Deadpool (Tim Miller 2016)

ew-deadpool-poster.jpgand so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Deadpool (2016) is not the stunning use to which it puts, what was that? three locations? four sets?, nor the way it does its utmost to always cover up the annoying face of piggy-eyed charisma vacuum Ryan Reynolds, nor is it the fact that there is now at last an entry in the X-Men franchise that is intentionally moderately amusing (except it’s not intentional, I suppose, cos while the others meant to be serious and ended up accidentally moderately amusing, I think this one meant to be really really funny and ended up accidentally being moderately amusing from the other direction),  no, the very best thing about Deadpool  is that there is now at last  an entry in the X-Men franchise that is worth watching, wait, what’s the word for less than once but more than not at all?

I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular

burning-mantisBy train and stage and horse and mule I went, and, when I had to, on foot. I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular. I cursed Prescott and Phoenix and Maricopa; Sacaton on the Gila River Reservation and Snowflake on Silver Creek. At Brownell in the Quijotas I learned that William Howard Taft had signed the enabling act that would make a state of that hellish country, and thereafter I cursed him too.

Theodore Sturgeon, ‘Cactus Dance’ (1954)

Mænd & høns/Men & Chicken (Anders Thomas Jensen Denmark/Germany 2015)

men-chickenOnce upon a time, in contemporary Denmark, there were two middle-aged, infertile half-brothers, each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.

Gabriel is younger, more responsible, more conventional. Multiple surgical reconstructions have failed to eradicate his cleft lip, and when nervous or upset he suffers from uncontrollable gagging.

Elias, a disastrous lothario, hides his cleft lip behind a scruffy moustache. He cannot resist picking arguments, however foolish or futile, and must masturbate at regular intervals to relieve the priapism from which he suffers. He scours dating websites in search of female psychotherapists so that instead of paying consultation fees he can ask them over dinner to explain his recurring nightmare. (The meaning of the gothic dream’s imagery – full of sibling rivalry, separation anxiety, sex and violence – is obvious, yet utterly beyond him.)

When their father dies, they discover that he had adopted them. Gabriel, keen to break free of Elias, decides to go in search of their biological father, the long-disgraced doctor and geneticist Evelio Thanatos. Elias, desperate not to lose the closest thing he has to a friend, insists on accompanying his reluctant not-exactly-brother.

And, on the distant island of Ork, in Thanatos’s now derelict and otherwise abandoned sanatorium, they discover three more (infertile) half-brothers, each of whom has his own deformities and peculiarities, and each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.

Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen – who is currently scripting, of all things, the Dark Tower adaptation – is probably best known for his deadpan, heart-breakingly sad and yet really quite beautiful cannibalism comedy De grønne slagtere/The Green Butchers (2003). He returns with many of the same cast (including Mads Mikkelsen and Nordic noir regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Ole Thestrup and Bodil Jørgensen) to once more scale the heights of absurdist gothic Jutland grotesque – a genre I just made up while writing this sentence. It consists, as far as I know, of Jensen’s two films and maybe Henrik Ruben Genz’s Frygtelig lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008).

In Men & Chicken, Jensen introduces another gallery of adorable yet pathetic misfits, all of them broken and disconnected and abandoned by the world, full of pettiness and desperation, and driven by violent impulses and mundane yet still unattainable desires. And this time he replaces butchery with bestiality. And abasiophilia. And chronophilia or anililagnia or gerontophilia, depending on how you interpret events. And arguably morphophilia or, if you even more mean-spirited, teratophilia. And turophilia. And even a science-fictional twist or two.

Suffice it to say, Evelios Thanatos is a Baltic Moreau.

And are his children not men? Are they not capable of building a utopia in the ruins of their father’s legacy?

‘I may not be normal’, Elias ultimately confesses, to which Gabriel replies, ‘None of us really are’.

The film ends moments later with a golden-lit vision of community, of extended family as a metaphor for the triumph of affiliation and conviviality over a normalcy of marginalisation and exclusion. It is genuinely moving.

And so absurdly golden that Jensen clearly doesn’t mean a word of it, while simultaneously wanting it to be true.

RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy: A Novel (2015)

telepathyThe narrator of Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir’s Telepathy (2015), a moderately successful author, returns from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where he has been gathering impressions, incidents, ideas, character traits and even potential characters for his next novel. However, back in Khartoum, he finds himself living in the peculiar fall-out of his previous novel, Hunger’s Hope, when he runs into a man with the same name as its improbably-named protagonist, Nishan Hamza Nishan.

At first the narrator thinks it is some kind of stunt. Or perhaps an overzealous fan has, in misguided tribute, changed his name.

But the ‘real’ Nishan only found out about the ‘fictional’ Nishan when a neighbour – Shu‘ayb Zuhr, an unemployed graduate of the college of Public Relations and, it turns out, aspiring but uninspiring poet – brought Hunger’s Hope to his attention.

And, anyway, the ‘real’ Nishan has only read the first 120 pages. He does not know that in the second half of the novel the ‘fictional’ Nishan – whose biography up to that point is uncannily similar to his own – dies an untimely death.

The narrator recalls that writing Hunger’s Hope came to him much too easily – as if the ‘real’ Nishan had dictated it to him telepathically. Indeed, he concludes, telepathy is the only way the near identity of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ Nishans can be explained; the divergences between their ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ lives are surely the result of the ‘real’ Nishan’s broadcasting telepathically but unconsciously. (The narrator’s mentor, the octagenerian playwright Abd al-Qawl, is little help; he merely recalls that one of his most controversial early plays was dictated to him through 26 dreams on 26 consecutive night.)

What is the narrator to do? What does he owe to the ‘real’ Nishan? Has he – by giving the novel that ending – condemned the ‘real’ Nishan to an early grave? And where has the ‘real’ Nishan suddenly disappeared to? And what should the narrator do when former communist Asim Ajib, once known as Asim Revolution, and now founder of the Nonaligned Publishing house invents a jacket blurb by him for a collection of Shu‘ayb Zuhr’s poems? Are there plots and conspiracies, however absurd, afoot? And what exactly is the role of Najma, wannabe writer, not-exactly-fan/not-exactly-friend in all of this? And why has she chosen him as the father of the child she want to have?

Amir Tag Elsir’s short comic novel is full of curious incident and odd, often rather sad, characters, such as Murtaja, a young man who ‘was studying at the university and went mad. Now he declares confidently that he is Wikipedia … and that in his head are a billion pages on which the entire world is written’; he roams ‘around in torn shorts, staring at the ground while reciting odd stories from the version of the Wikipedia that lived in his head’. The narrators life and Khartoum itself are slightly out-of-focus jumbles of layered histories, of migrations and separations, of differences of wealth, custom, tradition and rank.

A quick and easy read, Telepathy piles up rather more questions than it answers. Its conclusion is deliberately abrupt. A final sentence screeches the novel to a halt, reframing (but not explaining) everything that has happened (or not happened) before.

 

Tag Elsir, born in Sudan and now resident in Qatar, is the nephew of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North (1966) which was one of my top reads of 2016; it is much too soon to decide whether Telepathy will make this years list.

 

 

Arrival (Villeneuve 2016)

arrivalIt’s fifteen years since I read ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998), so my memory of it was extremely vague, but I decided to not re-read Ted Chiang’s deservedly Nebula- and Sturgeon-winning novella until after seeing Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 adaptation of it. There will be more than enough people complaining that the film is not as good as the story – I find that kind of statement pretty meaningless, even if the screenplay is by the Eric ‘Hours‘ Heisserer, the man who also wrote 2011 The Thing remake/prequel.

Arrival very sensibly cuts a lot of the material about the investigation into the alien heptapods’ knowledge of physics in favour of an even stronger focus on learning to comprehend their language, on interspecies communication. Moreover, once the film has established the distinction between the heptapods’ spoken language (Heptapod A) and their semasiographic written language (Heptapod B), it focuses on the latter, which is presented with a beautiful simplicity visually extrapolated from the behaviour of the heptapods’ nearest terrestrial analogues – as is the sound of Heptapod A.

Indeed, as one might expect of Villeneuve, the consistently not-uninteresting but oddly over-rated director of Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015) and the in-production Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the overall look of the film is as picturesque as ever (no-one does helicopter shots looking down on and heading into non-urban terrain as well as him, whether his dp  is Roger Deakins (Sicario) or Bradford Young (Arrival)); and as always, this picturesque sensibility cannot avoid moments of tedious obviousness. The visual design of the aliens, their ships and their environment is quite beautiful, though. All of which is a real bonus, since Chiang’s story follows in the grand Asimov tradition of more or less indistinguishable heads talking to each other in barely described places (although the proleptic passages come closer to delineating character and human interaction).

