Sunday, November 22, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*


Most film-fans today primarily know British director Robert Stevenson for his many Disney films of his late period, particularly such above-average works as MARY POPPINS and DARBY O'GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE. But the hallmark of his early career in the 1930s is that he directed the first, and best, adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel KING SOLOMON'S MINES.

Haggard's novel was the first of the so-called lost-race stories, even though the "race" involved is simply a tribe of Africans who have remained so isolated from the rest of Africa that they've had no contact with the white people who had made their indelible stamp upon the continent. In many ways these fictional Africans, the Kikuanas, aren't markedly different from other tribes, since author Haggard had garnered experience in that domain, but they are still "exotic" for two principal reasons. One is that their female witch-doctor Gagool practices a species of "witch-finding" that allows her to have any tribe-member executed-- and the other is that the remote land of the Kikuanas is found to be the source of the legendary mines of King Solomon.

In the novel, the hero Allen Quatermain is hired by a man whose brother disappeared into Kikuana-land looking for the mines, so the mission starts out motivated by rescue, not treasure-seeking-- though of course the title makes it inevitable that the protagonists will get their shot at priceless riches. Though the film includes most of the cast from the book, it foregrounds the attractions of treasure-seeking by introducing two new characters: Patsy O'Brien and his adult daughter Kathy, two penniless Irish fortune-hunters stuck in Africa. They manage to hitch a ride on an expedition headed by experienced white hunter Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke). Also along for the ride is a mysterious, very dignified Black African, Umbopa (Paul Robeson).

Various contingencies lead to Quatermain taking his party into Kikuana-land, where the hunter finds himself involved in king-making as well as treasure-hunting. The Kikuanas are ruled by a tyrant named Twala who, as noted above, allows an incredibly ancient witch-woman, Gagool, to maintain a reign of terror with her activities. (One of the creepier scenes in the film shows her marking out one of her victims, who is immediately executed by tribesmen wearing white feathery masks-- apparently the Kikuana equivalent of executioners' masks.)  The white men are initially threatened by the natives but they manage to overawe them with their superior technology-- first with false teeth, and later with guns-- so that the tribesmen think they're gods. (Hence the "phantasmal figuration" trope cited here.)  However, Twala is the usurper of the previous chief's family, and Umbopa is the son of the murdered chief, who has returned to take back the tribal throne.

I've seen some online political critiques of the film that claim that the film supports imperialism. It's true that it doesn't in any way critique real-life British imperialism. However, the Brits in the film, like the ones in the novel, don't despoil or dispossess the tribe, nor do they alert imperialist authorities to the hidden tribe's presence. When the whites escape, they do take some treasure with them, but it's a pretty fair exchange for having ended an unquestionable tyranny and restored a deposed ruler.

There are various minor differences between book and film. In the latter, not only do the white adventurers get trapped in the depths of the mines by Gagool, they are also menaced by an erupting volcano (cinema needs all the visual spectacle it can get). The novel has an African woman of the isolated tribe fall in love with one of the white men, who is flattered but doesn't allow any romance to develop. This doesn't work as badly in the novel as it sounds, but Haggard is obliged to kill the woman to tie up that loose end, so that character's exclusion from the film is probably for the best. The two new Irish characters-- the father who goes looking for treasure, and the daughter who more or less guilts the whites into going to his rescue-- are pretty forgettable. On the plus side, the film is very accurate to the novel's original portrait of Allen Quatermain, who is a stable older man who happens to be a good shot, but who in no way resembles the he-man white hunters that imitated the Haggard novel-- to say nothing of other, less faithful movie-Quatermains. Oh, and since Umbopa is played by Paul Robeson, the film-version sings a lot more than the book-version, but that's not too hard to take, and certainly Robeson's character has more dignity than most Hollywood versions of African tribespeople.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

ULYSSES (1954)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

Producer Dino de Laurentis' ULYSSES was almost certainly an Italian response to the American vogue for films of epic proportions, which were in their turn a response to the competition said studios were getting from inexpensive television shows.

