12th 05 - 2015 | 4 comments »

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon IV

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By Roderick Heath

An eye, filmed in colossal close-up, surveys a vista of bleak and awesome grandeur, the smeared lights and spurting fire of a future age reflected upon the iris. The act of watching for Ridley Scott, as for so many filmmakers, is equated with the Torah of cinema—behold! Kubrick’s vistas of Olympian space reflected in Dave Bowman’s eye give way to a different kind of star child, looking out upon the human world, or how humans have rebuilt their world. Look upon his works, ye mortals, Ozymandias has gone hi-tech—futuristic Los Angeles, in some nightmarish alternate 2019, with pyramidal skyscrapers, refineries spitting filth and flame into a sky biblically black with pollution, and cars that fly and zip like the chariots of the new world high above streets churning with human flotsam.

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The audience views all this just like the strange, dangerous, desperate creations that come to Earth in search of the makers view it, as something new and yet remembered, a reflection of their own time turned into a scene at once debased and romantically overwhelming. After decades of digression through mutant beasts and rockets, science fiction cinema suddenly reconnected with its oldest, strongest living nerve, the dark and exultant worship of modernity that Moloch first glimpsed in Metropolis (1927). The soaring adamantine structures, the gleaming chrome-and-glass obelisks, the monuments to hubris, the dense and tangled blend of Expressionism and Art Deco in Fritz Lang’s sepia dreaming now festooned by neon and colossal billboards. Scott’s electronic graffiti bit the hand that fed him: the director made ads and knows very well revenue makes the world go ’round. Product placement is a new religion.

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The gods and kings are the genetic architects and their progeny; everyone else is now just there to make up the numbers. Nature has been exiled, killed off in fact. Animals have become so rare they’re only the impossible objects of a tycoon’s fancy. TV-studded zeppelins drift listlessly in the sky advertising exploitation of space as “opportunity and adventure” where the real work is done by synthetic beings cooked up by the not-too-distant future’s alchemy vats. Earth is a failed nation, a remnant ghetto, and L.A. is a pan-cultural massing point crammed full of people who cannot wait to abandon a sick planet for the Off-World colonies. Six “Replicants”—genetically engineered beings—have slaughtered the crew of a spaceship, commandeered the vessel, and piloted it to Earth, where their kind is outlawed. In space, they’re pimped out as warriors, whores, labourers, assassins—human simulacrums to take the edge off pioneering the cosmos. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures them; Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) lives above the squalor in neo-Roman splendour, designing minds for his quite literal brain children.

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The Replicants have a built-in failure date—a four-year lifespan—to prevent their developing emotions. But they’re also supplied with patched-in memories to help cope with the absurdities of their existence, Tyrell’s brainwave to stave off inconvenient behaviour. His greatest creation, Rachael (Sean Young), employed as PA-cum-showroom model, has no idea at first that she’s a Replicant because she inherited her memories from Tyrell’s niece. Out of the returned progeny, two are reported killed trying to break into Tyrell Corporation headquarters. A third, Leon (Brion James), is uncovered by the “Voight-Kampff” empathy test administered by Holden (Morgan Paull), a cop posing as a middle manager: Leon knowing he’s rumbled, shoots the cop and flees to join his companions, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Darryl Hannah), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). They hide out in the fetid and decaying fringes of the city. Leon snaps photos, trying to prove his reality real, his memories more than the installed pentimento of some other failed life form.

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The cruelty of empathy is used to separate the Replicants from the other humans, so the opening of Blade Runner zeroes in from godlike heights to an interrogation, a manmade man trying desperately to understand questions that he can’t answer— no one can—except through memory. You come across a turtle. You flip in on its back. It lies there baking in the sun. You won’t help it. Why not, Leon? Of course Leon has no empathy for a turtle. Does anyone else? Turtles barely exist anymore. Humans have eradicated them. Empathy is part of the human soul, but the human soul is also murderous, the intelligent will to take possession of and conquer a living space. The Replicants, unmasked, are gunned down: they’re regarded as insensate homunculi programmed to survive but incapable of actual humanity—“skin-jobs” as the coppers call them in the easy parlance of street-level problem-solving.

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Parables immediately proliferate. Roy is charismatic leader. Their team any band of noir losers on the loose, illegal immigrants, or gang of revolutionaries. Baader-Meinhoff of the Off-World. Or are they pilgrims, come to bellow their rage at God? Either way, now on they’re on Earth, dispersed in strip joints and cheap hotel rooms. “Let me tell you about my mother,” Leon says with a hint of vicious humour before blowing away his interrogator. The Voight-Kampff test is the grim joke at the heart of Blade Runner: how much empathy do actual humans have when they’ve done this to their world? Philip K. Dick, author of the source novel, had the deepest distrust for the works of modernity. His Replicants were empty vessels, things mimicking humanity, soulless by-products of human narcissism, that he used to prod his increasingly deadened and defeated humans for signs of life. Some scifi scholars and critics initially objected to Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples revising Dick’s most fundamental point.

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Scott, a boy from South Shields, has no such New World certainty about the difference between product and producer. His childhood vistas were factories on the land and ships on the Tyne, promising new worlds of opportunity and adventure. Father Frank, a merchant marine, actually got to ride off in them, leaving young Ridley and brothers Frank and Tony trapped in the mundaneness of post-World War II Midlands England. Small wonder Sir Ridley’s films are littered with men driven by vision beyond the limits of their class and society, angry men and women pushing against snobs and fools, furious at being told constantly they are worth less than others, many doomed to create their own hells in reaching for their paradises. His Columbus reaches undiscovered countries and brings terror and slavery in his wake.