The film does a lot to round out Chiang’s linguist protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the physicist, Gary, renamed Ian (Jeremy Renner), with whom she falls in love. In the novella, they are more (Gary) or less (Louise) ciphers. As in the novella, Louise is kept front and centre in the film, while Renner lurks, Hawkeye-like, in the background. Perfectly cast as a bit of a dick, he is slowly humanised with an early pratfall and even more so by the decision to sideline the physics. However, this, along with the reworking of the novella’s proleptic passages, exaggerates the gender politics in the story’s DNA. The woman does language, communication, intuition, caring, nurturing; the man does physics, reason, emotional stuntedness. Possibly the worst line in the film – ‘You want to know about science, ask your father’ – comes from Louise, herself not only a scientist but the one making all the breakthroughs with the aliens. And since the physics is pushed aside, Ian becomes sufficiently competent in linguistics in a matter of days to make a key breakthrough in the enigma posed by a mass download of Heptapod B (although since he ‘compliments’ Louise by saying she approaches language like a mathematician, maybe this is only him being better at maths than her, which of course he would be, being male and all).

imagesVilleneuve’s tricky reworking of the proleptic material from Chiang’s novella brings the story much closer to the kind of play with temporality found in European arthouse time travel movies, such as Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). This, despite the occasional picturesque cliché, adds a strong sense of melancholy, mourning and loss, as well as yearning and hope, to Chiang’s rather dry and unadventurous musings on free-will and determinism (those that are directly stated rather than those instantiated by the form his story takes).

However, this also reinforces (along with elements of the visual design) that always-present Hollywood tendency to equate women with motherhood (if not in quite the relentless over-the-top manner of The Girl on the Train (Taylor 2016)).

And the naming of Louise’s daughter is a nice touch, even if you spot the reason for it before it is explained – but not as nice a touch as the moment during the second ‘interview’ with the heptapods when, in contrast to the Voyager plaque, it is an active woman who steps forward with a raised hand to greet the aliens, while the man lingers passively behind.

Changing the nicknames of the two key heptapods – from the novella’s Flapper and Raspberry – is also a good move in terms of getting an to audience to take them seriously; and it makes sense, in terms of his character, for Ian to come up with Abbott and Costello, but why is it always the guy who gets to name shit, and why must the names he chooses be gendered ones? (Not being a fan of Jeremy Renner, who keeps saying dumb sexist things in interviews, helps at moments like this cos you can enjoy blaming him for things he is clearly not responsible for. See, he’s even made me end a sentence with a prepostion. Damn him.)

Chiang’s story happens, more or less, in a geopolitical vacuum. Arrival distributes the twelve vessels in which the aliens arrive around the globe (Russia, China, Sudan, Australia, the UK, Venezuela, Sierra Leone and others), leading to attempts at international cooperation and potential global conflict as – with the deluded self-righteousness of US cinema, it is China, Russia and Sudan who lead the way in escalating conflict. (There is a moment completely free from irony when the CIA guy points to examples of imperial powers trying to set factions against each other so as maintain their own power, but fails to mention the US backed coups in Venezuela.) In a similar unironic vein, when examples of colonial situations in which the coloniser all but eradicates the indigenous people, it is Australian Aboriginals who are mentioned, rather than, say, native American indians – and the words this time are put in the mouth of the black Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Rather unnervingly, for all its well-intentioned chatter about the need for humans to cooperate, regardless of nation or creed, the film resolves into a sort of hymn to ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Some have claimed that  Arrival is the best sf film of the year (or decade). That seems to me more an indictment of sf cinema than a sensible response to a quite smart, unquestionably well-acted, film that is interesting on multiple levels – and it sure is purty to look at. It is well worth seeing. Especially if you want to know what lo-fi sci-fi[1] looks like when it has $50 million budget and goes all middlebrow.

Note
[1] I cannot endorse the presence of Her (2013) on this or any other list. I apologise for reminding you of its existence.

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.