Saturday, August 31, 2002

A POST BY JESS

Hello whoever you are. Writing in Robin’s journal today is myself, Jessica Winthrop. I don’t know why I’m doing this. It’s Robin’s idea.

I mentioned to Hampton that Robin hadn’t put an installment on his site for a while. Hampton said he’s gone funny. When I asked how, he just told me to go find out. Well, I’m here and Robin is still sitting where I first found him; on the couch, eating potato chips and watching cartoons from during World War 2. The first thing Robin said to me after I called in through the fly-wire door was “You notice when you say ‘wartime’ people know you mean World War 2? Not Korea, not Vietnam or the Gulf.” Actually, I hadn’t but I knew not to respond with any opinion. He’d just ignore it. I did ask him how he was but he came back with “I’ve been watching Superman skulking around Tokyo doing sabotage and then flying way in anonymity. I guess that’s the American way.”

He did hear me when I asked why he hadn't updated his blog. He said he couldn’t face the crap he was spewing out. He said, “when your sick of your own crap, you’re sick of the world’s.” Then he mentioned that Daffy is defending a metal scrap heap from a Nazi goat. I asked him what a Nazi goat looks like and he said it looks like a goat with fascist principles. I decided not to tell him that I think all goats have fascist principles.
“No seriously,” I asked him. “Why aren’t you writing in your diary?”
“Why don’t you write in it,” he suggested. “Francher wrote something. Why not you?”

So here I am, but I have no idea what to write. I asked Robin for suggestions, but he said, “Look, Superman is beating some more racial stereotypes.” I whined at him so he’d be constructive, but he just asked me if I have an opinion on something. I didn’t. He almost looked at me, but he didn’t quite take his eyes off the TV.
“Okay,” he said, after giggling at some explosions. “What did you think of SIGNS?”
I told him I didn’t like it. When he asked why, I told him because it was silly. Actually, I thought it was going okay, till the end, then it went stupid.
“You mean when the giant seagull turns up?” He said. I had no idea what he meant. So I wasn’t going to take it any further.
“Come on, Robin,” I pleaded. “You must have watched something recently other than old cartoons.
"Wartime cartoons,” Robin corrected. “Propaganda is so much funnier. I mean, how many times can you make Hitler’s face from a horse’s ass, I ask you.”
I know he wasn’t asking me, but I wasn’t going to let him not answer my question.

Eventually, he gave in. Apparently, he’s been watching a lot of Asian films. I asked him for examples.
“Let’s see. The other night I watched BANGKOK DANGEROUS. That was excellent. I thought it was gonna be Hong Kong but it was Thai. Very cool and mega-stylish and still without pretension. It was hip but sincere storytelling. It had a thrilling unpredictability, but a sense of inevitability. Truly modern noir. Something a lot of Western cinema has lost. The cover of the dvd had a quote along the lines of like ‘John Woo morphed with Wong-Kar Wai’ and they were absolutely spot on. Hey did I tell you Wong Kar-Wai is the most exciting director working today?”
“All the time,” I said to him. But I still haven’t seen one of his films. I don’t like Asian movies. You don’t know where you stand with them. But Robin loves them. I think if he was allowed only a choice of either SF cinema or Asian cinema he’d pick Asian, but he’d chew out half his intestines before making that decision.
“I watched WHISPERING CORRIDORS last night,” Robin said. He went on to say it was Korean and it was quite creepy. But the real world stuff, what appeared to be regular Korean sexual politics, was as disturbing as the supernatural stuff. By the end it was rather touching. Its message about the betrayal by adults of the youth - perhaps more female youth with CORRIDORS - resonated with the Japanese film BATTLE ROYALE. I told him I haven’t seen either. He told me I hadn’t missed much. It took me a moment to realise he was being rude.

“Hey, Bugs is trying to sell me war bonds,” he said. “He’s a good salesman. Gives me the urge to put my hands in my pockets for the cause. Bugs has that ability to pull you in and hypnotise you with his hip pre-rat pack coolness. Oh, that’s right. I saw HYPNOSIS last week. A Japanese horror thriller. Very entertaining, some great moments of freaky shit stuff. Japs are great at freaky shit stuff. Look at the RING cycle. Don’t think they’d like how Uncle Sam is portraying them on the vid right now, though. Squinty eyed, thick glasses, big teeth. Did you know Dr Cyclops was used as a template for the evil World War 2 Yank propaganda Jap?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Never mind,” he said. “Anyway, HYPNOSIS knew not to take itself seriously, but built up the tension and the mystery all the same. It wasn’t really gory, but it had a groovy macabreness.”
“Is that a word: macabreness?” I asked. Robin shrugged.

“HYPNOSIS was also a satire on media, particularly commercial and advertising media. You won’t look at billboards the same way after HYPNOSIS. The evils of subliminal propaganda are perhaps only a little more evil than obvious propaganda like this stuff I’m watching. THE FIFTH COLUMIST MOUSE, a fairy tale explaining how those who allow the enemies point of view to be disseminated are just as much the enemy. Things haven’t changed really. Too much commercial cinema is just propaganda trying to subversively sell you something you don’t need and didn‘t actually want. Maybe that’s why I’m into Asian cinema at the moment. I’m so sick of the typical English language style propaganda. I want to absorb some different, more refreshing propaganda.”
“You’re depressing me,” I said.
“Hey, I’m depressing me,” he said. “That’s why it’s time for me to go back to the mountain.”
“What mountain?” I asked.
“The hidden mountain,” he responded, which didn’t help. “I must go back to the temple. But first I need more sustenance.” He grabbed a fistful of crisps and shoved them in his mouth. The crunching noise almost drowned out the marching song the cartoon characters in helmets were singing. Robin then said something about how Private Snafu seems to “cop a good feel of cartoon babes” before being blown up by booby-traps like it’s a lesson to all men. I don’t think Robin picked up the obvious pun. Which is typically male.

