Sunday, September 29, 2013
MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
Jack Arnold's final 1950s sci-fi opus, MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, isn't on the same level as his more celebrated classics, such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. In essence, CAMPUS might be best regarded as "Mister Hyde Lite." That said, CAMPUS easily blows all or most of SYFY's monster-fare out of the water.
David Duncan's script may be regarded as somewhat "by the numbers," in that he seems more concerned with making the various plot-points link up than creating interesting characters. Still, Duncan's plot-points communicate a genuine love of sci-fi concepts. Donald Blake, the university prof doomed to regress to the level of a Neanderthal man, is not guilty of any Faustian attempt to gather forbidden knowledge. He shows a certain pride in humankind's ability to advance from bestiality, and though he studies prehistoric life, he doesn't seem fascinated with the subject in any obsessed manner. And though the film's first scene shows him joking about having a woman helpless in his power-- his fiancee, who's being kept immobile while he models a plaster mask upon her face-- Blake shows no special animus toward the female of the species. If anything, Blake's rather bland in comparison to most versions of Doctor Jekyll, who usually does have some unhealthy preoccupations. At the same time, I don't think the script would have been improved had Blake been more three-dimensional.
In a way the monster is brought into being by nothing more than a series of unfortunate accidents. Blake, being a student of things prehistoric, orders a preserved coelocanth sent to his Dunsfield college. He's curious to find out what properties have allowed the prehistoric fish to survive the mutative forces of evolution. Of course, the idea of a special factor that resists such forces runs counter to the actual theory of evolution as it was known in that era. No scientist would have countenanced that evolution was a "force," but the fudge-factor works fine as a sci-fi concept. Unbeknownst to Blake, the natural evolution-retarding factor of the fish is enhanced by the shippers' use of "gamma rays" to keep the creature from putrefying. The gamma rays give the dead critter's blood the power to cause temporary "throwback" mutations in any organism. A dog and a dragonfly both drink the fish's blood, while Blake takes the blood into his body via a cut in his hand.
The events that lead "the Beast of Dunsfield" (as a newspaper-headline dubs him) to commit murder are reasonably well constructed, and Blake's attempts to avoid seeing the truth are very much in the Jekyll tradition. Unlike Jekyll, though, as soon as Blake realizes what's happened to him, he sets himself up to be killed. Granted, neither the script nor actor Arthur Franz completely convey the character's guilt at having taken life, despite the fact that he's innocent of conscious wrongdoing. Arguably Blake, once he's regressed to the savage state to which he deemed himself superior, prefers death to any rehabilitating cure.
The film is noteworthy for having possibly some minor impact on two Marvel Comics features. The name "Donald Blake," alter ego to the Mighty Thor when he debuted in 1962, is at best a minor and probably unintentional influence, assuming that one of the two creators saw the film. A more substantive influence is the script's citation of "gamma rays," which are indirectly one cause of Blake's transformation, just as the same rays directly cause the bestial mutation of the Incredible Hulk. It's interesting, though, that whereas the Hulk followed in the footsteps of many other monsters created by radiation from military weapons, "the Beast of Dunsfield" is created by a nuclear-derived technology designed for mundane peacetime usage. At present it's the only example I can recall where a movie-monster resulted from "better living through the Atom."
Saturday, September 28, 2013
TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
The last MGM Tarzan film is a definite step up from the previous entry, though once again it's another Boy-centric story.
For once the evil white men intrude on Tarzan's paradise by accident-- they almost run their plane into the local escarpment-- and while they are looking for lions to trap for their circus, they aren't particularly looking to trespass on Tarzan's domain. Despite Tarzan's own dubious history with lions over the years, he won't allow any animals to be trapped, and gives the circus-people-- principally deep-dyed villains Rand and Sergeant-- their walking papers.
Unfortunately for Tarzan and Jane, Jane's loose talk about airplanes makes Boy intensely curious about the white men. He shows off his elephant-training tricks for them, and they get the idea to make off with him and put him in their circus. The pilot won't go along with it, but shortly afterward a group of natives attack the trapping-party. Since Boy is in danger, Tarzan and Jane rush to the rescue. Their vine is cut by a hostile native, and the two heroes plunge into yet another ravine. For good measure the natives set the brush afire. The pilot, believing that Tarzan and Jane have been kileld, agrees to let the circus-guys take Boy with them, given that the kid no longer has any protectors.
Tarzan and Jane, learning the plane's itinerary, must then pursue Boy's kidnappers to New York, with Cheetah in tow. For once Cheetah is not the sole source of comedy relief-- though there's still too much chimp-action-- because Tarzan's encounters with civilization are played for quite a bit of comedy. To the script's credit, it never completely lets the viewer forget that Tarzan and Jane are continually anxious for their child's safety, though such emotions are certainly played down.
Before the couple arrives in America, Jane warns Tarzan that he may encounter a world made up of nothing but lies and deceptions, in contrast to Tarzan's forthright honesty. Actually, New York comes off pretty well, tolerating most of Tarzan's eccentricities and Cheetah's outright destructive antics. Things only become difficult when Tarzan finds the circus-villains-- but not Boy-- and gets in trouble with the cops for threatening violence.
Astoundingly, although Tarzan and Jane are able to go to court against Rand and Sergeant to dispute the latter couple's custody of Boy, the court does not demand that the circus-villains turn over Boy to the court pending the decision. The reason is plain: the villains are allowed to keep Boy in their clutches so that Tarzan can save him from them later. When even Jane becomes frustrated with the court's judicious wranglings, she gives the ape man permission to cut loose and go rescue Boy. Full credits are due to those people who devised ways for Tarzan to do his high-swinging-- and high-diving-- stunts within the confines of a modern metropolis, for these scenes are the highlight of the picture.
Inevitably, Tarzan gets back to the circus. Caged by the roustabouts, Tarzan calls to the circus-elephants, and they acknowledge his authority as much as the beasts of the jungle. The villains die and Boy is returned to the custody of his adoptive parents.
One distasteful racial joke must be mentioned: when a black janitor (Mantan Moreland) accidentally gets on the phone with Cheetah, and hears the chimp's incomprehensible gabblings, the janitor mistakes him for one of his own people, a "colored boy." The same essential joke appears, with no racist content, at the end of TARZAN TRIUMPHS. Strangely, actress Virginia Grey is fourth-billed in the credits, even though she has a nothing supporting part as the pilot's girlfriend. I suspect MGM was trying to fast-track her into greater popularity with this bit of enhanced billing.
TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE (1941)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
Although TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE still boasts A-level production values, it's a much more predictable script. One DVD commentary asserted that MGM wanted to kill off Jane in TARZAN FINDS A SON! in order to shake up the status quo. Thanks to pre-screenings by audiences who didn't want Jane to die, she survived-- and TREASURE's script almost seems poised to say, "See, we told you things would get dull if you bosses didn't let us kill Jane!"
The first three Tarzan films stress the dreadful consequences that would befall Tarzan if Jane were taken away. The introduction of Boy allowed the scripters to focus on him instead, and like SON the last two MGM Tarzans focus on the consequences of Boy's possible loss.
As in all the previous films, money is the root of every evil that invades the jungle paradise of Tarzan and Jane. This time, instead of ivory, there's gold in Tarzan's hills. Jane, in trying to explain the significance of gold in the civilizations of the outside world, unintentionally introduces the serpent into her own Eden, for Boy promptly takes a few nuggets of gold and departs for civilization, giddy with the thought of the new purchases he can make.
An altruistic impulse saves Boy from white man's civilization. He sees a young black boy of his own age, busy being chased by a cranky rhinoceros. Boy diverts the rhino and makes the acquaintance of the native boy Tumbo. On accompanying Tumbo back to the native boy's village, Boy gets a nasty taste of civlization at the tribal level. Though Tumbo is unspoiled by his elders' superstitions, the natives-- who happen to be suffering a plague outbreak-- make up their minds that the strange white boy brought the disease into their midst. Before Tumbo's people can burn Boy at the stake, he's rescued by a safari made up of two good white men and two bad white men. Tarzan in turn saves the safari from the natives, and takes the white men to safety along with Boy. Tumbo goes along too, for his mother has perished of the plague and so he implicitly has no one to care for him.
Soon enough the bad white men learn about the gold. Tarzan will countenance no mining-operations in his Eden, so the villains kidnap Jane and Boy. One of them also manages to wing Tarzan with a rifle-shot, so that the ape-man falls into a ravine. Tarzan survives, of course, but he's trapped in a ravine with no escape, much as he was in TARZAN FINDS A SON! Tumbo and one of the good white men, played by familiar Classic Hollywood face Barry Fitzgerald, rescue Tarzan. While the ape man escapes, the villains-- who have killed off the other good white guy, and who still have Jane and Boy in tow-- are ambushed by another group of natives. They're apparently supposed to be the same ones from ESCAPES who have the sadistic habit of tying victims between two trees so that the trees will tear them in half. They're also called "water devils" for no good reason, except that they decide not to kill everyone on the spot, and instead take them to their village for further torture via a group of canoes. This sets up the film's best scene, when Tarzan and his elephant-buddies show up to attack the natvies' canoes in midstream. Boy and Jane are saved, the villains are eaten by crocodiles, and Barry Fitzgerald's character survives to go home, with the nice touch that Tarzan and Jane slip some gold into his pack to help him out financially.