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Scott had been vaulted from salesman to auteur by his famous Hovis Bread commercial, a vision of an England at once confidently industrial and homey, fading into memory and purveyed through an advertisement in a vision powerful enough to seduce a nation. Here he sarcastically turns that inside out for a future where some company’s branding might be on your cells. As with his previous film, Alien (1979), Scott’s take on scifi sneered at the pristine, sleek, near-abstract landscapes of most ’60s and ’70s predecessors in the dystopian stakes, and merged instead the many faces of ugly modernity circa 1982—the bristling industrial landscapes of the Midlands, the fecund tumult of Tokyo and Hong Kong, the decaying grandeur of New York and Los Angeles’ art-deco structures, relics of the near past’s hymns for the near future, and the memory of cinema itself. Vangelis’s audioscapes slip between vistas of synthesiser spectacle and Kenny G saxophony denoting soulful ennui. Scott’s street thrums with the buzz and bleep and footfall of urban life stretched to the nth degree; preachers and cooks and child gangs, nuns and goggled coots and hookers, every breed of humanity mashed together and gabbling a new patois born of confused necessity. Super-skyscrapers house jerry-built offices and the jumbled paraphernalia of decades past—America has finally learnt how to recycle. The streets border dens of vice and verve, where music video lighting meets the teeming types and romantic-desolate nooks of the old Warner Bros. backlot. Police hover high above in their “spinners,” keeping a lid on things. Scott’s city functions, it throbs with life even as its fringes falls into ruin and abandonment: it is, to use that modern cliché, immersive in a way Hollywood filmmaking had scarcely been since the last giant, historical films of the 1960s. Small wonder a generation of writers, filmmakers, artists, left relatively cold by the disco-fantastic Star Wars (1977), suddenly saw their metier or were nudged toward it (or simply fell in love with its smoke-and-backlight patinas). Burton and Batman, the Cyberpunks, the maestros of 2000AD and Watchmen and many another graphic novel, Gilliam and Proyas and the Wachowskis and more, all finding a church to worship in.

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The slaves are returning here from the newer New Worlds, groping for their Creators. Hard and resentful progeny, their superiority is innate, übermenschen with disinterest in your well-being so long as they’re staring down the face of accelerated decrepitude. The Blade Runner is called into action: streetwise, whisky-sucking, gun-toting Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Blade Runner, a great title, not from Dick, but from Alan E. Nourse, whose work The Bladerunner concerned futuristic eugenics. Deckard, for all his Phil Marlowe-isms exacerbated by the voiceover prone theatrical cut, is no mere generic caricature, but rather possesses the same boding melancholy that dogged Raymond Chandler’s original (Robert Mitchum, who had recently played Marlowe, was the early casting choice), the same beggared spirit that occasionally could only crawl into a hole after seeing humans wreak havoc on each other and sink into boozy oblivion. The cop who hunts Replicants has to be damn sure whom or what he’s aiming at: he balances on a very thin edge. “If you’re not cop, you’re little people,” bullies his old boss Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh), something to be stepped on, and he’ll make a point of stepping on Deckard if doesn’t get back in the game for this most important piece of housekeeping.

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Deckard is first glimpsed as member of the flotsam, reading the paper, waiting for his place at the dinner trough and arguing with the chef. Blade Runner takes on an old genre trope—the burning-out of a man who tries not to be brutalized by acting as society’s janitor—and justifies annexing another, bygone mode of storytelling with a similar concern with a world grown chaotically, frighteningly complex with an attendant loss of moral reference. In addition, Scott’s sense of the visual lexicon of cinema has pursued the common roots of Lang’s influence on scifi and noir back to the dark-rooted Germanic traditions of Grimm and Faust and Hans Heinz Ewer’s Alraune, as much as to the Olympian references of Frankenstein, whilst the mental and moral texture is Sein und Zeit strained through an opium trance and a leftover volume of Omni.

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The powerful spell of Blade Runner, and part of the reason why it’s often proven so divisive over the years, can be attributed to the film’s prizing of atmosphere and textured emotion above suspense and action. It could almost be called cinema’s first multimillion-dollar mood piece, or work of blockbuster scaled poetry. Until key action sequences late in the movie, the pacing is deliberate, almost sedate in places. Scenes ebb liquidly into the next. Dissolves slur time and distort process. Lighting and diffusion effects crumble the hard edges of technocracy into the flaking verdigris of hallucination. A surprising amount of Blade Runner is taken up contemplating Deckard in isolation—tired, melancholy, boozy, making a path through bustling, uninterested crowds, listlessly investigating, looking for connection in the midst of throngs—or else in refuge with Rachael (Sean Young), two lost souls trying to work out if they even have souls. One of the quietest yet most thrillingly intense sequences merely depicts Deckard doing a little business in his own apartment, using a computer to investigate one of Leon’s snaps. Deckard is displayed as intently for the audience as the photo is for him, Deckard’s need for the balm of scotch just after an encounter with Rachael on which Deckard’s clumsy attempt to adjust her to her new reality falls tragically flat. Deckard peers into an artefact that suggests dimensions to his prey he never conceived, a realisation provided by Rachael’s own pathetic attempts to proffer photos as proofs of existence. The mirroring qualities of his apartment and Leon’s hotel room are easy to read. Lurking somewhere in the photo is a tiny image, the face of Zhora, another target, an eerily beautiful woman captured in sleep and reflected through the play of mirrors: Blow-Up (1966) meets Laura (1946) in Edward Hopper land.

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Deckard meets Rachael in Tyrell’s pyramid-palace, where she struts out of the shadows festooned in vintage Joan Crawford wear—ballooning pompadour and square shoulders. The hard edges of futurist ’30s fashion sarcastically declare Rachael’s robotic nature long before the Voight-Kampff test confirms it. Deckard’s first encounter with her, held at Tyrell’s whim, is part interrogation, part challenging flirtation. New frontiers in erotic contact await. Not that new; the Replicants have long been used as sex toys, but not with feeling. “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” is the inevitable, needling, aggrieved question never answered. Deckard’s greatest moments of professional achievement will be shooting two automata that look and sound awfully like women. No matter the social value enforced by taking down Replicants, it’s a soul-killing business for the Blade Runner. Deckard schools Rachael in the dangerous intimacy of human sexuality, edged with threat and compulsion and brittle need and accomplished with language of desire dictated, recalling Marnie’s (1964) lessons in domesticity. Is the secret to the Blade Runner’s success dependent on the same quality he unearths in Replicants? Are Blade Runners in fact Replicants themselves, faux-cops given a mission, a memory, and pointed in the right direction? Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Bryant’s emissary, aging and stooped, watches Deckard go about his business with Mandarin remove, clad in fur coat and waistcoat and armed with a cane, the gruff sensei of some lost Kurosawa time-travel noir film. He twists bits of paper into origami sculptures that mimic the stuff of Deckard’s dreams, the artisanal, classical rhyme to the grander business of Tyrell, creating bodies and stuffing the minds of others into them. Does Gaff have access to Deckard’s memories, or is it merely the common lexicon of dreams, the stuff of human identity?

