colour, and citizenship accords them better treatment, but still leaves them in the same position as the lowly braceros as dependents on the teat of the big boss. Renchler’s shadow hangs as vast and pendulously menacing as a massive arachnid, whilst the landscape is just as prone as Arnold’s scifi films to mysterious disappearances, changed personalities in friends, attacks of devolved beast-men, and eruptions of primal instinct in once-peaceable heroes. 

Arnold follows in Anthony Mann’s footsteps in cross-breeding noir and western, recalling Mann’s Border Incident (1949) in particular, which also dealt with the mistreatment of braceros. The influence of High Noon (1952) in contemplating the lawman’s abandonment by his citizenry in the face of threat is obvious, whilst also taking some courage from the Elia Kazan-Richard Brooks school of social justice melodrama. But Arnold, who got to make Man in the Shadow after his string of fantastical successes, is more outright in the post-McCarthy, early Civil Rights-era, in contemplating a fascistic presence in American life, a notion the town’s Italian immigrant barber Tony Santoro (Mario Siletti), makes explicit when he refuses to blackball Sadler like the other townsfolk and recalls the onset of Mussolini in the ‘20s. Arnold’s eye scans the stark surrounds and rolling hills of Renchler’s estate in daylight as antiseptically blasted and drab, following his desert-set monster movies in inverting the expanses into traps of space and menace, as if documenting the same fascination for the half-hidden blood libel written in the landscape as compels Cormac McCarthy. Come night and drenching shadows rule, as when Sadler, hoping against hope that a call to a remote locale might not be a trap, ventures into an abandoned house in out in the eerie boondocks, turning mere abandoned house into a trap of decayed ambitions and waiting fate in a manner that recalls the way John Ford rendered the usually romanticised American agrarian belt as Gothic land of blight and darkness in the early scenes of The Grapes of Wrath (1940). 

Man in the Shadow was produced by that strangest of ‘50s cinematic entrepreneurs, Albert Zugsmith, and his and Welles’ collaboration here led to Touch of Evil (1958), which deals with very similar matters, albeit it with Wellesian baroque substituting for Arnold’s aerodynamics. Welles is relatively restrained, even distracted, as Renchler, one of those neo-pharaohic characters that actor loved playing or depicting, presenting a superficially charming and equitable figure who is crippled by a suggestive weakness in the face of his daughter, and whose power has ironically left him perplexed by even the slightest shadow of conflict, quick to protect his own interests and swat at irritations like a bear stung by bees. Skippy is a flighty, nervy Ariel at the mercy of Welles' puffy Prospero and Larch’s drooling Caliban, but has enough emerging pith to escape her gilded cage with a blend of guile and skill to alert Sadler to the probable fate of her would-be lover, and may be evolving into one of Arnold's more usually competent, self-directing female heroes. The figuration of the titan with a perturbing soft spot for a daughter or sister was fascinatingly common in American cinema of the era, and Welles would play a more blustery and potent version of the same character in The Long Hot Summer a year later. Larch and Gordon give effectively bullish performances as the asshole agents whose psychopathic aggression shows up Renchler’s pretences and propel him towards distasteful ends.

But Arnold seems more interested in the social conflict, presenting an almost Ibsenish battle of community versus existential threat with a lone hero as victimised scapegoat-prophet. That overtone of existential threat motivated Arnold’s early sci-fi films in a manner for the most part more clear-cut and obvious: where the giant tarantula and gill-man presented threats to be combated, fear here infects his small-towners in the same way the mysterious fog of Shrinking Man starts its hero’s diminution, and they in turn try to cut down their appointed hero when he inconveniences them. Sadler's status as the hero who tries to awaken his fellow man's consciousness recalls Putnam in It Came From Outer Space, but the drama, as with that movie, casts a pernicious eye on humankind's capacity for aggression, xenophobia, and wilful ignorance. Cisneros is gunned down by masked goons before the eyes of his salt-of-the-earth white friend Aiken Clay (Royal Dano). Chandler’s effective performance emphasises Sadler’s growing resolve even as he’s faced with increasingly intense pressure and hysteria-tinged resentment from his peers: his eyes evasive and downcast, his body language hunkered and oppressed, when first confronted with Cisneros’ testimony, he gains stature and clarity of diction the more he’s faced with threats and the bloom of out-and-out hostility. Humiliation and abuse do finally defeat him, in the sense that he is reduced from upright civic leader to bristling, fury-stoked avenger who tosses away his badge and goes on the warpath. 

