120 years of sf cinema, part nine: 2005-2014

2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the ninth 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), part seven (1985-94), part eight (1994-2004)

200521395_Wild-Blue-Yonder-1
Chetyre/4 (Ilya Khrzhanovskiy)
Pervye na Lune (Aleksey Fedorchenko)
Pyl/Dust (Sergey Loban)
Les saignantes (Jean-Pierre Bekolo)
Tian bian yi duo yun/The Wayward Cloud (Ming-liang Tsai)
The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog)

2006
Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
Electroma (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo)
Gui si/Silk (Chao-Pin Su)
Gwoemul/The Host (Joon-ho Bong)
Krrish (Rakesh Roshan)
Papurika/Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
Special (Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore)

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La Antena (Esteban Sapir)
Bekushiru: 2077 Nihon sakoku/Vexille (Fumihiko Sori)
Los cronocrímenes/Time Crimes (Nacho Vigalondo)
Dai-Nihonjin/Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto)
Eden Log (Franck Vestiel)
I Am Legend (Frances Lawrence)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
Resident Evil: Extinction (Russell Mulcahy)

2008Doomsday(1)
Boku no kanojo wa saibôgu/Cyborg She (Jae-young Kwak)
Doomsday (Neil Marshall)
Mock Up on Mu (Craig Baldwin)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald)
Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera)
20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga/20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

2009srs_trailer_sidebar
Fisshu sutôr/Fish Story (Yoshihiro Nakamura)
Gamer (Neveldine + Taylor)
Metropia (Tarik Saleh)
Moon (Duncan Jones)
Mr Nobody (Jaco von Dormael)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali)
Stingray Sam (Cory McAbee)
20-seiki shônen: Dai 2 shô – Saigo no kibô/20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
20-seiki shônen: Saishû-shô – Bokura no hata/20th Century Boys 3: Redemption (Yukihiko Tsutsumi)

2010enthiran
Action Replayy (Vipul Amrutlal Shah)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)
Enthiran (Shankar)
Monsters (Gareth Edwards)
Stake Land (Jim Mickle)

2011
Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek)
Detention (Joseph Kahn)
Fase 7/Phase 7 (Nicolás Goldbart)
In Time (Andrew Niccol)
Juan de los Muertos/Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués)
Love (William Eubank)
Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij)

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Antiviral (Brandon Cronenberg)
Dredd (Pete Travis)
Ghosts with Shit Jobs (Chris McCawley, Jim Morrison, Jim Munroe and Tate Young)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier)
Transfer (Damir Lukacevic)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams)

2013
Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong)edge-of-tomorrow_emily-blunt
Trudno byt bogom/Hard To Be a God (Aleksey German)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)

2014
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Fehér isten/White God (Kornél Mundruczó)
The Rover (David Michôd)
The Signal (William Eubank)

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Hard to Be a God (German 2013)

its-hard-to-be-a-god-trudno-byt-bogom.28440Hard to Be a God takes the bare armature of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name – human observers embedded among the population of an alien world, which resembles the terrestrial middle ages and in which the first traces of a Renaissance are being brutally expunged – and does something remarkable with it.

At times it reminded me of Andrei Rublev, of Aguirre, Wrath of God, of Seven Samurai, of Come and See,  of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring, of Tetsuo, of Erasherhead, of Jodorowsky, of A Field in England, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is not remotely like them, or like anything else.

As early as the 1960s, Aleksei German was the Strugatskys’ director of choice, and it only took him half a century to make the film. His earliest attempt was halted when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, since a film about a fledgling Renaissance being crushed by an invading totalitarian power was deemed untimely. (German was also briefly involved in Peter Fleischmann’s disastrous 1989 adaptation.) In 2000, he finally began what would become a six-year-long shoot (partly in the Czech Republic), but he died in 2013, leaving his filmmaker son, Aleksei German, Jr., to finalise the edit and the soundtrack.

hardtobe6The Strugatskys’ often comic tale poses a series of ethical questions around the (im)possibility of humanitarian intervention akin to those with which Star Trek’s prime directive narratives feebly wrestle. Are there circumstances in which violence can be used to cut short the violence of others? Is it more cruel passively to observe than it is to step in with an overwhelming force that will turn a society on its head? What is the ethical cost to the observer/intervener? The Strugatsky’s novel can also be understood as an expression of anxiety about the re-emergence of Stalinism as the Khruschev-era Thaw drew to a close.

German transforms this material into something marvellously different.

A black-and-white world of rain and mud and shit and piss and snot and blood. Of raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Of grotesquery and deformity. Of violence and death. Of the idiocy, as Marx might say, of feudal life.

istoriya-arkanarskoy-rezni-aleksei-german-ultimo-film-01The frame is frequently crowded. Depth of field is constantly destabilised. Fog and smoke and pouring rain obscure the distinction between earth and sky, clouding out the horizon and disrupting perspective. Objects repeatedly cross the frame inches from the camera, blocking our view of what we might otherwise assume to be the subjects of the film. Characters repeatedly look straight at the camera, not to break the fourth wall but as if it is not there. Or as if the camera cannot be permitted to be in the world without being part of the world; and in this the camera is like the terrestrial observers. They are not permitted to stay, like a Federation away team, separate from the world they visit. They are immersed in it. Mired. And so are we.

It is like reading Rabelais, or reading Bakhtin’s reading of him; and in its relentlessness, Hard to Be a God is really funny.

The few Anglophone reviews of the film I’ve seen complain about the absence of a clear plot. But narrative obliquity is the point. Life doesn’t have a plot or narrative arcs. We are just in the middle of all this stuff going on all the time. And it is comical and absurd and messy and always in our faces.

If I’d been watching it alone, I’d have turned off the not-that-helpful subtitles.

maxresdefaultHard to be a God is obsessed with the odours of the world it can only disclose  indirectly, and with the textures of the world. It continually uses the limitations of the medium – the gulf between the tactile and the visual – to undercut the fiction of the neutral, uninvolved observer. Despite the often troubling content of the image, the pristine cinematography is often too beautiful to bear. Don Remata’s spotless white clothes and handkerchieves function in a similar manner – in their absurdity, they are reminders of the full and unavoidable intersubjectivity of being in the world.

Hard to Be a God might not be your cup of tea. That is your loss.

The Disappearance of Nicolas Cage

(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.

MV5BNzY0ODM1NzU0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTExNjIyOA@@._V1_SX214_AL_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, which-movies-have-the-most-terrible-endings-1477618313-may-31-2013-1-600x400speculations 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.

kal_elAll 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.

nicolas-cage-660aEven 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.

Neveldine adds:

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.

1238618115-cage_sonOn the night of his disappearance, Cage left a message on the phone of his recently-married son Weston, lead singer of Eyes of Noctum, saying only ‘When they ask, tell them “dimensional quadrature”’.

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.

8/5/11