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.

 

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The City in Fiction and Film, week 15. Urban alienation: machines for living in, living in machines.

Alpha_1024x1024.jpgWeek 14

This week we turned from the American suburbs to futuristic (that is, 1960s) Paris, with Alphaville (Godard 1965). But first we took a trip through the history of representations of the city in sf cinema, guided largely by Vivian Sobchack’s ‘Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film’ (1999).

We returned briefly to Metropolis (Lang 1927), with its vision of a metrocosm – a city with with no apparent exterior – in which verticality dominates: skyscrapers, aerial roads and railways, aeroplanes, and above them all the incredible building from which Joh Fredersen, at the centre of a web of communications technology, governs it all. The bourgeoisie live above the ground; beneath them lie the machines upon which the city depends; and beneath the machines live the workers. Here, verticality figures an oppressive class structure (not unlike the glass slabs reaching into the skies of present-day financial centres). In Just Imagine (Butler 1930), however, Sobchack suggests that verticality implies something different because there is no subterranean world, no marginalised working class, just structures leaping into the sky. Here, she argues, the city as expresses that most American of values (or ideological sleight-of-hand): aspiration. Individual personal planes that can also hover weave among the skyscrapers. (But in longer shots, they all follow rigid grid patterns, like the orderly automobiles on the streets below; this tension between individualism and conformity is played out through the protagonists’ resistance to state control over who marries whom.)

We took a look at the opening of the film, which imagines nineteenth century, 1930s and future version of New York – the wry tone of the sequence indicates the film’s broader ambivalence about the notions of progress it also, at times, seems to espouse.

Detouring from Sobchack, we spent some time looking at the incredible montage sequence, scored by Arthur Bliss, from Things To Come (Menzies 1936) in which, following decades of war and plague and petty dictatorship, the new Everytown is constructed. I mentioned how masculinist the film’s notion of progress is at this point – the Earth is some kind of womb full of riches, waiting to be torn out – but had completely forgotten quite how phallic some of the machines are. The whole sequence can be seen as technoporn, an erotics of mechanism, one in which the future is built on the scorched Earth of the past. In Things to Come, decades of war cleared the ground, but in the real world this was done – and continues to be done – quite deliberately. For example, in the US, the urban renewal programme that ran from 1949 to 1973 bulldozed 2,5000 neighbourhoods in 93 cities, dispossessing at least one million people. Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums (2006) borrows the Filipino term ‘hot demolition’ to describe contemporary landlord arson of slums so as to clear land for redevelopments that are never intended to provide housing for the impoverished populations burned out of their homes.

Equally important for our purposes, though, is quite how abstract Things to Come’s the scientific manufacturing looks – we can see that proficient, technoscientific processes being signified while remaining more or less completely ignorant of what they are actually doing. This is important in thinking about the semiotic thinking of Alphaville.

 Film_660w_ThingsToCome_originalThe sequence ends with the revelation of the subterranean mall future, hints of mid-twentieth-century architecture’s International Style evident in buildings with set-back bases and non-supporting exterior walls. But before we get to the mall, there is a glimpse of a radiating landscape in the distance – of a Garden City.

The idea of the Garden City was espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Reform (1898), significantly revised as Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902), which was influenced by Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888). In it, he outlines the attractions and repulsions of two existing magnets – the town and the country – and outlines the attractions of the third, proposed magnet he calls ‘town-Garden_City_Concept_by_Howard.jpgcountry’, or the Garden City. The idea was to build new towns from scratch that avoided urban poverty and squalor – overcrowding, poor drainage and ventilation, pollution, disease, lack of access to the natural world – by combining the pleasures/benefits of the country (nature, fresh air, low rent) with those of the city (opportunity, entertainment, good wages). The Garden Cities would be of limited size, preplanned, and owned by trustees on the behalf of the tenants – and thus also work to undermine private ownership and landlordism.

Letchworth Garden City commenced construction in 1903 and Welwyn Garden City in 1920. Howard’s ideas were taken up by Frederick Law Olmsted II in the US, influencing aspects of suburban development, and after WW2 also influenced British ‘New Town’ developments.

(Incidentally, and à propos of nothing relevant, Howard is the great-grandfather of Una Stubbs.)