It does take a lot to get him to that point, including Cisneros’ murder, and Huneker dragging him tied and helpless around behind his pick-up truck, a Hector luckless enough to be paraded as battle trophy while still alive. Man in the Shadows doesn’t achieve the stature its many parts promise, chiefly because Gene L. Coon’s screenplay fails to investigate its characters with much depth or specificity, and the shape of the plot develops in a manner already too familiar by that time, down to the people-power finale. The realisation of the themes remain a little too boldface in handling to quite achieve the sort of festering mood John Sturges achieved in the similar Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and Arnold achieved greater power and intensity with his metaphors, where his feel for the brutal extremes of the human place in the universe and eccentricity of behaviour vibrated with more originality. But the film remains exciting and, whilst vindicating Sadler’s struggle in a violent climax, leaves off with a striking final image of Skippy left alone on the ranch, a sliver of white in the gloom, at once a figure out of fairy tales and a new world citizen who, infantilised by her father, can now claim the mantle of power as his corrupted regime is deposed. As critic C. Jerry Kutner once persuasively argued, Arnold was the first truly modern post-war American filmmaker with an understanding of the new era’s psychic fabric. Man in the Shadow, although ultimately merely sturdy as a study of that fabric, feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a way that again accords and perhaps excels his actual science fiction. As well as looking forward to such septic-heartland dramas as Hud (1963) and The Chase (1966), the compulsion here to deal with conspiracy, racism, sex, murder, law, and power, the forces working to warp the American centrifuge, all look forward to an era oncoming with a swiftness no-one imagined.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Knives of the Avenger (I Coltelli del Vendicatore, 1966)

Knives of the Avenger begs a mythical origin story involving Mario Bava, a drinking game with Sergio Leone and/or Sergio Corbucci, and a bet he couldn’t make a gothic-tinged spaghetti western with Vikings. Reality is more prosaic: Bava was asked to take up the reins from another director sacked scant days before filming, quickly revised the script, and rattled off this Norse action flick, a seemingly strange excursion for the great Latin fantasist. Knives of the Avenger has more in common with the burgeoning strain of Italianate western than with Bava’s horror films, and bears the hallmarks of a quickie production which Bava was late boarding. But Bava has first broken into directing rescuing Riccardo Freda’s films under similar circumstances, and he knew the drill. Knives of the Avenger straddles common visual territory with The Body and the Whip (1963), with the eerie coastal setting stricken by the wind and roiling sea, as if perched on the edge of all creation, and the lucidly mythological, bare-boned world of Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1962). The theme of protagonist dogged by their past wrongs, both done to them and committed by them, is moreover all too apt for Bava’s oeuvre of guilt manifesting as possession, and moral putrefaction infesting organs human and natural. Bava expertly negotiates the low budget in regarding his stockades and model long ships, managing to make the proceedings seem all the more starkly historical and legendary. The setting is somewhere in Viking-age Scandinavia, in the nexus of stockaded town, blissful riparian cottage, and foreboding sea: the opening shot is quietly epic as Bava scans a Volva’s elaborate beachfront shrine, drawing the Fates as maps in sand ready to be washed away by the next tide. 