Oddly, Tumbo is still with Tarzan, Jane and Boy in the last scene. It's very unlikely that any of the filmmakers had any idea of keeping Tumbo around in later entries-- and indeed, there's no mention of the kid in any other Tarzan film-- so why not add some explanation that he's going to be returned to his people, or that the droll Irishman will take him into town to be adopted? Perhaps the writers simply didn't give the kid that much thought. Though Tumbo doesn't speak English and so is rendered effectively silent for most of the film, he does get the honor of helping to save the hero and thus making his heroics possible, and he's treated as essentially courageous and intelligent. True, the Irishman does refer to Tumbo as a "pickaninny," but since he does so affectionately-- just as the two of them are about to be eaten by a lion-- the term's context seems more descriptive than deliberately insulting.
Friday, September 27, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
LOOPER is an earnest attempt to resuscitate that category of SF that has been called "thinking man's science fiction." Writer-director Rian Johnson must be credited with an interesting twist on a familiar film noir trope. But here, instead of a protagonist investigating a crime and finding out that he himself committed the crime-- and has forgotten it due to some memory-lapse-- here we have a protagonist who realizes that his future self is out to commit a crime, one that springs from his own current-day obsessions.
The bulk of the story takes place in 2044, in which there have been a few changes to the current status of scientific developments. For one thing, telekinesis has been reliably detected in rare individuals, though it remains a minor talent at best. For another, though time-travel has not yet been invented, 2044 sometimes gets visitations from the era that has made that breakthrough, 2074. This future-era is never seen in detail, and one has to take it on faith that in Johnson's world certain criminals have somehow got hold of a time-travel device. Though on occasion they send individuals back in time to serve as crime-bosses in 2044, the future-criminals' main use of the technology is for the purpose of sending back condemned victims to be executed by hired assassins in 2044, men who are called "loopers," apparently because they close a particular time-loop by ending the life of a 2074 man in 2044.
Joe (no surname), played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an experienced looper, despite being in his twenties. He was initiated into the business by an older man, Abe, who is one of the future-travelers who now rules his own gang in 2044. Joe is innured to a rouine in which he executes whatever person the future-crooks send back to his time, and then hides the bodies. The efficiency of this body-disposal process seems questionable: isn't it likely that the dead body of someone still alive in, say, 2072 might turn up and incriminate those who *will* have that person killed? But the main purpose of this complicated process is to implicate Joe in a corrupt business endeavor, and then force him to question how far he'll go to keep his ill-gotten gains.
For Joe does not wish to remain in the hitman-business; he simply wants to accumulate a good stash of money, in the time-honored tradition of the Protestant work-ethic. Then Seth, one of Joe's hitman-friends, fails to kill a target because he realizes that it is his own future-self. Joe chooses not to shield his friend from Abe's goons because Abe threatens to take possession of Joe's stash of money. But soon Joe suffers the same predicament. For in no time, Joe has the exact same experience as Seth: the target he's supposed to kill is "Old Joe" (Bruce Willis), his future self from thirty years later. And once Joe has failed to kill Old Joe, "Young Joe" eventually learns that his future self plans to kill the crime-boss he holds responsible both for trying to kill him and for successfully killing his wife in 2074. This means Old Joe will kill a child before that child has the chance to grow up and become that crime-boss.
Time-travel stories usually concern the potential effects of changing crucial events in a given time-period. Johnson is not interested in the usual "step-on-a-bug/cause-the-rebirth-of-the-Third-Reich." Rather, LOOPER is entirely about personal consequences. Indeed, the biggest irony of the film is one dealing with the state of Joe's romantic life. Though he has liaisons in his time with a hooker named Sara, she keeps him at arm's length. However, it's revealed that she is the mother of the 2044 child whom Old Joe wants to kill. This forces Young Joe to act as protector to Sara and her young boy, who, just for good measure, happens to possess the aforementioned power of telekinesis, but to the degree that he can hurl people around and cause explosions. Young Joe's protective act binds him to Sara in a way that he could not achieved had Old Joe never posed a threat. However, Old Joe never knew Sara to the extent that Young Joe does, simply because in Old Joe's original timeline he never formed a liaison with Sara but left for Shanghai, where he would meet and marry another woman, the wife he seeks to save by killing another woman's child.
LOOPER is a skillful balancing-act, but though it's pleasing it never becomes rivetting. Although Johnson worked out reasonably credible histories for Young Joe, Old Joe, Sara and her boy, they're all a little too schematic and convey no individuality. There are some good noir-ish lines, particularly when Young Joe-- who becomes a paternal substitute to the boy-- tries to explain what makes men the way they are:
“It’s just men trying to figure out what they gotta do to keep what they got. That’s the only kind of man there is.”
This is, incidentally, a good thematic statement for the literary type I've called the "demihero:" a protagonist who, unlike the hero, is motivated principally by the need to survive. Arguably at the film's end Young Joe does save the youngster through an act of heroism. But his character, first and foremost, is determined by the need to protect "what he's got"-- and this time, instead of ill-gotten gains, he's protecting the future of Sara and her boy, who have become his faux-family. By saving them, even at the cost of his own life, he essentially saves himself as well.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
TARZAN FINDS A SON! is a decent enough Tarzan film, but it's not quite as strong as its predecessors. As yet the filmmakers still haven't taken the logical step-- to come up with some legerdemain to get Tarzan and Jane legally married-- and so they must find and adopt a son, the only survivor of a plane crash.
Interestingly the parents of the infant-- seen only briefly on the plane-- are relatives of a "Lord Greystoke," which as all Tarzan-philes know was the true name of Tarzan before his adoption by apes-- an origin which, surprisingly, the filmmakers barely ever reference directly. Allegedly Burroughs set strict limits on what they could adapt from his books. Still, I can't help but wonder if the "Greystoke" reference was some writer's idea of tying in the baby to the line from which Tarzan himself descended-- so that, in time, Boy would be seen to be a real relative of the ape man. But if so, the idea was never pursued. The two parents barely register as characters before they're killed, but the script does give them a nice moment where the mother wishes they wouldn't reach their destination, and her husband asks her not to say that.
Through a roundabout series of events, the parentless baby finds its way into the hands of Tarzan and Jane. The sequence by which Jane instills fatherly feeling in Tarzan-- who initially resents the infant as competition for Jane's attention-- is the strongest section in the film. Jane finds the downed plane and learns that the bodies have been stolen by natives for their rites, so that she feels free to adopt the child. Naturally "Boy"-- as Tarzan decisively dubs the child-- becomes a miniature Tarzan, swinging from high vines and plunging into the local rivers-- which naturally leads to incidents where Tarzan must rescue him, as he rescued Jane before.
Again we have an intruding safari motivated by filthy lucre, but as in ESCAPES, they're relatives of a rich family, and they want to ascertain the deaths of the Greystoke couple in order to keep their own control of the Greystoke wealth. The married couple the Lancings have no scruples in this regard, but noble Sir Thomas sincerely wants to know about the fate of his relations. He observes family resemblances in Boy, but he initially wants to let him stay with the couple that loves and nurtures him. However, the Lancings figure out that they can use Boy to control the wealth if they take him back to England. They manage to play on Jane's concern for her adopted son not long after Boy survives one of the jungle's many dangers. In the first of Jane's many headstrong rebellions against Tarzan's instinctive wisdom, she traps her husband in a chasm to prevent him from interfering.
However, before Jane can even find out the scurrilous nature of the Lancings, she and their party are captured by ruthless natives who specialize in shrinking not just heads, but whole bodies. ("That was once a full-grown man," observes a guide of a pygmy-sized corpse.) After the whole group has been taken prisoner, Jane instructs Boy to go find Tarzan. When he makes a run for it, she uses her own body to shield him from a native's spear.
MGM initially intended to remove Jane from the story with this development, but advance screenings of Jane's death-scene provokes outrage. Thus Jane survives, Tarzan's elephants once more arrive to beat the hell out of the nasty natives, and the scheming relatives, despite all their sins, are allowed to return to civilization empty-handed.
