Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006Broadcaster David Frost and his partner Hazel Adair, perhaps best known as the creator of the long-running soap opera Crossroads (1964–88), bought the rights to adapt The Drought aka The Burning World (1964) in the late 1960s.

Frost knew little if anything about science fiction, but Adair was no stranger to the genre. She was the author of one of the first sf television shows, Stranger from Space (1951–53), and of an ultimately unproduced Doctor Who serial, Hexagora. However, despite her many television successes, the state of the British film industry at the end of the sixties meant her career as a film producer had rather ignominious results: some sex comedies, a horror movie and a lethargic international adventure movie.

It remains unclear whether it was Adair or Frost who commissioned Ballard to script the adaptation himself, and it is possible it was actually intended for television rather than film. There is no copy of the script or the contract in the Ballard archive at the British Library, and Ballard’s scattered interview comments do not give a very clear picture. (In 1979, Adair commissioned Ballard to adapt his 1974 Concrete Island, although this too went unproduced.)

George Harrison was one of several producers to approach Frost over the rights to The Drought only to be put off by his extremely high price. In a famous prank, Peter Cook ‘let slip’ during a television interview with Frost that he was partway through filming the novel with himself in the lead role. For half a minute, the usually unflappable Frost became extremely flappable. Bizarrely, this incident brought the novel to the attention of Dino De Laurentiis, who hired Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct it – a doomed project, the story of which is told in Frank Pavich’s celebrated documentary Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Pavich 2013).

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Conceptual art for Jodorowsky’s doomed adaptation of The Drought

Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006The Wind from Nowhere (1961), Ballard’s debut novel, was hastily optioned prior to publication by Michael Carreras, who had recently parted company with his father’s Hammer Films in order to establish himself as a director and independent producer. Carreras initially intended it as a vehicle for Rod Taylor, but he ultimately turned down the role to star in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

A chance meeting with Stanley Baker led to interest from Joseph Levine and Cy Endfield, who bought the option when Carreras let it lapse. They were, however, so deeply involved in the production of  Zulu (1964) that they somehow forgot about it. Indeed, Baker was unaware their option had lapsed until it was announced that Gregory Peck would produce and star in a version directed by J. Lee Thompson. But it was scuppered by the prohibitive cost of the special effects sequences demanded by the Carl Foreman and James R. Webb’s script.

Producer Michael Klinger returned the project to the UK – one of two sf films he was to make in the late 1960s – and entrusted it to Val Guest, who would later also write and direct Hammer’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970) from a treatment by Ballard. He also directed the Klinger-produced Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974), which would in turn lead to the unexpected sight gag at the end of Nicolas Roeg’s High Rise (1978).

Although Guest did not get on with Edward Judd, he nonetheless cast the star of his earlier weather-based sf movie, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), as Maitland. Jane Merrow, who plays Susan Maitland, also appeared in the other British sf film in which you can tell the apocalypse is here because the weather has improved, Night of the Big Heat (Terence Fisher 1967).

Edward_Judd-_phoneIntriguingly, Judd, who was a couple of years younger than Ballard was also born in Shanghai, but there is no evidence they met each other there – or, indeed, Burt Kwouk, who was also resident there, and plays an unnamed soldier in the private army of millionaire Hardoon (Eric Portman).

Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

 

Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006In the late 1980s, the BBC began to spin off and divest parts of the organisation, laying the groundwork for establishing autonomous but wholly owned cash-cow subsidiaries. Central to this plan was the transformation of BBC Enterprises into BBC Worldwide. In order to monetise the BBC brand, production reoriented to programming that could be sold overseas. One outcome was the three-times-a-week upmarket soap El Dorado, set in a not-too-precisely futuristic gated community and exclusive resort town on the Mediterranean.

Based on Ballard’s Vermilion Sands (1971), it began by interweaving plots and characters from his collection of linked stories into an unfolding, soap-opera structure featuring more typical character types and narrative arcs that expanded beyond Ballard’s focus on cutting edge and/or imaginary artforms.

After some teething problems and initially poor ratings, the series attracted a dedicated and growing audience, especially when changes to the production team led to a significant change of direction. Influenced probably as much by Dark Shadows (1966-71) as by the more recent Twin Peaks (1990-91), El Dorado took a decidedly weird turn.

Key to this was the altered ending of the arc derived from Ballard’s ‘Venus Smiles’ (1957), which concluded with the destruction of the statue the town commissioned from Lorraine Drexel (Kate O’Mara). Three months later, this thread was picked up, as the scrap metal, now being used in construction, starts to vibrate at a peculiar resonance, driving Hamilton (Christopher Cazenove) to visionary madness.

When Jonathan Powell, a staunch supporter of the show, was dismissed as Controller of the BBC1, it was clear the writing was on the wall. Producer Corinne Hollingworth took the unusual step – suggested by Robert Holmes, whom she knew from her Doctor Who days – of mashing up the series with elements of Ballard’s High Rise (1975) so as to kill everyone off before Powell’s replacement, Alan Yentob, could.