Anyway, I’ve had enough. I’m going. But before I do, I’ll ask him one last question. “When are you going to write something proper about AVALON, that film you love so much and tell everyone to see?” Robin paused for a moment, as if to give it thought - though I have my doubts - before he replied.
“When I get to the mountain,” he said.

Whatever.

Monday, August 26, 2002

SERVICE INTERRUPTUS

Hi, this is Francher.

I’m here with my pal Hampton playing on Robin’s web thingy. Me and Hamp are two of Robin’s good buddies. We often rock over to his place a good three or four times a week to check out what he’s got stacked in his vid/dvd pile. Weird that he always lets us in but he hardly seems pleased to see us. Anyway, he usually has some cool monster movie or some effects heavy sci-fi flick or some hoopy anime. Things you can get your mind into and really trip out on the cerebral. But occasionally he’s excited about something me and Hampton would call an art movie. Recently, Robin made us watch with him one such art movie called BEGOTTEN. Robin was excited about it cause it was the first film by that dude who did SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE. We patronized Robin, let him get through it before making him put on some COWBOY BEBOP. We don’t mind. Nothing’s too good for good ol’ Rob.

But when we came over tonight, you know what he was doing? He was doing his criticism thang. And on that so-called BEGOTTEN art film too. It’s one thing to watch that crap, another to actually write about it. There he was tapping things like “primordial horror”, “returning to the core of myth”, “a sense of verity like camera through a distorted time portal to pre-rational humanity”. Me and Hampton saw the glazed look on Robin’s face, the hint of dribble about to leave his quivering lips. And we knew what to do. Hampton made a fresh cup of tea and I verbally laid into the fucker.

“Why are you writing about that goddamn boring piece of shit?” I shouted. “That film was like some sad angst-filled art student making us watch himself wank over a piss poor painting he did the previous year to externalised his pain over that Swedish exchange student who wouldn’t give him a blow-job at the end of semester party. And the babe in the movie needed to shave.”

Robin turned to me, eyes wide and speaking like a pathetic cult victim. “But it resonated with our underlying spiritual barbarity,” he pleaded. I had to shake my head. Robin’s a sweet guy, but sometimes he can be right up himself.

“Robin, you sad pretentious prat,” I said lovingly. “It was a typical second year film student project where you give your mates a six-pack so they’ll roll in shit and walk around an old quarry. It’s one of those films made in a class where there’s always some hippie chick willing to take her clothes off and thus someone comes up with a deep mental concept so she’ll get her tits out and they can have a good look while their lecturers think their students are being sophisticated cause they’ve made something that praises the earth mother.”

Robin looked at me like a pot smoker who’s been told his stash just got flushed down the loo. “It was film in its most raw form. It was the returning to the beginning of cinema,” he cried.

I had to put the man out of his misery.

“It was a typical uni student film with pretty pictures by a talented photographer dreaming of one day making the big mullah by doing a Michael Bay movie. It’s not worth writing about.”

Robin turned to some other loose notes, one of the piles around his computer. “Then I’ll write about EYES WITHOUT A FACE, a deep and mystical film about fear and non-redemption that…”

“Oh god, not another confusing bit of prose about some dead French filmmaker who did poetic cinema before half of us were born. Haven’t you figured it out Robin? No one watches that boring shit but you. No one else cares. No one else is ever going to watch that stuff and no one is gonna care what you think of it but you. Especially with your appalling sentence structure.”

Robin blinked once or twice and then stared at his hands. “You’re right,” he said. “It’s all shit. It’s all shit.”

“That'a boy,” I said. “Now here’s a nice cuppa tea. You just go and have a lie down. Me and Hampton will look after things for ya.”

Then me and Hampton went trawling for net porn.

So I thought I’d write a little piece for his web thingy while Hampton goes through Robin’s collection of ‘50s black-n-white and Robin sits in the corner muttering something about having to return to the mountain.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

BATTLE ROYALE

Having made films like THE GREEN SLIME (1968) and MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) may not show it but decades of filmmaking, especially in the Yakuza genre, have made Kinji Fukasaku a director in strong command of his craft. His adaptation of Koushun Takami’s future shock novel, BATTLE ROYALE, is both successfully subtle and outrageous. Being set on a small island where 42 school children must kill each other off in 48hrs sounds like a Paul Verhoven version of LORD OF THE FLIES, but such a comparison is misleading. The point of this story is rather divergent from William Golding’s apocalyptic tale. Rather than a sombre fable BATTLE ROYALE is more a slap in the face satire about false values imposed on teenage life. It’s like an ultra-violent version of Lindsay Anderson’s IF…, but a very Japanese one. It’s directed at that culture’s popular teen melodramas rather than Britain’s boarding schools. But if anything is lost in the translation it isn’t enough to dilute an anger aimed at a society failing to nurture their children and prepare for them a future. Indeed, the anger is so strong that the work is belittled being compared to Verhoven whose cynicism is far too often aimed at his own audiences than the subject at hand.

BATTLE ROYALE is one of the most violent films I’ve seen, but to call it gratuitous would suggest a lack of empathy for the characters. What makes this film hurt so much is the care taken to show the personalities of the hunted and hunting. And this multiple narrative of relentless blood splattering is played out under a sense of regret for the lives lost. The film is a traumatic lament for the destruction of innocence, an indictment on the resentment adults have for youth. Perhaps this film forces the point too far that children grow up to become, as adults, almost a different species. But it is a valid issue that the cultural gap of generations has become insurmountable.