TARZAN ESCAPES (1936)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
TARZAN ESCAPES, third in MGM's series and the last one before "Boy" was introduced, takes most of its cues from the previous entry, though with several new permuations. Again a safari of Europeans-- headed by Jane's cousins-- ventures into Tarzan's territory with the intention of taking Jane away, and again this "woman-theft" is associated with making money. But to avoid repeating yet another attempt on the elephants' graveyard, the cousins don't want to take wealth from Africa; they want Jane to come back to England so that they can secure an inheritance. They also have a desire to bring Jane back to her homeland because they just don't feel she belongs in Africa with a near-naked white savage.
Instead of a villainous ivory-hunter, this time it's a villainous trapper, name of Fry. He's less well developed than the previous film's villain, and his desire to put Tarzan in a cage and exhibit him-- as Fry does with the animals he captures-- seems ill-conceived. Still, trappers are perhaps even a better type of foe for Tarzan than simple hunters, for trappers represent the forces of civilization that hem in nature, and so oppose the virtues of Tarzan and his wild freedom. Interestingly, when Jane considers returning to England to help her cousins, she speaks of her obligation to them as a "trap."
Like TARZAN AND HIS MATE, the purpose of the film is to celebrate the rare romantic bliss of Tarzan and Jane, and in some ways ESCAPES exceeds MATE in this respect. Tarzan is deeply hurt by the possibility that Jane may leave him, even for a short time, and Johnny Weismuller, whose portrayal of Tarzan was somewhat one-dimensional in previous films, communicates his woundedness with an almost childlike soulfulness. The couple's sexiness is toned down somewhat, which is a natural consequence of the theme of threatened separation, but director Richard Thorpe still arranges one scene of masterful understatement. Jane, playing with a flower by a riverbank, is approached by Tarzan. Her face changes to an expression of anticipation, and the camera pans away from her as she allows the flower to drift away on the river-- quite as good an image of sexual activity as the falling of Persephone's flowers after her "rape" by Hades.
ESCAPES is notorious for having been almost entirely reshot due to negative audience reactions to an early version. There is some strong violence in the reshot version, particularly when an evil African tribe ties one of its victims between two bent-over trees and then let the trees implicitly tear the man in half. If Thorpe and his crew left this in, one can only wonder what they left out. The only thing we know got left out was a scene in which Tarzan, Jane and the safari-members attempt to return to their hidden land through a misty swamp. Originally the party was supposed to encounter vampire bats and nasty pygmies, but the sequence was axed and dropped, though the redone version does include some giant lizard-creatures. I debated as to whether to consider them "marvelous" entities, but since the lizards are about the size of Komodo dragons, it's possible that their origins are not quite so distanced from regular reality. Fry, after having conspired to cage Tarzan and lying to him about Jane wishing to help trap him, meets his fitting doom by getting "trapped" in the deadly swamp. The cousins reveal that Jane doesn't really have to come back to England, and they take their leave, while once more Tarzan and Jane are happily reconciled.
This is also the first film to start the overemphasis on Cheetah's antics for almost all the comedy relief, which some may like better than I.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
Though TARZAN THE APE MAN catapulted the Tarzan franchise into film immortality, TARZAN AND HIS MATE provided the template for most of the early adventures.
The first film dealt with two white men seeking out the elephants' graveyard in order to make a big score of ivory. Both men are reasonably upright specimens, but future Tarzan films would deal more heavily with less attractive fortune hunters. Often such scurrilous villains would attach themselves to safaris led by essentially worthy persons, but the presence of these looters often threw a pall over the alleged good motives of their associates. The looter in TARZAN AND HIS MATE is a bit more realistic than most of those that followed. When Arlington arrives in an African port to meet his old friend Holt-- the only survivor of the APE MAN expedition-- it's established that Arlington is a man who had wealth but somehow lost it, and that he's desperate to recoup on this African adventure. He's also a roué, given that when Holt meets him on the boat Arlington can't quite conceal that he's had a tryst with a married female passenger, very nearly under the nose of her unsuspecting husband. Brief though the tryst is, it may be read as an indictment of the corruption of civilization-- an idea that Edgar Rice Burroughs often promoted in the Tarzan books. The ilicit tryst makes a contrast with the soulful marital bond between Tarzan and Jane. As yet there's still no mention of a legal marriage between them.
In any case, Holt-- who believes that at the end of the first expedition that Tarzan gave him leave to come back someday and raid the elephants' graveyard-- allies himself to Arlington. At Holt's request Arlington has brought with him a load of female accoutrements-- dresses, shoes, makeup, perfume-- in the hope of charming Jane, possibly to lure her back to England, definitely to grease the wheels so as to get Tarzan to guide them to their destination. Arlington observes that Holt is still in love with Jane, but Arlington himself is more of a "player." When Holt tells him that the natives are dancing to promote fertility, Arlington inquires, "Personal or agricultural?" Though Arlington isn't as deep-dyed a villain as most of the fortune hunters in later entries, the script skillfully shows that he's a man willing to do anything for his advancement. This is illustrated by an incident as the safari starts out. One of the bearers decides he wants to leave the safari because of his fears of the taboo territory they're aproaching. He makes the mistake of waving a spear in a threatening way, and Arlington shoots him dead. Holt disapproves rather weakly-- "the whip would worked just as well"-- and Arlington does regret his action, since he needs all the bearers he can get, to help carry ivory.
After a grueling trek and a dangerous encounter with local natives, the safari ascends a perilous escarpment, only to be bombared by rocks thrown by killer apes. Again Tarzan's cry sounds, and the apes disperse. Tarzan remembers Holt as a friend and accepts Arlington on the same terms. Jane welcomes both men fulsomely, but like Tarzan she fails to see that both of them regard her with barely concealed lust, and accepts the gifts they bring at face value, taking girlish pleasure in their finery. She only learns Arlington's real nature when he manages to hang a lip-lock on Jane. Arlington lucks out in that Tarzan just happens to miss seeing the incident, and Jane, the epitome of the polite hostess, urges that they both forget about it. At no time do the two adventurers really manage to seduce Jane to their side, though it's true that she has no compunctions about letting them raid the graveyard.
I made the following comment in my review of the first film:
The ethics of raiding the elephants' graveyard only proves dubious a few times in the script, and even Tarzan-- who would become far less permissive in later movies-- doesn't seem to mind Parker and Holt seeking to plunder the remains of his elephant friends. Perhaps Tarzan is a little too besotted with Jane to care much about setting boundaries.
The second film establishes that Tarzan, Adamic innocent that he was, had no idea that the original safari invading his territory meant to plunder the ivory of the elephants' graveyard. When he does comprehend that Holt has returned with Arlington for that very purpose, the ape-man wants no part of it. This film, more than its predecessor, comes down on the side of the wilderness against that of progress. As sympathetic as the audience may be to the impecunious situation of Holt and even to some extent Arlington, they are intruders in Eden. True, it's a dangerous Eden, where the elegant water ballets of the couple are prone to be interrupted by assorted man-eating predators. But Tarzan's rapport with many of the animals-- he's saved by a friendly hippo at one point-- is clearly an ideal the film places above mere money-making.
When Tarzan refuses his aid, Arlington takes the next step: he shoots an elephant so that the dying beast will lead the safari to the graveyard. Arlington is saved from Tarzan's wrath by Jane's intervention, and again Holt must dance with the devil that brought him. However, no sooner does the safari reach the graveyard, than Tarzan shows up with a regiment of elephants, all willing to squash Europeans to preserve their ancestors. Arlington feigns acquiescence, waits for his chance, and then pot-shots Tarzan from hiding. Holt sincerely tries to locate Tarzan to help the agonized Jane, while Arlington supplies a cock-and-bull story about the ape-man being eaten by an alligator. The two men persuade Jane to return to England with them, and she doesn't oppose their taking the ivory because nothing matters to her with Tarzan dead.
Tarzan isn't dead, of course, but before he shows up again the safari is attacked by a murderous horde of natives. In addition to forcing the safari-members into a "blind alley," the natives show a sadistic edge. After capturing the safari's headman, they stake him out within the sight of the remaining defenders and call up a pride of lions using special "lion-horns." To his credit Holt dashes out and tries to free the headman from his bonds, only to lose his life to the lions. This is certainly one of the few times in 1930s cinema where a white character put his life on the line for a black one, rather than expecting the black character to give his life for his white overlord's benefit. Arlington is also killed by the lions. Jane shows considerable wit and fortitude in defending herself from the predators until Tarzan shows up with a troop of elephants and routs both the natives and their leonine allies. After the triumphant elephants bear their ancestors' remains back to the graveyard, the film ends once more on an image of Tarzan and Jane's union.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
Though Tarzan had enjoyed a respectable career in silent cinema, none of these early Tarzan films-- in contrast to such deservedly famous silent films like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MARK OF ZORRO, and THIEF OF BAGDAD-- had the imaginative impact of sound cinema's first and perhaps best iteration of the "ape man."