Karin (Elissa Pichelli, billed as Lisa Wagner) lives with her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) in a hut, on the advice of the Volva, to hide from marauder Hagen (Fausto Tozzi). A mysterious wandering stranger with incredible knife-throwing skills, Helmut (Cameron Mitchell) passes by Karin’s farm and begs a place to rest, and Karin lets him camp by the stream and catch fish. When a pair of Hagen’s henchmen discover Karin and Moki’s hut, they try to abduct mother and son, but Hagen intervenes, killing both men in a prolonged, violent hand-to-hand battle. Karin and Moki trust Helmut after this and rely on his protection. But things are not what they appear to be, in a film where Bava’s sleight of storytelling hand spins off a complex tale of human motivation and violence from a very simple precept, and all the strands on his loom tie back to one singular incident in the past. Karin is the wife of Arald (Giacomo Rossi Stuart, who starred in Bava’s Operazione Paura the same year), king of a Viking town, but he’s been missing for years since going on a raid to Britain. Hagen, formerly a military leader under Arald’s father the former king (Amedeo Trilli, billed as Michael Moore), broke a peace treaty by attacking the city ruled by Rurik, a famously honourable and brave warrior, during which Hagen killed Rurik’s wife and children. Hagen was exiled for this, but Rurik launched a vengeful attack anyway, during which he wounded Arald, killed the king, and raped Karin. Rurik left Arald alive, who then vowed his own revenge in the smouldering ruins of his kingdom. Fate and Bava are memorably wicked however, because Helmut is actually Rurik, a tormented man of conscience in self-exile, hunting for Hagen and now charging himself with protecting Karin and Moki, who might well be his son.

Bava, characteristically, aims exactly at the point where most of the western plotlines Knives of the Avenger evokes tend to be evasive. His film has elements of Red River (1948), Shane (1953) and The Searchers (1956) in its make-up, but where those films were vague about the possibly villainous pasts of their protagonists, Bava is explicit, and he turns the shadow-play of family roles in those films and other classic westerns into outright family perversity. Where Leone purposefully stripped psychology from his death-operas and held revenge as the one, honourable motive for violence, Bava is contemptuous of those propositions, and makes the fraught interior battle of his characters the essence of his drama. Hagen’s unrestrained psychopathy drives the plot, but Bava is most interested in the theme of good people driven by the circular nature of brutality to contemplate deeds that disgust them, both Rurik and Arald, who turns up at a suitably fraught moment in the storyline. The pseudo-historical setting allows Bava this leeway; Knives represents an exact mediation between the classic peplum movie and the western which was supplanting it in popularity in Italian genre cinema, both chronologically and thematically, and Bava, who had proven how well he understood the clear-cut nature of myth with the vividly illustrated Manichaeism of Hercules at the Centre of the Earth, depicts the corruption of the noble hero Bava’s Hercules exemplified through Rurik’s plight, remaking him as the modern antihero, a loner, wounded and purified by loss, unable in spite of his heartbreaking desires to regain a place in society. Bava’s love of Hitchcock may well have influenced the mid-film flashback that completely reorientates the story and reveals the truth about Rurik, a la Vertigo (1958), and he makes sure that Rurik becomes more, rather than less, empathetic once his shame is revealed, including his hope, at once pathetic and wistful, that one day Karin might forget Arald so he can take his place.

Such fascinating gymnastics of narrative and character allow Bava to explore the sort of dualism that in horror films was usually rendered more safely metaphoric, like the possession of Katia by Asa in La Maschera del Demonio (1960), as a common human condition. Westerns and peplums both concerned themselves with moments in time when anarchy and tyranny are replaced by justice and civility; Bava depicts rather a shift between modes of justice as well as concepts of the self. Drama is built around a series of severed relationships and doppelganger fill-ins, and the crucial moment that was Karin and Arald’s wedding – an interrupted ritual that recalls both John Ford’s westerns and ancient mythology at the same time – proves to have been the severing point for past hopes and future confusions. Bava recalls Anthony Mann’s gift for depicting violence as genuinely painful and distressing on screen (indeed, Knives has aspects of a miniature sequel to Mann’s massive but equally ethically concerned The Fall of the Roman Empire, 1964, whilst the final moments recall El Cid, 1961), as the various battles scattered throughout sport moments of wince-inducing epiphany, like when Rurik finally fells one of Karin’s attackers with an axe, after a fight sequence that’s almost as tightly and intensely choreographed as a Jackie Chan tussle. The stringent budget, lack of time for preparation, and setting generally precludes Bava working up such heights of stylised visualisation as marks his best work. But even with such a straitened production, Bava works some camera magic: the opening scenes set a tone of raw, totemic drama with an ambience of fatalistic beauty, and a long single-take early shot (interrupted but not disguised by a jaggedly edited-in cutaway) is an elegant blend of stop-gap invention and aesthetic coup, recalling Sam Fuller’s similarly throwaway legerdemain, as a simple pan onto breaking waves and back gives a moment for the credits to roll whilst covering a passage of time. Karin and Moki are filmed from a low angle, their footprints in the beach sand erased as they move, as figures from dreamtime. Hagen is shot in huge close-up whilst his mounted men fill the background, making fullest expressive use of the widescreen ratio, conveying the nature of Hagen’s power and egotism, and tipping a hat to Leone’s framings all at once. Bava makes his nods to Leone even more literal as he depicts Hagen adopting improvised body-armour like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), 