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Disappearing City (1932) took pushed beyond Howard’s ideas even further, proposing the complete dispersal of urban centres into the countryside. Each family to be given an acre of land on which to build an ‘organic architecture’ homestead that used local materials, matched the contours of the land and opened up the interior of the building to the world outside. Unlike Howard, Wright prioritised private automobile ownership over public transport – though in illustrations, he also seems to imagine the car being replaced by varieties of helicopter. Wright ‘Broadacre City’ design was also an influence on US suburban developments.

Returning to American sf films, our next port of call was the short film showing of Norman Bel Geddes massive Futurama diorama, built for the General Motors exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It envisions an entire country organised around roads and automobiles – quel supris! – and urban centres that owe something to Le Corbusier’s ville contemporaine (1922), which emphasised orderliness, symmetry, space and vistas in a plan to build 24 60-storey cruciform high-rise skyscrapers in which three million people would live and work (which, if divided out evenly, would 125,000 people per building and approximately 2,080 per floor).

Sobchack draws on Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, to describe ‘the fantasy’, evident in 1950s US sf films, ‘of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself’ (Sontag 44). In such films height and aspiration are brought low as tidal waves sweep through Manhattan (When Worlds Collide (Maté 1951)), when a reanimated dinosaur romps through New York (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Lourié 1953)), when flying saucers crash into the Capital’s neo-classical government buildings (Earth vs the Flying Saucers (Sears 1956)) – and, in Japan, when Godzilla smacks down Tokyo. This concession to non-US cinema is telling. Gojira (Honda 1954) is a bleak film, critical of nuclear war and Cold War atomic escalation; when recut for US release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), all such material is carefully excised so as not to have to face up to it.

Sobchack also adds the category of films in which we are shown deserted cities. Five (Oboler 1951) shows us not destruction but the emptiness of all that aspiration (and is mostly filmed around a desert home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). The remarkable The World, the Flesh and the Devil (MacDougall 1959) not only casts Manhattan’s skyscrapers as the tombstones of civilisation, but also, like Five, tries to discuss racial politics. Both films show that one of the few legacies of American civilisation that will endure into the post-apocalypse is the colour line – suggesting that it is not just an issue of individuals who are racist, but of the deepest structures of American society. Ultimately, both flinch away from their full implications, but they are among the relatively few films of the period trying to say something important about it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the underground returns in THX 1138 (Lucas 1971), replacing aspiration with oppression; fullness becomes overcrowding in Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973); and in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971), the ‘brutalist’ architecture of postwar British developments – evoked here by the Thamesmead estate – becomes brutalising, or is at least blamed for brutalisation.

In the 1980s, white flight from the centre to the suburbs has given way to white flight to the off-world colonies. In films such as Blade Runner (Scott 1982), the urban core has been junked rather than redeveloped, and then exoticised and made cool by punks and ethnic others. The exhausted, colourful downtown seems to go on for ever – remember how improbable the flight to the countryside seemed at the end of the original cinema cut – and the city seems to have become all run-down centre. In contrast, the blast LA landscape of Repo Man (Cox 1984) is all exhausted, quirky margins, as if any kind of centre is impossible. Also, in films such as RoboCop (Verhoeven 1987), Darkman (Raimi 1990) and They Live (Carpenter 1988), it becomes clear that property developers – and the financial interests they serve – are grasping, criminal, inhuman.

In the 1990s, Sobchack argues, the decentredness of the city gives way to the ungrounded or groundless city. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on pastiche in films such as Independence Day (Emmerich 1996) and Pleasantville (Ross 1998), in which very familiar sf images are repeated – flying saucers destroying the Whitehouse, a conformist smalltown invaded by alien others – but have no real connection to the cultures in which they are produced and consumed. And on the other hand, thanks largely to the development of CGI and other digital production technologies, there are films in which the city becomes a vertiginous, boundless space across which impossible trajectories are traced (The Fifth Element (Besson 1997), Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (Lucas 2002)) and, perhaps more interestingly, a space to be endlessly reshaped – and human identities along with it – by far from benevolent powers, as in Dark City (Proyas 1999).

