and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Goon (2011) is not that it recalls George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977), though it does and that is generally a good thing, more or less, but no, it turns out the best thing about Goon is every single fucking frame of it in which Seann William Scott, the most underrated actor of his generation, appears…
I’d been meaning to read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues for years when scoping out potential material for a new module suddenly gave me the opportunity. There was even a reasonably-priced second-hand copy waiting in my abebooks shopping basket. But before I could get to it, Feinberg died, someone snaffled my cheap copy, and prices for this disgracefully out-ot-print novel went through the roof. On a long shot, I checked my university’s library – and somehow its single copy had survived a series of recent purges (cos, you know, the last thing you want cluttering up libraries is books). It is a hard novel to describe, since all my reference points seem a little out. It is a bit like one of those Charles Bukowski novels in which incident follows incident and insecure job follows insecure job and characters appear and disappear in a quite specific marginal setting. The factory work Feinberg describes, and the cultures around it, recall Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991) and a section of John Sayles’ Union Dues (1977), as well as scattered chunks of Bukowski. But it is also nothing like them. Probably the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head are the sequences from Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissmann’s documentary Forbidden Loves: The Untold Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992) in which nine women recount some of their experiences growing up queer in Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe the reason I am reminded of that film is that it also looks at mid-century lesbian pulp fiction, and there is a pulp quality to Feinberg’s writing at times, which is one of the many things I love about it (and which kind of brings us back round to Bukowski again, although I only really loved him when I was fourteen or so, and even then I had my doubts). One of my other favourite things about Stone Butch Blues is this passage, so I thought I would share it:
We talked all day long too. The owners only rented our hands, not out brains. But even talking had to be negotiated when it was on the bosses’ time. If we seemed to be having too much fun, laughing and enjoying ourselves too much, the foreman would come up behind us and hit the solid wooden worktables with a lead pipe while he growled, “Get to work.” Then we’d all look at our hands as we worked and press our lips together in silent anger. I think the foreman sometimes got nervous after he’d done that, sensing the murderous glances he received moments after he turned his back. But he was assigned to keep us under control. That required keeping us divided. We came from many different nationalities and backgrounds. About half the women on the line were from the Six Nations. Most were Mohawks or Seneca. What we shared in common was that we worked cooperatively, day in and day out. So we remembered to ask about each other’s back or foot pains, family crises. We shared small bits of our culture, favorite foods, or revealed an embarrassing moment. It was just this potential for solidarity the foreman was always looking to sabotage. It was done in little ways, all the time: a whispered lie, a cruel suggestion, a vulgar joke. But it was hard to split us up. The conveyor belt held us together. Within weeks I was welcomed into the circle, teased, pelted with questions. My differences were taken into account, my sameness sought out. We worked together, we talked, we listened. And then there were songs. When the whistle first blew in the mornings there was a shared physical letdown among all the women and men who worked between its imperative commands. We lumbered to our feet, stood silently in line to punch in, and took our places on the assembly line – next to each other, facing each other. We worked the first few moments in heavy silence. Then the weight was lifted by the voice of one of the Native women. They were social songs, happy songs that made you feel real good to hear them, even if you had no idea what the words meant. I listened to the songs, trying to hear the boundaries of each word, the patterns and repetitions. Sometimes one of the women would explain to us later what the song meant, or for which occasion or time of year it was sung. There was one song I loved the best. I found myself humming it after I punched out in the afternoons. One day, without thinking, I sang along. The women pretended not to notice, but they smiled at each other with their eyes, and sang a little louder to allow me to raise my own voice a bit. After that I started looking forward to the songs in the morning. Some of the other non-Native women learned songs, too. It felt good to sing together. One wintry Friday night, before we punched out, Muriel invited me to go to an indoor pow-wow on Sunday. I said yes, of course. I felt honored. There were a few other Black and white workers at the social – friendships too valuable to explore solely on company time. I began to go regularly and got strung out on fry bread and corn soup. (Alyson 2003: 77-78)
Stone Butch Blues is not really remembered as a novel of working class life, since its greatest urgency lies elsewhere, but this is one of several things that it is, and the politics of a passage such as this one are not a supplement. They are not detachable. They are intrinsic.
