Wednesday, January 30, 2013
THE GREEN ARCHER (1940)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
THE GREEN ARCHER, the fifth serial directed by James W. Horne after his breakout success in 1938 with THE SPIDER'S WEB, is a tolerable but unexceptional time-waster.
Unlike many serials, which varied their locations to maximize excitement, Horne keeps most of the action on the set of a massive old castle filled with all manner of sliding doors and trick panels, many of which are used by the villains to imperil the hero and his allies.
Preceded by an original Edgar Wallace novel and a silent serial, ARCHER is said to resemble neither except in broad outlines. Garr Castle, apparently one of the many reconstructed-castles-on-American-soil, is taken over by a gang of jewel thieves led by Abel Bellamy (James Craven). Abel-- possibly so named because the scripter was tired of evil brothers named "Cain"-- has had his innocent brother Michael sent to prison in order to gain control of the castle. Even the apparent protagonist, insurance investigator Spike Holland, is unable to uncover evidence of Abel's crimes.
Enter the Green Archer. Before he shows up, Abel and his buddies learn about the legend of a "green archer" who battled injustice. Then a mysterious masked man starts shooting arrows at the bandits and making their crooked lives miserable.
The basic "mystery" of ARCHER follows the same pattern as 1938's LONE RANGER serial, in which the identity of the hero remains concealed from the audience as well as from the villains. Perhaps slightly sending up this conceit, director Horne, who co-wrote the script, also has the villains unleash one of their own men in the archer-getup for some reason I don't remember. Both the costume of the hero and the castle-gimmicks used by the villains qualify this serial for the "outre outfits skills and devices" trope in its uncanny phase.
James Craven plays Abel Bellamy with broad, borderline comic gestures, while hero Victor Jory and heroine Iris Meredith turn in satisfying performances. The psychology of sibling betrayal, which has some minor impact on the plot, is naturally not exploited with any complexity.
BABES IN TOYLAND (1934)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
Subsequent to writing my review of the 1961 BABES IN TOYLAND, I did a little reading on earlier versions of the Victor Herbert operetta. Neither the 1934 nor the 1961 film versions follow any version of the stage-play very closely, but the Disney film resembles the operetta in one sizeable respect. The 1903 stage version of BABES concerns the protagonists journeying from a vague "Mother Gooseland"-- where many of the nursery-rhyme characters live-- to the titular "Toyland," and the 1961 BABES keeps this distinction.
In contrast, in 1934's version Toyland is the same as the village of Mother Goose-ites, and the Toymaker is a leading citizen there. Rather than being a would-be Santa Claus himself, the Toymaker's factory turns out orders for the "jolly old elf" himself. From the summaries I've read, this MGM film was the first time the property became dominantly associated with Christmas themes, though Santa only appears briefly, to take issue with a botched order.
The sources of that mistake are the central characters of the film, who have been inserted in order to play up the headliner comedians: Stannie Dunn (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy). There can be little doubt that the operetta is heavily rewritten to spotlight these comedians. The MGM producers throw in a sizeable amount of operetta-music, most of which hailed from the stage-play-- though these tunes didn't impress me much more than those chosen for the 1961 remake.
Stannie and Ollie are fired by the Toymaker for their error, but as in many of their previous features, they end up lending assistance to others even less fortunate. Because the duo rooms at the home of the Old Woman Who Lives in the Shoe, they bear witness to the attempts of evil banker Barnaby to force the Old Woman's daughter, Little Bo Peep, to marry him and forsake her true love Tom Tom the Piper's Son. In contrast to both the stage-play and the Disney version, Barnaby is in no way motivated by anyone's inheritance: apparently he wants to marry Bo Peep out of plain old lust.
Stannie and Ollie try to help by stealing the Old Woman's mortgage from Barnaby's house. They fail and Barnaby threatens to have them put in prison. To save the well meaning dopes, Bo Peep vows to marry the villain. The "boys" later redeem themselves by hoaxing Barnaby into marrying the wrong party after he's surrendered the mortgage.
Barnaby retaliates with a scheme to imprison Tom Tom, and he succeeds temporarily, causing the hero to be exiled to a fiend-haunted cavern. Bo Peep follows him. The boys manage to expose the villain's perfidy, and he too flees to the cavern. Tom Tom and Barnaby fight, but Barnaby trumps the good guys. For absolutely no reason, Barnaby is suddenly able to enlist the aid of the cavern's monster-men inhabitants, "the Boogeymen," and the villain leads them in an assault on Toyland. The invading army is turned, however, thanks to the fortunate folly of Stannie and Ollie, in which they constructed a brigade of oversized toy soldiers. Barnaby and his allies are routed, the cooing lovebirds are reunited, and the film ends with the usual slapstick embarassment of Oliver Hardy's character.
Neither the story nor the Laurel-and-Hardy team-- far from my favorite comedians-- make TOYLAND much of a viewing experience for me.
FANDO AND LIS (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
I've no knowledge of the 1962 Fernando Arrabal play on which Alejandro Jodorowsky based his first feature-length film, but I rather wonder whether the original play was set in what Jodorowsky calls (in a DVD commentary) a "post-atomic" world. By his own admissions throughout the commentary,
Jodorowsky never cares about the "nuts and bolts" aspect of science fiction. What he consistently admired in the films he viewed in childhood-- FLASH GORDON, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME-- were the "monsters."
Thus there's little or nothing in FANDO's actual narrative to suggest that any of its strange inhabitants have survived a nuclear conflict. Most of the story was filmed in the barren wilderness of Mexico, which may have appealed to Jodorowsky as emblematic of a post-apocalyptic world. It's possible that I missed something in my two viewings of the film, with and without the commentary, but in any case I choose to regard as FANDO as "uncanny" rarher than "marvelous."
Jodorowsky sets his titular characters-- impoverished performer Fando and his paraplegic girlfriend Lis-- on a voyage of self-discovery that, like most ironies, will end badly. In the course of their voyage they encounter blood-drinkers, transvestites, people who live in mud and an aged woman who represents herself as Fando's mother. Both Fando and Lis act as if all of the strange people they meet are perfectly normal, suggesting that Jodorowsky wants to present a world where the very concept of normalcy is alien.
Jodorowsky is clearly versed in a variety of religious and spiritual texts, from the psychological studies of Jung to the world-weary meditations of Buddhism, but FANDO is not overly concerned with spirituality, but the failure of same. The repeated visual trope of FANDO is one in which Fando is obliged to push Lis around on a wheeled cart as they seek the fabled "city of Tar," where they've heard that Lis may be cured. In keeping with the fatality of an irony, they never find it. More importantly, however, their mutual dependence on one another becomes a torment to both of them, and eventually culminates in a desolate conclusion.
FANDO AND LIS is never less than visually stimulating, and it's certainly true to the filmmaker's theme of the monstrous. Whether or not it outshines his more famous EL TOPO-- which I have not viewed-- remains to be seen.
DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965), SPACE MUTINY (1988)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I reviewed the second of the 1960s "Doctor Who" films here, and found it "pedestrian" despite a better-than-average FX-budget for a British SF film of that period. The first film evinces a smaller budget but a somewhat better script, even given the film-franchise's attempt to rewrite the "Time Lord" version of the character into a rather dithery Earth-scientist (potrayed in both films by Peter Cushing).
