Monday, December 30, 2019
THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967), RETURN OF THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1969)
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
So far almost every Hong Kong martial-arts film I've reviewed has earned only a "fair" or a "poor" in terms of mythicity, so at one point I wondered if any films from this period and locale could impress me in that respect. Happily, Chang Cheh's 1967 ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN scores high in that department, in addition to being the film that launched a new phase of *wuxia* movies.
The sociological matrix of the medieval hero's existence is given far more conspicuous attention than one sees in even the better chopsockies. When bandits attack the sword-school of Master Qi, one of his servants gives his life to preserve the master. The aristocratic Qi returns the favor by swearing to raise the servant's son Fang Kang as Qi's own child. Years later, Fang (Jimmy Wang) has reached young adulthood, as well as becoming Qi's only outstanding sword-pupil. Qi, whose only true offspring is his spoiled daughter Chi Pei, fantasizes that the two young people may even marry despite having been raised as technical siblings, so that Qi's art will be passed on, even through a peasant's bloodline.
However, though Chi definitely wants Fang, he wants nothing to do with her-- less because of their familial relationship than because he sees her as a spoiled twerp. Other aristocratic students despise Fang because he comes from nowhere, but Chi wants him simply because he's hard to obtain. She challenges Fang to a sword-duel, but because Fang respects his master/father, he refuses. She manages to provoke him into a hand-to-hand fight, where it's clear that she has no game whatever, and when she gets frustrated, she snatches up her sword and slices off one of Fang's arms. (Insert Freudian interpretation here.) Fang flees, but pain and blood-loss cause him to pass out. A peasant farm-girl, Xiao Man, brings him to her home and nurses him back to health. Xiao is Chi's opposite not just in terms of class but in terms of inner nature: though humble, she wants to live a simple existence far from the world of sword-duels. Fang tries to join her (though I don't believe the two of them are seen to marry). Yet when he learns of a threat to his surrogate father, Fang forces himself to master a one-armed sword-style to rescue Master Qi. However, after completing this obligation, Fang returns to Xiao's bucolic life.
The success of the 1967 film made it impossible for Fang to remain down home on the farm, but Cheh's sequel does at least keep the basic rudiments of the swordsman's antipathy to the life of violence. However, there are numerous sword-schools that are aware of Fang's impressive past deeds, and these students turn to Fang for help when a criminal gang, the Eight Warlords, tries to intimidate all rival schools.
Though Fang's one-armed swordsmanship is as naturalistic as before, a number of the Warlords wield bizarre weapons, making RETURN a film of uncanny phenomenality. For instance, "Thunder Blade" sports a sword that can shoot smoke-weapons, "Mighty Blade" is really strong and wields an oversized sword, and leader "Unseen Blade" wields a collapsible sword. However, though RETURN has a lot of bloody battles, I didn't think Cheh succeeded in exploiting the superhero-like charm of these gimmick-laden battles. Still, the integrity of the characters of Fang and Xiao is maintained. Though Wang later played other one-armed characters-- not least the one mentioned in ZATOICHI VS. THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN-- happily Fang and Xiao are allowed to go back to their lives, and even Chang Cheh's one other sequel, NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, chose to make up a new hero instead of compromising Fang Kang.
Oddly, though there are no references to Qi and Chi from the first film, Chi's nastiness is replicated in "Thousand Blade," the one female member of the Warlords (Essie Lin Chia). Though she's not Xiao's rival for Fang as was Chi, Thousand Blade still incarnates the evils of feminine duplicity, for this Warlord specializes in beguiling her male victims with her beauty and then stabbing them with one of her many hidden blades. Though she meets the same fatal end as the other Warlords, she gets much more screen time than any of them, or anyone besides Fang Kang.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
RISE OF SKYWALKER appeared in theaters about a week ago, and critical verdicts range from "boring and conservative" to "a return to true form" (my paraphrases). I hew closer to the latter, though I suspect I'm the only reviewer who'll be pleased that director/co-writer J.J, Abrams discovered his "true form" by returning to the metaphysical domain of the Lucasverse long after Lucas pretty much dropped the matter (as I mentioned in my review of RETURN OF THE JEDI).
I'll note that myths of the metaphysical always make some appearances in all of the movies, since the fate of the Jedi and their war with the Sith often parallels developments in the sociopolitical sphere of the laity. However, Lucas displayed precious little fascination with the complexities of the Force in his "prequel trilogy," and if anything he began emphasizing myths of the psychological domain, as per Anakin's Oedipal complex. The now-complete "Disney Trilogy" has little to say about the sociological forces that informed the rise of the First Order, but rather puts the blame back on the universe's incarnation of Sithian evil, the recrudescent Emperor Palpatine. (Side-note: SKYWALKER seems to be the first film to mention that the Sith once controlled the universe before the Jedi Knights defeated them. Or at least it was news to me.)
Now, though I believe that Abrams sought to promote psychological myths in FORCE AWAKENS, that doesn't mean I think that he always did so successfully. Though Abrams was known for bestowing complicated backstories upon teleseries characters like those of LOST and ALIAS, he seems to have kept psychology to a minimum with the central characters introduced in his first SW film: Rey, Finn, and Poe. Similarly, even though both AWAKENS and LAST JEDI emphasize the crucial role of main villain Kylo Ren, neither these films nor SKYWALKER give the viewer any meaningful details about his antipathy to his parents Han and Leia, to his uncle Luke or to the Light Side of the Force. The trilogy uses Kylo's animus as a catalyst that, in one way or another, dooms Han, Leia and Luke, effectively making way for the new characters while allowing a couple of old-timers-- Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, and the robots-- to function as support-types.
Yet, though Rey isn't given a solid characterization in the first two Disneys, she does have a character arc not given to either Finn or Poe. As soon as renegade Kylo Ren encounters Rey, it's clear to every SW-savvy character that he's going to seek to convert her, as Palpatine successfully swayed Anakin Skywalker and as Anakin, in the guise of Darth Vader, failed to suborn Luke Skywalker. I suspect that Abrams may have formulated some specific ideas about Kylo's personal motives, and that Disney executives didn't want to delve into LOST-style psychodrama, so that in a psychological sense Kylo appears half-formed at best. However, Abrams does succeed in making Kylo a metaphysical complement to Rey, particularly when Kylo himself tells Rey that they comprise a "dyad," like the two sides of the Force. This yin-and-yang unity, though true to some of George Lucas's real world inspirations for the fictional Jedi, resembles nothing in the way Lucas treated the interactions of Palpatine-Anakin and of Vader-Luke, where it was clear that one character would dominate the other. Kylo, in his ceaseless attempts to draw Rey into his sphere, seems to be seeking some deeper consummation. To be sure, Abrams backs off on making the sexual aspects explicit, save for a suggestive final kiss between young Jedi and young Sith as the latter is about to perish.