However, any point would be lost if it weren’t for the earnest performances of the various uniformed teenagers and the beautifully underplaying Takeshi Kitano. His is the pivotal role of a once caring schoolteacher who has become the ruthless overseer of the game. His character is the doorway to understanding why a 70-year-old director would make such a shocking pop-culture pseudo-snuff extravaganza. The why seems important indeed and fathoming the why is what makes BATTLE ROYALE far more than a slick murder fest for psycho movie fans. However, it isn’t a film for everyone. It isn’t sadistic cinema, but it is most certainly cruel. The message is expressed deftly with anguish and fear and does not want the audience to get away unscathed. It’s hard not to be affected by this film’s unrelenting violence, but you might find yourself just as likely to be cringing away from its images than be daring and delve into the pain to seek some truths. I can quite understand why some would consider this film simply as a callous exploitationer aimed at those with a fetish for school uniforms, but I think that’s forgetting the Japanese mentality this film is addressing, especially the cultural memory of the war.

I think BATTLE ROYALE is a very good film saying bad things. But then, the truth hurts.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

READING SIGNS

It seems that for some it is hard to interpret SIGNS. For others it’s no problem at all. But certain critics act dumbfounded and confused at its intent. Most chose that the intent to be traditional Hollywoodism, shallow entertainment. A judgement you can’t be harsh about. But some alluded that other interpretations can be made, although many of them were reluctant to take the point further. And I have to admit that I can’t blame anyone for their confusion. It is a hard film for ascertaining the filmmaker’s ultimate intentions.

Yes, it can seem a transparent SF/supernatural thriller with a very smooth style. But M. Night Shyamalan’s film may actually be making a deeper and darker statement. Then again, that smooth style might be simply to create the illusion of such. No doubt that one tries to seek meanings to the experiences of the characters, seek a meaning to the menace and madness. But it might all be trickery. The pretense of deeper meaning may be enough to make a movie feel like a film deeper than it is. The feeling of something more meaningful can be merely a technique to make the experience more entertaining. Fair enough, I guess.

I enjoyed SIGNS. But I should point out that I chose to enjoy it. Early on I made the conscious decision that this film will entertain me. Not such a bad approach for certain types of films and filmmakers. So yes, I enjoyed it. One way I enjoyed it was on the superficial level. It’s well made and entertaining. And it's funnier than you’d expect. And the humour runs deeper than bemused people trying to make out meanings to what is happening around and too them. SIGNS is not just funny funny, it’s strange funny. And this light surrealism goes beyond the bizarre events that fall upon our frightened players who then act strange. These people were strange before strange things happened. Although being a story of how people bend to the changes to their reality, it is as much a film about reality bending to meet the strangeness of people. That’s where you can choose to seek meaning to SIGNS other than just as a piece of amusement.

M. Night Shyamalan is far too often compared to Spielberg, a reference that does not deserve much consideration. But this director of SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE is also compared to Hitchcock. Sure, he’s not in that master’s league yet, but I can appreciate some of the comparisons. Shyamalan is definitely in the Hitchcock school. But I don’t mean in that Hitchcockian school generally refered to when describing twisting thrillers with Bernard Hermann music riffs. I mean the Hitchcock school of subtle satire. SIGNS is not just the surface genre of mystery and dark fantasy, it is a film in the same genre as Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY.

Hitchcock is a master filmmaker because he gives you the choice of different genres within the same film. If you want to get a headache, you can try and watch REAR WINDOW as three different styles of film at once as you can with PSYCHO and VERTIGO. But you don’t have to. THE BIRDS works fine as a monster movie for one sitting and a surrealist commentary on social living at another. It works best seen as the inseparable intertwining of both. Which is probably what makes THE BIRDS the most important monster movie. And Hitchcock also learned, if not created, a style of cranking up the reality past a point which seems surreal but we can’t help but react to as a form of reality and so disturb us beyond the pedestrian cinema experience. The murders in PSYCHO bring this point out well. Hitchcock is someone who did understand the point of German expressionist cinema.

Shyamalan used this multiple-tier Hitchcockian language in UNBREAKABLE (and perhaps in a far safer mode in SIXTH SENSE) making a serious film about a comical concept and never for once dropping his guard, daring you to go along with it till the final end. Not all appreciated it. I quite enjoyed the iconoclastic nature of two distinct genres rubbing together and the friction being the essence of the film. I think he got away with it. Not everyone agrees. They agree less with SIGNS. Thier opinion is so divergent that many critics miss each other’s point. Only a very interesting film can do that whether it fully succeeds on its own terms or not.

SIGNS can be seen simply as an amusement and that is certainly one of its intentions. But if one chooses to one can see it as a more satirical statement regarding filmic and social conventions and plays much of itself for a laugh. Regardless, those deeper meanings can be considered just another level of amusement. And I think that is also one of its intentions. I know I could be wrong. I could be giving false meanings to the signs. But if I am then I’m choosing to. Right or wrong, it makes the film more fun for me. And it makes the gag of the finale work for me. In reading the reviews and talking to people I believe that much of their final interpretation of SIGNS rests on how they accept that final gag. And rests on whether they even see it as a gag. That more than anything else determines what one thinks the film is actually about.