By all accounts, although ‘Stranger in the Family’ was one of the three episodes already completed when the Irene Shubik and Sydney Newman were deciding upon the series opener, neither of them seems really to have considered David Campton’s original drama as a serious contender. Newman wanted the big name appeal of John Wyndham; Shubik, who would have preferred the Alan E. Nourse adaptation despite the relative littleness of his name, seems to have been more concerned with establishing Out of the Unknown as incontrovertibly science-fictional. Which is a shame, as whatever the merits of its competitors, ‘Stranger in the Family’ is easily the strongest drama of the three, its quiet menace well suited to the intimacy of television viewing. This should come as no surprise.
Some of this can be attributed to Alan Bridges, probably the most experienced of the first three directors to work on the series.1 He makes effective use of possibilities for location shooting provided by the story’s contemporary London setting – opening shots overlooking the flight exhibition at the Science Museum, sequences in the streets of (I think) Hammersmith and Fulham and along the south bank of the Thames by Southwark, the potent juxtaposition of a Victorian pub with a new tower block. Although lacking the overtly science-fictional images of the first two episodes, Bridges’ location shooting is a far more effective way to open up a drama than could be provided by their studio-bound extraterrestrial settings. Bridges also offers us several striking (really) high- and low-angle shots, but in the studio, especially, his careful direction works to let the story flow and a sense of threat to build.
But the real reason for the episode’s success is David Campton’s script. One of the first British practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd, his The Lunatic View (1958) is often considered – alongside Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957) – as the foundational example of the ‘comedies of menace’, a term taken from its subtitle. He was primarily a playwright – he ‘discovered’ Alan Ayckbourn – but he was active for about five years as a television writer. When Shubik commissioned ‘Stranger in the Family’, the first original piece for the series, Campton already had a couple of genre pieces to his credit. In 1966, he adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) for Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as Roderick and Madeleine. In 1968, he adapted H. Russell Wakefield’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1949) for Late Night Horror, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Claire Bloom. Shubik would later commission him, in 1966 and 1969 respectively, to adapt Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel under the World’ (1955) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Liar!’ (1941) for Out of the Unknown. ‘Stranger in the Family’ was remade in 1969 as an episode of Journey into the Unknown (1968-69), with an entirely different cast including Janice Rule, Gerald Sim and Glynn Edwards.
The eighteen-year-old Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) flees from the Science Museum, tailed by the purposeful Hall (Joby Blanshard). Boy eventually confronts him, ordering his stalker to get away from him. Hall steps into the road and is killed by a van. But by the time Boy gets back to the flats where he lives with his ageing parents, Charles (Peter Copley) and Margaret (Daphne Slater) Wilson, another anonymous figure has him back under surveillance. The next-door flat has a new occupant, too, a man called Brown (John Paul) who makes no real effort to conceal his interest in Boy. The troubled family contemplate the need to move on – yet again – to evade their pursuers. They have clearly done this many times before and at some personal cost – Charles once worked at Harvard, but is now a lab assistant at a secondary modern school.
More deaths follow. And they are not the first in which Boy has played a part.
For he is a mutant. His sensorium perceives the world differently, something he struggles to express in words. He is telepathic. And he is able to force others to do his will.
‘Stranger in the Family’ is a worthy addition to those British tales of an emerging posthumanity, exemplified by JD Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935). It recalls Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and its adaptation, Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960), and its quiet delineation of state surveillance and hinted-at machinations adds something of the underrated Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader 1963) and the remarkable The Damned (Joseph Losey 1963) into the mix. Despite the melodramatic incidents around which the story is articulated, it remains ominously understated. Agendas compete, shift according to circumstance. Some motives are obvious, others remain ambiguous. When the boss of the surveillance team finally talks to Boy’s parents, he speaks reassuringly of the state intervening merely to keep such exceptional individuals safe and to observe their further development. He speaks of a new species that will end war and supplant homo sapiens entirely, and he seems pleased with the former and unfazed by the latter. But he is an agent of the state, and there is absolutely no reason to believe anything he says.