The script derives from an episode of the teleseries, which detailed the origins of the Doctor's most popular villains, the Daleks. The Doctor, his two granddaughters and Ian (boyfriend of the older granddaughter) are accidentally propelled through time and space by the scientist's TARDIS time machine. They end up on a planet that has endured nuclear devastation in the past. Over the centuries the planet's inhabitants have split into two ethically opposed camps. The Doctor's party first encounters the peaceful society of the "Thals," who live within what's left of nature, using a special serum to immunize themselves against the still potent radiation polluting their world.
In contrast,the Daleks remain sequestered in their fortress-city. having protected themselves from the radiation with ambulatory "suits" of metal that make them resemble small tanks. They are entirely defined by their technology and yearn to destroy the harmless Thals, blaming them for the catastrophe though it's made clear that the Daleks triggered it. The Doctor and his friends naturally side with the Thals against the Daleks, in part because the latter creatures also aspire to conquer the Earthmen's planet.
The division of a species into the two races strongly echoes the Eloi/Morlock dichotomy of Wells' TIME MACHINE. Wells presented the schism as a tragic inevitability, but DALEKS takes a position not unlike that of George Pal's 1960 THE TIME MACHINE, where the hero educates the passive Eloi to fight against their oppressors. Similarly, Ian gives the Thals a crash course in fighting back,and the Thals toss aside their pacifism in jig time.
One might surmise that this pro-war stance may have been designed to encourage in its audiences the general attitude of justified militarism. Be that as it may, it does represent a greater dimension of sociological thought than I saw in the sequel.
I can't say the same for the South African SF-adventure SPACE MUTINY, which most American viewers will know from the lambasting it received on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
There's not much I can add to the many deserved cutdowns this film has received. Despite lifting its FX-scenes from the teleseries BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, the film looks more like 1976's LOGAN'S RUN. Admittedly the advent of STAR WARS's breakthrough in FX the next year made most SF-films of the 1970s look primitive by comparison. But apart from bad FX, MUTINY like LOGAN'S suffers from some of the worst costuming ever seen in the history of SF-films.
Almost everything I could attack has been repeated ad infinitum, from the ghastly overacting of John Philip Law as the comically named villain "Kalgan" to the ridiculous "Enforcer vehicles" that move with all the speed of Zambonis. Just to say something remotely original, I'll note that the heroine "Lea" does show herself capable, like her STAR WARS namesake of shooting a decent ray-gun, and she probably gets the film's best scene, gulling a stupid guard into thinking she's going to have sex with him. But even adequate scenes are rendered risible by all those awful Disco-era costumes.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Confession time: I like at least one thing about REPTILICUS, and not in a "so bad it's good" way.
Long before I saw the Americanized version of Denmark's contribution to the Giant Monster Hall of Fame, I'd seen a few clips of the titular marionette-of-mayhem in the teleseries GOMER PYLE. Gomer was apparently a big fan of watching old Repti at a drive-in theater. At least I seem to remember the same clip(s) appeared in more than one episode-- which was presumably a shot at the maturity-level of giant-monster movies.
Though the film isn't juvenile as such, it certainly has more than its fair share of absurdities. Reptilicus is a barely animated construct that makes even THE GIANT CLAW credible by comparison. Though the critter looks about as durable as a pipe-cleaner, the narrative repeatedly insists that his scales are strong enough to repel shells from the local military. Reptilicus also spits acidic poison, courtesy of crude animated effects added to the American release, but since they were interpolated in this belated fashion, they barely fit the existing continuity.
Also dragging down the film is one of the least likeable protagonists seen in any era of giant-monster films. When first introduced to a group of cordial Danes, hook-nosed actor Carl Ottensen plays the American major Grayson as if he's got a major stick up his butt. Maybe the writers were going for the sense of a military man resentful of his assigment to a desk job, only to meet a challenge like nothing he's ever experienced. But if such was the intention, the script fails to deliver that irony. Grayson softens somewhat when he meets a pretty UNESCO lady scientist, who comprises the film's most notable imitation of the American breed of giant monster-flicks. Romance is back-burnered, though, in favor of assorted tours of the wonders of Denmark. Late in the film this bozo has the brainstorm that leads to Reptilicus' defeat, but the giant snake still comes off with more personality.
The film has one good aspect. Reptilicus starts out as nothing but a dismembered tail naturally quick-frozen in ice. From this little flesh-chunk the mighty monster regenerates itself into a fullblown force of carnage. The cosmological intent here is to invoke the penchant of reptiles to regenerate lost legs or tails, though the idea of a creature regenerating itself the other way round is patent pseudo-science. But if the script does nothing else right, it does set the challenging problem as to how to fight a monster that's less dangerous on its own than if it's blown into several pieces, all capable of similar regeneration. Naturally the paltry FX-budget undermines the potential awe of this idea, but given modern-day advances in technology, a remake of REPTILICUS would have a leg (and a tail) up on any dozen of the lame "giant beastie" telefilms that show up on the Syfy Channel.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
CHEECH AND CHONG'S THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1984)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
My only interest in this clumsy comedy-- which I can't imagine finding humorous even if I watched it when stoned-- is the extent to which it mirrors the categories of a "straight" version of Dumas' "The Corsican Brothers," such as I elaborated in my review of the 1953 Dumas-knockoff THE BANDITS OF CORSICA. And in fact, this "stoner swashbuckler" would qualify for all of the same categories listed there-- the freakish sensory connection of the brothers, etc-- except for the fact that all of the metaphenomenal events of the story take place within a naturalistic framing-device. Thus that makes the main events of the story "fallacious figments," though here they're much more elaborated than in the nonsense fantasy-throwaways one usually finds in such comedies. In my previous discussions of the "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" trope, I've largely dealt with dreams, but I should note that when a fantasy-story told by a character in a naturalistic diegesis is sufficiently elaborated, it takes on the same status within this trope as a similarly elaborated dream. Thus a dream-film like 1939's WIZARD OF OZ shares trope-space with this one-- though a far better example of the story-figment trope would be 1987's THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
I found most of CORSICAN (directed by Tommy Chong) relentlessly unfunny. I sometimes like vulgar humor, but this wasn't even up to the low level of the SCARY MOVIE franchise. It's of minor interest that Tommy Chong plays his character Lucien straight, showing a decent ability to fight against the repressive minions of the aristocratic villain "Fuckaire," while Cheech's "Louis" is a resolute coward with no fighting-skill. Both are born in France, but in order to keep true to the duo's ethnic comedy-schticks, Louis has been raised in Mexico. It's solely because Lucien is a good fighter that I label this a "combative comedy," though obviously far more emphasis is placed on jokes than on derring-do.
The "sensory exchange" concept of Dumas gets only indifferent treatment here. The only decent joke appears at the end, when a wedding has been scheduled between the brothers and two princesses they've rescued (both of whom, incidentally, fight better than Louis). Lucien is mysteriously absent, but Louis begins to get cold feet as he hears the young ladies discussing how they'll work on remolding their new spouses. Then Lucien rides up on a horse and does a "Lohengrin" with his brother, snatching him away from the dire fate of marriage and off to new adventure. This, and this alone, provides a decent satirical barb of the serious swashbuckler.
Friday, January 25, 2013
CONAN THE ADVENTURER (1992)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, metaphysical*
There are many worse commercial telecartoons than CONAN THE ADVENTURER. The thirteen episodes of the show’s first season sport some decent costumes and action-scenes, and reasonably literate—if politically correct-- scripts. If the “Conan” name hadn’t been attached to the cartoon, one could enjoy ADVENTURER as an average iteration of “Dungeons and Dragons”-style adventure.