So though some disagree about the different purposes of SIGNS, I think more than one side of the argument can be right. Watching SIGNS can be both a subjective and an objective experience. And the final interpretation of the film depends on what angle you choose to take with more than one angle being valid. The one I took made me enjoy the film immensely. But then I didn’t choose to see the film to be about signs. I chose to see the film as about signifiers. And that gave the film a satisfying meaning for me. But don’t seek my meaning by reading this deliberately vague piece of writing (or anyone else’s for that matter). Find out by reading the film itself. Of course, it will depend on how you choose to read SIGNS. And if you want to seek a meaning other than that of a ghost train style of amusement then you will need to make choices. But making choices when watching a film is half the fun.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

TEN B-GRADE SCI-FI FLICKS I CAN’T HELP BUT ENJOY

MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)
Made on borrowed sets in just six days this modest film is basically a melodrama where a few people save humanity from a little alien guy you can’t help but feel sorry for. The fog machine is turned on full to hide the wire and cardboard as heroes and villains wander around castle walls and out on the moors. It’s like watching an epic as done by an amateurish but imaginative theatre company.

EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS 1956)
Few sci-fi inclined haven’t seen this, but I’ll remind you anyway. Ray Harryhausen put a lot of life into his saucers and into this film. The film itself is very pedestrian and predictable, but when saucers or aliens appear it just has that childhood thrill or fear you want to recall. And the faux epic climax over models of Washington buildings is always fun.

KRONOS (1957)
One of the oddest of the ‘50s invasion films as a big energy-sucking machine marches across Mexico causing all sorts of cheap effects havoc. The big guy takes a while to turn up but you regain your interest via the novelty of his piston legs and cuboid torso as he trundles along the countryside (sometimes obviously a cartoon). It also has one of those hero-science guys who just don’t know when to quit being a scientist and go shag the girl.

THE CRAWLING EYE (1958)
Actually, this is not as dumb a movie as the title makes it sound. Also known as THE TROLLENBERG TERROR, this is about scientists, clairvoyants and troubleshooters dealing with big nasty invaders hiding in the Alps. The tension is good, the mystery is clever, the characters work, but you’ll find it hard to stifle the giggles when the monsters finally appear. Despite some of the worst movie critters in history this is a decent, if cheap, British SF horror film.

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958)
Speaking of bad movie monsters, perhaps it would have helped if the suit were a bit tighter on the actor. Still, you can understand why this film is often referred to as the original ALIEN. Sure it’s cheap, sure it can’t go for spectacle, but this film builds at a good and intelligent pace as the monster moves closer to the control room where the survivors are trying to hold out. Oddly, the best moment of SF horror is a scene described, not shown. Relax and enjoy.

ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1960)
Can you be cheaper? Can your effects be cheesier? But it adds to the charm of submariners versus an undersea flying saucer. The actors try to be likeable, the director tries to be entertaining, and the stern-voiced narrator keeps a stiff upper-lip. Stock footage abounds with enthusiasm. When our heroes eventually get into the saucer the real fun begins. The big bad alien is one of my cheesiest favourites and I love his alien arrogance. Take that, you!


DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)
I’ve always liked David Carradine even when he’s in one of those ultra-cheapie rip-off flicks. And this is one of them, made quickly to cash in on ROLLERBALL. But it moves fast, keeps the right humour and beats Paul Verhoven to that satirical style uber-violence. It’s Wacky Races for psychos. And who doesn’t do pedestrian point scoring when that little old lady is taking too long to cross the road? And it has the only bad visual pun I’ll let be paid.

OUTLAND (1981)
Sure it’s HIGN NOON in space, but it makes no apologies. Nor should it. Really, this is a basic by the numbers, cop action thriller using the novelty of a future setting. But the sets are nice and with just enough atmosphere and visual appeal to maintain critical suspension. Peter Hyams is an adequate director, who keeps the narrative flowing, but Sean Connery carries much of the emotional weight. By the way, ignore your knowledge of planetary science.

THE HIDDEN (1988)
Effectively a chase movie, it barrels along so fast you don’t have time to realise there isn’t much story. Eventually it turns into an alien and human buddy story, with all that character building stuff wanna-be writers would want to do with such a premise. But the direction and Kyle MacLaughlin’s charms keep you happy to see how it all turns out. And the body-stealing alien is a nice piece of work.

SPLIT SECOND (1992)
Fatally flawed, but there’s enough cool stuff in this Rutger Hauer low-budgeter to make you wonder why it goes so wrong. Indeed, this is a smart, sassy, stylish future cop film with quirky heroes chasing a nashy-teeth monster through a flooded London. It’s going great guns till the studio sacked the director (he went back to commercials) and forced a rewrite to deliberately dumb down the last ten minutes. It could have been a cult classic.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

COCTEAU RETRO PART TWO

I know very little of the world of 1949 metropolitan France. So I have no idea how close to the real thing is the world of Jean Cocteu’s ORPHEE. But it doesn’t matter. If this was a realistic setting or a place of fancy makes little difference to this take on a mythic tale. It still works well as a functional fantasy place for today’s audience. This world of ORPHEE is a world where the poet is king. Orpheus is our hero and he is a poet laureate loved by the masses like a pop idol. And like any hot music star, he is despised by the lower pseudo-literati. The jealous poet café-set don’t hide their disdain for Orpheus or his writings which the public consume so eagerly. The main reason they hate him is because he is popular. Artists must suffer not succeed. In this film, the role of the artist is the role of tragic hero.