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Are the human impulses in the Replicants the actual glimmerings of self-generating sentience, or are they the howls of their implanted memories, dictating behaviours, the ghosts of other beings crying out to make sense of their Frankenstein shells? Is there, in fact, a difference (pace fanboy logic and the disagreements of cast and crew) between the haphazard way they march toward sentience and the way people do? Deckard seems to feel everything, ink-pad for his age. Tyrell’s humanitarian brainwave, to supply the Replicants with transplanted human memories, is supposed to cushion the emotional agonies of his creations, but proves to be crueler; what more sadistic thing is there than establishing an identity for someone, only to be able to reveal it was fake? That’s the pain for Rachael, and also, eventually, for Deckard, for his own identity is questioned. The film’s most obvious irony is the lack of interest most people show when Deckard guns Replicants down in the street. Underlying this is a more interesting paradox: humans are at their most human when contemplating different life forms, in repulsion or joy. The innocence of animals stirs us more than the murderous extremes of homo sapiens. The Replicants, boy-man Leon with his quick panic, his grotesque child-sadist jokes (placing eyeballs on a frightened man’s shoulder), girl-woman Pris built to be a fantasy of vulnerable femininity and blessed with gifts of malevolent elegance, and the two beautiful warriors Roy and Zhora—all have been built to play parts, and they play them half-resentfully.

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The great designers are as lacking as their progeny. J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), designer of eyes for Tyrell, has “Methuselah syndrome,” helping to make supermen but stricken by the body’s incurables, so he looks at once preciously boyish and wizened. Roy and Pris are touching in their precocious, harried need for each other; love is only a step away for these beings growing as fast as they are. But they are dangerous. Armed with adult bodies and minds, they are nonetheless governed by the eruptive, tantrum-throwing instability of children. Of course, they cannot become more than children, not with their life-span, so no wonder rage and frustration pulse under Roy’s sleek skin. Pris ensnares Sebastian, as doomed to die young and terminally lonely as the Replicants themselves, entering his cavernous enclave where he lives surrounded by perverse talking simulacra like some sickly Georgian princeling left to his toys and arcane arts, all too easy a mark for the Replicants in their ultimate goal of reaching God—Tyrell—and seeking extended life. Roy and Pris get along famously with J. F. because they can play with him, but beware these playmates when they find it’s time to leave the sandpit.

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Blade Runner is a work with an unmistakable aura of heartbreak to it. Scott’s older brother Frank had died of skin cancer before production, and the feeling of the awful commute to and from his London hospital permeates the film’s overtones of romantic pessimism and ephemeral sense of both pain and pleasure as intense but fleeting phenomena. A tactile understanding of existence permeates the film’s very textures. Scott’s ever-formidable sense of technique, sometimes purveyed without great interest in his subsequent movies, here connects vitally with the material. As per Elmore James, the sky is crying throughout the film. The first of the film’s two kinetic sequences, in which Deckard pursues Zhora through the city streets after finding her working in a cabaret, starts close to comedy. Deckard assumes a fey and nebbishy act a la Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) as an artist rights’ agent in order to approach her, and swerves into an extended, violent chase. Zhora attacks and nearly murders Deckard before fleeing into the night. Deckard pursues her and the scene becomes something of an epic travelogue describing life in Scott’s L.A. on its most fundamental level. The entire sequence is a masterful piece of cinematic composition and staging, but the very climax is perhaps the film’s high point and single greatest moment of Scott’s career: as Deckard’s bullets crash into Zhora’s body, ripping great holes in her, she stumbles heedlessly through plate-glass windows of the hermetic little worlds of department store displays, surrounded by mocking mannequins and through a cloud of fake snow, before collapsing. The swooning slow-motion photography and the squirming, mournful drones of Vangelis’ score mixed with a thudding heartbeat that throbs its way to a halt, finally concluding with Deckard standing in the midst of a fake snowstorm, contribute to this scene’s terrible, dreamlike power.

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Hero and villain, Rick and Roy, swap places at intervals throughout the drama: by the end, hunter is hunted. We see Rick’s integrity and humanity, but when we see him do his job it’s jarring and distressing. Roy performs even crueler acts as he stalks this urban jungle because he is designed to be cruel, but we see he yearns to be more. He wants to save Pris, whom he loves like a boy, even as he contemplates his doomed love with a man’s despair. He is capable of relating to Sebastian and asking for his help rather than merely intimidating him. His confrontation with Tyrell, part angry teenage son, part avenging angel representing the misbegotten, reveals him to be enormously powerful, deeply conflicted, and filled with a rage that could crack worlds. Roy’s confrontation of Tyrell comes when he infiltrates the Creator’s apartment, thanks to J. F. and that metaphysically loaded pursuit, chess. Game coordinates and genetic science are each expostulated in rapid-fire shows of genius, the speed with which Roy cuts off Tyrell’s options in the game matched by the efficiency with which Tyrell explains how all attempts to reverse the Replicant death date fail, each process reduced to one of logical exegesis that leads to death. However, son has come to punish father if not learn from him, and after a moment of almost tender regard, Roy crushes Tyrell’s skull between his hands with exacting, punitive anger that cannot be expressed in mere impersonal killing: like Commodus in Gladiator (2000), Roy must reverse the act of creation in embracing his father and sucking away his life. This sequence sits at the heart of the film and of Scott’s oeuvre, love and hate in fearsome, consuming proximity, as is its opposite, seen in the film’s very conclusion, where an act of unexpected mercy preempts the murderous carousel.

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Roy doesn’t accept Tyrell’s benediction, “You have burned so very, very brightly Roy,” though Tyrell’s statement is undeniable, because while Tyrell prescribes acceptance of death, Roy struggles like all living creatures against his limits and is particularly aggrieved when he knows how grave the limitations are, how filthy the requirements of him as an exiled warrior-whore. The alternation of hero-status between Rick and Roy resolves in Rick becoming the hunted, Roy, knowing he is dying, pursuing the little man who has robbed him of his only friend. Indeed, as he gives his crippled nemesis a chance to escape, perhaps Roy enjoys witnessing a creature’s frantic determination to live because he is experiencing life at its rawest. They are both soldiers exiled from normality by their jobs. Roy created specifically for such a purpose, has regrets having done “questionable things,” and Rick feels the same as skin-job assassin.