Outside the drama of Jedi and Sith, the activities of the Rebels seem far less consequential, though at least this time the good guys are given something positive to do, in contrast to the endless retreat-action seen throughout LAST JEDI. With little or no foreshadowing, Emperor Palpatine returns-- and though his re-appearance strains credulity, at least the explanation-- that he's used arcane science to preserve himself for a few decades-- mirrors George Lucas's distaste for characters "more machine than man." It's revealed that Palpatine was the power behind Kylo's tedious master Snoke, and that (surely everyone knows it by now!) he's also Rey's grandfather, though the movie devotes nearly no time to the identity and nature of her long deceased parents. This might be seen as a logical development of a Lucas-trope that's presented obliquely in REVENGE OF THE SITH, wherein Chancellor Palpatine alludes to the possibility that a Sith-lord, possibly the Chancellor himself, manipulated the birth of Anakin Skywalker through a high-tech replaying of the Christian Annunciation. Thus Palpatine's physical relationship to Rey parallels his metaphysical relationship to Luke and Leia-- which may be what Abrams found most engaging about the STAR WARS saga. At very least, someone in the production chose to have Rey played by an actress who looks like the love-child of the Skywalker siblings.
Abrams and his co-scripters manage to work in a certain amount of sociopolitical material into the conclusion, basically a variation on Lucas's "lots of little good guys can beat up one big bad guy." Finn, boring character though he is, does get to encounter a fugitive former Stormtrooper like himself. And since fugitive Jannah is played by a black actress, this in turn reinforces the loose "African Diaspora" theme I referenced in my review of FORCE AWAKENS. But even the equally boring character of Poe, who doesn't get an arc, takes on a certain gravitas thanks to all of the lively action going on around him. The production team does a far better job with the FX than one sees in either of the earlier "Disney Wars" installments, though I'll add the caveat that at no time do they manage to duplicate the appeal of the original trilogy.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
HILLBILLIES IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967)
PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Like MURDER BY DECREE, there's only a touch of the marvelous in this "phony ghost" story. It's far from being the first such film to toss a real spook into the mix, though HILLBILLIES may be the first I've reviewed here.
While you could probably get some sociological mileage out of exposing real hillbillies to hokey haunts, the title's inaccurate in that the film's three protagonists are all clean-cut Southerners. Two of them-- Woody (Ferlin Husky) and Boots (Joi Lansing)-- are country music performers, while the third, Jeepers, serves as both the musicians' manager and the movie's comedy relief. Like many sojourners before them, they're driving out in the wilds when they they need shelter, and the only place available is a deserted old plantation-house, complete with Confederate trappings and the legend of some sort of curse (though the protagonists aren't told about this).
The supposedly deserted mansion, however, plays host to four spies hanging around and waiting to get a secret formula sent to them. To emphasize the spies' indebtedness to Red China, the leader is Madame Wong (Linda Ho), while her subordinates are all played by actors from classic horror films (John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Lon Chaney Jr.) While the spies aren't expected company in the deserted house, they've nevertheless brought all sorts of things to scare away the curious: floating sheets that are supposed to resemble ghosts, a werewolf mask, a pet gorilla and an iron maiden.
For most of the picture, the country guys and girl run around from these faux menaces, but an American agent intervenes to help them out a bit-- as does the ghost of a Confederate general whose family once occupied the house. The comedy's far from funny, but there's some mild pleasure to be had from watching the old pros at work again, even in this oddball scenario. (When John Carradine gets crushed to death by the gorilla, it must've seemed like old Universal home week.) I paid no attention to the music, but Joi Lansing gave the dreary visuals some oomph.
SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-A-RAMA (1988)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
Despite the "poor" mythicity-rating I gave to this low-budget supernatural comedy, it's at least lively with a few decent jokes. It may well be the best offering from the works of schlockmeister director David DeCouteau. Whether the relative qualify has anything to do with the script-- produced by a fellow with no other IMDB credits-- the world may never know.
I would imagine a few reviews may've opined that the best thing about the flick is its sesquipedalian title. The title probably contributed to SLIMEBALL's reputation as a "good bad movie." Yet the movie's best asset is the performance of Linnea Quigley-- even if the real star of this horror-comedy is a goofy imp played by a barely animated puppet and a guy with a deep voice.
A couple of young women, attempting to pledge to an elite sorority, are given the task of stealing a bowling trophy from a local alley while it's closed. For good measure, the two mean girls in charge of them also send along some dorky guys with the pledges. The mean girls rush ahead of the pledges and their companions, planning on spooking all of the dorks. But when the dorks break into the bowling alley, both they and the mean girls encounter a couple of unexpected phenomena. One is a punk girl burglar named Spider (Quigley), for whom Calvin, the most good-looking of the male dorks, immediately falls hard. The other is the trophy itself, which when broken unleashes a malevolent imp, who sometimes calls himself "Uncle Impie." He pretends to grant the young people wishes, but only so that he can visit deadly dooms upon them, when he's not turning some of them into his monsterized minions. He also seals the bowling alley so that no one can escape his macabre games.
Most of the actors are no better than they have to be, but Quigley really throws herself into the role of Spider, who gets to fight off Impie's minions with her punk-girl battle-skills, while her worshipful amour Calvin occasionally helps out. To no one's surprise, the young lovers are the only ones to both survive Impie's games and to trap him again. It's all good silly fun, but despite Quigley's charms the real star of of this horror-comedy is "Uncle Impie," played by a barely animated puppet and a guy with a deep voice.
Monday, December 23, 2019
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological, cosmological*
It's been two years since the debut of THE LAST JEDI, writer-director Rian Johnson's follow-up to J.J. Abrams' refurbishing of the Lucasverse. I didn't get much out of the film when I saw its premiere, but its mediocrity didn't inflame me half as much as it did the more avid Lucas-ites. On re-viewing JEDI, it does occur to me that Johnson did manage to surpass Lucas in one regard-- i.e., the extent to which his script ignores the potential of the earlier segments.
With RETURN OF THE JEDI, Lucas blatantly contravened at least three and a half plot-threads from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. First, he dismissed Yoda's veiled "there is another" prophecy and reworked it into a pointless reference to Princess "I-didn't-know-he-was-my-brother" Leia (though I suspect Abrams or one of his cohorts might've been thinking of the prophecy when Rei came into being). Second, Lucas ignored Muppet-Jedi's pronouncement that some dire fate would come of Luke's interrupted training. Third, Darth Vader's plans to unseat the Emperor in EMPIRE are just as forgotten. The one-half-a-thread relates to the plot dealing with Luke and Han being rivals for Leia, for, while EMPIRE doesn't entirely extirpate the rivalry-plot, it does slant things in Han's favor even without the missing-sibling revelation.
Johnson, though, beats all that by a country mile.
One noticeable change from the Abrams plot was Johnson tossing out Abrams' suggestions that oprhan-girl Rei was going to turn out to have some special heritage, and deciding that she was going to be a no one from nowhere. This non-revelation takes place during her interaction with hermit Luke Skywalker, whom Rei finds at the end of FORCE AWAKENS. Now, as it happens, Luke represents the only Abrams-plot that Johnson follows to any degree, inasmuch as AWAKENS spent almost half its running time having various good and bad people try to find Skywalker. Still, Johnson's continuity doesn't build on any of the potential for an interesting mentor-student relationship between Rei and Luke, and this stems from his near-total inattention to the character of Kylo Ren.