In the original myth Orpheus was the son of Apollo and Calliope, a hip-happening dude who grooved the ancient world with his lyre. He was such a hot musician even the trees and rivers swerved in his direction to listen. He was the mega-rock star of Grecian lands. He was married to Eurydice, but when fleeing the advances of Aristaeus - another son of Apollo, beekeeper and inventor of bookkeeping - she got snake-bit and died. Down to Hades she went and Orpheus, lyre in hand, went to follow. After pleading his case to Pluto and the missus Persephone (now there’s a messy marriage) they allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice back home provided he never sets eyes upon her. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, you can guess the outcome. Just be thankful it doesn’t involve sex with some weird animal, as that seems the usual Greek god thang.

The gist of the original tale is pretty much told before the film begins. But what Cocteau wants you to be interested in is how he makes it different. This is the land of French poets rather than the land of Greek gods. And in this place Death is a major player. Cocteau's hero seems quite intrigued by the lure of Death. And Cocteau makes Death mysterious, sensual, even sexual. Long before Gaiman’s version Cocteau created a sexy almost Goth style death in the guise of Maria Casares. Who, in the marvelous gowns (that can shift from black to white) creates one of the more elegant figures ever in cinema. She is striking, alluring and edged with a sinister shadow. I have little doubt Sonia Braga’s Spider Woman was inspired by Casares mesmerizing, classy, amourous Death.

But that's enough about death. What this film is really about is poets. The French tragic kind who think they have to be all French and tragic to be poets. Orpheus more than most. And he does come across as an arrogant prat who doesn’t know good things when he sees them. Typical of his kind, instead of being a reasonable human being he wants to grasp the unattainable and put it into a few wanky lines of poetry. Perhaps that’s why Death becomes so enamored of him. She watches him sleep every night and becomes jealous of the sweet, blond and house-wifey Eurydice.

Hey, I’m not gonna tell you what happens. When I like a movie I hate spoiling it for people by giving away the plot. Besides, you already know the gist of it via the legend. Thus you know that eventually Orpheus has to travel to the underworld. Now remember, Orpheus’ real world is Poet World; where poets are like supermen and everything is concerned with poetry. Even the dialogue flows like poetry. Who needs sporting heroes when you have heartthrob lamenting poets? Of note; Orpheus is portrayed by the fine actor Jean Marais – the same guy from LA BELLE ET LA BETE – who was voted the world’s most beautiful man. So if that’s the real world, what must Hades be like? Well the realm of the underworld, the land of death, the place every lamenting poet dreams of is a land of poetry itself. Poetry expressed as only film and Jean Cocteau can.

The underworld is a place of camera tricks, a land of reverse shots, false perspectives, negative film, mirror tricks, rear projection, double exposures, slow motion. It is a land within the camera. It is the poet’s eye. Sure, film effects wise, it’s all obvious, but it doesn’t take away from the power of the images. And we’re talking today, not 1949 when such trickery was still quite fresh and exciting. Still, it isn't too stale for today. That’s because these dated in-camera tricks are still rich with meaning. These simple illusions and representive images. They are metaphor, simile and allegory. It doesn’t matter how the trickery is done; it is the meaning that matters, the act of communication. Hence, they still work. And they remain fascinating, if quaint, due to their contexts. They become and remain poetry. If you were to criticise the “crude” techniques used then you might as well attack a poem or a novel for being merely ink on paper. Audience and filmmaker must share in the creative process. And Cocteau, with his film ORPHEE, demands it.

All endings are important ot a film, but some endings are more important than others. And how ORPHEE ends means a great deal. Not surprisingly, it differs from the legend and Cocteau makes no apologies for that. It’s why he happily tells you the legend at the beginning. He knows the knowledge will enhance the story, not hinder it. And the ending, elegent as it was, has a simple message. A message that film critics should learn the same way Cocteau wanted the critics to learn back in 1949. And what he wants all life’s critics to learn. Wisdom is discovering what to take seriously and what not. And if you choose to take ORPHEE seriously or not, Cocteau still wants you to enjoy yourself. And if you do enjoy it then that only reinforces the truth that ORPHEE is one of the most interesting, important and influential modern fantasies made.

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Ten years after ORPHEE, Jean Cocteau made the very personal THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (LE TESTAMENT D’ ORPHEE) in which Cocteau himself plays an 18th Century poet who after his death enters the modern world. I haven’t seen it in many years andI remember far too little to write anything substantial about it. I recall that it was an Alice in Wonderland journey as Cocteau meets and speaks with various characters who seemed to representing different aspects of life and art. I well remember Marais turning up as a blind Orpheus. Maria Casare was also there, I think playing herself. Yul Brunner rocked up and so did Pablo Picasso. Other significant personages were in it, but I do not recall details. I hope that one day I will see this semi-autobiographical lament again.

The ORPHIC TRILOGY is on DVD. If interested then go here.
A good site to learn more about Jean Cocteau and his films is here.
To see Cocteau as artist then go here.

Sunday, August 11, 2002

OTOMO’S SALUTE TO TEZUKA

I’ve seen and read enough of the great manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka to know that Katsuhiro Otomo’s recent adaptation of METROPOLIS - a moral tale of innocence, corruption, politics and robots - is done not just out of respect but as a tribute to the legacy of possibly the greatest contributor to storytelling in animated form. Tezuka is best known for his television creations, namely ASTROBOY (1963) and KIMBA THE WHITE LION (1966) but his cinema work was also significant. I remember seeing his mythical space opera SPACE FIREBIRD (1979) and being blown away by the spiritual and cataclysmic finale. Indeed, that animated epic (part Kubrick, part Lucas, all Tezuka) was a key stepping stone in my serious anime education. And Tezuka’s short piece JUMPING (1984) - a P.O.V. single take of someone jumping higher and higher across a developing land till they reach into space and crash through to hell - is still one of my favourite short films and I dearly wish I could see it again.