I've observed in other reviews that many Tarzan films symbolize a sexual undercurrent via intricate water-ballets between Tarzan and Jane. But though there is a little water-play between Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in APE MAN, there's no need to defer anything in this pre-Code picture, for the implication of raw sexuality remains strong in most of their scenes together. A few years, it would be impossible to imagine the virile but tamed Tarzan on the verge of performing an "innocent rape" upon Jane-- "innocent" because, having an animal mentality, he can't understand why she wouldn't want to have sex.
Jane will never again be as complex as she is here: in contrast to the print version, this Jane journeys to Africa on her own initiative. It's suggested that she has greatly missed her aged father Parker (C. Aubrey Smith)-- implicitly her only remaining parent-- and that she slightly resents him for having remained apart from her for so long, running a crummy trading post and seeking a big ivory score with his young colleague Holt. Incidentally, Holt is played by Neil Hamilton, who would again end up playing second-fiddle to another mysterious hero over thirty years later. Since the 1981 TARZAN film made so much of Oedipal currents in the relationship between Jane and her father, it should be noted that yes, Jane does pull off her dress in her father's presence, and joke about how he shouldn't mind since he used to bathe her. But I don't believe the writers intended this as part of some sexual complex. The real context would seem to be that Jane, resenting her separation, is teasing him a little with her maturation in order to fluster him and thus have a little power over him. Old Parker never seems other than paternal toward Jane, though it must be admitted that his death at the film's end does sever Jane's ties with civilization and make it easier for Tarzan to possess his new mate.
The trek of Parker, Jane, Holt and their bearers as they seek the fabled elephants' graveyard remains a high-water mark in adventure-cinema. To be sure, modern audiences will understandably flinch when Holt orders one of the bearers to take a whip to his fellows when they try to run off, but the whipping is not set up as a validation of white imperialism as such. One might hope that the excitement of the subsequent river-attack-- in which the trekkers try to cross a raging river full of maddened hippos-- overshadows the inevitable deaths of nameless bearers, who would be no less expendable no matter what their race. The hippos come close to killing the white people too, but are driven away by Tarzan's resounding cry. It would be interesting to know how often the silent Tarzan was portrayed as wielding such "lord-of-the-jungle" power over animals other than apes or elephants.
The ethics of raiding the elephants' graveyard only proves dubious a few times in the script, and even Tarzan-- who would become far less permissive in later movies-- doesn't seem to mind Parker and Holt seeking to plunder the remains of his elephant friends. Perhaps Tarzan is a little too besotted with Jane to care much about setting boundaries. Also, after one agonized moment he seems to forget that the white men have killed one of his ape friends. However, he does suffer a severe wound, making it necessary for Jane to nurse him. This temporary dimunition of Tarzan's power makes it possible for her to fall in love with the bestial male.
As is so often the case, African natives become the heavies with no acknowledgment of their justification to protect their lands. This time the safari-members are captured by a race of Black African dwarfs with a sacrificial outlook, thus combining both the uncanny trope of "freakish flesh" with that of "exotic lands and customs." Tarzan liberates the white people with the aid of an elephant-attack, surely the most brutal ever-- another indication of pre-Code laxity. I'd be curious as to whether the timing was right for 1933's KING KONG to have been influenced by this sequence.
The conclusion, in which Jane remains in the jungle with her lover in unwedded bliss, was corrected by later entries in the series.
OMEGA DOOM (1996)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
I've already stated my moderately charitable opinion of cult-journeyman director Albert Pyun in my review of his CYBORG, but OMEGA DOOM strains that moderately favorable opinion.
The funny thing is that there was potential in Pyun's script for this dull-as-dirt SF-film. Though allegedly it was originally going to be about berserk animatronic robots a la WESTWORLD, it ended up more like a cross between two well renowned stories. One is Kurosawa's YOJIMBO, in which a tough stranger rolls into town and gets involved with two feuding gangs. The other is Philip K. Dick's story "Second Variety"-- basis of the minor 1995 SF-flick SCREAMERS-- in which humans are being exterminated by assorted robot entities. The story ends with the indication that the various robot-models will soon be warring on one another, but with some effort Pyun could've had some fun imagining how such a "war of rival robots" might play out.
Though in 1996 Rutger Hauer no longer sported the sleek figure of his classic BLADE RUNNER performance, he still displayed enough charisma to pull off the "Yojimbo" role, that of a killer android who is accidentally de-programmed, so that he develops a conscience in consequence. But Pyun gives Hauer nothing with which to work. This is just barely an "adventure" movie. Both groups of rival automatons-- the Bots and the Droids-- wear freaky clothes and talk in monotones, and there's no consistent dividing-line between the two. The Bots in particular look like girls from a Robert Palmer video, all dressed in dark clothes and dark glasses. The principal Droid is played by lissome Shannon Whirry, who gives the unrewarding role as much as she can, but like Hauer she can only pose and recite Pyun's turgid, graceless dialogue. There are one or two fights or shootouts, but the action seems improvised, and I suspect there was no money spent on a good fight-coordinator.
This rates as cosmological only because it implies the theme of mechanical beings taking on sentience. But Pyun does nothing with the idea.
THE LONE RANGER (2013)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
It would be pointless to attempt a plot-based review of Gore Verbinski's LONE RANGER. That's not because it doesn't have a plot. But as with many over-the-top summer blockbuster adventure-films, the movie's plot is secondary to its breadth of spectacle. And Verbinski does deliver heaps of wild spectacle, as wild as those found in any other adventure-film, from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to RIKI-OH.
However, Verbinski's RANGER is not an adventure-film, which may be a partial reason that audiences of this 2013 summer rejected it at the box office. Many moviegoers probably wanted a straightforward revival of the "Masked Rider of the Plains and his faithful Indian companion." Alternately, some might have welcomed an exclusively comic sendup of the characters, something along the lines of Tim Burton's spoofy 2012 retelling of the teleseries DARK SHADOWS.
RANGER does contain many scenes, successful and otherwise, designed to provoke laughter, but the movie is not a comedy any more than it's an adventure-story. Verbinski's RANGER belongs to the literary type Northrop Frye terms an "irony," a state of being where the protagonist's power to take effective action is at its lowest ebb.
"Nature is out of balance." Johnny Depp's deranged Tonto states this many times in the film. The line's reasonably effective in drawing laughs. But though Tonto is crazy, he's not wrong. RANGER is full of images of disarray and chaos, far beyond the level seen in most adventure or comedy films. There's the broken pocket-watch that Tonto obsessively carries with him, a symbol that time itself is out of joint. There's the horse Silver, whom Tonto believes to be a messenger from the spirit-world, but a very stupid one, because the horse chooses the wrong man to be the heroic emissary of justice. There's a hooker who has, not a heart of gold, but a leg of ivory, and there's the chief of the Comanches, who tells the Ranger that his people are already "ghosts," not long before they are wiped out by a dead ringer for General Custer. This is, in short, an insane world in which human action is meaningless, constantly undercut by uncertainty and outright deception. This is not a world in which an altruistic white man and a noble red savage can become brothers, and can represent progressive justice with a gleaming silver bullet. In this world the Ranger is a clueless, good-hearted bungler and his reluctant companion is a crazy man who constantly tries to feeds the dead bird he wears on his head.
In a pure adventure, the world is renewed when Indiana Jones-- with a little help from his sidekick, God-- exterminates a band of blasphemous Nazis. The world of Burton's Barnabas is more ludicrous, but even here, Barnabas and his family triumph over the bane of their line, the witch Angelique. In the world of the irony-- as well as that of irony's more serious sibling, the drama-- virtue and meaning rarely enjoy such clear-cut resolutions.
Nothing in RANGER shows more ambivalence than the Ranger himself. The traditional Lone Ranger is a pillar of rectitude, surviving death to appoint himself the incarnation of western justice, and the traditional Tonto joins him to illustrate the potential brotherhood of white man and red man, Verbinksi gives us a Ranger whose iconic aspects-- the mask, the silver bullets-- are almost all dreamed up by Tonto's fevered brain. But Tonto has almost nothing to work with. Verbinski's "John Reid" bears less kinship with the Lone Ranger than with Voltaire's "Candide," the eternal naif who keeps trying to believe in human goodness no matter how much evil he witnesses. And John Reid is not only naive; he's established as smugly self-righteous and foolhardy in his first encounter with Tonto. He can barely shoot; all of his "trick shots" are pure lucky accidents, and his ability at hand-to-hand combat is modest at best. His only claim to being a mythic hero is that the horse Silver-- who propels this western into the marvelous realm by displaying feats and intelligence beyond the ken of horse-kind-- believes that he is a hero. And because the spirit-messenger believes it, Tonto tries to believe it, though he would rather have worked with John's courageous-but-dead brother Dan. Hence he calls John "kemosabe"-- "wrong brother"-- yet another indication that even the spirit-world is, like nature, out of tune.