AWAKENS is not much better about describing the backstory of Kylo. Early in the film we know that he idolizes the legend of Darth Vader for some reason, which more or less leads into the big surprise that Kylo's the son of Han and Leia. He also became an apprentice Jedi to Skywalker at some point, but the two of them fell out, thus resulting in Luke's retreat from mortal affairs. Perhaps Abrams left things vague in case his successor wanted to flesh things out his own way. But whatever the shortcomings of Abrams's script, there's nothing in it that would've prevented a successor from working out the backstory that involved Kylo, his parents and his uncle-cum-instructor. But Johnson takes the easy way out. We never learn why Han and Leia were parted at the time of AWAKENS, or how that affected Kylo (who seems to hate both parents equally, rather than sympathizing with one over the other as would be more expected). We don't know what precipitated the decision of one or both parents to have Luke train his nephew, how early the training began, how Luke and Kylo got along during the mentorship. Johnson hangs the whole backstory on one peg: that Sith Leader Snoke, doing his best impression of Emperor Palpatine, sent evil dreams to Luke and thus caused him to be tempted into slaying his nephew. Of course, it's not a very good impression, since even Palpatine had to work with Anakin's existing psychology, his lack of a father and obsession with his mother, etc. Snoke doesn't need any of that; he just sends false dreams to Luke Skywalker-- the guy who resisted all the blandishments of the original Emperor-- and Luke folds like a card-table.
But as bad as Johnson's script is for Skywalker and Rei, at least actors Hamill and Ridley are able to play their senseless parts with some degree of gusto. No one else in the film gets that lucky. The bulk of the film is devoted to the First Order's stultifying pursuit of the fragmented Rebel Alliance, technically led by General Leia, though she's sidelined by an early injury so that she barely interacts with the rest of the cast. The manner by which Leia escapes death aroused the incredulity of many fans, but though it's a stupid scene, it's nowhere near as tedious as all of the action involving the newer cast-members.
Since Finn got so much attention in AWAKENS, one might've imagined that Johnson would attempt to develop the former Stormtrooper's own arc, apart from his friendly bonding with Rei. The only reference to Finn's meager backstory is that he does get to contend with his old commander General Plasma, but the significance of this is lost in a goofy and disorganized story that teams Finn up with another new character. This is Rose Tiko, who's defined entirely by her loss of her sister in battle and by her former status as a slave/serf somewhere. Finn and Rose get more sheer action than Rei and Luke do, but their heroic task is idiotic in the extreme. Having learned that the First Order can track the rebel fleet even through hyperspace, Finn and Rose go looking for a codebreaker who can mess up the Order's tracking-system without the villains ever knowing about it. Not only is the task underwhelming, the heroes only appear to succeed, so that the whole plot-thread comes off as a big waste of time. The actors aren't able to do anything to breathe life into this corpse of a plot, except sit back and let the expensive FX engross the audience.
Indeed, the whole "flight of the Alliance" storyline, which is supposed to reflect the dogged courage of the rebels comes down to the director spinning some very expensive wheels rather than constructing a solid plot. To drag this travesty out further, Poe Dameron-- barely known to the audience any more than Rose Tiko-- is defined here as "Han Solo writ small." Hotshot pilot Poe butts heads with Holdo, the female officer put in charge of the Alliance after Leia's sidelined, but neither the characters nor the actors have any chemistry. (The costume department can take the blame for the way actress Laura Dern looks like she just walked in from a spring cotillion.) Holdo's presence has sparked some critics to cite her as a feminist prop, and this is probably true. But there's nothing in the plot that would've been improved had her character been a grizzled old male general.
Finally, Johnson makes the cardinal mistake of a writer who doesn't respect the universe he's been hired to work with: he makes promises he doesn't keep. For most of the film, the Alliance is seeking a base to escape the Order. The audience thus has the right to expect that the good guys will get some sort of respite, even if it's not precisely what they might have anticipated. Instead, by film's end the Alliance finds a base, but the Order locates them and tries to blast them out of it. Luke Skywalker sacrifices himself to make sure that the Alliance escapes-- and so the good guys are just back where they started, on the run again.
In my review of FORCE AWAKENS, I said that in terms of Abrams' setup, Kylo Ren could be "the symbolic offspring of the Luke-Leia-Han triangle." I doubt Johnson perceived that potential either, but at least the extensive scenes between Kylo and Rei don't mitigate against having someone else developing the characters better. But aside from one kickass fight-scene, in which Kylo and Rei decimate the Crimson Guard, Kylo's just a necessary plot-point for Johnson, a "whiny Anakin" who has no particular reason for being whiny or for being murderous-- or even for existing at all.
Saturday, December 21, 2019
REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
George Lucas's prequel trilogy follows much the same trajectory as the original one, where a relatively strong first and second act are concluded by a weak third act. That said, for all the inevitability of REVENGE's conclusion, it's considerably stronger than RETURN OF THE JEDI.
For one thing, REVENGE at least builds on all the concerns brought forth in PHANTOM MENACE and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. There's no shift in focus as there is in RETURN, wherein Lucas turned his back on a number of the plot-and-character concerns introduced in the first two parts of his narrative. Lucas even makes some effort to build up his Jedi mythology, contrasting the Jedi way of selflessness with the Sith preference for self-glorification and the betrayal of even the most faithful allies. Still, the main focus of REVENGE is still less concerned with the battle between different aspects of the Force, and more with the way worldly dictators mask their self-aggrandizing projects through appealing to the public's desire for safety and security.
One major aspect of Jedi mythology Lucas neglects is the vague prophecy that causes Qui-Gon Jinn to enlist Anakin Skywalker in the first place. Yoda, at least, considers the possibility that the prophecy has been misinterpreted, though he doesn't see the serpent in the garden any more than anyone else in the Order. The attitude of the other Jedi toward Anakin is never as clear as it should be. Are they condescending toward him simply because of his extreme emotionality, or do they resent what he represents? He's touted as a Messiah who will deliver their civilization from the Lords of the Sith, who are finally said to have once ruled the cosmos before being defeated by the Jedi in some other epoch, and that may be on some level the sort of thing that goes against the grain for an order that has become too "self-satisfied." Perhaps this is why, even if they dismiss the possibility that Anakin may be another Messiah, they cannot foresee that he may become an anti-Messiah-- much less that he's also destined to give rise to the Real Thing.
The matter of Padme's newly announced pregnancy seems to fit Palpatine's grand design perfectly, for the marriage of Padme and Anakin has been concealed from the Jedi, and newborn children have a way of blowing such secrets wide open. Significantly, though Padme talks about having the child (whom the audience knows will actually be twins) in seclusion, the very existence of a Jedi offspring puts Anakin's priestly status in question. Both parents are sure that Anakin will be expelled from the Order if the truth is revealed, but Lucas stacks the deck somewhat in that neither even considers that they might just 'fess up, leave the political sphere, and go off to themselves. Patently Anakin has ties of loyalty to the Jedi, despite his many conflicts with their dismissive ways, and apparently Padme takes her cue from him, even if she doesn't have the viewing audience's perspective on the young padawan's father-issues. Interestingly, while Obi-Wan Kenobi often takes a paternal attitude toward youthful Anakin in CLONES, in REVENGE the two of them interact more like siblings, and toward the end Kenobi even characterizes Anakin as his "brother." The opening sequence pits the two Jedi against their continuing enemy Count Dooku and new villain General Grievous (otherwise known as "Darth Vader writ small"), who have apparently kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine. In truth the whole kidnap-plot seems designed to put Palpatine into a position where he can continue to mold Anakin's sense of ethics. The concealed Sith does indeed succeed in enjoining Anakin into killing the vanquished Dooku, though Palpatine doesn't succeed in getting the young Jedi to desert his imperiled "brother."