Tezuka died in 1989 at the age of 60 (and Disney couldn’t wait to rob his corpse – you can go here for my take on that) and a number of his projects and manga were left unrealised as film. Katsuhiro Otomo (perhaps looking for things to do other than AKIRA 2) has chosen to adapt Tezuka’s manga “Metropolis” and chosen it for the big screen. In fact, almost exclusively big screen. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Otomo’s production of METROPLOLIS had three purposes for development. One was to pay tribute to Tezuka. Another is to answer an irresistible urge to produce an unofficial sequel, a thematic sequel, to Fritz Lang’s METROPLIS in all its art-deco glory. And the third is as an experiment of, or perhaps a conceit to, new forms of cinematic animation.

How do you do that?

By making an animated film so rich, so thick with detail it’s impossible to absorb the sheer scope and density on anything other than a cinematic canvas. The story’s canvas is the retro-future city. And that takes the form of ultra-complex backdrops and foregrounds that are as much a character as the developed and very Tezuka populous in this tale, in persona and image. The city, the metropolis, is something interacted with and is a catalyst to all actions and reactions.

Tezuka’s themes are usually complex, but he keeps his plots straightforward, even though he’s quite fond of the odyssey structure. And I guess that’s an ideal foil for myth and symbolism. But the symbolism isn't Freudian or Jungian, these symbols are Tezuka’s own and their meaning is self-revelatory. Tezuka’s sub-themes can also be surprisingly subversive. They can seem quaint at first (“dated” might be another term) but give them time to germinate in your mind and his ideas seem to expand and spread like a themetic virus. If you can recall, Kimba and Astro became significant non-American role models for children during the ‘60s and ‘70s. And although the themes and characters can seem quaint and harmless, both Tezuka and Otomo aren’t afraid to address and readdress darker issues or do the most displeasing things to likeable and loveable characters for the purpose of logical and natural, if unpredictable, story progression.

Osamu Tezuka’s METROPOLIS is a fascinating experiment done at a time when Japanese animation is trying to break new ground in style and technique (the union of CGI and traditional animation is the best example. See Team Oshii’s BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE and the exceptional video production of SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN). And the use of richly detailed and intertwining computer graphic backgrounds might at first be a distraction (“look at the pretty pictures”), but quickly they become an enhancement to Tezuka’s vision as Otomo and veteran director Tarô Rin (who directed original ASTROBOY) interpret and update for a contemporary audience. I think Otomo is quite right that if he had hung round long enough Tesuka would have embraced CGI technology. After all, as well as a storyteller leader he was a technological leader in animation. Indeed, when it comes to this production of his METROPOLIS, Osamu Tezuka, one of my artistic heroes, would have most likely approved.

The official US website for METROPOLIS is here.
The official Osamu Tezuka website is here.

Friday, August 09, 2002

A THOUGHT ABOUT JACKSON'S RINGS

I have said in several places (cause I like to irritate certain people with it) that this adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS isn't just better than we should have ever expected but is better than we deserve. Now the point of that is lost if you don't encounter a hardboiled Tolkienist who chose to be disappointed with the film because of what I see as unreasonable grounds. Such as; no Tom Bombadill, there were no Barrow Downs, orcs shouldn't have piercings, the Belrog did not fit their idea of its description, Elrond does not look like Hugo Weaving, a female elf did not save Frodo...yada yada. I have no time for that sort of crap.

However, I suddenly realised the curse Peter Jackson's film can be for legitimate lovers of the books. Sure, I've met many Tolkien fans who loved the film, but what if your personal vision of Tolkien's works are so integral to your affection for the books and the strength to the meaning you find in them that you can't help but see such a definitive version (yes, that's arguable for some) as a threat to what you hold most sacred to your deep enjoyment of Tolkien's words. Meaning, it wouldn't be so bad if it was a so-so version or merely adequate or a typical butchering (which to a few sad sods, it is) of the RINGS books, but that it is such a good version, such a loving and relatively loyal adaptation, that it means a real risk to usurping personal ideals to how the books look and feel. Thus the more critical success and personal following Peter Jackson's films receive, the less someone might feel they can be able to ever see it.

My own view is simple; better for the works of Tolkien that Jackson's version exists than doesn't. Of course, my prejudice might be determined by be not enjoying an adventure film so strongly since EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Or that I'm such an out-n-out Peter Jackson fan, from BAD TASTE to now.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

COCTEAU RETRO Part One

I know I keep saying LA BELLE ET LA BETE is the best fantasy film, but having not seen it in an awful long time (15 years or so) I thought I should refresh myself before repeating such a superlative. Well, that's the excuse I used. But before I say anything about it...

Yes, I know. It's called THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. And yes, I'm only being pretentious by referring to it in its original French. But whenever I call it BEAUTY AND THE BEAST I always then have to explain that I don't mean the Disney thing.

Anyway, I just watched again Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of the tale and I think I can still say it's the best traditional fantasy film I have seen to date. And I have to admit to a warm fuzzy feeling inside realising my old views are only strengthened. Visually, in execution and concept, it is unrivaled for that sense of mysterious enchantment and for creating an underlying eroticism that isn't some symbolism for "man put thingy in girl's thingy" kind'a stuff they thought so neat in the seventies and eighties.

