Friday, April 30, 2010

Thou shalt have no other Herzog before me; Or, Encounters at the End of the Meme

Werner Herzog will never have an existential anxiety attack. Existential anxiety isn't foolish enough to attack him.

According to Einstein's theory of relativity, Werner Herzog can actually roundhouse kick Klaus Kinski into yesterday, where he'd kick him again.

Werner Herzog can fling a 35mm film frame with such deadly accuracy that it can slice the head off a marble statue at 100 yards.

Werner Herzog made Nosferatu the Vampyre as a musical, but only he can hear the songs. If we could hear them, a single note of the angelic hosts would explode our brains.

The only DVD God owns: Aguirre, the Wrath of Herzog.

There was no bear in Grizzly Man. That's just how Werner Herzog holds auditions. 

(This, of course, is simply bouncing off this: "Chuck Norris is Dead. Werner Herzog Killed Him.")

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Scenes I love: "The Third Man" — a slice of Lime

"The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly."

Everyone remembers Orson Welles' speech about cuckoo clocks, jaunty and murderous at once. And Anton Karas' zither music, plucking minor keys around our expectations. Then there's director Carol Reed's vertiginous canted angles and the way they bevel Robert Krasker's rich, deep black-and-white cinematography. The atmospheric rubble and melancholy damp of war-smashed Vienna. That moment when the story turns on the cat that "liked only Harry." Beautiful and haunted Alida Valli's long final walk away from both the cemetery and the happy ending imagined by Joseph Cotten's sadder-but-no-wiser pulp novelist Holly Martins. Graham Greene's script that knows precisely when to light its fuses. All that glittering, quotable dialogue.

In The Third Man, from 1949, Martins is a "scribbler" of hack Westerns who arrives in postwar Vienna to land a job and join his old pal Harry Lime. Instead he finds himself drawn into a murder mystery and a network of deadly black-market racketeers. It's a suspense-thriller-romance steeped in Hollywood's best influences and "gimmicks," yet it's crafted with enough looming European "art-house" style to topple Fritz Lang into an existential funk. It's a hybrid that blurs the lines between what's comic and what's corrupt and cankerous. It melds melodrama with razor-blade noir tones, smirking lightheartedness with ruminations on seductive evil.

Why, The Third Man delivers so many well-loved attractions, and endures as a favorite among casual and dogmatically zealous movie lovers alike, that opening it up for a film-crit autopsy risks deadening its rewatchable pleasures with the whiff of formaldehyde. And yet the film's richness invites deep-think bathysphering for any allegorical "meaning" it may contain. A U.S. foreign policy lens — Holly as well-intentioned but clumsy and naive America sticking its nose into other countries' business only to have it bitten — is one perfectly cromulent interpretative stance.

"We had no desire to move people's political emotions," wrote Greene. "We wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh." Greene thought of The Third Man as a comedy-thriller. Reed directed it like the bleakest of noirs. It isn't often that such a push-me-pull-you dynamic brings out the best in both forms. As if taking cues from the scene where clueless pulp-fiction writer Martins withers before a high-toned book society, the film is both James Joyce and Zane Grey. It's fitting then that The Third Man — co-produced in England by Alexander Korda and in the U.S. by David O. Selznick — ranks #1 on the British Film Institute's list of all-time best British films, while also making the American Film Institute's list of top American films.

Yet for all the fine nuggets in Greene's script, and all the exquisite camerawork and deftly sketched characters (including a gallery of economically realized supporting parts), the favorite attraction here for me is the film's big reveal, handily the ne plus ultra of big reveals. Even after a dozen viewings, when we reach that scene we're keyed up with expectation: The camera tight on a content cat grooming itself in the shadows between a pair of polished shoes. A local resident, complaining about Martins' shouting, opens an upstairs window and poof!, like a magician's trick there's Orson Welles snapped into being beneath the window light. Welles caps the instant with an "I know a secret" smile that brings his boyish and charismatic Harry Lime to coruscating life.

Soon afterward, we ascend into the Prater Wheel sequence, where Harry reduces the victims of his crimes, including dead and crippled children, to mere dots and those cuckoo clocks.

Like Casablanca, here's a movie that jelled from a perfect storm of talent in every department, and that made Vienna's labyrinthine subterranean sewers as famous as Rick's Cafe. Man, what an ideal double-feature! The Third Man is Casablanca's dark-souled half-brother, the one Shakespeare would call the villain but the one who'd get the coolest speeches anyway.

Music: The BPA, "Seattle (featuring Emmy the Great)"
Near at hand: Coffee mug with Tiffany Grapes Window pattern

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kai goes to the beach

1. "Hey, a beach! Birds! Smelly things! Let's go!"

2. ::read read read::

3. "Well, crap."

4. "Bet I could jump this."