When the cartoon first came out, I for one was displeased by the serial’s attempt to coattail on the name recognition of the Conan franchise, given that the cartoon goes against almost every value of the Robert E. Howard prose-series. ADVENTURER doesn’t even translate Howard’s values as well as the early Marvel comics-series of the 1970s or the 1982 live-action film, both of which remain the best adaptations of the Conan concept. One could best think of this cartoon as “sorcerous-swords-and-sorcery,” for, in the producers’ attempt to appease the media watchdogs, Conan’s trademark blade never cuts anyone’s flesh. This sword-- as well as all the weapons wielded by Conan’s multi-ethnic retinue of supporting characters-- only possesses the power to magically exile the heroes' foes, the evil serpent-men, back to their own dimension. A glowing translation to another world thus renders this Conan-world as bloodless and aseptic as the 1983 MISTER T cartoon—which ADVENTURER sometimes resembles.
The most interesting facet of the series is one of literary detection: what elements did the writers borrow from the prose stories of Howard, and what elements came from the 1982 film?
The essential setup is certainly borrowed from the film. In the John Milius-directed opus, Conan’s Cimmerian tribe, which has mastered the “secret of steel” handed down from elder giants, is annihilated by the marauders of evil wizard Thulsa Doom. In the cartoon, Conan’s Cimmerians discover the power of a meteoritic “star metal” from which they construct weapons. The metal is coveted by the serpent-men, invaders from an alien dimension. Wrath-Amon, leader of the serpents, invades the Cimmerian village for the metal, but instead of slaughtering people, he contents himself with turning Conan’s parents and grandfather into stone statues. This gives the young barbarian a pro-social motivation to dedicate his life to pursuing the evil wizard, not just for blood vengeance but to restore the lives of his kindred—which, predictably enough, the hero fails to do before the end of the first season.
The idea of the serpent-men, creatures able to move among humanity in assumed human forms, was conceived by Howard, though he made only one use of the concept, and the comic books only used it slightly more often. It remains a good notion for a serial peril, though given the audience at which ADVENTURER aimed, none of the paranoiac potential of the idea comes through. Still, there’s a minor charge to seeing Conan’s sword reveal the serpent-men’s true faces, even in this bloodless context, and the master villain Wrath-Amon is the strongest element of the series, both visually striking and given dynamic voicework.
Other bits and pieces of Howard-lore are worked into the stories, most of which are reinterpreted for the “PC police.” A standout example is an episode that mentions a race of cannibals. They’re given the same name as a tribe of black cannibals in a Howard story, but in deference to racial sensibilities, the cartoon’s cannibals are all white.
Particularly amusing are those episodes in which Conan is treated like the incarnation of “un-PC” tendencies, and his multi-ethnic buddies must teach the barbarian “Goofus” how to be “gallant.” I might value some of these PC messages for their intent, if not their elegance of expression. Still, it’s funny to see Howard’s Conan—who once boasts of breaking an ox’s neck to show off his strength—getting lectured on treating animals as his “equals.”
Though the season ends with the fate of Conan's relatives unresolved, the conclusion propels the hero into direct combat with Wrath-Amon’s deific master, the serpent-god Set—a combat which is stronger for not having a single pro-social message in sight.
A STUDY IN TERROR (1965)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
Some fans of Sherlock Holmes have regretted that Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional creation didn’t square off against some version of the contemporaneous real-life killer, Jack the Ripper. I disagree. I believe that had Doyle attempted this-- directly using the events of real life occurrences as a foundation for a fictional tale—any such story would have been as problematic as Edgar Allen Poe’s similar attempt in “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” To say the least, the unsolved events of the Ripper murders probably would have been too close for Doyle to do justice to them within the sphere of a Sherlock Holmes story.
However, with the passing of time, Jack the Ripper’s murders have accrued to themselves a mythology not unlike that of Doyle’s detective. Though Doyle’s stories don’t include the spectre of a Ripper-like killer, later iterations of the Holmes character would put the detective on the trail of such specters. The 1944 Universal film “The Pearl of Death” features a serial killer known as “the Hoxton Creeper,” while a 1946 radio-play pits Holmes against another British icon of mass murder, Sweeney Todd—or at least, a madman who thinks that he is Sweeney Todd. But the first significant encounter between Holmes and the Ripper appears in James Hill’s 1965 A STUDY IN TERROR.
With a script by Derek and Donald Ford, who also provided the script for THE BLACK TORMENT, Hill’s film uses the menace of the Ripper murders for the purpose of societal critique. Throughout STUDY the fate of the prostitutes menaced by “Saucy Jack” indicts the callousness of British society, an indictment with which the conservative Doyle might not have agreed. Holmes is placed in the position of striving to both save the marginalized poor and to keep the government, whatever its faults, from falling into chaos.
I won’t dwell here on all the intricacies on the complicated plot, which rates as one of the more seamless mysteries presented within the corpus of Sherlockian films. In contrast to some film-adaptations that present Holmes as a cold fish, John Neville’s performance makes Holmes a character with a great deal of heart and compassion to match his relentless logic-- all the better to give the puzzle of the Ripper’s identity a socially significant dimension.
To be sure, Holmes is put on the trail of the Ripper by an item mailed to him by some unknown party: a box of medical instruments, which immediately suggests the surgical precison of the Ripper murders. This clue puts Holmes on the trail of a missing lordling, Michael Osborne, who had medical experience. One of Hill’s first criticisms of stratified British society appears when Holmes and Watson meet Michael’s hidebound father, who affronts Watson by speaking of medicine as a mere “trade.” The elder Osborne cast his younger son out because of Michael's marriage to a prostitute with the deliberately ironic name of “Angela.” Holmes and Watson also encounter Michael’s brother Edward, who encourages the sleuths to find his brother despite their father’s condemnation.
A suspect arises in Doctor Murray. Holmes and Watson first meet him as the coroner assigned to examine the Ripper’s victims, but he’s revealed to have a close association with Whitechapel, in that he and his niece run a soup kitchen to feed the poor of that district. It’s further revealed that Edward supplies the money to run the soup kitchen, having met Doctor Murray during his own search for his missing brother and having formed a romantic tie to the niece.
The Ripper continues to attack prostitutes despite police measures. The law’s failure brings about demonstrations of civil unrest, some of which are brought about by Murray, who advocates the reformation of Whitechapel. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Robert Morley) importunes Sherlock to find the slayer, whom some believe to be an “Anarchist.” Mycroft fears that the government—of which Mycroft is a part—may come tumbling down due to the chaos encouraged by the Rpper’s misdeeds.
Someone else doesn’t appreciate Holmes and Watson nosing about, as they’re set upon in the streets by two cutthroats. In contrast to many Holmes films, this one gives both the detective and his partner the chance to show off their combat-skills, as the two heroes beat off the hoods easily with the help of their sword-canes. As Holmes continues to pursue the clues relating to the missing Michael, he unravels a complex tapestry of blackmail, betrayal, disfigurement and insanity, all of which culminates in a lively physical battle between Holmes and the revealed Ripper—who, fittingly enough, is a mad aristocrat with a hatred for lower-class women.