If you haven't seen LA BELLE ET LA BETE then you should. Most certainly if you take the telling of the fantasy tale seriously. It is one of the very most important contributions to fantastic cinema and perhaps to fantasy in any medium. Ridley Scott's LEGEND gives a good idea of the style and execution even if it's far from the same significance or success. Regardless, Ridley's and William Hjortsberg's take on the fairy tale is a very conscious exploration of Cocteu's vision and ideas.

But forget all that film history and analysis stuff. Just make an effort to see a beautiful and poetic and gracious and rich and meaningful fantasy. You'll be lucky if more than a dozen have been made in the last hundred years.

Hmm, maybe I should consider what that dozen are.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

TEN HALF-FORGOTTEN CLASSICS OF SCIENCE FICTION

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)
Dark, atmospheric and with a thick air of maliciousness, this is by far the best adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau. Not being entirely accurate to Well’s novel doesn’t take away from the dark intelligence and cruel sensuality of this foreboding film. The great Charles Laughton plays the sadistic Moreau and that should mean something to you.

THE TUNNEL (1936)
Very stiff-upper-lip British as well-to-do English engineers suffer sabotage and family domestics while digging a huge tunnel under the Atlantic. Good actors carry the not so thrilling parlor room scenes that link the magnificent models and stunning effects of digging machines and flooding disasters. This is a solid attempt at future conjecture and tries to deal with things from labour disputes to new technologies. And it's all most jolly, what.

DR CYCLOPS (1940)
The director of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and KING KONG (1933) shows again his special talent for adventure. Deep in the Peruvian jungle, a team of intrepid explorers encounters an evil atomic scientist. Naturally he has to shrink them and the special effects team get to show their exceptional skills. Just heaps of well made fun.

X THE UNKNOWN (1956)
Intentionally in the Quatermass style, this is an intelligent man vs. mysterious thing thriller. To accommodate (or to compensate) for the low budgets, British SF is often done in realist style and this happens to make their science fiction, even when ridiculous in concept, more convincing. Leo McKern as a science sympathetic investigator adds to the charm.

THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957)
From the writer of the Quatermass stories comes an intelligent and philosophical adventure film. And yes, about the hunting of the Yeti. But despite the glorious visuals (impressive for the budget) this is mainly a psychological story and where much of its strength is from the characters and general atmosphere. There are striking moments to this small grand film and Peter Cushing shows why he’s...well...Peter Cushing.

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958)
The title turns people off, but that’s a great pity. This is one fifties SF flick where social and feminist politics were intentionally toyed with as a young All-American wife realises her young All-American husband isn’t what he seems. And though it doesn’t betray its entertaining b-roots, it doesn’t betray the female lead either. Shows a good compromise makes a good film.

THE DAMNED (1961)
Sober and serious, this Brit new wave film is an insightful time capsule. Pre-empting the more modern SF movie this compelling mystery of mysterious children steadily builds up the dread as you come to understand the inevitability of its, somewhat allegorical premise. Oliver Reed does good badguy and that helps beat the parts of this sombre tale together. This is the sort of movie that shows what science fiction is for.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961)
The world is about to end and there's no special effects to stop it! That’s because this is an actor’s piece, but it’s no less involving. Carried by all, but especially Edward Judd and Leo McKern, we see how people deal with the crisis in themselves. This is drama about our own lives as much as a scientific thriller. I think it’s one of the best British SF films to date.

X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963)
This mind ride of a low budget movie evolves around Ray Milland as a man with x-ray vision which just gets better and better, or worse and worse. And as our hero unravels so seems the fabric of the universe, as he or we perceive it. What could have been pretentious existentialist philosophising remains a most entertaining science gone wrong melodrama. When someone asks you what’s so great about Roger Corman, you show them this.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)
When don’t you enjoy Vincent Price? Never does he fail to live up to a film and this Italian mega-el-cheapo mutant zombie movie tries hard to live up to him. Admittedly, this version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend virtually begins and ends with Vincent’s performance, but the film still holds up enough on its own. It shows that even if the execution isn’t the greatest, a good idea not betrayed goes a long way towards a good SF movie.

Monday, August 05, 2002

FULLER TO THE MAX

What's a pulp classic?

Well, Samuel Fuller's 1963 flick SHOCK CORRIDOR certainly constitutes one. It came out in that key time of pre-Vietnam, post-Korean War and is one of the best examples of a cheap, sleazy, violent, surrealist melodrama with a brain. It begins with a success hungry journalist convincing his stripper girlfriend to pretend to be his distraught sister who then commits her pretend brother to a violent mental hospital cause of his pretend incestuous advances. Does that sound pulpy? Anyway, once he's in there he's in a pot-boiler analogy of things deeply wrong with the U.S. of A.

The journo is looking to solve a murder and the three witness are in there with him. The first is a cowboy who thinks he's in the civil war. He was an ignorant farmer's son as played by some young experimental theatre actor who'll one day be Sheriff Rosco in DUKES OF HAZARD. He gets the line of the movie; "Everyday my parents fed me bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for supper". It's as a prisoner to the commies that he gets his first taste of political thought and naturally he goes over to the Red's side. But when he wants to come home both sides think he's a traitor and so his brain goes pl'nk. The second is the first African-American to go to a white school, but he couldn't deal with the racist protesters and he flunked out. Now he thinks he's the founder of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The third is the inventor of the intercontinental nuke and he deals with the guilt by becoming a six year old. The film is in black and white, but our loonies dream in other-worldly colour (bizarre home movie images of a Japanese Buddha and African natives in mud masks). Dreaming in colour will make you temporarily sane. The real world is in black and white. I think you can catch the film's drift.