Music: The Doors, "I Can't See Your Face in My Mind"
Near at hand: a glass heart

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy 446th birthday, William Shakespeare! And many more

April 23 marks William Shakespeare's birthday. Okay, fine, we know he was baptized on April 26 and it's likely he was born three days earlier, so his birthday is traditionally observed on the 23rd.  Screw it. Whatever the actual birth date, it was sometime this week, so let's all raise a flagon of ale and wish a happy 446th to one of our favorite screenwriters.

Sure, the Western canon's greatest playwright may have lived centuries before movies came along, but he has proved himself time and again as one of our most prolific and popular writers for the big screen. So to commemorate his birthday, let's find a few of our favorites that ask "What light through yonder movie break?"

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V (1989)
With gritty realism and lavish production values, this directorial debut of 29-year-old actor Kenneth Branagh reinvigorated Shakespeare's great play of history and warfare for a new generation — and made Branagh a darling of critics and audiences on two continents.

The Bard's dialogue remains largely intact, and the strong top-to-bottom cast — including Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Christian Bale, Paul Scofield, Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and Judi Dench — are fully equipped for the task. There's something about Branagh's delivery of the famous St. Crispin's Day speech — issued to his battle-weary troops in the French countryside, as king and soldiers alike are covered in sweat, blood, and earth — that sends a thrilled shudder up my spine every time.

Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation struck a stirring nationalist note for an England at war:

In 1999, the superhero comedy Mystery Men joined the ranks of movies and TV shows that have riffed on that St. Crispin's Day speech. It cracks me up every time:

Movie Videos & Movie Scenes at

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996)
Of course we can't pair Branagh and Shakespeare together without giving a nod to Branagh's production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy. The first unabridged theatrical film version of the play, the running time is just over four hours, but it is spellbinding and powerful cinema. (Although, honestly, there are a few strangely wobbly performances here, namely Jack Lemmon — !! — as Marcellus, who seems like he'd much prefer to be out hitting the links with Walter Mathau, and Robin Williams' shticky Osric.) Branagh is, naturally, the thoughtful prince out to avenge his father's murder, supported by Derek Jacobi as King Claudius, Julie Christie as Queen Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Richard Briers as Polonius, Nicholas Farrell as Horatio, and — in this clip — Billy Crystal as the gravedigger.

(Branagh's movie version of Much Ado About Nothing is pretty good too.)

Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995)
For some he'll always be Gandalf. For others, the evil mutant Magneto. But before Sir Ian McKellen was immortalized in a line of action figures, he was one of England's most respected Shakespeareans. His Richard III casts McKellen as the charismatic, murderous, clever, subtle, and often slyly humorous villain ascending to the throne in a Nazi-inspired 1930s England. In this brazen, fast-paced adaptation, the machine-gun pocked opening credits climax with McKellen driving a tank through a wall to kill King Henry VI and his son. One of the play's most famous lines — "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" — was recontextualised by the new setting: during the climactic battle, Richard's scout car becomes stuck, and his lament is cast as a plea for a mode of transport with legs rather than wheels.

In this clip, among the supporting cast we see Robert Downey Jr. as Lord Rivers, Annette Bening as Elizabeth, and Maggie Smith as the Duchess of York.

Perhaps no other title on this page better proves that Will Shakespeare would have loved writing for the movies.

Roman Polanski's Macbeth (1971)
Starring Jon Finch as He Who Must Go Unnamed, Polanski's interpretation of "the Scottish play" is as bleak and bloody as they come. You can feel the dank misery of the Middle Ages in every scene. But of course it's most remembered for the nude scene with Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) freaking out and looking for a really good bar of soap.

Julie Taymor's Titus (1999)
In Shakespeare's day, his early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus was a hit "slasher film" of the era. This most gruesome of all Shakespeare's plays — a real "Itchy & Scratchy" of the First Folio — was a smash success that his company trotted out many times over the years to give the groundlings brutal, over-the-top thrills such as mutilations, beheadings, and even a mother tricked into eating her own children that have been baked into pies. (Step aside, Sweeney Todd.)

Director Julie Taymor adapted her own tricked-out stage version for a powerful and wildly weird film starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and Alan Cumming. As one of the unfortunate sons, also here is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (now TV's Henry VIII in The Tudors). The setting is an anachronistic "all times, all places" world that uses locations, costumes, and imagery from many periods of history, including ancient Rome and Mussolini's Italy. This clip is from the "Iron Chef" scene:

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Whoa. After all that death and debauchery, let's move to some lighter fare. This movie adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous romance was directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, with nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel describes the film as being "full of beautiful young people, and the camera, and the lush Technicolour, make the most of their sexual energy and good looks." Made at the height of the "British invasion" in U.S. pop culture, and aimed straight at the era's counterculture youth, a generation of teenagers thereafter grew up on this film. Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is notable for being one of the first filmed versions of the play in which the main actors are near the ages of their characters — Leonard Whiting (Romeo) was 17 during filming, and Olivia Hussey (Juliet) was 15. Zeffirelli had to get special permission for Hussey to appear nude in the film. Hussey later recalled that she was not permitted to view the film because it contained her own nudity.