Rurik is envisioned in flashback as a towering figure with face hidden by a steely mask that at once evokes the new face bashed onto Asa in La Maschera del Demonio and the implacable visage of Darth Vader, and also the sweeping, sepulchral force of the vampire paterfamilias in “The Wurdalak” episode of I Tre Volti Della Paura (1963). Rurik’s dehumanisation, and depersonalisation, in thrall to his irrational fury transforms him into one of Bava’s monsters, clasping at a prostrate, screaming Karin like Mitchell’s outright villain in Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964): to twist the knife further and clearly signal Rurik and Helmut are the same man for the first time, Bava match-cuts from flashback to present with the same framing, only this time Rurik’s hand reaches out to comfort. The tavern in the Viking town is built like a bullfighting pen, with high circular walls and stalls, setting the scene for the repeated struggles that occur there, including a vicious confrontation between Rurik and Hagen, and Rurik facing Arald, who he tries not to fight, as the upright, gallant, unforgiving husband pushes the penitent defender to make it easier to kill him in clean conscience. But Bava swaps that setting for a plunge into the underworld, returning the film to a mythic frame, filming in what looks awfully like the same underground location where Bava shot much of the finale of his Hercules entry, as Rurik and Arald launch an uneasy partnership to rescue Moki from Hagen, who kills the Volva and claims the labyrinthine tunnels of her sacred cave. Rurik’s brilliant knife-throwing saves the day and underlines his redemption, but perhaps the most telling gesture is the absolving hand Rurik places on Arald’s shoulder as they part, and the lingering look Karin gives Rurik as he vanishes from the dark caverns into the light of day: these brief instants have more stirring, moral complexity in them than dozens of other films ever accumulate. Knives of the Avenger is one of those oddities that prove just how much a good filmmaker can pack into nominally brief, cheap, disposable product.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Christopher Lee 1922-2015

A chronological list of my commentaries on films featuring Christopher Lee. Self-evidently, this is a conclave of haphazardly compiled pieces, some of which I partly disagree with now (I've grown to like To The Devil A Daughter in particular much more) or would write differently today. But the sheer sprawl of them testifies, I hope, to both the breadth of Lee's career and also his utterly vital place in my love of cinema:

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland exhibits a split personality rather common in contemporary "big" moviemaking. Based on a well-known attraction that was one of the core components of the original Disneyland, the film furthers a marketing technique that triumphed with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and much less so with The Haunted Mansion (2003), likewise inspired by popular attractions at the funfair, creating a self-perpetuating loop of brand awareness. Director and co-screenwriter Brad Bird seems entirely unconcerned by this, as you’d expect from a director who’s already made a fortune helming films for the studio and so has evidently made his peace with being a popular artist within a commercially urged bubble, as he repurposes his brief to make an ardent statement that somehow manages to be at once highly personal and blandly anonymous. Tomorrowland is the second feature film for Brad Bird, whose animated works The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007) are held in high esteem, whilst Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) transferred Bird’s reputation for blending action, humour, and cleverness, a magic recipe of contemporary multiplex cinema, into live-action movies. Bird seems fascinated by the problems of talent in itself – qualities that distinguish individuals and also how to fit them into working systems that make the best use of them. Even the grudging, back-handed compliments Bird afforded critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille scrabbled to appreciate the use of something otherwise held in contempt by most labourers at the coal face of mass culture: the discriminating mind. Systemology is Bird's other fascination, or perhaps rather the method by which he explores the first. He delights in the interplay of elements, both as directorial device and as a storyline precept – clockwork plans, time-and-motion studies, Murphy’s Law contingencies, and ethical contemplations of loose-cannon action abound in his work. Tomorrowland, which transmutes kiddie amusement park ride into a mythical utopian city of intellectual drop-outs who might have read Atlas Shrugged a few times too many, is officially a hymn to the binary power of optimism and creative spark: Bird argues essentially that one requires the other.