With no viable father-images available among the Jedi, Anakin proves vulnerable to more psychic manipulation from the Sith Lord, this time playing upon his fears of losing Padme the same way that he lost his mother. Having insinuated himself into Anakin's consciousness, Palpatine finally drops the other shoe as to who fomented Anakin's virgin birth-- though Lucas's explanation is curiously oblique as to how the birth of the anti-Messiah was managed. Then Palpatine plays his master stroke, revealing his Sith nature to Anakin. Anakin doesn't immediately forget his loyalty to the Jedi Order, for he reports the Chancellor's revelation to Mace Windu. Palpatine even puts his own life in the scales during a battle with Windu, and the villain manages to merge the youth's burgeoning trust in Palpatine with his fears for Padme's survival. Thus Anakin finally betrays his perceptors, and this sets up the Jedi and their allies for wholesale slaughter-- including a murder of several padawan children that bears loose similarity to the Christian "slaughter of the innocents."
What makes REVENGE weaker than its predecessors is the sheer inevitability of almost everything that follows. ATTACK OF THE CLONES also suffered from Lucas's tendency to tick off his necessary plot-points, but the ambition of the writer's historical panorama gave the Sith Lord's schemes a tragic dimension. In REVENGE, it's all about Anakin, and more than one critic has deemed the young Jedi to be irredeemably whiny. Despite the attempts to give the young man's temptation some psychological heft, his conversion to the Dark Side doesn't take on mythic dimensions until the conclusion, when Kenobi duels Anakin in a flaming volcano, Lucas's stand-in for the hell within the former Jedi. As a result, Anakin loses much of his real body as well as his soul, and his final transformation into the half-mechanical Darth Vader-- skillfully intercut with scenes of Padme giving birth before she dies-- have much of the resonance of the original FRANKENSTEIN films.
Despite my reservations about REVENGE, I reiterate that for all the shortcomings of the prequel trilogy, I'm glad that Lucas made even an imperfect attempt to extend the scope of his fictional universe. The prequels didn't succeed i creating a cast of characters that the world embraced as they did from the original trilogy. But in terms of expressing the full range of Lucas's creativity, both good and bad, the prequels are practically a godsend.
ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
In the first half-hour of ATTACK OF THE CLONES, both of the starring Jedi characters-- Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker-- express dubious opinions about politicians. And well they should. CLONES represents to the fullest the shift of George Lucas's creative priorities from the metaphysics of myth and fairy tale to science-fiction politics. RETURN OF THE JEDI begins the shift, and PHANTOM MENACE shows Lucas at his most political. To be sure, the corruption of the Republic into the Empire also parallels the transformation of good-hearted Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, servant of evil, but the metaphysical aspects of the battle of good and evil is always secondary to the sociopolitical side of things.
Because most critics believe that the STAR WARS franchise is all about blistering action-sequences and bizarre alien forms, few if any have appreciated the extent to which Lucas appropriated a variety of major historical developments in order to formulate his fictional universe. The three most important developments are as follows:
(1) In Europe, the 1400s marked the end of knighthood as it had been maintained by the feudal lords of Europe. During the Renaissance, the forces of increasing governmental centralization brought forth the dependence of most countries upon standing armies, loyal to the country rather than to separate lords.
(2) Two hundred years later, European settlers made their first inroads in the New World. For the conglomeration of colonial settlements that would eventually become the United States, the most defining experience was the colonists' ongoing conflicts with the land's aboriginal inhabitants. Literary critic Richard Slotkin pointed out that the proto-literature that arose during this period was dominated by what Slotkin calls "captivity narratives." In these stories, often based in fact to some extent, settlers described to one another the horrors that transpired when Indian tribes abducted colonists-- particularly female colonists-- and attempted to force them to forswear European culture in order to continue their existence within the culture of Native Americans.
(3) Another two hundred years later, the Indians no longer held sway within the still fragile Union, but one half of the fledgling country attempted to separate itself from the other half. Then-President Lincoln resorted to a number of measures to secure his part of the country from the rebels, invoking Presidential "emergency powers," such as the suspension of habeas corpus. The separatist movement, based in part on the economics of slavery, was defeated, but this resulted, according to some historians, in a much more centralized government.
Lucas weaves these real-world scenarios into one impressive tapestry, shaping the loose design of the "galaxy far far away" into a more cohesive whole. Some of the details are less significant than others: while PHANTOM MENACE establishes that slavery is more often practiced by the outer-rim planets than by those closer to the Republic centers of power, but CLONES does not dwell on the ethics of slavery. But when the Separatist movement threatens, the central government's first response is the Military Creation Act, which would empower the government to create a standing army, rather than remaining dependent on the Jedi Knights for defense of the realm. Though ten years have passed since the events of PHANTOM MENACE, queen-turned-senator Padme Amidala looks no older. She opposes the Military Creation Act, though her reasons for so doing are not explicated until REVENGE OF THE SITH. Lucas is less concerned here with individual motivations than with the way all motivations are stage-managed by the "master of the show," Senator Palpatine, last seen also ascending to governmental power in MENACE.
Whatever Palpatine's been doing for those ten years, the Military Creation Act offers him the chance to initiate the first stand in his massive web, He is, as the viewer eventually learns, indirectly responsible for an attempt to assassinate Padme-- though, to judge from later occurrences, his whole plan would've come unraveled had the assassin succeeded.
The more immediate consequence of the assassination-attempt is that Anakin, who's been training with the Jedi for the last decade, is re-united with his former ally Padme. Anakin claims to have been fascinated with Padme even when he was just a ten-year-old, but he's not ten anymore. Despite the fact that he's still a padawan (Jedi trainee), and despite the fact that his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi is frequently critical of Anakin's emotionality, Anakin is assigned to protect Padme. Meanwhile, Kenobi is removed from the immediate action by his own assignment, that of finding out who fostered the unsuccessful assassin. It will eventually be evident that Palpatine has drawn together Anakin and Padme as part of a far-reaching plan to corrupt Anakin to the Dark Side of the Force. It's a little less obvious that Palpatine means Kenobi to follow the assassin's trail in order to unearth a secret plan to create a clone-army, though puppet-master Palpatine certainly seems okay with that development.
Kenobi's investigation takes him to a world famous for cloning-technology, where he encounters the master template for the clone-army: mercenary Jango Fett, who, for reasons left obscure, retains one clone of himself to serve as a ready-made offspring, Boba Fett, who will go on to become a virtual mirror-image of Dear Old Dad during Luke Skywalker's lifetime. But once Kenobi has seen enough to make Palpatine's scheme clear to the viewer, the Jedi is captured, which eventually leads both Padme and Anakin to come to his rescue. Presumably all of this is also engineered by the villain, since the captivity of the three heroes brings about a battle in which the clone-army in turn comes to the rescue of Kenobi and a contingent of other Jedi Knights.
It doesn't take much acuity to realize that things consistently go Palpatine's way because his purpose aligns with the purpose of the universe's true architect, who has to bring about the destruction of the Jedi. But Palpatine goes from being fore-sighted to nearly omniscient where Anakin's mother is concerned. Not long after Anakin begins a secret romance with Padme, the young Jedi starts experiencing dreams of her death. Possibly the exigencies of the war make it impossible for him to garner news of her welfare by any means but by traveling personally to his former homeworld. But by the time he gets there, he learns that Shmi Skywalker, released from slavery but married to an old farmer, has been for a full month the captive of the "vicious, mindless" savages known as the Tusken Raiders. To be sure, Lucas never says in any franchise-film that the Raiders, also called the Sandpeople, are the indigenous inhabitants of Tattooine. Nevertheless, their kidnapping of Shmi puts them in the same conceptual bailiwick as the native peoples of North America, and maybe Palpatine is somehow puppeteering them as well, since they conveniently bring about Shmi's death just in time to enrage Anakin, so that he slaughters the whole tribe in retaliation.