Despite flaws that are now very evident today-- awkward dubbing, budgetary limitations-- ULYSSES was a success with 1950s audiences, and arguably paved the way for a wave of Italian-made fantasy/adventure films that reached U.S. shores, starting with 1958's HERCULES.  Ironically, Ulysses, who might be said to have "started it all," didn't get a series of film spin-offs as such, though occasionally he showed up in such hero-team-up films as ULYSSES AGAINST THE SON OF HERCULES.  Very few English-language productions, save the 1997 telefilm THE ODYSSEY, have troubled to give the hero his original Greek name of Odysseus.

I didn't expect the enormously complex Homer epic to be faithfully represented in a mainstream theatrical film, and indeed the script very efficiently boils down the rambling narrative into a watchable story. Ulysses (Kirk Douglas) is first introduced to the viewer in a way roughly like his appearance in the epic-- that of being washed ashore on the island of the hospitable Phaeacians-- but, in order to keep the audience from being overwhelmed by the mythic narrative, Ulysses initially has amnesia. Thus the audience learns part of his story through Ulysses' recollection of it, and part from the family he's been unable to reach for the last ten years: his wife Penelope and his grown son Telemachus. As in the epic poem, the travails of these family-members provide narrative suspense, in that a small horde of importunate suitors have plopped themselves down in the king's house, claiming that the long-absent king must be dead and that Penelope must choose a new husband.

Ulysses' first memory deals with the conclusion of the Trojan War, whose victory is made possible by Ulysses' employment of the Trojan Horse. So that the movie-audience won't have to deal with all the involved transgressions that cause Ulysses' long exile in the poem, the movie substitutes just one initiating transgression: UIysses and his men, while sacking Troy, destroy the temple of Nepture (Poseidon in Greek). The effect of this action is questionable, since at no point does the movie-script show that the Greek/Roman gods are incontrovertibly real. Plainly the producers didn't want to deal with scenes of the Olympians watching from on high, like the ones in 1963's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.

The desire to exorcise the gods gives the story a rather schizophrenic attitude. Even though the gods don't appear, ULYSSES has to incorporate a host of marvelous presences-- or at least, the ones that the audience most expected to see. Ulysses naturally hears the song of the sirens, whose origins are not explained, and manages to vanquish the cannibalistic cyclops Polyphemus, who claims to be the son of Neptune and is clearly bigger than any ordinary human being. And in his confrontaiton with the "witch" Circe, she does not claim to be the kindred of the gods, as in the epic. But Circe mysteriously claims that if the hero will stay with her, she can give him a potion that will make him into one of the gods. He refuses-- like the later cinematic Jason, Ulysses values the limits of a mortal life and death-- so that the audience never quite knows whether or not Circe can deliver what she promises. The Circe-section, incidentally, also incorporates material from other sections of Homer. The sorceress in the epic makes it possible for Odysseus to consult spirits of the dead, while the one in the film actually calls them up herself, in an attempt to cajole the hero into joining with her. In an added twist, Ulysses' dead mother shows up to the spirit-party uninvited, and steers her errant son away from the sorceress and back to earthly love and duty.

It's likely that the film's producers had some mundane reason for casting Silvana Mangano in both the roles of faithful Penelope and the temptress Circe. For all we know today, perhaps Mangano simply wanted both roles. The psychological effect, though, is to assert a unity between the two diametrically opposed women-- a unity that does not exist between Ulysses and the suitor who proves his foremost rival, Antinous (Anthony Quinn). Some of the dialogue is very suggestive of the whole "woman is an eternal mystery" trope. It would be interesting to know if any of the story's six writers were aware of a non-Homeric continuation of Odysseus' adventures, in which the hero is killed by Telegonus, the grown son of his former lover Circe-- after which, in a rather convoluted Oedipal scheme, Telegonus marries Odysseus' widow Penelope while Telemachus, the hero's child by Penelope, marries Circe.

Mangano and Douglas are the only players given enough material to construct bravura scenes for their respective characters. By comparison, even the actors playing more important support-characters-- Quinn, Rosanna Podesta (given the very unrewarding role of Nausicaa)-- aren't much more than spear-carriers. The script tries to construct for a modern audience a palatable version of a roistering Greek hero, and though Douglas' Ulysses is never all that compelling, his moments of arrogance, skepticism and bloodthirstiness are certainly in tune with the Greek idea of the martial heroes.  The pace is overly slow at times, but the movie deserves plaudits for its suspenseful construction of the mariniers' ordeal in the Cyclops' cave, which comes off well despite the aforementioned budgetary restrictions.