Bird kicks off with stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson in their roles as Frank Walker and Casey Newton bickering over the best way to frame the story they’re about to relate, in a painfully cute and slightly bullish manner that serves as warning about what’s coming. Casey’s high-power positivity insists on not giving any time to Frank’s attempts to confront and sensitise his audience (read, Bird’s audience) to real and daunting problems, which must instead be reduced to a mere listicle of rhetorical challenges to be faced down by unspecific can-do. Both Frank and Casey share a crucial experience: both were invitees to the eponymous commune in their time. Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) gained his invitation visiting the 1964 World’s Fair where he hoped to win a prize with a semi-functional jet pack, whilst Casey, a gal of tomorrow today, is ennobled for her relentless attempts to prevent the demolition of the old Space Shuttle launching pad. The common link is Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an apparently ageless girl with a posh English accent and a secret line in killer martial arts moves and other superhuman talents. Athena, actually an android, chose both Frank and Casey to join Tomorrowland by giving each a button marked with a T: the button is a passkey to various portals that give access to a city built in an alternative dimension by savants absconding from mundane Earth. Athena helped Frank reach the city against the wishes of her nominal boss Mr Nix (Hugh Laurie) via a secret door in the “It’s a Small World After All” exhibit (nice touch). Casey, on the other hand, gets her button along with her belongings when being released by the cops, following one of her attempts to sabotage the demolition. Whenever she touches the button, she plunges into a vision of Tomorrowland in all its splendour and ingenious flare. Only problem is, that vision is a now-dated relic of glory days, the Tomorrowland Frank entered in his day, for the city and the dream it represents have decayed for reasons that take an astonishingly long time to be drawn out, and even then are only partially clarified. Turns out at some point, in some way, Nix (subtle, guys) has taken over and depopulated Tomorrowland, and driven humankind close to catastrophe with his transmitter that broadcasts bad vibes.

Bird cowrote the script with former Lost scribe turned blockbuster screenwriter Damon Lindelof, and as with Lost Lindelof suggests comfort with some solid scifi and fantasy ideas, particularly multiple frames of reality, both alternate and simulated, and exploring the near-numinous zone that separates android and human. But for a monument to the power of invention, Tomorrowland reeks suspiciously of a multitude of well-proven models. A clash in a scifi memorabilia store tries to evoke the grand swathe of genre antecedents behind Bird’s vision, but with android assassins posing as nerds, only comes across like a rejected Men in Black scene. The alliance between crank inventor and plucky teen recalls Back to the Future (1985). Other touches suggest a conscious effort to recycle tropes from National Treasure (2004), as Casey and Frank delve into the roots of Tomorrowland (Eiffel, Verne, Tesla, and Edison were founders) and utilise a vaguely Steampunk rocket hidden in the Eiffel Tower. The mission to knock out the evil mind-control broadcast or something similar perched on top of a high building has become the laziest, most predictable climactic situation in modern genre cinema, including two variations by Joss Whedon. The gimmick of the buttons is apt – what child never hooked a collectable badge out of a Corn Flakes packet hoping it might transport them to a fantasy land? – but also bears an odd resemblance to the crucial sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) as devices of reorientating vision. Athena blends the dashing, age-inappropriate action moves of Hit Girl and Hanna whilst also evoking such stricken synthetic beings trapped between states of machine and humanity strewn across the history of the genre, such as Data or Kryten. In fact, compared to the dolorous exploration of the human impulses of AI in Alex Garland’s recently feted Ex Machina, Athena is by far the more entertaining and appealing creation, particularly as the film brushes risky territory (by Disney standards) in contemplating Frank’s lingering love turned to simmering infuriation with Athena. He fell for her as a boy only to learn of her cyborg nature, a moment that crystallised all his adult disillusionment, whilst Athena herself tries to prove her self-determination and sentient identity, the only way she can honour his all-too-human ardour.