After this first descent into impassioned violence, Anakin gets somewhat back on track when he, Padme and the other Jedis seek to rescue Kenobi. However, secondary villain Count Dooku-- one of the pawns through which Palpatine works his will-- escapes Jedi capture, and not even Kenobi, who investigated the "false-front" creation of the clone-army, intuits that Dooku may've had something to do with the convenient appearance of said army, all clad the familiar regalia of Storm Troopers. All of the Jedi, even Old Man Yoda, maunder about weird movements in the Force. Srill, by film's end Palpatine has acquired the "emergency powers" that will eventually transform the Republic into the Empire.
What keeps the Jedi from seeing their danger? Early in the film Yoda remarks that the Jedi seem "too sure of themselves," and this critique seems to extend to the officials of the Republic. Even Kenobi, faced with the probability that someone has tampered with Republic computers, has to have this likelihood pointed out to him to a pre-teen padawan, who presumably sees with the fresh eyes of youth. That said, Anakin's youth doesn't preserve him from further falling into Palpatine's clutches, and even his concluding marriage to Padme doesn't lessen the sense that he's due to take a tragic fall.
Lucas's formulations of human psychology are not nearly as deep as his meditations on sociopolitics. Nevertheless, Anakin, the "virgin birth," does display a lot of daddy issues, projected not only upon perceptors like Kenobi and the late Qui-Gon Jinn, but also Palpatine and even the old fellow who marries Shmi and brings her into the family of the couple who will later rear Shmi's grandson. Lucas has often been criticized for the inadequacy of the Anakin-Padme relationship, and a lot of the dialogue is awkward (why does Anakin hope that Padme's kiss won't become "a scar?") But at least their interaction serves the plot fairly well, which is more than I can say for the Jango Fett revleations. I also believe that the FX in CLONES is unfairly dismissed by critics. Jango Fett may not be much of a character, but he and Kenobi have a kickass battle that more than makes up for son Boba's shortcomings in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Similarly, the big arena-battle deserves to be appreciated on the same kinetic level as the original attack on the Death Star. In terms of mythic discourse CLONES is the equal of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and also proves that George Lucas is best with his first and second acts. But the third-- not so much.
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
AMAZONS (1986), THE SURVIVOR (1998)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
AMAZONS is a fairly straightforward sword-and-sorcery opus. The evil sorcerer Kulongo harnesses the power to shoot lightnings from his fingers. But since he knows he can increase his power even more by acquiring a magical stone from the city of the Amazons, he sends his army to raid said city. The Amazon queen sends the stone away with two of her best warriors, Dyala (Ty Randolph) and Tashi (Penelope Reed). However, Kulongo has an "inside man," or rather Amazon, who happens to be Tashi's mother Tashinge (Danitza Kingsley).
That's pretty much all the plot one gets, as Dyala and Tashi encounter an assortment of perils on their errand, which also comes to include seeking out a magic sword. I think I may have read the short story on which the film was based, but writer Charles Saunders probably had to add a lot of incidental action to pad out the movie, so that short story and film may not have a lot in common.
The good news is that AMAZONS is unapologetic in offering "babes with blades," in that Dyala and other Amazons run around in rewardingly skimpy outfits. Ty Randolph doesn't have nearly as much charisma as earlier cinematic swordswomen, such as Sandahl Bergman and Lana Clarkson, but she handles her fight-scenes with a lot of energy. Both Tashi and Tashinge are even less developed as characters, though at least the script attempts to forge a gal-pal friendship between Dyala and Tashi. Indeed, after Tashi is (temporarily) killed, she only gets to come back after her mother, the evil power behind her, is slain.
The closest thing to a mythic conceit is that Dyala is somehow mystically bound to a particular tree, and is almost killed when Tashinge tries to cut down said tree. But the script doesn't build up this concept and so the conceit seems to come out of nowhere.
In my review of GALAXIS, I mentioned that its writer re-used some of the names from that film for 1998's SURVIVOR. This is little more than a somewhat lively swipe from 1981's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. though this time it's the whole planet Earth that's been designated as a convict-colony after all the "good people" emigrate to other worlds. However, as in ESCAPE a high official-- another President, no less-- crash-lands on Earth with his entourage. The villainous Kyla (Richard Moll) tries to acquire a deadly pass-code from the Prez in order to gain free passage off the prison planet, and the only man who can stop Kyla is Tarkin-- who's explicitly compared to Tarzan for no good reason.
Once again the action-scenes are the flick's only selling-points. Oddly, though Tarkin gets into some fights, the standout scene appears when a tough lady named Devin goes hand-to-hand with a grotty tribesman. She also gets to kill the main villain, so that Tarkin comes off as being even less than a second-rate Snake Plissken.
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, cosmological*
I usually don't read secondary film-commentaries before writing my reviews. However, in the last few weeks I happened to finish Chris Taylor's HOW STAR WARS CONQUERED THE UNIVERSE, which I found helpful in determining how George Lucas and his collaborators cooked up the various elements of the "Star Wars" universe. Or at least, it was helpful with respect to STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Oddly, though, Taylor barely provides any insights into RETURN OF THE JEDI.
It may be that Taylor drops the ball on extensive behind-the-scenes analysis of JEDI in the same way that Lucas himself did with regard to following through on elements of plot and characterization established in EMPIRE, and for the same reason: because there just wasn't much going on with JEDI. Taylor shows how Lucas and certain collaborators (particularly producer Gary Kurtz, who's said to have a "comparative religion itch") patterned the first two films after research into mythology and folklore (even though the much-publicized connection to Joseph Campbell's works seems to have appeared late in the game). Taylor does mention that Kurtz left Lucasfilm after EMPIRE, which I would speculate may have played a role in JEDI's comparative lack of mythic discourse. But on the whole Taylor concentrates on the same things on which Lucas concentrates. This included the recycling of the "Wookie rebellion" storyline, formulated for but not used in the first film, and yet another Big Reveal, that of the disclosure of sibling-hood for Luke and Leia.
JEDI's biggest "sin of omission" with respect to EMPIRE content is unquestionably the bollixing of Luke Skywalker's two interwoven traumas: that he finds himself to be the son of his deadly enemy, and that his two prized mentors Kenobi and Yoda hid this truth from him. The writers certainly could have concocted some half-decent rationalization for the reticence of Luke's teachers ("Such a terrible revelation could have unbalanced you during a critical point in your training, Young Skywalker.") But by the time Luke finds Yoda, the old teacher conveniently decides to give up the ghost. Thus the lion's share of explanation goes to the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who shows up for a long dialogue with Luke after having been all but incommunicado during EMPIRE. Kenobi tosses out a few disorganized justifications about the importance of Luke controlling his emotions, but the old Jedi never really makes his motivations believable.