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Blade Runner is the rare science fiction that, in spite of borrowing its structure from another genre, belongs entirely in its genre: the imaginative background and the tropes of world-building, the motivating McGuffins and their place in the story, can each only exist in the speculative frame it engineers. Yet Scott’s many past vistas lurk within the haute-futurism, and the film is, in the end, close to fairy tale, a small myth of life and death and being: small wonder Scott was to launch himself into the even more visually ambitious, and even less successful Legend (1985). Does Deckard’s unicorn dream signify that his memories are taken from Gaff, the seedy, lame, shadow-lurking cop who seems to resent his presence? Is Deckard an able-bodied replacement for that has-been? Again, does it matter? In Legend, the unicorns lurch out of the mist, embodiments of purity, the lost character of innocence and fecundity the characters in Blade Runner are all too cut off from: like Scott’s predecessor (rank nightmare) and follow-up (outright fantasy where light and dark war), Blade Runner is essentially mythos. Hues of poetic parable all but blaze as the film slips toward it conclusion.

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The Bradbury Building, setting of storied noir myth DOA (1951) and the vital noir-scifi crossbreed in TV’s “The Outer Limits” episode ‘Demon with a Glass Hand,’ becomes the film’s hub, a decaying, septic trap of time and memory where the final, primal-accented battle will progress wildly through frames of culture, from Medieval gargoyles to Renaissance tangle to Georgian gilt to Art-Deco flare to punk grime. Roy, chasing Deckard through its bowls, similarly progresses from yowling wolf to hunter on the veldt to ironic sparring partner (“That’s the spirit!”), and finally, in his last moments, superman and then archangel. The finale again meshes references—Deckard’s dangling is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), tötentanz starting point repurposed as awakening, whilst the chase through the Bradbury Building an explosion of Wellesian bravura while achieving its own singular, almost biblical gravitas. Roy must give himself stigmata to keep the game going, driving a nail through his hand to keep it operating, shutdown imminent but a revelation in the making.

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We witness Roy transcend his programming, both Replicant and human, in saving Deckard, who in harming Roy, deserves to die more than any number of those Roy has killed. Roy demonstrates that he has learnt the value of life and has gained that elusive fire that has been eluding him and too many others: mercy. His famous final words, his personal poetry (honest-to-god science-fiction poetry) for the passing of a soul and all its witnessing, reports back on the wonders of the new frontier with the pride of a being who now sees his value. His vistas to behold are new, places beyond the reach of the squalid Earth. The best we can say about Deckard, and what Roy probably recognized in him, is that he is an understanding witness to transcendence, and now also a real man capable of love. Gaff acknowledges that he has “done a man’s job,” Gaff watching from the sidelines, presenting Rick with the gift of certainty that Rick, whatever his origins, is a man. But is it that Deckard fought valiantly that made him a man, or that, in the end, he saw its essential futility? In any event, he skips out with his synthetic lover to whatever future— be it in Lamborghini ad as in the verboten theatrical version or to the land of Nod—Gaff’s own, last totem of mercy is understood.

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2nd 07 - 2014 | 5 comments »

Snowpiercer (2013)

Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers

South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegorical purpose that’s barely disguised.

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A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain America himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s lower class, consisting of passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage, tending his engine, which yields a miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the world-looping track he built nominally for international travel, but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.

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Curtis has become something a virtual older brother, even a father figure, for young Edgar (Jamie Bell). The two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.

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The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts. Now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.

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Snowpiercer has many conceptual similarities to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, particularly J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Cinematically, Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.

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Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.

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Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.

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Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.

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At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.

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If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.

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The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.

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Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.

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The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.

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Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.

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It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.

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Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.

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Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.


30th 10 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Radford

The Class of ’84 Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This entry is part of the Class of ’84 Blogathon being hosted by Joe Valdez at This Distracted Globe.

Big Brother is watching you.

Whether you’ve ever read a word, or even heard of George Orwell’s seminal dystopian tale 1984, the above iconic quote is certain to have chilled your heart at some time or another. I’m not even sure this quote occurs in the book. It certainly doesn’t in Michael Radford’s evocative interpretation. Instead, in true cinematic fashion, the ever-present image of the carnivorous face of “B.B.” staring rapaciously out of two-way video screens all over the fictitious land of Oceania is all we need to experience what the people of Oceania do—a humorless totalitarian state where even thoughts are monitored for antisocial tendencies.

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Orwell (real name Eric Blair), a British subject, recorded propaganda broadcasts to combat Tokyo Rose and other Axis propagandists in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Tellingly, his main protagonist in 1984, Winston Smith, spends his days at the Ministry of Truth—in newspeak, Orwell’s vocabulary of political obfuscation, Mini-true—“correcting” history by replacing purged enemies of the state with acceptable icons in newspapers and broadcasts. It seems Orwell, whom one presumes was a patriot, might have had second thoughts about propaganda, particularly after the truth about Stalin’s brand of communism became all too clear. 1984 is clearly a cautionary tale to those in the West whose faith in Stalin would not be shaken.

The film begins with an epigram: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” We enter a stadium-sized gathering of Outer (rank and file) Party members watching a show trial of traitors accusing themselves of thought crimes and antisocial acts on an enormous screen. As the camera pans across the expanse of blue-jumpsuited workers, some rise spontaneously with the wrists of their fisted hand crossed over their heads. One of these workers is Smith (John Hurt), whose attention strays from the trial to the front row of Inner Party members. At the conclusion of the trial, the workers rise and shout hate-filled diatribes at the traitor, including a bitter-faced woman (Suzanna Hamilton). Smith retires to his quarters and in the only part of the room that isn’t viewable, removes a brick from his wall and extracts a journal into which he records his thoughts. In it, her writes that he hates this woman. Little does he know that an anonymous note that comes through the pneumatic tubes that send him his work for the day is from her. Her name is Julia, and she says “I love you.”

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Knowing that he is helping the State to lie and remain in a perpetual state of war drives Winston to rebel. For some time, he has been going in to the squalid proletariat section of town where vestiges of the old way of life—people in everyday clothes who continue to have sex and babies and where artifacts such as paperweights and wooden beds with mattresses can be found—exist unmolested by the Party. He paid a prostitute $2 to have sex with her; he loved how sloppy she was, the sense of disorderly freedom he felt. When he and Julia meet and become lovers, he takes her to a room Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack), an antiques dealer in the prole section, rents to him for $4 a week. He reads a book that seems modeled on Machiavelli’s The Prince to her as they lay in bed, a secreted gift to him from Inner Party leader O’Brien (Richard Burton). And then the thought police swoop down on them, and O’Brien sees to Smith’s torture-filled reeducation himself, ending with terrifying Smith senseless by placing a cage of rats over his head, rats being Smith’s greatest fear after seeing them crawling all over his dead mother in the aftermath of the war that saw B.B. rise to power. In the end, Smith and Julia are hollowed out, their love destroyed along with their free will.