Now, the fact that I've endeavored to explain Verbinski's work by categorizing it as an "irony" does not mean that I necessarily consider it a GOOD ironic work. Some of Verbinski's ironic touches-- a sole bird of prey peacefully skimming the skies before and after the slaughter of Dan Reid's ranger unit-- are entrancing, thanks in part to dynamite locale-selection. Other touches are less beguiling. Verbinski seems to think that all he must do is pile on more and more excessive set-pieces in order to keep the audience happy and buffaloed. But though American (and other) audiences have embraced films far more noisy and incoherent than this LONE RANGER, they usually will not do so unless they feel that the director has let them in on the joke. Even the Ranger's basic appearance sets up a confusing-- and not at all intriguing-- puzzle: "Yeah, he's got the white hat and the mask, but why's he wearing the clothes of some eastern dude?" No matter how often the musicians crank up their version of the William Tell Overture, there are too many discontinuities in LONE RANGER for even young audiences to embrace John Reid as their Lone Ranger, even to the extent that some audiences of the 1960s embraced the somewhat-ironized Batman of the ABC teleseries as "their Batman." The narrative is also further confused by a framing-device, in which the main story is narrated by an eighty-year-old Tonto in the year 1933. The device proves a waste of time, though it's a nice touch to set it in the year when Tonto and the Ranger were "born."
Problematic though Verbinksi's IRONIC RANGER is, it is more entertaining than most of the mediocre "straight" adaptations, such as the plodding 1981 LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER and the disastrous 2003 telemovie. Then again, none of them can touch the mask of the real Lone Ranger.
FOLLOW-UP: On re-viewing the film, it belatedly occurred to me that it never explicitly affirms whether or not the marvelous happenings of this "Ranger revision" happen the way their narrator says they did. When the aged Tonto tells his version of the "Lone Ranger and Tonto" story to a young boy who only knows the canonical narrative, this framing-sequence is all that we as viewers know of the film's "reality." At the end the boy asserts that Tonto's version is "just a story." Tonto replies that the story's reality is "up to you," which is implicitly Verbinski's response to anyone who might not like his irony-ranger. Verbinski's script then tosses out two highly dubious confirmations of the story. First Tonto, just before he departs the Wild West exhibit, hands the boy a silver bullet. Then, as a pay-off to all the sequences in which crazy Tonto kept trying to feed the dead blackbird on his head, the boy sees a living blackbird appear in the exhibit-- though this is still pretty ambivalent "evidence." In no way does it approach the level of the conclusive evidence for the marvelous seen in 1947's MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET.
The 2013 LONE RANGER, then, is the first film I've reviewed in which a "fallacious figment" takes the form of a narrative propounded by a "real" person. The closest I've come was in my review of 1952's HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, and I found that to be a naturalistic version of this trope. In this review I said:
In my phenomenological system, a film qualifies for the status of “uncanny” if it presents dreams with such fidelity that they have their own reality within the film’s diegesis. HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN does not do this... In terms of my system, a bunch of stage-players enacting a play with fantastic content uses my trope “delirious dreams and fallacious fantasies” purely in a naturalistic manner, since in such scenarios the real-life framing-story nullifies the fantastic content.
I need to modify this statement a little with respect to the telling of stories, a more controlled form of "dreaming." At no time does the viewer of ANDERSEN see the story performed in the ballet take on its own independent identity: the ballet is always secondary to the primary, realistic narrative. But in LONE RANGER, it's arguable that the fantasy-story related by Tonto is really the primary narrative, and that the frame-story is just there to make its fantastic content somewhat dubious. A similar, though not identical, situation evolves in the 1987 PRINCESS BRIDE. There's no doubt in BRIDE that the people reading/listening to the story are real, but nevertheless it's the dream of a world with monsters and fabulous swordplay that is the primary attraction. Though LONE RANGER is ambivalent about the fantastic narrative's factuality and PRINCESS BRIDE is not, what renders both "uncanny" is this focus on the primacy of the fantasy.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS (2000), TRIGUN: BADLANDS RUMBLE (2010)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological, cosmological,* (2) *psychological*
“He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself"-- Nietzsche
These two Japanese productions, though separated by ten years and belonging to different SF-subgenres, are essentially one in terms of their theme about obsession.
Though the Big G is the main star of MEGAGUIRUS, his real foe is not so much the giant insect-queen from another dimension, but a mere female human, Kiriko, also a member of Japan's Self Defense Force. Kiriko, in the tradition of obsessed heroes in all genres, nurses a deep hatred for Godzilla, who during one of his last rampages killed her former commanding officer. However, since 1996, the year of the monster's last attack, Japan has officially put the kibosh on all nuclear-oriented operations, since atomic energy attracts Godzilla like a flame attracts moths.
Nevertheless, a new project receives governmental approval, one that uses a similar technology, "plasma energy," to create miniature black holes. The government knows that the plasma-energy will attract Godzilla once more, but they're willing to twist the bear's tail in the belief that they can kill the bear when it comes into reach.
In keeping with frequent series-themes about the abuse of technology, Japan's new black-hole technology creates more problems than it solves, and one of them is an alien dragonfly that slips into Earth-space from another dimension, during a test run of the tech. While Kiriko and her allies-- her fellow soldiers and a comic inventor who's not very funny-- prepare for Godzilla's inevitable advent, the dragonfly begins to lay eggs. These produce giant wasp-like creatures, later termed "Meganula."
When Godzilla comes ashore, attracted by the plasma-flame, the Meganula happen to enter the picture, also attracted by the high energy. The swarm of big insects compromise the Defense Force's attempt to blast Godzilla into another dimension. When the bugs bug the Big G, he incinerates several of them with his atomic breath. However, some of the surviving the Meganula manage to feed off Godzilla's powers during their attack. They fly away and create a new monstrosity with Godzilla's king-sized dimensions, the titular Megaguirus.
The clashes between the big lizard and the big bug are decent, but they have less emotional impact than Kiriko, who "reaps the whirlwind" when she gets her wish about having the chance to tilt with Godzilla again, and sees the cost of the many human beings destroyed by the monstrous rampage-- though in actuality, MEGAGUIRUS does not show this extensive suffering, doubtless to keep the monster-mash from seeming too oppressive. Further, she learns that one of the politicians engineered the whole megilla in order to make profits from the forbidden technology. Even after she registers her disapproval by punching the official out, it's implied that she shares some of his guilt.
Though the monster-brawl is at best average, Kiriko's strong personality makes up for a lot. One of the film's highlights shows her climbing onto Godzilla's scales as he swims through the ocean, in order to place a tracking-device on him. This was director Masaaki Tezuka's first Godzilla film, followed later by two more, both better on the action but still strong with the characterization elements, GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA (2002) and GODZILLA TOKYO SOS (2003). The score of MEGAGUIRUS manages to emulate the pioneering work of Akira Ifukube and bring its own individual touches to the table.
I've never read the TRIGUN manga, but I watched the anime teleseries during its US broadcast. I don't remember the series' hero-- wanted criminal Vash the Stampede-- making quite so much use of the old "I'll pretend to be an innocent goof in order to throw the villains off" schtick. It's pretty overused in the 90-minute film BADLANDS RUMBLE, though Vash's modus operandi is secondary to his desire to save a young bounty hunter, the beautiful Amelia, from going too far down the revenge-road. Vash's reasons for stumping around doing good deeds aren't even addressed.
The film begins in Macca City, on a stock desert-planet in some far-future world. When legendary bandit Gasback attempts to hold up a major banking-institution, Vash intervenes, using his goofus act to de-stabilize the situation, so that Gasback escapes without participating in a major-- and potentially bloody-- shootout with the local authorities.
Twenty years later, Gasback is still uncaptured, and a huge bounty is placed on his head by one of his former business-associates-- Cain Kepler, a fellow thief who "went legit" with his ill-gotten gains and wants Gasback put down. A huge contingent of bounty hunters converge on Macca City to seek the bounty. Among them is a young woman named Amelia, and Vash-- who has not aged, for undisclosed reasons-- who takes a protective interest in Amelia, much to her irritation. Amelia also doesn't care about the bounty: she simply wants to kill Gasback for unspecified reasons. When Gasback attacks the city with his fellow bandits, most of the bounty hunters have been celebrating too hard to put up any resistance. Amelia almost gets the chance to kill her quarry, but in doing so she almost destroys the power plant that keeps the whole city alive in the desert. Worse, Vash is apparently killed by Gasback's men.