Similarly, nothing in JEDI justifies Yoda's minatory pronoucements in EMPIRE, in which the old green dwarf counsels Luke to let his friends die in order to complete his Jedi training. Instead, once Luke returns to Yoda's world with the notion of continuing the interrupted regimen, Yoda says that Luke's training is already complete. Really? Then why did he want Luke to stay? Again, the folderol about Luke's vulnerability to the Dark Side is the closest the viewer gets to an explanation. But at no time does the script really make Luke seem vulnerable to such a seduction. Indeed, despite his torments at the end of EMPIRE, all through JEDI Luke seems to have passed through the fires of baptism without so much as a scorch-mark. The teaser in EMPIRE, to the effect that "another" potential Jedi Knight might be called upon if Luke fails his trials, is weakly reworked to a simple acknowledgement that Leia, being Luke's sister, might be able to take up the Jedi mantle-- which of course is a potential that the film does not intend to explore. Lucas knew that his audience wanted to see Luke fight Vader with worldly human passion, rather than unworldly Jedi serenity. Moreover, contrary to Yoda's opinions, emotion has a good effect on Luke's fighting instincts, for he bests Vader after the latter speculates about making a devil's bargain with Luke's newfound sister.
But even though Lucas and company do a terrible job of making Luke seem vulnerable to Dark Side conversion, the Emperor and Darth Vader move heaven and earth to seek that end. EMPIRE had Vader propose that Luke join him in overthrowing the Emperor so that the two of them might rule the cosmos together. JEDI conveniently forgets this, for now Vader is as loyal to his mentor as a samurai would be to his feudal lord. This is the only rethinking that actually works to JEDI's benefit. When Luke wins out over Vader, the Emperor invites the youth to kill his father and take his place at the Emperor's side-- all uncaring that his faithful minion hears this. Thus, when the Emperor attempts to kill Luke, Vader seems to undergo an internal struggle, both about saving his son's life and about contravening his mentor's will. It's not impossible that at this point in the "Star Wars" saga, Lucas-- who finally had to tie up most of the loose ends he'd tossed out in the first two films-- may have become far less interested in Luke and his "hero's journey" than in the tragic, doomed arc of Darth Vader-- which, of course, would eventually inform the three "prequel films."
Even though Luke never seems in danger of being seduced to the Dark Side, the "Temptation of Saint Luke" plot is the only reason that JEDI deserves a rating of "good" for its mythicity. Luke's revelation of his shared bond with Leia is underwhelming at best, though it's a little better than the leaden romantic scenes between Han and Leia, given that EMPIRE had raised audience-expectations in that regard. Though the original STAR WARS was unfairly critiqued in some quarters for its video-game aesthetics, JEDI seems like a throwback to the "fast-car" antics of AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The film's opening scenes, in which Luke and friends rescue Han from Jabba the Hut, present tolerable action-scenes, though at no time does Jabba seem like anything but a minor annoyance. The film's main B-plot, wherein the Emperor seeks to lure the rebel alliance to its destruction, is far less compelling than the Jabba sequence. Back in the day I didn't hate the Ewoks as much as some viewers did, but they were only interesting insofar as they illustrated Lucas's idea about how primitive tribal fighters could overcome the forces of high-powered technology. Chewbacca, R2D2 and Lando Calrissian are all given piddling things to do, and only C-3PO gets any scenes on a par with his material in EMPIRE.
I suspect the many elisions of JEDI came about because at the time Lucas simply wanted to tie things up in as expeditiously as possible. Certainly, despite some early ruminations about a nine-part series, Lucas didn't take steps toward the prequel series for over ten years. Whatever the downsides of that series, however, I for one am glad that he didn't end his participation in the "galaxy far far away" with RETURN OF THE JEDI.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, cosmological*
I don't know why I've been so dilatory about reviewing the STAR WARS films, but of late I'm motivated to get them all done in a bunch, the better to have greater perspective when I see the putative last film in the "Disney Wars" trilogy.
In my 2016 review of STAR WARS, I called attention to an element I don't think many reviews have chosen to analyze: that of the audience's identification with a deeply spiritual (if fictional) religion which has been wiped out by an "evil empire." And even though Lucas originally intended to farm out his franchise without closely supervising it, he and his collaborators ended up building up the Jedi mythology far beyond the sketchy outlines seen in the first film. Co-scripter Lawrence Kashdan allegedly was responsible for importing terms like "allies" and "luminous beings" from the then-popular mystical biographies of Carlos Castaneda. But Lucas wrote the earliest version of EMPIRE's script, and the result of his oversight provided an almost seamless development of Luke Skywalker's "hero's journey" as begun in the first film.
EMPIRE's opening crawl takes the viewer far from the triumphal ending of STAR WARS, explaining how the vastly outnumbered forces of the Rebellion have been hounded to the far corners of the cosmos by Imperial counter-insurgency. The Empire is now led by Darth Vader, who for the first time is seen conferring with "the Emperor," only briefly mentioned in the first film. In STAR WARS Luke is essentially a wild card, who comes out of nowhere to show off Jedi skills that undermine Vader's defense of the Death Star. But now both Vader and the Emperor are less concerned with breaking up the Rebellion than with finding Luke and converting him to "the dark side." Luke, having fled with his friends to a frozen ice-world, has his own encounter with darkness, almost dying on a frozen snowscape-- which leads him to have a close encounter of the spiritual kind with the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi instructs Luke to seek out the great Jedi teacher Yoda on another planet, and such is Luke's respect for Kenobi-- who was only his mentor for a few days at most-- that Luke departs from his fellow rebels without letting them know his plans. Strangely, though the film starts out by establishing the intense personal bond between Luke and the other members of the ensemble-- Han, Leia, Chewbacca and the two droids-- none of the other members are heard
showing concern about the mysterious errand of Luke and R2D2. Maybe Lucas meant to suggest that they were just too busy fleeing the Empire to be worried.
The arc of the other "star warriors" is almost entirely defined by their flight from the enemy, aside from the subplot regarding the romance of Han and Leia-- and that plot-thread has been re-worked to de-emphasize the trope of "two guy-friends fighting over the same woman." Only the teasing "Leia kisses Luke to make Han jealous" scene even conjures with the original trope, and it's probable that by that time Lucas had decided that Luke and Leia would become siblings, even though the film ends without actually disclosing that relationship. To be sure, when the film ends with what was then
moviedom's longest cliffhanger-- with Han being frozen in carbonite and en route to a death-sentence-- Luke and Leia appear in the final scene together, with the former letting his arm rest protectively over Leia's shoulders. Was Lucas hedging his bets in case the recalcitrant Harrison Ford refused to return for the following film? The world may never know. Yet it's perhaps also no coincidence that Lando Calrissian, "the new scoundrel in town," not only shares Solo's attraction to Leia but even wears Solo's outfit in Calrissian's final scene.
But Vader's only after the other star-warriors as a means of drawing Luke to him. From the first scenes it's obvious that the Sith Lord has some empathic connection with Skywalker, yet he can't ferret Luke out on Yoda's world. There the youth is put through his paces by the 800-year-old green dwarf, and Luke again gets a brush with ultimate darkness when he enters the alien world's equivalent of Tolkien's Mirkwood, a malign cave where the hero meets the darkness in himself. But even though Darth can't find Luke, Luke is bonded enough to his friends to know when they're being tortured by his enemy, the supposed killer of his father. Both Yoda and the ghost of Kenobi warn that there may be dire consequences if Luke lets himself be guided by emotion, since this will interrupt his training as a Jedi. Even before one learns EMPIRE's Big Reveal, for the first time the two Jedi lose a certain amount of audience sympathy, given that they're apparently willing to let Leia and the others take a dirt nap in order to mold Luke into the perfect Jedi warrior.