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Radford’s Oceania is claustrophobic in private and fascistically grand in public. It provides a believable environment for what is essentially a caricature of a communist country, its machinery antiquated even as its world seems futuristic. This is, I feel, a great strength of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The utter devastation of war without end—the enemy changing frequently since the object is to keep warring, not win any concessions—and Smith’s memories looking all the world like London after the Blitz, ground this film in a European reality that was real not only for Orwell, but for the British cast and crew who made this film. The performances thus are wholly consonant with the mise-en-scène.

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It’s well known that I’m not a big fan of the Coen Brothers, but I have always admired the work of their regular cinematographer Roger Deakins. Here, before the Coens were a blip on his radar, Deakins works with the blue steel palette that is de rigueur for coloring dehumanization and misery, inflecting it, of course, with idealized images in bright colors and Julia’s nude body as a place Smith escapes to as he is tortured. There is nothing revolutionary about this cinematography—in fact, it could plausibly be argued that Radford, whose film debuted in December 1984, might have been highly influenced by the Ridley Scott-directed commercial for Apple computers that electrified a worldwide audience watching the 1984 Super Bowl 10 months earlier. It’s also possible that the two Brits merely compared notes in creating imagery and color schemes that were nearly identical for their renderings of Orwell’s world. I find it fascinating that an abstract landscape of rolling hills and sparse green trees Deakins and Radford composed for Smith’s oasis resembles a standard wallpaper image found on Microsoft PC monitors.

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The duplicity of all of the characters surrounding Smith is extremely well rendered by the film’s stellar cast. Hamilton’s Julia seems a passionate drone of the State, only to reveal startlingly her passion really lies in the pleasures of the flesh. Burton is so quiet in this, his last film role, that his betrayal of Smith comes as a genuine shock. Cyril Cusack is perfect as a symbol of a quaint, bygone era who preys on the nostalgia of Party members.

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And then there is Hurt in the performance of a career. He’s sweet, gullible, absolutely no match for the mechanics of his totalitarian world—and yet he cries out even in his worst moments, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” In the end, when Smith, unable to say anything unrelated to the Party sits at a dusty café table and draws “2 + 2 =” in the dirt, unable to finish, the poignancy of his suffering is almost too much to bear.

Naturally, there had to be a movie of 1984 in 1984. I’m glad it was this one.


27th 03 - 2009 | 17 comments »

Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Last night, Turner Classic Movies dedicated their programming to the work of the Korda clan—Alexander, Vincent, and Zoltán—the founders of London Films. The evening started with one of my favorites, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), with Alexander’s future wife Merle Oberon looking more lovely than in any film of hers I’ve seen. I fully intended to watch one of the hubby’s new acquisitions afterward, but then I saw that the next film up was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come with Ralph Richardson. Scifi films of the 1930s are generally cheesy affairs, but we both love the genre, so that’s what we watched.

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The film, which spans 100 years, begins Christmas 1940. The residents of Everytown (which resembles London) exhibit all the holiday excitement one would expect—children gazing covetously at toys in shop windows, adults making their way home, cars moving through the city center. All around are blaring signs and screaming headlines about the possibility of war, cut as a semi-montage of jingoistic propaganda.

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Gathering for Christmas dinner are engineer John Cabal (Raymond Massey), his wife (Sophie Stewart), and his friends Harding (Maurice Braddell), and “Pippa” Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Cabal rails against the foolishness of the human race, young Harding worries about what war will do to his science studies, Passworthy remains upbeat that war is unlikely and that even if it does come, it will bring innovation with it. Mrs. Cabal thinks she hears something, and the assembled go out of the Cabal mansion and view searchlights in the city center. “They wouldn’t attack on Christmas,” Mrs. Cabal questions incredulously, but that’s exactly what the unnamed enemy does. An emergency radio broadcast informs the horrified friends that the nation is mobilizing for war.

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The scene shifts to soldiers climbing onto transport trucks and riding through the city center on motorcycles. Passworthy talks to his young son about doing his part in the civil defense, as the admiring lad imitates the soldiers in their pith helmets. Soon, residents are warned to go home, go down into subway tunnels, collect gas masks from the supply trucks entering the square. Anti-aircraft cannons are brought to the ready. Finally, Menzies gives us a scene of great violence that foreshadows what London will experience during the Blitz—crumbled walls, dazed victims, dead bodies, all ending with a tragic shot of Passworthy’s child half-buried in the rubble, the former glory of the city now a broken skyline. For all its low-tech cheapness, it’s a sobering scene very well shot.

The immediate world plunges into a modern version of the 100 Years War, with Everytown reduced to medieval squalor, as destruction of industry has meant a complete breakdown of modern civilization. No more petrol, no more electricity, and residents largely wear skins instead of cloth. Their warlord, The Boss (Ralph Richardson), is a hothead who thinks only of getting his broken and fuelless air armada of 10 planes off the ground to crush the hill dwellers. Harding, now an old man, is bullied to serve The Boss and his queen, played brilliantly as a restless exotic by Margaretta Scott. But The Boss is no match for a visitor from the air—a very space-age-looking Cabal, who has returned to Everytown to “clean things up” on behalf of a group of scientists who call themselves Wings Over the World (WOW!). They bombard Everytown with the “gas of peace,” which puts the populace to sleep (and I suppose washes their brains of any hostile impulses), but kills the untameable Boss.

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The last act of the film takes place in 2036. The world has been engulfed by progress—multilevel, automated cities enclosed from the sun, residents dressed like Greek gods, and a splinter group led by Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) who say “enough” to progress once a “villainous” plan to send humans into outer space nears fruition. Menzies stages a thrilling attack on the space cannon as the new boss, Cabal’s grandson, also played by Massey, rushes to shoot his daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers), great-grandson of Pippa, off to orbit the moon.

The production values of this film are strictly bargain basement, and the sound quality is terrible. Nonetheless, director Menzies, cinematographer Georges Perinal, and film editors Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon spin a lot of gold out of straw. The camera angles are ingenious and well lit, creating some beautiful visuals that had me rather breathless at times. The models mainly look odd and flimsy, and the modern Everytown looks amazingly like a Hyatt Hotel, but the strange airplanes sent by Wings Over the World to rescue Cabal are pleasingly reminiscent of pterosaurs.