If Tomorrowland knew how to weave its best, most inspired aspects together and when to bring them to the boil, it could have been a triumph. Instead, it’s a fumbling, often joyless experience, except in brief flashes, like the sight of the Eiffel Tower splitting apart and revealing a hidden rocket, Athena battling giant robots, and the pivotal, appropriately grandiloquent moment of Casey’s first glimpse of Tomorrowland itself, a jutting citadel of silvery spires like the Emerald City rebuilt by Edsel Ford. The key sequence of Casey’s first proper tour of Tomorrowland is a fun, sprawling, lovingly crafted spectacle purveyed in one “shot.” Bird blends colourful futurist vision with retro fantasia, as it depicts wonders of times to come but envisioned through an aesthetic veil that evokes that tony, shiny-eyed, plastic feel of a 1950s advertisement. But Bird is in such a hurry to unwrap his present for the audience that he spoils the impact of this moment by already letting us see Tomorrowland from Frank’s perspective barely after the film has started. Elsewhere, the limitations of Bird's ingenuity are revealed. He stages a fight within Frank’s house, with its many rigged traps for intruders, a scene that should be a terrific, zesty display, but instead falls flat because of cramped, visually dull staging. Nix’s robot henchmen are supposed to menace through perpetually beaming, pleasant facades, but again Bird fumbles this, never finding the menace in perma-smiles. The finale sports a conceptual similarity to the climax of Thor: The Dark World, as a battlers fall through doors into different dimensions, but without any verve or sense of mechanistic interaction. Bird's conceptual and theatrical wit utterly desert him.

The film looks good in an increasingly common contemporary way that’s cumulatively onerous, with slick, metallic textures and muted colour palette. But the big failing here is the script, which recapitulates Lindelof’s incapacity to structure a feature film (after Prometheus, 2011, and Star Trek: Into Darkness, 2013, made it clear enough), and lays bare Bird’s lack of certainty in the non-animated realm when he can’t just build a film around set-pieces. Tomorrowland descends into a ham-fisted screed that only illustrates its themes in the most sententious of methods, and lots of expository dialogue delivered whilst driving cars that still, somehow, leaves much of the story fudged. Like last year’s Interstellar, Tomorrowland obviously yearns to establish its director as Steven Spielberg’s heir apparent. But whereas Spielberg, in his signal sci-fi and adventure films, elevated himself to the pinnacle of popular filmmaking by articulating his essential themes as drama (ET is the personification of youthful wonder, not a commentary on the notion), today the necessity of spelling things in essayistic fashion out permeates his successors’ efforts to a tedious degree. Tomorrowland makes the fatal mistake of telling you it’s about the battle between creation and nihilism when it should be depicting that clash. Anyway, Tomorrowland is actually closer to dumbed-down Joe Dante, particularly Explorers (1986), which similarly depicted adolescent resourcefulness via a melange of tropes that signified its director’s love of the pop culture cornucopia he grew up in during the ‘50s, with the important corollary that for Dante that melange, good and bad, was exhibited as the wares of his imagination and sensibility, whereas for Bird that cornucopia is mere background radiation, a style for him to annex. Moreover, Dante’s storytelling moved with supple propulsion over an hour and a half, where Tomorrowland is sludgy at two hours and still can’t purvey its business properly. Tomorrowland is so incompetently expostulated that it takes an hour to introduce Clooney and properly arrives in the title world with about half an hour to go: one gets the feeling the framing device was concocted precisely to get some George in at the beginning. 