The third film pretty much ignores this dramatic set-up, but to the dedicated fan, the Big Reveal offers enough dramatic punch to compensate. Indeed, for some viewers the question "Ben, why didn't you tell me?" may have been a far greater cliffhanger than the fate of a carbonized Corellian smuggler. The follow-up film doesn't deliver on this question either, but Luke's moral agony-- not only from being related to a vicious killer but from having been manipulated by his teachers-- contributes to a helluva "dark night of the soul." I wish that RETURN OF THE JEDI had delivered on the sublimity of EMPIRE, but I suppose that a play with two superior acts and a so-so final act is still a damn good play.
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
THE WIFE OF MONTE CRISTO (1946), THE SWORD OF MONTE CRISTO (1951)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
One often hears about B-movies being crafted quickly to catch fire from A-films that proved popular with the public. However, Hollywood's first major sound adaptation of Dumas's classic novel THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO became a bonanza for B-movie productions, even many years after the 1934 film had left theaters.
Admittedly, producer Edward Small, who worked on both the original COUNT and two sequels, must have demonstrated the resiliency of the concept, since he produced both 1940's SON OF MONTE CRISTO and 1946's THE RETURN OF MONTE CRISTO. All of these were resolutely naturalistic like the book, but the studio PRC chose to cross-breed their version of the Count with the still popular "Zorro" template-- so that even if WIFE OF MONTE CRISTO was intended to dovetail on RETURN, it was also set apart from being strictly in the Dumas tradition.
That tradition does not, to the best of my knowledge, include any female swashbucklers, though the titular character of WIFE is loosely based on a Dumas character named Haydee. Dumas's chronology for the character is re-arranged so as to imagine that Edmond Dantes (Martin Kosleck), rather than using his money to ruin his enemies, dons a mask and takes the name of "the Avenger" as he rides around fighting evildoers. However, he's injured in one of his forays, and Haydee (Lenore Aubert) dons his outfit in order to keep the Avenger's enemies from suspecting Dantes' dual identity.
Despite the emphasis on Haydee in the advertising, she never seems like anything but a support-character in the story of Dantes. She has one scene of minor swordplay, but Kosleck's Dantes, despite not being as handsome as most swashbuckler-heroes, gets the privilege of the final duel with the bad guy. Edgar Ulmer, though known for having produced some gems on a budget, merely turns in a routine outing here.
In contrast, THE SWORD OF MONTE CRISTO was the first directorial work of Maurice Geraughty, who had enjoyed a long career writing serials such as PHANTOM EMPIRE and UNDERSEA KINGDOM. Unlike Ulmer's production, SWORD really sells its female swashbuckler, whose adventures begin in the 1850s, roughly twenty years after the supposed career of Edmond Dantes. She, a noblewoman named Lady Christianne (Paula Corday), is also a masked avenger, though in contrast to many other Zorro-imitations she's seen at the very start of her career, helping Parisian rebels against the tyranny of Louis Napoleon (or, rather, his nasty advisers). Because she's masked, many soldiers mistake her for a man, and give her the name of "the Masked Cavalier." A noble young officer named Renault (George Montgomery) attempts to hunt down this enemy of the Crown, only to side with the Cavalier once he realizes the justice of her cause. In addition, Christianne and Renault enjoy some romantic moments on the way to reforming Louis Napoleon's regime, and as a result I would describe their characters as co-stars, wherein neither is more important to the narrative than the other. Admittedly Renault gets to swordfight the main villain, though Christianne's final battle is more memorable, given that the henchman she kills is a very young William Conrad.
THE BAT (1959)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Though the late fifties marked a comparative upsurge in horror films in comparison to the decade's first half, I'm still somewhat puzzled as to why this film's production company, in association with distributor Allied Artists, chose to remake an "old dark house" property. Although the 1920 play THE BAT (loosely based on a bat-less novel) was a success, as were two early film versions, the concept looks rather fusty for something presumably aimed at audiences enthralled by bloody shows like HORROR OF DRACULA, or even the more restrained violence of HOUSE OF WAX.
My speculation would be that even though most of the "old dark houses" had gone vacant back in the 1940s, the burgeoning horror genre convinced someone in Hollywood to decide that old dogs didn't need to learn new tricks for the current audience. THE BAT's director Crane Wilbur, also credited with re-adapting the story for this 1959 production, had scored a hit six years earlier by writing about another kind of "house," albeit one filled with wax statues. WAX, like its less distinguished follow-up THE MAD MAGICIAN, probably profited less from Wilbur's scripting than from the bravura performances of star Vincent Price. But perhaps someone decided that Price and Wilbur might prove a winning combination one more time. After all, hadn't WAX been an update of a hoary old horror-flick whose original template was probably unknown to most young viewers?
Wilbur, primarily more allied to stage than to screen, had written, directed and acted in a plethora of films since the silent days, not least playing the male lead to the heroine of 1914's THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Aside from that serial and HOUSE OF WAX, Wilbur's output in all three departments seems at best middling, and THE BAT is no different. To be sure, the early setup scenes in THE BAT don't look as stage-bound as do Roland West's two adaptations of the play, and Wilbur succeeds in communicating some good tension between two parallel developments: (1) spinster mystery-writer Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead), who rents a mansion with minimal help from her maid, while a murderous crook named "The Bat" is on the loose, and (2) criminal doctor Wells (Price), who learns of stolen bank-loot hidden in said mansion, and who commits murder in order to gain that fortune. Wilbur's exposition is spare without drawing attention to the cliched nature of the narrative.
However, even though I can appreciate the way Wilbur tries to make the story's thin material more credible, he also undermines the film's ability to scare anyone. In Roland West's 1926 adaptation, the spectre of the master criminal is fascinating, even though the costumed crook really has no good motive to dress up in such an outfit. The 1959 Bat is just a man wearing a suit, a dark face-mask and gloves fitted with claws (which must've made it difficult for him to turn doorknobs). The script talks about, but does not show, the way this version of the Bat savages the throats of his victims, which is presumably someone's attempt to juice up the old war-horse with some extra violence. But when the villain's identity is disclosed, the script doesn't address his reason for creating a bat-persona. West's less realistic 1926 version transports us to a world where such motives have no significance.
Given that Vincent Price is seen committing a murder in the film's first twenty minutes, I find it unlikely that any audience-members ever bought him as a serious candidate for Bat-hood, unless they'd never seen a murder mystery before. Nevertheless, the script tosses a couple of teasers associating Doctor Wells with bats, particularly after the criminal unleashes a non-rabid chiropteran critter on Van Gorder and her maid to get rid of them. Van Gorder, being a devotee of mysteries, can't be driven from her rented house even though the local cops aren't able to find the murderer who's able to come and go as he pleases. It's a credit that Moorehead makes Van Gorder compelling even though her behavior makes no rational sense.
Toward the climax, Price's character and the real Bat have a so-so battle, after which the Bat menaces the women once more, gets killed and is unmasked. By this time, the narrative has lost whatever steam the opening gave it, and it fades with Moorehead breaking the fourth wall to address the audience briefly-- which conceit may have been borrowed from one of the forties' dark house-flicks, if not from a slightly similar denouement in William Castle's 1958 MACABRE.