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As one would expect, the film is at its best in both look and coherence during the first act. The bombed-back-to-the-Stone-Age second act is the most enjoyable part of the film, as Ralph Richardson tears the screen to pieces as the blustering Boss. He is clearly having a gas playing this part, rising through the ranks as a tough who shoots on sight Everytowners afflicted with the deadly, highly contagious “wandering sickness,” which appears to be a silly-looking form of zombie-ism.

Come%202.jpgIf someone can explain to me the career of Raymond Massey, I’m all ears. He has all the subtlety of a drag queen, and in the third act, he gets to dress like one, too. At least in this film, it makes a bit of sense for everyone to dress in short skirts, seeing as the entire environment is climate-controlled. What a nuisance sunshine and fresh air are! I’m with the Luddites in this film, as the idea of sending people into space has no logic behind it except that Man must keep pushing the envelope if it kills Him. And this muddles the philosophy of the film for me: Do Wells, who wrote the screenplay, and the filmmakers think that unfettered progress is good? Was killing all the protesters who got too close to the space cannon (“Watch out for the concussion!”) at firing all right? Frankly, the fascistic images, from a gigantic, Art Nouveau sculpture to a gigantic, heroically lit close-up of Massey’s skeletal head spouting platitudes give me the willies. I was also highly encouraged that this was a dystopia by the fact that the huge council of the Brave New World of Things to Come was composed entirely of white men.

Give me Margaretta Scott and her gypsy attire any day!


29th 08 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Famous Firsts: THX 1138 (1971)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: George Lucas, writer-director

By Roderick Heath

It’s impossible to talk about George Lucas’ career without doing it in terms of Star Wars. Perhaps it’s fair enough, considering that four of the six films he has directed have been in that series. Even at his least—that would be Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)—with his limitations on display, Lucas is a natural-born filmmaker, skilled at filling the silver screen with detail, composing and editing his shots with fluidic skill and pictorial intelligence. Lucas achieved the feat of surviving, when the vagaries of cinematic fate crushed his producer, collaborator, and friend Francis Coppola’s hopes to define a new independence in Hollywood. Coppola’s then-new Zoetrope Studios produced THX 1138, adapted from Lucas’ film school short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138-4EB. Peeking under the film’s stringent, conceptual façade, Lucas’ preoccupations come into focus, preoccupations that also fed the nostalgic comedy of American Graffiti and the high-flying fantasy of the Star Wars films. THX 1138 is a tale of attempting to escape a world of strangling conformity and seemingly arbitrary rules (and rule) with verve and humanity. THX, the kids of Graffiti, Anakin, and Luke Skywalker—all attempt to blast apart the numbing trial of their lives in Nowheresville armed with fast machines and romantic notions that soon melt in the light of day. How well they survive then depends on their essential characters.

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THX 1138 (Robert Duvall, suitably, intensively dead pan) is a member of a future civilization that has retreated underground. Children are laboratory-grown, and people have been reduced as much as possible to abstract entities. They’re drugged to suppress emotion, allowed to cohabit but prohibited from sexual activity. Hordes of technicians supervise everyone and each other. They’re kept still more numb with media, reduced to the barest of provocations. TV provides either terrible sitcoms (“That was very funny,” THX states at the punchline of a nonexistent joke), or social lectures, or forms of pornography, both violent (one show consists of one of the city’s robotic policemen beating up a man) and sexual (a dancer who flickers whilst THX is worked on by a masturbation machine). Religion provides confessional sessions in a phone booth, with an image of a generic holy man and a recorded voice; priests don’t let anyone into their tabernacles. The workplace regularly sees accidents that wipe out hundreds of disposable employees.

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Like most dystopias, it’s actually a particularly scurrilous version of the era it was made in, whilst owing something to Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick. The prologue presents clips from an old Buck Rogers serial, an ironic counterpoint to this vision, but also an affirmation of its themes. Like Buck, THX is an ordinary man who beats his enemies by utilizing his fundamental, ordinary human gifts of bravery, verve, and wit. There is no cabal of ruling elite, à la Orwell, with knowledge and interests at odds with the suppressed populace. It’s not a theocracy, fascist, or socialist state. It’s all those things, with catchphrases of such diverse authorities, like “the masses,” and “religious matters,” jumbled into a mélange of substance-free significance. THX is a technician who works with dangerous nuclear materials, and it’s impossible for him to perform without nerve-deadening drugs. But his assigned wife, LUH (Maggie McOmie), tampers with their pills, prodded by suppressed, illegal maternal urges. She and THX are awakened to a terrifying, daunting new life. THX is beset by violent withdrawal symptoms, but is soon suddenly alive to LUH’s body, sex, and feeling. Not just love, but the ambiguity of love, as LUH wonders whether they were properly mated by the computers. It’s amazing, but, as THX snaps, “It can’t go on!”

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They are observed by computer programmer SEN (Donald Pleasance), who attempts to intervene in their lives, promising to shield them if he can convince THX to cohabit with him. SEN is searching for a kindred soul who, like him, bends the rules. Whilst at his job, an arrest warrant goes out for THX, and he is “mind-locked” at his work station; this almost causes a nuclear disaster, which is only averted once he’s released and can save the day. He is swiftly tried for violating morals and drug-use laws, and sent, along with LUH and SEN, to a vast white void of a prison. When THX and LUH react to this strange, oddly free environment by having sex, officers hurriedly race in to separate them. LUH is later executed. THX is only spared from execution because of his technical skills, and is left with SEN and other long-term, intelligent prisoners. In a note that satirizes the divide between younger, lifestyle-oriented, counterculture folk and older, goal-oriented radicals, SEN wants to be effective in his resistance, and rejects the notion of intellectual immigration. “When posterity judges our actions here it will perhaps see us not as unwilling prisoners, but as men who, for whatever reason, prefer to remain as noncontributing individuals on the edge of society,” SEN formulates to the other prisoners, and warns, “This must not happen!”

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THX doesn’t give a damn. He stalks off into the great white to find a way out, SEN trailing him pathetically. They come across the wandering SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who claims to be a hologram who got bored with his program and escaped into the real world, and he shows them the way out of the prison. Escaping into a throng of pedestrians, SEN is separated from THX and SRT, and panics at the thought of freedom. “I can’t start again. I can’t change,” he confesses, and allows himself to be arrested. THX and SRT brave their way into a transport hub and steal police cars. SRT crashes, but THX hits the road.