Amelia, though sobered by her own boundary-crossing, resolves to pursue Gasback into the wilderness. She's joined by Vash's longtime friend Nicholas Wolfwood, who carries around a huge cross which conceals a rapid-fire gun-- a probable tribute to the 1966 spaghetti western DJANGO. The two of them have a shootout with Gasback's forces, during which Vash the Stampede shows up, revealing how he survived his apparent death. The conflict concludes with what looks like a spaghetti western's version of a familiar film-trope from Japanese samurai films, which I call the "two swordsmen run parallel to each other while seeking the other's weakpoint" trope. It doesn't make nearly as much sense when executed by opponents using guns, but it looks cool anyway. In the end Amelia must choose whether to pursue her revenge or to imitate Vash's preference for sparing lives.
Both the character design and the score are faithful to the 1960s spaghetti-western aesthetic. RUMBLE is no classic, but it's a better than average space-shoot-'em-up.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
PERCY JACKSON...THE LIGHTNING THIEF (2010), PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS (2013)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*
I haven't read the Rick Riordan books that spawned the Percy Jackson films, though I'm aware of some of the major differences, particularly with regard to the upgrading of the main characters' ages from about 12 to about 17. I have no idea if Riordan was influenced by J.K. Rowling, but there's no question that the JACKSON films have been stylistically modeled after the POTTER films. Chris Columbus, who produced three POTTER films and directed two of them, produced the two JACKSONs and directed the first one.
Columbus' film, LIGHTNING THIEF, didn't do much for me the first time around. In a recent re-watch I didn't discover any new subtleties. A young hero is attacked by mysterious monsters and his mother is kidnapped. He learns of his godly parentage; specifically, that his father is the ancient Greek sea-god Poseidon. He's finds that he's falsely accused of stealing one of the lightning bolts of Zeus, King of the Gods, and that there will be dire consequences if the bolt is not returned. He forms a small coterie of allies-- Grover the Satyr, Annabeth the daughter of Athena-- and goes in search of the stolen lightning.
The actors playing Percy, Grover and Annabeth are all attractive and bring a strong sense of conviction to the material, but there's very little depth in the script's handling of myth, or even much wonder. Much like the first two POTTER films, Columbus does a journeyman job with the magic and the mystery. Many familiar mythic personages are trotted out by the script: in addition to those named, we also meet Hades, Persephone, and Medusa. Medusa comes to closest to evoking the complexities of archaic myth: during a fight with the three demigod-teens, the snake-haired witch tells Percy, "I used to date your daddy." "Dating" is not really an adequate description of the relationship of Medusa and Poseidon in archaic myth, but it was worth a smile. It's of minor interest that Percy and Annabeth owe their parentage to Poseidon and Athena, who were usually rivals in Greek stories, not least the best-known version of the Medusa tale. But I can't fault Columbus for not doing more with this mythologem, since I very much doubt Riordan did either. Many of the big FX-scenes fell somewhat flat, with the exception of a scene where the teens get distracted from the quest by a "lotus eaters" peril, getting drawn into an eternal Vegas club-scene-- all set to the amusing tune of "Poker Face."
Ironically, the two scenes I liked best were deleted from the original release and included only on the DVD: a fight-scene in which the satyr character kicks some badguy booty, and one in which the villain Hades explains his festering discontent with having been made custodian of his joyless death-realm.
Oddly, the first POTTER film not to be directed by Columbus seemed to have a more vivid visual style, and the same is the case with the first JACKSON film by another director, Thor Freudenthal. I wouldn't say the storyline is any more complex, though: it's just another quest-story content to revisit the best-known Greek myths, at least on a superficial level. This time, Percy must save "Camp Half Blood"-- sort of a "Hogwarts reimagined as a training-ground"-- and can only do so if he and his friends can find the Golden Fleece. In this sojourn he's joined by two new allies in addition to Annabeth and Grover: girl-bully Clarisse-- who's more of a nemesis in the books-- and Tyson, a young cyclops who turns out to be another son of Poseidon, and therefore Percy's half-brother.
Though the myths are dealt with any greater complexity, Freudenthal and Co. devise a much better selection of "wonder moments." It may be that the SEA OF MONSTERS book is richer in such scenes than Riordan's LIGHTNING THIEF, but Freudenthal also takes more time to develop such scenes cinematically. I particularly liked the scene of Percy and his friends falling into the oceanic mouth of Charybdis, a scene wherein Percy rides the back of a sea-horse, and the heroes' encounters with a full-blood cyclops, who's a good deal more formidable than Tyson. For good measure, Percy must deal with having a brother he'd never known of, and the inevitable fear that Daddy may find more favor with the "new" sibling. Only at the climax does Freudenthal lose some steam: the good guys' final confrontation with the god Kronos is not any better or worse than the fight between Percy and his demigod adversary at the conclusion of LIGHTNING THIEF.
The JACKSON films are good formulaic works. They entertain well enough, but they don't show the deeper currents I've frequently located in, say, the fantasy-films of Ray Harryhausen.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
PHASE IV (1974), BUG (1975)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Two bugged-out films this time...
PHASE IV, the only film directed by celebrated title-sequence designer Saul Bass, has gained some fans over the years despite its initial box-office failure. However, though its visual look is distinctive, the story lacks tension and the characters are tedious.
A colony of ants in the Arizona desert has become aggressive and unpredictable, constructing large sand-towers. The government begins to evacuate the local residents. Two scientists, young Jim and his older mentor Dr. Hubbs, are assigned to a small lab-facility in the desert from which to study the ants, but the government keeps them on a short leash and Hubbs is constantly afraid that the experiment will be terminated too quickly.
For no clear reason the ants attack one of the local farms, where young Kendra (Lynne Frederick) lives with her grandparents. Thanks to the chaos caused by the ants, the grandparents are killed in a wreck and the farm is set afire. Kendra is taken in by the two scientists. Jim treats her with friendliness while Hubbs largely ignores her, concerned more with seeking out the vulnerabilities of the colony.
The ants slowly begin to attack the laboratory, gnawing through vital wires so as to deprive the humans of their radio, and in one instance biting Hubbs on the hand. The ant's poison doesn't kill him but his swollen hand transforms him into Captain Ahab, out to destroy the ants by any means possible. In contrast, once Jim realizes their dire circumstances, he gambles that the ants have acquired increased intelligence and tries to communicate with them. Kendra for her part is semi-traumatized by the deaths of her only relatives, but she conceives the idea that the ants are after her alone, and she leaves the facility to surrender to them. Inevitably both men are forced to meet the menace of the ants head-on. Vengeful Hubbs meets the fate he desired for the ants, while Jim learns that the ants have somehow transformed Kendra in a vessel for their own consciousness. The film ends with the implication that the ants will arrange a "marriage" between Jim and Kendra, the better to produce a new race of humans that the insects can better interact with.
The scenes with the ants and their mysterious towers look great-- the humans, not so much. All three of them are merely sketches, not full-fledged characters, so their reactions in the face of this threat to humanity are, well, nearly inhuman. The character of Kendra is further weakened by a zombielike performance by Lynne Frederick.
There's some cosmological interest in the scientists' discussion of ant-biology, but this is another of many films that emphasizes flashy visuals to the detriment of character development. Not every type of film needs the latter. But PHASE IV did.
In contrast, 1975's BUG, directed by Jeannot Szwarc, shows a more felicitious balance between cosmological peril and human reaction to it. I have not read the source novel, Thomas Page's HEPHAESTUS PLAGUE. But since Page was one of the writers adapting the book-- along with famed promoter-director William Castle, his last project before his death-- I suspect that the greater complexity of the human dimension derives from Page's novel.
Though the story is framed as one of the many "nature strikes back" films popular at the time, the deeper subtext is that old Frankensteinian refrain: "he meddled in things man should leave alone."
The film begins with Professor Parmiter dropping his wife Carrie off at church. The fact that he does not attend doesn't arouse comment, though it does fit in with general portraits of scientists as irreligious, and therefore susceptible to temptation.
The preacher gives Carrie and the rest of the congregation a rambling hellfire speech, and one of the parishioners remarks that it's a speech everyone has heard before. It's a super-conservative speech, in which the preacher shows his aversion to hippies by calling attention to "the hairy heads of our children," and conflates the blessings of God with the Protestant work ethic:
"Every time one of you folks gets a check for the fruits of your labors, you get a kiss from God!"
But this time the hellfire speech seems to call up resentments from below, as an earthquake sets the whole church rocking. The tremors subside, but they release from the earth's depths an unknown species of "bug," a roach-like creature that's extraordinary strong and can spark fires by clashing its appendages together. Shortly after some of the bugs cause the death of some locals, Parmiter finds and cages all the bugs he can find.
Page's bugs are one of the few movie-monsters whose fake biology is reasonably well extrapolated, and Szwarc's film puts forth all the scientific data so as to make it as fascinating to the audience as to Parmiter himself. He deduces that their ancestors were trapped far underground, causing them to mutate into creatures who fed on burnt ash. Unfortunately for Parmiter, he doesn't capture all the firebugs. The bugs, questing about for their normal food, cause the injury of one young woman, and a little later, the death of Parmiter's own wife.