Friday, December 6, 2019
THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972), SWEET SUGAR (1972), TERMINAL ISLAND (1973)
PHENOMENALITY: (1)*naturalistic* (2,3) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1, 2)*fair*; (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
As escapist as the early seventies WIP are in essence, it's interesting as to how often they explore the sexual politics between males and females.
THE BIG BIRD CAGE was a conceptual "sequel" to 1971's successful THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, also directed by Jack Hill. However, this time there's no weirdo warden in charge, and Hill's script emphasizes trippy, goofy scenarios far more than Don Spenser's grim script for HOUSE. Like HOUSE, the women's prison is situated in some tropical country, and events unfold before the eyes of an innocent "new fish" (Anitra Ford's character "Terry"). This time, as if to counteract the hot lady convicts' ability to charm their captors, all of the guards guarding the prison are homosexual. The ladies labor in the shadow of a huge mill, the "bird cage" of the title, where at least some of the characters perish, metaphorically being ground up in the mills of commerce-- that is, when the prettier ones aren't being pimped out to rich guys in the city.
Opposed to the corrupt local regime are a team of quasi-Marxist revolutionaries, led by Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig). However, these are no liberating forces, for Blossom and Django only want to free the female convicts for the same reason the capitalists do: to prostitute them for the cause. At this point in Grier's career, she had yet to play starring roles in films like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and perhaps for this reason, even when she gets herself sentenced to the cane-fields, she never really seems a part of the ensemble of "birds." Indeed, whereas HOUSE was fairly strong in creating a group of simple but memorable "types," none of the characters in CAGE stand out very well, despite a sprightly comic scene involving a tall lesbian trying to beat up a shorter girl who continually tempts and mocks her. There's a muddy catfight between Blossom and a blonde chick that reverses the verdict of HOUSE, and a final shootout at the climax, but it's all pretty unfocused.
By contrast, Don Spenser followed up his seminal contribution to WIP films by contributing the screenplay to Michel Levesque's SWEET SUGAR. (A writer named R.Z. Samuel, with no other IMDB credits, is credited with the original story, but there's no telling what he did at this late date.)
The film is named for its heroine, comely Sugar Bowman (Phyllis Elizabeth Davis), but although she fills the role of the "new fish" sent to a cane-cutting tropical prison, Sugar is clearly meant to be the star of the show, while all of the other lady convicts who aid her comprise her retinue. From the first Sugar is portrayed as a seventies version of an independent woman, having sex with anyone she cares to but ostensibly never doing it for money, or even just for dinner and a movie. But for obscure reasons she's framed and sent to cut cane. This time, there's not a lot of talk about pimping the ladies out-- some of them are even allowed to go into town when they finish their labors-- but Doctor John, both the warden and the prison doctor, has another purpose. He's the epitome of a mad scientist, working on various esoteric projects for no stated reason. At one point he hooks Sugar up to a testing machine while injecting her with a female hormone, but her sexual paroxyms break the machine, probably a swipe from a similar scene in BARBARELLA. Later for even less reason he injects cats with a local drug to make them crazy, and then has the cats tossed at rebellious convicts. There's even a moment when he seems hip to the traditions of voodoo, for when Doctor John executes a voodoo-worshiping male convict, the crazed physician starts rambling about the voodoo god Ghede for some reason.
Most of the other guards and prisoners are nugatory characters, so that all the best scenes are those in which Sugar, the self-assured hot girl, keeps putting down the nutty doctor despite the power he wields over her and her fellow inmates. In contrast to many WIP films of the time, Sugar escapes her tormentors and returns to her normal life unscathed.
TERMINAL ISLAND might be termed a very minimal form of "science fiction," in that it takes place in a near future, when capital punishment has been outlawed in the U.S. However, the government has solved prison overcrowding by sentencing a couple dozen convicted murderers to sink or swim on an isolated island. "New fish" Carmen (Ena Hartman) provides the audience with a viewpoint character, and I would think that Hartman was trying to do a "Pam Grier tough girl" performance if it wasn't for the fact that the two movies were shot about the same time, with COFFY making it into theaters only a month or two ahead of TERMINAL. However, director/co-writer Stephanie Rothman doesn't maintain her focus on Carmen, on the island's only doctor Norman (a pre-stardom Tom Selleck), or on much of anyone. By the time Carmen gets there, the convicts seem to have separated into "really vicious murderers" and "not so bad murderers," and for the rest of the movie Rothman simply depicts a series of intermittent conflicts between the two groups. I suppose the "not so bads" comprise the film's ensemble of central characters, but I could hardly keep track of who was who. Marta Kristen has a nice scene or two as a lady scientist who helps her allies make gunpowder, and Phyllis Davis rubs royal jelly on a guy's dong so that the local bees will sting him into impotence. But nothing really hangs together; it's a bunch of random, poorly-staged fight-scenes and fleeing-scenes that aren't up to the standards of even a mediocre WIP flick.
Though all three films contain a lot of violence, none of them are organized enough to be considered in the combative mode, though SWEET SUGAR comes closest to the model.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE SPIRIT (2007)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*
When this anime adaptation of a book series aired on Cartoon Network, I watched it episode by episode. Only upon re-watching the whole 26-episode series in one binge, though, did I realize how incredibly slow it is, even though it contains such visceral elements as (1) royal assassins sent by the Mikado to execute the ruler's own son, (2) a female bodyguard who protects them with her sole weapon, a spear, and (3) a mysterious water-spirit gestating inside the prince, which threatens both his life and the safety of this medieval Japanese realm.
Clearly the producers of the series made a conscious decision to avoid the hyperkineticism common to most contemporary commercial anime, so MORIBITO isn't slow simply because its creators were lazy. Nevertheless, a lot of episodes remain less than engaging, perhaps because most of the characters take a back seat to central heroine Balsa the Spear-Wielder-- and even her emotional arc is somewhat distanced and remote.
I presume the original author of the book series based his concept on Japanese mythology, but the essence of the idea proves universal, resembling countless dramas about youths sentenced to die as sacrifices to deities. Here the Mikado's son Chagum, having been possessed by a water spirit, is perceived as dangerous to the realm, so that the Mikado orders his demise. Chagum's mother hires Balsa, a rare female warrior, to take Chagum into the countryside and to guard him from assassins. Balsa accepts this duty with all the sturdy professionalism of a samurai. In later episodes it comes out that by coincidence Balsa had a similar experience in her childhood. Following the slaying of her last parent, her father, one of the father's friends, a professional bodyguard, took Balsa with him on the road and eventually taught her spear-craft.
Thus Balsa is to some extent reliving the same sort of filial relationship that sustained her in her early years-- though the principal emphasis of the modern-day stories is the relationship between Balsa and Chagum. Though their relations are initially very strained, given that Balsa is acting out of professional priorities, they evolve a loose mother-son bond. Balsa never quite becomes "motherly"-- one of the characters remarks that as a child she was a "tomboy"-- but the series is interesting in that a non-maternal female is obliged to act the part of a mother, even though by the end of the series she returns to being a solitary crusader, while Chagum returns to the imperial court.
The weakest aspect of the series is the mythology involving the water spirit inside Chagum and a horde of ethereal beasts who devour such spirits, both of which spell peril for the prince. I would guess that this failing may originate with the prose series, though I don't plan to read it in the near future.
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