Lucas is fascinated by the notion of the ghost in the machine—in a literal fashion, the degree to which fundamental human, sentient characteristics can interact with the technological, and the way they clash. “He’s more machine now than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi once murmurs in considering Darth Vader, and the crux of the series, as in THX, is the notion that a spark of human spirit will finally overthrow such technocratic usurpation. The crucial moment of this film comes when THX escapes. He stops his car on the threshold of the city. Duvall’s face subtly registers both his fear of the unknown he’s diving into, and his sad realization that his rebel companions SEN, LUH, and SRT won’t be following. He is vitally alone in his confrontation with existence. This is, at last, being human, and he feels it.

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Despite the scifi trappings, THX 1138 has an interior, alienated texture pitched to echo a counterculture atmosphere; it feels like an illustration of a Bob Dylan lyric, like “Visions of Johanna,” or a Borgesian labyrinth tale, with its haiku-spare vignettes and images, and echoes of vast cultural arguments going around in circles. This balances some overt satire and whimsy. As Peter Watkins did in his masterful Punishment Park (1970)—an entirely different spin on a similar parable—Lucas exploits the suspiciously fascistic look of contemporaneous Los Angeles motorcycle cops, styling his robot guardians of the city after them. Yet the policebots are the film’s fount of humor, as they engage in idiotic banter and find themselves easily outpaced by a man without the behavioral restraints they’re used to. In the end, they’re reduced to pleading with THX to come back because they’ve exceeded their allotted pursuit budget.

The Star Wars films are pictorial, illustrative, narrative-driven, whereas THX 1138 is often near-abstract, but both are built from an enveloping mise-en-scène. Lucas cowrote the screenplay with buddy and all-around film wizard Walter Murch, who aided Lucas in creating the film’s suffocating sound textures, an eternal cacophony of blips, beeps, sirens, advertisements, recording voices, droning air conditioning, and a thousand other contributors to subterranean atmosphere. Lucas’ visuals are often fractured, shot through layers of media like video surveillance equipment. The film condenses gradually into a dense blanket of sensory input. This is THX’s world, where private feeling and experience have been reduced to the point where even those who rebel have barely any idea of how they should act or what they should do.

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THX 1138 also owes a debt to Kubrick for its thematic glaze of estrangement through technology and the struggle to overcome it. Visually, however, it owes little to anybody, and images from it haunt the imagination afterwards: Maggie McOmie’s shaven head and haunted face; the vast hordes of likewise bald drones; naked THX circled by the policebots with cattle prods, trying to defend himself and his mate; the dribbling philosophical argument in an endless sea of white; the sudden thrill of movement as THX drives to freedom. Lucas is a savant at home purveying the image rather than the spoken word. His most expressive moments are found in image. The very last image of THX 1138, where newly reborn Man rises to the surface underneath a gigantic setting sun, is bound with the other, most nakedly emotional shot in his oeuvre, where Luke Skywalker stares in yearning at the twin suns of Tatooine. Yet it also echoes the finale of American Graffiti, with the car crash in the early morning light suggesting an end to illusions and the brief window of the thrill of the run—from here on is only survival.

It’s easy to call THX 1138 a serious film, and the Star Wars films play, but they’re built from the same nuts and bolts of parable. Star Wars was bent on being accessible and thrilling, where THX 1138 is allusive and mysterious. If THX 1138 is ragged in places, it’s also one of the best science fiction films of its time. Its influence is undeniable. Scifi dystopias arrived by the bushel in its wake, but the likes of Soylent Green (1971), Logan’s Run (1974), and Rollerball (1975) lacked its rigor of style and mise-en-scène, and I doubt Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1981), or The Matrix (1999) would have happened without its example. Lucas occasionally talks about returning to experimental projects like this. I doubt he will. And it’s a shame.

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16th 11 - 2007 | 4 comments »

Lexx (TV, 1997-2002)

Creatively Culpable: Paul Donovan, Lex Gigeroff, Jeffrey Hirshfield

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I am The Lexx. I am the most powerful weapon of destruction in the two universes. I was grown on the Cluster, which is ruled by His Shadow. The food was good there. My captain is Stanley Tweedle. I blow up planets for him.

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 61 episodes that comprise the two universes of Lexx, a fiendishly fun space opera from Canada/Germany/UK/US, may be my favorite scifi entertainment of all time. Its brilliantly conceived and executed first season, leading to the inevitable letdown of the second season, and moving on to existential meditations on life and death, heaven and hell, and finally renewal in its final season on the most corrupt and evil planet in the two universes, the “Little Blue Planet” a.k.a. Earth, comprised a year-long adventure I’ll never forget.

Lexx%20crew%20edit.JPGAssembling a full set of DVDs of the four seasons of Lexx required the hubby and me to spend a lot of time on e-Bay. Sometimes I wondered at the fast pace and cost of our acquisitions, but after the first season—the single most inventive, entertaining, and audacious visual treat I have ever been glued to—there was no stopping us. We might sit for hours watching two, three, four episodes in a row, then give ourselves a breather of a couple of weeks or even a couple of months. Drawing out the pleasures and frustrations of Lexx was the only way to make it all the way through. Like part human love slave/part Cluster lizard Xev Bellringer (Eva Habermann in Season 1 and Xenia Seeburg for the rest of the series), we were driven by our curious natures and powers of endurance to continue. Like Stanley Tweedle (Brian Downey), former security guard class 4, ex-Austral B heretic, and captain of The Lexx, we were “self-centered, vain, old, unattractive” enough to believe in our own inevitable victory over inertia and the other fads of the day. Like 2,000-year-old zombie assassin Kai (Michael McManus), we’d kill anyone who got in our way “in the service of His Divine Shadow and his predecessors and … never once show any mercy.” And like insane robot head 790, we believed anyone who didn’t support our quest gave “carbon molecules a bad name.”

Eva%20Lexx.jpgLexx presents a dystopia created by the insect wars of the Light Universe that carried on for millennia until the human race destroyed the insects. Under the totalitarian rule of His Shadow (Walter Borden), all humans are assigned a place in the Universe. Difficulties are ironed out through reassignment, banishment, or death. Xev, an enormously fat and homely woman raised to be a wife, is sent for reassignment by her rejecting adolescent husband. She is to be molecularly transformed into a love slave, but rebels against His Shadow break in. Just as she is put into the reassignment machine, a Cluster lizard falls in as well, imbuing the suddenly beautiful and hypersexed Xev with a lizard’s personality and physical agility. A domestic robot model 790 (the voice of Jeffrey Hirshfield)—or rather, just his head—gets the full love slave treatment and falls deeply and exclusively in love with Xev.