Friday, November 13, 2015



I hadn't seen CANNIBAL in many years, and I didn't have particular vivid memories of it. To my surprise, even though the script by director-under-a-pseudonym J.F. Lawton is far too dependent on pop-culture jokes, the first hour of the ninety-minute film is fun. 

I didn't remember that CANNIBAL was based *very* loosely on Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, but in one sense the Lawton film is closer to the source than the more famous APOCALYPSE NOW. As I interpret the Conrad novel, the author wanted to portray both the colonizing Europeans and the colonized Africans as blithering dunderheads. It's an ironic view of humanity as a whole, even if the enormities of Kurtz, the "white man gone more native than the native," push the irony closer to the realm of tragedy.

In place of a satirical attitude toward both the colonizers and the colonized, Lawton opposes the fatuities of both men and women in a post-feminist age. The title's "Avocado Jungle of Death" is an exotic jungle-land hidden within the fastness of Southern California. Within the jungle dwell the no less exotic "Pirahna Women," an Amazon tribe with the habit of devouring any males who trespass on their domain. In contrast with most cinematic Amazon tribes, there's no reference as to how the tribe perpetuates itself-- though, since the Pirahnas are an extreme offshoot of modern feminists, it may be that they are continually welcoming disaffected women, rather than mating with men to swell their ranks. 

The U.S. government asks feminist scholar Margo Hunt (Shannon Tweed) to seek out the Pirahna Women. Allegedly the jungle is America's only source of home-grown avocados, so officials want to move the tribe out of the jungle and give them all Malibu condos. Margo doesn't relish this contra-feminist agenda, but accepts the mission under coercion. She's accompanied by one of her students, an airhead named Bunny, and a klutzy, anti-feminist male guide, Jim (Bill Maher), with whom Margo had a one-night stand. During most of the journey Margo and Jim snipe at each other, while the brainless bunny serves as a Goof Chorus. Not all that much happens during the trek, except for the trio's encounter with a tribe of anti-masculinist men who idolize Phil Donahue and Alan Alda. However, Lawton's script keeps the barbs flowing against both men and women, disarming any expectations of an agenda. 

Unfortunately, the film falls apart in the final half-hour, once Margo and her comrades reach the domain of the Pirahna Women. There's the expected revelation that the tribe's current queen is a lost feminist scholar-- naturally named Kurtz (Adrienne Barbeau)-- but Lawton doesn't really use this Kurtz as anything but a vehicle for a few facile jokes. In addition, despite the script's early intimations that Margo and Jim might get together again, Lawton belatedly introduces a romantic relationship between Jim and Bunny-- as well as briefly showing Bunny get seduced by the Pirahna's vision of radicalized feminism. Margo has to run for her life, but after making an alliance with a neighboring tribe of "Barracuda Women," she returns to challenge Kurtz and save Jim from the cooking-pot.

Even in a comedy, the conclusion seems to demand some spectacle, but Lawton allows the climax to peter out very anti-climactically. In place of the sacrificial death seen in APOCALYPSE NOW, the tribal queen and her challenger fight it out-- but it's a dull, half-hearted battle; so that I can't deem the film *combative* since both fighters seem pretty inept. It may be that Lawton simply had no money to hire a fight choreographer, or maybe one or both of the actresses weren't willing to do more than the minimum required. I don't know what sort of ending might have resonated better. I certainly didn't care that Margo and Jim fail to become "an item," but I felt that because Lawton raised the question of their relationship, he should have found a better answer for said question.   

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Reportedly after H.G Wells had seen Fritz Lang's classic 1927 future-tale METROPOLIS, he Wells pronounced it the "silliest thing he'd ever seen." Though Wells had written a fair number of famous satires of modern culture, something about the silent film evidently rubbed him the wrong way. I suspect, given the work Wells wrote roughly six years later, that he may have faulted METROPOLIS because its future society did not rise to a higher state of affairs due to its mastery of science.