Considering the period in which STUDY was filmed, the script is remarkably clear-eyed about the unappetizing lives of the Whitechapel hookers, far more than, say, 2001’s FROM HELL. The Ripper’s first victim is seen stealing from a john in a tavern, but the bullying she receives from the bartender renders her sympathetic despite her crime. Another victim is locked out of her lodgings for her inability to pay, and is seen pathetically trolling for clients just to find a place to sleep. Unfortunately for her, the men in Whitechapel don’t seem that interested; minutes before the second victim meets her death, one of her fellow prostitutes comments, “I don’t know what’s the matter with the men lately.”
One interesting facet of the script is that once the Ripper has met his end, Holmes—who seemed perfectly willing to see the government brought low while it allowed innocents to die through neglect—conceals the murderer’s true identity. The final moments of the film don’t justify this discrepancy, but one may presume that Holmes doesn’t really believe anything can be significantly altered, and that he’s satisfied to see the serial murders come to an end—even if it’s only curing the symptoms, not the disease.
Though many of the Sherlock Holmes stories emphasize ratiocination over action, STUDY enters my category of "combative adventures" in that the narrative places strong emphasis-- also seen in the ad above-- with regard to the physical confrontation of the two mythic figures of Holmes and the Ripper. It also doesn't hurt that Neville's Holmes is one of the more action-oriented versions of the famous sleuth.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
The fourth James Bond novel boasted one of the most evocative titles in the series. Roughly fifteen years later, that title would provide the germ of the theme song for the 1971 film. The theme song “Diamonds are Forever,” along with the one from GOLDFINGER—both sung by Shirley Bassey— are possibly the most recognizable songs to be associated with the Bond franchise.
However, the novel is not one of the best Bond books, nor is the movie one of the better films, despite its being the last such film from the “Eon Productions” team to feature Sean Connery as Bond. Both do have certain strengths, and neither is the worst in their respective categories, but their negatives tend to exceed their positives.
Whereas the second and third Bond novels emphasized larger-than-life villains, DIAMONDS the novel leans back toward the purely naturalistic world seen in CASINO ROYALE. The book had its genesis in Ian Fleming’s readings on the real-life diamond smuggling trade, which he later used as the basis of a nonfiction work as well.
Sadly, though Fleming’s attention to verisimilitude is admirable as he has 007 follow a diamond smuggling pipeline in defense of British economy, verisimilude alone does not make a good novel. The villains of the previous two novels are defined by their ethnic and/or cultural characteristics, and Fleming produced memorable Bond-foes in Mr. Big and Hugo Drax. But in DIAMONDS Bond’s main opponents are the two Italian-American gangsters who control the smuggling operation. And though Felix Leiter repeatedly warns Bond as to how savvy American hoods can be, Bond shows little regard for this breed of American gangster, regarding them as vulgar and stupid, maybe only a grade better than the Bulgarian thugs excoriated in CASINO. One of the master planners, Jack Spang, doesn’t appear on stage under the novel’s end, while the overt villain, his brother Serrafimo, has little personality and doesn’t even have the traditional hero-villain verbal exchange with Bond. His only odd characteristic is that for no clear reason Serrafimo is a nut about the Old West, so much so that he maintains his own western ghost town, named “Spectreville.” Apart from foreshadowing Fleming’s use of the word “spectre” for a criminal organization in a later book, the word here suggests to me the famous first line from DAS KAPITAL, in which Europe was haunted by the spectre of capitalism. Of course Bond is hardly anti-capitalist given his defense of Great Britain’s right to exploit the diamond mines of Africa. At most Bond merely dislikes American capitalism for being less classy than the European breed.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Fleming frequently portrays some of his villains as virtual freaks of nature, which can under the right circumstances lend an uncanny strangeness to some of his Bond narratives. The author does this twice in DIAMONDS, making one gangster into a hunchback while another is described as looking “like a villain in a horror-comic.” (Was Fleming aware of the censorship rage about horror comics in both his country and the United States?) However, there’s nothing “strange” about these mundane hoods, so the “freakish flesh” trope remains naturalistic, in keeping with the rest of the novel. Even the homosexual hit men Wint and Kidd, who provide some of the better moments in the film adaptation, are rather colorless. Despite all this, though, the vulgar American thugs come very close to killing Bond, thanks to his foolish decision to provoke them, and the only thing that saves 007 is the book’s heroine Tiffany Case.
Though Tiffany’s name might conjure the feminist bugaboo of “making women into property,” the character is fairly independent despite being a cog in the smuggling ring, and doesn’t allow Bond, masquerading as a gem-smuggler, to take any liberties with her. As she’s patently named after the famous diamond-dealing jewelry franchise, one might presume that Fleming meant her to have a mental toughness akin to the physical hardness of diamonds. Her backstory establishes that she acquires this toughness the hard way, after having been ravaged by several thugs sent to terrorize a cathouse owned by Tiffany’s mother. She is therefore one of Fleming’s favorite character-types, the woman who closes herself off from men because of an early encounter with poor specimens of that gender. This sort of melodrama is legitimate enough in Fleming’s world, but he cheats on his own ground rules. Bond makes a pass or two while under cover, but he really does nothing to melt down her icy reserve. Yet, by novel’s end, Tiffany has very conveniently fallen in love with Bond, and so risks her own life to save him from Serrafimo. He later rescues her in turn from Wint and Kidd, but the novel ends with the suggestion that Tiffany may still go to jail for past misdeeds.
The film DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER takes the opposite phenomenal approach to the novel. The script keeps Wint and Kidd, a few minor gangsters (or just their names), and a version of Tiffany Case, who becomes a standard bimbo with no backstory. But the Spangs are replaced by a bonafide Bond supervillain. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, this time essayed by actor Charles Gray, repeats THUNDERBALL’s “hold-the-world-hostage” routine by launching an orbiting laser-satellite, which alone propels this film into the category of the marvelous. Bond and Blofeld both use a fair number of other marvelous gadgets as well, but the satellite is one of the film’s best moments, capturing, even in its limited screen-time, the poetic horror of “death from the skies.”
As one DVD commentary puts it, DIAMONDS—which followed the largely serious Bondfilm ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE—offered Eon’s producers the chance to retool the Bond franchise. One change involved the inclusion of more burlesque-style humor in the franchise. DIAMONDS bad jokes aren’t as numerous as those of the early Roger Moore films. Still, 007’s trademark anonymity—the raison d’etre of a spy—is cavalierly tossed to the winds when Tiffany Case apparently recognizes the name of James Bond as if he were a full-fledged celebrity.
It’s also said that the producers attempted in many respects to copy the model of their first thoroughgoing success GOLDFINGER. What they seem to have copied most about GOLDFINGER was that film’s excision of all the drudgery of a spy’s work—tailing people, gathering information. One didn’t expect a lot of that drudgery to appear in the film GOLDFINGER, but there’s still a tenous connective tissue between the plot’s events. In DIAMONDS Bond pursues Blofeld’s trail in an erratic fashion, as the filmmakers seek to work in as many rapid-fire Michael Bay-style location-changes as possible. I’ve seen 1940s superhero serials that showed more attention to verisimilitude than DIAMONDS evinces.
Whereas the novel strove to build an exacting model as to how the diamond smuggling operation took place—extending even to the means used by the gang-bosses to pay off their employees—the film DIAMONDS follows the diamond pipeline for the purpose of killing off the people associated with it. Apparently (though this isn’t stated) Blofeld has pretty much acquired all the diamonds he needs for his gem-powered satellite, and sends assassins Wint and Kidd to follow the pipeline and kill off anyone who might be an unnecessary loose end. By this time, however, British Intelligence has already assigned James Bond to the case, so Bond is also able to follow the pipeline and engage in contretemps not only with the two gay killers, but also various other Blofeld flunkies.