On the other hand, if you like your Romeo and Juliet with a modern pop edge, there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and a soundtrack that successfully targeted the MTV Generation.

Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985)
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Oscar-winning adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear, moved to a sixteenth-century Japan of warloards and fierce battles, was the famed director's last great epic and remains one of the most gripping and beautifully made of all "Shakespeare movies."

With a budget of $12 million, it was the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Ran was hailed for its powerful images and use of color — costume designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for Costume Design for her work. Kurosawa loved filming in lush and expansive locations, and most of Ran was shot amidst the mountains and plains of Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Kurosawa was also granted permission to shoot at two of the country's most famous landmarks, the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji. For the castle of Lady Sué's family, he used the ruins of the Azusa castle.

If you like Kurosawa's Ran, follow that film (after you recover) with his 1957 Throne of Blood, which transposes Macbeth to medieval Japan. It's one of Kurosawa's best films, and for many critics it's one of the best film adaptations of Macbeth, despite having almost none of the play's script. Washizu/Macbeth's famous death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and fill his body with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, a choice made to help actor Toshiro Mifune display realistic facial expressions of fear.

And talk about pop culture cool — In an episode of TV's Smallville, Lex Luthor claims that a sword hanging on the wall of his study is a prop from Throne of Blood, his "favorite Akira Kurosawa movie."

King Lear with James Earl Jones at the New York Shakespeare Festival
There have been so many King Lears on film. There are versions set in post-Chernobyl Russia, at a Yiddish seder, and in the cornfields of Iowa. We've seen existential Lears, a Soviet Christian Marxist Lear, and a punk-apocalyptic Lear. Orson Welles was a fine screen king, and at 75 Laurence Olivier won the International and Primetime Emmy awards in a 1984 TV production co-starring Diana Rigg, John Hurt, and Stonehenge.

Then again, you may prefer your King Lear served straight up. In that case, I suggest the Broadway Theatre Archive DVD starring James Earl Jones (before he became Darth Vader), from a performance filmed before an audience in New York City's Central Park and broadcast in 1974 as a PBS Great Performances presentation.

The supporting cast showcases Raul Julia as the seductive villain Edmund, Rene Auberjonois as Edgar/Tom o' Bedlam, Rosalind Cash as treacherous Goneril, Lee Chamberlain's loving and steadfast Cordelia, Douglass Watson as loyal Kent, and Tom Aldredge (The Sopranos) as the Fool, Lear's voice of observant wisdom. (The only weak link is, oddly, Paul Sorvino's lackluster Gloucester.)

Here's a no-fripperies, full-speed-ahead King Lear that's accessible, exciting, haunting, moving, and crowd-pleasing in ways that merely reading the play in English class will never achieve.

Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996)
Al Pacino self-produced this terrific fly-on-the-wall documentary because, basically, he's a Shakespeare buff. In it, Pacino explores not just the gold and dirt within Shakespeare's text — we watch him also dip into the well of his own skill and craft as an actor to see if he has what it takes to make the vile (but layered and nuanced) Richard III live for modern American audiences.

Pacino embarked upon Looking for Richard by recruiting fellow actors — such as Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Winona Ryder — and shooting small excerpts on film, be it conversations, debates, table-readings, or informal scenes in casual settings. Michael Mann lent some of his film crew from Heat to shoot the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field just outside of L.A.

The result is a meditation on the value of the play, and of Shakespeare in general. It's a master class in acting, with behind-the-scenes conversations illuminating how much thought and planning goes into this sort of production.

Shakespeare in Love (1999)
Okay, sure, it's not strictly speaking "a Shakespeare movie," but this romance-comedy-drama does a splendid job taking us back to the days when Will Shakespeare, just 29 years old with his career on the rise, might forsake it all for the love of a higher-born woman.

The witty script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard bubbles with in-jokes for Shakespeare fans and theater buffs. Shakespeare in Love left the 1999 Academy Awards with seven statuettes, including the one for Best Picture. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother) is Will, and Gwyneth Paltrow (ah, my Gwyneth, shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) permanently entered by Must Watch list with this one.

Forbidden Planet (1956)
In 1956 with Forbidden Planet, MGM did for science fiction what it had done for musicals four years earlier with Singin' in the Rain. The studio took the stuff its audiences loved, gave it that high-polish MGM razzle-dazzle, and produced an enduring best-of-breed favorite, a CinemaScope spectacle that's terrifically entertaining, smartly written, memorably cast, briskly paced, and production-designed to the hilt. Instead of Gene Kelly's tap shoes or Debbie Reynolds' pertness, this time we get Leslie Nielsen as a proto-Captain Kirk, special effects photography that still knocks our socks off, Hollywood's most famous robot before Star Wars' less imaginative and interesting droids, and (the stuff space-kids' dreams are made on) leggy Anne Francis ably modeling miniskirts a decade early.