Since Sobchack wrote her essay, the city in sf film since the 1990s has become primarily a post-9/11 space. It is subject to:

  • inexplicable alien attacks in Cloverfield (Reeves 2008), War of the Worlds (Speilberg 2005), Attack the Block (Cornish 2011)
  • terrorist attack in Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams 2013)
  • emptying out in 28 Days Later… (Boyle 2002) and I am Legend (Lawrence 2007)
  • military occupation in 28 Weeks Later… (Fresnadillo 2007)

In Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), the city is reduced to an endless camp for remantn populations and dislocated people.

In Mad Max Fury Road (Miller 2015), the city as such has completely disappeared, leaving nothing but a brute vertical structure of violent oppression.

Turning to Alphaville, we began by outlining the dystopian elements of the future it depicts, some of which clearly develop ideas and themes we had already encountered last week in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These included:

  • centralised and totalitarian control (the extent to which the Alpha 60 computer and Alphaville are co-extensive is ambiguous, but arguably the inhabitants of Alphaville effectively also live inside the computer)
  • loss of emotion and flattening of affect
  • state-organised spectacle (swimming pool executions replacing books burnings) which is not so much about punishing perpetrators as reminding the rest of the population of the state’s potential to use disciplinary force
  • the ubiquity of modern commodities, which replace art, live music, poetry, etc
  • the degradation of language – if you remove words from the dictionary, people cannot feel or express the emotions/ideas they signify
  • the reduction of humans to the status of commodities (which, in Alphaville’s treatment of all(?) women as sex-workers does at least demystify the economics of normative heterosexual exchange)
  • the imminence of nuclear war
  • an architecture – here all cold reflective glass and marble – that establishes barriers between people
  • an emphasis on abstraction – signs and graphics, diegetic and otherwise – rather than on embodied human interconnection

This last point extends into the film’s emphasis on semiotics – how meanings are created and circulated. This is most obvious in the way in which, in Alphaville, nodding your head means ‘no’, and shaking it means ‘yes’ – semiotic signs, remember, are arbitrary and conventional.

The film foregrounds an array of intertextual connections – references to characters from pulps, comics and films (Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Nosferatu, Heckel and Jeckel), to scientists and related institutions (von Braun, Fermi, Einstein, Heisenberg, Los Alamos, IBM), but does little if anything to explain them, leaving the viewer to fathom their presence, their signification – perhaps as a kind of pop culture primer to help us read the poetry of surrealist Paul Eluard that might save us.

The film plays with genre, casting Eddie Constantine, already familiar to French audiences from the actual Lemmy Caution films in which he has starred, and going out of its way to make the sex and violence and melodramatic music of crime thrillers awkward and absurd (as if desperate to find a way to both have the pleasures of mass culture and to distance itself from them). Such elements signify a genre to which the film using them arguably does not belong – at least not in any straightforward way.

Finally, the film levers open the gap between sound and image that conventional continuity editing tries to close down. Not only do we not know where Alpha 60’s voice actually comes from in the world of the film, we also often do not know its status in relation to the footage: can it be heard by the characters? is it a voiceover address to the viewer?

Next week, we turn in more detail to the International Style, the influence of Le Corbusier on British postwar developments, to brutalist architecture and its decline – and to the first half of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (1975), accompanied by The Model Couple (Klein 1977).

Week 16

Core critical reading: Utterson, Andrew. “Tarzan vs. IBM: Humans and Computers in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.” Film Criticism 33.1 (2008): 45–63.

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London:    Routledge, 2006. See Chapter 5, “From Postmodern Condition to Cinematic City.”
Desser, David. “Race, Space and Class: The Politics of Cityscapes in Science-Fiction Films.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 80–96.
Duarte, Fábio, Rodrigo Firmino and Andrei Crestani. “Urban Phantasmagorias: Cinema and the Immanent Future of Cities.” Space and Culture 18.2 (2015): 132–42.
Easthope, Anthony. “Cinécities of the Sixties.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 129–139.
Hilliker, Lee. “The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s.” Film Criticism 24.3 (2000): 1 – 22.
–. “In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape.” The French Review 76.2 (2002): 318–29.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 6, “Utopia and Dystopia: Fantastic and Virtual Cities.”
Shaw, Debra Benita. “Systems, Architecture and the Digital Body: From Alphaville to The Matrix.” Parallax 14.3 (2008): 74–87.
Sobchack, Vivian. “Cities on the Edge of Time: The Urban Science-Fiction Film.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 123–143.
Staiger, Janet. “Future Noir: Contemporary Representations of Visionary Cities.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 97–122.
Utterson, Andrew. From IBM to MGM: Cinema at the Dawn of the Digital Age. London: BFI, 2011.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), Yegeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) are key dystopias concerned with modern built environments. Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971) is an ambivalent take on life in an arcology.