Parmiter, unable to deal with his grief, assuages his anguish by attempting to play God. As it happens, the bugs, unable to withstand the lesser atmospheric pressures for very long, are doomed to perish. Parmiter, unable to bring back his wife, elects to breed a new version of bug by cross-mating a female with a normal male roach. He names his new "child" after himself and the god Hephaestus, who is associated with the blacksmith's fire and with the underworld-- at least in his Roman identity as Vulcan the volcano-god.
As some Christian rhetoric has it, nothing good comes of making hybrid creatures, and sure enough, Parmiter's new breed not only proves hardy enough to live, it develops wings with which to fly, more pronounced fire-making abilities, and at least rudimentary intelligence.
However-- perhaps because the movie wasn't capable of attempting a large-scale battle between humanity and the bugs-- the conflict remains between Parmiter and his creations. Sure enough, when he finally realizes the enormity of his acts, he tries to destroy the breed. Not only do the bugs set him on fire, but the earth obediently opens in another earthquake. "Human Torch" Parmiter plunges into a not-too-figurative hell, and his demon-spawn follow him down into the abyss-- after which the earth just as obligingly closes and consigns them all to perdition.
Bradford Dillman, often stuck in light leading-man roles during his career, acquits himself admirably as Parmiter, who begins as an extremely good-natured fellow-- he even talks to a squirrel in the critter's own language-- and who become corrupted by that old Faustian flaw: the pursuit of ilicit knowledge. Most of Jeannot Szwarc's films strike me as journeyman efforts, but BUG is a good deal better than his average work, and may be his best film overall.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
THE MAD GHOUL (1943), SILENT RAGE (1982)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological,* (2) *cosmological*
By chance I happened to see two films separated by generations but somewhat related by the subject matter of an undead creature.
THE MAD GHOUL resembles other horror films of the Classic Hollywood period in which an older man must be prevented from gaining any influence over a nubile young woman, so that she may end up with an age-appropriate suitor. However, GHOUL has one structural difference from films like 1935's THE RAVEN and 1936's THE INVISIBLE RAY: this time both an older man and a younger man are both interested in the same woman, and are thrown over for a third suitor.
These future "reject-ees" are also the first characters we encounter in the movie, as chemistry prof Doctor Alfred Morris (George Zucco) lectures before a class-- one that includes his protégé Ted Allison (David Bruce)-- about his discovery of a rare nerve gas he's discovered from the relics of ancient Mayans. In private Morris reveals to Allison that the gas has the power to reduce those who breathe it to a "dead-alive" status, in which they lose all will of their own. Morris shows Allison a monkey that he dosed with the gas, and asserts that, according to the Mayan records, the state can be reversed by infusing the subject with a liquid taken from a freshly-harvested heart. Allison, a medical student, aids Morris in deriving some of this liquid in order to successfully (or so it seems) revive the monkey. At this point Morris seems to be concerned only with getting his name in the scientific journals, though he makes a telling remark about testing the procedure on a human subject. This is always a good sign of your basic Nietzschean over-reacher.
Allison's main concern is his longtime fiancee, the beautiful Isabel (Evelyn Ankers), a successful singer currently on tour with a series of radio performances. Unfortunately for Allison, Isabel clandestinely reveals to Morris that she doesn't love Allison any more, but fails to mention that she's fallen for her pianist Eric (Turhan Bey). Morris, despite being over twenty years her senior, jumps to the conclusion that she's in love with him. The idea of experimenting on a human subject-- namely his perceived rival Allison-- starts looking very good to the doctor.
In jig time, Morris exposes Allison to the nerve gas, and the result, thanks to a superior makeup job given the B-movie limitations, is a dead-eyed zombie who will obey Morris' will. However, at this point Morris's motives become a little confused. If he wants to be rid of a rival, why doesn't he just tell Allison to write a suicide note and then go walk off a cliff? The best I can deduce is that Morris wants to have his cake and eat it too. When the supposedly cured monkey perishes, Morris decides to experiment on his will-less subject, keeping Allison alive in order to see if the zombification can be fully cured-- again, I must assume, so he can publish an abridged account in the scientific journals. To keep the experiment going, Morris needs new hearts. To keep from pissing where they live, Morris and zombie-Allison start following Isabel on her radio-tour, seeking out fresh graves in order to relieve the bodies of their hearts. This leads to some real murders: first a cemetery-employee, and later, a hotshot reporter investigating the ghoulish activities. The latter murder proves shocking, for in films of this period, the wisecracking comedy-relief reporter is almost never killed.
Eventually Morris and Allison both find out Isabel's true intentions. Morris tries to get Allison to kill Eric, but the attempt fails. During one of his lucid spells Allison learns how Morris has been controlling him and wreaks vengeance. Then, becoming a zombie again, Allison makes a final attempt at murder, only to be shot down in a bravura finish.
Apart from (possibly) some Bulldog Drummond films, this appears to be the only film by director James P. Hogan that falls into the categories of the metaphenomenal. It also appears to be the only such work by former Ernst Lubitsch writer Hans Kraly, who is credited with the "original story." However, screenwriters Brenda Weisberg and Paul Gangelin both had ample genre-credits, and would later contribute the story to 1944's THE SCARLET CLAW. George Zucco's Doctor Morris, though his actions are never very credible, becomes one of the more believable "mad scientists" of the period thanks to Zucco's talented underplaying, while David Bruce is admirably pathetic as "the ghoul." Ankers and Bey are nice-looking but have little to do.
My second "undead" pic is a peculiar offering of countrified kung-fu and Frankensteinian ambitions: the Chuck Norris vehicle SILENT RAGE. Norris had made five previous starring vehicles, all aimed at lovers of chopsocky cinema, vigilante action, or both. RAGE is devoted to one simple idea: how good is all that kung-fu skill against an opponent who can't be permanently injured?
Mental patient John Kirby (Brian Libby) goes berserk one day and murders the people he's staying with. Sheriff Dan Stevens (Norris), after some effort, apprehends the lunatic. Shortly afterward Kirby tries to escape and is shot dead by law-officials. However, because he was the patient of local doctor Halman (Ron Silver), and because Halman's boss wants a corpse on which to experiment, Kirby gets a new lease on life. Halman and his cohorts work wonders on the dead man's status, and he arises, a mindless killing machine.
Aside from the creepy scenes as Kirby stalks about Frankenstein-style, most of RAGE is pretty formulaic. Stevens rekindles an old romance with a girlfriend, but it doesn't add much interest, and he gets to kick the asses of several scruffy bikers. Surprisingly, Norris actually takes some hits in this mundane battle, as opposed to many of his films, where he's virtually untouchable. Stevens also has a comedy-relief deputy (Stephen Furst), who isn't particularly funny, but has a strong death-scene after he courageously tries to stop the undead killer.
I term this a "cosmological" film simply because the main thrust of the story is to show the evil of the scientists' meddlings with the proper order of nature. The end fight between Stevens and Kirby is decent, and probably delivered the goods to the audience that came for it, but it's mediocre Norris-action in comparison to his best stunt-work. Michael Miller's camerawork is on occasion surprisingly fluid for a guy who ended up doing mostly TV melodramas.
Monday, September 9, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
I've never agreed with critics who find FRENZY to be a great Hitchcock film, any more than with writers who place it in their horror-movie guides simply because the film contains a serial killer. By contrasting Hitchcock's approach to the serial killer in this and a genuinely uncanny film like PSYCHO, I find that Hitchcock's approach with FRENZY has more in common with his 1943 film SHADOW OF A DOUBT. In my earlier essay I asserted that the psycho-killer of SHADOW lacked any of the "strange or unworldly aspects" I find in Norman Bates, and the same is true of the "Necktie Killer" in FRENZY, even though he's compared to Jack the Ripper in the film's first ten minutes.
I haven't read the Arthur LaBern novel on which the film is based, but a summary suggests that in the original novel the killer's psycho-sexual nature is secondary to the series of unfortunate events by which his entirely innocent friend is accused and convicted of the murderer's crimes. This suggests to me that Hitchcock's primary interest in the source novel was its depiction of the horrors of the justice system. This was a theme Hitchcock had invoked to devastating effect in 1956's THE WRONG MAN, but FRENZY fails to reach that level of naturalistic horror, perhaps because one policeman in FRENZY continues to investigate the case even after the conviction.
In the 1972 film-- one of the few late Hitchcock films to return to the director's native England-- psycho-killer Robert Rusk kills for much the same reasons Norman Bates does: sex is a substitute for sexual satisfaction. The film's script is textbook Freudian, seen in the Freudian term "pleasure principle," which is used by Inspector Oxford as he describes the tempestuous, almost childlike fury of the killer when he strangles his female victims with a necktie. Once this assertion is made, the script loses all interest in delving any deeper into Rusk's history or his specific psychology. Even his friendship with Richard Blaney, an ex-RAF pilot who has fallen on hard times, seems at best a superficial acquaintanceship.