El Dorado was not a massively successful contribution to BBC Worldwide’s export drive, but it did achieve a measure of notoriety when Toronto’s CIVIC-TV cable channel broadcast the series with newly filmed hardcore inserts.

This screening will feature: episode one, in which El Dorado’s louche patriarch/architect, played by Peter Wyngarde, dies under mysterious circumstances; episode seventy-eight, for which Cazenove received his BAFTA nomination; and the terrifying series finale, in which a crash-landed astronaut washes ashore in the deserted resort and uncovers the archaic horror lying beneath.

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Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974; director’s cut 2017)

 

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006Thwarted in his attempt to produce and star in an adaptation of The Wind from Nowhere (1961), Stanley Baker optioned Ballard’s follow-up novel, The Drowned World (1962), before the ‘Seer of Shepperton’ had even completed a draft.

However, dogged by financial difficulties arising from his South African film projects, Baker was forced to abandon his plans to adapt it.

Some years later, a chance meeting led to Patrick McGoohan – who had co-starred with Baker in Cy Endfield’s gravel-pit noir Hell Drivers (1958) – persuading Lew Grade to finance the film, with Endfield directing. But when The Prisoner (1967-68) flopped, the TV mogul, who had yet to break into film production, dropped McGoohan from the project.

Grade offered Robert Shaw the lead, and replaced Endfield with J. Lee Thompson, who had until recently been attached to direct Gale Force (Guest 1967), as producer Michael Carreras had retitled The Wind from Nowhere.

While Grade got cold feet about branching out into film, Thompson’s enthusiasm for the project never waned. He tried to persuade Gregory Peck to become involved, but when he turned down the lead, Peck suggested it would be more suited to Charlton Heston – who only agreed to briefly reprise the role of Taylor in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post 1970) if producer Arthur P. Jacobs took on the now-lapsed option.

18s3rujcms82tjpgAPJAC Productions hired Thompson to direct, then replaced him with John Guillermin, who insisted on relocating the story to New York. A week into shooting, Guillermin and Heston got into a now notorious on-set argument. Filming crashed to a halt. Jacobs backed his star over his director. Guillermin was fired, and Heston personally entreated Thompson to return to save the film.

Which, some suggest, was Heston’s intention in provoking Guillermin all along.

Not that things then proceeded smoothly.

The shoot became increasingly tempestuous as Thompson and Heston fought over their different visions for the film. Thompson accepted the change of setting – really he had no choice, since the expensive New York sets had already been constructed –  but insisted on revising the end of the script so as to retain Ballard’s conclusion.

Heston, conscious of his titanic persona, and feeling that Thompson owed him, argued for a more heroic ending, The scenes he scripted acknowledge that, while he cannot save the world, his willingness to sacrifice his own life might bring respite and hope to the remaining survivors of the global climate upheaval.

To everyone’s surprise, Jacobs, irked by Heston, this time backed his director – until mediocre preview screenings changed his mind. Thompson begrudgingly shot Heston’s ending, but the film still performed poorly.

After Thompson’s death in 2002, reels containing footage from his original ending were discovered, enabling its reconstruction in accordance with his notes and those of his editor, Marjorie Fowler.

We are thrilled to present not just the original release version but also the UK premier of the newly-restored director’s cut.

Other films in the retrospective
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979)
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

 

 

Ballard’s Cinema: Notes for a Retrospective – Apocalypse Now (Coppola 1979)

JG-Ballard-photographed-i-006In January 1977, some nine months into a disastrous shoot, Francis Ford Coppola hired Ballard to script-doctor a key sequence and to help fashion the satisfactory dénouement that had thus far eluded John Milius, George Lucas and Coppola himself. Ensconced in the Philippines, Ballard eventually declared the de Marias rubber plantation sequence beyond salvaging. He was delighted when problems with the sound recording meant it was cut from the film, and in 2001 declined an invitation to see it restored at the Cannes premier of Apocalypse Now Redux.

Ballard was the first to suggest that the film should end with Willard (Harvey Keitel) not joining but killing Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

However, Coppola rejected Ballard’s suggestion that Willard then press on further up-river, deeper into a jungle that, under prolonged chemical bombardment, has begun to mutate into something pellucid with which he seems to merge.

Other films in the retrospective
Carry On Getting It Up (Gerald Thomas 1977)
The Drowned World (J. Lee Thompson 1974)
The Drowned World: The Director’s Cut (J. Lee Thompson 2015)
El Dorado (BBC 1992-93; 156 episodes)
Gale Force (Val Guest 1967)
Jodorowsky’s Burning World (Frank Pavich 2013)
Track 12 (Joseph Losey 1967)

The Empire State Building: the great unanswered question answered, and the lairs of monsters

Yes, a rickety gangplank  was actually the plan to get people from the moored dirigible into the building.

The big ape in the big apple.

From up here, you can see the nest of Q the Winged Serpent.

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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.