Thus, in contrast to the novel, here Tiffany Case’s life is in danger by her own employers. This is illustrated about halfway through the film by the gruesome death of the comically named bimbo “Plenty O’Toole,” whom Blofeld’s hoods mistake for Tiffany. Despite having been sentenced to death, though, Tiffany is later captured by Blofeld’s gang, but for some reason she isn’t simply knocked off. Instead Blofeld brings him to his sanctum sanctorum, where she proves to be of more ambivalent aid to Bond than she was in the novel. Apparently we’re to assume that Blofeld took a shine to the girl once he met her, though this is still an insufficient reason to explain her survival.
Still, if one abandons any expectations of verisimilitude in viewing DIAMONDS, parts of it work very well as a kinetic assault on the senses. Bond’s encounter with a faux “moon-landing crew” is poorly mounted, as is Bond’s escape from “death by cremation.” However, as noted earlier, I liked the film’s treatment of Wint and Kidd. Their bland appearance makes them more credible as practiced stone killers, and their lines to one another evoke something in the line of a gay Laurel and Hardy. The diamond-satellite provides the film’s best scene, though my second-favorite is the scene in which 007 nearly has his ass handed to him by two athletic Blofeld henchwomen, “Bambi” and “Thumper.” Bond’s trouncing at their hands is not unlike the many beatdowns the prose-Bond suffers throughout that series, though I suspect Fleming would have stopped short of letting his hero get beat up by two women. Still, Tiffany and Plenty are given such short shrift as characters that the near-victory of these two tuff girls might be seen as the revenge of the fair sex.
Finally, heresy though it may be, I liked Charles Gray’s icy take on Blofeld better than the previous two incarnations. It’s interesting that there’s no mention in this film of Bond’s short-lived bride Tracy Draco, gunned down at the end of MAJESTY’S by Blofeld. Perhaps the filmmakers were seeking to distance themselves from anything that suggested the more serious side of James Bond’s world—a mood they would later seek to exploit in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI (1975), COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE (1974)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
In my review of WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS' DORMITORY I compared that film unfavorably with he "delirious heights" of the Paul Naschy werewolf films. Having made that claim, the least I can do is to back it up with a viewing of a pair of Naschy's horror films. To be sure, most if not all Naschy horror-films are thoroughgoing exploitation, in which the creators' need to keep the viewers' interest with dollops of sex and violence is paramount. Still, despite all the sex and violence, Naschy and his collaborators tapped a certain romantic quality, in that many of Naschy's monsters need love more than mere sex.
Like the other "Hombre Lobo" films that precede this one, the story starts from square one, with no attempt to maintain inter-film continuity. This time Naschy's recurring character, Count Waldemar Daninsky, is a renowned world explorer who has no history of werewolfism. He signs on with an expedition which ventures into the mysterious territory of "Karakorum"-- possibly a reference to the real-life mountain range, though the real range doesn't appear to intersect with Tibet, the expedition's destination. The explorers seek scientific confirmation of the existence of the renowned Yeti.
Though the Yeti does exist, he's decidedly a minor player in this tale. Though the Europeans are warned in advance that Karakorum is a haunt of all sorts of demons, not just Yetis, Waldemar finds out the truth of that warning when he trespasses on an ancient temple therein. He encounters two bizarre women who have fangs like vampires although they seem interested than consuming flesh more than blood. The women take Waldemar prisoner, intending to use him as their sex-slave. Waldemar manages to kill one of them and escape, but now he too carries a demon's curse, as their bites have transformed him into "El Hombre Lobo."
Meanwhile, one of the other expedition-members, waylaid by local bandits, is saved by a lone Yeti who tears apart the bandits but leaves her alone. Oddly, this Yeti looks much like Waldemar's wolfman, and isn't even the traditional snow-white hue.
A larger group of bandits takes the whole expedition prisoner and subjects them to torture and humiliation, mostly at the hands of a female bandit improbably named "Wandesa," an inside reference to earlier Naschy films that used the same name for a villainess. Meanwhile, Waldemar finds temporary surcease from his sorrows with a Tibetan priest, who tells him that he can be cured by a certain flower and by the intercession of a virgin girl who loves him. Arguably this scenario mixes elements from two Universal films, 1935's WEREWOLF OF LONDON and 1944's HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN-- a connection supported by the fact that one of the supporting characters is named "Larry Talbot" after the Universal Wolf Man.
YETI really has no plot as such: it merely mingles scenes of Waldemar's cursed fate with the sufferings of the explorers. In non-werewolf form Waldemar does help some of the travelers escape, though quixotically the narrative places more emphasis on several of the female characters revolting against the bandits and killing Wandesa. Say what you will about Naschy's films, but female characters are capable of significant acts of violence in them, even without being literal monsters.
The film ends with Naschy's wolfman happening across the Yeti. The two fight and almost kill one another, but a girl-explorer who's happily fallen in love with Waldemar shows up with the magic flower and saves Waldemar from death.
COUNT DRACULA'S GREAT LOVE is somewhat stronger plotwise, perhaps in modeling itself more on the Hammer Dracula films. Five travelers, made up of one man and four women, become stranded in Carpathia and must take refuge in the castle of eccentric Doctor Marlow (Naschy). In time they learn that Marlow is actually the reborn Dracula, but not before he kills the male traveler and vampirizes almost all the women except one. In keeping with the virgin/whore vampire-mythology advanced in Stoker's DRACULA, Dracula has no compunction about vampirizing "loose" women, but he wishes to take his time with those of more decorous nature.
In addition, Dracula is haunted by a legend, that his already formidable powers will be heightened if he can cause such a virgin to fall in love with him naturally, sans any influence by his supernatural influence. Only one girl in the foursome, name of Karen, becomes romantically interested in Dracula even after she knows what he is, while the other vampire-trollops become his new harem, going forth to prey on the local Carpathians.
The most peculiar element of Naschy's script is that in addition to amping up his power with the sacrifice of the virgin who loves him, it will also somehow revive Dracula's daughter "Radna," who is apparently sleeping somewhere within the castle. The English script goes so far as to say that when Radna is so revived, she will become the new Countess Dracula-- which sounds like it's promoting a more intimate encounter between the count and his daughter, far beyond anything in 1936's DRACULA'S DAUGHTER, and more like the perverse relationship suggested by 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE.
Dracula eventually kills off all of his unworthy brides, but he continues to allow Karen free choice. She turns against her love for him and rejects him, so that, in a rare turnaroud, the vampire-lord kills himself for love (hence the title). While the film is too loosely scripted to earn much drama from this turn of events, the direction and photography contributes greatly to giving LOVE a more moody feel than one usually sees in a Naschy film.
On a closing note relating to my Theory of the Combative Mode, THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI would not conform to this mode, for though it does contain two monsters going at each other, the story presents their battle almost as an afterthought, rather than centering upon the encounter as would a combative story like 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
KUNG FU: SEASON 1, EPISODES 4-6 (1973)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *naturalistic,* (3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*, (3) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*
Episode 4, “An Eye for an Eye,” provides a counterpoint to the previous episode, which stressed activism. “Eye” takes its title from a Biblical justification for revenge, but the episode’s purpose is to renounce retaliatory violence, in keeping with one of the guiding maxims of Caine’s Shaolin upbringing: that death can have no dominion in the hearts of those who are at peace.