Other things to look out for
One of the pleasures of these shows is recognising the actors, many of whom were never stars but had long careers on British television, appearing in an episode here and there of pretty much everything. The reason Justine Lord looks familiar is that she is Sonia, the girl who was death, in the Prisoner episode ‘The Girl Who was Death’ (1968). Hall, in the opening sequence .. . is it? … yes, it’s Colin from Doomwatch. Hold on, I recognise that voice, that’s John Hall, Spencer Quist from Doomwatch! (Peter Copley and Bay White also each did a Doomwatch.) Copley was also Dr Warlock in Doctor Who’s ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), and other cast members appeared in ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972), ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Space Pirates’ (1969). Jack May, who was in the last of these, was also in A for Andromeda (1961) and was the protagonist’s butler in Adam Adamant Lives! (1968-69). And so on. Other genre shows crop up in more than one cast member’s credits: The Avengers, The Champions, Department S – as well as less fantastical dramas and soaps. Oh, and if Richard O’Callaghan looks familiar, he is the son of Patricia Hayes – and the actor who was brought in when Jim Dale quit the Carry On… series (see him in …Loving and …at Your Convenience).
In 1966, Bridges would direct the Robert Holmes-scripted sf movie, Invasion, and although he continued to work primarily in television, his other films include The Hireling (1973), Age of Innocence (1977), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1985) and Apt Pupil (1987).
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.
(Transcript of the pilot episode of Jason Wyngarde’s Mysterious World, which was cancelled mid-season 2023.)
The last time Nicolas Cage, the financially-troubled star of the National Treasure franchise, was incontrovertibly among us was late in April 2011. He has not been seen since, nor has his body been found.
Good evening, I am Jason Wyngarde, and this is my mysterious world – our mysterious world.
In the opening months of 2011, Cage was in New Orleans, shooting Simon West’s thriller Stolen, a film which famously could only be completed with groundbreaking synthespian software. Following a street argument with Alice Kim, his third wife and the mother of his youngest son, Kal-El, Cage was arrested on Saturday 16 April on suspicion of domestic abuse, breach of the peace and public drunkenness. He was bailed out by reality TV star Duane ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ Chapman, and returned to work the following Monday. Reports from the set that he was becoming increasingly pensive and introspective were initially taken to indicate embarrassment, contrition, perhaps even genuine soul-searching. But when he failed to return home on the eve of his court appearance, scheduled for May 31, his creditors’ suspicions that he was in fact planning to abscond were apparently confirmed.
Chapman, who at the time insisted that posting Cage’s bail was merely part of his day job and had nothing to do with his TV show, was just one of many who took part in the ensuing – and completely unsuccessful – manhunt. The footage he shot was never broadcast, although some of it eventually surfaced in James Franco’s nine-hour documentary about Cage, ninja guru shaman superhero, a decade later.
Reports of Cage’s illegal flight prompted an internet wildfire of rumours, speculations and reported sightings. There were at least eight incidents involving a man dressed as a bear punching a nun. In each case, the assailant later claimed in court that ‘Nicolas Cage made me do it’, a phrase that swept the world for a fortnight that summer as the search for the missing star intensified.
As shown in Werner Herzog’s Cage of Forgotten Dreams, at least one Christian sect was thrown into acrimonious disarray – resulting in rifts, suicides and shootings – by the possibility that the Rapture had happened and God had seen fit to take only one man.