Such is the theme of Wells' hard-to-classify book THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. It isn't precisely a novel-- Wells termed it a "discussion"-- though it relates to the prose-genre later called "the alternate history." Because Wells wrote a future-history spanning his contemporary period of 1933 all the way through the 22nd century, he chose a very pedantic way to present his narrative: as a notebook, written by a 22nd-century diplomat, which falls into the hands of a modern-day interlocutor.  This means that SHAPE, because it spans such a long period, has no central protagonists, just a stream of personalities who have no more dramatic heft than a historical summary might give real historical figures. Though Wells sought to communicate one of his key ideas-- the triumph of a "world state" administered by a technological elite-- often the book feels like a long and tedious lecture entitled, "Why H.G. Wells Was Right About Everything."

Wells is given sole credit for the script of the 1936 THINGS TO COME, which doesn't borrow more than a few major scenes from the novel, and creates many scenes that have no analogues at all in SHAPE. In this online essay the unnamed writer claims that Wells "had little control over the final film and much of his written material was ignored or edited from the final cut."  Based on what I've heard about the flee-flow collaborative atmosphere on other films helmed by producer Alexander Korda, I think it likely that many hands crafted the narrative of THINGS TO COME, even if both the screenplay and its later novelization were credited to Wells alone. Director William Cameron Menzies, a production designer famed for his elaborate, well-crafted settings on films like 1924's THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, probably had major input in constructing the mise-en-scene of the 1936 film.

THINGS TO COME has many faults, but I can't imagine anyone saying of it that "the book was better than the movie." Whereas the book wanders ceaselessly through endless, sterile future-history summations, always accompanied by Wells' sententious commentaries on the necessity of the world-state, the film is divided into three coherent periods.

First, in order to give the developments of the future immediate relevance, THINGS begins in modern times, as the English city of Everytown (a.k.a. London) is suddenly attacked by aerial raids. Three central characters during this section-- Cabal, Harding, and Passworthy-- witness the sane world of organized civilization torn asunder by a Second World War-- and right on the eve of Christmas, no less! The origins of the conflict are deliberately left vague, so that the audience cannot think of it as an unusual occurrence. The script intends for the audience to see this event as the beginning of the dissolution of separate nation-states. Cabal himself (Raymond Massey) pilots an aircraft and shoots down one of the invaders, but there is no triumph in this, for Cabal knows that the problem of war itself cannot be solved by defeating a particular enemy.

The Second World War lasts over two more decades. Thanks to the "other side" unleashing biological weapons, Earth devolves into a new Dark Age, something of an ancestor to the "Mad Max" films of the 1980s. The second section opens in 1970, focusing again on Everytown. The shattered city is now ruled by a petty chieftain who calls himself "Boss" (Ralph Richardson), and under his rule it's clear that there can be no advancement of mankind, though the 1933 Harding is still alive, striving to keep medicine alive. Then a strange aircraft lands in Everytown, and out steps the city's former native son, a much older John Cabal. He proclaims that he represents an organization of air pilots, "Wings Over the World," devoted to stamping out independent nation-states everywhere. (Note: the original novel speaks of an "Air and Sea Patrol," but the film wisely focuses only on the superior technology of the "Airmen," who bring order to the world even as the invading planes of the first section brought only chaos.) The Boss keeps Cabal prisoner, in part on the advice of his much smarter concubine Rowena. However, thanks to the help of one of the Boss' subordinates, Cabal is able to send a message to his fellow Airmen, who defeat the Boss and his pocket army by gas-bombing them into submission. Only the Boss dies, and Cabal sanctimoniously observes that the old world of warring nations has died with him.

There follows the film's greatest scene: an eight-minute montage capsulizing how the Airmen take advantage of the "gigantic possibilities of science" to build the new world order. This comes into fruition in 2036; the film's third section. By this time massive art deco cities have replaced the chaotic warrens of the old mankind, including that of Everytown, which has become a sleek new "metropolis." The descendants of the 20th-century Cabal and Passworthy are important citizens of Everytown, and their grown children are scheduled to take part in the first attempt at space-travel, when their capsule will be fired into the void by a huge "space-gun."