Caine encounters Annie Buchanan and her consumptive father Amos. Along with Annie’s brother Samuel, the three of them have moved to the West after being dispossessed of their home during the Civil War—the first time the "Kung Fu" series grounds itself in a definite time-period. The family’s change of location does not save them from further pursuit by Yankee hostility. Because the father flies a Confederate flag on his farm, three marauding cavalry soldiers break into the farm when Annie is alone, and one of them, Sergeant Straight, rapes her. Annie and Amos find the cavalry outpost where the soldiers serve, but the commander won’t prosecute the men because Annie has no corroboration, except for the growing child in her womb. Apparently it’s taken several months for the Buchanans to find the outpost, for slightly later in the story Annie gives birth to a healthy, viable child.
Samuel challenges Staight to a duel in spite of Caine’s protests as to the futility of revenge. Straight backshoots Samuel, but Samuel manages to kill his murderer before he too perishes. Losing her brother deprives Annie of a satisfying revenge. She’s already alienated against her unborn child, and her fruitless rage causes her to have an accident that may not *be* accidental. Caine helps Annie birth her child and protects her against a tribe of marauding Indians. The child perishes after Annie refuses to nurture him, and she later regrets turning against her newborn son. Caine helps Annie to come to terms with her anger and sorrow, but Straight's buddies, feeling a need for revenge themselves, come after Annie and Amos. Caine doesn’t manage to prevent Annie being shot, though she survives. The episode ends with Amos demanding revenge, and Caine’s refusal to take part in the cycle of violence.
Caine performs no uncanny feats here. He does master two Indians, despite their attacking him on horseback with their spears, but this battle remains within the domain of the naturalistic.
“The Tide” presents Caine with his second love-affair. Using one of the letters acquired in “Dark Angel,” the Shaolin seeks out a town where drifter Danny Caine briefly worked on a ranch. Caine is recognized as a fugitive from Chinese justice by a reward-hunter and a corrupt sheriff named Boggs. Boggs kills his accomplice in order to keep the whole reward. Caine, though wounded by Boggs, escapes the sheriff’s custody but finds sanctuary with Su Yen Lu, a Chinese immigrant living alone on a small nearby farm. But Su has a secret. She tells Caine that her father, a venerable author whose works Caine esteems, has been imprisoned in China for sedition. She does not tell Caine that she enlists her brother Wong and his henchmen to take Caine prisoner, to trade for her father’s freedom. Due to his feelings for her—both indebtedness and potential love—Caine surrenders to Su’s brother. Boggs shows up, still seeking the reward. He kills Wong and Su kills the sheriff, after which she learns from her dying sibling that their father has died in China. Su forswears any possible link between Caine and herself, and he moves on. Again, none of Caine’s actions pass the level of the naturalistic.
“The Soul of the Warrior” is one of the first season’s strongest episodes in terms of opppsing the ethos of the Old West with that of the mysterious East. Caine’s quest for his half-brother leads him to the ranch of Ed Rankin, where Rankin rules his fiefdom with an iron hand, barely recognizing the authority of the sheriff in the neighboring town. Caine learns that Danny incurred the wrath of Rankin’s only son Breck by running off with Breck's woman—presumably with her consent, though Breck doesn’t see things that way. As Rankin explains to Caine, this action violates the Western code of “private property,” which sentences thieves to death for such violations. Caine also meets Sheriff Toms in town, a man who feels himself close to death from having experienced so much of it, and who seems to intuit that death hangs over the entire town. “I know that it ends,” he says. “We struggle and we grow, and it ends—and it is black inside that box.” Against this, Caine assets, “Nothing dies that was ever something.”
Ironically, Toms is responsible for keeping Caine in town a little too long after Caine intends to leave. Toms, intrigued with Caine’s strangeness, invites him to dinner in the saloon. Breck sees Caine and tries to shoot the “slanty man” (linking the mania for personal property with xenophobia). This forces the sheriff to protect Caine by shooting Breck dead. Toms seeks out Rankin to reason with him, while knowing that the rancher is likely to take vengeance for the loss of his only son, an extension of the rule of “private property.”
Caine seeks to protect Toms. From his previous encounter with Rankin, Caine recognizes that the tough, self-made rancher is no less afraid of death than Toms. Rankin incarnates his fear of death by the practice of “snaking,” of capturing rattlesnakes and keeping them in a pit on his ranch. Caine recognizes that this signifies Rankin’s desire to master what is strange and suggestive of death, referring to the pit as the “temple” where Rankin worships the thing he fears. Playing “king of the mountain” in his uniquely Shaolin way, Caine makes a bet with Rankin: to keep Toms alive, Caine will walk amid the snakes in their pit. Caine does so and emerges from the pit without harm, having internalized the harmony of nature expounded by Master Po:
"That prevails which refuses to know the power of the other. Where fear is, does not danger also live? And where fear is not, does not danger also die? Where the tiger and the man are two, he may die. Yet where the tiger and the man are one there is no fear. There is no danger. For what creature, one with all nature, will attack itself?"
Having saved the sheriff's life and made his point, Caine takes his leave, having shown the Westerners the value of transcending both the attachments of property and the fears of one’s own demise.
Caine's feat of walking unharmed amid the snakes, like Caine’s gentling of a wild horse in “Dark Angel,” ranks as an uncanny act of animal-mastery, even though the priest does so more in a spirit of communion rather than actual command of lesser beasts. The episode has the strongest mythicity of any of those survyed thus far, bringing forth the death-oriented myth of the West even as it evokes the life-oriented myth of the East. I could probably do a longer essay exploring the way Ron Bishop's script included interesting meditations on the symbolism of snakes and of the idea of the “fool” (with which Caine is compared with those who cannot yet understand his ways).
Sunday, January 13, 2013
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), THE BAT PEOPLE (1974)
MYTHICITY: (1) *good* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological, psychological*
Joseph Campbell's "cosmological function" deals with how mythic stories recapitulate aspects of everything in the physical world-- the physical nature of living things, human and otherwise, of the non-sentient world ranging from banal rocks to cosmic space-dust, and so on. Where popular metaphenomenal films are concerned, the type of cosmological knowledge most often addressed is the nature of the many nonhuman members of the animal kingdom. I've noted two examples of such films in this review, for example.
In 1932 Paramount Pictures, hoping to emulate the success of competing studio Universal with outrageous horror-films, commissioned its greatest success in that genre, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, directed by Erle C. Kenton with a screenplay by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young adapting H.G. Wells' 1896 novel THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU. Without dwelling too much on the differences between novel and movie, suffice to say that SOULS' narrative grafts many aspects of Universal's successful 1931 FRANKENSTEIN to the skeleton of Wells' novel-plot, and for good measure ratchets up the sex and violence as well. It's probably no coincidence that Moreau (Charles Laughton) justifies his hideous experiments-- aimed at transforming animals into human beings-- by asking the viewpoint character Parker, "Do you know what it means to feel like God?"-- and that such a line had appeared in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, only to be cut from most theater-prints. Moreau's sexual voyeuerism-- his desire to see if his transhuman creatures can mate with humans like the hapless Parker (Richard Arlen)-- provides an element not present in Whale's FRANKENSTEIN. It does plays a significant role, however, in Whale's 1935 BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, where voyeurism informs Doctor Pretorius' ambition to give a mate to Frankenstein's monster-- a voyeurism absent from the Mary Shelley source novel. Some cinematic cross-pollination of influence seems likely here.