It has aged well, and any dated elements — that great flying-saucer design of the starship, the crew's baseball-cap uniforms, the casual Rat Pack-era sexism — only add a quaint charm to the film's robust retro-future vibe. Oh, and its plot points, and even some dialogue, come lifted with an Amazing Stories spin from Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare Style
And finally, it's not a video clip, but it's too good to not mention. Via Boing Boing, we now know that Livejournal's Ceruleanst has given Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction the Bardolator treatment. Forthwith, here's the "Royale with Cheese" bit as written by William Shakespeare:
ACT I SCENE 2. A road, morning. Enter a carriage, with JULES and VINCENT, murderers.
J: And know'st thou what the French name cottage pie?
V: Say they not cottage pie, in their own tongue?
J: But nay, their tongues, for speech and taste alike
   Are strange to ours, with their own history:
   Gaul knoweth not a cottage from a house.
V: What say they then, pray?
J: Hachis Parmentier.
V: Hachis Parmentier! What name they cream?
J: Cream is but cream, only they say le crème.
V: What do they name black pudding?
J: I know not;
   I visited no inn it could be bought.
The site's left-hand navigation among scenes needs a numbering fix, so the Table of Contents is more useful. Of course, social networking being what it is, others have joined in and further passages have been appended anon. And on and on and on.

As I was putting this post together, I stumbled upon Bardfilm: The Shakespeare and Film Microblog. Its collection of rare (and sometime quite odd) clips, plus info and insights and connections both scholarly and amusing, is going to keep me occupied for days. If my own lengthy and scattershot post here kept you interested, go there and bookmark it.

Music: Tom Waits, Glitter and Doom Live
Near at hand: program booklet: Seattle Shakespeare's superb Two Gentlemen of Verona

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Or maybe huge crumpled paper balls and dangly bits of yarn?

Millions of years ago, did alien spacecraft hover above Earth's primordial landscape playing Laser Pointer Dot Tag with saber-toothed cats?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Michael Bay eating a bowl of cereal

A post by the always welcome John Scalzi at — "Yes, Michael Bay is cinema's Motley Crue" — reminded me to spread this video around further.

The Man in the White Suit (1951) — One perfectly poured Guinness, please

In more free-association movie-watching, Friday's big post about When Worlds Collide prompted me to watch my sentimental favorite science fiction movie from that well-packed year of 1951. That is, the movie that's my favorite outlier within the science fiction canon. Or perhaps it's my favorite Droll British Comedic SF movie of that (or any) year.

However you classify it, it's certainly the best, hands down, science fiction movie Alec Guinness ever starred in.

What's that? B-b-but what about Star Wars?

Please. I'm as much a fan of those films as the next guy wearing a "Han Shot First" t-shirt. But the Star Wars movies are not science fiction as much as they're fantasy with rivets. X-wing fighters = magic flying carpets in gun-metal gray. Lightsabers? Prince Valiant's Singing Sword given a glow effect and cool vvvrrrrmmm sounds. And let's not even start with the Force.

No, in this case I'm applying the Asimovian definition of science fiction as a tale that unveils human passions and foibles via a technological advance. Under those (admittedly strict) terms, The Man in the White Suit is pure science fiction, a story that would be right at home within decades' worth of Analog or Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. At the same time it's one of the slyest of comedies from London's Ealing Studios, where Guinness permanently stamped his place in movie history with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (also '51), and The Ladykillers (1955).

(Check out WFMU radio's "epic nerd-off" Science Fiction Trivia Challenge between John Hodgman and Patton Oswalt to hear the participants riff on how Guinness' long and august career was eclipsed by Star Wars mania. Oswalt's "Lavendar Hill-con" endears him to me forever. It starts at the 15:03 mark.)

While on the surface it's a comic fable with a sense of humor as dry as a cracker, The Man in the White Suit possesses a sharp edge that rises like a shark fin above the natty British drollery. The theme of the Establishment vs. the "common man" was practically a British genre of its own, and like Peter Sellers' breakthrough film, I'm All Right Jack ('59), here's a damning satire of British Establishment conservatism, industrial capitalists, and trade unions, one that strives to be both funny and dour, and succeeds at both — an achievement postwar Brits so excelled at.

So here's a superb tea-and-biscuits take on the Prometheus myth. The setting is transferred to the smokestacked landscape of industrial Manchester, and naive boffin Sidney Stratton is the bringer of wonders who must pay a price for his unrepentant actions.

At its center is a lovely performance from Guinness as the tweedy Stratton, an impassioned obsessive whose invention could provide incalculable benefits to all humanity, therefore he and it must be stopped at all costs. He takes menial jobs in textile mills so that he can sneak time in their labs to work on his secret experiment — a bubbling, oomp-pahing contraption of mysterious purpose. Although a brilliant Cambridge honors grad, Stratton is blinkered by his single-mindedness (these days he'd likely be labeled with Asperger's), and the forged expenses incurred by his experiments repeatedly get him sacked, mill after mill.