Recommended viewing
The design of the future city in Things to Come (Menzies 1936) draws on contemporary architectural debates.
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971) and Logan’s Run (Anderson 1976) are set in dystopian arcologies. World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johson 1984) looks at the future city designed by corporations for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Jacques Tati’s mechanised suburbia of Mon Oncle (1958) is matched by a hyper-modern Paris in Playtime (1967).

The Mad Maxathon, part one: Mad Max (1979) mostly

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Part two, part three, part four

Waking up in post-apocalyptic Britain last Friday, and with only a week to go until Mad Max: Fury Road, it was time to get back up to speed. Thus did the Mad Maxathon commence!

Back in my Plymouth teens, one of the local free papers had a competition to win cinema tickets and related goodies. Most weeks I entered and – not having enough pocket money or, later, paper-round wages to waste on a postage stamp – would deliver it in person (in a reused envelope) to their offices. The only things I ever won were a pair of tickets for a double bill of Ghoulies and Trancers (I suspect no one else entered that competition) and, a year later, a pair of tickets for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film my girlfriend did not want to see, especially after the preceding year’s fiasco. Oh, and along with the tickets came a Thunderdome t-shirt, which I had to collect in person and, being poor, could not just throw away despite the embarrassment of advertising a film I hated. It became a winter garment, always worn under something else, until eventually it faded and fell apart. This may well be the origin of my dislike for clothing with writing on it. And of white t-shirts.

I forget when or where I first saw the previous movies – presumably on video at a friend’s house. So something good did come of those free tickets. They enabled me to reassess my opinion that Mad Max, despite holding the world record cost-to-profit ratio for twenty years, was the weakest film in the series. (The Road Warrior was always, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘punk’s Sistine Chapel’.) While I have watched the first two multiple times over the years, I have only seen Thunderdome twice – and not since it was first broadcast on television. So how do they hold up?

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Mad Max starts off as a properly sleazy ozploitation flick: a tubby copper in leather spies through rifle sights on a couple having sex in a field; an insane car chase ensues. There will be more bare bums in the franchise (and car chases).

Mad Max was one of the first Australian films to be shot using widescreen anamorphic lenses but George Miller’s real innovation was to mount the cameras on speeding cars and motorbikes so very close to the ground. It does not sound like a lot, but it was, and remains, breathtakingly perilous to watch.

mm4Accounts of the film often take note of Miller’s work as an emergency room doctor, and of several incidents during the OPEC crisis when – in full Ballardian mode – regular folks queuing for fuel violently turned on each other. Clearly some kind of autogeddon was in the ozploitation air (see also: Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), one of the earlier Australian films to use widescreen anamorphic lenses, whose spikey Volkswagen is homaged in Fury Road; Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction (1980), which stars Mad Max‘s Steve Bisley,  Hugh Keays-Byrne and, as an uncredited bearded mechanic, Mel Gibson; Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Dead End Drive-In (1986), based on Peter Carey’s story;  and, in a slightly different vein, Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981)).

I was not surprised to hear that for Fury Road, George Miller presented Tom Hardy with a 300-page ‘comic’ made up of storyboards, rather than a conventional screenplay because Mad Max – with its generic mix of AIP biker movie, backwoods Straw Dogs/Deliverance rape-revenge narrative, lone gunfighter/sheriff/samurai seeking revenge/justice, rogue cop brought out of retirement one last time and this time its personal – comes across increasingly like a 2000AD strip. This connection with the other Sistine chapel of punk comes full circle, first in Neil Marshall’s underrated Doomsday (2008), which riffs off The Road Warrior but also in its final shots gives Rhona Mitra a Carlos Ezquerra/Mike McMahon big boots look, and then in Fury Road, co-written by Brendan McCarthy, who started working on 2000AD in the late 70s and then, inspired by Road Warrior, co-created the post-apocalyptic surfer comic Freakwave (1983). Some consider Freakwave to have been plagiarised by Waterworld (1995), which was dubbed ‘Road Warrior on water’ back in the day. ‘All at sea’, more like.