Backstory about how Nix came to be alone and all-powerful in the city is elided, as too is the reason for Frank’s own eventual exile back to Earth. Casey and Frank arrive just in time for Laurie’s dull, vague villain to rant for a while about how he tried to save the world from itself by pushing it closer to the edge with negative messaging in the hope it would eventually create a backlash, only to find that appealing to a species obsessed with end times. So this twit is the best the great city of geniuses can throw up, eh? Little of the film makes sense even when it comes to smaller details. The Tomorrowland induction badges plunge their bearers into a hologram where they move about in the real world whilst seeing the alternative, as Casey finds the hard way after bumping into walls and falling down the stairs. At the end we see quite a few folks receiving the badges in the middle of cities – I wonder how many of them would end up under a bus that way? Okay, a quibble perhaps, but this kind of sloppiness in detailing adds up to create an empty, anechoic work. Clooney, usually such a grounded and graceful performer, is left up the creek playing a charmless, resentful character opposite Robertson’s tediously chipper Casey, who is like Lisa Simpson and Tracy Flick got mushed together in Seth Brundle’s matter machine. Whilst the film sets up Casey as the presumed saviour of Tomorrowland and Earth because of her abilities, in the end this adds up to nothing more than a give-‘em-hell attitude and a mission to blow something up. Hooray for smarts! Her essential dullness is emphasised as Bird gives the film over to the tragic, perverse romance of Frank and Athena for an iota of emotional investment, and Cassidy steals the film.

The real crime of Tomorrowland however is that Bird and Lindelof murder the poetry of their essential ideas by refusing to trust them. Worse, they take a hectoring tone that's close to a form of moral bullying, accosting other artists for their refusal to get with the program. Hell, I agree with their basic proposition that the best answer to dark times is invention and determination, and in a Disney tent-pole flick there’s only so much space for contemplating the essence of pragmatic optimism. But Tomorrowland takes some lazy, second-hand swipes at the current popularity of dystopian dramas in YA books and their cinematic companions, most of which provoke awareness of eternal dangers, whilst Bird offers a “positive” vision that’s evasive and annoying and disconnected from any immediate purpose. Bird’s works have been critiqued as Ayn Rand-esque in their celebration of the enlightened and enabled few (not however a specifically Randian idea, but one that’s traversed several wings of the political spectrum in the past). And although as I already noted Tomorrowland has Randian aspects too, it’s actually just Bird’s fantasy transmutation of working for Disney itself, which in his eyes is the powerhouse of dreams that embraces the quixotic and lets them fly free of all concerns as long as they service key business parameters. Bird ends with a final montage that finally locates the kind of enthusiastic, man-on-a-mission feeling he’s been after, circling back to his killer key image (Michael Giacchino’s excellent if often vacuum-packed score flares triumphantly) as Frank and Casey reach out to the dreamers of the world and restart the great project, including scientists and artists. But would there be a place for William Burroughs in Tomorrowland? Lautreamont? Lou Reed? People who inspired, in other words, precisely by pulling apart the shiny official surfaces and depicting the black shrivelled root of so many hegemonies? The poptimism of Tomorrowland as it exists within the film has been destroyed by its lack of introspection, an irony Bird seems scarcely aware of, and this in turn destroys the metaphor entire. Bird and Lindelof steal that basic story of They Live whilst revising its point: it’s not the big powers of the world holding us back, but the petty, too-cool-for-you naysayers. And whilst that’s no more childish a message than most of the fare Bird is decrying offer, it could well be more cynical. What use is a utopia without anyone to call bullshit?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

My Hawkmen salute you...

…and I am done. This Island Rod yields the lightsaber to Wonders in the Dark for the last day of the blogathon. Anyone still hoping to participate should direct their posts over there, and the indefatigable Sam Juliano will induct you into his sleepless host of dread minions.

Once again, my heartiest thanks and congratulations to all contributors and donors. Excellent work, one and all. Be sure to check back here on Monday for news on donation totals and also raffle prizes.