This plot-development resembles nothing in SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, where Wells seems at pains to emphasize that all civilization under the world-state has become pacific and arguably rather sedate. Indeed, the high ideals expoused by Oswald Cabal (Massey again)-- in which he stresses the need for risk and daring-- sound like something that Alexander Korda might have wanted, the better to make the future-world less of a dusty old man's fantasy. The voice of conservatism, opposing space-travel in principle, comes from an unscientific artist named Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke). In the novel he's a minor comedy-relief character who doesn't do much of anything, but in the film he's given a visual appearance somewhat like that of Percy Shelley as he rebels against Cabal's attempt to extend the boundaries of mankind further.  The artist and his followers storm the spaceport but fail to keep the massive cannon for firing its human cargo into infinity. Although Cabal succeeds in his experiment, he tells Passworthy that they may have to attempt the same adventure again and again before they find a way to take mankind to the stars-- a fairly realistic assessment, before the film closes on a deeply philosophical quote: "All the universe, or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy, which shall it be?"

Though I disagree strenuously with Wells' vision of a world-state, much less one controlled by a techno-elite, THINGS TO COME is certainly the greatest cinematic realization of this vision. As many others have noted, its concentration upon polemic robs its characters of any depth or individuality. In contrast to the novel, where all of the female characters are either romantic interests or functionaries, Rowena the (implied) concubine at least gets a memorable speech in which she expresses her frustration at not being able to wield power in man's world, though subsequently she simply disappears from the story after making an attempt to save Harding and his daughter.

The Montage of Science, as I like to call it, does seem like something Wells would have conceived as his answer to the romanticized pessimism of METROPOLIS. The montage is, at base, an expression of faith in man's ability to use science to extend his horizons. To be sure, Wells never really answers Lang's criticism of human society; never allows for any possibility that power in his perfect future-world can be abused. But as a pure expression of the emotions behind "the Faith in Science," THINGS TO COME presents a visual feast for the eyes that has rarely been equaled in cinema.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

CABIN BOY (1994)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

For years after CABIN BOY flopped, the film's co-producer David Letterman-- who had a cameo appearance in the flick-- used his scene as grist for his talk-show's comedy mill.

The movie, a vehicle for quirky comedian Chris Elliott, is a mixed beg. Like many 1990s films starring Saturday Night Live alumni, CABIN BOY plays like an extended sketch. Elliott plays Nathaniel, an overprotected aristocratic youth (implicitly a character much younger than the actor hismelf) who leaves his "fancy-man" college to go on a cruise. Like the protagonist of Kipling's CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, this young scion of the upper class gets on the wrong ship; in this case a fishing-scow full of sailors who work for a living and can't be bothered with upper-class fripperies. Unlike the Kipling book, the hero's efforts to get back to civilization propel the ship into a forbidden stretch of ocean inhabited by bizarre fantasy-creatures like giants and ice-monsters.

Nathaniel is intentionally a one-note character. following a pattern that Elliott had established in earlier appearances and that he continued to play, with variations, in many subsequent (mostly supporting) roles. But Nathaniel is brought out of his narcissistic cocoon, not so much by the rigors of sea life, but by meeting a long-distance swimmer named Trina (Melora Walters). Nathaniel falls for Trina but she doesn't reciprocate-- at least, not as long as she deems him a silly-ass virginal boy. In the film's most psychologically interesting scene, as soon as Nathaniel manages to get his rocks off with a multi-armed goddess, Trina suddenly becomes interested in him.

The odd thing about CABIN BOY is that if one described the bare plot on paper, it would sound like Nathaniel actually does "toughen up" due to his life at sea and the rigors of the fantasy-land. The film even gives Nathaniel a heroic climax: when the goddess' giant-husband comes after Nathaniel to kill him, the giant is partly forestalled by one of Nathaniel's allies, a friendly merman (Russ Tamblyn). However, it's Nathaniel himself who managed to slay the colossus, by the heroic act of climbing up the giant's shirt, looping a belt around his throat and strangling him. Nathaniel is so seduced by the heroic life that after he's returned to civilization, he decides that he'll continue the arduous life of a sailor with his fellow sea-salts.

Yet, because everything Chris Elliott does is laced with an arch, fey quality, it's impossible to think of him actually "manning up" (and of course, the actor doesn't become any more physically formidable-looking at the film's end than he looked at the opening). In comedies, a serious story may be mocked with a lot of jokey situations but most comedies dont' undermine the protagonist's nature in itself. And arguably there's nothing intrinsically heroic about Nathaniel simply having killed a cuckolded husband, giant or not. Thus, since the script seems to constantly undermine both the protagonist and his wold so thoroughly, I consider it an irony in the combative mode.