But at last he scams his way into the laboratory of his dreams, and after a series of literally explosive experiments, his "Eureka!" moment arrives with the discovery of a revolutionary new fiber that is indestructible and repels dirt and stains.

The factory owner (Cecil Parker) sees the miracle fabric as the ultimate boon for his company, and in short order a tailor whips up a demonstration suit for Stratton. The resulting luminous white trousers and jacket not only glow even in the dingy daylight, they give Stratton the air of an ultramodern White Knight tilting at one mission in life: to free mankind from washtime drudgery and the indignities of tattered clothing.

Naturally, the monopolistic textile industry leaders, led by a seemingly mummified tycoon (Ernest Thesiger as a Monty Burns prototype), see only a threat to their well-fed status quo. Their attempts to coerce Stratton and suppress his discovery include money (he blinks befuddled at £250,000), deception, incarceration, and even sex. They employ his boss' sexy daughter Daphne (yummy, plummy-voiced Joan Greenwood) to seduce him, but his steadfast nature and unblemished idealism turn her sympathies toward Stratton ("flotsam floating on the floodtide of profit," she says of him) and against the cold self-preservation of papa or her would-be Establishment suitor, Michael Gough.

(Pardon me a moment while I imagine Joan Greenwood breathing softly into my ear with that voice like warm butterscotch pudding.... )

On the other side of the capitalist coin, the local textile workers union see only an end to their livelihoods. Their point of view is poignantly hammered home by Stratton's frail old landlady (Edie Martin), who makes ends meet with laundry services and who asks her on-the-lam tenant, "Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?"

In the most unified of Luddite Rebellions, both Capital and Labour join forces and, like Frankenstein's villagers with torches, set out into the streets to capture Stratton and prevent the publication of his discovery.

The climax strikes a stark note — Stratton standing symbolically naked before the desperate mob — followed by a somber yet uplifting coda: Stratton, single-minded as ever, exits the picture walking away on a lonely street, his head held high, looking for all the world like Chaplin's Little Tramp on the road toward an ambiguously hopeful future.

Chaplin isn't the only classic comedy icon that comes to mind through The Man in the White Suit. With his straight-faced determination and the film's precision-tuned physical humor, Guinness' Sidney Stratton could be one of Buster Keaton's resolute can-do amateurs facing down unexpected forces he scarcely comprehends.

American-born director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) oversaw it all with laudable restraint. In a dozen ways this Oscar-nominated screenplay could have become a diatribe, its "message" either shrill or mean-spirited, but Mackendrick avoided every pitfall. He juggled tension or tenderness with humor that's dry and funny without being stuffy. Although the characters are quickly drawn, they're also touching or sympathetic without caricature, condescension, or sentimentality.

The Man in the White Suit sure has aged well. No doubt many modern viewers can point to ways in which its concerns and sensibilities are even more "true" over a half-century later. Its acerbic and observant stabs at industry and the darker side of self-protecting capitalism remain clothesline fresh today.

In the end, the indestructible suit's representation of Progress and "the welfare of the community" may be no match against the panicky vested interests of the powerholders and the everyday blokes who simply want to keep their jobs. Nonetheless, what perseveres even in the face of failure is the dignified, forward-looking spirit of discovery and enterprise personified by Sidney Stratton, a fabric impervious to the narrow interests of both Left and Right.

Science fiction as social or topical commentary has a significantly more potent history in novels rather than films. Still, 1936's Things to Come (scripted by H.G. Wells) is an early example (granted, its message-making was as subtle as a punch in the face from Mr. Wells himself), and even the factory sequence in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (also '36) provides an unmissable metaphor for dehumanization via industrialization.

Other examples range from A Clockwork Orange (youth violence/state-imposed social conformity), Soylent Green (environmentalism), and The Stepford Wives (backlash against the Women's Movement), to recent titles such as Minority Report, V for Vendetta, Children of Men, and District 9. Satirical science fiction film comedies are even rarer, although Dr. Strangelove sure raised that bar to a still-unbeaten level.

I agree that The Man in the White Suit is an outlier among that obviously science-fictiony group. It's science fiction "lite," and I'll bet that no one involved with its production would have considered it "science fiction" at all. However, looking at it now there's no question that it's intelligent, funny, splendidly acted and directed, and one of the sharpest comedies to stand the test of time — and a movie that science fiction should be proud to call its own from the same year as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and When Worlds Collide.