-- Rod

PS: We also have some late entries for the blogathon still coming through here -- there's usually one or two -- from Shwyny at 365 Days 365 Classics, and it's a highly pertinent and worthwhile post too, an interview with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, director of the Film Heritage Foundation, India...

...and a final (?!) post, tardy but not expelled, from the US Intellectual History site, with Andrew Hartman considering the time capsule of political and social perspectives depicted in the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who (I dig, sir, I dig)...


For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon saw dozens of posts by a plethora of intelligent, quality writers, whilst donations reached a total of $1,700 – which is, I admit, quite a bit below not just our goal of $10,000 but also the donation total of the last blogathon. And yet, we count the blogathon as a success.  Cupid in Quarantine is $1,700 closer to being restored. Although in the three years since the last blogathon the whole idea of blogging has been shaken and far, far too many good bloggers have fallen by the wayside, we’ve proven that there’s life in our realm yet, and we have intellectual muscle and generosity on our side. So, once more and for the last time, my warmest regards for the blogathon participants and donors. 

The prize winners were as follows:

Choice of Betty Jo Tucker's print book Confessions of a Movie Addict or Kindle version of her autobiography It Had To Be Us: Aesha Williams

Winners of a DVD set of NFPF's Treasure of the New Zealand Film Archive: Lynnette Fuller, Buckey Grimm, and Lois Palmer

Winner of autographed copy of Farran Smith Nehme's Missing Reels: Mike Smith

Winner of hardbound copy of Mike Smith's Flickering Empire: Rachel Herman

Winner of Flicker Alley's DVD set 3-D Rarities: Susan Reynolds

Winner of Milestone's DVD Land of the Head Hunters: Bob Fergusson

Winner of script for Jerry Lewis' film The Day The Clown Cried: Gail Sonnefeld.

Let’s end this with a bang!

Day Four of the blogathon is here: the last day for This Island Rod’s host duties, before handing over to Wonders in the Dark where the blogathon will conclude on Sunday. So send me your links and we’ll make it an escape by the skin of our teeth to remember. And, PLEASE DONATE – we want your moolah! Or else Cupid in Quarantine will stay quarantined, and everyone will do this to all you cheapos in the street:

Oh, and please remember folks: I live in Australia, which means my hours are somewhat askew from those of many of you -- yes, even my Nosferatu-esque hours -- so please try and get your links in reasonably early (by which I mean 12-1pm CDT) or be prepared to wait until quite late (c. 8pm CDT) until they're posted.

Blogathon Participants Roll

Saturday May 16:

David Cairns strikes again at Shadowplay with a wry perusal of Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus

… my own second entry for the blogathon, and the first piece I’ve ever offered under the banner of This Island Rod itself, is in praise of Ishiro Honda’s epic Atragon

...meanwhile at 21 Essays, Lee Price's series celebrating Ray Harryhausen and First Men on the Moon now expands to appreciate the regular composers on Harryhausen's films, including the great Bernard Herrmann and under-appreciated First Men on the Moon scorer Laurie Johnson...

...unbeknownst to all, the ingenious Ivan G. Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has been going to town on Edward L. Cahn's Creature with an Atom Brain, a film torn from the pages of the lurid pulp scifi mag of your dreams...

...fantabulous funabulist Betty Jo Tucker contributes by way of a review, of Nicholas Eliopoulis' class documentary on Mary Pickford and her vital place in the early history of movies, over at Memosaic. We also owe acclaim to Betty Jo for her breathlessly delivered donation of a copy of her book Confessions of a Move Addict. Way to go, Betty Jo...

...and that sinister scrivener Robert Hornak keeps his Watchlist ticking with a look at North Korea's most famous giant malevolent lizard not currently employed as a Minister of State, Pulgasari...

...whilst Krell Laboratory technician Christianne careens into the third part of her evaluation of Robert Heinlein's work as transposed into cinema, centring on this year's Predestination...

...and joltin' Jandy Hardesty jumps in at The Frame with a heady exploration of the mystique of the lost film and the Romanticism of cinephilia in all its multifarious glory.