Marxist critics would (or have) doubtless make much of the confusion between Moreau's nonhuman creations and the nonwhite peoples native to the locale of the South Sea Islands. I don't deny that some racial politics enter into SOULS, especially since not one but two members of the "higher" Caucasian order-- Parker and his fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams)-- are put in danger of mating with the member of a "lower" race, with Parker in danger of being seduced by the panther-woman Lota (Kathleen Burke) and Ruth threatened with rape by the ape-man Ouran. This is even somewhat reinforced by the fact that Lota is not very different from many purely human presentations of the image of the "natural child" of South Seas fiction; a sarong-clad beauty who loves the white outsider passionately while imposing on him no societal strictures.
When all is said and done, though, it does violence to the movie to read it only in terms of sociological hegemony. SOULS may have disappointed Wells in that the film pays little attention to the moral issue of animal vivisection. But the Wylie-Young script, by injecting sex that is one step removed from bestiality, is stronger than the novel in terms of portraying the "otherness" of the animal kingdom, which has its own integrity and value beyond that of even the most marginalized human cultures. The viewer, who certainly has submitted to some sort of moral conditioning like what Moreau gives his creations, should feel an awful wrongness when the Sayer of the Law-- a beast-man played with great brio by Bela Lugosi-- intones Moreau's version of the sixth commandment:
"Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?"
Because most audiences resent Moreau's heartlessness, the novel's disposition of the mad doctor is rather anticlimactic, even if it promotes some Wellsian point about the absence of the beast-men's "god." The film shows the "god's" hypocrisy in that he commands Ouran to break the law against killing, exposing Moreau's hypocrisy as well as his brutality. The scene in which the "not-men" revolt against the tyrant, subjecting him to his own House of Pain, is at once liberating and horrifying, just as the death of Lota (the film's original creation), who kills Ouran at the expense of her own life in order to protect Parker, remains one of the most pathetic scenes in early horror-cinema.
SOULS has a thematic richness that even a longer essay than mine could not exhaust. Nothing remotely like this can be said for Jerry Jameson's THE BAT PEOPLE. The most I can say for it is that although what Jameson made was in essence another "werewolf" picture, I do give him points for trying to create a new monster.
However, Jameson and writer Lou Shaw don't manage to create a new mythology for their monster, nor do they give the afflicted victim John Beck any pathos. His situation certainly has pathetic potential. Newly married to his wife Cathy, John takes them on their honeymoon to Carlsbad Cavern, where they go spelunking. In the cave John is bitten by what seems to be a common fruit bat. For no clear reason, the bite mutates him into a man-bat-- interestingly, about four years after the comics-character Man-Bat appeared in a BATMAN comic book, though with the superior explanation of a botched scientific experiment.
Since the script shows no interest in explaining how John is transformed, it similarly shows no interest in the nature of the chiropteran creatures that change John into a "were-bat." The only time that the mysterious nature of the bats appears are those scenes when John and Cathy are in the caves, both at the start and conclusion of the film. These are also the only scenes that are pleasingly creepy, while the scenes in which the "were-bat" preys on various victims are utterly forgettable.
Only one element comes close to providing a theme: the test of Cathy's loyalty to her new husband. Cathy is initially distraught, not just by John's increasing illness but by the fact that a smarmy police sergeant attempts (correctly) to tie John to the murders. As Sergeant Ward Michael Pataki not only provides the best performance but also the best source of conflict, for he also attempts to proposition Cathy for sexual favors. She rejects him and remains loyal to John, so that in effect Ward becomes the villain, whom the audience hates for encouraging infidelity. At the conclusion, despite the fact that John's crimes are greater, Ward is the "monster" slain at the end, while Cathy gives herself up to be bitten by the weird cave-bats so that, in theory at least, she and John will live together as a couple of "bat people"-- though the film ends by merely suggesting this outcome.
Friday, January 11, 2013
THE WHITE DRAGON (2004)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
THE WHITE DRAGON, a very uneven comedy-adventure, has just one saving grace: the impressive looks of star Cecilia Cheung, a high-school-aged student who finds herself drawn into the life of a *wuxia* superheroine.
As with many Chinese *wuxia* vehicles, the action takes place in a vaguely medieval context, though it's apparently not terribly far back, since the heroine is seen playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on her flute.
I would generalize that many Chinese martial arts films have a picaresque feel, moving erratically from one fantastic setup to the next. In contrast, WHITE DRAGON, while it's not any more "naturalistic" in its tone than its phenomenality, is rather drab in its uninventive pursuit of the "kung fu superhero" pattern.
The story in a nutshell: young Phoenix Black (Cheung), a narcissistic young beauty with no thought of becoming a superheroine, gets caught in the midst of a battle between an elderly martial-arts heroine, the first "White Dragon," and a young but blind professional assassin with the risible name "Chicken Feathers." Because Old White Dragon finds herself unable to cope with the superior martial skills of Chicken Feathers, she decides on her own recognizance that she'll transfer her martial powers to Phoenix, transforming her into "Young White Dragon."
The height of the "comedy" here is that having all this supernatural power causes Phoenix to contract that dreaded teen disease, "acne." She can only rid herself of this pestilence by doing good deeds, such as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, or tracking down Chicken Feathers.
Her foe, however, has more dimension than the heroine. He's a soulful type who went blind from looking at the stars in the rain, and turned to the trade of kung-fu assassin as a compensation for his blind status. One of the Emperor's sons, who has a romantic interest in Phoenix, encourages the new White Dragon to corral the assassin. Phoenix finds herself no less powerless against Feathers than her perceptor, and indeed begins to fall in love with him, and he with her. But a real villain is behind Feather's most recent assassination-assignment, and even when Feathers tries to reform, the villain stands ready to destroy him and the White Dragon too.
Chinese mainland comedy is an acquired taste, but I've certainly seen better examples of same than WHITE DRAGON. In addition, the stuntwork is just fair, and takes a decided back seat to the romantic plot. There's one decent fight at the climax between Phoenix-Dragon and the main villain, but there are dozens of better marvelous kung-fu films that have done much better, not least 1993's BUTTERFLY AND SWORD.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
KUNG FU (1972-73)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic* (2) *uncanny* (3) *naturalistic,* (4) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*
A concept as idiosyncratic as ABC-TV’s cult teleseries KUNG FU holds two sources of appeal for a blogger like myself, whose aims are no less idiosyncratic.
One aim of this blog is to take note of the ways in which metaphenomenal narratives construct meaning, using as a basis the “four functions” formulation of Joseph Campbell. Campbell applied his formula only to myth, but since I’ve argued elsewhere for the contiguity of myth and art, I find Campbell’s categories of meaning—cosmological, metaphysical, sociological, and psychological—to have broad application to the arts. The teleseries KUNG FU offers a chance to see how these categories appear in an ongoing series, as it’s reasonably strong in all four departments.
A second aim is to show how the tropes of narrative fiction work in a myriad of ways in order to create the tonal quality of “strangeness,” whether in its “marvelous” or “uncanny” forms. One might call this the “anti-Todorovian” aspect of the blog, since my NUM theory was formulated as a rejection of Torodov’s formulations. The ABC series offers some interesting applications of the NUM theory. Some episodes are as purely naturalistic as are most TV westerns, but the hero himself—Kwai Chang Caine, a wandering Shaolin priest in the American West of the 1800s—often evinces uncanny qualities, displaying strength or resources beyond the realm of the naturalistic. In addition, some episodes confront Caine with equally extraordinary opponents—raising the question as to how the priest’s adventures relate to what I’ve termed “the superhero idiom.” This is not to say, naturally, that Caine could ever satisfy the naïve conceptions that define a “superhero,” any more than some of the other figures that I’ve related here to that idiom, such as Tarzan and Zorro.