Mad Max’s melodramatic transitions in particular have something comic-book about them – foreshadowing Sam Raimi’s more obviously comics-inspired Darkman (1990) – and, to be honest, much of the dialogue would probably work better as speech bubbles. The stand-out dialogue scene is the one in which Mel Gibson, with his oddly immobile face, emotes, trying to say something incomprehensible to his wife about his feelings for her in terms of feelings he had for his dad but never expressed. Or something like that. Wisely, to shut him up, she kisses him. And considering how unwise kissing Mel Gibson actually is, we should thank her. She may be overly taken with the idea that running right down the middle of the road is the best way to flee murderous bikers, but right then, at that snoggy moment, she takes one for the team.

mad-max-wifeMad Max is only Gibson’s second film and, although he has yet to become completely insufferable, the construction of his image of physically battered masculinity – the shirtlessly electrocuted resistant-to-electrocution Martin Riggs getting his ass handed to him by the mighty Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon (1987), the shot-to-pieces Martin Riggs annoyingly not dying in Danny Glover’s arms in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), the hammer-to-the-toes justifiably tortured hardly-Lee-Marvin of Payback (1999), culminating in all those unpleasant things people do to Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004) – is already gearing up as he (somewhat ineptly) wreaks his revenge.

Given Gibson’s occasional homophobic outbursts, I vividly recall being delighted to discover that, at least in the olden days, he used to have a big enough gay following to provide one of the case studies for Michael DeAngelis’s Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom: James Dean, Mel Gibson and Keanu Reeves (2001). I am however quite mystified as to the source of this, or indeed any hetero, attraction. Sure, in Mad Max, he is young and pretty and wears tight black leather and does not yet have a mullet. Is it that? Or is it his later tendency to be as shirtless as Matthew McConaughey while wrestling in the rain with Gary Busey or otherwise taking physical punishment? A suffering that in some ways maps onto his Judy Garland-like life of dislocation and addiction and abuse (although admittedly he is the abuser, not the abused)? Please tell me it is not the mullet.

Oh, and Main Force Patrol? Come on, people, that is not what MFP stands for.

120 years of sf cinema, part seven: 1985-1994

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the seventh part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).

Part one (1895-1914), part two (1915-34), part three (1935-54), part four (1955-1964), part five (1965-74), part six (1975-84)

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1985
Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
The Quiet Earth (Geoff Murphy)
The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
Zaveshchaniye professora Douelya/Professor Dowell’s Testament (Leonid Menaker)

1986
Aliens (James Cameron) – original cinema cut
The Fly (David Cronenberg)
Hombre mirando al sudeste/Man Facing South East (Eliseo Subiela)
Kamikaze (Didier Grousset)
Kin-dza-dza! (Georgiy Daneliya)
Mauvais Sang (Léos Carax)
Offret/The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)
RocketKitKongoKit (Craig Baldwin)

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Friendship’s Death (Peter Wollen)
Gandahar (René Laloux)
Ground Zero (Bruce Myles and Michael Pattinson)
Island of the Alive (Larry Cohen)
Mr India (Shekhar Kapur)
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven)

1988
Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo)
Caller (Arthur Seidelmann)
Incident at Raven’s Gate (Rolf de Heer)
Na srebrnym globie/On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski)
They Live (John Carpenter)

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Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto Shinya)
Tremors (Ron Underwood)

1990
Darkman (Sam Raimi)
Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter)
Hardware (Richard Stanley)

1991poison4
Bis ans Ende der Welt/Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders) 280 minute director’s cut
Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg)
964 Pinocchio (Shozin Fukui)
Poison (Todd Haynes)
Terminator II: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
Tetsuo II: Bodyhammer (Tsukamoto Shinya)

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Alien 3 (David Fincher)
Dongfang San Xia/The Heroic Trio (Johnny To)
Gauyat Sandiu Haplui/Saviour of the Soul (Corey Yuen)
Gayniggers from Outer Space (Morten Lindberg)
Orlando (Sally Potter)
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin)

1993
Acción mutante (Alex de la Iglesia)
Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla)
Sankofa (Haile Gerima)

1994
Cosmic Slop (Reginald Hudlin, Warrington Hudlin and Kevin Rodney Sullivan)
Welcome II the Terrordome (Ngozi Onwurah)

George-Clinton-Cosmic-Slop

part eight, 1995-2004

Film neige: noir + snow

hqdefaultIn 1952, midway between two great noir performances as a psychotic racist (Crossfire, 1947; Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), Robert Ryan played detective Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Alongside Ryan and Ray, the film has pretty much everything you could want from a tough-cop-on-the-edge noir: a script by AI Bezzerides, a score by Bernard Herrmann, and roles for Ida Lupino both in front of and (uncredited) behind the camera.