Music: Susannah McCorkle, "The Waters of March"
Near at hand: Memo on yellow Post-It, "dog sitter for Kai"

Monday, April 19, 2010

Firefly Amuck

I — along with cartoonists Mike Russell and Bill Mudron — had something to do with "Take My Love," the little Firefly/Serenity comic that's promo'ing Dark Horse Comics' upcoming Serenity one-shots. It's at (It was also picked up by

Another Serenity comic, wherein I had more to do writingwise, is "Yarn" at WebComicsNation/SerenityTales. (Navigation there is not well conceived. Click "Next" at the bottom to click through its six pages.)

Some geekworthy familiarity with events in the TV series Firefly and the follow-up movie Serenity is recommended for both of these.

For your reading pleasure....

Pleased and proud to report that my wife Elizabeth's first published fiction will appear at a book store near you in the May/June issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Pick up a copy. It's a good one.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When Worlds Collide (1951) — Apocalypse Whoa

So, a couple of evenings ago my buddy Chuck and I got on the topic of remakes. Now, he and I just happened to be enjoying one of our favorite Seattle watering holes (it's the only place that makes a Dark 'n' Stormy with precisely the right kind and amount of bitters to my liking).

Specifically, we were rambling on about remakes of classic science fiction movies (or at least vintage sf movies that are fondly remembered and respected, even if chiefly in an "inside baseball" way among sf aficionados). James Cameron's upcoming Fantastic Voyage redo is a case in point.

While it's a subject close to our hearts, Chuck's ventricles are more explosive about it than mine. So I should have predicted that the conversation would take a turn toward the coronary when we got to the 2008 Keanu Reeves mutation of 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of the most revered films in the sf canon. I merely groaned and shook my head, maybe shrugged in an "eh, what can you do?" way. Chuck, however, so affronted by the mere mention of Keanu-as-Klaatu, gesticulated with great emphasis but piss-poor aim, slapshotting his glass of stout across the table and sending half its contents like a black, foamy surf onto the floor, the other half onto an older gentleman at the next table.

Mortified, we distributed napkins and, with the help of the put-out server, mopped up the wet exclamation point. The gentleman who received a free beer on his pants leg was gracious about it, although he did seem to finish his burger and depart rather hastily, perhaps anticipating Chuck's inevitable outburst regarding the 2002 Guy Pearce remake of The Time Machine. (I pulled Chuck's refilled glass protectively toward me during that one.)

The subject of The Day the Earth Stood Still led to two other favorites from 1951 that have received, or soon will, the remake treatment. One was the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World. The other: the grandfather of apocalyptic doom movies, When Worlds Collide.

As a movie When Worlds Collide never was as good as those others, so to say it hasn't aged as well as they have just underlines the obvious. All the same, it remains a worthy and entertaining period-specific, second-tier title. Add the sublime The Man in the White Suit and we get a roster of films that reveals 1951 as one of the strongest years for science fiction on our screens.

When Worlds Collide was producer George Pal's second popular special-effects extravaganza after Destination Moon, and arriving years before The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and others he contributed to the sci-fi/fantasy Hall of Fame.

While Pal's movie is a memorable representative of genre films from its time and place, his source material had already been around a while. Paramount first purchased Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's 1932 novel When Worlds Collide in '34 as a project for Cecil B. DeMille. For better or worse, De Mille chose to make Cleopatra instead and today we can only dream about how he would have done it.

The remake is slated for 2012, no doubt to ride the already-sick-of-it "Mayan Calendar end-of-the-world prophecy" marketing wave. Cultish paranoia and brain-dead superstition as a Hollywood PR tool — charming. Steven Spielberg is listed as one of its three producers (yay), as is the remake's writer-director, Stephen Sommers. I could really use a stiff Dark 'n' Stormy right about now.

Sommers may be a delightful man who throws great parties, tells hilarious jokes, can pick up a guitar and sing sad songs that make you cry with heartbreak, and folds origami cranes that'll knock your socks off. But his track record as a writer-director leaves me wincing. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra? Van Helsing? The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor? Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride?
Fine. Fine. The proof will be in the pudding, as they say, and the pudding's not even out of the Jell-O Instant box yet. Besides, I'd be naive to expect a When Worlds Collide remake to be anything but a familiar, by-the-numbers, Hero's Journey disaster-movie formula with simply a bigger bang on page 85. But I remain hopeful, cautiously optimistic. I raise my glass to you, Mr. Sommers, and to your latest opportunity to take out the Eiffel Tower. Just make it cool. Smart would be nice too. And layered. And no obvious product placement ads. Just a request.

All of which prompted me to reach again to the DVD shelves for the original item. As a rural small-town kid, I never missed a chance to catch a broadcast of When Worlds Collide, a Saturday afternoon TV staple like War of the Worlds (yet another '50s fave given a modern spin, one I like quite a lot, courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. Spielberg).