By coincidence, their paths become more strongly intertwined when Rusk, under a false name, attempts to find new female victims by subscribing to a matrimonial service, one that happens to be operated by Blaney's ex-wife Brenda. Brenda refuses to accept further dealings with Rusk because his brutality-- though not his penchant for murder-- has been reported to her. Rusk responds by attempting to rape Brenda. I say "attempt" because some summaries claim that he does rape her, though it looked to me like he failed to perform, and so resorted to murder in frustration. This scene of near-rape and strangulation is the grossest spectacle in Hitchcock's long career of thriller-making, and may represent his response to the lifting of Hollywood censorship in the late 1960s. But though the scene sustains a certain technical interest, as a whole it fails as a cinematic spectacle.
Blaney, the nominal protagonist, is not much more interesting than Rusk. The script makes frequent references to Blaney's military service, and to his reduced circumstances, where he must labor as a barman to make ends meet. As with many stories about servicemen re-entering civilian life, there's implicitly an irony between his scanty rewards for having defended his country, versus the way his ex-wife prospers by catering to the needs of lonely people. Prior to Brenda's murder, the script only devotes a few lines to the cause of her divorce from Blaney, and Blaney's current girlfriend, a barmaid from one of his places of employment, is no better developed. Of all the female characters in the film, the one who most seems like a believable character-- even though she reflects a 'type' seen in many Hitchcock films-- is Brenda's secretary Monica. She is the reverse-image of Rusk in that she's implicitly a virginal old maid, as well as an officious snoop. She causes harm in her own way, carelessly identifying Blaney as the killer of Brenda simply because she's taken a dislike to him earlier, a dislike which seems rooted in a man-hatred no less formidable than Rusk's gynophobia.
There are some intense scenes in the film, not least being Rusk's difficulties when he learns that the dead body of Brenda, which he's disposed of, conceals a clue to her killer, so that he must seek it out again to recover the evidence. But even the best scenes of FRENZY seem to be parts that never cohere into a greater whole.
I've termed this film an "irony," though it's not as palpably dark as the three Hitchcock films named above. SHADOW in particular portrays almost everyone as foolish or stupid, but in FRENZY the average people are merely preoccupied, not stupid. Inspector Oxford is a likeable enough character, though he too is rather superficial. His belated attempt to save Blaney from prison-- after having taken part in his arrest-- is praiseworthy, but his about-face seems contrived. To be a drama, I would have to believe that one or more of the characters possesses the power to change his destiny, even if he failed in the attempt. But most of the characters lack such ability, and Oxford, though he is an exception, feels akin to the sort of plot-contrivance that saves Jimmy Stewart from incarceration in WRONG MAN: a contrivance of dumb luck.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
TOTAL RECALL (1990), TOTAL RECALL (2012)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*
Though Philip K. Dick's stories are usually more complex than the movies they spawn, this generalization does not apply to his original 1966 tale "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." This short story includes three of Dick's favorite themes-- a character's paranoia-flavored pursuit by hostile powers, his loss of identity, and the blurring of distinctions between dreams and reality. Yet the parts do not exceed the whole. Dick's story of a lowly clerk whose identity is a fictional implant by the agents of the government, and who discovers this truth, sets up a vivid problem and then resolves through a device that amounts to little more than a shaggy-dog story.
Director Paul Verhoeven and a team of four credited writers-- one of whom was the celebrated Dan O'Bannon-- expanded the bare bones of Dick's original story. The final script became a high-intensity action-adventure vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lowly wage-slave Douglas Quaid (changed from Dick's name "Douglas Quail") finds out that he was once a secret agent for the evil governor of the Mars Colony, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox). One of Cohaagen's agents, Lori (Sharon Stone), even marries Quaid in order to bolster Quaid's belief in his implanted identity. As if he's subconsciously rebelling against the fictional ID, Quaid begins to have dreams of Mars, dreams which include a beautiful brunette who doesn't resemble Lori in the least. This is one of the most substantial improvements on the original. In Dick's story, Quail's wife briefly accuses Quail of dreaming about other women, but he has not in truth done so, while she is not an agent, just a shrew who deserts Quail because she deems him a loser. Lori, in contrast, realizes that Quaid's Martian dreams constitute a rebellion against his false memories.
Whereas Dick's character only briefly rebels against the authorities who pursue him, and then gives in for sake of the story's shaggy-dog conclusion, Quaid goes on the run like a steroid version of NORTH BY NORTHWEST's Roger Thornhill. However, that's not to say that RECALL is simply a pulpish indulgence in pure violence, a la 1985's COMMANDO. Verhoeven and his writers build a very Dickian world, in which the villains are a Marxist's dream, always in hot pursuit of filthy lucre and willing to tyrannize over anyone who gets in their way. Coohaagen keeps all of Mars under his thumb due to his control of the imported air franchise, and his mining of a precious metal creates hideous mutations who are even more marginalized than the normal Martian citizens. There's also a guerilla rebellion on Mars, whose opposition plays into Cohaagen's plans for Quaid. Verhoeven uses the mutants for considerable shock value, as with the "three-breasted" hooker, who alone shows up in the squeaky-clean 2012 remake. Yet they have meaning on another level as well: they are the "wretched refuse" who initially look disgusting but are eventually seen as more valorous than many "normals." In addition, some of the mutants also possess psychic powers, which adheres to Dick's tendency to associate super-normal mental states with abnormal individuals.
I won't dwell on the intricacies of Cohaagen's overall plot. It has its own share of "refrigerator moments," as Hitchcock calls them, but it's more believable than the original story by far. Schwarzenegger does quite well in the role, particularly in his early scenes where he believes himself married to a loving wife but has a lustful relationship with the woman of his dreams-- who, of course, is as real as his secret-agent persona. This is a great improvement over the original story, where the protagonist desires to escape to Mars but has no interest in playing around on his shrewish wife. It's also of psychological interest that Quaid's "false identity" comes to be a better man than his original, corrupt identity-- sort of a case of a "son" outdoing a "father," even though they're the same person. Michael Ironside, as Cohaagen's main henchman, provides a good brawl with Quaid and "bad wife" Stone has a kickass fight with "good girlfriend" Rachel Ticotin. As with Verhoeven's ROBOCOP, this is a rousing adventure that makes limited use of irony for its humor, but is not an actual ironic text like the director's 1997 STARSHIP TROOPERS.
My only major criticism of the 1990 film is a familiar one: I don't see why Jerry Goldsmith should have won any sort of award for a score that blatantly mimics the score for 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN.
In contrast, Len Wiseman's 2012 remake of the 1990 film is a sterile time-waster. It's not surprising that Wiseman and his writer-team ditched the idea of the Mars-mutants, for in essence Wiseman is devoted to showing a lot of really pretty people running around shooting at and fighting with each other-- mostly Colin Farrell (as Quaid), Jessica Beil (as Melina, the "good girlfriend"), and Kate Beckinsale (as "bad wife" Lori). This concentration on hot-bods may become clearer when one knows that Beckinsale also happens to be married to Wiseman and has starred in the UNDERWORLD franchise Wiseman co-created. Now I don't want to sound like one of those Puritans who can only enjoy violence when it's linked to some serious theme. On the contrary, I enjoy such pulp-fun-- seen both in Wiseman's UNDERWORLD and the earlier-cited COMMANDO-- when it's well done.
Wiseman's RECALL, however, is a derivative bore. The scripters do away with the extravagant SF-idea of controlling air on Mars, and in its place is a sort of "ethnic cleansing" plot, in which Cohaagen plans to annihilate the colonial populace of Mars in order to replace them with money-saving "synthetics." (It's not clear how this mass murder was going to be viewed by the authorities on Earth.) This change in plot necessitates a change in Quaid's role, but it's one that proves much less believable in terms of Cohaagen's actions. Beckinsale and Biel are sexy women but they, like Quaid, are constantly dressed in dark, ugly colors, as shown in the image above. This surprises me in that the UNDERWORLD films show a degree of visual stylishness nowhere present in Wiseman's RECALL. It may be that Wiseman had some notion of mitiating Scorcese in order to keep his RECALL distinct from that of Verhoeven, since the first twenty minutes has a ponderous, grundgy quality, particularly some time-wasting scenes in which Quaid is seen out drinking with his work-buddies.
Aside from a lively duel in an elevator-- where Lori fights Melina and Quaid fights a robot soldier-- most of the action is predictable and tedious. It does rewrite one aspect of the 1990 film that bothered me: whereas Schwarzenegger's super-muscular Quaid simply bursts his bonds to escape a climactic trap, Colin Farrell's Quaid must use his wits to accomplish the same ends.
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