This is a bold exploitationer full of striking images, like rain in the corridor of the film's title, and bizarre characters, like the fat man who keeps waking the hero up with opera then making him eat gum. But what is most wild about this picture is that in all its ultra-cheap burlesque tawdriness - which includes a room of literally man-hungry women and a hero's nightmares of a girlfriend considering the freedom to be unfaithful as shown by a miniature version of her in showgirl outfit tickling his ear with a feather boa - this is a film about the failure of the American conscience. But no way can you just go out and say that, certainly not as yet in the early '60s. So Fuller makes the truth - well, his truth - come out of the mouths of madmen. He makes reality of the early sixties come out of the frame of a surrealist art-house picture masquerading as, while still legitimately being, a cheapo shocker for the cinematic insensitive. Now that couldn't have been easy.

Naturally, at the time, SHOCK CORRIDOR was hated and reviled and considered a sicko, non-nonsensical mess. But do feel good to know that Samuel Fuller lived long enough to see his Hollywood cheapies become key contributions to American maverick cinema and for him be acknowledged as a mentor for go-it-alone filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmush, David Lynch and Hal Hartley. He appeared as himself in Wim Wender's END OF VIOLENCE (at the age of 86) and it should come as no surprise that the Europeans were onto him long before his home country decided he was a groundbreaking hero of decadent cinema with clandestine messages for the brainwashed masses.

I watched it for the first time only the other night. And I thought it was a bit of a head trip. If only this guy had made a fifties monster movie.

Saturday, August 03, 2002

‘PEDIA SCHMEDIA

I have a habit of buying SF film encyclopedias. A silly habit really, as I’ve got plenty of them. Why do I need any more? But I can’t help myself. Usually a different book will have something different to offer. A different opinion, a different point of view, some new information. It’ll have a way to shed new light on old dusty flicks from a bygone time. Of course, it could be a pile of empty drivel and personal subjectivity masquerading as critical insight.

The other week, I picked up, via Amazon, a newly paperbacked edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (with a sub-heading “From 1897 to the Present” – always dubious) by C. J. Henderson. I thought it might be good volume as the hardcover was astonishingly expensive. But when I read it (yes, from A to Z, like I do any knew SF film encyclopedia I pick up) I found out why the trade paper edition was so cheap.

Perhaps I should illustrate with an example.

Let me see now, I’ll just flick over to the S section, page 371 and down to the bottom corner to the entry on SOLARIS. He’s got his stats, his cast and crew. And then a 22 line piece, mainly plot summary, where he’s fairly decent about it, calling it “hauntingly beautiful”, the imagery “spectacular” but he does consider it overlong. A fair point, subjective but not unbalanced.

That entry is immediately followed by SOLDIER. Remember that? The 1998 Kurt Russell film set on a garbage planet. This entry is 86 lines long. See a discrepancy here? Undisputed classic of not just the genre but of cinema in general gets 22 lines of info while throw-away piece of forgettable dumb action shit gets 86 lines. And that’s 86 lines of rapturous joy. Yes, this guy likes those shit movies, the very ones some of us wish they’d stop making cause they give the genre a bad name. Now having read that entry you may well do what I would have done. That is jump to other entries to see how he compares them. Okay, he thought ROLLERBALL (the original) flawed but the LOST IN SPACE movie was brilliant, far better than the series even. He liked LOST IN SPACE!?! That means one must go and check that space-dog SUPERNOVA. And yes, he loves that too. More than loves it. It’s one of the most scientifically accurate SF movies ever made, according to him. What a superlative! But then this book is full of superlatives. He loves superlatives. The kind of superlatives you write hoping they’ll be quoted on the poster.

Ah, and that’s when the shoe drops. He has huge entries on more recent films, bugger all on older ones. Why? Cause he didn’t really try to write an encyclopedia. He’s complied his old pieces from "Starlog", "Cinefantastique" and the like, and then tried to fill in the blanks. Indeed, other than the entries where he’s largley placed a promo-piece (they read like press releases), like his rave over DEEP BLUE SEA, it looks like some other film guide has been used to set down the other A to Z entries, often with no opinion attached. Sure, a film comes along he remembers and he tries to give a legitimate opinion on it, often being critical, even overly. Everyone knows I’m not the biggest fan of James Cameron’s ALIENS, but this guy so shits on it I was feeling things were getting unfair. Yes, I think this guy is too harsh on ALIENS, one of the more over-rated films in SF.

So, don’t buy this book!

You need good decent SF film guides? Buy the Science Fiction volume of The Aurum Film Encyclopedia series as edited by Phil Hardy (there’s also Western, Gangster, War and Horror. I do recommend the Horror edition). Better, wait for the next revamped edition which will hopefully correct the last fifteen years worth of entries which were added on by other editors and don’t live up to standards of the rest. Seriously, there is no other book to purchase. However, a copy of The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael J Weldon is very useful and entertaining, especially if you want a good run down on all those schlock works and Z-graders. And while you’re at it, pick up a small paperback copy of Creature Feature: The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Movie Guide by John Stanley to keep in the loo for casual reference reading. Oh, and if you have a particular interest in 50s sci-fi then mandatory is Keep Watching The Skies by Bill Warren. Originally in two volumes, but I think it’s now in one. No better book has been written about science fiction movies. No better book captures what’s so hoopy about the classic skiffy of the fifties.

And if you got some money and shelf space left over, then you need to explore those tre cool Joe Bob Briggs volumes, Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In and Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In. They’re more than just reviews of the movie dregs of the mid-American belt, but philosophies on seeking redneck nirvana. But I’ll talk more about Joe Bob another time.