Like Fantastic Voyage, When Worlds Collide is material ripe for a modern remake. Never mind the overhyped 2012 Doomsday angle — the opportunity to send celestial bodies bearing down on planet Earth, heaving cities and entire continents like chessboards kicked by a six-year-old, and finally splitting open our planet from molten core to Lady Gaga's chartreuse hot tub ... well, face it, that's just irresistible. And you know it'll be in 3-D (unless that already tiresome innovation is utterly played out by 2012, whether or not it's the Mayans' fault).

1951's When Worlds Collide roasts all of humanity (well, 99.99999%) with a cataclysmic conflagration caused by the impact of the rogue star Bellus. Fortunately, forty-four survivors, most chosen by lottery, manage to escape in an atomic-powered rocketship Space Ark built in those last desperate months. Humanity begins again on Bellus's companion planet, Zyra, an Edenic new world safe from fear, celestial collisions, and apparently anyone who isn't wholesome American white folk. More on that last point in a bit.

After World War II and throughout the Cold War, end-of-the-world stories unzipped the zeitgeist to become a prominent subgenre, and When Worlds Collide is to apocalypses what The War of the Worlds is to alien invasions — a venerable elder of the tribe in the form of a taut real-world drama featuring never-before-seen special effects, in-your-face biblical allusions, a few pointed observations on mindless mob hysteria ("It's dog eat dog! The law of the jungle!"), a melodrama love triangle, scenes of mass destruction, and a science-as-questionable-savior subtext. What's more, Pal brought it all in for under a million bucks.

The genially pious Pal infused When Worlds Collide with a religiosity that's heavy-handed starting with the first shot: over the song of an angelic choir, an ornate leathery Bible opens to calligraphic text reading, "And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt...", followed by the expected reference to Noah and the Ark and two-by-two, etc. That religiosity runs throughout the film, from the obvious Old Testament imagery through moments of Calvinistic "It was meant to be" epiphanies among key characters, finally to the return of the angelic chorus and Bible typeface overlay that ends the film. (Pal's adaptation of The War of the Worlds five years later possessed an only slightly more subtle churchiness.)

When the Bible crossfades to starry space, a stentorian voice-over segues us to the "men of science" at the remote observatory where "the most frightening discovery of all time" — the unstoppable collision course of Bellus and Zyra — sets events in motion right away.

In terms of stock characters, When Worlds Collide delivers the goods. (Ten to one the remake will too.) Paramount star Richard Derr plays the square-jawed aviator protagonist who also makes a fine rocket pilot right when we need one. Other tropes from Central Casting include the Noble Scientist, the Government Officials who remain willingly blind until It's Too Late, the Self-Centered Millionaire ("Your salvation doesn't interest me; mine does!"), the Self-Sacrificing Young Man, and the Pretty Girl (Barbara Rush) who happens to be the daughter of the Head Scientist (Larry Keating). I particularly love the street-corner newsboy clutching his stack of papers and shouting, "Read all about it! End of the world just around the corner!"

John Hoyt as the wheelchair-bound, Mr. Burns-like millionaire is the most familiar of the "Wasn't he on I Dream of Jeannie?" faces here. To me he'll always be the three-armed Martian invasion scout in the Twilight Zone episode "Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up" and Dr. McCoy's precursor on Star Trek. For extra barroom Trivia Night points, look for Kirk Alyn, the first screen Superman, as Rioter Bringing Guns.

The script packs them all into 82 minutes, and former cinematographer Rudolph Maté directed with straight-ahead booster-rocket pacing. The script would fall apart under a single gust of logic, and it reminds us that Hollywood bears a long history of characters behaving, no matter how irrationally or ridiculously, strictly according to the dictates of the plot imposed upon them like bad source code. So never mind nuanced characters or realist naturalism, and don't think too hard, if at all, about the "sci" component of the sci-fi equation.

The main attractions here are (1) producer Pal, who had found the niche that would make the phrase "a George Pal movie" readily identifiable to fans right up to today, and (2) the Oscar-winning special effects.

Forget testosterone-addled crap like Armageddon or emo half-ways like Deep Impact. As the approaching Bellus grows ominously in the sky day by day and the calendars are rewritten to countdown Doomsday, Pal rumbles earthquakes and unleashes volcanoes and deluges coastal metropolises (ocean liners, tipped on their sides, drift past the top floors of Manhattan landmarks) and then bakes and boils the whole damn planet, making it look like Hell itself on the rocketship's viewscreen.

Regrettably, after a rough landing amongst the snowy hills of Zyra, the anticlimactic closing moments on this new Eden look more than a little cartoonish and hastily rendered. Nobody stepping out to view "the first sunrise" so much as mentions the pyramids in the distance or the monolithic temple-like structure in the foreground. (The stagehand whose shadow slinks out of frame might have been blocking the view.)

And if there's any post-traumatic stress over the billions of friends, family, and other fellow human beings who've just been incinerated, not to mention all earthly history and civilizations, it apparently evaporates with the birth of puppies. ("And they're all mine!" proclaims the little orphan boy who clutches the pups as their poor mother looks on helplessly. Yes, that's the sort of attitude we need to start Humanity 2.0.)