All of this was small comfort to Kal-El Cage, who in one of ninja guru shaman superhero’s most poignant sequences revealed to Franco that he grew up pretending that his absent father had just flown away for a few days to the solitude of his arctic Fortress and would be back home tomorrow.
However, sifting through the evidence and hypotheses, a pattern does begin to emerge in the testimony of those who were closest to Cage during the months before his disappearance. Many of their comments indicate that the Oscar-winning star was growing increasingly anxious about his acting. In one of his last interviews, he spoke of being absolutely overwhelmed by Casey Affleck’s pseudo-documentary I’m Still Here, colourfully describing Joaquin Phoenix’s faked breakdown as
the fucking quintessence of Nouveau Shamanic performance. It’s an acting style I’ve been perfecting since I was an extra in Brubaker, and out of nowhere, he’s zen-mastering it like a motherfucker.
Even at the time, this prompted a rumour that the Elvis-loving Cage, who was married to Lisa Marie Presley for 108 days in 2002, dropped out of sight to undertake a secret art project of his own, touring the world incognito, faking Elvis sightings. Implausible as this may seem, the twenty-eight months after his disappearance did coincide with a massive increase in reported sightings of the long-dead King of Rock’n’Roll.
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, co-directors of the Crank movies and Gamer, spoke of a sense of melancholy that began to affect Cage during the final days of shooting Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in early 2011. Neveldine at first suspected it was prompted by yet another article on ‘this sequel no-one wants to a film no-one wanted’ and the kinds of movies Cage was making (he had just signed up for National Treasure 3). But Taylor dates Cage’s mood-change to the night the three of them went to see Drive Angry 3D together:
Nic’s always known some pretty way out people, not just comic book fan weird, but really weird: kabalists, chaoticians, numeromancers, edge-scientists. And let’s face it, Nic always acted in 3-D even when the film was in 2-D. He told me he’d taken on Drive Angry just to see what would happen when the technology raised everyone else’s thespian chops to the level of his own multidimensional acting kata. I thought he was joking, but after seeing the film he just went really quiet for a couple of days. One night he wandered off into the hills with a couple of bottles of mescal; and when he came back, he had this crazed look in his eye, like he’d just glimpsed the edge of something, something profound, sublime. He was a little manic and over the top for the last couple of days shooting, constantly on the phone, texting and emailing between takes. But then we were done, and that was that.
He was on fine form at the wrap party, but the next morning was the last time I saw him. Last thing he said to me, was ‘I’ve seen the next step, the way through this, through all this. And I think my guys have cracked it. Could be scary, should be cool’. But he wouldn’t explain what he meant.
It was while researching this peculiar phrase – it is a mathematical term, concerned with numerical integration – that I met Professor Peter King, and the pieces of the puzzle of Nicolas Cage’s disappearance finally fell into place.
King is the world’s leading authority on incunabula and rejectamentalia. He’d contacted me about archiving my papers at the Miskatonic Institute of Technology.
He explained that the term ‘dimensional quadrature’ is usually attributed to H.G. Wells but actually originates in Charles Eric Maine’s 1955 novel Timeliner: A Story of Time and Space. Maine apparently adopted it to describe a method of time-travel because of the popular misconception, perpetuated by Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine, that time is the fourth dimension. This is not the case, and scientists at MiskaTech have recently demonstrated experimentally that the fourth dimension is a physical plane intersecting our own and a number of other dimensions.
They can tell us little about the nature of the fourth dimension, this phantom zone, other than that it is very different to the world we know. And that once you open up a portal to it, if you listen carefully – very, very carefully – you can just make out what sounds like a single, solitary human voice. Distorted, crying. Shouting and raging. Consuming the very walls that imprison it.
I have now heard it on two occasions.
Is it the voice of Nicolas Cage?
I cannot definitively say.
But could it really be anyone else?
Who else would have pushed so hard? Burned with such intensity? Broken on through to the other side?
Who else could or would have taken acting, literally, to another dimension?