Wilson is sick of the scum he encounters – and beats on, with weary resignation and twisted joy – every day. Facing possible prosecution over a too-vigorous interrogation, he is sent out of the city to help some small-town cops track the killer of a young girl through the mountains. It is winter. And in the snow, the film begins to change – morphing, like all of Ray’s film noirs, into something more closely resembling the melodramas for which he is best remembered. Wilson stumbles upon the isolated house of a beautiful blind woman. Her kid brother, Danny, is the deranged killer; she is blind because she stayed to look after him rather than going away to have an operation. And her faith in Wilson’s goodness – something he just does not deserve – redeems him.

But this generic transformation is not merely Ray’s doing. It has something to do with the snow.

The first Max Payne video game (2001) is set during the worst blizzard to hit New York in a century, and in Sin City (2005), when Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is released from prison, having finally confessed to crimes he did not commit in order to go out and commit some for real (not without good reason), snow falls, blanketing the ground. There is something very right about these images, appearing in cross-media franchises that function as compendia of American crime fiction tropes.

But snow is rare in film noir.

There is sun, wind and rain – Key Largo (1948) has all three – but very little snow.

Citizen Kane (1941), visually the most significant American precursor of noir, has snow, and the climax of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) does get very cold, since its couple on the run are the odds-against-tomorrow-harry-belafonte-1959only fugitives ever to head for the Canadian rather than the Mexican border. And if you’ve not seen Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow recently you can be forgiven for thinking it has snow: the sound effects are so good, the icy wind cuts right through you. But in classical Hollywood, film neige, like the snow that somehow brings Britain grinding to a halt every couple of years, is pretty thin on the ground.

Why is this? Well, actually snow is relatively rare in studio-era Hollywood. It does appear in big-budget films (Way Down East, 1920), but it is difficult and expensive to shoot in cold, wet conditions and film noir rarely had a dime to spare. And when you fake it, it looks fake. However, that need not be a problem for films that are comical (How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953), fantastical (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), musical (Swing Time, 1936) or otherwise given to artifice (All That Heaven Allows, 1955). Film noir, though, is rarely any of these things.

Snow has great noirish potential. It is treacherous, unpredictable. It can betray you, isolate you, trap you, kill you. Pursuers can track you through the snow, and it can force you into dangerous proximity to them. Banks and drifts obscure contours, conceal familiar markers. Flurries become blizzards. Visibility reduces. Cold becomes colder. Circulation slows. You begin to lose feeling. Death is never far away. It creeps inwards.

All of which makes sense in the wilderness, and even, sort of, in the older, northern and eastern cities in which, typically, gangster films – and Max Payne and Sin City – are set.

But film noir is a Californian invention. Whether it is the sultry Argentine night in which Rita Hayworth threatens to strip (Gilda, 1946), the dazzling Mexican afternoon out of which Jane Greer emerges to lead Robert Mitchum astray (Out of the Past, 1947), the hot Mexican night in which Mitchum, shirtless and glistening, is flogged with a belt, the buckle opening welts in his back, and thrown into a steam-filled engine room (His Kind of Woman, 1951), or the unseen suburban deck on which Barbara Stanwyck is sunbathing when Fred MacMurray comes hawking insurance (Double Indemnity, 1944), film noir thrives on heat.

In the heat, passions rise. Tempers fray. Everyone becomes just a little bit flushed. A little bit moist.

Snow simply lacks this erotic resonance.

So Robert Ryan, stuck overnight with Ida Lupino (and, admittedly, Ward Bond), has little choice but to sleep on the floor and wake up in a neighbouring genre; and film noir could do little with snow until it was reworked overseas and in post-classical Hollywood.