Stanley is a pretty disgusting human being, a menial in a red jumpsuit and pillbox cap who basically only wants to get laid. By misadventure, he ends up getting from the rebels the key to The Lexx, a powerful insect/machine created by His Shadow to blow up troublesome planets. Because the key is biologically coded to Stanley’s DNA, he is the only person who can command The Lexx.

Kai, last of the Brunnen-G, resisters who were destroyed by His Shadow’s forces, was killed 2,000 years before and enlisted into the Cluster’s army of assassins. He is kept animated by protoblood and is awakened from cryostasis to retrieve The Lexx. The entire first season is devoted to uncovering the plots underlying the insect wars, the shifting alliances that put Kai in league with Stanley, Xev, and 790, and lead them to destroy the Light Universe and travel into the even more dreaded Dark Universe.

The enormously colorful cast of characters from the first season include Mantrid (Dieter Laser), a centuries-old genius who has Giggerota.jpgsystematically replaced his decaying body with robot parts and who keeps a kinky male slave in leather and chains to attend to his needs, and Giggerota (Ellen Dubin), a literally maneating “woman” who wears a suit made of the skins of her victims and calls Stanley “a waste of skin.” I admit I was completely revolted by Giggerota and was happy when she was vaporized by The Lexx. However, like Kai, nobody ever really “dies” in Lexx.

Recasting the part of Xev when Habermann had a scheduling conflict required Xev to be killed and reconstituted. A grieving 790 composes hilariously bad poems to Xev and pines unceasingly. Ironically, his ardor will turn to hatred when a reprogramming gone bad has him fall in love with Kai instead. The sex mania of 790 is unlike any ever depicted. He forces the construction of a body so that he can consummate his love physically and eventually goes stark-raving mad, willing to destroy anyone and everyone to possess Kai. His hatred for Stanley becomes an entertaining running joke. “If I only had an arm, I’d be more than just a head. If I only had an arm, I would strangle Tweedle dead!”

Lexx%20Stanley.jpgOn a more poignant note, Xev’s unrequited love for the lifeless Kai does tug at the heartstrings. A hypersexed love slave, she literally can’t get a rise out of Kai, who feels nothing physically or emotionally. The entire second season deals with sexual frustration and was, for me, very one-note and annoying. The heaps of trouble Stanley and Xev get into trying to get laid make for some entertaining theatre, but it’s more than a tease to have a newly minted love slave with the stamina of a Cluster lizard and keep her a virgin until Season 3.

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In Season 3, the crew of the Lexx become involved with a war between two planets in the Dark Universe, Fire and Water. Prince (the formidable Nigel Bennett) is an immortal who rules the evil Fire and wishes to destroy idyllic Water. Hot-air balloons are the ships of war in this system, and we watch as our crew become marooned and must use these airships to go from planet to planet. Stanley falls for a young volleyball player from Water named Bunny (Patricia Zentilli), but she is killed by the duplicitous Fifi (Jeff Pustil), a Water resident who “doesn’t really fit in.” Only slowly does it dawn on the explorers that they (with the exception of Kai) are the only living inhabitants of these worlds. No one on either planet remembers being born—one day they were just there. Individuals the crew remember from other places reappear; for example, Giggerota is now a bodiless Queen of Fire. The battle for survival of The Lexx’s crew becomes existential, as Kai meets Prince for a game of chess in an interesting imitation of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Kai will be granted life if he beats Prince, setting up perhaps the most poignantly triumphant moment of the entire series.

Season 4 takes place on Earth, where all of the souls of Fire and Water travel after their planets are destroyed. Bunny becomes the sexpot doofus wife of U.S. President Reginald J. Priest (Rolf Kanies), a toady to Prince, who is now a Dick Cheney knockoff. Conspiracies, rebels, honky-tonk music in a Canadian tavern, and as always, sex (particularly funny is a reality show similar to The Bachelorette starring Xev, who will screw the winner at the end of the series) fill this corruption-happy final season. Putting Lexx in the realm of the familiar dampens the scifi appeal somewhat, but the satire is sharp and the series finale extremely satisfying.

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Lexx becomes more profound as time goes on, but its basic staples are food and sex. The Lexx is a living being and must eat enormous amounts of organic matter to keep up its strength. If Lexx doesn’t eat, it can’t produce a gloppy food it expels from a penis-like tube for Stan and Xev. Stanley’s one true love is Lyekka (Louise Wischermann), a plant that not only can take human form but can devour a single person or an entire planet. She would never eat Stanley, but she gets “very hungry” a lot and becomes a threat to Earth in a send-up of Japanese horror films. In fact, the dangers facing the the living often come down to the very primitive concern of being eaten by something bigger and more powerful.

Lexx%20Malcolm.jpgA number of well-known actors appear on Lexx, including Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, Malcolm McDowell, and Rutger Hauer. I liked the bold, blonde Habermann better as Xev because she seemed to bring deeper emotion to her character. Seeburg just seemed like a preening pair of fat lips to me most of the time, and I never warmed to her. Downey admirably never really redeems Stanley all the way. While he becomes more comradely, particularly with lust object Xev, he is who he is. When he is condemned to Purgatory after a real death he suffers, his task is to keep pedaling a bicycle or risk having a guillotine chop his head off—at which point he is back on the bike repeating the same routine for all eternity. I actually thought this was a fitting punishment for him. McManus is definitely the most appealing character—which is quite a commentary considering he is a dead assassin. When he is cleansed of his loyalty to His Shadow, he helps Stan and Xev primarily because he has no other purpose. He has no real feelings, only shadows of them from time to time, but the writers were smart enough to give him a chance to show some character. When he sings the Brunnen-G fight song, an infectious ditty that the hubby and I chanted with the opening credits to each episode, his beautiful voice is a real treat.

The look of Lexx is very “squishy.” Insect forms, body parts, heads with exposed brains, the dripping innards of The Lexx filmed over with membranes, bloody torture chambers, and ratlike people in elaborately ruched clothing create a tactile, sweaty, junglelike atmosphere you can practically smell. Time has no meaning when assassins can “live” after death and cryostasis can keep the living going forever. Interestingly, one death—a very painful one for me—comes unexpectedly, yet signals the hope for renewal. We’ve been through Dante’s Hell through the fevered minds of the creators of Lexx, and now there is light.

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