If the pilot telefilm for the series were all that existed of the concept, Kwai Chang Caine would have no more qualifications for the superhero idiom than do the hundreds of other naturalistic cavaliers spawned by Hong Kong’s booming kung-fu genre of the 1960s and 1970s. The telefilm begins by showing Caine (David Carradine) in the present, as he seeks employment in the Old West, but the narrative concentrates on the backstory as to how a Shaolin priest chanced to appear in the United States—told through the series’ signature (and most frequently spoofed) device, that of ongoing flashbacks.
Because the telefilm is concerned with depicting Caine’s past in rich detail, the exigencies of the present receive rather short shrift. Present-day Caine happens upon a crew, largely made up of Chinese immigrants, who are laboring to lay tracks for a railroad. The Caucasian boss (Barry Sullivan) is a hard-ass who evinces no sympathy for the sufferings of his workers, but neither he nor his cronies are particularly villainous, merely insensitive. Future series-episodes manage to address, with greater effect, the marginalization of non-white peoples in a dominantly Caucasian country.
Though present-day Caine does champion the cause of the oppressed workers—he ends up setting a bridge on fire in protest of his people’s treatment—the narrative drive stems from the fact that Caine himself is a fugitive from the Chinese legal system. A Caucasian bounty hunter shows up at the work-camp and attempts to take Caine prisoner. Caine bests him easily, but the altercation alerts the boss and his henchmen to Caine’s extra-legal status.
Alternating with Caine’s perils in the present are the flashbacks to show how a priest with supreme martial arts skills came to be a fugitive in a foreign land. Caine is first seen as a child in China, orphaned by the deaths of his Chinese mother and American father. He seeks out the security of a Shaolin monastery, and despite his mixed heritage is admitted, which sets him upon the path of what might called “enlightenment through advanced butt-kicking.” The numerous disciplines of the Shaolin monks are always justified as being first and foremost directed to the initiate’s quest for harmony with the world, and a monk’s ability to fight should be used only as a last resort. Of course, given the demands of an ongoing series, “last resorts” come up almost every episode, although on occasion the writers of KUNG FU did have Caine place the desire for harmony above the more familiar TV-role of “policeman” or “avenger.”
That said, Caine, unlike many TV heroes, is guilty of a murder, although it’s committed in the heat of passion, when Caine’s beloved Master Po is callously shot down by the nephew of the Chinese Emperor. The nephew commits this act by using one of the pistols perfected by Western craftsmen. Thus the gun, which allows the nephew to kill easily, both brings about his own death (Caine impales him with a spear) and causes Caine to flee to the land of his Caucasian father.
In this story Caine does not appear particularly “uncanny” in his talents, with one exception. Bound to a central tent-post by the railroad men, Caine uproots the post and uses it to club one of his adversaries into dreamland. This is clearly not a “marvelous” level of strength, but it is the sort of uncanny feat one often sees performed by Tarzan or the various incarnations of Italy’s “Maciste.” However, the feat receives so little emphasis that I don't deem it as changing the overall naturalistic thrust of the telefilm.
The film ends as Caine is forced to engage in a battle with another bounty hunter, this one from China and equally gifted in martial fighting-skills. Caine could be said to satisfy the Christian associations of his surname in that he ends up killing the hunter, though most future episodes will not portray Caine in such desperate straits.
The film ends as Caine is forced to engage in a battle with another bounty hunter, this one from China and equally gifted in martial fighting-skills. Caine could be said to satisfy the Christian associations of his surname in that he ends up killing the hunter, though most future episodes will not portray Caine in such desperate straits.
The first regular-length episode to be broadcast is entitled “King of the Mountain,” which again pits Caine against another bounty hunter, whom he battles, appropriately enough, atop a mountain. But the main “threat” is that the wanderer Caine is almost drawn into the peaceful life of a faux-family. Caine befriends a boy orphaned by an Indian attack, and when he learns that the boy’s only relatives are venal scumbags, he takes a job on a widow-woman’s ranch so that the boy will be provided for. Some possibility for romance is suggested, but the intrustion of the hunter causes Caine to realize that he must, in the tradition of other fugitive-heroes, move on.
Two scenes are noteworthy: for the first time, Caine’s beliefs in harmony are seen to have palpable effect, as he “gentles” an untamed horse purely by communicating his good will to the creature. Caine also looks into the soul of his pursuer and psychologically reads his fascination with death. This proves prophetic, as the hunter ends up killing himself in his efforts to capture the fugitive. The first of these scenes is sufficient to rate “King” as an uncanny narrative.
“Dark Angel” shifts back to the naturalistic mode. Complementing Caine’s almost-initiation into family dynamics in “King,” the fugitive tries to track down the family of his American father. He first encounters a “faux father” in the form of a preacher/conman, Serenity Johnson—appropriately portrayed by John Carradine, real-life father of David. Serenity saves Caine from being hung for the murder of a prospector committed by hostile Indians, but Caine isn’t able to save Serenity from his own folly. The preacher pursues the dead prospector’s strike, but the Indians catch him and expose him to the sun, causing Serenity to lose his sight. Caine labors to give Serenity a crash-course in Shaolin sensitivity, so that he can navigate almost as well as the blind Master Po.
At the same time, Caine is able to locate his paternal grandfather, but Henry Caine proves to be a bigot who resented his son’s marriage to a Chinese wife, and hates Caine as the fruit of that marriage. Caine isn’t able to penetrate the grandfather’s hostility, but Serenity rains down “hell and brimstone” on the old man. Henry yields to Caine some key knowledge: that Caine has a half-brother somewhere—which development gives Caine a new purpose in his father’s land, beyond just running from the law.
Though the KUNG FU telefilm was weak in its depiction of the problem of racism, the third episode “Blood Brothers” makes up for that lack. While searching for his half-brother Danny in a small town, Caine stumbles across the fact that Lin Wu, one of Caine’s fellow monks, lives there—or has lived there, since no one in town seems to know what became of him. Caine protects a Chinese patriarch named Soong from the town’s young rowdies, but even Soong and his family members won’t reveal Lin Wu’s fate.
It will surprise no one that this is another take on the popular formula seen in the film “Bad Day at Black Rock,” or that Lin Wu is dead, killed by the racist rowdies. The episode also presents Caine in a rather activist role. He responds to Soong’s accomodationist tactics of keeping his head down at all times by saying that “the more you attempt to remain unseen, the more they will feel free to seek you out.” Caine persuades Soong to seek justice for Lin Wu in the American law-courts, and manages to win over the somewhat xenophobic locals to the sociological concept that the people of China are no less human than themselves.
As in the telefilm, Caine’s interaction with Chinese nationals allows for them to spread the myth of Shaolin supernatural skills, as when Soong tells the local sheriff that “a Shaolin priest can walk through walls.” Caine doesn’t quite do this, but when the lawman confines Caine to a jail-cell, the Shaolin does break free by rather handily bending apart the bars of the cell’s window. Therefore this episode also falls within the province of the uncanny.
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