François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) casts Charles Aznavour as bar-room piano player Charlie Kohler. Once a concert pianist, he goes to pieces when he finds out that his waitress wife slept with an impresario to get him his big break. When she tells him this, he leaves her and she commits suicide. He abandons celebrity for anonymity, and rediscovers love with another supportive waitress, Léna. They flee Paris to his family farm, where his criminal brothers are holed up, having double-crossed their gang. Truffaut sets the final few minutes of the film in a desolate, rural snowscape, wryly inverting film noir’s black:white ratio. TruffautTirezSurLePianisteLenaThe gunfight between the gang and Charlie’s brothers plays on the spatial disorientations – and slippery footing – of deep, featureless snow. Léna, of course, is caught in the crossfire, robbing Charlie of his renewed future.

Charlie returns to the bar. A new waitress is introduced. Will she too become involved with him, offer him redemption? Will it also end badly for her? The snow reminds us that for Truffaut (or perhaps merely Charlie), women are like snowflakes: they are all unique, but this only makes them indistinguishable, interchangeable.

Even bleaker is The Criminal (1960), made in the UK by exiled American director Joseph Losey. Fresh out of prison, Johnny Bannion (Stanley Baker), a cocksure working-class lad made good in London’s gangland, organises a brilliant racetrack heist; but being in love, he makes a tiny error and is promptly betrayed. When he is sent back to prison, his bosses abduct his girlfriend Suzanne to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the loot. Instead, Bannion promises it all to a crook who can break him out. He rescues Suzanne, but is followed to the snow-dusted field where he buried the money. A shoot-out leaves him bleeding to death in this dismal, grey-white, rutted landscape. As the camera cranes up and away from his corpse, his killers randomly scratch at 23-The-Criminal-360x216the frozen dirt in the hope of finding the cash – and we hit the permafrost of existence: life is not just cold, it is as hard and featureless and unrelenting as the ground on which Bannion dies.

In Fargo (1996), snow simplifies things. The ground – even the air – loses its features. The world is reduced to small towns and corporate franchises linked only by roads, phones, TV broadcasts and flows of money in a whited-out desert of the real. It is as if Chuck Jones and Jean Baudrillard had collaborated on a Jim Thompson adaptation. The Coen brothers’ caricatures of Minnesotans and North Dakotans open up the gulf between American capitalism and the kind of small-town values (decency, neighbourliness) that Sarah Palin pretends to embody. In Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), snow isolates a gently parodic small town so as to reveal the extent to which those values are a myth desperately at odds with capitalism. College-educated Hank (Bill Paxton), his unemployed brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jacob’s friend, Lou (Brent Briscoe), find a kidnapper’s plane, carrying over four million dollars in ransom, crashed in the snow. Family ties and class differences clash as Jacob is forced to choose between Hank and Lou. Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), initially nice-as-apple-pie, becomes grimly determined to hang onto the cash. Violence erupts. People die. But that is nothing to her hatred for their just-getting-by lives.

jlgThe Lookout (2007) is likewise about the contradictions of the American dream. Former high school hockey star Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), brain-damaged in a car crash, has lost everything. Wintry Kansas-Missouri settings emphasise his barren existence. Bank robbers manipulate him into helping them, but the heist goes wrong. Chris must concoct and follow a complex plan to free his kidnapped best friend – the only problem is, Chris has severe difficulties with planning future actions and suffers form short-term memory dysfunction. Against a stark white snowscape, the world – bitterly, ironically – redeems Chris, almost against his will.

However, the bleakest American neo-neige is – unsurprisingly – not actually American. A Danish-Canadian-British-Brazilian co-production co-written by Hubert Selby Jr, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Fear X (2003) starts with Harry Caine (John Turturro) opening the curtains of his Wisconsin suburban tract home. Snow falls gently on the snow-covered street. A woman enters the house opposite. It is Harry’s wife. But Harry is dreaming. His wife is dead, killed in a double homicide outside the mall where he works as a security guard. The black and white surveillance footage from that day – over which Harry pores every night, desperate for any clue as to who killed her and why – fills the screen, grainy and blurred, a blue-grey world of silhouettes, shadows and snow.

Snow fills Harry’s dreams and memories. It creeps into his system, fills him from the core – twin wavefronts of despair and isolation.artikel_fear_x_2

Is it worth risking his life to get a step closer to the killer?

‘I’m not living anyway’, he replies.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 8 (winter 2008), is now out of print.]