I am Jason Wyngarde, and this is my mysterious world – our mysterious world. Join me again next week, when we hunt, south of the border, for Chupacabra and Peuchen. Thank you and goodnight.
Back when he started, it was the travel he looked forward to most. He would set himself in motion and inertia would take him there. It had pleased him, too, that most of the journey would consist of another kind of inertia. Just sitting there. That odd combination of momentum and stasis.
He read a lot.
He inspected the toilet bowl and rim minutely, wiped them down with a wad of toilet paper, which he then flushed away. While the cistern refilled, he refolded the end of the roll so that the room would, when he left, show no trace of him having been there.
His bowels gurgled, and he flushed once more.
Nowadays, the travel was the worst part. Jet-setting in economy, trying to remain unnoticed, he could cope with. But at some point, the combination of ageing, airline food and the stress of a contract started to leave him constipated. Sometimes for days.
In the bedroom, the parts of a sniper’s rifle awaited his expert hands.
In Rome, it was merely inconvenient, but by the Manila trip it had started interfering with the job. He took to arriving days earlier than necessary, even though that increased his exposure, but to no avail. The bloating and discomfort would continue until long after he was back home. A doctor diagnosed IBS. His only consolation was that it was IBS-A, which alternated between diarrhoea and constipation. IBS-D, and that would have been the ignominious end of a lucrative career.
Maybe it was time to retire, anyway, he thought, as he finished assembling the rifle.
His bowels shifted and groaned. He farted noisily. The carbon pills he’d popped did little to staunch the stench. He thought, with a self-conscious smile, Now that’s what I call trace evidence.
He flipped open the tripod, mounted the rifle and checked the sights. It was a tight angle and he would have just a couple of seconds in which to take the shot. He breathed deeply to maintain his calm, a finger resting lightly on the trigger.
His stomach cramped.
He glanced at the watch on the inside of his wrist. He still had at least five minutes. It was time enough. He returned to the bathroom.
This should not be happening to me. He considered himself, not inaccurately, one of the best in the business, and he was, more or less, at the peak of his game.
He strained, even though the doctor had told him not to. Something seemed to give. There was a plopping sound – he strained some more – and another.
It was odd, he thought, not for the first time. He was like, say, an illuminator of medieval manuscripts or, better yet, the apprentice of a great artist. His work was renowned, and yet he was anonymous. Well-known, but completely unknown.
He leaned forward and looked down behind him. Two tiny pieces of dark shit sat on the bottom of the bowl.
They are, he thought as he wiped his ass, like shards chipped away by a master sculptor, seeking the form hidden within the mass.
Once he was dressed, he repeated the ritual eradication of any evidence of his presence in the bathroom.
God alone knows what he is sculpting in there.
He glanced at his watch, and strode purposefully to where the rifle stood ready. He checked his breathing, and waited.
A replica in miniature – but not too miniature, it feels – of the doors of the Florence Baptistry?
He pulled the trigger, took the shot.
Maybe something equine, in the style of del Verrocchio or even Leonardo?
A double tap to be certain.
A David, perhaps, after Donatello or – dare I wish? – Michelangelo?
He picked up the spent cartridges, speedily disassembled the gun and packed away its parts. In less than a minute he was by the door, ready to leave. No sound of anyone outside. He reached for the handle, and as he did so, his bowels flip-flopped once more. The fart was loud, sustained and really really smelly.
Yeah, he thought, as he stepped into the corridor, swept up once more by the inertia that would see him safely home. Whatever is going on in there is a real copro-naissance.
[Author’s note: Okay, I admit it, ‘Shit, Joke’ would have been a better title.]
You know how sometimes an editor or peer-reviewer points out a shortcoming in something you’ve written but you really can’t be bothered to fix it because it would actually involve quite a lot of work and even if you could be bothered you can’t remember the last time you had any time?
And so instead you make the problem part of the framing of the piece? You turn the flaw into a feature by writing something like ‘in order to focus on x I must reluctantly neglect the nonetheless important question of y’?