Nonetheless, you don't need the Sunday-school vibe or the Bible font overlay graphics to tell you that here's the perfect place for a stressed-out civilization to start anew — without, um, all those darn foreigners to mess things up again.

And that's a point about When Worlds Collide I've never seen commented on before. Although we're told that the survivors were selected by a worldwide lottery, there doesn't seem to be much that's multicultural, multi-ethnic, or multi-anything, except maybe their haircuts, about the "fortunate few" on the salvation express. In the middle of the film there's a handwaving reference to "similar rocketships are also being constructed in other countries," but that's the last we hear about them and the rest of the movie tracks as if only the one Ark escapes Earth's fate. As far as I can tell, the repopulation of humanity is up to about three dozen residents of an Omaha suburb.

I'm not suggesting any overt racist directive from Paramount or Pal here. In 1951 that would have been like directing a fish to swim in water. The peak civil rights struggles were still more than a decade away, and even today you don't have to travel farther than your nearest Fox News or a Tea Party rally to find manifest fear of the Other. In the 1950s, mainstream audiences might flock to the movies to witness the End of the World with fire, brimstone, and the heaven-sent eradication of, to boil it down, everyone else on Earth — but polluting Adam-and-Eve Redux with "race mixing"? Now that's just unacceptable!

Perhaps those other Arks "constructed in other countries" are bringing up the rear, or non-WASPs were told to wait for the next passing planet to come along. I chuckle to imagine a "race movie" version of When Worlds Collide aimed at African American moviegoers (a common practice for decades), in which the demographics of the survivors are reversed.

Let's ride along with the notion that any racist undertones and unsubtle sociology in Pal's movie are just byproducts of the era's ingrained audience expectations, the pervading background radiation of social conditioning. However, the original novel, and especially its sequel After Worlds Collide, made no bones about leaving behind all those "inferior" races to burn. After Worlds Collide adds a threatening Yellow Peril, the "Dominion of Asian Realists," who land on the new world in their own Ark and quickly enslave survivors of the British Ark, then try to bomb the American domed settlements.

Much breast-beating is occasioned by the existential conflict between the Psalm-quoting survivors against the invading "Midianites" — an Old Testament term our lead characters apply to the "Japs," Russians, and some Germans, described as "cold, cruel, and inhuman" fanatics who "believe in nothing of the individual." Of course these Red Scare-era cartoon baddies "mean to conquer us." Even worse, their "desire for our women," we are informed, includes "what they call 'breeding females'." Naturally, the book ends with the non-Anglos defeated and governed under the thumb of an American-British coalition.

Let's be grateful that whatever 1930s-'50s cinema might have done with all that was never tested. Here's counting on Stephen Sommers to at least approach the subject with a less objectionable 21st-century sophistication.

Paramount's DVD edition of When Worlds Collide has no special features, but it should please the film's fans until a more definitive edition comes along in — I'll hazard a guess — the month before the remake's premiere in 2012. Telltale flecks and momentary color shifts give away the fact that this edition was not digitally restored in any way, but the 1:37 flat full-frame transfer is fine, the definition is sharp, and the print itself is reasonably clean and free of wear. The Technicolor palette is rich and vivid. Likewise, the audio is clean and okay-strong in monaural Dolby Digital 2.0. Even the theatrical trailer looks good.

Music: The Proclaimers, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)"
Near at hand: Metropolis Maria robotrix bobble-head

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Lost Tribes of New York City

I love street-level filmmaking. I love New York. So it follows that I really dig this.

Urban Anthropologists Andy and Carolyn London interview some of New York City's more overlooked citizens.

The Lost Tribes of New York City from Carolyn London on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alice for the iPad

Utterly frabjous.

"The pop-up book 2.0 features of Alice in Wonderland for the iPad offer the first tangible argument for buying one."

More info at the iTunes App Store.

Witty quibbles and ridiculous bulls

Will the Folger Shakespeare Library please send me this for my next birthday?

The compleat Royal jester: containing the choicest and newest, domestick and foreign merry jests, pleasant jokes, elaborate puns, witty quibbles, smart reparties, wise sayings, ridiculous bulls, romantic stories with other pleasant fancies. Done by several hands. London, 1696.

Monday, April 12, 2010

...a leather boot and Tom Skerritt smacking my face...

One year ago yesterday at TheFilmSchool:

There I was, "being" a hiker in a tent at the 10,000-foot level of Mt. Rainier, dying of script-imposed oxygen starvation — with a woman in the scene beating me with a leather boot and Tom Skerritt smacking my face and kicking me in the ribs. Ah, acting!

That was followed by (one year ago today) a good eight hours with sagely, soul-warming screenwriter Stewart Stern, who taught James Dean what reaching for a bottle of milk really means. (Great stories about Brando and Paul Newman too.)