Jules Verne has you beat hands down.
Just over halfway through The Sphinx of the Ice Realm (SUNY Press 2012), his sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, just after the startling revelation – to no one’s surprise ever – that the secretive crewman Hunt is in fact Pym’s old companion Dirk Peters travelling incognito, Verne, never a master of labyrinthine plotting, writes:
I’ve included enough clues in my yarn for readers to have spotted Hunt as Peters many pages back, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d expected this plot twist, in fact I would be amazed if they hadn’t. (148)
And for words.
Except, of course, Tekeli-li!
To be honest, I’d forgotten there was a new Fantastic Four movie coming out until the trailer appeared yesterday.
My memory was lagging behind in other ways, too. For the life of me I could not figure out why they’d cast Michael B. Jordan as Ben Grimm/The Thing.
I mean, he’s so skinny.
My mistake. They’ve actually cast Jamie Bell, and I’m good with that.1 Jordan is playing Johnny Storm/Human Torch. There was, tediously and of course and now dimly remembered, some kerfuffle about the casting of an actor of colour in a role of pallor. The usual racist bullshit tweeting and trolling. It seemed to die down pretty quickly, especially after Jordan, caught off guard, snapped back ‘You’ll all come see it anyway’. Which is not quite a Neil Patrick Harris well, duh moment, but not bad on the fly.
My confusion about who was cast as who does actually make a kind of sense. Because the Thing – although perhaps not quite as obviously as The Hulk – was always one Marvel’s black buck stereotype superheroes.
The Hulk is inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Hyde is clearly racialised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel from 1886, and even more so in the 1932 adaptation starring Fredric March, in which Hyde clearly signifies some kind of simian negritude. (It is always worth remembering that the multiple trials of the Scottsboro boys – a case more typical than exceptional – were dragging on through the first half of the 1930s, even as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, King Kong, James Whale’s Frankenstein, Erle C Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls and other fantastical American racial fantasies were appearing in cinemas.)
The Thing builds more obviously on the combination of buck stereotype and proletarian image with which Whale imbues Mary Shelley’s creation (building on her description of Frankenstein’s apocalyptic vision of his creations breeding and producing a new posthuman race that will displace aristocratic privilege and white hegemony) and which he explicitly and sympathetically develops in Showboat when Paul Robeson sings ‘Ol’ Man River’.
Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is a close relation. The appearance of this archaic fishman can easily be interpreted in terms of racist caricatures of African/Afrodiasporic peoples. Something of his melancholy aquatic courtship of Kay, her whiteness emphasised by her dazzling white swimsuit, is carried forward into the sequence in The Fantastic Four (2005) when Ben’s engagement is called off. The racist imagery of the black buck as sexual monster/monstrously sexual it evokes – his finger is just so big he can’t get it into the tight little engagement ring – falls somewhere between unfortunate and hilarious.
And of course, early in his comics career Luke Cage, Power Man – later spoofed, a little unfairly, by Milestone Comics as Buck Wild, Mercenary Man – subbed for the Thing in the Fantastic Four, and soon after had his own side adventure in Latveria with Doctor Doom.
So like I said, my confusion makes a kind of sense. But nonetheless, I am curious about my own unreflective assumption that Jordan was playing the Thing, while also profoundly untroubled by him playing Johnny Storm, a character with plenty of potential (as Chris Evans showed, albeit whitely) to be just another ‘one of those Tom Slick brothers that think you can get by on good looks, a wink and a smile’ (as Black Dynamite‘s Gloria might put it).
The one thing I dread however – partly because over the years I have seen so much awkward, straight-to-video exposition justifying Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Belgian accent to American ears – is the painful scene explaining how come Johnny’s sister, Sue, is white.
I mean, deep down there is a part of me that does actually want to see it, and be appalled by it. But we really could do without it.
It’s not like this is Pleasantville out here.